Making the Environmental Protection Agency Great Again
For too long the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been waging the war on coal and engaging in political witch-hunts against energy producers and manufacturers instead of focusing on their core mission, Superfund. The result has been a series of sites across the country, like the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri, that have sat for years awaiting a permanent solution.
The West Lake landfill is an old quarry that for several decades handled the waste for the greater St. Louis area. During the 1970s the site was contaminated when a contractor dumped low-level radiological material. It was subsequently declared a Superfund site in 1990.
For the next 27 years bureaucratic bloat and incompetence ground cleanup efforts at the site to a standstill. As early as 2008 a final clean up plan was approved, but President Obama’s EPA shifted priorities to fighting climate change and promoting the clean power plan instead of this core EPA mission.
With the election of President Trump and the subsequent appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator, it appears the agency is poised to reorient to its core mission of overseeing land and water cleanups across the country.
Mr. Pruitt has spoken at length about the West Lake landfill in particular and how it is emblematic of the EPA’s failure to properly oversee and conduct Superfund cleanups. Multiple tests conducted by state and federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control have found that the site poses no immediate health risk to local residents, so the EPA is ready to move forward with a plan that would permanently address the radiological waste at the landfill.
Studies have confirmed the safest course of remediation is to permanently cap the site. But activists and some government bureaucrats don’t like this approach. The alternative they’re proposing is a costly and environmentally hazardous excavation of the site.
Documents recently released by the EPA show an unnecessary excavation of the West Lake landfill would subject Missourians across the state to additional health and safety risks, increase the chance of a transportation accident 54 fold, and will add 3-10 years in additional cleanup time to the site.
Curiously, a coalition of environmental activists led by Just Moms STL (a group with close ties to the Teamsters) and Maria Chappelle-Nadal (the Missouri State Senator censured for advocating President Trump’s assassination) are fighting EPA cleanup efforts, keeping the issue alive for their own political gain.
Just Moms is pushing to excavate the site and to transfer responsibility of the clean up to the Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), over the objections of the Corps. Their director of Civil Works, Steve Stockton has said that his agency’s limited resources would delay cleanup of the site. “Additionally” Stockton noted, “there is no guarantee that the ultimate cleanup actions would be any different than those which would occur under the current process.”
Given these revelations, why would anyone, much less local environmental activists, advocate for such a plan?
The answer as things often boil down to is politics and money. The proposed capping project, overseen by the EPA, would be completed by non-union labor with private funds and would hand Mr. Pruitt and the Trump administration a win in the process. Both things are sacrilege to liberal orthodoxy.
The Army Corps cleanup would conversely leave taxpayers on the hook for as much as $600 million. The Corps also employs a union organized workforce for their remediation projects and coincidentally, around 280,000 of the 1.4 million Teamsters in America are employed by the federal government. The union, politically powerful in the St. Louis area, also represents many of the very truck drivers that would likely haul the environmental waste across the Missouri countryside, presumably at increased hazard rates.
A final decision on the cleanup is still months away, but one thing seems clear; a successful EPA cleanup of the West Lake landfill would have far reaching policy ramifications. Capping the site, per the EPA plan, would prove that dysfunction in the agency over the last 8 years was due more to mismanagement by political hacks that had more interest in engaging in partisan environmental politics than a failure of Superfund. The alternative, cleanup of every polluted industrial site by unionized government labor at taxpayer expense is unacceptable.
Some conservatives may argue that the EPA has never been great, so Mr. Pruitt cannot make it “great again.” In my opinion, that is irrelevant. The EPA, much like the Superfund sites it is tasked to oversee, both need cleaning up and Mr. Pruitt is the man to do it.
Travis Korson is a Visiting Fellow at the Last Best Hope on Earth Institute.
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