Wait­ing for a cleanup to come

EPA chief Scott Pruitt vows to speed up the cleans­ing of toxic Su­per­fund sites. Com­mu­ni­ties ask: How? Meagan Beck­er­mann and son Trevor, 7, live in St. Louis near a Su­per­fund site. She won­ders if Trevor’s alope­cia areata is con­nected to con­tam­i­na­tion. Air,


Dawn Chapman had lis­tened with sur­prise and skep­ti­cism as the new head of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency vowed to clean up West Lake, the nu­clear waste dump that has filled her days and nights with worry.

“The past ad­min­is­tra­tion hon­estly just didn’t pay at­ten­tion to [it],” Scott Pruitt stressed on a lo­cal ra­dio show in April. “We’re go­ing to get things done at West Lake. The days of talk­ing are over.”

The next month, Pruitt took to tele­vi­sion to say a plan for the site was com­ing “very soon” as part of his push to pri­or­i­tize Su­per­fund cleanups across the coun­try. “It’s not a mat­ter of money,” he said. “It’s a mat­ter of lead­er­ship and at­ti­tude and man­age­ment.”

On a blue-sky af­ter­noon, Chapman sat in her small home in this leafy St. Louis sub­urb and mulled the lat­est set of prom­ises from Wash­ing­ton — this time from a man known more for su­ing the EPA and rolling back en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions than for crack­ing down on pol­lu­tion.

“Why our site? Why now? Can he keep those prom­ises?” the mother of three won­dered. Her family lives only a cou­ple of miles from West Lake, a con­tam­i­nated land­fill that con­tains thou­sands of tons of waste from the World War II-era Man­hat­tan Project. “My big­gest fear is he’s just go­ing to put a Band-Aid on it.”

In Bridgeton and else­where, oth­ers are ask­ing sim­i­lar ques­tions with var­i­ous de­grees of hope and hes­i­ta­tion. In his pre­vi­ous role as Ok­la­homa’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, Pruitt had long-stand­ing ties to oil and gas com­pa­nies and a liti­gious his­tory fight­ing the EPA. And al­though he has called the fed­eral Su­per­fund pro­gram “vi­tal” and a “cor­ner­stone” of the EPA’s mis­sion, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed slash­ing its fund­ing by 30 per­cent.

With more than 1,300 Su­per­fund sites na­tion­wide — some of which have lin­gered for decades on the EPA’s ever-grow­ing “pri­or­i­ties list” — it’s un­clear how Pruitt will back up his pro­fessed com­mit­ment in an age of scorched-earth bud­gets. Crit­ics worry that a sin­gle-minded fo­cus on speed­ing up the process could lead to in­ad­e­quate cleanups.

Pruitt has largely dis­missed such is­sues. He ar­gues that the pro­gram is be­set more by bloated ad­min­is­tra­tive costs and a short­age of ini­tia­tive than by bud­get woes, and he notes that, at most sites, “pri­vate fund­ing” is avail­able from firms deemed re­spon­si­ble for cleanups.

“This agency has not re­sponded to Su­per­fund with the type of ur­gency and com­mit­ment that the peo­ple of this coun­try de­serve,” Pruitt re­it­er­ated Wed­nes­day — days be­fore a con­tin­gent from Bridgeton would ar­rive in Wash­ing­ton in hopes of meet­ing with him. He said he un­der­stands com­mu­ni­ties’ dis­trust, not just about West Lake but many sites. “I’m very sen­si­tive and sym­pa­thetic to what their con­cerns are,” he said. “This agency has failed them. . . . They have a right to be skep­ti­cal.”

That they are. Res­i­dents in the shadow of Su­per­fund sites re­main wary of his pro­nounce­ments.

“Ac­tions speak louder than words,” said BrieAnn McCormick, whose neigh­bor­hood is clos­est to West Lake.

Fam­i­lies here have long lived with the re­al­ity of the site, which got its Su­per­fund des­ig­na­tion in 1990. The 200 acres in­clude not just the ra­dioac­tive waste that was il­le­gally dumped in 1973, but also an ad­ja­cent land­fill where de­com­pos­ing trash as deep as 150 feet is smol­der­ing in what sci­en­tists call a “sub­sur­face burn­ing event.” The fire is now about 600 feet from that other waste.

West Lake has made Bridgeton the kind of place where some par­ents drive their chil­dren to play­grounds far from the land­fill. Where some peo­ple keep home­made kits in their cars — face masks for days the stench hits, eye­drops for ir­ri­ta­tion, Tylenol for headaches. Where oth­ers trade sto­ries of can­cers, au­toim­mune dis­eases and mis­car­riages they’re scared could be re­lated to the Su­per­fund site, al­though air, wa­ter and soil tests from the EPA and other gov­ern­ment agen­cies have shown no link.

Ac­tivists fault the EPA for mov­ing at a glacial pace. They ac­cuse Repub­lic Ser­vices, which took own­er­ship of the land­fill in 2008, of try­ing to avoid full-fledged cleanup.

