Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt vowed Tuesday to cut through bureaucratic red tape that has slowed the cleanup of toxic Superfund sites and follow a task force’s recommendations to act more boldly in holding companies responsible for past contamination.

Pruitt said the EPA is creating a “top-10 list” of key sites where nearby residents are in harm’s way so that the agency can aggressively address those locations. In recent memos to staff, he said that Superfund cleanup efforts would be “restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission,” that his approach would target sites where decontamination is estimated to cost $50 million or more and that he would be personally involved in trying to fix the problem.

There are 1,300 Superfund sites nationwide, and more than 100 have languished for at least five years with no formal remedy plan. Pruitt declined Tuesday to say which sites might make the list of 10, but in a discussion with reporters at EPA headquarters, he repeatedly referred to a landfill with radioactive waste outside St. Louis, and a public housing complex saturated with lead contamination in East Chicago, Ind.

The West Lake landfill is a particular worry. It has decomposing trash 150 feet underground that is radiating heat in what scientists call “a subsurface burning event.” The smoldering trash is adjacent to a separate 200 acre landfill containing 60 acres of radioactive waste dating to the World War II-era Manhattan Project.

In Indiana, Pruitt said he sat with residents who were moved from their homes in East Chicago for fear of dangerous exposure to the contaminated soil. Their despair “was heartbreaking,” he said. Yet the East Chicago cleanup has dragged on.

“Over a billion dollars have been spent at these sites,” Pruitt said of the efforts nationally. “We need talent, expertise … to make sure we have a detailed plan with a timeline and benchmarks.” That is what’s needed “instead of incrementally dealing with it,” he added.

Pruitt emphasized that the program “is an area of our agency where we are solely responsible. We don’t delegate this to the states. It’s our responsibility to remediate.”

But many critics question his ability to turn around the issues, including regulatory delays and litigation, that have meant lagging progress. The administrator has defended a White House budget proposal that would cut his agency’s funding by 34 percent for fiscal 2018 and would reduce funding for Superfund sites by $330 million annually.

That money is crucial to Superfund’s success going forward. When Congress established the program in 1980, it gave the EPA power to force polluters pay for contamination and created a tax on petroleum companies to fund the complicated cleanups. Those revenue streams, which created billions of dollars, expired 15 years later, and much funding dried up. As it did, the pace of cleanups stalled. The program now gets about $1 billion yearly.

“It’s happy talk,” said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. “They’re going to take 10 sites and try to push them along. What about the other 1,300 sites? The reason they’re not moving is not addressed. We have Superfund sites, but we don’t have a super fund.”

When Congress adequately funded decontamination, she noted, the EPA could clean sites, then legally pursue companies to reimburse the cost. But the government now relies largely on the polluting parties to fund the cleanups, “so we’re dependent on the polluters, and it gives them the ability to manipulate and slow down the process,” according to Loeb.

Pruitt played down the need for funding as he unveiled the task force report and promised to follow its 42 recommendations. He directed EPA officials in the program to take immediate steps to prioritize and take “control over any site where the risk of human exposure is not fully controlled” and to prevent the spread of contamination from sites wherever possible.

He also said officials should target funding for investigations of high-priority sites “that require more immediate attention” and use “enforcement authorities, including unilateral orders” to put pressure on companies that are reluctant to participate in cleanups.

“Our job is to get sites remediated … off the list,” Pruitt said. He praised the career employees who assisted the task force. The group was led by an ex-banker with no environmental experience.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to do something good for the American people,” Pruitt said, particularly those who “look out the window and see something that needs to be fixed.”

The administrator asserted that EPA workers are as enthusiastic as he is. “I know I’m excited. The team is excited,” he said. “It puts a spring in your step. It’s something you can see in real life make a difference.”

Read more:

EPA head says he wants to ‘prioritize’ Superfund cleanups

Life next to a Superfund cleanup site

Scott Pruitt defends massive cuts to his agency