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Obama’s Record on Toxic Cleanups

Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt criticized former President Barack Obama for leaving “us with more Superfund sites than when he came in.” This is misleading for multiple reasons:

  • While Pruitt is right, his agency doesn’t use this metric to assess its progress in cleaning up the country’s most contaminated sites. By the EPA’s own metrics, Obama did make progress.
  • There are advantages to being placed on the Superfund National Priorities List, which Pruitt was referring to when he made his claim. The EPA’s website says being listed “is the most effective and comprehensive approach for investigating and cleaning up contamination.”
  • Funding for cleanups decreased significantly after 1995 when taxes on the industries that create the sites expired. Obama tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Congress to reinstate the taxes in all of his budget proposals. But he did provide an additional $639 million for the program in the 2009 stimulus package.
  • Every president has left office with more sites on the priorities list than when he came in, even before the taxes expired.

Pruitt made his claim on Sept. 11 during an interview with the Washington Examiner:

Pruitt. Sept. 11: Everybody looks at the Obama administration as being the environmental savior. Really? He was the environmental savior? He’s the gold standard, right? He left us with more Superfund sites than when he came in. Air quality standards, 40 percent of the country, nonattainment.

Pruitt also isn’t telling the whole story when it comes to Obama’s actions on clean air quality. Obama did leave 38.9 percent of Americans with air quality that doesn’t meet the EPA’s standards, or “nonattainment.” But that’s down from nearly 58 percent when he took office. We went into the details on this issue earlier this month.

This isn’t the first time Pruitt has criticized Obama’s record on toxic cleanups. In May, he said, “Superfund sites, we have more today than when President Obama came into office,” adding, “what exactly did [the Obama administration] accomplish for the environment that folks are so excited about?”

Pruitt has a right to his opinion that the Obama administration shouldn’t be considered an “environmental savior.” But his claim that Obama “left us with more Superfund sites than when he came in” lacks context.

The Creation of the Superfund Program

Before we get into how the EPA measures its progress in toxic cleanup, it’s worth spending a few words on why the Superfund program exists in the first place.

In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act to create the Superfund program for the purpose of monitoring and cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. To help pay for the cleanups, the act also created a trust fund, which was originally primarily financed by taxes on the companies that created the toxic sites.

The act was preceded by a number of incidents that brought the dangers of toxic waste sites to the public’s fore. For example, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency at Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1978 after a “startling increase in skin rashes, miscarriages, and birth defects” in the area, explains the EPA. The residents experienced these health issues because their community had been built on the dumping site of more than 21,000 tons of hazardous chemicals.

In 1983, the EPA created the National Priorities List, which consists of the “most serious” contaminated sites that need long-term remediation, based on a ranking system used by the agency. A site’s score comes from the EPA’s “initial, limited” assessment of the threat that a site may pose to human health and the environment.

The score doesn’t determine how much funding will go toward a specific site’s cleanup or the extent of cleanup needed — that comes with further analysis. Rather, the list “primarily serves as an information and management tool” that guides the EPA in determining how it will go about cleaning up a site and notifying the public of its actions. In other words, it’s not a measure of how much action has been taken to clean up sites.

A site is deleted from the National Priorities List once the EPA determines that no further cleanup or monitoring is needed to protect human health and the environment. Eventually, the site may be able to be reused or redeveloped.

Total Sites: Not the Best Metric

When we reached out to Pruitt’s office for support for his claim, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman pointed us to the number of sites on the National Priorities List back in 2008, before Obama took office, compared with when he left office. At the end of fiscal year 2008, there were 1,257 sites on the list. By the end of fiscal year 2016, that number had increased to 1,337 sites.

Federal fiscal years run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, which means that not all of the progress reported by EPA in fiscal year 2009 was on Obama’s watch. Conversely, fiscal year 2016 — which ended Oct. 1, 2016 — does not capture any of the progress the EPA made in the last three-plus months before Obama left office in January 2017.

Bowman added that the EPA measures “many different metrics” and “the number of sites added and deleted is one way” it measures progress. The EPA does keep track of how many sites are added to and deleted from the list, but the total number of sites isn’t one of the agency’s six performance measures for assessing its progress in Superfund cleanup. The findings of a 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office shed light on why.

According to that report, the EPA under different administrations has taken different approaches to adding sites to the National Priorities List. These different approaches impacted how many sites were added to the list each year — but not necessarily how many sites were cleaned up.

For example, between fiscal years 1999 and 2007, during the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, the number of nonfederal sites added to the list per year declined steadily from 37 to 12. Nonfederal sites (as opposed to sites on federal land) have made up the majority of Superfund sites. Back in 1999, for example, they made up 87 percent of all sites on the list. Today, they make up 88 percent.

