WASHINGTON If you listen to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, the biggest environmental problem facing the United States isnt climate change (he doesnt think thats real, anyway), or lead-tainted drinking water or brain-damaging pesticides. Its that Barack Obama didnt 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 administrations toxic mess. The former Oklahoma attorney general would have the American people believe that what the Superfund program really needs isnt funding, its the right attitude.
Its not a matter of money, Pruitt told Fox News. Its a matter of leadership and attitude and management.
Pruitt has been fixated on the EPAs Superfund, which is responsible for cleaning up highly contaminated sites, since taking over as agency chief in February. Hes called it absolutely essential and has repeatedly stressed that its part of EPAs core mission. During an April visit to a lead- and arsenic-laden Superfund site in East Chicago, Indiana, Pruitt said he went there because its important that we restore confidence to people in this community that were 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 EPAs work, but Pruitts position fails to account for the history of the program. And every decision hes made about it so far suggests hes 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 EPAs 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 EPAs highest priorities.
But Superfund experts say Pruitt doesnt 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 EPAs Office of Land and Emergency Management under Obama.
I dont see how this program maintains its viability in any great way with these kinds of proposed cuts. Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator under President George W. Bush
Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, said Superfund is yet another issue on which the Trump administrations words and actions dont match up.
I dont 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 doesnt 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, Pruitts 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.
Lets 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.
Its true that the number of NPL sites increased during Obamas 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 administrators 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.
Superfunds 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 wont 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 Oklahomas 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 theres this hidden pot of gold out there that can be brought to bear on a site, I dont 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 theres not a snowballs chance in hell that polluters will be forced to pay for cleaning up their toxic messes that endanger Americans health under Trump and Pruitts 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, whomThe Intercept described as a lobbyist for Superfund polluters, to serve as assistant administrator of EPAs 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.
Thetask 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 its 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 thats more clear, Subra said, Pruitts claims are just a talking point.
Is it going to be a little small slice of [Superfund] hes 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 Pruitts Superfund talk is smoke and mirrors.
To simply wave your hands and say Were going to clean it up at the same time as youre reducing the resources, both people and money available to do it, is frankly nonsense, Rosenburg told HuffPost.