Special Topics in Environmental Management

EPA Administrator’s Role in Superfund Enhanced

Backing up his commitment to improve the federal Superfund program, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has issued a list of 21 Superfund sites that he has “targeted for immediate and intense attention.”

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The list comprises at least one site in each of EPA’s 10 regions; New Jersey has the most sites with three; Montana has two; and each of the remaining states on the list has one site. According to the EPA, this is not a list of the 21 largest or most polluted Superfund sites in the nation. Rather, in developing the list, the Agency considered sites “with critical upcoming milestones or site-specific actions that will benefit from the Administrator’s engagement or directed attention to facilitate near-term progress.”

Task Force Recommendation

The list appears to respond directly to one of 42 recommendations on improving the Superfund program made in July 2017 by a Superfund Task Force Pruitt formed in May 2017. One of the recommendations was establishment of an “Administrator’s Emphasis List” that warranted immediate and intense attention from the EPA administrator. For these sites and the list itself, four subrecommendations were made:

  • Determine method for designating sites.
  • Find obstacles to completion and address them.
  • Report progress through monthly reports submitted directly to the administrator.
  • As sites are completed, replenish the list.

The Task Force, whose work is ongoing, has five overarching goals, three of which relate to expediting private investment and redevelopment/reuse of the sites and two to expediting and reinvigorating cleanup and remediation.

Funds Will Be Requested if Needed

Pruitt has named Superfund reform as one of the Agency’s top programmatic missions. He has noted that when he became administrator, he was “astounded to learn there were over 1,330 Superfund sites across this country—sites where land has languished and left with contamination seeping into the land and water. Unfortunately, many of these sites have been listed as Superfund sites for decades, some for as many as 30 years. This is not acceptable. We can—and should—do better.”

Pruitt has been frequently questioned about his desire to improve the Superfund in light of the administration’s proposal to cut 30 percent of federal funding for the program. The day before the EPA announced the list of 21 sites, Pruitt testified in the House, explaining that most Superfund sites have potentially responsible parties (PRPs), which bear the responsibility for cleanup, and that there are “very few” orphan sites that need federal funding. He said that the problem with the program is less about funding than lack of direction about how cleanups should be conducted. However, he added that should more money be needed, he would go to Congress and ask for it.

Reasons for Listing

While most of the sites on EPA’s list are on the National Priorities List (NPL)—currently the NPL has 1,341entries—several are in the pre-NPL state. Each of the listed sites has been assigned an “Issue/Upcoming Milestone” that is the basis for its inclusion on the list. For example, several sites on the list are in areas with substantial development opportunities; others have been on the list for many years; some are posing major environmental risks; and some are in the midst of negotiations (e.g., selecting a remediation plan; resolving differences with PRPs; settling litigation).

What Pruitt Will Do

The Agency adds that placement on the list does not reflect the sites most in need of federal funding, nor will it have any bearing on funding decisions. Prioritization for federal funding will continue under a separate process.

Examples of actions that the administrator may take at these sites include:

  • Encouraging and supporting timely negotiations with PRPs;
  • Working with all interested parties to determine whether a site will be listed on the NPL;
  • Facilitating finalization of remedy decisions; and
  • Facilitating dialogue with interested parties on redevelopment opportunities.

The list of 21 sites and additional information are here.

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