During a Senate hearing Wednesday Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, defended making plans to cut EPA’s Superfund budget while staying committed to Butte and Anaconda’s cleanup.
Pruitt testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to discuss President Donald Trump’s proposed $6.15 billion 2019 budget for EPA — a 23 percent cut from 2018.
Some of the proposed EPA cuts are to the Superfund program. Proposed Superfund appropriation is $1.08 billion, down from $1.15 billion this year.
Democrat Sen. Jon Tester questioned Pruitt on the budget cuts, referencing Butte and Anaconda as he did so.
“It takes more than being put on a list, you’ve got to have manpower and resources,” Tester said.
EPA placed both Butte and Anaconda on Pruitt’s “emphasis list” late last year, which has greatly accelerated both Butte and Anaconda’s cleanups. Butte is now slated to be delisted from the National Priorities List in 2024 and Anaconda in 2025.
The southwest Montana towns make up the largest Superfund complex in the nation. No new resources have been added. Both sites have only one EPA project manager, despite the intensified and sped-up workload.
Pruitt defended his position by suggesting the proposed cut is not his fault, but the fault of the White House.
“Sometimes I’m not as persuasive as I want to be with OMB,” he said.
OMB is shorthand for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which establishes the president’s vision for budgets.
Pruitt cut in on Tester’s reply by adding:
“The reason we have a Butte situation is because of a lack of awareness, of leadership and accountability.”
Both of Montana’s senators sought assurances from Pruitt that Butte and Anaconda would have opportunities for public input. Both Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines brought up the consent-decree negotiations that went on for over a decade in secret in Butte. The consent decree will determine the rest of the Butte Hill cleanup and is an important part of getting Butte delisted.
“Transparency hasn’t happened and public input hasn’t happened,” Tester said to Pruitt.
“Montana is home to the most expansive Superfund sites in the country,” Daines said. “It is critical the EPA prioritize these sites and listen to the input of impacted Montanans as we work to clean up these areas.”
Pruitt responded to Daines by saying it’s “important for community stakeholders to have a voice in the process,” and “it’s something we’re definitely committed to and we’ll definitely make sure it happens in Butte.”
Members of the subcommittee, which include both of Montana’s senators, spent time asking Pruitt about more than just the latest EPA proposed budget. Some on the committee took the opportunity to question Pruitt about many of the controversies that have been plaguing his tenure. There are now 12 investigations looking into Pruitt’s ethical conduct as EPA’s top administrator, according to The New York Times.
Questions swirling around Pruitt include his security detail, his personal phone booth, his first-class flights and an apartment he rented from an industry insider for less than market value.
During opening remarks, Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont called the 2019 budget “indefensible” and Pruitt’s controversies an “embarrassment to the agency.”
This is also not the first time Pruitt has appeared before Congress to ask for a highly reduced budget.
Last year, the White House wanted to slash EPA's budget and the Superfund program by around 30 percent each.
But when Congress passed the Omnibus bill in late February, the 2018 general operating budget was largely restored to 2017 and 2016 levels.
In addition to a renewed effort to cut EPA's budget, the 2019 budget proposal would trim the agency's staff to 12,250. That’s around 3,000 less than EPA has on staff now.
Daines also brought up Anaconda’s health study during the committee hearing. At EPA’s request, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) showed up in Anaconda last week for a “listening session,” to hear from former smeltermen and from the general public to learn about the communities’ greatest health concerns. ATSDR expects to return over the summer to announce a study that is expected to be designed based around what the Atlanta-based agency heard from residents.
Daines wanted to know if EPA is working with ATSDR to “seek appropriate public comment on the health study.”
Pruitt assured Daines on that as well, calling EPA, ATSDR, and the state's efforts to work together as “important,” and said it should be “cohesive" and that the process "is demonstrative of that.”