Residents of Hoosick Falls, New York, recently took comfort in EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s announcements that the agency will be prioritizing the Superfund program. This small village northeast of Albany is one of eight sites the EPA last year proposed adding to the National Priorities List, as the list of polluted sites covered by the Superfund is known, because the community’s drinking water had elevated levels of PFOA, which has been associated with kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and thyroid disease, among other health problems.
Since the contamination was discovered in 2014, “there’s been a lot of fear,” said Rob Allen, the mayor of Hoosick Falls. Testing has shown many people in Hoosick Falls, including Allen’s four children, have elevated levels of PFOA in their blood. Allen and others in the town are still awaiting the official Superfund designation, which they hope will help speed the process of cleaning up the pollution and securing a new water source. “We need all the help we can get,” he explained.
Since 1980, Superfund has been the federal government’s answer to the worst cases of toxic pollution. The program assesses giant environmental messes, ranks them according to the hazard they pose to the environment or human health, and if they’re dangerous enough, adds them to the list and arranges to clean them up. At its best, Superfund removes environmental pollution so sites can be used again and measurably alleviates health dangers. According to one 2011 study published in the American Economic Review, babies living near Superfund sites that had yet to be remediated had a 20 to 25 percent increased rate of birth defects. After the cleanups, the rates of birth defects dropped.
But Superfund’s progress has slowed to a near halt in recent years, in part due to a lack of funding. A tax on polluting industries originally paid into a fund for the cleanups (hence the name Superfund) expired in 1995, leaving regular taxpayers to pick up the tab when the government can’t identify a polluter — or when a polluter doesn’t have enough money to pay.
Since then, as fewer cleanups have been completed, the number of people exposed to dangerous pollution has climbed. In 2010, there were 75 Superfund sites where the government had yet to bring toxic exposure to humans under control. By last year, that number was up to 121, according to the most recent EPA data.
Pruitt announced his plans to emphasize Superfund on a visit to a lead-contaminated public housing site in Indiana in April. On May 22, he reiterated his commitment to the program by announcing a new Superfund Task Force, which will “provide recommendations on how the EPA can streamline and improve the Superfund program.” In an accompanying memo, the EPA administrator once again promised to restore Superfund and the EPA’s land and water cleanup efforts “to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.”
But Pruitt’s pledges to protect human health and the environment by focusing on Superfund are belied by his own priorities and personnel choices for the program. One of the administrator’s stated goals for Superfund, to reduce “the administrative and overhead costs and burdens borne by parties remediating contaminated sites,” is shared by groups responsible for the pollution, including the Federal Recycling and Remediation Coalition, a group of companies and trade associations that may be directly affected by EPA’s cleanup rules.
On May 15, the lobbying firm Barnes & Thornburg LLP submitted specific ideas on behalf of FRRC. Among their suggestions: limiting EPA’s review of materials at each stage of a Superfund cleanup; eliminating a requirement that recyclers must notify recipients about chemical constituents in recycled materials; and rescinding a rule restricting the burning of certain paints and solvents.
Albert Kelly, whom Pruitt announced May 22 as his choice to chair the Superfund Task Force, is an Oklahoma banker who has no prior experience with the program or with environmental issues at all, according to his résumé. Kelly, who has donated twice to Pruitt’s campaigns in Oklahoma, has spent the past 33 years working at Spiritbank, which is headquartered in Tulsa, and most recently served as its chairman. The “core competencies” listed on his résumé, which The Intercept obtained by FOIA, include motivational speaking, business development, and “political activity.”
Meanwhile, Susan Bodine, whom Trump nominated on May 12 to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, does have plenty of experience with environmental issues — though most of it representing polluting industries. According to her LinkedIn account, from 2009 until 2015, Bodine was a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, the same firm that is representing FRRC, the group of industries directly affected by EPA cleanup rules. While at Barnes & Thornburg, Bodine represented the American Forest and Paper Association from 2011 to 2014. Member companies in that industry group have hundreds of EPA enforcement actions against them, including violations of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.
