Former chemical industry attorney takes over EPA’s Superfund task force

The task force was previously led by Albert Kelly, a longtime friend of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The Gowanus Canal, which is a designated federal Superfund site, in New York City. (CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The Gowanus Canal, which is a designated federal Superfund site, in New York City. (CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has named a former chemical industry attorney to lead its Superfund Task Force in charge of improving and expediting cleanup of some of the country’s most polluted sites.

Steven Cook has worked for the EPA for three months as deputy assistant administrator in the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, the office in charge of the agency’s emergency response and waste programs. Before coming to the EPA, Cook worked for more than two decades as senior corporate counsel at LyondellBasell, which describes itself as “one of the largest plastics, chemicals and refining companies in the world.”

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In his new job as head of the Superfund program, Cook will be responsible for overseeing the cleanup of sites polluted by his former employer.

Cook replaces Albert Kelly as chair of the Superfund task force. Kelly, a longtime friend of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, resigned in early May after lawmakers repeatedly pressed for answers about his history in banking and amid growing scandals surrounding Pruitt. Kelly was banned for life from the banking industry by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

The EPA’s Superfund Task Force is charged with streamlining and re-prioritizing the agency’s protocol for remediation of polluted sites; currently, there are more than 1,300 Superfund sites across the country. Pruitt has repeatedly called Superfund cleanup a priority for his tenure as administrator.

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Lyondell Chemical Co. — a subsidiary of LyondellBasell — is responsible for at least six Superfund sites throughout the country. In 2010, the company agreed to pay $250 million as part of a settlement with the United States government — as well as several state governments — to help remediate 15 polluted sites across the country, including six Superfund sites.

According to E&E News, the EPA has downplayed any potential ethical issues that could arise with Lyondell and Cook, whose new position would put him in charge of overseeing cleanup of some of Lyondell’s polluted sites.

“All EPA employees receive ethics briefings when they start and continually work with our ethics office regarding any potential conflicts they may encounter while employed here,” an agency spokesman said. “Steven Cook is no different.”

Cook is not the only former chemical industry employee to now have landed a top position with the EPA. EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Nancy Beck — who now oversees the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution — came to the agency from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the leading lobbying group for the chemical industry. Since coming to the EPA in 2017, Beck has helped streamline the agency’s approach to evaluating new chemicals, which public health groups caution is merely a “handout to the ACC.”