The Trump Administration Says It’s Doing a Good Job Cleaning Toxic Waste Sites—Don’t Fall for It.

The Trump Administration Says It’s Doing a Good Job Cleaning Toxic Waste Sites—Don’t Fall for It.
Sherie Huggins teaches her daughter Paris Powell, six, to ride in the shadow of a coke smokestack in Alabama. The North Birmingham neighborhood is surrounded by industry and includes the 35th Avenue Superfund site where soil is contaminated by lead, arsenic, and benzo(a)pyrene. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty)

The president is using an accounting trick to claim credit for past administrations’ work in remediating Superfund sites.

Under Donald Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has bragged about its record cleaning up toxic waste sites via the Superfund program. But a closer look reveals that the administration has made little to no progress on Superfund cleanups, and the EPA is taking undeserved credit for the work of past administrations.

The focus on these industrial cleanups is a diversion. The EPA is going backward on high-profile issues like climate change and air and water pollution. To distract the public from these failures—and, really, just to have something positive to say in speeches—EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler has been touting the successful removal of Superfund site remediations from his to-do list.

“Cleaning up these sites has been a major focus of the Trump administration,” Wheeler told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute last month. “We have maintained last year’s accelerated pace and will have completed the deletion process for another 27 full or partial sites by the end of this fiscal year.”

But Wheeler is using an accounting trick. Deletion is merely the last step in the cleanup process, which often takes decades of work. In most of the cases Wheeler cites, past administrations did the hard work of planning and completing a remediation, and all Wheeler has done is file the paperwork to remove the site from the official Superfund list.

In fact, by any reasonable measure, the Superfund program has suffered under President Trump, who has consistently called for massive cuts to the EPA’s budget. The number of sites waiting for remediation to begin has grown during the Trump years from 18 in 2017 to 34 in 2019. Wheeler never mentions that growing backlog, of course, in his speeches.

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