Pruitt’s New Toxic-Site List Creates Uncertainty for Companies

By Sylvia Carignan

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is applying pressure to severely contaminated sites where the agency and companies responsible for cleanup have reached an impasse.

The list of sites, which the Environmental Protection Agency released Dec. 8, highlights which sites need “immediate and intense attention,” potentially accelerating cleanup progress and agency decisions.

While companies welcome an accelerated cleanup process, Pruitt’s track record doesn’t necessarily indicate what those agency decisions will be, Bart Seitz, a partner in the Washington office of Baker Botts LLP, told Bloomberg Environment.

“I think it could be a mixed bag,” he said.

Disputes With PRPs

In some cases, Seitz said, the EPA made changes to a site’s cleanup plan to make it more protective, leading to disputes with the site’s potentially responsible parties.

In the case of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site outside Houston, one of the sites on the administrator’s new list, the EPA decision to remove the pits left the potentially responsible parties unhappy. The San Jacinto superfund site incurred flooding from Hurricane Harvey in September.

“There are going to be some disputes,” Seitz said.

The list is “intended to be positive” for those seeking progress at superfund sites, Albert Kelly, Pruitt’s senior adviser on superfund issues, told Bloomberg Environment.

A New Priority List

The list’s 21 sites reach across all EPA regions. The list includes the former Mohawk Tannery in New Hampshire, West Lake Landfill in Missouri, Anaconda Copper Mine in Nevada, and Portland Harbor in Oregon.

More than 1,300 sites are on the EPA National Priorities List, which is separate from the list of sites announced Dec. 8. Those 1,300 sites also are known as superfund sites and are the most contaminated in the country.

The newly listed sites—some of which aren’t on the superfund list—are in varying stages of assessment and cleanup.

“What they all have in common is a responsible party,” said Lois Marie Gibbs, founder of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice.

The list was one of the recommendations formed by Pruitt’s superfund task force, composed mostly of EPA career staff members. The recommendations spell out ways the EPA can reform the superfund program without legislation.

Tar Creek

One of the superfund sites on the new list, known as Tar Creek, is a site Pruitt dealt with as an attorney general in Oklahoma. The site consists of mining waste, which has contaminated nearby water, sediment, and soil.

At the site, disputes between the EPA and company aren’t necessarily holding up progress, said Rebecca Jim, executive director of Local Environmental Action Demanded.

Instead, Jim told Bloomberg Environment, work at Tar Creek has slowed because potentially responsible companies have gone into bankruptcy, leaving few standing.

Jim was relieved to hear Tar Creek made the administrator’s list. The list originally was planned to have 10 sites, and was to be known as the “Top Ten Administrator’s Emphasis List.”

“Nobody wanted to be off the list,” she said. “We thought it was going to be 10 sites, and nobody wanted to be 11.”

At the same time, she said activists and local residents are worried about how the site’s listing will affect progress.

“I hope ‘intense’ means it will be done right, and not a rush job to get it off the list,” she said.

East Chicago

The East Chicago Superfund Site affects residential communities, including public housing, contaminated with lead left behind by a smelter. The EPA plans to clean up more than 700 residential properties at the Indiana site.

Debbie Chizewer, an environmental advocate at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic, told Bloomberg Environment she hopes the site will become a “model of excellence” for contaminated communities.

But, she said, the EPA may be thinking a few steps ahead of East Chicago’s mayor. The EPA’s notes on the site mention a proposed plan for cleaning up the site, but the mayor hasn't announced what the site will be used for.

“They can’t really release their plan for the cleanup until they know,” Chizewer said.

Having East Chicago on the administrator’s list can be a mixed blessing for communities, she said.

“Having it on the list and doing activity at the site doesn’t equate to doing it well,” Chizewer said. “We will be advocating consistently to make sure that they do it well.”

The EPA doesn't automatically assign the most resources to the most contaminated sites. Each region’s sites compete with the others for resources and must be reviewed by a national panel of EPA staff.

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