Despite presiding over some of the harshest budget cuts in the Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 spending proposals, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has spoken often of making the cleanup of Superfund sites a priority.
But recent news reports indicate that he actually is considering slicing $20 million that EPA contributes annually toward the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, which prosecutes polluters of the 1,300 Superfund areas.
On Thursday, 10 Democratic senators led by Tom Carper of Delaware wrote to Pruitt accusing him of contradicting his verbal support for Superfund cleanup with not only the planned end of payments to Justice Department prosecutors, but also proposed budget cuts of 24 percent in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, a 44 percent cut in funds to help states assure compliance, and a 30 percent direct cut in the EPA Superfund budget.
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“You have repeatedly asserted your strong support for the clean-up of contaminated Superfund sites, stating that ‘Superfund is an area that is absolutely essential’ and that ‘there is nothing more core to the agency’s mission than revitalizing contaminated land,’ " the senators wrote. “However, the actions proposed in the president’s fiscal year 2018 budget request are not consistent with your stated support.”
The senators warned that such cuts would mean that neither EPA nor state regulators will “be able to adequately fund site clean-ups or enforce clean-up agreements, and DoJ will be unable to prosecute polluters in order to compel clean-ups to be paid for by those who caused the contamination in the first place.”
The senators asked Pruitt to affirm, by Oct. 20, his support for Superfund spending levels consistent with past levels in both the fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 budgets. In addition to Carper, the letter was signed by Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Kamala Harris of California.
Pruitt, who has accused the Obama administration of neglecting Superfund cleanup, also received a critical inspector general’s report this month saying the agency has been devoting “insufficient human resources” in the form of full-time employees to cover all the work in field offices. A survey found that in the past two years, six in 10 regions “have had to slow down or discontinue their efforts to protect human health and the environment,” the Sept. 19 report said.
The priority of Superfund cleanup is expressed currently on EPA’s website, which carries a video showcasing Pruitt meeting with members of EPA's Superfund Taskforce “to discuss revitalizing the program to expedite cleanups and remediation, engaging partners and stakeholders, and promoting redevelopment and community improvement.”
An EPA spokesman told Government Executive on Friday, “EPA will respond through the proper channels.”