Trump budget to slash toxic waste clean-up effort his EPA head called ‘essential’

Scott Pruitt has stated repeatedly Superfund is a part of EPA’s core mission.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Teresa Crawford
CREDIT: AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt has pledged repeatedly in recent months to prioritize clean-up of hazardous waste sites, yet the Trump administration is expected to propose dramatic budget cuts to the program responsible for those efforts.

Since getting sworn in as EPA administrator in February, Pruitt has vowed on multiple occasions to make the federal government’s hazardous site clean-up across the nation, known as the Superfund program, one of his top priorities. “Some of the most important work that we do as an agency, or should be doing… is with respect to the Superfund responsibilities,” Pruitt said in a radio interview two weeks ago.

Pruitt has contended that the Superfund program has languished over the years and has lacked the leadership to get the 1,300-plus sites cleaned up. “It’s time for leadership in East Chicago,” Pruitt said in the interview, referring to a Superfund site in a low-income neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana.

In March, Pruitt told a gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors that Superfund “is an area that is absolutely essential” and “a priority.”

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget plan for the EPA, however, calls for cutting the Superfund cleanup program by approximately 25 percent, according to a copy of the budget obtained by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

“On the one hand, Administrator Pruitt has been saying that he sees clean-up of Superfund sites and brownfield sites as a top priority and a return to the core mission of the EPA, as he sees it. At the same time, we are seeing these very damaging cuts, which, make no mistake, will hinder and slow down clean-up of these hazardous waste sites,” Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress.

Overall, the president’s FY18 budget request will propose cutting the EPA’s budget by 31 percent and eliminating 3,200 staff and over 50 programs, including those supporting international and domestic climate change research and partnership programs.

Residents of East Chicago rally near a public-housing complex, where roughly 1,000 people were ordered evacuated because of lead contamination. CREDIT: AP Photo/Teresa Crawford
Residents of East Chicago rally near a public-housing complex, where roughly 1,000 people were ordered evacuated because of lead contamination. CREDIT: AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

Pruitt has demonstrated a commitment to the EPA’s Superfund and brownfield programs, as well as tackling water infrastructure deficiencies. But thus far, the agency has pushed industry-friendly policies over rules that protect the environment. At a conference in Florida in early May, EPA senior policy adviser Mandy Gunasekara told coal industry executives that she wants to make sure the EPA is working for them.

Cleetus hopes Congress will not allow the Trump administration to make these cuts to the Superfund program. “Congress should absolutely resist these types of very damaging cuts,” she said. “My sense is that folks in Congress will look around the country and see that these Superfund sites are located in neighborhoods where their constituents live and they will resist this level of cuts.”

The Superfund program, established in 1980, has a “strong track record” of revitalizing neighborhoods, with expenditures representing a good use of of taxpayer dollars, she said. The EPA oversees the program in coordination with the states; every state has at least one Superfund site. “This is not a top-down activity. This is something that states care deeply about because their constituents are on the frontlines of the pollution and the contamination and the loss of property values that are associated with being near these sites,” Cleetus said.

Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center and assistant clinical professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, said she was not surprised by the proposed budget cuts to the Superfund program, noting they are “totally consistent with the view the administration overall is taking on the environment.”

On May 9, Pruitt issued a memo prioritizing Superfund clean-up and streamlining the approval process for sites with remedies estimated to cost $50 million or more. “I am making it a priority to ensure contaminated sites get cleaned up. We will be more hands-on to ensure proper oversight and attention to the Superfund program at the highest levels of the Agency, and to create consistency across states,” Pruitt said.

But the memo caused Loeb to question Pruitt’s motivations. This decision by the administrator to grant EPA headquarters “more hands-on” involvement in Superfund remediation could allow companies that caused the contamination to reach more favorable settlements with the agency, according to Loeb. “They will seize on the opportunity to go directly to Pruitt rather than working in the regions and will offer and get agreements for faster clean-ups that are far less extensive than they need to be,” she said.