Lengthy Cleanups, Low Funding Seen as Superfund Challenges

Lawmakers on a House subcommittee faulted lengthy delays in cleaning up contaminated sites through the Environmental Protection Agency's superfund program, while Democrats warned inadequate congressional funding plays an outsized role in the ever-expanding backlog of sites requiring attention.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Environment and the Economy Subcommittee called for Congress to revive a tax on the petroleum and chemical industries that lapsed in 1995. They said the tax would help reduce the backlog of contaminated superfund sites around the U.S.

“Funding for these cleanups has dropped dramatically since the superfund tax expired in 1995, meaning fewer cleanups are started and even fewer are finished,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member of the full committee. “The main problem facing superfund is the expiration of the polluter pays tax, and the most important thing we in Congress can do is reinstate it.”

Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Land and Emergency Management, told the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee that a $104 million decrease over the last five years in appropriated cleanup funds has fueled the backlog of contaminated sites and said the administration supports reinstating the expired tax authority to ensure a “stable, dedicated source of revenue” to clean them up.

Concern Over Delays

Members from both parties expressed concern over the length of time it took to get cleanups underway and questioned whether it would be appropriate to give the states more authority over how to structure them.

“It just takes too long,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the subcommittee. “What is EPA doing to try to cut down the time frame? Surely there must be some things about the process that we can improve.”

Some lawmakers raised concerns that lengthy delays and limited funding affected how the agency ultimately decided to structure site cleanups, though Stanislaus rejected that notion.

“I don’t think the limited pot of money has an impact on the remedy,” Stanislaus said. “I think it has an impact on the number of sites we can take on every year.”

West Lake Site Addressed

The subcommittee heard testimony from two Missouri congressmen—Reps. Ann Wagner (R) and Wm. Lacy Clay (D)—about the case of the West Lake Landfill superfund site near St. Louis, a facility listed on the National Priorities List in 1990 but still without a final decision about how to clean it up.

“For three decades, the CERCLA process, and particularly the EPA, have failed the people of St. Louis in the most heartless manner possible,” Wagner said. “The agency has undoubtedly lost the trust of the entire community, and my trust as well.”

Meanwhile, Stanislaus said a proposed rule to assure hardrock mine operators have enough money to pay for hazardous substance releases would be issued later this year.

The agency also will consider whether to issue financial assurance rules under its superfund program for the chemical manufacturing and electric utility sectors, Stanislaus said.

Final Action Required by Dec. 1, 2017

Stanislaus couldn't say when the hardrock mining rule would be finalized, though a consent agreement approved in January requires the agency to take final action by Dec. 1, 2017 ( In re Idaho Conservation League, D.C. Cir., No. 14-01149, 1/29/16 ).

As part of that agreement, the EPA also agreed to decide by Dec. 1 whether coal plants, chemical manufacturing facilities and oil refineries would be subject to their own financial assurance rulemakings.

Environmental groups first sued to force the rules back in August 2014 after alleging the agency failed to issue required financial assurance rules under Section 108(b) of CERCLA.

Other Changes Urged

Witnesses on a second panel told the subcommittee that the superfund program had changed significantly since its inception and the types of contaminated sites in the program now are routinely much larger. They said changes should be incorporated to allow closer collaboration with states on remedies.

Marianne Horinko, who served as the EPA's top waste official during the Bush administration, urged Congress to make statutory changes that would allow all cleanup responsibilities to be designated to states, take a hard look at revamping what sites are added to the National Priorities List and allow the agency greater flexibility in how it deploys program funding throughout the country.

“It has been over 35 years since the superfund program was created, and many important aspects of environmental policy have evolved enormously since 1980,” Horinko, now president of the Horinko Group, said in urging an overhaul.

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