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Backlog of toxic Superfund clean-ups grows under Trump, including in Michigan

FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2018 file photo, water contaminated with arsenic, lead and zinc flows from a pipe out of the Lee Mountain mine and into a holding pond near Rimini, Mont. The community is part of the Upper Tenmile Creek Superfund site, where dozens of abandoned mines have left water supplies polluted and residents must use bottled water. The Trump administration has built up the largest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund projects awaiting clean-up in at least 15 years, nearly tripling the number of sites where clean-ups are ready to go but awaiting money, according to 2019 figures quietly released by the Environmental Protection Agency over the winter holidays. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration has built up the biggest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund clean-up projects in at least 15 years, nearly triple the number that were stalled for lack of money in the Obama era, according to 2019 figures quietly released by the Environmental Protection Agency over the winter holidays.
The accumulation of Superfund projects that are ready to go except for money comes as the Trump administration routinely proposes funding cuts for Superfund and for the EPA in general. The four-decade-old Superfund program is meant to tackle some of the most heavily contaminated sites in the U.S. and Trump has declared it a priority even while seeking to shrink its budget.
“There hasn’t been a sense of urgency,” said Violet Donoghue, who has lived for 31 years on Bon Brae Street in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. Toxic PCBs have poisoned some local soil, water and fish at nearby Lake St. Clair, and the neighborhood is one of the 34 Superfund sites where clean-up projects languished for lack of money in 2019.
“I feel many people have been harmed, but that’s only my opinion,” Donoghue said. She said the last word from the EPA was that soil would be removed from the front of her house. “Now when they say they’re cleaning it, I say, ‘OK, give me the date,'” she said.
The unfunded projects are in 17 states and Puerto Rico. They range from abandoned mines that discharged heavy metals and arsenic in the West to an old wood pulp site in Mississippi and a defunct dry cleaner that released toxic solvents in North Carolina.
Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 after the Love Canal episode and other notorious pollution cases. Its intent is to hold polluters responsible for cleanup costs or provide taxpayer money when no responsible party can be identified.
Trump “is focused on putting Americans first,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told a Senate environment committee early 2019. “There may be no better example than our success in the Superfund program.”
“We are in the process of cleaning up some of the nation’s largest, most complex sites and returning them to productive use,” Wheeler said then.
But two former EPA officials whose work dealt with Superfund oversight said the growing backlog of stalled Superfund projects under the Trump administration, and steady or ebbing numbers of clean-up construction projects completed, point to a different picture.
“They’re misleading Congress and the public about the funds that are needed to really protect the public from exposure to the toxic chemicals,” said Elizabeth Southerland, who worked for 30 years at EPA, including as director of science and technology in the water office, before retiring in 2017. ”It’s detrimental.”
This is a “regulatory failure,” said Judith Enck, who served as the EPA’s regional northeastern U.S. administrator under President Barack Obama.
Given the growing numbers of unfunded clean-up projects, “EPA should be knocking on the door of Congress and saying, give us more money to deal with the sites,” Enck said.
Asked what the EPA spent money on instead, and why the agency didn’t ask Congress for more to deal with the growing backlog, EPA spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage offered few specifics Thursday.