There are plenty of Superfund sites in Harris County, and the budget to clean up and maintain these sites is slated to be cut 30 percent in 2018.
There are plenty of Superfund sites in Harris County, and the budget to clean up and maintain these sites is slated to be cut 30 percent in 2018.
Image from the EPA

Houston-area activists gathered on a street corner in Fifth Ward on Tuesday, just across from the Many Diversified Interests Inc. Superfund site — which is currently under redevelopment after the federal Environmental Protection Agency allowed years to pass without cleaning up the lead-contaminated site — to announce that they are joining organizers from across the country in influencing how the EPA deals with the Superfund program.

The location of the announcement was no accident. Instead of cleaning up MDI —  a 35-acre tract of land that was the location of a foundry from 1926 to 1992 that left the the site, along with the groundwater beneath it, laced with lead — the EPA took the site off its priority list in 2010, and allowed a developer to get to work redeveloping it.

Now, as the construction on the site continues, local activists are pointing to the MDI site as an example of what may happen if Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator, follows through on his plan to cut $330 million of the Superfund program's $1.1. billion budget, a reduction of 30 percent.

"Scott Pruitt’s plan to streamline the Superfund process in favor of cutting costs will lead to incomplete cleanups of contaminated neighborhoods, as demonstrated in the past at sites like MDI in Houston’s 5th Ward," Rosanne Barone, the Houston program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, said in a statement. "Painted as a quick way to boost economic development, Pruitt’s recommendations are more akin to a fast track to injustice.”

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Cutting the Superfund program's budget may not sound like a big deal, but that's just because you haven't been up close and personal, wondering if you are drinking lead-laced groundwater from the MDI site or dealing with any of the toxic sludge leaking out from the San Jacinto Waste Pits or any of the other 13 federally designated Superfund sites in Harris County.

Pruitt has talked a good game since he was confirmed as the Trump administration's EPA head earlier this year. Pruitt has said that he is intent on focusing on one of the most important missions the EPA is tasked with, cleaning up the toxic, sometimes carcinogenic Superfund sites that dot the landscape of the United States.

In fact, Pruitt has stated that cleaning up Superfund sites would be returned "to their rightful place at the center of the EPA's core mission." He even put together a task force last month to get advice on how to handle Superfund, the federal program created more than 30 years ago to fund the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants.

However, it seems Pruitt has been talking through his hat when it comes to the Superfund program, because despite all the promises of a real focus on Superfund sites, the proposed 2018 budget includes those massive cuts to the program's actual budget.

Local Superfund organizers were wary but hopeful when Pruitt initially supported a focus on the Superfund sites — after all, this is the man who rivaled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for the record of lawsuits filed against the EPA — but when they learned about the budget cuts, they went to work.

So the plan was cooked up to launch the People's Task Force, an entity aimed at pushing their own recommendations for the Superfund program based on their collective years of boots-on-the-ground experience in dealing with the problems at various sites. Based on the proposed budget cuts, area activists believe that Pruitt will also be inclined to use cost-cutting measures like the ones employed with the MDI site.

“Environmental justice communities have long been forced to contend with the negative impacts of lax environmental clean-up and lax enforcement thereof in communities of color," