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Biden Already Facing Pressure to Tackle Backlog of 'Unfunded' Toxic Waste Sites Threatened by Climate Crisis

More broadly, campaigners are calling on the incoming president to deliver on the environmental justice promises he made as a candidate.

Formerly an open pit copper mine, the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana is now part of the largest Superfund site in the United States. (Photo: Janie Osborne/Getty Images)

Formerly an open pit copper mine, the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana is now part of the largest Superfund site in the United States. (Photo: Janie Osborne/Getty Images)

A joint report on Monday highlighted the pressure that President-elect Joe Biden is already facing to deliver on his environmental justice campaign promises—particularly when it comes to the 34 Superfund sites nationwide for which there is no reliable cleanup funding—the largest backlog of "unfunded" sites in 15 years.

The federal Superfund program began with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), passed by Congress in 1980. While cleanup efforts were initially paid for by a trust fund created by taxing the chemical and petroleum industries, lawmakers let the tax expire 25 years ago.

The new report on the cleanup program from NBC News, InsideClimate News, and The Texas Observer is the fifth installment of the "Super Threats" series about Superfund sites and climate change. The first report, published in late September, detailed how hundreds of hazardous waste sites across the United States are threatened by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, which are all exacerbated by a climate crisis that the Trump administration often refused to acknowledge let alone act to address.

Both reports pointed to a 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis which found that 945 Superfund sites are vulnerable to extreme weather events that are intensifying because of human-caused climate change, including hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise, increased precipitation, or wildfires. The news outlets behind the series created an interactive map for all the locations on the office's list, which includes over half of the unfunded sites—19 of 34.

The outlets reported Monday that Democrats in Congress, environmentalists, and former officials at the Environmental Protection Agency are urging Biden to consider climate change when creating cleanup plans for not only the unfunded backlog—which has grown under President Donald Trump—but all 1,570 Superfund sites.

"Even before taking office, the Biden administration accomplished one of the GAO's key recommendations: acknowledge the climate threat," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). "A Biden EPA will need to assess every federal Superfund project and help states do the same. As the GAO showed, climate change brings a new priority to rapid Superfund cleanup work."

As the outlets reported:

Beyond Whitehouse's call for climate-threat assessments at every site, one senior former EPA official said the incoming Biden administration should review all of the agreements negotiated by the Trump EPA at Superfund sites with corporations liable for cleanups.

"You will want to see if the responsible parties were being given preferential treatment," said Mathy Stanislaus, who served as assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Land and Emergency Management during the Obama administration.

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Stanislaus said such reviews should focus first on any agreements negotiated since the election by the lame-duck Trump EPA.

Earlier this month, Public Citizen launched an online tool to track Trump's "most corrupt, norm-breaking, dangerous, and unjust actions during the lame-duck session," noting that the past four years have featured "cruelty, recklessness, and cronyism" from the outgoing administration.

The watchdog group has been critical of Trump's EPA administrators. Currently the agency is run by former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, who was confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate in early 2019. His predecessor, Scott Pruitt, stepped down in July 2018 in the face of several ethics scandals.

The Monday report noted that "the Superfund program is led by Peter C. Wright, a lawyer who previously worked for Dow Chemical and represented the company in negotiations with the EPA over Superfund sites."

Although party control of the Senate will be determined by a pair of runoff elections in Georgia on January 5, Biden has already announced several of his preferred Cabinet picks, including Michael Regan, the top environmental official in North Carolina, to head the EPA—a move that drew a range of responses from campaigners.

On the campaign trail, Biden promised to take bold climate action with a focus on frontline communities. His $2 trillion green energy and environmental justice plan, unveiled in July, earned praise from various activists, including Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement.

Writing for The Hill on Monday, Prakash and Green 2.0 executive director Andrés Jimenez welcomed Biden's selection of Regan for EPA and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) for interior secretary as "an encouraging sign that his administration is prioritizing the voices of the populations who are most in need of serious attention and aggressive action on some of the most important environmental challenges our nation faces."

"Still, much difficult work remains to be done if the concerns of frontline and at-risk communities are to be truly prioritized with forging and implementing equitable environmental policies," Prakash and Jimenez wrote, emphasizing that "communities of color have been disproportionately affected by our federal government's lack of action to solve ongoing environmental problems" and "are also at higher risk of the consequences of human-induced climate changes."

The pair urged Biden to "follow through on his promises to root out systemic racism when it comes to our nation's environmental policy," appoint environmental leaders of color to positions at all levels of his administration, and "take urgent action to curb the global climate crisis and to restore justice for communities impacted by air, water, and land polluters."

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