Obama put climate gestures above toxic waste remedies.
By Review & Outlook
The Wall Street Journal
June 13, 2017
One cost of making climate change a religion is that more immediate environmental problems have been ignored—not least by the Environmental Protection Agency. New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt plans to address that in an underreported effort to clean up toxic waste sites under the so-called Superfund program.
In a memo to EPA staff last month, Mr. Pruitt announced a plan to reform the Superfund program created in 1980 and to accelerate the clean up of hazardous waste sites such as old industrial properties or landfills. The effort is long overdue. Superfund has too often become a sinecure for the bureaucracy and a cash cow for lawyers. EPA staff offices can wait years or decades to assess a Superfund site, figure out who’s liable for what, consult with the community, decide on a remedy and assign the actual work.
Take the West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, Missouri, which was used for quarrying in the 1930s and later as a landfill. In 1973, 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate from the Manhattan Project was dumped there, along with soil and waste. The EPA listed the 200-acre facility as a Superfund site in 1990.
Yet it took 18 years for EPA to decide how to clean up West Lake, finally settling in 2008 on a “multi-layered engineered cover and a system of new monitoring wells.” In 2009 the Obama EPA ditched that solution and re-opened the file. In 2010 an underground chemical reaction ignited a fire that is still smoldering.
Another example is the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex in Idaho and Washington state that polluted the air and soil with heavy metals such as lead. The EPA put Bunker Hill on its original list of 406 Superfund sites in 1983, but it too remains an open case.
Or Portland Harbor, in Oregon, which was listed in 2000. The private companies EPA found responsible spent years and tens of millions of dollars on a clean-up study that the agency eventually discarded. Obama EPA chief Gina McCarthy didn’t choose a remedy for the site until this January, days before President Trump’s inauguration, using information that was more than a decade old.
These are examples of the 1,336 Superfund sites on the EPA’s National Priorities List. Mr. Pruitt has directed a new task force, chaired by senior adviser Albert Kelly, to review Superfund management and business practices. He has also taken power from EPA regional offices to make decisions about projects estimated to cost $50 million or more, which should speed decision-making.
The response from critics, especially from the previous Administration, is that the problem is lack of federal funding. They’re upset that President Trump’s budget proposes a 30% cut in Superfund for next fiscal year, $330 million less than this year.
But Superfund delays aren’t the result of insufficient funds, especially since private parties now shoulder most clean-up costs, as envisaged in the original legislation. At the end of fiscal 2016 the Superfund’s special accounts, which hold settlement money for specific projects, totalled $3.3 billion. EPA projects it will spend $1.3 billion of that over the next five years. That’s on top of Superfund’s 2018 budget request for $762 million.
In 2009 the Obama Administration pumped $600 million into the program as part of the stimulus plan. Yet the EPA’s data on “construction completions,” which track Superfund sites that have finished physical construction and dealt with long-term threats, shows a downward trend even as the money flowed in. There were 18 completions in 2010, down from 20 in 2009, and 47 in 2001. In 2016 only 13 sites were completed.
The real obstacle is a combination of bureaucratic inertia and legal or political disputes over who pays what. Washington typically measures success by money spent rather than on results. Yet Superfund ought to be measured by how many sites it cleans up—until it is no longer necessary. The green lobby puts symbolic gestures against climate change above all other priorities, but if Mr. Pruitt can accelerate Superfund cleanup he’ll do far more for the environment.
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