Pruitt’s Obsession with Superfund

Trump’s EPA has been characterized so far by its efforts to deregulate and downsize — or, according to its Administrator, Scott Pruitt, to “regulate in accordance with the law.” Since taking office in February 2017, Pruitt has taken substantial action to undermine steps taken by the Obama administration deemed as oversteps of federal authority. The first to fall was the Clean Power Plan, the Obama Administration’s comprehensive climate change policy aimed at reducing the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, which Pruitt filed to repeal in October 2017. Then came the suspension of the Clean Water Rule, a reaction to the Obama administration’s attempt to clarify exactly which waters qualify as “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act, and therefore that can be regulated under it. And through it all, the timeline has been marked by repeated refusal to recognize pollutants and toxic chemicals — chlorpyrifos, methylene chloride, and trichloroethylene being just three — as such.

Instead, the main project Pruitt has emphasized — since he has to do something other than repeal already-existing statutes — is Superfund. Formally the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, Superfund authorizes the EPA to use federal resources to clean up hazardous waste sites across the country; over 1,300 are currently listed as national priorities. As a part of this effort, Pruitt has proposed creating a “Top 10” list of sites most in need of cleanup, as well as emphasizing a business strategy known as “lean” meant to streamline the cleanup process and “deliver measurable results.”

While prioritizing Superfund cleanup is not in and of itself a bad thing — it is, in fact, a major issue for environmentalists and justice advocates — Pruitt’s focus seems misguided and idealistic for two reasons. The first is feasibility; Pruitt is attempting to do more cleanup with a less funding from both the government (about $330 million less than during the Obama administration) and the polluters themselves. Second is the absurdity of focusing on hazardous waste cleanup while ignoring other environmental issues, like climate change and toxics, that have the potential to worsen the condition of them.

First, consider the issue of funding. Pruitt has denounced the Obama administration for their failure to remediate Superfund sites, a criticism that is largely warranted. In 1999, the Superfund program completed 85 site cleanups, compared with just eight in 2014 under President Obama. This may not be completely due to inaction on the President’s part, however. In 1995, Congress allowed the “polluter pays tax”, which put the financial responsibility of cleanup on the polluters, to expire, taking away a major source of funding for the program. The trust fund that was created in conjunction with the program dried up several years later, meaning the majority of financial responsibility for cleanup now relies on U.S. taxpayers in the form of federal budget allocation. Under Trump, this allocation has been cut by almost a third, meaning the two main sources of funding contributing to the success of Superfund in the 1980’s and 90’s can no longer be relied on. Regardless of what Pruitt’s goals with the Superfund program are, the reality is that he simply does not have the resources to bring cleanup back to 1999 levels.

Even if the resources were available, focusing on hazardous waste cleanup while ignoring the slew of other environmental issues the EPA has historically dealt with is simply absurd. Climate change does not exist in a vacuum, and the increasing incidence and severity of natural disasters has the potential to exacerbate the effects local communities feel because of hazardous waste sites. Storms can spread pollution that is usually contained within Superfund site boundaries, and fires near sites have the potential to affect soil stability and therefore the containment of hazardous waste. Addressing Superfund sites without addressing climate change ignores their synergistic risks and ultimately further endangers the communities Pruitt is aiming to protect.

Since Love Canal, Superfund has largely been relegated to the past for the majority of Americans not dealing with the consequences of living next to hazardous waste every day. Pruitt’s renewed emphasis on the program and individual communities, therefore, is commendable. But the way he is approaching the situation will ultimately undermine his success. In order for his remediation plan to be feasible, Pruitt needs to become more realistic about the world in which Superfund sites exist — a world ultimately ruled by resource availability, and a world that is already feeling the effects of human-caused climate change.

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