West Lake Landfill Boondoggle Another Nail in the Coffin of Superfund

If you want an example of how the Federal Government isn’t really interested in environmental cleanup you couldn’t go far wrong with looking at the West Lake landfill site in Missouri. The site is a “Superfund” site under EPA jurisdiction, and, like Competitive Enterprise Institute founder Fred Smith warned in the 1980s, cleanup has been subject to all sorts of delays and inaction. Yet just as work is about to get underway, Senator Claire McCaskill and Rep. Ann Wagner are working in the Senate and House respectively to transfer jurisdiction to the Army Corps of Engineers, which will almost certainly involve yet more delay.

The problem at West Lake dates back to the Manhattan Projects. Wastes from that program were eventually dumped in West Lake illegally in 1973. After this was discovered, there was a question of whether it should be handled by the Department of Energy and the Army’s cleanup program under a statute known as FUSRAP or by the EPA under Superfund. It was designated a Superfund site in 1990. So nearby residents have already waited 25 years for the site to be cleaned up.

Superfund does this. It delays action in cleaning up sites because there is little incentive to prioritize sites of low risk, like West Lake. The CDC says that there is no health risk to local residents from groundwater, air, or soil contamination. The EPA and Missouri environmental agencies have also found no indication of immediate health risk. There is a nearby landfill site that has experienced subsurface smoldering and this is causing local concern.

Accordingly, finally after 25 years, last year the EPA announced plans to clean up the site and to install a physical isolation barrier preventing the subsurface fore from spreading to the West Lake site, all in 2016. Crucially, the plans involve private sector parties with responsibility for the site covering much of the cleanup cost.

Strangely, this does not appear to be enough for Senator McCaskill and her allies. She initially lobbied to have the work transferred to the Department of Energy under FUSRAP (citing “new information” that has been known since 1995). The Department denied that request, saying that they knew of no reason why it should be their responsibility rather than EPA’s.

Now the Senator has co-sponsored a bill with Senator Blunt, S.2306, to transfer the site to the Secretary of the Army’s control. The full $400 million cost will be borne initially by the taxpayer (although there is provision for cost recovery, a procedure that is likely to involve decades of litigation) and the site will remain a Superfund site for all other purposes. Senator McCaskill is seeking unanimous consent for the bill to move forward. That means no hearings or other inquiries as to whether this move is necessary.

Of course, moving the site to FUSRAP status means that the process has to begin all over again, with the Army starting its own testing and feasibility studies. Nor is it as if the FUSRAP program has been a stirring success over the years. A 2013 investigation by the Wall Street Journal found several troubling aspects:

  • Record-keeping has been so spotty that the Energy Department says it doesn’t have enough documentation on several dozen sites to decide whether a cleanup is needed or not.
  • Despite years of trying to track these sites, the government doesn’t have the exact address for dozens of them. It acknowledges it doesn’t even know what state one uranium-handling facility was located in.
  • More than 20 sites initially declared safe by the government have required additional cleanups, sometimes more than once.

There is, indeed, little reason to suppose that the Army’s handling of the site will be any better than the EPA/private sector handling. For that reason alone, the Senate should reject the proposal for unanimous consent and actually debate the bill on its merits (which would also be the regular order conservatives have been keen to get back to).

However, all this back and forth over West Lake is indicative that federal control of these sites is not conducive to environmental quality. Federally-controlled sites take a very long time to be cleaned up, and at enormous cost to the taxpayer. CEI has long recommended a different approach. Rather than seeking to reform Superfund and its equivalents, Congress should simply devolve all its responsibilities to the States, which have a much better record in environmental cleanup than the federal government.

Originally posted at National Review.