Superfund Reform: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

In a previous article, I offered less than fulsome praise of U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s announcement that he was taking control of remedial decisions for big Superfund sites.  Now, he’s followed up with a memorandum announcing establishment of a task force to look at ways to reform Superfund implementation.  While he’s still plainly wrong in putting Superfund “at the center of the agency’s core mission,” I have to confess that I think he otherwise has pretty much hit a home run with the latest memorandum.

Let’s start with the basics.  Superfund is a mess.  It’s one of the most poorly written statutes in Congressional history, and Superfund cleanups take way too long, are way too expensive, and fail to deliver bang for the buck in either risk reduction or productive reuse.

In a perfect world, Superfund would be amended to privatize cleanups and put cost-effective risk-based cleanups at the center of the program.  However, Scott Pruitt cannot unilaterally amend Superfund.  Heck, he may not realize it, but even Donald Trump cannot unilaterally amend Superfund.

Given this reality, Pruitt’s memorandum identifies all of the appropriate goals for meaningful administrative reform.  They include:

  • a focus on identifying best practices within regional Superfund programs, reducing the amount of time between identification of contamination at a site and determination that a site is ready for reuse
  • overhaul and streamline the process used to develop, issue or enter into prospective purchaser agreements, bona fide prospective purchaser status, comfort letters, ready-for-reuse determinations
  • Streamline and improve the remedy development and selection process, particularly at sites with contaminated sediment, including to ensure that risk-management principles are considered in the selection of remedies
  • Reduce the administrative and overhead costs and burdens borne by parties remediating contaminated sites, including a reexamination of the level of agency oversight necessary.

The last is my personal favorite.

I somehow expect I’m not going to be praising this administration on a regular basis, but I can still acknowledge when they get something right.  Let’s just hope that the task force is for real and comes up with a set of meaningful administrative improvements.

Fingers crossed.

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About the Author

Seth Jaffe is recognized bChambers USA, The Best Lawyers in America and Massachusetts Super Lawyers as a leading practitioner in environmental compliance and related litigation. He is one of the authors of the Law and the Environment Blog, www.lawandenvironment.com, which provides real-world perspectives on current developments in environmental law and regulation. Seth recently completed his term as the President of the American College of Environmental Lawyers.

Seth works on a wide range of environmental law issues, representing clients in the permitting/licensing of new facilities and offering ongoing guidance on permitting and enforcement related matters under U.S. federal and state Clean Air Acts, Clean Water Acts, RCRA, and TSCA. He also advises on wetlands and waterways regulation. Seth’s clients include electric generating facilities, companies in the printing and chemical industries, and education and health care institutions.

This article was first published on the website of Foley Hoag LLP.

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