To explain that decline in additions to the list, EPA officials told GAO that “some states may have been managing the cleanup of sites with their own state programs, especially if [the responsible party] was identified to pay for the cleanup.” The National Priorities List, on the other hand, was used “as a mechanism of last resort,” the report adds.

But between 2008 and 2012, the bulk of Obama’s first term, the number of nonfederal sites added each year increased from 18 to 24. EPA officials told the GAO that during this time the agency had “shifted its policy” from adding sites to the list as a last resort to adding sites “when it was deemed the best approach for achieving site cleanup.” Also, state funding for cleanup declined during this period, so when a responsible party didn’t cooperate or couldn’t be found, the site would more often be referred to the EPA, the report says.

When it comes to how many nonfederal sites were removed from the list each year, GAO said the number has generally declined over the years – dropping, for example, from 22 in 1999 to only six in 2013. EPA officials told GAO that a decline in the number of sites deleted from the list each year was due, in part, to the fact that sites remaining on the list “are more complex, and they take more time and money to clean up,” according to the report. EPA officials also cited a decline in federal funding, which we will get into later.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the Superfund program has a policy of using its limited funds to finish cleaning up sites it has already started rather than beginning new, less complex cleanups. So if the agency has already started cleaning up a number of complex sites, it will have to finish those before moving on. In other words, the agency may be actively cleaning up sites, and thus reducing human exposure to contaminants, but that activity wouldn’t necesssarily be reflected in a drop in the total number of sites on the priorities list.

Regardless of what approach an administration took to adding sites to the list, every president has left office with more sites on the list than when he came in. So for this reason, and those noted above, the number of total sites may not be the best measure for assessing progress on Superfund cleanup. And more importantly, it’s not the metric Pruitt’s own agency uses.

How Is Progress Assessed?

The EPA doesn’t measure progress by the number of sites added to or deleted from the National Priorities List. In fact, the EPA objected to that metric back in 2000, arguing that it didn’t “recognize the substantial construction and reduction of risk to human health and the environment that had occurred at some … sites,” the GAO report says.

Currently, the EPA measures its progress using six different metrics: (1) remedial site assessment completions, (2) construction completions, (3) remedial action project completions, (4) sites with controlled human exposure, (5) sites with controlled groundwater migration and (6) sites ready for reuse. By all of these measures, the EPA under Obama did make progress (see table below). Let’s go through them one-by-one.

A remedial site assessment is used to figure out whether a site needs short- or long-term cleanup under the Superfund program. As previously mentioned, this may lead to some sites being added to the National Priorities List and others not. Based on available data, the EPA had completed 94,593 site assessments by the end of fiscal year 2016, up from 89,916 at the end of fiscal year 2011. A minority of those needed cleanup under the Superfund program.

The second measure — construction completions — are the point at which the agency has done all of the physical labor needed to address the immediate and long-term human health and environmental threats at a Superfund site. After this point, the EPA may still need to monitor the site and take other actions, so this isn’t the same as deleting a site from the priorities list.

At the end of fiscal year 2008, before Obama took office, the EPA had logged a total of 1,060 construction completions. By the end of fiscal year 2016, it had completed 1,188, which means the EPA had completed at least 128 during Obama’s tenure. However, between fiscal years 2000 and 2008, a period that covers most of Bush’s eight years as president, the EPA finished 303 construction completions.

Remedial action projects are smaller in scale than construction completions. For example, they might entail just cleaning up one pond on a 50-acre Superfund site. Between fiscal years 2009 to 2016, the EPA completed 911 remedial action projects — another mark of progress.

The agency also measures its progress with two environmental metrics: (1) the number of sites where human exposure to contaminants is “under control” or within EPA standards and (2) the number of sites where contaminated groundwater has been contained to prevent the further spread of contaminants within an ecosystem.

By the end of fiscal year 2008, the EPA had controlled human exposure to contaminants at 1,306 sites. By the end of fiscal year 2016, that number had reached 1,452 sites — an increase of 146 sites. During this same period, the EPA also controlled the migration of contaminated groundwater at 158 sites.

The EPA uses one last metric to keep track of its progress — the number of sites ready for reuse. A site is ready for reuse when the agency has achieved all of its cleanup goals. Between the end of fiscal years 2008 and 2016, the EPA identified 450 sites for reuse, more than half of the cumulative total of 793 since 2006, when the agency started collecting data.

