With no deal yet signed to avert another partial government shutdown, progress on Montana’s Superfund cleanup sites is again in jeopardy. MTPR's Nora Saks spoke with a former senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency to understand what kind of impacts another shutdown could have in Montana.
In her more than 30 years at EPA, Betsy Southerland worked in both the Superfund and Water programs, most recently serving as the Director of Science and Technology in the Office of Water. She resigned publicly in August 2017, citing family reasons as well as concerns over the Trump Administration’s repeal of environmental regulations.
"I can tell you there is a significant loss of public health and safety protections, whenever EPA is shut down," she says.
Southerland says nationwide, all safety inspections at chemical factories, oil refineries, and power plants are stopped. Those inspections often take months to reschedule.
In addition, air and water quality monitoring at critical sites grinds to a halt. As do enforcement actions across the board. No grants are given to states, tribes or communities to support their public health protection programs, and EPA’s research is suspended too.
"All Superfund cleanups at toxic sites are stopped, unless there’s some kind of imminent danger issue," Southerland says. "They have to have all the contractors stand-down at those Superfund sites, until the shutdown is resolved."
Last week, a spokesperson from EPA Region 8 said the recent partial government shutdown delayed progress on Butte and Anaconda’s Superfund cleanup deals by several weeks.
Montana is home to about 20 different Superfund sites. That’s far fewer than exist in some more industrial states like New Jersey.
But in 2017, President Trump’s new EPA named Superfund one of its top priorities, and handpicked both the Butte and Anaconda Superfund sites to receive special attention. Cleanup has been ongoing in those areas since the 1980s.
Betsy Southerland questions EPA’s claim that Superfund is a priority, given the vacancies at the agency.
"What they have done to hurt the Superfund program, I think significantly, is they have not replaced any of the personnel lost from the Superfund program either at the headquarters or at the regional levels. And furthermore, they have really undermined the entire enforcement of the Superfund program nationwide."
Southerland’s view is that EPA created its priority sites list because of its slimmed down staffing, and that it’s probably a good thing for the communities who are on it, because they might see progress that others won’t. But she also says that most of the sites the agency chose for fast-tracking, "Will involve responsible parties who are not big political donors to the Trump Administration. That’s one way, certainly, they can make this a priority; because it’s not hurting any of the people who fund them."
The main responsible party for both the Butte and Anaconda sites is Atlantic Richfield, now a subsidiary of the London-based oil company BP.
Under increased pressure from EPA, final legal and financial cleanup deals are currently on the table for Butte and Anaconda. Southerland said regardless of whether another government shutdown occurs, Montana’s Superfund communities should be asking the agency for frequent updates and communication about the progress of the cleanups.
"We know from a Superfund standpoint, that if a site is not overseen closely, the cleanup — whether it’s paid for by the taxpayers or paid for by a responsible party from industry — will be very slow. Because what is not watched, is not done."
A spokesperson from EPA Region 8 says the agency anticipates having signed consent decrees by late summer or early fall for Butte, and roughly the end of the year for Anaconda.