WASHINGTON — If you listen to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, the biggest environmental problem facing the United States isn’t climate change (he doesn’t think that’s real, anyway), or lead-tainted drinking water or brain-damaging pesticides. It’s that Barack Obama didn’t clean up the more than 1,300 most contaminated and hazardous sites across the country.
A Fox News headline earlier this month declared that Pruitt was here to clean up the Obama administration’s “toxic mess.” The former Oklahoma attorney general would have the American people believe that what the Superfund program really needs isn’t funding, it’s the right attitude.
“It’s not a matter of money,” Pruitt told Fox News. “It’s a matter of leadership and attitude and management.”
Pruitt has been fixated on the EPA’s Superfund, which is responsible for cleaning up highly contaminated sites, since taking over as agency chief in February. He’s called it “absolutely essential” and has repeatedly stressed that it’s part of EPA’s core mission. During an April visit to a lead- and arsenic-laden Superfund site in East Chicago, Indiana, Pruitt said he went there “because it’s important that we restore confidence to people in this community that we’re going to get it right going forward.” And he has blamed “poor leadership” and “poor focus” on the part of the Obama administration for there being more Superfund sites today than when Obama took office.
Superfund is an important part of EPA’s work, but Pruitt’s position fails to account for the history of the program. And every decision he’s made about it so far suggests he’s not serious about making it better. While he initially vowed to protect Superfund dollars, the 2018 budget the Trump administration released this month would slash EPA’s overall funding by 31.4 percent — to its lowest level in four decades — and cut Superfund from $1.09 billion to $762 million.
The administration argues that it can do more with less — that the EPA will “identify efficiencies in administrative costs” and “optimize” its use of settlements with polluters. The budget will also provide the agency with an “opportunity” to “identify what barriers have been preventing sites from returning to communities and design solutions to overcome those barriers,” the White House wrote in its justification for slashing Superfund.
Pruitt celebrated the budget proposal, saying in a statement that it “respects the American taxpayer” and “supports EPA’s highest priorities.”
But Superfund experts say Pruitt doesn’t seem to understand the basics of the program, which is designed to deal with expensive, complicated contamination cleanups that often have no responsible party and are not being handled at the state or local level.
“A cut to the program literally means longer exposure and preventing economic recovery for communities,” former EPA official Mathy Stanislaus told HuffPost. “The response should be fact-based. Tell me how the facts support cutting funding to a program that already has a backlog of sites?” Stanislaus oversaw Superfund as part of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management under Obama.
“I don’t see how this program maintains its viability in any great way with these kinds of proposed cuts.”
Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, said Superfund is yet another issue on which the Trump administration’s words and actions don’t match up.
“I don’t see how this program maintains its viability in any great way with these kinds of proposed cuts,” Whitman told HuffPost during a press call last week that included former leaders of several federal agencies. “And it just doesn’t make sense when they are talking about trying to address this problem.”
Established in 1980 in response to several environmental disasters, Superfund — formally the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act — is responsible for addressing areas contaminated with lead, radiation, mercury and other toxic pollutants, often left behind by industrial operations. The law authorized the federal government to force parties responsible for contamination to pay for cleanup costs and created a tax on the petroleum and chemical industries, two heavy polluters, to be pooled and used to clean up sites where a responsible party could not be found, called “orphan” sites. Areas requiring long-term remediation are put on the National Priorities List (NPL), but they often take years or even decades to clean up.
In many ways, Pruitt’s obsession with Superfund makes sense. As of 2015, 53 million Americans — 17 percent of the population — lived within three miles of a Superfund site. And the large number of toxic sites that remain on the NPL is something Pruitt has realized he can pin on past administrations for failing to address.
“Let’s look and think what the past administration achieved,” Pruitt said during a visit to a Pennsylvania coal mine last month, noting that there are still 1,322 sites. “Some of those have been on the list for 30 to 40 years.”
