by Van P. Hilderbrand, Jr. and Marian C. Hwang
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) Administrator Scott Pruitt has made it clear that one of his top priorities during his tenure is to expedite cleanups at contaminated sites across the country. To achieve this goal while facing potential budget cuts, he has made several significant decisions over the last year to overhaul and restructure the Superfund cleanup program from within.
First, as we discussed in our earlier post, A New Budget, a New EPA Administrator, and New Uncertainty for Superfund Cleanups, Administrator Pruitt issued a memorandum on May 9, 2017 centralizing decision-making on major Superfund remedies to EPA headquarters. Specifically, final decisions on remedies exceeding $50 million are to be made by Administrator Pruitt or the Deputy Administrator, not by Regional Administrators. According to the memorandum, this change is designed to improve the remedy selection process by promoting increased oversight and accountability and by “enhancing consistency in remedy selection across states and the regions.”
Next, Administrator Pruitt specially convened an EPA Superfund Task Force on May 22, 2017. In our post, EPA’s Task Force Recommendations to Revamp and Expedite Superfund Cleanups and Process – A Welcome Change, we discussed the Task Force Report, issued on July 22, 2017, which identified 5 goals, 13 strategies, and 42 recommendations to (1) expedite Superfund cleanups; (2) re-invigorate responsible party cleanup and reuse; (3) encourage private investment; (4) promote redevelopment and community revitalization; and (5) engage partners and stakeholders. We have seen many of these recommendations realized, including the development and issuance of a priority list of Superfund sites targeted for immediate attention by Administrator Pruitt.
Recent EPA Realignment in Approval Process Sees the Administrator’s Role Expanding
In a recent shift to expand the influence of the Administrator’s Office, Administrator Pruitt issued a second memorandum on April 26, 2018 clarifying that EPA’s Office of Land & Emergency Management and regional offices should “coordinate and consult with the Administrator’s Office early on when developing” other significant actions (in addition to remedies) related to costly Superfund cleanups. Such actions would include Amendments to Records of Decision (“ROD”) or Explanations of Significant Differences (“ESD”) that are projected to either increase the estimated cost of a remedy to greater than $50 million or are projected to increase the estimated cost of a remedy that is already greater than $50 million by any amount.
The memorandum also specifically notes that consultations should occur when developing Non-Time-Critical Removal Actions (“NTCRA”) estimated to exceed $50 million. As in the earlier 2017 memorandum, Administrator Pruitt says the additional coordination and cooperation will result in “more accountability and consistency throughout the EPA’s regions.” What this means for potentially responsible parties (“PRPs”) at large Superfund sites is that Administrator Pruitt will play an increasingly important role in the decision-making process.
Neither memorandum addressed any change in the role of the National Remedy Review Board (“NRRB”) and the interplay between the NRRB and the increasing oversight and decision-making role of Administrator Pruitt. The NRRB is an internal EPA peer review group that reviews and comments on remedial actions and NTCRAs costing more than $25 million. Questions remain whether the NRRB only reviews actions costing between $25 and $50 million, as not to impede Administrator Pruitt’s review, or do both NRRB and Administrator Pruitt review actions costing in excess of $50 million?
Uncertainty in the Superfund Program
This step comes amid increased turmoil and uncertainty in the Administrator’s Office and the Superfund program. Administrator Pruitt’s top advisor on the Superfund program and chairman of the Superfund Task Force, Albert “Kell” Kelly, resigned unexpectedly in early May, leaving questions regarding who will run the approximately $1 billion program. Further, Administrator Pruitt himself is facing numerous investigations into his own actions and ethical violations; causing many to wonder just how much longer he will be in his current job and whether he will see any of these policy changes implemented.
It is easy to see, therefore, why every decision from the Administrator’s Office comes under significant scrutiny. Many opponents believe these moves are simply ways to reduce costs and time in the cleanup process, and they question whether “expedited” cleanups actually mean less rigorous cleanups. In his first year or so, there are examples where Administrator Pruitt has approved strengthened measures and cleanup requirements at some sites, despite pushback from industry and companies involved in the cleanup, but there are also examples of site decisions that cast doubt on his ability to be independent and impartial. In any case, as long as Administrator Pruitt is in his current role, it is clear that the Superfund program will see continued change and that he will use the authority of that role to expedite cleanups.
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This story is was first published on the Miles Stockbridge website.
About the authors
A member of Miles & Stockbridge Products Liability & Mass Torts Practice Group, Van P. Hilderbrand, Jr. focuses his practice on environmental litigation, regulatory compliance issues, and advising on the environmental aspects of business and real estate transactions. His work also includes consulting on renewable energy project development and project finance transactions, conducting due diligence and assisting with permitting issues. He represents clients in a wide range of industries, including energy, manufacturing, consumer products, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, transportation, technology and real estate.
Marian Hwang has been an environmental attorney with the Miles & Stockbridge since 1987 and chairs its Environmental Practice. The breadth of her experiences representing multinational and national clients enables her to develop practical solutions to complex issues, whether involving complicated real estate/corporate acquisitions or divestitures or commercial financing matters to complex multi-defendant toxic tort claims, litigation, and multi-facility compliance matters. Marian works extensively with and appears before Federal and State regulators, and courts, has been certified as a LEED Green Associate by the U.S. Green Building Council, and has served as outside national environmental counsel to the firm’s major clients.