Ten months after that 2018 meeting, Wheeler was joined on the EPA’s senior leadership team by Peter C. Wright, a lawyer who previously worked for Dow and represented the company in negotiations with the EPA over Superfund sites.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., praised Wright as someone who “will bring a wealth of experience and expertise to critically important roles in protecting America’s public health and safety.”
But Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., called his nomination “the classic fox guarding the henhouse,” given Wright’s past work for Dow on Superfund sites.
Senate Democrats argued that Wright’s handling of Dow’s interactions with EPA regulators at a Dow Superfund site in Midland, Michigan, near the company’s corporate headquarters, should disqualify him from running the program.
“Simply put, Peter Wright made his mark at Dow Chemical by misrepresenting science, downplaying threats to public health and undermining cleanups,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said during the confirmation hearing. “These practices run counter to the very mission of the EPA.”
After Wright became Superfund chief, his prior work at Dow disqualified him from involvement in 160 Superfund sites, given how often Dow or DuPont — the companies merged in 2017 — have been identified as “responsible parties” for toxic pollution.
As a result of his recusals, Wright is barred from involvement at 33 Superfund sites identified by the GAO as vulnerable to climate change, including low-lying locations in highly populated metropolitan areas in Texas and New Jersey that have repeatedly been struck by hurricanes.
His recusals include three toxic waste dumps on the GAO climate change list where the EPA itself says uncontrolled toxins potentially threaten human health. One is the Diamond Alkali Co. site, a huge Agent Orange factory that dumped cancer-causing waste into the Passaic River in downtown Newark, New Jersey.
Nor can Wright participate in review of the French Limited site on the banks of the San Jacinto River next to the historically Black town of Barrett, Texas, outside Houston, where residents remain concerned about toxins being carried into their community by flooding. In a letter to Wheeler in July, Wright said his recusal from involvement in all matters related to Superfund sites in which Dow or DuPont were responsible parties would last “for the duration of my EPA tenure.”
A backlog of Superfund cleanups
In House testimony in February, Wheeler noted that 27 Superfund sites had been deleted from the National Priorities List in fiscal year 2019 after remediation plans had been completed, the most in any year since 2001. “We have speeded up cleanup at all the sites,” Wheeler said. Deleting sites from the list had become the agency’s leading metric for success, Wheeler had previously said.
In virtually all of the removal cases, the start of those cleanup plans predated the Trump administration by decades, and many of those deleted sites are still under five-year review by the EPA because toxins remain present, often buried beneath sand, soil and concrete caps that have proven vulnerable to heightened flooding linked to climate change.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., grilled Wheeler at the hearing about why the Trump administration was proposing a $112 million cut in the Superfund program when there are 34 unfunded cleanup projects, the largest backlog in 15 years.
Congress, which last month passed a stopgap resolution funding the government through Dec. 11, has previously rejected Trump’s annual proposed EPA cuts and continued agency funding at around current levels.
At the February hearing, Pallone also asked Wheeler whether it was true that the Trump administration opposed legislation Pallone had introduced to incentivize climate protections at Superfund sites.
Wheeler replied that the administration did oppose that legislation, but he added: “When we work on the Superfund sites, we work to make sure that we can withstand stronger storms and we have a very good track record there.”
David Coursen, a former EPA attorney who now works with the Environmental Protection Network, a group of former EPA employees, disagreed.
He said in an interview that Superfund site cleanups could stall, while others sit unattended, as a consequence of reduced funding, increasing the danger to communities from pollutants leaking into the water and air.
“The Superfund program has always been a challenge,” he said. “The demands have always exceeded the budget. But cutting the budget would further stress the program and the agency’s ability to address these serious environmental and public health threats.”
Administration officials say the cuts would force the agency to become more efficient and could lead to more expedient remediation of the most heavily polluted sites.
Gibbs, the original Love Canal activist who said she was initially surprised and pleased by Pruitt and Kelly’s work, had lost much of her enthusiasm by late 2019.
Her nonprofit, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, released a study in October 2019 that showed how the Trump administration’s Superfund cleanups had predominantly been in majority white neighborhoods.
By focusing on sites where corporate polluters could be readily identified and forced to pay for cleanups, she said, the Trump administration had ignored “orphan sites” where no such “potentially responsible parties” could be identified, which tend to be in communities of color. Orphan sites represented just five of the 55 sites targeted by the Trump administration for cleanup.
The lasting loss of long-term climate change planning
Over time, the Trump administration’s decision to largely abandon Obama’s mandate for creating climate change adaptation plans for every Superfund site may have the most lasting impact, environmental advocates and former EPA officials said.
Dennis McLerran, who served as EPA regional administrator in the Pacific Northwest from 2010 to 2017, said he worries that by excluding climate change calculations, Superfund site remediation decisions will be made based on historical data that does not provide an accurate picture of the future, even present, threats posed by increasing rainfall, larger flood zones and more intense hurricanes.
“It’s only prudent that you look to the future to make calculations to harden these sites against climate change,” McLerran said. “Not taking climate change into account is putting your head in the sand.”
After Jacob Carter left the EPA and joined the Union of Concerned Scientists, he helped produce a study on Superfund sites and climate change in July that went beyond the findings of the Government Accountability Office.
The study concludes that more than 800 sites near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are at risk of flooding in the next 20 years under scenarios predicting low rates of sea level rise, and that number jumps to more than 1,000 by 2100 if carbon emissions continue on their current trajectory and trigger a high rate of sea level rise.
“For purely political reasons, the agency sidelined work that was vital to its mission,” Carter said. “Scientists should be able to carry out this work without fear of political pressure.”