EPA Prioritizes Superfund Cleanup Sites Over Climate Change
Not long after the Trump administration made cleaning up Superfund sites a priority for the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler turned his attention to a century-old neighborhood built for steelworkers that sits atop soil with dangerously high levels of lead and arsenic.
Cleaning up the 1,700 residential properties on Pueblo’s southside was originally scheduled to take more than a decade, but Mr. Wheeler and then-Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento cobbled together the additional $15 million per year needed to cut that timeframe by more than half.
“When I started with the agency in 2018, we knew what the problem was here, we knew what the solution was, but it was slated to take 10-15 years, and I just looked at that and said, that’s too long,” said Mr. Wheeler, who took over as EPA administrator last year. “We needed to get it done faster, and we are.”
The Colorado Smelter site now is slated to be completed in three to five years, part of the administration’s push to fast-track projects on the Superfund National Priorities List where “people live, work and play,” he said.
“This is a new approach we’re taking to Superfund,” said Mr. Wheeler, who toured the site Monday with EPA and local officials. “We’ll have it done by 2023, which means a couple of generations of children will be able to play in their backyard without fear of lead-contaminated soil.”
If the EPA under President Barack Obama had its eye on the sky, seeking to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases in the name of combating climate change, then the agency under President Trump has its hands in the dirt, digging into the unglamorous and often unheralded work of scrubbing polluted properties and spurring community revival.
“There are too many examples of sites around the country that have become stuck and lingered on the list for years, well beyond when they should have been cleaned up and delisted,” Mr. Wheeler said. “President Trump wanted to get these delayed sites unstuck.”
The Superfund National Priorities List is daunting, with 1,335 sites covering everything from old military arsenals to abandoned mines, but Mr. Wheeler said the agency was able to remove all or part of 27 projects last year from the list, the most in one year since 2001.
Even though neighborhoods of single-family homes like Bessemer hardly fit the Superfund stereotype, “they’re not as rare as you would think,” said Mr. Benevento, now associate deputy administrator, who cited the recent remediation of homes near a former vermiculite mine at the Libby Asbestos Site in Montana.
Expediting the Colorado Smelter cleanup creates a domino effect for other Superfund projects, he said.
“By doing this more quickly, we’re saving money for the taxpayer,” Mr. Benevento said. “Most importantly, we’re doing great things for the people in the community, but we’re also going to be able to put this money into other Superfund sites to move them faster. There’s nothing about this that isn’t a win.”
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