Superfund Targets Faster Cleanups in 2018 Despite Budget Doubts

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By Sylvia Carignan

The Environmental Protection Agency's superfund program is heading into a year of systemic changes, as its leaders try to accelerate cleanup and make quicker decisions for contaminated sites.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has declared the superfund program a top priority for the agency. At the same time, President Donald Trump has proposed slashing the program’s funding by 30 percent for fiscal year 2018, injecting uncertainty into the program’s ability to effectively clean up sites.

Pruitt’s goal to accelerate superfund cleanup doesn’t acknowledge how limited the agency could be, according to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is pushing for additional superfund cleanup funding.

“If we want to expedite cleanups, we’ve got to pay for them, but President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have proposed huge cuts to the superfund program, which would result in even fewer sites getting cleaned up,” Booker said in a statement.

The superfund program has experienced a slow decline in appropriations for years. According to the Government Accountability Office, the superfund program once had appropriations of $2 billion in fiscal year 1999. The program’s appropriations in fiscal year 2017 were about $1.1 billion

‘We’ve Identified the Issues’

In May, Pruitt asked a task force how to reshape the program using the agency’s current resources, resulting in a report with more than 40 recommendations.

Some of the recommendations have start dates, but Pruitt’s adviser on superfund matters, Albert “Kell” Kelly, said the EPA has started working on all of them and some are ahead of schedule.

“We’ve identified the issues, we’ve identified the timeframes, we’ve identified who’s going to do it,” Kelly told Bloomberg Environment.

Each recommendation and its subsections have their own working groups—about 50 in total—of EPA staff assigned to work out the details.

Kate Probst, an independent consultant with Kate Probst Consulting who studies the superfund program, is hoping the EPA will be transparent with the changes it implements.

“Sometime in the next year, we should be able to tell the impact of the report, what they’ve accomplished and what it means,” she told Bloomberg Environment.

Site Reuse

The agency is emphasizing the potential for superfund sites to be redeveloped or reused. In January, Pruitt plans to release a list of superfund sites that are prime candidates for reuse to help steer developers and investors.

The task force recommended listing 20 sites, but Kelly said the list could have twice as many.

Funding for redevelopment possibly could come from the parties cleaning up the site, also known as potentially responsible parties, according to Veronica Darwin, Pruitt’s senior adviser for the EPA Office of Land and Emergency Management, which oversees the superfund program.

The resulting agreement could be part of a consent decree between the EPA and parties paying for cleanup, Kelly said, but it also could be done in a separate arrangement.

Not every superfund site will be prime real estate for redevelopment. “That’s only going to be in particular places, and it’s a great aspiration,” Kelly said.

Early Action

One of the task force’s recommendations emphasizes the use of “early actions” to clean up contamination before a comprehensive, sitewide remedial decision is made. These formal documents typically take years to develop, including drafts and public comments, before they’re finished.

The agency anticipates completing the early action recommendation by the third quarter of fiscal year 2018.

"[Pruitt] wants early action,” Kelly said. “He believes that for every day that we don’t have a remedy, that’s one more day that somebody is exposed to something.”

The EPA is taking the early action option at the Mississippi Phosphates site in Pascagoula, which isn’t on the National Priorities List or an official superfund site. The former fertilizer plant and wastewater treatment facility is part of Pruitt’s list of sites he says need “immediate, intense action.”

The chemicals causing contamination at the site include phosphorus, ammonia, and fluoride. An inch of rainfall at the site generates millions of gallons of contaminated water, according to the EPA, and the cost of maintenance exhausted an environmental trust earlier this year.

The EPA wants to take the lead on cleanup at the site and give it superfund status.

Issues at other sites on Pruitt’s list include negotiating with states and companies to finishing draft plans and opening paths for redevelopment.

Reducing Costs for Companies

Through the task force recommendations, the EPA also wants to reduce the costs of oversight and negotiations for superfund site cleanup, which ultimately are paid by potentially responsible parties.

Although the plans still are being worked out, Kelly said, cutting oversight costs doesn’t mean cutting down on oversight. Cleanup standards and expectations will remain the same, he said.

Environmental groups and community activists are skeptical the EPA could accelerate the pace of cleanup without lowering cleanup standards.

“We will be advocating consistently to make sure that they do it well,” Debbie Chizewer, environmental advocate at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic, told Bloomberg Environment.

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