Bodine’s close ties to these companies make her a poor choice to lead the enforcement office, according to Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “She is the classic revolving door appointment,” said O’Donnell. “The office of enforcement is responsible for everything — clean air, clean water, toxic waste — the core of our environmental protections. Companies will cut corners if they think they won’t get caught.” Bodine’s nomination comes while the Trump administration is blocking efforts to disclose waivers granted to former lobbyists working in federal agencies and the White House.
Because the enforcement office handles negotiations between the companies responsible for the pollution and the EPA, Bodine would be in a position to decide how extensive some cleanups are — and how much polluters have to spend cleaning them.
Bodine’s past lobbying could also compromise her role with the Superfund program. Seven of the companies that belong to the American Forest and Paper Association are named as responsible parties in dozens of Superfund sites, according to the EPA website. International Paper, one member of the group Bodine represented — whose CEO met with Pruitt last week to discuss jobs, according to a tweet from Pruitt — is a responsible party in 12 Superfund sites.
According to lobbying records, Bodine also lobbied for Saint-Gobain Containers, a division of Saint-Gobain, one of two companies blamed for contaminating the drinking water in Hoosick Falls, New York. She represented the company from 2010-2014 while she was a partner at Barnes & Thornburg.
That connection would make it inappropriate for her to weigh in on a decision about Hoosick Falls, according to Judith Enck, the former EPA regional administrator for region 2, who oversaw EPA’s work at Hoosick Falls before stepping down in January.
“Once you’ve represented a company, even if it’s not directly on PFOA, you should recuse yourself because there’s the appearance — and likely the actuality — that there’s a conflict of interest,” said Enck.
In a written statement provided to The Intercept, Saint-Gobain emphasized that it does not want its property in Hoosick Falls to be designated a Superfund site.
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics opposes the proposed listing of our McCaffrey Street facility in Hoosick Falls, New York, on the National Priorities List. In our view, the Hazard Ranking System score for the site is based upon several errors and unsound assumptions that result in a far higher ranking than actual conditions at the site merit. We have made good progress with the State of New York in remediating the facility and the potentially impacted water supply wells around it, thereby eliminating any potential health or environmental hazards. Further involvement from the Federal Government, if confirmed as an NPL site, could potentially slow this effort.
It’s important to remember that Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics is not a chemical company. We do not and never have manufactured PFOA. The PTFE we use comes from suppliers who in the past incorporated PFOA into some of their products. These suppliers and the US EPA forged an agreement to eliminate PFOA by 2016 in order to reduce the impact on the environment. Despite this, because we are an integral part of the communities where we operate, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics has paid for bottled water for affected residents, funded engineering design studies, and funded granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration systems and Point-of-Entry (POET) filtration systems where applicable.
Susan Bodine, Albert Kelly, International Paper, the American Forest and Paper Association, and the EPA did not respond to requests for comment.
Enck, who said that a federal Superfund designation would help delineate the plume of underground contamination in Hoosick Falls and bring additional resources to the cleanup, is also concerned because the final decision about the proposed Superfund sites, which was expected in March, is overdue. “Every expectation is that the Saint-Gobain site will be listed,” she said. “But we cannot rest easy until it happens.” If she is confirmed, Bodine could potentially have a say about the site’s designation, according to Enck.
“A senior EPA official is always able to weigh in on important agency decisions,” said Enck. “She would likely be in the room when the future of the Saint-Gobain site is discussed.”
Other EPA watchers are more concerned about Pruitt’s ability to fulfill his promise to improve the program with fewer resources. “The real threat right now is funding,” said Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. Trump’s budget, released yesterday, calls for cutting the EPA by 31 percent — more than any other agency. The White House document proposed cutting about 30 percent of the Superfund program’s almost $1.1 billion budget, which is itself a reduction from about $2 billion in 1999, according to a 2015 GAO Report.
In testimony before a Senate hearing on Superfund in 2014, Bodine said she didn’t think most problems with the program were due to funding. Instead, she blamed some of the delays in cleanups on community members who block access to sites. “If the agency can’t get access to the site, they can’t do the cleanup,” she said, adding that she believed the agency was doing its best.
A confirmation hearing for Susan Bodine is expected shortly and the new Superfund Task Force is due to issue its recommendations by the end of June.
This article first appeared at The Intercept and is published here with permission.