Sim­i­lar dy­nam­ics are play­ing out at many Su­per­fund sites, where aban­doned mines, con­tam­i­nated rivers and man­u­fac­tur­ing plants have left be­hind a daunt­ing trail of lead, ar­senic, mer­cury and other harm­ful sub­stances. Some “mega sites” in­volve trac­ing hun­dreds of chem­i­cals and scores of pol­luters.

Pruitt re­cently is­sued a di­rec­tive say­ing that he plans to be more di­rectly in­volved in de­ci­sions about Su­per­fund cleanups, par­tic­u­larly ones in ex­cess of $50 mil­lion. He es­tab­lished a Su­per­fund task force, which is ex­pected to report back this week on how to re­struc­ture the pro­gram in ways that fa­vor “ex­pe­di­tious re­me­di­a­tion,” “re­duce the bur­den” on firms re­spon­si­ble for cleanups and “en­cour­age pri­vate in­vest­ment” in the pro­gram.

“If this were some other world, it might be easy to be­lieve they are try­ing to move things faster and in the right way,” said Nancy Loeb, direc­tor of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Ad­vo­cacy Cen­ter at North­west­ern Univer­sity’s Pritzker School of Law. “I don’t want to say the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion did a great job on Su­per­fund; they didn’t. . . . But I fear [this ad­min­is­tra­tion] cut­ting its bud­get and giv­ing ac­cess to the ad­min­is­tra­tor for all big com­pa­nies who want to come and talk is a death knell for mean­ing­ful cleanups.”

When Congress es­tab­lished the Su­per­fund pro­gram in 1980, law­mak­ers gave the EPA le­gal pow­ers to force pol­luters to pay to fix the messes they had created. They also created a tax on the petroleum and chem­i­cal in­dus­tries to off­set ex­pen­sive, com­pli­cated cleanups when a pol­lut­ing com­pany had gone bank­rupt or could not be iden­ti­fied.

The tax gen­er­ated bil­lions of dol­lars for cleanups. But Congress al- lowed it to ex­pire in 1995, and by 2003 the in­dus­try-funded trust fund was es­sen­tially broke. Law­mak­ers have chipped away at Su­per­fund’s bud­get since. The pro­gram gets about $1.1 bil­lion a year, about half what it did in 1999.

As fund­ing dwin­dled through­out the 2000s, the pace of cleanups also de­clined. Pres­i­dent Trump has pro­posed to slash $330 mil­lion more from the pro­gram an­nu­ally.

“Either cut the bud­get or make things go bet­ter for Su­per­fund. Pick one. You can’t do both,” said Peter deFur, who has con­sulted on Su­per­fund sites for more than two decades.

He and other ex­perts ac­knowl­edge the agency hasn’t al­ways moved quickly enough. But they are con­cerned Pruitt’s fo­cus on ac­cel­er­at­ing cleanups might lead to sim­plis­tic so­lu­tions that leave lin­ger­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal risks to nearby com­mu­ni­ties, which dis­pro­por­tion­ately are poor and mi­nor­ity.

“The cheap­est and quick­est op­tion is not al­ways the best,” deFur said. “It’s dan­ger­ous to not get it right the first time.”

Mathy Stanis­laus, who over­saw the pro­gram through­out the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, was trou­bled by the lan­guage Pruitt used in set­ting up the Su­per­fund task force — a group led by a for­mer Ok­la­homa banker whose ré­sumé in­cludes no en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Noth­ing in his charge . . . talks about the pub­lic health di­men­sion,” Stanis­laus said. “That, from my per­spec­tive, is re­veal­ing.”

Pruitt in­sists that let­ting pol­luted sites “just lan­guish” does noth­ing to pro­tect pub­lic health.

“Lis­ten, these [re­spon­si­ble com­pa­nies] across the coun­try are go­ing to be held ac­count­able,” he said Wed­nes­day. “They’re go­ing to get these ar­eas cleaned up, or they are go­ing to be sued by this agency.”

De­spite West Lake’s com­plex chal­lenges, the long-awaited cleanup could move for­ward rel­a­tively soon. For one, there are vi­able par­ties on the hook to pay the costs. (Repub­lic Ser­vices is one of three “po­ten­tially re­spon­si­ble par­ties” that would shoul­der the re­me­di­a­tion.) And with the EPA’s site in­ves­ti­ga­tion largely com­plete, of­fi­cials al­ready planned to make a fi­nal de­ci­sion this year on how cleanup would pro­ceed, ac­cord­ing to for­mer re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tor Mark Hague.

“My goal was to get this de­ci­sion done and done right with solid sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing be­hind it,” Hague said. “This is not a place to take short­cuts. . . . At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to tell peo­ple that what we’ve done will be pro­tec­tive of hu­man health and the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Al­though some nearby res­i­dents have pushed for a full re­moval of the ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial, a so­lu­tion that could cost in ex­cess of $400 mil­lion, Repub­lic Ser­vices has main­tained that “cap­ping” the site with lay­ers of rock, clay and soil would be suf­fi­cient and would avoid the risks as­so­ci­ated with dis­turb­ing the nu­clear waste. Its ap­proach would cost closer to $50 mil­lion.

