Pruitt’s Superfund Focus Could Limit EPA Cleanup Spending, Fray Local Ties

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By Sylvia Carignan

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt May 9 released a memo indicating he wants to be involved in cleanup decisions earlier in the process, and formally sign-off on decisions at “megasites” where cleanups are expected to cost more than $50 million.

In the memo, Pruitt puts superfund sites at the center of the agency’s mission.

The EPA told Bloomberg BNA May 11 it estimates the new policy would affect about 10 sites.

Pruitt’s deeper involvement in superfund cleanup decisions could weaken regional office ties to sites and favor less costly cleanup, attorneys and community residents say.

The EPA’s regional offices play a major role in deciding how contaminated sites should be remediated. Since Pruitt now will be involved in those decisions earlier, some say he could cut down on cleanup costs.

However, local superfund site advocates worry they’ll lose out on funding and opportunities to weigh in.

“We’ve had a very good rapport with our region,” Jane Keon, former chair of the citizen task force for the Pine River Superfund Site in Michigan, told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s been very hard to get federal money ... and our region has really bent over backwards to scrape up funds.”

Mathy Stanislaus, former assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, told Bloomberg BNA it’s important to consider the motivation behind those changes.

“This pulling back of authority into the administrators office: Is it substantive, or is it political?” he said.

Favoring Caps

Pruitt may take the opportunity to choose less costly remedies for superfund sites, according to Peter deFur, president of the consulting firm Environmental Stewardship Concepts.

“My prediction would be that it will be more monitored natural attenuation ... a lot more capping of sediment sites, less pump-and-treat for groundwater sites,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Pruitt’s involvement also may reduce the likelihood of remedies with costs exceeding $1 billion, Steve Jawetz, principal at Beveridge and Diamond P.C. in Washington, told Bloomberg BNA.

DeFur added the administrator’s decisions will help companies specializing in certain types of environmental remediation.

“Every time you shift the effort at the national level to a less invasive [method], the dredgers are going to lose and the cappers are going to win,” he said.

Unknown Factors

The new delegation of authority could bottleneck decisions on cleanup efforts, among other effects, but it may be too early to know for sure what they are, Jawetz said.

Involving the administrator early on may create confusion for regional offices, he said, since those offices may need to decide whether to involve the administrator’s office before a proposed remedial action plan has been drafted. Given the additional review burden at the administrator’s office, Jawetz said more staff likely will be necessary.

Plus, companies potentially responsible for cleanup also may opt to communicate with the administrator’s office more frequently for large sites.

“Substantive involvement by the Administrator in remedies proposed throughout the country may prove to be a bottleneck, particularly at the end of the fiscal year when many remedy decisions have typically been made,” he said in an email. “We will just have to see how this new approach is implemented.”

For More Information

The EPA memo announcing the new reviews of superfund sites is available at http://src.bna.com/oML.

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