Pruitt Prioritizes Sluggish Superfund Program

Scott Pruitt has said that, if confirmed by the Senate as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, he would take on a superfund program struggling to clean up toxic sites efficiently without enough state or federal funding.

The former head of the EPA office that oversees superfund, Mathy Stanislaus, said superfund appropriations have declined over the past four or five budget cycles, creating a backlog of sites awaiting funding.

The cleanup process has slowed as funding declines.

When all cleanup remedies have been installed on a superfund site, the EPA deems it “construction complete.” According to a 2007 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, the average yearly number of “construction complete” sites at that time was 42.

In fiscal year 2016, there were 11 “construction complete” sites, the agency said.

Pruitt’s Priorities

In response to senators’ questions about environmental cleanup, Pruitt said multiple times that he would make superfund “a priority” if he becomes EPA administrator.

“If confirmed, I would expect to prioritize the cleanup of contaminated land,” he said in written responses to questions from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

Booker met with Pruitt before the Oklahoma attorney general’s Jan. 18 U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

“Mr. Pruitt said he would advocate for funding for superfund cleanups in the administration’s large infrastructure package. If Mr. Pruitt is confirmed, Sen. Booker will hold him accountable to this commitment,” a spokesperson for Booker’s office said in an e-mail.

Booker was concerned about the Passaic River Superfund Site in his home city, Newark, N.J. The EPA announced a plan in 2016 to remove 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment from the river, according to Booker.

The senator asked Pruitt to commit to carrying out the EPA’s plan for that site efficiently. Pruitt responded that he wasn’t familiar with the site but would seek input from those interested before taking action.

Stronger State Roles

Pruitt indicated at the Senate committee hearing that he would be more deferential to state governments if he becomes head of the EPA. That might be bad news for states facing cleanup challenges at superfund sites, Stanislaus said.

“Superfund takes on the most egregious sites that states need federal assistance on, and the fact is that there’s been a decline in state budgets to handle these kind of sites, so you just can’t delegate that wholly to states,” Stanislaus said.

Neither the states nor the EPA have enough money to assess and clean up sites, so every site is dealt with “sub-optimally,” Stanislaus said.

“The ultimate achievement of a cleaned-up site, and the potential economic benefits of a cleaned-up site, are delayed,” he said.

While he headed the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management from 2009-2017, Stanislaus said states increasingly looked to the EPA for financial help and expertise with National Priorities List sites and immediate risk sites.

“The federal government is a backstop,” he said.

Peter deFur, president of the consulting firm Environmental Stewardship Concepts, said states just aren’t equipped to take on more superfund responsibilities because many don't have their own superfund laws.

“There are no implementing regulations, no expertise, no people who know the program. The state would have to develop all that and then apply to EPA for delegated status, as in air, water and waste permit programs,” he said. “States don’t have the system to implement superfund because they don’t want it.”

Running Dry

DeFur said he has been watching the declining pace of cleanup as funding decreases.

In the late 1990s, funding ran out from a tax on the petroleum and chemical industries. “Orphan” superfund sites, or those where a responsible party hadn't been identified to pay for cleanup, were deeply affected.

“The orphan sites’ pace of cleanup just plummeted,” deFur said.

Work slows down at sites where cleanups are being conducted by responsible parties because EPA funds and staff time are limited, he said. Less thorough removal options, such as capping buried contamination instead of unearthing it, may be chosen because they are cheaper.

Since the superfund program’s operating resources are drawn from congressional appropriations, the operation of the program also changed, he said.

If Pruitt cuts back on EPA staff, leaving an increased workload for remaining employees, deFur said that will be bad news for the program. Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team before returning to his job at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said this week the overall number of EPA employees should be reduced from the current 15,000 to 5,000, though Ebell made clear he wasn't speaking on behalf of the Trump administration.

“It’s gonna be a mess,” deFur said.

According to a Government Accountability Office report, federal appropriations for superfund have declined from about $2 billion in 1999.

In fiscal year 2016, Congress provided superfund nearly $1.1 billion. The agency is under a continuing resolution in fiscal year 2017.

The EPA said the balance of the hazardous substance superfund trust fund was $188 million as of the end of 2016.

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