In Houston’s Fifth Ward, Concern Over Superfund Site Grows With EPA Budget Cuts

Houston Press
By Dianna Wray
Original article here

Houston-area activists gathered on a street corner in Fifth Ward on Tuesday, just across from the Many Diversified Interests Inc. Superfund site — which is currently under redevelopment after the federal Environmental Protection Agency allowed years to pass without cleaning up the lead-contaminated site — to announce that they are joining organizers from across the country in influencing how the EPA deals with the Superfund program.

The location of the announcement was no accident. Instead of cleaning up MDI — a 35-acre tract of land that was the location of a foundry from 1926 to 1992 that left the the site, along with the groundwater beneath it, laced with lead — the EPA took the site off its priority list in 2010, and allowed a developer to get to work redeveloping it.

Now, as the construction on the site continues, local activists are pointing to the MDI site as an example of what may happen if Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator, follows through on his plan to cut $330 million of the Superfund program’s $1.1. billion budget, a reduction of 30 percent.

“Scott Pruitt’s plan to streamline the Superfund process in favor of cutting costs will lead to incomplete cleanups of contaminated neighborhoods, as demonstrated in the past at sites like MDI in Houston’s 5th Ward,” Rosanne Barone, the Houston program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, said in a statement. “Painted as a quick way to boost economic development, Pruitt’s recommendations are more akin to a fast track to injustice.”

Cutting the Superfund program’s budget may not sound like a big deal, but that’s just because you haven’t been up close and personal, wondering if you are drinking lead-laced groundwater from the MDI site or dealing with any of the toxic sludge leaking out from the San Jacinto Waste Pits or any of the other 13 federally designated Superfund sites in Harris County.

Pruitt has talked a good game since he was confirmed as the Trump administration’s EPA head earlier this year. Pruitt has said that he is intent on focusing on one of the most important missions the EPA is tasked with, cleaning up the toxic, sometimes carcinogenic Superfund sites that dot the landscape of the United States.

In fact, Pruitt has stated that cleaning up Superfund sites would be returned “to their rightful place at the center of the EPA’s core mission.” He even put together a task force last month to get advice on how to handle Superfund, the federal program created more than 30 years ago to fund the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants.

However, it seems Pruitt has been talking through his hat when it comes to the Superfund program, because despite all the promises of a real focus on Superfund sites, the proposed 2018 budget includes those massive cuts to the program’s actual budget.

Local Superfund organizers were wary but hopeful when Pruitt initially supported a focus on the Superfund sites — after all, this is the man who rivaled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for the record of lawsuits filed against the EPA — but when they learned about the budget cuts, they went to work.

So the plan was cooked up to launch the People’s Task Force, an entity aimed at pushing their own recommendations for the Superfund program based on their collective years of boots-on-the-ground experience in dealing with the problems at various sites. Based on the proposed budget cuts, area activists believe that Pruitt will also be inclined to use cost-cutting measures like the ones employed with the MDI site.

“Environmental justice communities have long been forced to contend with the negative impacts of lax environmental clean-up and lax enforcement thereof in communities of color,” Juan Parras, director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, said in a statement. “It is unconscionable that the EPA and TCEQ are comfortable with members of our community being exposed to elevated levels of lead when, as stated by the CDC, any level of lead is unsafe.”

The Reverend James Caldwell also sounded off, pointing to the MDI site as the standard Texans can expect if the Superfund budget is actually cut in 2018. “The MDI site was contaminated with lead, and elevated levels have been identified in the community. This is not only an environmental justice concern but one of public health,” Caldwell stated. “This site was not properly addressed; this is a failure of the EPA, TCEQ and these partnership agreements. This was a cost-saving tactic. We cannot sacrifice our communities or our children. We must take a stand and say enough is enough.”

