A sign warns against playing on the lawn at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Ind. Nearly all residents were ordered to move by the local housing authority after the soil and many homes were found to contain high levels of lead. The area has been declared an EPA Superfund site. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt says he plans to prioritize the agency’s Superfund cleanups, even as the Trump administration seeks deep cuts to the program responsible for restoring the nation’s most polluted sites.

In a memo to EPA staffers this week, Pruitt wrote that Superfund cleanup efforts “will be restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.” He made clear that he would be more involved in signing off on remediation efforts around the country, particularly on the largest cleanups, those estimated to cost $50 million or more.

“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 in a statement Wednesday.

While the memo does not detail any wholesale changes — the head of the EPA has always had ultimate authority over Superfund site decisions — the agency asserted with the statement that until recently “this authority had been delegated many layers into the bureaucracy, resulting in confusion among stakeholders and delayed revitalization efforts. Putting the decision of how to clean up the sites directly into the hands of the administrator will help revitalize contaminated sites faster.”

That remains to be seen, of course.

The EPA’s “National Priorities List” includes more than 1,300 Superfund sites around the country. Cleanups of these polluted locations, which have been paid for largely by polluters, can take years or even decades to complete. Since its creation in 1980, the program has been dogged by criticism for its slow pace, although proponents have argued that inadequate funding has contributed to delays.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget would put a massive dent in that funding for fiscal 2018. It would cut the Superfund program by $330 million a year, nearly a third. The EPA’s budget would be slashed 31 percent.

Pruitt has defended the program even as he and the White House have aggressively sought to role back a slew of other environmental measures put in place by President Barack Obama, particularly those focused on combating climate change and limiting oil and gas drilling on public lands.

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

Like the agency’s brownfields program, which offers grants to communities to help clean up and redevelop abandoned industrial sites, the Superfund program has been considered successful overall and has been popular around the country among lawmakers and their constituents.

Last month, Pruitt toured the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago, Ind., listed as among the nation’s most contaminated. He promised city leaders and residents, whose homes and lives have been upended by a declaration of toxicity at the site, that they had his agency’s full support.

“The reason I’m here is because it’s important that we restore confidence to the people here in this community that we’re going to get it right,” Pruitt said.

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