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Cleaning Up the Superfund Mess
The Wall Street Journal
June 13, 2017

One cost of making climate change a religion is that more immediate environmental problems have been ignored—not least by the Environmental Protection Agency. New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt plans to address that in an underreported effort to clean up toxic waste sites under the so-called Superfund program.

In a memo to EPA staff last month, Mr. Pruitt announced a plan to reform the Superfund program created in 1980 and to accelerate the clean up of hazardous waste sites such as old industrial properties or landfills. The effort is long overdue. Superfund has too often become a sinecure for the bureaucracy and a cash cow for lawyers. EPA staff offices can wait years or decades to assess a Superfund site, figure out who’s liable for what, consult with the community, decide on a remedy and assign the actual work.

Take the West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, Missouri, which was used for quarrying in the 1930s and later as a landfill. In 1973, 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate from the Manhattan Project was dumped there, along with soil and waste. The EPA listed the 200-acre facility as a Superfund site in 1990.

Yet it took 18 years for EPA to decide how to clean up West Lake, finally settling in 2008 on a “multi-layered engineered cover and a system of new monitoring wells.” In 2009 the Obama EPA ditched that solution and re-opened the file. In 2010 an underground chemical reaction ignited a fire that is still smoldering.

In 2009 the Obama Administration pumped $600 million into the program as part of the stimulus plan. Yet the EPA’s data on “construction completions,” which track Superfund sites that have finished physical construction and dealt with long-term threats, shows a downward trend even as the money flowed in. There were 18 completions in 2010, down from 20 in 2009, and 47 in 2001. In 2016 only 13 sites were completed.

The real obstacle is a combination of bureaucratic inertia and legal or political disputes over who pays what. Washington typically measures success by money spent rather than on results. Yet Superfund ought to be measured by how many sites it cleans up—until it is no longer necessary. The green lobby puts symbolic gestures against climate change above all other priorities, but if Mr. Pruitt can accelerate Superfund cleanup he’ll do far more for the environment.

Read the full editorial here.