Com­pany spokesman Russ Knocke said claims about health dan­gers are un­founded and un­nec­es­sar­ily di­vi­sive. “There’s too much fear­mon­ger­ing. There’s too much mis­in­for­ma­tion, and at some point sci­ence has to carry the day,” he said. “The land­fill is safe, it is in a man­aged state, and ac­cu­sa­tions of the con­trary are sim­ply false.”

There is one thing the com­pany and ac­tivists agree on when it comes to a cleanup, how­ever. “It’s taken too long,” Knocke said. “We cer­tainly wel­come the pri­or­ity the new ad­min­is­tra­tor is plac­ing on the site.”

Yet even with Pruitt’s re­newed “sense of ur­gency,” tap­ping pri­vate dol­lars is not an op­tion at some Su­per­fund lo­ca­tions. At these “or­phaned” sites, pol­lut­ing com­pa­nies long ago went bank­rupt or ceased to be li­able, and the cleanup re­spon­si­bil­i­ties now fall mostly to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. It’s dif­fi­cult to en­vi­sion such places get­ting fixed with­out an ad­e­quate Su­per­fund bud­get.

“If we feel like the num­bers of the bud­get are not suf­fi­cient to ad­dress those, we’ll be sure to let Congress know,” Pruitt said.

Fund­ing is what’s needed in St. Louis, Mich., a small town that was once a hub for DDT man­u­fac­tur­ing. The site of the for­mer Vel­si­col Chem­i­cal Corp. there re­mains among the most con­tam­i­nated any­where. Nearly 40 years af­ter the plant’s clo­sure, robins still some­times drop dead out of the sky af­ter hav­ing eaten tainted worms from the soil.

“We are just wait­ing for money from EPA,” said Jane Keon, who helped found a lo­cal cit­i­zens task force. The group saw an op­por­tu­nity af­ter Pruitt vowed to pri­or­i­tize the Su­per­fund pro­gram.

“We re­quest that you con­sider fund­ing our site as an ex­cel­lent pub­lic re­la­tions ex­am­ple,” it wrote him in a let­ter. “All we need now to get un­der­way is sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars. . . . If you can get those dol­lars to us, [re­me­di­a­tion] work can be­gin at once, and you would have an ex­am­ple to point to.”

In and around Bridgeton, the wait­ing also con­tin­ues. Peo­ple like Meagan Beck­er­mann, preg­nant with her third child, weigh whether to leave or stay.

“For us, it’s con­stantly, ‘What if?’ ” she said.

On that sunny af­ter­noon this month, Dawn Chapman stopped to visit Karen Nickel, who for years had no idea she was rais­ing her four chil­dren down the road from a Su­per­fund site.

The pair co-founded Just Moms, a group ad­vo­cat­ing to clean up West Lake or re­lo­cate fam­i­lies liv­ing close by. As they sat at Nickel’s kitchen ta­ble, they fret­ted that Pruitt might in­deed al­low the ra­dioac­tive waste to be capped in place rather than re­moved — a so­lu­tion the EPA had pro­posed al­most a decade ago be­fore re­con­sid­er­ing.

“It’s got to be done the right way,” Chapman said, as Nickel nod­ded in agree­ment. “There’s no Harry Pot­ter wand here.”

Not far away in Span­ish Vil­lage, the small de­vel­op­ment closer to West Lake than any other, BrieAnn McCormick stood on her front porch, gaz­ing out to­ward the play­ground her chil­dren never visit. The neigh­bor­hood seemed so nor­mal, with its freshly mowed lawns and tidy side­walks. Bal­loons flut­tered from a nearby house, cel­e­brat­ing a new baby’s ar­rival.

McCormick, a teacher, is tired of wor­ry­ing about the nu­clear waste just over the hill. She and her hus­band re­cently de­cided they no longer will de­pend on Pruitt or any­one else to fi­nally act.

“I’m meet­ing with a Real­tor this af­ter­noon,” she said. “It both­ers me, the idea of sell­ing this to some­one else. But I just have to get my kids out of here.”

A few days later, a sign showed up in her yard. An open house was held Sun­day.



TOP: Dawn Chapman, left, and Karen Nickel wear pro­tec­tive masks at the West Lake Land­fill in a sub­urb of St. Louis. They be­lieve the site, which was pol­luted with ra­dioac­tive waste in the 1970s, could still be con­tam­i­nat­ing the en­vi­ron­ment. BE­LOW: Chapman and her chil­dren — from left, So­phie, Con­nor and Quinn — play at a park miles from their home near the land­fill. They avoid closer play­grounds over toxin wor­ries.

Source: EPA Su­per­fund En­ter­prise Man­age­ment Sys­tem Pub­lic User Data­base via Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health. Data as of May 30.

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