Hurricane Pruitt a bigger risk to superfund sites than Harvey or Irma

  • Published on September 12th, 2017

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we learned that Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located, is home to 13 abandoned industrial sites so populated by toxic waste that over the years they’ve been assigned Superfund cleanup status by the Environmental Protection Agency. We also learned from the work of two Associated Press reporters that seven of those sites had flooded and that the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had not yet visited them on Sept. 3 to see if Harvey had caused a release of toxins from the holding areas built to contain them until they can be cleaned up.

superfund cleanup by EPABy Meteor Blades

That brought an extraordinary tantrum from the EPA, blasting the AP’s Michael Biesecker for “misleading” reporting. The EPA said it had not yet been able to get to the sites because of the flooding – even though the two reporters had managed to do so by boat, car, or on foot.

Subsequently, on Sept. 6, it was announced that the two agencies had completed their initial inspections of almost all the sites. Full reports have yet to issued, but apparently there have been no leaks.

At The Atlantic, staff writer Van Newkirk II, wrote a lengthy and pointed look not just at the issue of toxic release from Harvey, but also from hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Sandy, all of which disrupted toxic sites.

Biesecker and Jason Dearen at the AP wrote Saturday that Superfund sites were in the path of Hurricane Irma, too. Nothing announced yet about leaks at any of those. Here’s Newkirk:

Still, word that no major leaks have been reported may be little comfort to local communities, which already have to plan for low-level contamination incidents and the risk of further contamination thanks to regular (albeit more mundane) flooding in the area. Many of those communities tend to fall into TEJAS’s “environmental justice” category; marginalized by race, income, or both, they face the greatest dangers from contamination and the longest road to recovery.

Superfund sites aren’t the only polluted zones affected by Harvey. There are several Resource Conservation and Recovery Act–managed areas—active dumping or waste sites being managed by the EPA—around Houston, too. But Superfund sites contain some of the worst hazards—old plants and dumps that operated before the EPA’s rules were in place—the mitigation of which requires federal oversight and funding. Environmentalists told me after Harvey that the agency may not be up to the task, and that its readiness is in decline.

It was nearly 40 years ago, in the wake of the discovery of environmental and health issues at a 20,000-ton dump of mixed toxic chemicals in a Niagara Falls, New York, neighborhood near Love Canal that Superfund got its EPA superfund sitesstart. Hundreds of families had to be evacuated, with an emphasis on mostly lower middle-class white homeowners instead of the mostly poor white and African American renters in nearby projects. In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act, Superfund for short.

Under the law, companies currently in business were required to clean up any hazardous waste contaminants on their sites, even if they no longer operated them. But since some of those sites were poisoned as much as a century ago, it’s not always possible to find out who did the poisoning. So for cases in which the company responsible for the contamination had gone out of business or when responsibility couldn’t be established, a small tax was placed on chemical and petroleum companies to cover cleanup costs of “orphan sites.”

Within two decades, 1,000 sites had been named. Since then, more keep being added, with the total now at 1,342 on the National Priorities List, with nearly 1,200 having completed their decontamination. Forty-six more sites are on a recommended list to join those. But about half of the 406 original Superfund sites named more than a quarter of a century or more ago still await action.

One reason for that is that there’s not always an easy fix, but the bigger problem is money. As usual, industry objected to the Superfund tax and Republicans (with a small cohort of go-along Democrats) repealed it in 1995. So who pays to clean up orphan sites now? Taxpayers. And in those instances when the responsible company is still around, it’s often the polluter vs. the victims when clean-up is demanded, the former (together with their state legislative puppets) pushing a cheap option, the latter advocating for something that actually does the job.

A study by the EPA in 2015 found that 17 percent of the U.S. population—53 million people—lives within three miles of a Superfund site. Of that total, 46 percent are people of color. In New Jersey, the state with the most Superfund sites, 114, it’s 50 percent of the state’s population that lives within three miles of a site.

EPA chief Scott Pruitt said in May that Superfund clean-ups “will be restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.” In a statement, he noted, “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.”

That sounds great. And it’s utterly bogus.

It should not be forgotten that Pruitt has proposed axing 31 percent of the EPA’s budget, including $330 million from the Superfund budget, a budget that’s already been cut from from 1999 to 2013 from $2 billion a year to $1.1 billion. And that 45 percent reduction doesn’t include the loss of purchasing power from inflation.

Scott Slesinger at the Natural Resources Defense Council notes that there’s more than a truncated budget at issue. For one thing, Pruitt’s approach ignores the people whom these toxic sites most affect—the people who live nearbyEPA Superfund San Jacinto River texas—in favor of investors and companies. And then there is the memo in which he takes away control from regional EPA administrators and staff experts in the Office of Land and Emergency Management and assigns authority for okaying all cleanups over $50 million to himself:

This is a terrible idea for several reasons. Superfund cleanup final decisions were made in the Administrator’s office when Superfund was first implemented by the Reagan Administration. In the aftermath of scandals that required the Administrator to resign and the Assistant Administrator of the Superfund program to go to jail, in 1984, this authority was delegated to the EPA Regions.

Now Scott Pruitt wants to return to the “good old days” of scandal and have the Administrator of EPA once again make these decisions. What is wrong with delegation to regional managers where the sites are located? Is he afraid clean ups will cost industry more if he doesn’t have the last say? The rest of the memo makes it clear: he wants everyone at EPA to know that quicker and cheaper is the preferred alternative to better and safer a plan that puts the polluters before the public.

Yet another example of Pruitt working hard to make the EPA an enemy of the environment and environmental justice.

(Originally appeared at DailyKos. Images by EPA and Michael Paulsen / Houston Chronicle)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.