EPA chief vows to speed the nation’s Superfund cleanups; communities wonder how

The Washington Post
By Brady Dennis
Original article here

BRIDGETON, Mo. – Dawn Chapman had listened with surprise and skepticism as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency vowed to clean up West Lake, the nuclear waste dump that has filled her days and nights with worry.

“The past administration honestly just didn’t pay attention to [it],” Scott Pruitt stressed on a local radio show in April. “We’re going to get things done at West Lake. The days of talking are over.”

The next month, Pruitt took to television to say a plan for the site was coming “very soon” as part of his push to prioritize Superfund cleanups across the country. “It’s not a matter of money,” he said. “It’s a matter of leadership and attitude and management.”

A view of the West Lake Superfund site northwest of St. Louis. Photo: Washington Post Photo By Linda Davidson / The Washington Post

On a blue-sky afternoon, Chapman sat in her small home in this leafy St. Louis suburb and mulled the latest set of promises from Washington – this time from a man known more for suing the EPA and rolling back environmental regulations than for cracking down on pollution.

“Why our site? Why now? Can he keep those promises?” the mother of three wondered. Her family lives only a couple of miles from West Lake, a contaminated landfill that contains thousands of tons of waste from the World War II-era Manhattan Project. “My biggest fear is he’s just going to put a Band-Aid on it.”

In Bridgeton and elsewhere, others are asking similar questions with various degrees of hope and hesitation. In his previous role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt had long-standing ties to oil and gas companies and a litigious history fighting the EPA. And although he has called the federal Superfund program “vital” and a “cornerstone” of the EPA’s mission, the Trump administration has proposed slashing its funding by 30 percent.

With more than 1,300 Superfund sites nationwide – some of which have lingered for decades on the EPA’s ever-growing “priorities list” – it’s unclear how Pruitt will back up his professed commitment in an age of scorched-earth budgets. Critics worry that a single-minded focus on speeding up the process could lead to inadequate cleanups.

Pruitt has largely dismissed such issues. He argues that the program is beset more by bloated administrative costs and a shortage of initiative than by budget woes and notes that, at most sites, “private funding” is available from companies deemed responsible for cleanups.

“This agency has not responded to Superfund with the type of urgency and commitment that the people of this country deserve,” Pruitt reiterated Wednesday – days before a contingent from Bridgeton would arrive in Washington, D.C., in hopes of meeting with him. He said he understands communities’ distrust, not just about West Lake but many sites. “I’m very sensitive and sympathetic to what their concerns are,” he said. “This agency has failed them. … They have a right to be skeptical.”

That they are. Residents in the shadow of Superfund sites remain wary of his pronouncements.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said BrieAnn McCormick, whose neighborhood is closest to West Lake.

Families here have long lived with the reality of the site, which got its Superfund designation in 1990. The 200 acres include not just the radioactive waste that was illegally dumped in 1973, but also an adjacent landfill where decomposing trash as deep as 150 feet is smoldering in what scientists call a “subsurface burning event.” The fire is now about 600 feet from that other waste.

West Lake has made Bridgeton the kind of place where some parents drive their children to playgrounds far from the landfill. Where some people keep homemade kits in their cars – face masks for days the stench hits, eyedrops for irritation, Tylenol for headaches. Where others trade stories of cancers, autoimmune diseases and miscarriages they’re scared could be related to the Superfund site, although air, water and soil tests from the EPA and other government agencies have shown no link.

Activists fault the EPA for moving at a glacial pace. They accuse Republic Services, which took ownership of the landfill in 2008, of trying to avoid full-fledged cleanup.

Similar dynamics are playing out at many Superfund sites, where abandoned mines, contaminated rivers and manufacturing plants have left behind a daunting trail of lead, arsenic, mercury and other harmful substances. Some “mega sites” involve tracing hundreds of chemicals and scores of polluters.

Pruitt recently issued a directive saying that he plans to be more directly involved in decisions about Superfund cleanups, particularly ones in excess of $50 million. He established a Superfund task force, which is expected to report back this week on how to restructure the program in ways that favor “expeditious remediation,” “reduce the burden” on firms responsible for cleanups and “encourage private investment” in the program.

“If this were some other world, it might be easy to believe they are trying to move things faster and in the right way,” said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. “I don’t want to say the Obama administration did a great job on Superfund; they didn’t. … But I fear [this administration] cutting its budget and giving access to the administrator for all big companies who want to come and talk is a death knell for meaningful cleanups.”

When Congress established the Superfund program in 1980, lawmakers gave the EPA legal powers to force polluters to pay to fix the messes they had created. They also created a tax on the petroleum and chemical industries to offset expensive, complicated cleanups when a polluting company had gone bankrupt or could not be identified.

The tax generated billions of dollars for cleanups. But Congress allowed it to expire in 1995, and by 2003 the industry-funded trust fund was essentially broke. Lawmakers have chipped away at Superfund’s budget since. The program gets about $1.1 billion a year, about half what it did in 1999.

As funding dwindled throughout the 2000s, the pace of cleanups also declined. Trump has proposed to slash $330 million more from the program annually.

“Either cut the budget or make things go better for Superfund. Pick one. You can’t do both,” said Peter deFur, who has consulted on Superfund sites for more than two decades.

He and other experts acknowledge the agency hasn’t always moved quickly enough. But they are concerned Pruitt’s focus on accelerating cleanups might lead to simplistic solutions that leave lingering environmental risks to nearby communities, which disproportionately are poor and minority.

“The cheapest and quickest option is not always the best,” deFur said. “It’s dangerous to not get it right the first time.”

Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the program throughout the Obama administration, was troubled by the language Pruitt used in setting up the Superfund task force – a group led by a former Oklahoma banker whose résumé includes no environmental experience.

“Nothing in his charge . . . talks about the public health dimension,” Stanislaus said. “That, from my perspective, is revealing.”

Pruitt insists that letting polluted sites “just languish” does nothing to protect public health.

“Listen, these [responsible companies] across the country are going to be held accountable,” he said Wednesday. “They’re going to get these areas cleaned up, or they are going to be sued by this agency.”

Despite West Lake’s complex challenges, the long-awaited cleanup could move forward relatively soon. For one, there are viable parties on the hook to pay the costs. (Republic Services is one of three “potentially responsible parties” that would shoulder the remediation.) And with the EPA’s site investigation largely complete, officials already planned to make a final decision this year on how cleanup would proceed, according to former regional administrator Mark Hague.

“My goal was to get this decision done and done right with solid science and engineering behind it,” Hague said. “This is not a place to take shortcuts. . . . At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to tell people that what we’ve done will be protective of human health and the environment.”

Although some nearby residents have pushed for a full removal of the radioactive material, a solution that could cost in excess of $400 million, Republic Services has maintained that “capping” the site with layers of rock, clay and soil would be sufficient and would avoid the risks associated with disturbing the nuclear waste. Its approach would cost closer to $50 million.

Company spokesman Russ Knocke said claims about health dangers are unfounded and unnecessarily divisive. “There’s too much fearmongering. There’s too much misinformation, and at some point science has to carry the day,” he said. “The landfill is safe, it is in a managed state, and accusations of the contrary are simply false.”

There is one thing the company and activists agree when it comes to a cleanup, however. “It’s taken too long,” Knocke said. “We certainly welcome the priority the new administrator is placing on the site.”

Yet even with Pruitt’s renewed “sense of urgency,” tapping private dollars is not an option at some Superfund locations. 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.

Funding is what’s needed in St. Louis, Michigan, a small town that was once a hub for DDT manufacturing. The site of the former Velsicol Chemical Corp. there remains among the most contaminated anywhere. Nearly 40 years after the plant’s closure, robins still sometimes drop dead from the sky after having eaten tainted worms from the soil.

“We are just waiting for money from EPA,” said Jane Keon, who helped found a local citizen’s task force. The group saw an opportunity after Pruitt vowed to prioritize the Superfund program.

“We request that you consider funding our site as an excellent public relations example,” it wrote him in a letter. “All we need now to get underway is several million dollars. … If you can get those dollars to us, [remediation] work can begin at once, and you would have an example to point to.”

