MINDEN, WEST VIRGINIA—“Every one of these houses, I can tell you the people that has died,” Susie Worley-Jenkins tells me as she noses her pickup down the steep ravine into her hometown.
“A woman right there, she died, her dad died, her mom died. All with cancer.” Minden, West Virginia, is in a small holler—hollow, to non-Appalachians—and 40 years ago it was home to about 1,200 people. Today it’s home to 250. “This woman here, she died of cancer. Her son’s right there now, he’s dying with bone cancer.” There are around 25 homes on the main road into town, mostly low-slung or trailers, and we drive slowly so Worley-Jenkins has time to recount the dead. “And the woman there died of cancer. This guy and his wife both died with cancer; he bought this to fix it up. He was our sheriff.”
Minden was born a coal town. Five decades ago, the Shaffer Equipment Company, which serviced the local coal industry, dumped its transformers into the abandoned mines above town. The machines were laced with extremely toxic industrial chemicals called Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as probable human carcinogens.
“The lady that lived here, let’s see, she’s got breast cancer. The lady lived there just died. The guy there has real bad breathing problems and has cancer, dealing with it now, too.” The creek we drive along snakes through town and across property lines, and today it’s swollen, fouled with rain-driven runoff from the toxic mines above it. A miscarriage on the right, blood disorders on the left, hundreds of cancer cases everywhere. “I have all these names. In the last two or three years, there’s been 160 that died or has cancer.” Late-winter snow drifts through a broken window into a burned-out home, abandoned since the occupants died. All told, Worley-Jenkins figures, at least 500 residents have died unnatural deaths in the last two decades. “Now you see why we’re so pissed off.”
Shortly after Donald Trump took office, newly installed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt—a man who had previously sued the agency a dozen times to combat what he called unwarranted regulation and systematic overreach—vowed the Trump administration would clean up America’s most toxic places, places like Minden, known as Superfund sites. “Under my administration,” he wrote in a memo, “Superfund and the EPA’s land and water cleanup efforts will be restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.”
For anyone who’d been watching Pruitt over the years, it felt like a joke.
At the time, I was covering the EPA’s aggressive deregulatory efforts for Outside magazine, and the environmentalists I interviewed scoffed at the Superfund proclamation. The Trump administration would dedicate itself to remediating the most polluted parts of the country, they said, while simultaneously rolling back regulations designed to stanch pollution? The movement collectively rolled their eyes and went back to the dreary work of suing the agency to halt rule changes and scraping government websites for climate data before it could be deleted.
Still, no one denied that the aging Superfund program was in trouble. The billion-dollar cleanup program, birthed by the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, gives the EPA enormous power to compel polluters to clean up their own messes. Early in its life, it was touted as the most potent environmental rule anywhere. But decades of systemic underfunding and neglect have slowly neutered Superfund. In the late 90s, during President Bill Clinton’s second term, the EPA averaged 87 completed cleanups per year; over the first six years of the George W. Bush administration, the number dipped to 40; Obama’s first year in office saw 20 completed clean ups and in 2014 the number dived to a piddly eight. By the tail-end of the Obama years there were still 1,300-plus sites on the Superfund National Priorities List—the worst of the worst—and some 53 million people living within three miles of one. The program “was neglected in the Obama administration,” Brett Hartl, the Center for Biological Diversity’s government affairs director, told me, “not maliciously, but neglected.”
But then, as the Trump administration slashed water regulations and defunded climate research, something strange happened: Pruitt appeared to be delivering on his Superfund promise. Top officials took a personal interest in dozens of sites across the country. Stalled cleanup efforts were addressed in double time. Critics argued, rightly, that much of the work had progressed under Obama, and the EPA under Trump was just taking credit by finishing up the final stages of years of hard work, but the progress continued apace the next year. And, as some activists pointed out, if it was true that EPA was only wrapping up sites that had been mostly cleaned up in earlier years, what had kept the Obama administration from expediting the process and finishing the job?
Under Trump, officials deleted seven sites from the Superfund list in 2017, 22 in 2018, and 27 in 2019—the highest single year total since 2001. Stagnated projects like Butte, Montana’s noxious Berkeley Pit have been reinvigorated and schedules have been accelerated, like at Indiana’s USS Lead site, a former lead ore refinery, and the West Lake Landfill in Missouri.
