The Superfund program has long lacked the funding required to remediate the hundreds of languishing sites that continue to endanger communities across the country. Scott Pruitt’s answer to this dilemma? Promoting redevelopment.
At face value, incentivizing the cleanup of contaminated land through redevelopment seems to be a win-win solution that protects human health and revitalizes the economies of local communities. However, there are many reasons to be skeptical of Pruitt’s strategies to achieve this outcome.
On July 25, 2017, the EPA published its most recent Superfund taskforce report. Lois Gibbs, Love Canal community leader and ‘Mother of Superfund’, was concerned by the report’s focus on redevelopment:
“Scott Pruitt’s Superfund Task Force Report almost entirely void of public health concerns. In fact, the report only mentions health six times with four of those in the Executive Summary. The report sounds like a blueprint to involve for bankers, investors and developers and a plan for corporations to reduce cleanup costs and increase profits at the expense of public health. Redevelopment is mentioned 39 times.”
Third party investment in the cleanup and redevelopment of sites brings about a host of liability issues. In many cases, end-users purchase sites without taking on future liability and when Responsible Party cleanup is deemed complete they are often released from liability as well. However, in the cases where containment fails or cleanup later proves ineffective, such properties are left without a liable party, and become orphaned sites which must be remediated with taxpayer money.
Another tool which the EPA plans to use increasingly is environmental liability transfer, in which redevelopers purchase sites and take on the cleanup responsibility. However, this process does not always run smoothly: last june, the company Environmental Liability Transfers Inc. attempted to back out of a remediation agreement by suing the original responsible party. The previous owner, Detrex, denies ELT’s allegations that the company failed to fully disclose the extent of the site contamination:
“There are no takebacks in environmental liability transfer. This move undermines ELT’s core business model and could be a red flag for any deal they’ve done,” said Tom Mark, CEO of Detrex. “ELT was unsuccessful in its attempt to extract itself from its commitments to Detrex and has now resorted to a lawsuit full of restated history and invented facts.”
Pruitt’s prioritization for Superfund redevelopment recently made Bloomberg headlines over news that the EPA’s Superfund special accounts may now be used to persuade companies to buy and clean up contaminated sites. There is about $3.3 billion in EPA’s Superfund site special accounts as of this week, about three times the amount Congress has appropriated to the Superfund program for fiscal year 2018.
If redevelopment becomes the EPA’s new solution to expedite cleanups despite Superfund budget cuts, we have to ask ourselves several questions: How do we ensure robust liability, cleanup standards, community involvement, oversight, and enforcement? Furthermore, how are we going to clean the many sites which lack redevelopment potential, yet pose a dire health risk?
In the end, the only way to both finance the cleanups of orphan sites and decentivize the use of hazardous chemicals which cause Superfund sites in the first place is to reinstate the Polluter’s Pay tax. We need the EPA to fulfill its true mission in protecting human health and the environment, not polluting corporations.