There’s no telling if Pruitt or anyone else in the EPA will actually take any of the advice the People’s Task Force comes up with, but at least if the EPA decides to sell the San Jacinto Waste Pits, for example, instead of going through the costly planned cleanup, nobody in the agency will be able to say that he was not warned that kind of approach could be a bad idea.

Clarification, August 3: Local activists are concerned about the groundwater below and around the MDI Site, which the EPA has continued to monitor, not necessarily the site itself.

Pruitt to Tap Private Sector to Hasten Superfund Cleanups

Bloomberg News
By Sylvia Carignan
Original article here

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is embracing public-private partnerships and setting aggressive agency deadlines to move languishing Superfund site cleanups forward.

The administrative overhaul opens up opportunities for private parties to take on Superfund cleanups and for the Environmental Protection Agency to more quickly get contaminated sites off its National Priorities List.

Pruitt’s Task Force

Pruitt’s Superfund task force—called together in May—focused on changes that could be made to the Superfund program outside of legislation. The task force’s recommendations were built into a plan with deadlines for the agency. The plan, recommendations,, and a memo from the administrator to regional offices were released July 25.

The task force’s recommendations describe administrative changes to accelerate cleanup, especially for sites that have been on the the National Priorities List for years. As of June 21, there were 1,336 sites on the list, of which 1,179 are private sites and 157 are federal facilities, according to the EPA.

“This is truly about us identifying what proper remediation means,” Pruitt said at a media roundtable July 25.

But environmentalists and other groups say he’s leaving out people most affected by cleanup decisions—local residents.

Rosanne Barone, Houston program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, worries that Pruitt’s emphasis on getting sites off the National Priorities List faster will lead to decisions that compromise public health. “He’s completely leaving out the people who are living in these communities, who are the real stakeholders,” she said.

Addressing Liability

Lenny Siegel, executive director for the Center for Public Environmental Oversight in California, favors the recommendations, but worried about their implementation. “Their application may have a negative effect if budget and staffing are cut by a third,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

The recommendations are “consistent with this administration’s goals to engage the private sector, and thereby shift some of the cost and burden away from the federal government,” said Peter Hsiao, a partner at Morrison Foerster.

The recommendations offer some of the financial risk to third parties—such as nonprofit organizations or land banks—which are not potentially responsible for contamination but sometimes offer to assist with funding cleanup. “The problem is going to be finding somebody who wants the liability,” Hsiao said.

The agency will also focus on communicating with potentially responsible parties who have already been identified for particular sites. They also will create a work group to review existing state programs and identify opportunities for parties to perform specific tasks at waste sites.

Superfund sites that have spent years without a cleanup decision—but have identified responsible parties—may see positive change as a result of the agency’s new Superfund plan, Pruitt said. “If you’re a [potentially responsible party] and you’re in that situation, guess what? We’re going to be talking to you very soon,” he said.

Recommended Changes

The task force, which involved more than 80 members, issued 42 recommendations. Their recommendations became part of EPA’s new Superfund plan, released July 25.

The changes the agency will make to the Superfund program have deadlines ranging from the last quarter of fiscal year 2017 to the last quarter of fiscal year 2018.

The recommendations include:

  • Directing resources toward sites that have been on the National Priorities List for five years or longer where little progress has been made,
  • Prioritizing Superfund sites where remedies have already been selected,
  • Pushing potentially responsible parties and agency personnel to adhere to project deadlines,
  • Identifying sites where land can be re-used in order to promote third party investments, and
  • Using the Superfund alternative approach to finance site cleanups.

The Superfund alternative approach involves the same site investigation process, but avoids adding the site to the National Priorities List. For some companies and communities, becoming involved with a listed site carries a stigma.

Hsiao told Bloomberg BNA that those involved with Superfund in the private sector have been expecting some of these changes, including an emphasis on third-party investments, for some time.

“I think most sophisticated practitioners believe that the process could be improved substantially, and many of these recommendations, I think, follow the ways people think the process could be improved,” he said.

