Last summer, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt established a Superfund Task Force, and named Butte and Anaconda as top priorities for completion of Superfund cleanups.
When Pruitt resigned last month, many in Montana wondered what that would mean here.
On the first anniversary of the Superfund Task Force, I sat down in Butte with Doug Benevento, the top administrator for EPA Region 8, to talk about what changes at the top mean for Montana.
Nora Saks: The Superfund Task Force was something started by Administrator Pruitt and I know former advisor Kel Kelly had a big role in it. And now they’re both no longer with EPA. How much did former Administrator Pruitt drive this initiative, and how confident are you it will continue in his absence?
Doug Benevento: Administrator Pruitt and Kel Kelly certainly drove our attention on Superfund. Acting Administrator Wheeler has probably doubled that effort. One issue when he came is he wanted to make certain there wasn’t this drop off in work while people were trying to figure out - does he want to do this or does he not want to do this. He was very clear and very frank that he expects all of our commitments to be met, he expects our efforts to be doubled, not maintained. Doubled. And he’s holding all of us, including me, accountable for our work. He’s very aware of Libby, he’s very aware of Butte, he’s very aware of Anaconda, he’s aware of the commitments that have been made with respect to - Anaconda will begin delisting in 2025, Butte 2024, and that we are going to move forward with cleanup this year. And he has told me in no uncertain terms that he is holding me accountable to make sure we meet those deadlines.
NS: Given some of the high profile turnover at the national EPA headquarters, with the departure of Pruitt and Kelly, because of ethical scandals, how has that affected the operations of EPA and the reputation of the agency at the regional level? Has it made it harder to accomplish your goals with that kind of leadership change?
DB: No. I have to tell you that, sitting in Denver, those issues were - you sort of read about them, but they didn’t impact your work. And they didn’t impact the work out in the region. EPA is a very decentralized organization, and the regions is where the work gets implemented. And I can tell you that, I guess there was an awareness, but people were focused on their job. And the fact that we had goals made a difference. And so we are going to push ahead. Acting Administrator Wheeler has made it clear that he expects us to push ahead. I thought we were making good pace before, but Administrator Wheeler has cattle prodded us to make sure we’re redoubling that effort.
NS: With all of the recent turnover at EPA, at the top levels, how do assure people here, especially in Butte and Anaconda, that these sites are still a priority and that the cleanup timeline is also something you’re trying to meet?
DB: I understand that when you have turnover at the top of an organization, there’s concern about what that means for past priorities. And what I would tell people is what I’ve been instructed. I’ve been instructed to move forward, move forward quickly. On top of everything else, make sure you’re protecting human health and the environment. But, that we need to move more quickly on these sites than we have in the past to accomplish that goal. What I would tell them is that since I’ve gotten that mandate from my boss, the Administrator, that the most important thing they can do is hold me accountable for how we’re moving forward. The buck stops with me. I’ve gotten my instructions, I’m doing my best to implement them, with the help of an extraordinary career staff. And so what they should be doing is watching what we’re doing, holding us accountable, and holding me accountable to make sure that we make the progress that I’ve said that we wanted to make. That’s the most important thing that they could do. I understand the angst. But what I would tell them is they have a job. And their job is to hold people accountable.
NS: I think a lot of folks across the country were excited when former Administrator Scott Pruitt was appointed as the top EPA chief, and saw this as a shift in direction. How would you compare Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to Scott Pruitt as a leader? Are there any differences you’ve observed in the short time he’s been in that position?
DB: I thought highly of former Administrator Pruitt. He hired me. I thought he really empowered me to do the work that I’ve done. What you have with Acting Administrator Wheeler is a consummate leader though. This is a person who knows what he wants to get done and how he wants to do it. He is a man who is steeped in environmental laws. He knows these laws better than I do. He knows what questions to ask. And he knows how to prioritize to get things done. The leadership style of Administrator Wheeler is thoughtful, it’s deliberative, it’s also one where he expects results, and he holds people accountable for delivering those results. He is an extraordinary leader for the agency and I think his leadership style matches very well with what the job is, which is protecting human health and the environment.
NS: What are you celebrating with this anniversary of the Superfund Task Force?
DB: I’ve given several talks where I’ve discussed Anaconda and Butte. In those talks, I’ve noted that America went through WW1, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and fought and won WW2 more quickly than we’ve managed to clean these sites up. I understand that Superfund is complicated. But so was WW2. And I think the benefit of the Superfund Task Force and the benefit of the focus on Superfund has been to take EPA and to focus us in on what Congress has asked us to do, and areas where people are really concerned about. If you come to Butte, you go to Anaconda, you go to Pueblo, Colorado, you go to different Superfund sites, they’re not interested in an environmental issue that may manifest itself in 30 or 40 years. What they’re really interested in is the one that they’re dealing with right now.
NS: In your mind, what are the biggest accomplishments in Montana specifically, in Region 8 more broadly?
DB: With respect to Superfund, I think the biggest accomplishments in Montana have arisen from listening to the community. The people that live here often know the site better than we do. And most certainly know what they want a cleaned up site to look like. Second, I think it’s been a resource issue. I think that EPA has put resources into moving these sites forward. And I think in the past, resources from other leadership have been directed elsewhere. For us, this is a top priority. Butte, Anaconda, Libby, Columbia Falls, those are all sites that we want moved forward quickly. Third, we want to make certain that we deleting sites, even partially, so that we can start lifting the stigma of Superfund. There is a legitimate issue that communities have that when you Google "Butte", and you Google "Anaconda", when you Google some of these sites, the first thing that comes up is Superfund. It helps us eliminate that stigma.
NS: With that progress you just mentioned, one year later how do the sites around here compare to other sites on the priority list? Is the progress typical? Are they ahead or behind of others? Where would you put sites in Montana?
DB: I am going to be unabashedly parochial. I think we’re making more progress in Montana than is being made anywhere else in the United States. Period.
NS: And why is that?
DB: I think it’s because we have community that is very engaged and very technically adept. So it makes our job easier when we can have conversations with them at the level we can have them about what we’re doing and what they would like to see. Second, and this is terribly important, you have got an extraordinarily good, competent, caring group of EPA career people that want to get this done. Let me toss in a third because this is something I haven’t mentioned that I should have, and this is very important. You have a political leadership in the state of Montana that is also very engaged. The minute I got this job - and I say the minute - that’s not too much of an exageration - I had requests from both senators, a congressman and a governor, that I needed to come up and take a look at these sites because they wanted progress made faster and they wanted to know how that was going to happen. You have a local elected leadership that was very committed to working through these issues to try to conclusion. I guess I would put up there, right after community engagement, is the engagement of the political leadership is second to none in the United States.
NS: Regional Administrator Benevento, thank you so much for chatting with me today.
DB: Thank you very much for having me on.