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.”