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EPA Neglect of Houston During Harvey Came After Pruitt Exerted Direct Control Over Major Superfund Sites

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At least 13 environmental cleanup sites in Houston were damaged by Hurricane Harvey, creating the potential for a release of toxic waste into floodwaters, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has yet to dispatch teams to fully survey the damage.

In a statement over the weekend, the EPA said that 11 of the 13 flooded locations—known as Superfund sites—were “inaccessible for response teams.” The agency instead was relying on aerial imaging to survey the damage.

The Associated Press, however, reported that its journalists have been able to access the sites, mostly by vehicle and foot. In one case, they needed a boat.

“The EPA did not respond to questions about why its personnel had not yet been able to do so,” the wire service stated.

One of the flooded Superfund sites visited by the AP is the Highlands Acid Pit, which once stored tens of thousands of cubic yards of sulfuric acid and toxic waste. Reporters said that a bitter smell in the air was present at the site. They also found overturned white tanks peaking out of the floodwaters outside of a submerged fence around the acid pit.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a news conference over the weekend that he wanted the EPA “in town” remedying the environmental damage.

The lack of response to the burgeoning environmental crisis at Houston Superfund sites conflicts with prior commitments made by EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

In July, Administrator Pruitt said he was moving to expedite the cleanup at Superfund sites. That effort included the creation of a Top 10 list of prioritized Superfund locations estimated to cost more than $50 million each to cleanup.

Critics have also noted that this would put major Superfund sites under Pruitt’s direct purview.

“This new arrangement allows him to bypass staff experts and confer one-side benefits on corporate polluters,” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said,

There are as many as 1,300 Superfund sites across the country demanding the attention of the environmental agency. Pruitt claimed that addressing Superfund sites would be “restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.”

But his pledges are further complicated by the EPA’s proposed budget next year—the smallest in 40 years. It would require cutting the agency’s workforce and Superfund response operations by 30 percent each.

Climate change is likely to assure future contaminations at polluted sites. A review by the Obama administration found more than 500 Superfund sites around the country located in 100-year and 500-year flood zones.

A study by the University of Wisconsin determined that Hurricane Harvey was a 1-in-1,000 year event. Another massive storm–the Category 5 Hurricane Irma–is expected to make landfall in Florida this weekend. The state is home to dozens of Superfund sites.

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Sam Sacks worked on the Hill as a Congressional staffer, and as a writer and reporter since 2008. He’s been published in Hustler Magazine, which you may have seen but don’t want to admit.

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