And more importantly, the polluter—which is required to pick up the tab for remediation but often employs teams of lawyers to contest the fees—wasn’t let off the hook, either: Pruitt’s EPA went after polluters quickly and with an aggression that hadn’t been seen in years. “The crazy thing that still baffles me is how far above and beyond the minimum requirement this administration has gone,” says Ed Smith, who lobbied for the cleanup of the West Lake site during his time with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, of the aggressive settlements. “You’d think this was a business-friendly administration,” he says, but the EPA under Trump struck a far more aggressive cleanup agreement with the polluting parties at the West Lake Landfill than Obama’s had—to the tune of an extra $150 million in remediation costs for the polluter, Smith figures. “I honestly wake up every day pinching myself, Is this real?”
For this story, I spoke with dozens of activists who agreed: The EPA under Trump has showed what it can look like when an administration gets serious about cleaning up long-neglected sites. Some of these activists are voting Republican for the first time in their lives. Some have seen their backyards and communities finally cleaned up because of the Trump administration’s EPA.
“I been a Democrat all my life,” Worley-Jenkins says. “Trump actually gives us money to clean up these sites that have been here forever,” she says. “Obama talked a lot of crap, but did very little. And people don’t realize that. They want to praise him, but he didn’t do nothing. He didn’t do shit.” The Trump administration’s efforts to prioritize the Superfund site in her home town have made her a believer. She’s getting into local politics and campaigned for a county magistrate slot this summer. It was a nonpartisan position, but Worley-Jenkins wasn’t hiding her affiliation. “I’m running as a Republican,” she said at the time.
What’s behind the Trump administration’s commitment to Superfund sites? There’s more than a little PR savvy. Activists across the country report phone calls and home visits from high level administration officials, the kind of appointees that generally didn’t used to hand their cell phone numbers to local residents. Politics is undoubtedly a part of it, too—cleaning up these sites brings in development dollars and revved-up local economies, all of which could translate to a boost for Trump in 2020. Ahead of November, Andrew Wheeler, the current EPA administrator, just wrapped up a multi-state tour of successful Superfund cleanups conspicuously located in battleground states, hitting sites in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
But it’s also been complicated, and the benefits unevenly distributed. Over the past few years, as the EPA has trumpeted its success on TV and social media, Black and Latino people have been less likely than white people to see their neighborhoods prioritized for cleanup, leading Superfund activists say. And the administration showed, and even advertised, a preference for cleaning up development-ready sites, at the expense of those in less desirable areas.
And, even more surprisingly, despite the improbable success of Superfund under Trump, the administration’s commitment to cutting the EPA’s budget means it may be throwing away its hardest-earned achievements.
But for activists, the strange alliance between Republican allies and Superfund activists is a story of how normal people might finally be able to force some accountability from polluting companies, and of how political will can come from the most unexpected places. Against all odds, the Superfund accomplishments of the Trump administration could be something for future administrations to learn from—as thorny and as flawed as the gains have been.
Lois Gibbs is the country’s leading activist on toxic waste, a Goldman Prize-winning, tobacco-stained brawler of the old school. She runs a non-profit from an unmarked, unadorned 950-square foot home off a busy street in Falls Church, Virginia. Through the organization she aids, trains and mentors residents-turned-activists like Susie Worley-Jenkins, teaching them how to harangue EPA officials and shame the media into coverage. She has also, to her own shock, worked more closely with the Trump administration than perhaps any other environmentalist in America.
Gibbs’ journey to the strangest place in her career began at the Old Ebbitt Grill, just across the street from the Treasury Building. It was October 2017, and that summer Albert Kelly had been tapped to revitalize Superfund. Kelly ran a bank in Oklahoma, where Pruitt was one of his clients. “To bring in someone who is absolutely clueless about the agency and the million moving parts of this program, it’s really frightening,” Gibbs told E&E News at the time, echoing a refrain Democrats had repeated about nearly every EPA appointee. Kelly wasn’t just clueless about the EPA, either: He’d recently been fined by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and run out of the banking business. Yet, a few weeks later Kelly—Kell, to everyone—called Gibbs up, out of the blue, and asked her to lunch. “I got such criticism from her when I got named to this. What the hell does this guy know about anything?” Kelly told me from his home in Oklahoma. “She had a good point. I wasn’t hired because I knew about Superfund.”