Bart Seitz, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker Botts LLP, said it’s “laudable” to see the agency embarking on this plan, but says it’s still early in its development.

“As the saying goes, ‘The devil will be in the details,’ as this gets rolled out,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Members of Fifth Ward community protest budget cuts to superfund site

CW39 Houston
By G. Trudeau
Original article here

HOUSTON – In Houston’s historic Fifth Ward, neighbors worry that politics and profits are taking priority over cleaning up their community.

“We’re boxed in with toxic hazards, and that is unacceptable,” says Joetta Stevenson with the Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood Civic Club. “To prioritize quick development over the full cleanup of a contaminated neighborhood is not just only gentrification at its worst, it’s environmental racism.”

The M.D.I. Superfund site is a 35-acre tract of land contaminated from a foundry that went bankrupt in 1992.

“A history of contamination with lead followed this entire community starting with the relocation of Bruce Elementary where every single child in the elementary school had elevated levels of lead,” says Yvette Arellano with the environmental group T.E.J.A.S.

And just because you don’t call the downtown area home, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be concerned.

“In this case we’re talking about soil, we’re talking about a city that when it rains, water stands, or it flows,” says Stevenson.

The community rejects the Trump administration’s proposed budget that cuts superfund money by 30%.

Demonstrators also reject recommendations from the task force set up by the new EPA Chief, Scott Pruitt.

“These recommendations encourage private investment in the site cleanups that allow quick inadequate remediation. This site here is not fully cleaned up, with the evaluation process near complete and once completed, it will be deleted from the list of EPA’s national priorities,” explains Rosanne Barone with the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

They also fear a developer that purchased the land wants to build luxury condominiums A.S.A.P. Development, they say, will skimp on cleanup, and price them out of their homes.

Folks here cite that as recently at 2016, 3% of children in the area, 15 and under, were still testing above the acceptable level of lead in their system.

Washington, D.C. decisions hitting home, and for H-town, a community resisting profits over progress.

EPA Announces Superfund Task Force Recommendations

Recommendations to Streamline and Improve the Superfund Program

WASHINGTON — Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Task Force released their report to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, providing 42 specific and detailed recommendations to streamline and improve the Superfund program.  Administrator Pruitt also signed a directive to leaders across the Agency of 11 specific actions that should be implemented right away, with renewed focus, including identification, within 60 days, of the sites where the risk of human exposure is not fully controlled.

“There is nothing more core to the Agency’s mission than revitalizing contaminated land,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “I commend the team effort of the career and political staff on the Task Force, working together to develop recommendations that are detailed, but also workable – to ensure that we can expedite the protection of human health and the environment around these properties and accelerate the reuse. I look forward to leading this team toward full implementation of these recommendations.”

“Being on this Task Force was a great opportunity to identify legitimate impediments that prevent expeditious cleanup of Superfund Sites and working to address those issues,” said Karen Melvin, EPA Region 3 Director, Hazardous Site Cleanup Division.

Established by Congress in 1980, the Superfund Program governs the investigation and cleanup of the nation’s most complex hazardous waste sites in order to convert those sites into community resources. The National Priorities List (NPL) came into existence in 1983. It includes those sites that are of national priority among the known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants throughout the United States. Each year, sites are listed and delisted based on criteria in EPA’s regulations. As of June 21, 2017, there are 1,336 sites on the NPL, of which 1,179 are privately owned sites and 157 are federal facilities. Sites on the NPL are in various stages of completion and much work still remains. The recommendations of the Superfund Task Force, when implemented, will improve and expedite the process of site remediation and promote reuse.

The Superfund Task Force, chaired by Albert Kelly, senior advisor to the administrator, was commissioned on May 22, 2017, and includes leaders from EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, Office of General Counsel, EPA Region 3 (as the lead region for the Superfund program), as well as other offices.

