June 23, 2017 Practice Points

EPA Prioritizes and Centralizes Superfund Cleanups

The EPA’s traditional reliance on its regional offices to take the lead in Superfund cleanups is coming to an end.

By Elizabeth M. Weaver and H. Joseph Drapalski – June 23, 2017

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) traditional reliance on its regional offices to take the lead in Superfund cleanups is coming to an end. Through internal memoranda issued by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and proposed budget cuts by the Trump administration, the administrator’s office is rapidly consolidating its oversight and control over Superfund remedial decisions at the expense of the EPA’s regional offices.

On May 9, 2017, Administrator Pruitt issued a memorandum stating his intention to restore the Superfund program to its “rightful place at the center of the [EPA’s] core mission” by promoting “accountability and consistency in remedy selection.” This delegation memo limits the authority of regional administrators over Superfund cleanups in which the estimated cost of the remedy exceeds $50 million, and announces that remedial selection for such sites will be made at EPA headquarters by either Administrator Pruitt or the deputy administrator.

On May 22, Administrator Pruitt issued another memorandum that expanded on the delegation memo and further reduced the regional offices’ autonomy by ordering that regional administrators and their staff “shall more closely and more frequently coordinate with the Administrator’s office throughout the process of developing and evaluating alternatives and selecting a remedy, particularly at sites with remedies estimated to cost $50 million or more.” The memo also established a task force to prepare recommendations concerning how the EPA might restructure the cleanup process, expedite remediation, reduce the burden on cooperating parties, incentivize parties to remediate sites, and encourage private investment in cleanup sites. Administrator Pruitt specifically requested recommendations on how to improve the Superfund program “with a focus on” the regional offices and how to expand the role of tribal, state, and local governments in the Superfund process—but omits any mention of increasing or maintaining the regional offices’ role.

The Trump administration itself has proposed drastic cuts to the EPA that will severely curtail the regional offices’ ability to oversee Superfund cleanups. The administration’s 2018 proposed budget would reduce the EPA’s current funding by more than 31 percent, cut 3,200 of the agency’s 15,000 personnel, and slash Superfund spending by 25 percent. Further, the administration and Administrator Pruitt have repeatedly stated that they intend to implement the vast majority of the job cuts at the regional offices. Faced with such severe funding and staffing cuts, the regional offices will be forced to rely on the EPA’s headquarters where they had previously acted independently.

These memoranda and the proposed budget taken together indicate that the Trump administration and Administrator Pruitt intend to strengthen the administrator’s office while reducing the regional offices’ authority and role in the Superfund process. This push for centralization will likely continue as Administrator Pruitt’s task force develops recommendations to streamline the regional Superfund programs and increase the role of local oversight authorities and the EPA’s headquarters in place of the regional offices.


Elizabeth M. Weaver and H. Joseph Drapalski are with Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP in Los Angeles, California.

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