Special Topics in Environmental Management

Pruitt Superfund Plan Is Catching Flak

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s listing of 21 Superfund sites for “intense and immediate action” has prompted the expected skepticism from at least one liberal group. But what has not been expected is a comparable level of concern about the value of the list expressed by several Republican lawmakers.

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Since taking the top post at the Agency, Pruitt has made it known that Superfund is a core federal environmental program that needs to be improved, mainly by speeding up remediation of sites and their return to productive economic activity. In May 2017, Pruitt formed a Superfund Task Force that 1 month later provided the administrator with 42 recommendations to make the program more productive. One recommendation was creation of an “Administrator’s Emphasis List” of sites that would benefit from Pruitt’s direct involvement. The emphasis list was issued in early December, 1 day after Pruitt testified on the mission of the Agency before the House Subcommittee on Environment.

Program Weighted by ‘Process’

In a December 21, 2017, letter, three top Republicans on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, including Rep. John Shimkus, chair of the Environment Subcommittee, questioned Pruitt about the list of 21 sites. The lawmakers first point out that at the hearing, members of the subcommittee specifically asked Pruitt about sites of particular concern to their districts and “did not receive any information from you that these sites would be included” on the list. But a more pressing concern to the representatives relates to the value of the list and the possible negative impact of a listing. The lawmakers wrote:

“The Superfund cleanup program already involves a significant amount of process, and it is not clear how creating another list of sites will expedite cleanups. Furthermore, it is not clear how the sites on the Top-21 List were selected. The documentation published with the List states that ‘these sites have site-specific issues that will benefit from the Administrator’s direct engagement’ and that ‘these are sites requiring timely resolution on specific issues to expedite cleanup and redevelopment efforts.’

“The information published with the List indicates that there is no commitment of additional funding associated with a site’s inclusion on the List. We question what it will mean for sites to be on the List and whether the potential stigma of being included on a list targeted for ‘immediate, intense action’ with no additional funding, will help or hinder the progress at these sites.”

The letter goes on to ask Pruitt to provide the writers with information on how the sites were selected, what Pruitt’s “direct engagement” in these sites means, and how that direct engagement will expedite cleanup and redevelopment efforts. Also, the representatives ask whether the states, potentially responsible parties, and Community Advisory Groups were consulted about which sites to include on the list.

FOIA Request Not Productive

In a related development, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reported that it has received no materials it requested from the EPA about the Superfund Task Force. PEER had sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Agency essentially asking: Who was on the Task Force? How were they picked? What materials did they look at? And how did they arrive at decisions?

PEER now states that it did receive a November 8, 2017, e-mail from an assistant U.S. attorney, who wrote:

  • The 107 Task Force members were all volunteers from EPA staff with no selection criteria.
  • Meeting minutes were not kept, and materials (other than a May 22, 2017, memo from Pruitt) were not presented to the Task Force.
  • There is no work product emanating from the Task Force except for the final recommendations.

PEER adds that it was informed by the U.S. attorney that the EPA would look for additional records but in the ensuing weeks found none.

“Pruitt’s plan for cleaning up toxic sites was apparently immaculately conceived, without the usual trapping of human parentage,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It stretches credulity that 107 EPA staff members with no agenda or reference materials somehow wrote an intricate plan in 30 days.”

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