The 42 Superfund Task Force recommendations are organized into five goals:

  • Expediting Cleanup and Remediation;
  • Re-invigorating Responsible Party Cleanup and Reuse;
  • Encouraging Private Investment;
  • Promoting Redevelopment and Community Revitalization; and
  • Engaging Partners and Stakeholders

Each goal in the Task Force report is accompanied by a set of strategies that include specific actions which are planned to commence within twelve months.

A copy of the directive that the Administrator signed today of the 11 specific actions that leaders across the Agency should implement immediately can be found:

To view the complete set of Superfund Task Force recommendations, please visit

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signs directive to leaders across the Agency
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signs directive to leaders across the Agency of 11 specific actions that should be implemented right away

For more information about the Superfund program, please visit

One Bin for All is dead. So how should Houston handle its trash?

Houston Chronicle Op-Ed
By Rosanne Barone

It’s unfortunate that the recent discussions in City Hall regarding Houston’s plan to sign a long-term recycling contract have been clouded by the ghost of One Bin for All.

That idea would have made Houstonians combine all their discards into one bin. It was adamantly rejected by the recycling industry, environmental justice advocates and many others.

The national Paper Recycling Coalition, Steel Recycling Institute, Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries and others knew that when used materials, food and pet waste are all combined together, it is also known as another name — “trash” — and so they wrote letters to then-Mayor Annise Parker advising her against this policy.

Thankfully, when Mayor Turner took office in 2016, he knew the best practice for Houston is to keep recyclable materials separate and clean so they can be sold to commodity markets and generate revenue for the City.

Turner himself reminded us at a press conference on June 28 that he has no interest in bringing back a proposal that would reverse Houston’s progress on sustainability, so let’s drop it.

Instead, let’s talk about the guaranteed economic opportunities and environmental protections that are now on the horizon as the city works to improve curbside recycling. According to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, when we include composters, hard-plastics reclaimers, electronics processors, construction- and demolition-debris recyclers and manufacturers of goods made from recycled items, we have 21,550 recycling jobs in our region and an industrial output of $4.5 billion per year.

Who knew recycling was so vital for Houston’s economy? Additionally, throwing all discards into landfills supports a disposable, wasteful culture while doing real damage to our environment. There are 56 leaking landfills in the state of Texas, four in Harris County and one in Fort Bend County. Landfills are also more often than not located in low-income neighborhoods, so trashing valuable materials also perpetuates environmental injustice.

Houston should instead follow other U.S. cities committed to sustainability by developing a zero-waste plan. Out of the nation’s 10 largest cities, Houston is the only one lacking a zero-waste plan, or at least a plan to get closer to it, like in San Antonio.

For many cities, zero waste means more than 90 percent of materials will be diverted from landfills through recycling, composting and reuse.

That sounds like a big goal, but it’s also a process that we can take time one step at a time. Like any plan for successful progress, there should be measurable benchmarks to help us get where we need to be.

For example, some cities focus on launching composting pilot programs within a few years, while others aim to offer recycling at all multifamily housing, including offering training to residents. Houston is unique, and we can create our own individualized plan.

My number one recommendation to start is to expand recycling to apartments. When I mentioned to City Council recently that 40 percent of Houston residents live in apartments and have no way to recycle other than collecting materials in their own personal bins and bringing them to a recycling facility themselves, some council members recognized this as an urgent problem.

Another immediate step would be to provide recycling to businesses and commercial industries in Houston, accounting for a huge amount of waste produced by people at work.

And a pilot program for curbside composting would be a huge way to reduce organic matter in landfills which contributes significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases.

The City must lead by example, and should start by offering recycling in all public buildings, outdoor recreation spaces and on public transportation. In many cities with a zero-waste goal, the city offers recycling training and education to residents. The more the public feels involved in the process, the more likely they are to participate.

An improved recycling system for Houston isn’t just about catching up to other cities or becoming a global leader. It’s about responsibly reusing our resources to create jobs and improve not just some communities, but to provide recycling for all.

Rosanne Barone is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment.