Pruitt Moves to Politicize Superfund Cleanups
New Policy Enables Administrator to Bypass Staff and Dispense Favors to Industry
Washington, DC — The Trump-appointed head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has moved to take personal control of all major toxic cleanup operations under the Superfund program, according to an agency memo posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This new arrangement allows him to bypass staff experts and confer one-side benefits on corporate polluters.
The May 22, 2017 memo by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt directs that all decisionmaking on Superfund cleanups “estimated to cost $50 million or more at sites shall be retained by the Administrator” – meaning that Pruitt is taking direct charge of all decisionmaking in these cases. In addition to new cases, Pruitt will oversee all existing major cases “throughout the process” in order to develop “alternatives” to current cleanups.
In one of his first acts under this memo, Pruitt last week tabled a 2016 order that General Electric Co. spend $613 million to complete removal of toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) the company discharged into the Housatonic River in Western Massachusetts. Pruitt is now inviting GE to negotiate a new compromise for handling the massive contamination caused by its Pittsfield transformer factory.
“Pruitt has positioned himself to hand out multi-million dollar favors to corporate polluters subject to almost no review,” stated PEER New England Director Kyla Bennett, a former EPA scientist and attorney, pointing out that Superfund is Pruitt’s sole affirmative or non-rollback initiative. “The main way to ‘streamline’ these inherently contentious and costly cleanups is offer responsible industries sweetheart deals they can’t refuse.”
While the next stage of the GE case is unclear, the Pruitt memo does make clear that he wants to reduce “the level of agency oversight” and spur “faster cleanups” by taking steps to, among other things –
- “Streamline” how contaminated sediment (often an expensive aspect of remediation) is treated;
- Employ “non-traditional approaches for financing site cleanup”; and
- “Reduce the …costs and burdens borne by parties remediating contaminated sites.”
The Pruitt plan taps Albert Kelly, an Oklahoma banker with no environmental experience, to lead a task force to develop “a detailed set of recommendations” before the end of June “to overhaul and streamline the [entire Superfund] process.” Pruitt’s plan makes no mention of public involvement in this transformation.
“This new policy seems designed to maximize real estate value at the risk of public health,” added Bennett, noting that the Pruitt memo offers only the following statement as its rationale: “I have heard that some Superfund cleanups take too long to start and too long to complete.” “The concern is that Pruitt will promote inadequate ‘pave and wave’ remediation leaving subsequent residents vulnerable to poisonous vapor intrusion and other toxic legacy impacts.”
There are currently more than 1,300 active Superfund sites but the Government Accountability Office predicts that both the number of sites likely to be added to the National Priority (Superfund) List and the cost for their remediation are expected to rise.