Wheeler Touts Superfund Success Report, But Key Cleanup Data Missing

June 10, 2020

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is touting cleanup successes in the agency’s just-released Superfund fiscal year 2019 accomplishments report, but the report -- released annually to chronicle statistics from the previous fiscal year -- hides a poor record because it lacks data on key cleanup milestones, says a former high-level EPA official.

Wheeler June 10 unveiled the Superfund FY2019 Annual Accomplishments Report as part of his press swing through southeastern Pennsylvania, which included a visit to a Superfund landfill site.

“As we celebrate 50 years of EPA’s commitment to protecting human health and the environment, we can take pride in the last 40 years that the Superfund program has contributed to that success,” Wheeler said while visiting the Strasburg Superfund site in Newlin Township, PA, according to a June 10 press release. “The Trump Administration is proud to showcase all we have achieved to clean up contaminated sites such as the Strasburg Landfill, protect our communities, and turn these spaces into economic and recreational assets for generations to come.”

And EPA Region 3 Administrator Cosmo Servidio said, “By using sound science and engaging with responsible parties, communities and other partners we’ve achieved the greatest record of Superfund success in nearly two decades."

But Betsy Southerland, a former EPA Superfund and water office official now with the Environmental Protection Network -- comprised of former EPA staff and officials -- is critical of the report. She cites its absence of key cleanup data that has been included in all of the previous annual Superfund accomplishments reports.

“This is a conscious effort to hide the lack of cleanup during this administration,” Southerland says in a written response to Inside EPA. The report lacks data from FY19 on the number of sites achieving construction completion of remedies and the number of unfunded projects ready to start construction, among other measures, she says.

The FY19 Superfund accomplishments report highlights successes in the Superfund program and recaps Superfund task force program improvements to accelerate cleanups and accomplishments in reusing cleaned-up properties. It also spotlights a host of cleanup sites throughout the report to illustrate these achievements.

The report also contains certain statistics but does not include key ones that Southerland has said are meaningful measures for comparing actions across the years.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that EPA had quietly updated its website to show data indicating its backlog in funding new construction work at Superfund sites had grown to its highest level yet, now at 34 unfunded construction starts in FY19, prompting backlash from Democratic lawmakers. EPA also recorded just six construction completes in FY19 -- lower than in the past 15 years.

Neither of these statistics are reported in the new accomplishments report, but Southerland says in a paper she produced for a House subcommittee that these are key standardized measures that allow comparisons of cleanups across the years.

“All previous annual reports included the number of sites where all cleanup construction was completed that fiscal year and the number of projects ready for construction that fiscal year that did NOT get funded,” she said in her written reply to Inside EPA. “The Trump Superfund program has the highest number of projects left unfunded and the lowest number of sites where all cleanup construction was completed,” she said, noting she would therefore be surprised to see the Trump EPA publicizing those figures.

In FY18, the number of construction completes was 12 while the number of unfunded new construction starts was 20.

Incomplete Data

The new report also lacks data on the number of sites in FY19 where the migration of contaminated groundwater was controlled and on the number of sites where potential or actual human exposure risks were controlled, she says. The report does provide total numbers accumulated over the span of 39 years for these two data points and for construction completes, but “you have no idea from that 39-year total how much of that progress occurred this fiscal year,” Southerland notes.

The total number of construction completes over 39 years is 1,211 sites, while the total number of sites where the migration of contaminated groundwater is controlled is 1,210, and the total number of sites with human exposure risk controlled is 1,523, the report says.

The report does cite for FY19 a third key measure for comparing cleanup actions across the years -- which is the number of sites deleted from Superfund’s National Priorities List (NPL). EPA says its deletions in FY19 were 27 -- 12 full site deletions and 15 partial ones. In comparison, in FY18, they were 20 -- 18 full and 4 partial. But Southerland in her paper notes that deletions are “primarily an administrative exercise for EPA staff to document that all cleanup goals have been met at a site after years of cleanup work.”

The EPA report also says that in FY19, the agency undertook 116 cleanup decisions -- 52 new and 64 amended decisions -- 233 removal actions and started 65 remedial construction projects. It also recorded 48 sites ready for anticipated reuse and completed 664 remedial site assessments.

While the Trump EPA has focused heavily on repealing or weakening major regulations under air, climate and water programs, it has touted the Superfund program as a priority even as President Donald Trump requested cuts to the program annually. -- Suzanne Yohannan (syohannan@iwpnews.com)

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