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U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, seen in 2010, sought more details about the EPA’s Superfund cleanup program. Her district includes several Superfund sites

Credit: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

EPA misses the mark in its response to Superfund cleanup inquiry

The agency’s memo fails to answer key questions, inaccurately describes its own efforts to monitor hazardous waste and holds up as a solution a program that explicitly doesn’t address the problem.

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In March, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, openeda formal inquiry into the environmental damage created by the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program.

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency has crafted its response – and it misses the mark. The agency’s memo, signed by Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, fails to answer key questions, inaccurately describes its own efforts to monitor hazardous waste and holds up as a solution a program that explicitly doesn’t address the problem.

The questions were spurred by an investigation published by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Guardian US.

Here’s what’s wrong with the EPA’s response:

1. The EPA doesn’t answer Eshoo’s question about whether it monitors the carbon dioxide emissions generated when hazardous waste is shipped from state to state for treatment.

Our Toxic Trail investigation found an inefficient cleanup system that creates potentially dangerous environmental problems.  

For every 5 pounds of contaminants pulled from the ground, roughly 20,000 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced from continually running pumps, cross-country treks and treatment plants that produce as much greenhouse gas as municipal power plants.

Eshoo’s first question asks:

Does the EPA monitor the carbon dioxide emissions generated in the interstate transportation and treatment of hazardous waste or dioxin emissions from carbon regeneration facilities?.

The EPA failed to answer the first part of the question. So what about the second part?

2. The EPA says it monitors dioxin emissions from carbon regeneration plants. But it has admitted in the past that these numbers can’t be relied upon.

The agency says its Toxics Release Inventory program and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act gives the agency the regulatory authority to monitor dioxin emissions from facilities that produce more than 0.5 grams of dioxins a year.

There are a couple of problems with this statement. The threshold is actually 0.1 grams, not 0.5. And, by the EPA’s own admission, it doesn’t know how accurate these numbers are.

As the EPA noted in its 2013 inventory of the nation’s dioxin emissions, the data gathered “is self-reported, and facilities are not required to take measurements to support their emission estimates,” the EPA said.

3. The EPA says it has a strategy to minimize the environmental footprint of its cleanup actions. But that strategy explicitly says it doesn’t deal with the very side effects on which our story focuses.

Eshoo asked:

To what extent does EPA monitoring or regulations of these emissions protect human health and the environment?

In its response, the EPA said it considers all environmental effects of its cleanup and cites its Green Remediation Strategy. That’s a set of guidelines designed to help the people in charge of cleanup lower the environmental toll of their efforts.

Dig into that report, however, and you’ll see that it specifically states that the EPA doesn’t try to account for the environmental damage done once it leaves the cleanup site. Our story focused on the damage done after the waste leaves the cleanup site.

The report says “an offsite waste metric is not included in this methodology” because “determining the fate of that waste is complex.”

4. The response highlights the original problem: The EPA doesn’t consider whether the environmental costs make cleanup worthwhile.

Eshoo asks:

Does the EPA have sufficient regulatory authority to monitor and control toxic pollutants generated after removal from the Superfund site, or is Congressional action necessary to grant additional authority?

The EPA doesn’t answer the question. It doesn’t say whether it has enough authority or needs Congress’ help. Instead, it points to an obscure law designed to stop Superfund waste from going to treatment plants that have violated serious pollution laws. That wasn’t the focus of our story.

The agency has a host of programs and legal mechanisms to combat the kind of pollution detailed in our story – the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Clean Water Act, to name a few. But the EPA stops considering toxic waste to be Superfund waste after it is removed from cleanup sites; at that point, it becomes some other program’s problem.

And that underscores the point of the story: The EPA doesn’t weigh whether all the environmental costs created by cleaning Superfund sites are, in the end, worth it.

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.