In and around Bridgeton, the waiting also continues. People like Meagan Beckermann, pregnant with her third child, weigh whether to leave or stay.

“For us, it’s constantly what if,” she said.

On that sunny afternoon this month, Dawn Chapman stopped to visit Karen Nickel, who for years had no idea she was raising her four children down the road from a Superfund site.

The pair co-founded Just Moms, a group advocating to clean up West Lake or relocate families living close by. As they sat at Nickel’s kitchen table, they fretted that Pruitt might indeed allow the radioactive waste to be capped in place rather than removed – a solution the EPA had proposed almost a decade ago before reconsidering.

“It’s got to be done the right way,” Chapman said, as Nickel nodded in agreement. “There’s no Harry Potter wand here.”

Not far away in Spanish Village, the small development closer to West Lake than any other, McCormick stood on her front porch, gazing out toward the playground her children never visit. The neighborhood seemed so normal, with its freshly mowed lawns and tidy sidewalks. Balloons fluttered from a nearby house, celebrating a new baby’s arrival.

McCormick, a teacher, is tired of worrying about the nuclear waste just over the hill. She and her husband recently decided they no longer will depend on Pruitt or anyone else to finally act.

“I’m meeting with a Realtor this afternoon,” she said. “It bothers me, the idea of selling this to someone else. But I just have to get my kids out of here.”

A few days later, a sign showed up in her yard. An open house was held Sunday.

Standing Up for Sludge Standards, Answering Attacks

On June 14, 2017 the City of Austin’s Water and Wastewater Commission passed a resolution attacking the Zero Waste Advisory Commission (ZWAC). In our view, ZWAC built upon the work of the Joint Committee on Bio-Solids Management and improved public oversight on a costly, environmentally sensitive program. Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) does not support this resolution and urges our supporters to take action in favor of public oversight and environmental protection.

You can send a message to the Mayor and your City Councilmember in support of stronger standards here.


In July 2016 TCE learned that the Water and Wastewater Commission was set to approve a contract of up to $20 million that would essentially privatize Austin Water Utility’s biosolids management program, including the production of Austin’s famous Dillo Dirt brand of biosolids compost.

Biosolids are also sometimes called sewage sludge.  After human wastes and other materials  are flushed down all our drains, they are treated and the water is removed leaving the biosolids. TCE has become active in the last year or two in fighting proposals to dump this sludge onto agricultural land as fertilizer. Instead we support composting this material.

This $20 million contract was with a company called Synagro, whom we have now worked with through this process but at the time we were very concerned about environmental challenges to their practices in other communities. Furthermore, this privatization represented to us a major change in policy—the transfer of a public program to an out-of-state corporation—and to make matters worse Austin Water Utility claimed that all of the plans for this program were confidential and refused to answer our questions about Synagro’s intentions.

Essentially Austin Water asked for a $20 million blank check made out to a company with an imperfect environmental record so that they could privatize an iconic City program with zero details as to their plans.

In July 2016, the Water and Wastewater Commission approved this contract with only one vote in opposition. The Austin City Council responded by postponing their approval and directing the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Zero Waste Advisory Commission (ZWAC) to create a Joint Committee on Biosolids Management to examine policy options and make recommendations to Council. After a short and intense work process, the Joint Committee issued a recommendation in October 2016.

The Water and Wastewater Commission endorsed this policy with a unanimous vote with no amendments. ZWAC commissioners who were not on the Committee had additional suggestions for ensuring that the policies did the most to protect the environment and public interest. Commissioners are responsible to the people of Austin, not working groups or committees—ZWAC commissioners took this obligation seriously.

Austin Water Utility staff—used to minimal oversight from commissioners—have expressed opposition to the ZWAC protections at a subsequent City Council committee stakeholder meeting in May 2017. Unfortunately on June 14, 2017, Austin Water and Wastewater Commission passed a resolutionwith  false and misleading claims about the ZWAC amendments.

We need better public oversight, and we need accountability for how OUR money is spent. We need the best possible protections for our environment and health—especially when there is a risk of human wastes being disposed carelessly—tell your Councilmember right now!

Compare the Policies

The ZWAC changes protect the environment and public interest while allowing for flexibility and innovation. Don’t take our word for it—you can see the Water and Wastewater Commission version of the policies here, and the Zero Waste Advisory Commission version here.

This is a pretty obscure topic, and a lot of folks don’t want to think about what happens to the stuff we flush, but the differences are clear.

  • Require a specific definition for “compost.” TCE and others have been concerned that some sludge is not being treated enough to actually be turned into compost, but it’s being called “compost” anyways. All parties want to compost all material; ZWAC simply wants to ensure that we all have a common standard for what “compost” means that prevents lower quality material from being dumped on land near you.
  • Make sure testing is independent and accountable. The definition that Synagro and others would use requires sample tests on a regular basis, and allowing a private company to sample their own product leaves the door open to abuse—it’s self-regulation. The ZWAC recommends that either a City employee or a third party conduct these tests instead. Abuse still might happen, but we can more easily hold them accountable when it is uncovered.
  • Use best practices for keeping plastic pollution off the land. These biosolids have LOTS of trash and other debris mixed in. Insufficient screening means plastic pollution getting tilled into the soil, or even delivered to your garden. All parties want to keep those materials out of the final product, ZWAC simply insists that the best practices be used for this so that the screening is as thorough as possible—namely the use of screens small enough to capture this waste.
  • Prevent indefinite “emergencies” that harm the environment. If things go wrong in the composting process, the vendors have the power to shift back to “land application” on an emergency basis. History has shown that sometimes companies or governments can use “emergencies” to allow abuses on a long-term basis. ZWAC insists that any “emergency” declaration outline the plan for returning to normal operations.
  • Commission review of pest and odor policies. All parties want the City to set policies to keep odors and pests—like insects, rats, and feral hogs—to a minimum. ZWAC simply wants a specific timeframe—90 days–for these policies to be adopted so that they don’t drop through the cracks and the chance for the public to see how their health and quality of life are being protected.
  • Protect the Dillo Dirt brand. Austin was one of the first cities in the world to compost our biosolids, and our Dillo Dirt brand compost has set a high standard for this product. If another company is going to market materials under this name, they need to meet the same standards, and ZWAC makes that clear.
  • Keep toxic bulking agents out of our compost. One exciting feature of the new biosolids compost program is that it will use waste lumber from construction and demolition projects for some of the “bulking agents” that turn the sludge into compost—keeping these materials out of our landfills. ZWAC wanted to make it clear that toxic materials like asbestos and painted or treated lumber are not included in this process.
  • Let ZWAC and other commissions review pertinent contracts. City commissions ensure that the public is represented in the policy process and makes contracts subject to public scrutiny. This saves money and protects our health, welfare, and environment. ZWAC wants sludge contracts reviewed by that commission and others to make sure we are safe with these risky materials.

Responding to Water and Wastewater’s Attacks

As you can see from a simple comparison of these policies, there should be no reason for serious or principled conflict between these commissions. ZWAC suggested improvements, but for whatever reason Water and Wastewater Commissioners not only disagreed with these suggestions, but also passed a resolution attacking ZWAC—you can see the document here.

A lot of the Commission’s concerns were addressed above, but here’s TCE’s response to the other relevant points made by that commission.

“Authoritarianism…” This claim is an attack on the character of ZWAC commissioners, an unprecedented and very irregular act for another commission to take. The idea that volunteer citizens can be authoritarian with regard to the government indicates either a misunderstanding of the term or a conception that puts the prerogatives of the state over those of citizens. Either way it is a reckless claim to make, one that threatens to derail the entire policy process on this question.

“One side’s objectives… May not be in the best interests of all stakeholders.” This statement assumes that there are distinct objectives and interests for the two commissions, though both are supposed to be committed to the same things—the public interest and environment. There is not a single ZWAC amendment that serves any interest other than greater oversight, improved accountability, and increased environmental protection. If these are their objectives and interests what are the Water and Wastewater Commission’s?

