“Superfund” is a word we rarely hear in the major media these days. Climate change is the environmental cause du jour, but back in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, as America was learning about Love Canal and solving the problem of rivers catching on fire, the cleanup of industrial waste was the nation’s major environmental priority.
In 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) was passed. Known colloquially as “Superfund” (and the sites themselves as “Superfund Sites”), CERCLA is a fairly straightforward example of what America’s environmental laws look like: massive, complicated, and demonstrative of just how unwieldy the bureaucracy can be in practice.
Given the public outcry over such sites, situated as they were, in many instances, in urban areas where the public faced palpable health and safety risks, the expectation was that remediation, while expensive, could have (and would have) been undertaken quickly. But given the complications of CERCLA, the reality was anything but — and this is, on the whole, not necessarily a bad thing. Despite the fact that many of these sites were in need of cleanup for decades, the cleanup (sometimes requiring removal, sometimes requiring sealing the hazardous material on-site), determination of PRPs (Potentially Responsible Parties), and determining the best course of action requires due care.
So many sites have languished on a “National Priorities List” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) for decades. Worse, listing on the NPL can come years after proposal for cleanup, and decades of having been contaminated as well. So it really can be the better part of a century before a site goes through the complete cycle of contamination, identification, analysis, plan creation, and review, and only then is it ready to be cleaned up!
Imagine, then, a situation in which a site has gone through this cycle. Used as a landfill in the 1950s, having hazardous waste byproducts dumped in the 1970s (waste materials from the Manhattan Project of the 1940s!), proposed for the NPL in the 1980s, put on the NPL in 1990, and then going through the CERCLA bureaucracy for TWENTY-FIVE more years… having a plan finally ready, only to have a politician try and pull the plug on the plan, for reasons that remain unclear!
The situation referred to here is the case of the West Lake Landfill, outside of St. Louis, Missouri. A landfill for more than 60 years, it has seen its cleanup endlessly assessed and planned for more than 25 years. In 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency, having finally run through all the traps, secured with a private party the cost of not only cleaning up the site, but also erecting what’s called an “isolation barrier” to prevent the migration of hazardous waste off-site, with all work to be completed, finally by the end of 2016.
That should be the end of it, right? Despite decades of bureaucratic grinding, the end was near and the project should be underway… except… politics.
For some reason, still unclear, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has introduced legislation that would remove the project from the auspices of the EPA and place it under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers. This would essentially “hit the reset button” on the project — the Army Corps of Engineers is a separate agency from the EPA, with separate regulatory mandates requiring a whole new set of analyses. It could, conceivably, take another decade before the Corps could commence work on the project!
Worse, there is every indication that the Corps would foot the bill for this remediation, costing American taxpayers, potentially, $400 million!
McCaskill (and Representatives Wagner and Lacy in the U.S. House of Representatives) have attempted to justify this proposal by citing unreasonable delay on the part of the EPA. While it is true that CERCLA has caused this process to take decades (as is the nature, and one of the central problems with CERCLA), the process is finally at an end-point, with the remediation set to start, so that justification holds no water.
Even more strange is McCaskill’s attempt to circumvent “regular order” (i.e., traditional legislative procedure) and place her legislation on what’s known as the suspension calendar (so no hearings on the relative merits of staying the course with the EPA’s plan or shifting to greater delays by going through the Corps of Engineers).
The question, of course, is who stands to benefit by this shift? Certainly it’s not the residents of Bridgeton, Missouri (or nearby St. Louis), who have this Superfund site in their midst. And it’s definitely not the American taxpayers, who have already spent considerable sums in the EPA’s decades-long study of the landfill, and were looking at a private party paying for the remediation set to start.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that the more complicated a set of federal rules, the greater the bureaucratic machinery, the more opportunities there are for crony capitalists to find a way to “gin” the system in their favor — and there is simply no room in a civil society for that. We don’t know what sort of cronies benefit from this kind of a delay, but we simply cannot allow them to hit a bureaucratic reset button.