Pruitt Versus Environmental Cleanup

Pruitt wants to do cleanups faster at Superfund sites, but his plan does this by skimping on cost and leaving toxics on site. Saves money for the polluters who caused this disasters; leaves communities in jeopardy.

When Scott Pruitt speaks, he knows he must say that EPA needs to go back to its core mission of protecting air and water. The next sentence and paragraph usually then announces a new policy that weakens air and water protections. The one EPA program Pruitt speaks of increasing the profile of is the Superfund: the program that oversees the cleanup of toxic superfund sites and holds polluters financially responsible.

Administrator Pruitt’s recent policy changes to the program will not ‘fix’ Superfund, but to the contrary, these policies will return Superfund to the early days of the Reagan Administration when those responsible for cleanup had to do less, pay less, clean up less and had less oversight by EPA. Yes, communities want sites to be cleaned up faster, but not by leaving more toxic waste at the site to threaten their health and well-being. The recent Pruitt memo is a major step in the wrong direction.

What is the Superfund Program?

First, some basics of the Superfund program. Superfund sites are those toxic sites left as a legacy of U.S. industrialization. Many sites were polluted 50 to 100 years ago and some are of recent vintage. Under the law, passed by Congress in 1980, polluters are liable for the clean-up. Often there are multiple polluters who divide up the cleanup liability through litigation or settlements rather than the government trying to untie that Gordian knot. If there is no financially viable responsible party, the federal taxpayer foots the bill for cleanup. Originally a small tax on oil and chemicals was levied to fund the “Superfund” to pay for “orphan sites”. Industry opposed continuation of the small tax and Republicans succeeded in killing it, so since 1995, the regular taxpayer pays to fund the Superfund Trust Fund. Often the delay in cleanup is related to the responsible parties—those that mishandled the toxics—pushing for cheaper cleanup alternatives and the victims, usually aided by their state or local government, wanting a cleanup that protects the community from the toxic waste that remains in the water or land.

The Trump budget writers believe money is not the solution to cleaning up these sites. Trump's budget henchmen slashed funding for the toxic waste cleanup program, and even though this purportedly was Pruitt’s top priority, the President recommended cutting money for Superfund by a third—about $330 million—annually, beginning next year. Pruitt’s claims that cleaning up toxic sites is a core EPA mission, but like everything else the Agency does, deserves a 30% cut after the 20% cuts since the Republican Congress took over in 2010.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to read the memo and realize what Pruitt wants.

First, in this memo, he takes back the authority from the Regional Administrators and the career experts in the Office of Land and Emergency Management to give himself the authority to approve all cleanups over $50 million. This is a terrible idea for several reasons. Superfund cleanup final decisions were made in the Administrator’s office when Superfund was first implemented by the Reagan Administration. In the aftermath of scandals that required the Administrator to resign and the Assistant Administrator of the Superfund program to go to jail, in 1984, this authority was delegated to the EPA Regions.

Now Scott Pruitt wants to return to the "good old days" of scandal and have the Administrator of EPA once again make these decisions. What is wrong with delegation to regional managers where the sites are located? Is he afraid clean ups will cost industry more if he doesn’t have the last say? The rest of the memo makes it clear: he wants everyone at EPA to know that quicker and cheaper is the preferred alternative to better and safer a plan that puts the polluters before the public.

Besides taking back the authority, the memo requires regional offices to stay in contact with the Administrator's office while cleanup remedies are being considered. Why? The memo makes it clear; the Administrator wants faster and cheaper remedies. He doesn’t want effective but potentially costly remedies in the record.

Second, while pre-decisions are being made, the Administrator’s office wants to ‘be involved in’ developing and evaluating alternatives and then selecting a remedy, particularly with expensive sites. This appears not to protect the residents and environment of the communities, but to lower the cost and intimidate agency staff to choose less comprehensive and effective cleanups. Despite the fact 17% of Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site, apparently, none of those people are in the Trump Cabinet. Under the law, the polluters responsible for the toxic waste must pay for the cleanup. This new structure seems to make it clear that the fossil fuel and mining-friendly Administrator’s office will be lobbied by the responsible parties to select a cheaper and less effective remedy. No one has any reason to believe that the Pruitt team will put people first. It is probably not a coincidence that many of the sites over $50 million are mining sites.

Third, Pruitt is also setting up a task force—led by a “bulldog” banker friend of his from Oklahoma who doesn’t even mention environmental experience on his resume—to do things that help polluters and ignore the victims of these sites. He wants to “[establish] a task force to provide recommendations on an expedited timeframe on how the agency can restructure the cleanup process, realign incentives of all involved parties to promote expeditious remediation, reduce the burden on cooperating parties, incentivize parties to remediate sites, encourage private investment in cleanups and sites and promote the revitalization of properties across the country.

Notice that the parties most often mentioned are:

  1. the polluters responsible for the remediation,
  2. those who must approve the remediation, and
  3. developers who can profit from the remediation agreement.

But not those who live there, those whose health has been put in jeopardy by the action of the involved parties, cooperating parties, private investors and developers who may want to revitalize profit from the land once it no longer has the Superfund stigma attached to it. The parties who live there—the victims—are left out of the process.

This task force has a short 30 days to issue its report to completely change the Superfund program. How will they respond? That is obvious and ominous. The task force will put into place a scheme to pick less protective and cheaper remedies. Pruitt will have polluters lobbying in his office for cheaper remedies and he will take the EPA oversight function at these cleanups and make them all but disappear.

Congress and the American people need to watch and stop Pruitt as he tries to undermine another Congressional statute and the people who live near these sites.