Gibbs, a professional pain in the ass for public officials, is the name most closely associated with Superfund. In 1978, she was married with two small children, living in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls. She was a homemaker, sewing curtains behind her white picket fence and walking her oldest, Michael, to the elementary school each morning. But that year Michael developed seizures and urinary tract infections—two afflictions that were also becoming common in their surrounding community. The local newspaper soon reported that his school was built on a toxic waste dump.
Gibbs had no experience in activism, but she was incensed. She formed a neighborhood association and it filled quickly with other angry mothers. It turned out their whole neighborhood was built upon toxic waste, and strange illnesses, from epilepsy to nephrosis, were becoming commonplace.
She demanded residents be relocated and hectored White House chief of staff Jack Watson; she burned an effigy of the local health commissioner and held two representatives from the nascent EPA hostage on a whim to pressure the Jimmy Carter administration to agree to relocate her neighbors. “We had plenty of food, all homemade, and they could use the phones as they wished,” she wrote afterwards. “I had no idea of what one did when holding hostages.” The Carter administration caved the next day. She was, according to The Atlantic in 1979, “a pretty, twenty-seven-year-old woman with jetblack hair who proved remarkably adept at dealing with experienced politicians and at keeping the matter in the news.”
If Earth Day and the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill opened Americans’ eyes to the environmental destruction industrialization had wrought, Love Canal and its “angry housewives” did the same for the 35 million tons of toxic waste being dumped near communities every year. In 1980, Carter signed into law CERCLA, which would create a “superfund” to cover the costs of remediating these toxic sites. At the signing, Gibbs stood next to the president, a young woman in a cardigan and a white carnation in her hair in a sea of fat ties and yawning lapels.
Superfund, as it was first conceived, was just that—a big pot of money. Ideally, when a site needed cleaning up, the EPA would make the polluting company remove or contain enough toxic waste to eliminate the threat to human health. Often, though, the EPA had to track down the polluter and make them pay after the agency used its own money for the cleanup. And when a polluter couldn’t be ID’d at all, the Superfund covered the costs of remediation itself. Congress got the funds the easy way: taxing crude oil and common industrial chemicals. (Oil companies, however, got a significant reprieve when crude oil and petroleum spills were excluded from Superfund’s purview.)
In the years since, though, “Superfund” has become a misnomer. The fund grew to nearly $4 billion by the time the “polluter pay” taxes expired in 1995. Gibbs lobbied anyone she could to extend the tax, but the Republican Congress wasn’t interested. The huge pot of cleanup money dwindled and emptied in 2003. As president, Obama vowed to reintroduce the taxes, but bills to reup the fees never left committee. Today, Superfund is just an allocation from the congressional budget—and a paltry one, at that: slightly more than $1 billion in 2020, and facing a 10-percent cut in Fiscal Year 2021. At least a third of all Superfund sites have no known polluter to cover the costs of clean up; in these places, Superfund’s shrunken allocation is the only chance a site has for cleanup. When the money runs out, nothing more gets cleaned up at those so-called orphan sites.
“Without the polluter pay fees, the program can only tread water,” Gibbs says. Indiana University’s David Konisky, one of Superfund’s few scholars, agrees. “To make real improvements would require an investment of resources that haven’t been available for years,” he says. And although the environmental cause has been solely the domain of Democrats for 30 years, neglect for Superfund cleanups is a bipartisan affair. “This shit is not Republican or Democrat,” laments Dawn Chapman, an activist fighting to clean up the West Lake Landfill near her St. Louis home. “These contaminants hurt everybody.”
Over lunch at Old Ebbitt, which neither Gibbs nor Kelly actually ate, the activist and the ex-banker came to an understanding: She would bring the most wanting Superfund sites to his attention and he would listen.
Gibbs didn’t trust the Trump appointees she began to meet, and her disdain for the president was palpable. But it’s not like working with the previous administration had been a cakewalk. “Obama was terrible on these issues,” she says. And don’t get her started on Gina McCarthy, Obama’s EPA administrator, whose name is nearly always preceded by an epithet when it leaves Gibb’s mouth. “All she cared about was climate, everything else went to hell in a handbasket, whether it was water or environmental justice,” Gibbs says, adding, “Gina, that bitch!”
Still, Gibbs watched as the agency’s record under Trump and Pruitt began to read like something out of The Lorax. Rules designed to keep water clean, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote chemical safety, limit coal pollution, ban dangerous pesticides, increase fuel efficiency, reduce air pollution, and cut power plant runoff had all been targeted by the former lobbyists and industry officials who now ran the country’s premier environmental regulator. This was a regulator that would, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, when 700 New Yorkers were dying each day and air pollution was directly linked to Covid-19, opt to pause nearly all pollution enforcement. Trump’s EPA, in the words of the agency’s first administrator, the late Republican powerhouse William Ruckelshaus, seeks to “dismantle—not improve or reform—the regulatory system for protecting public health and the environment.”