“Prevent the highest and best use of the biosolids commodity and limit it to a market of compost that is not currently sustainable.” This claim is absolutely false. In both documents point number one expresses a desire to “strive” to make compost with our biosolids—a verb that leaves room for other processes. Both include an identical hierarchy graphic that clearly leaves room for other processes (you can see it at the top of either the Water and Wastewater Commission recommendations or the ZWAC recommendations). And both documents have an identical point number 9 that encourages the department to “vet and pilot new technologies and management strategies.” Any party that claims that the ZWAC document precludes any other techniques besides composting either hasn’t read the document or is willfully misrepresenting what it says.

And as for the claim that compost marketing is unsustainable, Synagro and other vendors in this market have repeatedly claimed throughout this process that they can market 100% of Austin’s biosolids as compost. This is good news for rural Texans tired of land application in their communities.

“Mandate excessive testing methods which would delay the production of the commodity and increase production costs.” Whatever process is ultimately approved, the plan is to operate it at the City’s Hornsby Bend Wastewater treatment plant in conjunction with City staff. Samples will have to be taken in any case to meet the “Seal of Testing Assurance” (STA) standards supported by both sets of recommendations. If City employees are there, if samples have to be taken, and if the policy to have only City employees take the samples how does this raise costs? A third party might cost a small amount, but in a $20 million contract these costs are minimal.  This claim strikes us as an attempt to find something else to be “concerned” about in a document that has nothing to worry about in it.

 “Allow for third party review of proprietary information included in competitive bids which is not proper etiquette.” It is deeply concerning that any City commission or other body charged with oversight for the public would prioritize “etiquette” over thorough scrutiny of how ratepayers and taxpayers money is being spent. Contracts are reviewed by the public and Council prior to approval in San Antonio and Dallas, among many other cities—why not in Austin?


Take Action!

We need the Austin City Council to prioritize environmental protection, oversight, and the public interest in this and all City business. Tell Mayor Steve Adler and your City Councilmember to adopt the strongest possible policy—the ZWAC biosolids policy—right now!

Thanks for your support, always, and stay tuned on this important issue!

Developing leaders to change the world

TCE Blog
by Robin Schneider, Executive Director

When one of our canvassers knocks on your door, they are there to represent an issue of critical importance to protecting clean air, water, and land in the great state of Texas. They are also a walking, talking embodiment of one of our core values at Texas Campaign for the Environment: developing service-oriented leadership by training skilled activists to change our democracy, and our communities, one person at a time.

So we are proud to see our activists whose skills we have developed take great strides in their careers to transform policy for a healthier, more just world.

Melanie Scruggs served as the Houston Program Director for more three years. She started with TCE as a canvasser in our Austin field office and moved to Houston, where she is originally from, to become a leading expert and advocate for recycling and Zero Waste. As an organizer deeply embedded in Houston’s environmental community, she served as an ally to local environmental justice groups and strengthened TCE’s relationships in coalitions we work with across the country.

Melanie has recently left to attend the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs Global Policy Studies masters’ degree program in the fall. We are proud knowing that Texas Campaign for the Environment has been the launching pad for her career in public policy.

“Working with Texas Campaign for the Environment has been the best experience in my life thus far. I walked through the door in 2012 considering myself an activist, but didn’t know how to transform my ideals into change,” Melanie says. “Four years later, I have gained invaluable organizing skills and knowledge to make a difference in Texas and the world, and I plan to do just that.”

TCE has hired Rosanne Barone as our new Houston Program Director.  She has already begun to make an impact at TCE and we know she will do a fantastic job empowering and growing the environmental community in the Greater Houston area and beyond. Please contact Rosanne anytime by calling our Houston office at 713-337-4192 or sending her an email at rosanne(at)texasenvironment.org. She has excellent experience in organizing for renewable energy investment and civic engagement on college campuses from her work with NYPIRG in New York City. We are lucky to have her!

Texas’ environmental movement is growing and changing for the better. Our job is to keep that momentum going, recruit and train new leaders for that movement, and get results. We are committed to providing career opportunities for people interested in making a difference, who care about sustainability, climate change, and social justice. For folks getting in at the ground level of their organizing career, you can read about and apply for our community organizing positions we have available here.