“By elevating these sites, we are sending a message that EPA is, in fact, restoring its Superfund program to its rightful place at the center of the agency’s mission,” Pruitt said in a statement. “Getting toxic land sites cleaned up and revitalized is of the utmost importance to the communities across the country that are affected by these sites.”
The EPA said that it developed the list using sites “where opportunities exist to act quickly and comprehensively.” Notably, the agency also acknowledged that “there is no commitment of additional funding associated with a site’s inclusion on the list.”
David Konisky, a political scientist at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, questioned how EPA put together the list of sites it released Friday.
“I do find the rationale for inclusion on the list to be strange,” Konisky, who has written extensively about the Superfund program, said in an email. “The EPA selected sites based on the ability of the Administrator to help achieve an upcoming milestone or site-specific action. This strikes me as mostly about creating a credit-claiming opportunity for Pruitt, rather than prioritizing additional resources to sites where communities face the most significant health risks.”
There are more than 1,300 Superfund sites nationwide, some of which have lingered for years on the EPA’s “national priorities list.” While Pruitt has repeatedly spoken about his focus on the program, calling it “vital” and a “cornerstone” of the EPA’s mission, critics have noted that the Trump administration has proposed slashing the Superfund budget by 30 percent. They also worry that a single-minded focus on speeding up the process at particular sites could result in inadequate cleanups.
Activists Dawn Chapman, left, and Karen Nickel wear protective masks at the Superfund site near their homes in Bridgeton, Mo. Known as the West Lake Landfill, it includes underground waste that has been smoldering for years adjacent to nuclear waste from the World War II-era Manhattan Project. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Life next to a Superfund cleanup site
“It’s happy talk,” Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told The Washington Post in the summer, noting how funding for the program has shrunk over time. “We have Superfund sites, but we don’t have a super fund.”
At many contaminated sites across the country, the EPA can legally force companies responsible for the pollution to pay for cleanups. But tapping private dollars isn’t an option at some Superfund sites. At these “orphaned” sites, polluting companies long ago went bankrupt or ceased to be liable, and the cleanup responsibilities now fall mostly to the federal government. It’s difficult to envision such places getting fixed without an adequate Superfund budget.
“If we feel like the numbers of the budget are not sufficient to address those, we’ll be sure to let Congress know,” Pruitt said in an interview with The Post in the spring, echoing an answer he gave during a hearing this week to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Early in his tenure at EPA, Pruitt created a Superfund “task force” to come up with ways to expedite cleanups and redevelop sites across the country. He also announced that he personally would be involved in decisions around sites where decontamination is estimated to cost $50 million or more.
The West Lake landfill 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.
Pruitt visited the Indiana site earlier this year, where residents have been moved from their homes for fear of dangerous exposure to the contaminated soil.
“Over a billion dollars have been spent at these sites,” Pruitt told reporters this summer. “We need talent, expertise … to make sure we have a detailed plan with a timeline and benchmarks.” That is what’s needed, he added at the time, “instead of incrementally dealing with it.”