Right now in America, there are more than 1,300 large swaths of land and water where toxic stews of chemicals like asbestos, mercury, PCBs, and arsenic linger, threatening the health of tens of thousands of humans. They’re called Superfund sites, some of the country’s most contaminated places—and on Tuesday, President Donald Trump reportedly will propose cutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund budget by 25 percent. According to The New York Times, his fiscal 2018 budget proposal will also call for a 36 percent cut to a separate program for cleaning up contaminated former industrial sites.
It’s no surprise that the White House would recommend harsh EPA cuts, given Trump’s open hostility toward environmental regulations. His initial “skinny budget” for 2017 sought a 30 percent overall cut to the agency, including deep cuts to Superfund and other cleanup programs. Those proposals ultimately didn’t make it into the final 2017 budget approved by Congress, but they’re expected to be mirrored in his 2018 proposal. “Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward—we’re not spending money on that anymore; we consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that,” Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, said in March. “So that is a specific tie to his campaign.”
But Trump’s proposed Superfund cut, specifically, is unexpected in light of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s stated priorities. He has previously said he does not support cutting the Superfund program, and earlier this month he announced a new directive to prioritize it. Also, in recent media appearances, he has been highly critical of the EPA’s direction under President Barack Obama, claiming the previous administration was too focused on climate change at the expense of contaminated sites. This is not true, as I pointed outlast week. Moreover, can Pruitt really improve Superfund cleanups if its budget is cut by a quarter?
Superfund cleanup advocates don’t think so. “Funding is, I think, the most significant driver of sites not getting cleaned up,” said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. An attorney who currently represents the town of DePue, Illinois, the entirety of which is a Superfund site, she said that without proper funding, the EPA can’t clean up contaminated sites itself and force polluters to pay them back. The EPA would be forced to negotiate cleanup deals with polluters from a weaker position, extending the time needed it takes to create an acceptable plan.
The Superfund program is already underfunded. It has been ever since 2003, years after Congress let expire the so-called “Superfund tax” on oil and gas companies, which was able to raise billions for cleanup per year. But now, the Superfund program only operates on about $1 billion per year in federal dollars. “Losing even that minimal amount of funding will essentially bring the program to a halt,” Loeb said.
But even in the best-case budget scenario, where the 25 percent cut to Superfund is not realized, Loeb and others worry about Pruitt’s plan for the sites. That’s because Pruitt, who has a history of close and friendly ties to polluting industries, has said he will prioritize Superfunds by handling negotiations with polluters himself. According to the EPA’s press release, his directive this month puts “the decision of how to clean up the sites directly into the hands of the Administrator,” rather than other members of the bureaucracy.
That directive is “quite disheartening,” said Peter deFur, an environmental consultant and Superfund cleanup expert. Both deFur and Loeb expressed concern that Pruitt would be more lenient when negotiating cleanup deals with polluters, allowing them to pay less for plans that are less comprehensive. “There is grave concern in the environmental community, myself included, that what Pruitt will do is get faster but much less rigorous cleanup,” Loeb said. DeFur agreed. “I’m not sure that Pruitt’s idea of improving the program and mine would agree at all,” he said. “To me, improving the program means more aggressive cleanups that move contamination to lower levels, and more aggressive pursuit of potentially responsible parties. What does Pruitt mean by improve?”
EPA’s spokespeople did not respond to my request for clarification on that point, but late afternoon on Monday the agency issued a press release announcing a new “Superfund Task Force,” which it said was part of Pruitt’s “continued effort to prioritize Superfund cleanups.” That task force is expected to provide recommendations in 30 days on how the EPA can “streamline” the Superfund program—perhaps a coded way to insist it can operate more efficiently on less money. It’s not clear yet how Pruitt’s EPA would do that—apparently we’ll find out in a month—but the press release gave some vague indications, including “incentivizing parties to remediate sites” and “encouraging private investment in cleanups and sites.”
The polluting companies themselves have reason to believe Pruitt will be more lenient. Last week, the New York Timesreported that the oil and gas company Devon Energy, which donated thousands to Pruitt when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, recently stepped away from an environmental settlement it had planned to sign with the Obama administration. According to the Times, the company “had been prepared to install a sophisticated system to detect and reduce leaks of dangerous gases” for one of its gas plants, and “had also discussed paying a six-figure penalty to settle claims by the Obama administration that it was illegally emitting 80 tons each year of hazardous chemicals, like benzene, a known carcinogen.” After Pruitt took office, though, Devon said it was “re-evaluating its settlement posture,” and would no longer install emissions controls or pay a large fine. Devon Energy has also strongly opposed the effort to renew the Superfund tax on energy companies.
The revelations about Devon worry cleanup advocates like Loeb. “I’m really concerned that Pruitt will make quick deals with companies, and they will be superficial and inadequate cleanups,” she said. But she still holds out some hope that Pruitt will keep his promises. “Superfund is an area that is absolutely essential,” the administrator said in March. As with the word “improve,” it remains to be seen what exactly he means by “essential.”
Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, CityLab, Grist, The Guardian, High Country News, HuffPost, Medium, Mother Jones, the National Observer, New Republic, Newsweek, Reveal, Slate, Undark, Wired.