“Fifty-four Superfund sites have gotten some action!” Gibbs hoots in her office.
When Pruitt came in, she recounts, he created a Superfund taskforce to “revitalize” the program. The group identified 54 Superfund sites to emphasize, and all across these sites, Gibbs says, the agency has made significant progress, from new settlements with polluting parties to cleanup plans and shovel-in-the-ground remediation.
And, even more surprisingly, officials are inking aggressive settlements with corporations on the hook for cleanups. All told, polluters are ponying up at 80 percent of the sites prioritized under Trump—a ten percent increase over the agency’s historical average. With tens of millions of dollars at stake, these settlements are heated, and negotiations can drag on years. Under the Trump administration, the EPA—an agency run by veterans of the coal, chemical and petroleum industries—has pushed for forceful deals with corporate behemoths like Dow, International Paper, Honeywell and Atlantic Richfield.
Implausible as it may sound, it’s not fully crazy to believe that the Trump administration has actually prioritized toxic clean ups. Kate Probst, an independent consultant and one of Superfund’s longest standing outside observers, says the program is likely the most palatable of all environmental options for this administration. “Superfund is not a regulatory program. It is the only non-regulatory program at EPA—it’s a cleanup,” she says. And if all politics is local, Superfund plays there too. “Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, if you live near a site, or you’re a member of congress with a site in your district, you want that site cleaned up,” she adds, noting that cleanups bring cash infusions into regions in the form of contract work for construction and remediation. Superfund, Probst says, “is not the same as anything else at EPA.”
“The success during the Trump administration thus far,” Gibbs’ organization, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, writes in a recent report, “is mostly due to an ability to find responsible parties who were willing to foot the bill.” In sites in Nevada, Montana and Texas, the agency has threatened to sue polluters for triple the damages they caused, a trump card in the statute that has rarely been invoked. In May, as environmentalists decried the agency for loosening enforcement in the face of coronavirus pandemic, the cities and corporations responsible for polluting the Portland Harbor Superfund site cried hardship and asked the administration to reduce the scale and cost of the cleanup. The agency refused. “You know the last time I saw something like this?” Gibbs asks. “Never.”
Early in the administration, Kelly, Pruitt’s ex-banker buddy, became an unexpected ally, too. He visited activists’ homes, dropping off documents in person. He remembered when a family member had a surgery and handed out his cell phone number to worried mothers. Multiple people told me they saw him tear up discussing the illnesses plaguing residents near toxic sites. The outsider with no environmental experience became a favorite among the exhausted, embittered activists. “Some people say, ‘Oh girls, he’s playing you.’ But I don’t think he was. There were no points to score,” says Chapman, the toxic landfill activist outside St. Louis. “He’s the reason why we were able to—and I’m going to throw this word in—forgive. He challenged us, I think, to see that these are human beings, too, at EPA.”
Each quarter Gibbs gathers a dozen or so local activists and residents like Worley-Jenkins and Chapman, flies them out to Washington, and marches them up to the third floor of the EPA’s imposing Federal Triangle building. At the meetings, which Covid has now made virtual, residents who have often endured decades of being ignored by Washington discuss the fine-tooth details of their hometown cleanups with administrator Wheeler and a bevy of other political appointees. It’s a bizarre scene: liberal environmental activists sitting across the table from staffers at the most business-friendly EPA ever. At regular intervals, EPA representatives file out of the room because a specific case has been brought up that involves a company where they previously worked—a potential conflict of interest. But each activist Gibbs takes to the quarterly meetings has a story, a success or a breakthrough that only happened because of their remarkable access to the agency’s political leaders. At one meeting in early 2018, Worley-Jenkins recalled, her tale of Minden’s cancerous plight moved Kelly from exasperation to anger. The Superfund boss slammed his fist on the table and turned to the staff attorney sitting next to him. “What the hell are we going to do about this,” he bellowed.
“It’s going on 10 years that I’ve been working with Superfund and we’ve never seen this level of communication and progress since administrator Pruitt came in,” says Jackie Young, head of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance and a fierce advocate for the San Jacinto Waste Pit site outside Houston. “It’s ironic, but the Trump administration does seem to be making Superfund its quote un quote environmental focus,” says Lee Ann Smith, leading citizen crusader at the CTS site in Asheville, North Carolina, adding “I’m hopeful.” On Superfund, says Larry Davis, who fights for the East Chicago USS Steel site, “some political appointees seemed to be pushing the envelope.” Kim Kasten, a Columbia University professor who works with a local non-profit at the Acton, MA site, feels optimistic. “We’re definitely seeing some motion,” she says. Linda Robles, who lives near the polluted Tucson Airport site, agrees: “They are doing good things. I have no complaints.” Susie Worley-Jenkins’ victory came in 2019, when Minden, WV was added to the National Priorities List, the roll call of Superfund’s worst sites, and a critical step toward getting cleaned up.
Despite her unprecedented access, however, Gibbs says no mainstream environmental organizations are interested in her “big, creepy” quarterly meetings. Maligned by the administration and opposed to nearly every other thing this EPA has done, the green groups aren’t about to focus on a Trump priority. “Nobody from any of these environmental groups wants to attend,” Gibbs says. “Nobody has asked.” And several of her donors, “who are progressive people with money,” have made “remarks” about her closeness to the administration. In May of 2018, Democrats in the House targeted Kelly, too. Facing an ethics investigation into his banking days, he resigned. “I cried when Kell left, I tell you,” Chapman says. She and another activist “sat in her living room and sobbed. We felt like we had lost a true ally.”
For Gibbs, saddled between an environmental movement unwilling to cooperate and an administration she can’t bring herself to trust, it’s been an uneasy place to operate. And despite all her successes, like most things in Trump World, the story gets more muddled the deeper you delve.
“At one time, we Black folk had limited number of places we could live,” Charlie Powell says from his home in North Birmingham, Alabama. “And they only did this in the Black neighborhoods.”
The this Powell refers to is a toxic mix of zoning and willful negligence, a neighborhood pocked and stained with heavy industry. For decades, his old 35th Avenue neighborhood has suffered the fallout from a two nearby coke oven plants, multiple asphalt batch plants, facilities that manufacture steel and piping, quarries, a coal gas storage tank and purification system, and the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Powell grew up in a large extended family, and the neighborhood took its toll. “It was 16 of us and there’s only six left,” he says of his childhood household. “And I’m the only one that’s lived to be 60. I’m 66. All my brothers dead but me. I got one sister left. It was 10 boys and six girls.”
For a decade, the EPA has said it plans to clean up the North Birmingham Superfund site, but the urgency and efficiency that have characterized the Trump administration’s approach to high-profile cleanups elsewhere have been absent in Powell’s home town. “I don’t really know what the EPA have been doing,” Powell, now 67, says. “Round here, to me, I think the whole thing is useless.”
Selecting which Superfund sites get cleaned up and when is an inherently fraught decision. There’s not enough money to clean up every site in America and work deferred is more time residents spend suffering near toxic waste. But the Trump administration’s approach to prioritizing sites has left behind the Americans most often relegated to suffer the effects of environmental degradation: people of color.
When the administration chose to make Superfund its environmental priority in 2017, it had to decide which sites were deserving of attention. But instead of simply picking the most polluted locations or the ones that threatened the most people, the agency took a different tack: It hunted for sites with the most plum redevelopment prospects.
Of the 42 recommendations Pruitt’s Superfund Task Force made for improving the program, more than half focused on creating and promoting redevelopment opportunities at sites. Finding ways to reuse or redevelop sites has been a Superfund priority for 20 years—Obama’s assistant administrator, Mathy Stanislaus, was particularly keen on it—but the Trump administration has taken it to new levels. Redeveloping sites bring contractor dollars into local districts and is excellent retail politics. And the emphasis shouldn’t surprise anyone, observers say: “The president is a developer!” former Obama EPA assistant administrator Thomas Burke says. But while finding uses for toxic sites may be admirable, Kate Probst says, “development isn’t in the law and shouldn’t be the priority.”
Under Trump, sites that offered excellent “reuse opportunities” to industries and businesses were explicitly prioritized and promoted. Toxic sites with primo redevelopment opportunities got an interactive map and glossy one-pagers, pamphlets reminiscent of the sheets realtors hand out at open houses. (The old asbestos mine in Libby, Montana, which is responsible for approximately 400 local deaths, is “ready for commercial, industrial and recreational use,” its pamphlet announces, though it adds that “EPA does not warrant that the property is suitable for any particular use.”) The EPA declined to make any official available for this story, but talking points sent over “on background” noted that promoting outside investments and redevelopment were key components of this newly prioritized Superfund program. In total, of the 54 sites the Task Force group decided to emphasize, 28 were promoted exclusively for their redevelopment possibilities.
But it turns out the population near all these sites doesn’t look like a normal Superfund neighborhood. Across the country, people of color make up the majority of the residents near about half of all Superfund sites. (In total, a little over a fifth of all people of color in America live within three miles of a Superfund site.) The reasons why are warily familiar to people like Charlie Powell—redlining, zoning dangerous industries near poorer neighborhoods, lack of outreach and awareness. The cost is familiar, too. “Right now, my wife has phase 4 cancer,” Powell says, which he suspects is in connection to the site.
Because of this disproportionate impact on people of color, the Obama administration prioritized Superfund clean ups in these majority-minority neighborhoods. But when Gibbs asked her researchers to look at the demographics of sites the Trump administration has focused on, a different pattern emerged. Under Trump, the practice has reversed. A full 61 percent of the communities Trump’s EPA has prioritized and promoted have been majority-white, according to a Gibbs’ researchers. In other words: Trump’s Superfund focus has benefited white people more than people of color.
A spokesperson for the EPA said that the sites the administration chose to prioritize represent a tiny fraction of the 1,339 sites currently on the National Priorities List and that cleanups have continued across the country. The sites the EPA under Trump prioritized were “were chosen because opportunities existed to accelerate the timely resolution of specific issues to move cleanups forward,” the spokesperson said. “EPA is dedicated to addressing risk and accelerating progress towards cleanup at all sites on the NPL, and we strive to work closely with all communities to provide opportunities and resources for them to be involved in the Superfund process.”
Back in West Virginia, Worley-Jenkins’ friend Butter—Darrell Thomas, to anybody who doesn’t know him—took me out to one of his “honey holes.”
Minden is exactly the kind of place Superfund is designed to fix. Industry poisoned Minden. Butter, who is mustached and wearing three different camo prints across his pants, jacket and hat, walks the muddy valley every day, even on these cold winter afternoons, and sees the evidence everywhere. My old tennis shoes squelched as we walked through the mud—“Bring a pair of shoes you can throw away,” Worley-Jenkins had told me before I came to Minden, “because you don’t want to take any of this crap back with you,”—and I slipped as I followed Butter into what looked like idyllic woodland.
“You can see the oil here all the time,” Butter said, trudging up a creek. We were on the site of the old Shaffer machine shop and slicks sat atop the water. PCBs, industrial products that were banned in 1979, “are insidious,” says Boston University’s David Sherr. They cause neurological disorders, cancers and other unknown disorders, he says, and they persist in nature for decades. EPA contractors are working the week I visit to remediate this site, but they’re working in small chunks—a couple hundred yards at a time. Butter walked me around the hollow, from the abandoned mines where he drank beers as a teenager to abandoned buildings where the previous generation of Mindeners worked before the mines closed. All along the way he pauses to point out sheens and chemicals.
In Minden, the polluter should be on the hook for the clean-up. But there’s a catch here, the same catch that will ensure hundreds of sites are never cleaned up under the Trump administration.
After the Trump administration’s EPA cuts, in real dollars, Superfund’s budget today is lower than it ever has been. Earlier this year, the EPA quietly announced that there were 34 Superfund sites where plans for remediation had been inked, but the agency lacked funding to carry out any work. It was the highest number of these “unfunded” sites in recent memory and a giant leap up from 12 in 2016.
Despite real successes and efforts that moved residents to joyful tears, Superfund can’t function on its shoestring budget. After bragging about the large number of cleanups completed in 2017 and 2018, finished sites dropped to just six last year, the lowest number since 1986. At a hearing in February, Democrats pressed Wheeler on the cuts’ impact on Superfund. He defended the curtailed budget, telling members that the agency’s aggressive settlements with polluting corporations would pick up the slack. “We’re increasing enforcement actions,” he testified. “We go after responsible parties.”
But that’s not the case in Minden, where self-inflicted budgetary constraints will be felt most dearly. Butter and Worley-Jenkins knew the men who ran Shaffer Equipment Co and, like so many locals, cancer took them years ago. Minden, like almost a third of all Superfunds, is a so-called “orphan site”—poisoned land with no existing corporation to foot the bill. Under previous administrations, orphan sites were often given extra attention. But under Trump, their neglect has been nearly complete. Just five of the 54 sites this administration chose to prioritize and promote are orphans. While going after polluters aggressively allowed the agency to fund cleanups elsewhere, budget cuts mean the EPA cannot possibly afford to clean up the country’s hundreds of orphan sites.
Here in Minden, even though the administration moved its Superfund to the National Priorities List—showed up at the white church on the main road with a senator and local poohbahs, drew up plans for remediation, hauled contaminated dirt from a lot the size of a basketball court— without a corporate polluter on the hook, the administration can’t possibly remediate the place. Across the country, sites with dire public health threats but no responsible corporate party to pay the bill are languishing. And they will continue to, casualties of the administration’s refusal to fund its most effective environmental program and its decision to ignore the most helpless of America’s poisoned places.
Snow sticks to the oak leaves and Butter says he doesn’t think Minden will ever get cleaned up. “They’re not going to do anything,” he says. And chances are, he’s right. Butter still walks the valley every day, looking for evidence of toxics to try to tell the EPA to clean up. “A lot of people can’t care anymore. I probably wouldn’t leave, even if I could. But I got a lot of friends died, a lot who probably will die. So, I’m in it for them.”
What Trump and his administration have done to Superfund is not some grand revisioning or even, frankly, a revitalization. It’s a defibrillator shock to a program with a faint pulse, a jerking, uneven effort to clean up only some places. What worked for the first two or three years of this administration won’t work now that the money has run out. The surge in unfunded sites makes it clear that Superfund, financially starved and under strain, cannot possibly handle its vast workload. The administration’s focus on cleanups where corporations can foot the bill, surprising and startling as it may be, has been a lifeline for some Americans and a condemnation for others.
Gibbs has accepted that she’s gotten all she can from her relationship with this administration. “Under Republicans and Democrats, if Superfund had money we could move it,” she says. “But not now.” Trump will never clean up the orphan sites, Gibbs says.
Until recently, there wasn’t much reason for optimism from a Democratic administration either. For much of Biden’s campaign, his focus has been on climate. But this summer, the Democratic National Committee’s progressive Council on the Environment and Climate Crisis decided to stake out a claim on Superfund. They want to balloon Superfund’s budget back to 1999 levels—about $2.3 billion—and, even more critically, an official familiar with the council’s workings told me that reinstating polluter pay fees are central to any plans they have for Superfund. The DNC’s 93-page August platform wasn’t so explicit—it mentions Superfund just once—but it did call for holding companies accountable for the environmental damage they wreak.
Gibbs is cautiously optimistic about a Biden presidency—or savvy enough not to poison any reservoir of influence she could have with a future administration—and if the Democrats win this November, she’ll push hard for reinstating the polluter pay fees, the tax on polluting corporations that could help fund cleanups at orphan sites like Minden. “I have no bones about embarrassing myself in taking steps outside the ‘professional’ realm,” she says. “I’m tired of the fact that taxpayers have to pay to clean up the mess,” she says, tired that money that could have gone to social services and schools and housing instead went to papering over polluters’ sins, tired that this has all cost “innocent poor communities of color their rights to clean air, water and soil.”
Maybe Gibbs is just plain tired. When she helped midwife Superfund, back in 1980, no one thought it was going to be forever. There has always been an inclination to put an end date on the program. Whether because of optimism or naiveté or malice, people always figured the program would one day wrap up—that we would one day clean up our messes. But 40 years on, there are still 1,339 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List. What was once nightly news is barely local news anymore. “My phone stopped ringing years ago,” says Kate Probst, the Superfund expert. “I am so upset that I won’t be able to do this in my lifetime,” Gibbs says.
On the day I left Minden, a refrain I heard again and again during my reporting replayed in my brain: The only people who care about Superfund these days are the folks who live near one. On the drive back to Washington, I marveled at how easy it was for me to leave these sites behind, to drive away and escape their toxicity. Superfund sites rarely look like the disaster zones from the movies; they are the innocuous industrial lots and muddy streams that litter this country, everywhere and nowhere. In Washington, I pulled into a parking lot and stripped off the old tennis shoes Susie Worley-Jenkins had told me to bring to West Virginia. Standing in my socks and taking care not to dislodge any of the caked-on Minden dirt, I tossed them in the garbage and went on my way.
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