It’s true that the number of NPL sites increased during Obama’s two terms, from about 1,260 at the end of fiscal year 2008. But for Pruitt to point his finger at Obama shows the EPA administrator’s willingness to ignore the Superfund listing process and the extent of contamination in many areas, as well as the challenge he now faces as head of the agency.
The number of sites proposed for and listed on the NPL simply reflects that those areas have been found to pose a risk to human or environmental health, and it “has nothing to do with ‘management,’” Stanislaus told HuffPost.
Superfund’s problems have almost everything to do with resources, which have all but vanished over the last two decades. In 1995, Congress allowed the so-called “polluter pays” tax — which generated billions of dollars to fund orphan cleanups — to expire. The trust fund dried up several years later, with cleanup costs now falling largely on taxpayers via federal budget allocations. As money for cleanups has shriveled, fewer sites have been remediated.
From 1999 to 2013, federal appropriations to Superfund declined from about $2 billion to $1.1 billion per year, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report. In 1999, the program completed 85 site cleanups, compared with just eight in 2014.
Over the years, several Democratic legislators have pushed for reinstating the Superfund tax, a move supported by the Obama administration, but the efforts failed.
Whitman fears the program won’t be able to function with additional cuts to staff and enforcement. She said enforcement is “critical” to get polluters to pay up.
But Pruitt, a longtime ally of the fossil fuel industry who sued the agency he now runs more than a dozen times as Oklahoma’s attorney general, insists Superfund will become self-sustaining under his watch. “The great thing about this is we have private funding. There are people out there responsible for these sites to clean up,” he told Fox News. “The moneys are there to do so.”
Stanislaus said there are some sites that provide the economic incentive for private interests to invest in redevelopment. “But to say that there’s this hidden pot of gold out there that can be brought to bear on a site, I don’t know what fantasy island that comes from, frankly.”
Nor does it seem likely that the Trump administration, which is stacked with industry lobbyists and fossil fuel allies, is going to be cracking down on polluters and forcing them to pay for cleanups. Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said in a statement that “there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that polluters will be forced to pay for cleaning up their toxic messes that endanger Americans’ health” under Trump and Pruitt’s watch.
Those appointed to help Pruitt in his Superfund efforts so far have been less than inspiring choices. This month, Trump nominated Susan Bodine, chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, whom The Intercept described as a “lobbyist for Superfund polluters,” to serve as assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. And Pruitt has chosen Albert Kelly, a longtime banker with no apparent experience in environmental policy, to lead a new Superfund task force.
The task force, which was announced last week, will provide recommendations to the agency on how to “streamline and improve the Superfund program” within 30 days. In a statement accompanying his announcement, Pruitt said he is “confident that, with a renewed sense of urgency, leadership and fresh ideas, the Superfund program can reach its full potential of returning formerly contaminated sites to communities for their beneficial use.”
Wilma Subra, a Louisiana-based chemist and Superfund expert, told HuffPost that it’s not clear what Pruitt means when he says he will reprioritize Superfund cleanups or if he will change the general understanding of what it takes for a site to be considered clean and thus eligible to be removed from the list. Until that’s more clear, Subra said, Pruitt’s claims are just a “talking point.”
“Is it going to be a little small slice of [Superfund] he’s going to prioritize, and the rest is going to sit there and languish?” she asked.
Stanislaus shares her concern that Pruitt may shortcut cleanups in order to cut costs. Doing so, Stanislaus said, would be “shortsighted” and come with health and economic consequences. Likewise, research has shown that investing in a Superfund site can increase property values and fuel job growth. Not to mention the positive effects that cleanup efforts have on human health.
Andrew Rosenburg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Pruitt’s Superfund talk is “smoke and mirrors.”
“To simply wave your hands and say ‘We’re going to clean it up’ at the same time as you’re reducing the resources, both people and money available to do it, is frankly nonsense,” Rosenburg told HuffPost.