Politico: The One Incredibly Green Thing Donald Trump Has Done

President Trump has done an exceptional job of cleaning up Superfund sites designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The following article contains excerpts from this article in Politico, along with some of my own commentary. This article is interesting because it is clear the author is not a fan of the administration, but is forced to admit that it has done an admirable job on the Superfund program.

I encourage anyone who finds these excerpts interesting to read the entire article.

Shortly after Donald Trump took office, newly installed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt—a man who had previously sued the agency a dozen times to combat what he called unwarranted regulation and systematic overreach—vowed the Trump administration would clean up America’s most toxic places, places like Minden, known as Superfund sites. “Under my administration,” he wrote in a memo, “Superfund and the EPA’s land and water cleanup efforts will be restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.”

For anyone who’d been watching Pruitt over the years, it felt like a joke.

At the time, I was covering the EPA’s aggressive deregulatory efforts for Outside magazine, and the environmentalists I interviewed scoffed at the Superfund proclamation. The Trump administration would dedicate itself to remediating the most polluted parts of the country, they said, while simultaneously rolling back regulations designed to stanch pollution? The movement collectively rolled their eyes and went back to the dreary work of suing the agency to halt rule changes and scraping government websites for climate data before it could be deleted.

Still, no one denied that the aging Superfund program was in trouble. The billion-dollar cleanup program, birthed by the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, gives the EPA enormous power to compel polluters to clean up their own messes. Early in its life, it was touted as the most potent environmental rule anywhere. But decades of systemic underfunding and neglect have slowly neutered Superfund. In the late 90s, during President Bill Clinton’s second term, the EPA averaged 87 completed cleanups per year; over the first six years of the George W. Bush administration, the number dipped to 40; Obama’s first year in office saw 20 completed clean ups and in 2014 the number dived to a piddly eight. By the tail-end of the Obama years there were still 1,300-plus sites on the Superfund National Priorities List—the worst of the worst—and some 53 million people living within three miles of one. The program “was neglected in the Obama administration,” Brett Hartl, the Center for Biological Diversity’s government affairs director, told me. “Not maliciously, but neglected.”

And more importantly, the polluters—which are required to pick up the tab for remediation but often employ teams of lawyers to contest the fees—weren’t let off the hook, either: Pruitt’s EPA went after polluters quickly and with an aggression that hadn’t been seen in years.

“The crazy thing that still baffles me is how far above and beyond the minimum requirement this administration has gone,” says Ed Smith, who lobbied for the cleanup of the West Lake site during his time with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, of the aggressive settlements. “You’d think this was a business-friendly administration,” he said, but the EPA under Trump struck a far more aggressive cleanup agreement with the polluting parties at the West Lake Landfill than Obama’s had—to the tune of an extra $150 million in remediation costs for the polluter, Smith figured. “I honestly wake up every day pinching myself. Is this real?”

For this story, I spoke with dozens of activists who agreed: The EPA under Trump has showed what it can look like when an administration gets serious about cleaning up long-neglected sites. Some of these activists are voting Republican for the first time in their lives. Some have seen their backyards and communities finally cleaned up because of the Trump administration’s EPA.

“I been a Democrat all my life,” Worley-Jenkins said. “Trump actually gives us money to clean up these sites that have been here forever,” she said. “Obama talked a lot of crap, but did very little. And people don’t realize that. They want to praise him, but he didn’t do nothing. He didn’t do s—

One of the main reasons the Trump administration was able to remove more Superfund sites than were removed under the Obama administration is surely the fact that they were completing work that had already been started, but it is also a matter of priorities. Later in the Politico piece, an environmentalist who is active on Superfund issues claims the Obama EPA’s priorities lie elsewhere:

“Gibbs didn’t trust the Trump appointees she began to meet, and her disdain for the president was palpable. But it’s not like working with the previous administration had been a cakewalk. “Obama was terrible on these issues,” she said. And don’t get her started on Gina McCarthy, Obama’s EPA administrator, whose name is nearly always preceded by an epithet when it leaves Gibb’s mouth. “All she cared about was climate, everything else went to hell in a handbasket, whether it was water or environmental justice,” Gibbs said, adding, “Gina, that b—-!”

When Pruitt came in, she recounted, he created a Superfund task force to “revitalize” the program. The group identified 54 Superfund sites to emphasize, and all across these sites, Gibbs said, the agency has made significant progress, from new settlements with polluting parties to cleanup plans and shovel-in-the-ground remediation.

And, even more surprisingly, officials are inking aggressive settlements with corporations on the hook for cleanups. All told, polluters are ponying up at 80 percent of the sites prioritized under Trump—a 10 percent increase over the agency’s historical average. With tens of millions of dollars at stake, these settlements are heated, and negotiations can drag on years. Under the Trump administration, the EPA—an agency run by veterans of the coal, chemical and petroleum industries—has pushed for forceful deals with corporate behemoths like Dow, International Paper, Honeywell and Atlantic Richfield.