Fiscal Year Total NPL Sites Site Assessments Construction Completions Remedial Action Projects Human Exposure Controlled Water Mitigation Controlled Sites Ready for Reuse
2008 1,257 * 1,060 2,506 1,306 997 343
2009 1,269 * 1,080 2,603 1,320 1,012 409
2010 1,282 * 1,098 2,698 1,338 1,030 475
2011 1,300 89,916 1,120 2,830 1,348 1,051 540
2012 1,313 91,067 1,142 2,972 1,361 1,069 606
2013 1,315 92,282 1,156 3,093 1,389 1,091 662
2014 1,322 93,076 1,164 3,208 1,429 1,123 707
2015 1,324 93,901 1,177 3,312 1,439 1,138 752
2016 1,337 94,593 1,188 3,417 1,452 1,155 793
*Data not available

**All columns reflect cumulative totals.

To be clear, not all of these sites that were ready for reuse were listed on the priorities list. The same goes for the other measures. Under the “Superfund Alternative Approach,” the investigation and cleanup of some sites is monitored by the EPA, but not conducted by the agency itself. This route may be appropriate when the creators of the contaminated site cooperate with the EPA to clean up a site themselves. To qualify for this alternative approach, however, sites do have to meet the requirements for the National Priorities List, meaning they have to be just as serious in terms of the extent of contamination.

So Obama may have left office with more Superfund sites than when he came into office, but that’s not a measure by which the EPA tracks its progress. By the six measures the EPA does use, his administration did make progress.

Funding Woes

Pruitt’s claim that Obama “left us with more Superfund sites than when he came in” is misleading for one additional reason. The current head of the EPA failed to mention that funding issues have stifled the Superfund program, in part, because taxes on the industries that create the sites expired in 1995, taxes Obama tried to reinstate in every one of his budget proposals.

The EPA used money collected from these taxes to fund the cleanup of abandoned sites, or contaminated areas where the responsible party, such as a company, can’t be found or no longer exists. These funds are then put into the trust fund that was created along with the Superfund program in 1980. Between fiscal years 1981 and 1995, the taxes made up about 68 percent of the trust fund’s expenditures and federal appropriations accounted for about 17 percent, according to a 2007 GAO report. Interest and fines accounted for the rest.

But since 2001, funding for the Superfund program has primarily come from taxpayer dollars, according to the 2015 GAO report. In fact, “About 80 percent of the funds EPA spent to clean up nonfederal NPL sites from 1999 through 2013 came from annual [federal] appropriations,” the report adds. The other 20 percent came from states and the companies that create the sites. The cleanup of federal sites is funded by the agencies that created them, not the EPA, the GAO confirmed by email.

But federal funding for the Superfund program also has declined. In constant 2013 dollars, the GAO found federal funding for the Superfund program had declined from about $2 billion in fiscal year 1999 to $1.1 billion in fiscal 2013.

Not surprisingly, the decline in federal funding led to a decline in cleanup activity.

“Because EPA prioritizes funding work that is ongoing, the decline in funding led EPA to delay the start of about one-third of the new remedial action projects” between 1999 and 2013, GAO said. These delays may then cause the sites to cost more to clean up overall because the contaminants have more time to spread further into the environment, the report added.

However, the Superfund program did get a boost of $639 million (in 2013 dollars) with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the economic stimulus act Obama signed in the second month of his presidency.

These funds led to a jump in Superfund cleanup activity, the 2015 GAO report found. The number of remedial action project completions at nonfederal sites generally declined from 116 in 1999 to 47 in 2010. But between fiscal years 2011 to 2013, the EPA completed 75, 87 and 73 projects, respectively (see chart below). “According to EPA officials, these increases were due to the increase of funds from the Recovery Act,” the report says.

Given the relationship between a decline in funding and a decline in Superfund cleanup activity, it’s worth mentioning that EPA officials who worked under both Democratic and Republican administrations have criticized the Trump administration for proposing to further cut the program’s funding, along with the EPA’s budget overall, in its fiscal year 2018 budget plan.

Trump’s budget plan does not request a reinstatement of the taxes on companies who create Superfund sites. It also cuts the total EPA budget by 31.4 percent — from around $8.2 billion in 2017 to about $5.7 billion in 2018. If enacted, this would be the lowest funding level in 40 years, reported the New York Times.

As for the Superfund program in particular, the outlook isn’t much better. Trump’s proposal would cut its funding from around $1.09 billion in 2017 to about $762 million — a roughly 30 percent decrease. And funding for some projects within the Superfund program would drop to zero, such as those for monitoring Superfund cleanup at federal facilities and addressing radiation at Superfund sites.

In response to Trump’s proposal, Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the EPA under President George W. Bush, told the Huffington Post in May, “I don’t see how this program maintains its viability in any great way with these kinds of proposed cuts.” She added that “it just doesn’t make sense when they are talking about trying to address this problem.”

Mathy Stanislaus, who headed the Superfund and other programs under Obama, also told the Huffington Post: “A cut to the program literally means longer exposure and preventing economic recovery for communities.” He added, “Tell me how the facts support cutting funding to a program that already has a backlog of sites?”

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President Obama left “us with more Superfund sites than when he came in.”

Washington Examiner interview
Monday, September 11, 2017