Not long after Hurricane Harvey battered Houston last summer, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt stood on the banks of the San Jacinto River and surveyed a decades-old toxic waste site as divers checked whether the storm had unearthed dangerous chemicals.
Days later, he ordered two corporations to spend $115 million to excavate the contamination rather than leaving it covered. His dramatic decision put Pruitt in unfamiliar territory: Environmental activists cheered, while the targeted firms protested that the directive was not backed by science and could expose more people to health risks.
Pruitt's approach to the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, as well as to several other Superfund sites across the country, stands in stark contrast to the industry-friendly moves on everything from pesticide exposure to power plant pollution that have defined his first year at the EPA.
In pressing for aggressive, accelerated cleanups, he is butting heads with companies while siding at times with local environmental groups. His supporters, and Pruitt himself, say it is evidence he is reinvigorating a core function of the agency. His critics see it as a political move, an effort to protect himself against charges that he constantly favors corporate interests.
Yet Pruitt's attention is shifting the conversation in some beleaguered communities. Residents say they don't care what his motivations are — if they bring the results they have long sought.
"Scott Pruitt is probably the most important person right now in the lives of the people in this community," said Dawn Chapman, who lives with her husband and three children near a controversial site northwest of St. Louis.
The landfill there, known as West Lake, contains thousands of tons of radioactive waste from the World War II-era Manhattan Project. Chapman and other activists are pushing for significant excavation. Pruitt has promised them he will issue a decision within days.
There are signs he might seek more extensive — and expensive — removal than EPA staffers have recommended in the past. As is the case in Texas, the companies on the hook for the cleanup contend that years of scientific evidence show capping the waste in place would be safer, cheaper and completed sooner.
"Depending on the decision [Pruitt] makes," Chapman said, "he will probably forever remain the hero or the villain in the eyes of this community."
If he continues to propose aggressive actions across the country — his office last month published a list of 21 places in need of "immediate and intense attention" — it would represent one of the rare areas in which he has pushed to apply a cautionary approach when calculating the risk of exposure to environmental hazards.
Individuals familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, say Pruitt has asked agency staff briefing him on proposals at certain sites to flesh out more extensive remedies.
"In the briefings I've been in, he has set pretty high expectations for getting work done quickly. . . . The region will lay out a schedule. And he'll say, 'Can you do it sooner than that? Can you do it faster?' " said Jim Woolford, director of an EPA office that helps run the Superfund program. "It elevates the attention and the work that goes into making those decisions happen faster."
In short, Woolford added, "What gets watched is what gets done."
Peter deFur, who has consulted on Superfund for more than two decades, remains skeptical of the administrator's emphasis on speed.
"The whole thing just raises a big red flag to me," deFur said. While acknowledging that past EPA leaders have let some sites languish, he worries rushing to get locations off the program's National Priorities List could mean inadequate cleanups and expose communities to long-term harm.
Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the Superfund program in the Obama years, is wary of Pruitt's public posture. "Selecting a few remedies that are more expensive allows him to claim that he is protecting the environment," he said. "Politically, it's a counter against 'I'm just listening to industry.' "
With the San Jacinto site, one of the companies involved has questioned why Pruitt announced a final plan before all data on the hurricane's impact was in. "Removing the existing protective cap, which successfully withstood Hurricane Harvey, could result in significant damage to public health and the local environment," a spokesman for International Paper said in a statement. The other company that is liable is McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corp.
Pruitt gave no ground in a recent interview with The Washington Post. "The [companies] are already barking about it, but they caused it," he said. "We're going to hold them accountable."
Still, Pruitt appears willing to alter Superfund plans to ease the burden on some firms. He is revisiting a decision the EPA finalized just before Barack Obama left office to clean up Portland Harbor in Oregon, which is projected to cost more than $1 billion and take 13 years to complete.
During his first year in office, Pruitt has consistently listed the Superfund program as one of his top priorities, even as he has trimmed agency staff and rolled back a slew of other environmental regulations — and even as the Trump administration has proposed cutting the program's annual budget by 30 percent, or about $330 million.
At many contaminated sites Pruitt has singled out for attention, the EPA can legally force companies responsible for the pollution to pay for cleanups. At "orphan" sites, where the polluters have gone bankrupt, the federal government still shoulders most of the tab. The pot of available dollars keeps shrinking.
"This is about leadership and attitude and actually making decisions on how we're going to remediate these sites," Pruitt told the Post last year. In 2018, he said he hopes to remove as many as 22 sites from the more than 1,300 that remain on that National Priorities List.
Last spring, Pruitt issued a directive saying he planned to be directly involved in decisions about cleanups in excess of $50 million. He also established a Superfund task force to examine how to restructure the program in ways that favor "expeditious remediation," "reduce the burden" on firms responsible for such efforts and "encourage private investment" in the projects.
So far, however, Pruitt has few concrete results to tout.
The EPA this month heralded cleanups at seven toxic waste sites and credited Pruitt's leadership for their removal from the Superfund list. An Associated Press analysis noted the physical work at each was largely completed before President Trump took office.
Such cleanups are frequently massive projects that take decades. Although every administration can shape the outcome at a site, certain legal guidelines must be followed.
Among the nine criteria the EPA has to consider: Will the proposed approach protect human health and the environment? How permanent will the solution be? Will states and communities embrace it? What are the short-term risks?
Unlike with air and water pollution rules, which do not factor cost into the equation, the agency is required to show the proposed action is cost-effective given the public health risk posed under each specific scenario.
Albert "Kell" Kelly, the former Oklahoma banker whom Pruitt put in charge of revamping Superfund, said in an interview that Pruitt does not want "a shortcut of a remedy" with any case. "He wants to be sure that the remedy is a sound remedy for a long, long time."
The agency is laying the groundwork to defend Pruitt's decisions in court, Kelly said, with the administrator "trying to be very judicious in what he does."
Kelly has faced questions about his qualifications for the job, given his lack of environmental experience and his $125,000 fine last year from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The FDIC also banned him from future banking activity.
He declined to elaborate on the FDIC settlement but called it a "highly frustrating" experience "which I could go into in depth, [but] I'm not sure that it's wise to do that."
As for his bona fides, "I never represented that I had an environmental science degree," Kelly noted, saying his main job on Superfund is to "bring parties together" and employ "management skills that, frankly, I've known for a long, long time."
The upcoming decision on West Lake will test not only those skills but also Pruitt's promises.
Both companies now responsible for the Missouri landfill, Republic Services and Exelon Corp., have urged the EPA to avoid widespread excavation that they say could stir up and spread dangerous pollutants. They back a solution similar to a George W. Bush administration plan to cap and monitor the site, which would be several hundred million dollars cheaper. Protracted litigation is likely if the agency rejects that idea.
The local activists who have spent years arguing for tougher action believe they have greater leverage with the Trump EPA.
"I have to give them credit. The experience has been night and day different," Dawn Chapman said. "I don't know what decision [Pruitt] is going to make at this site. But I do know that he will be the one to make it."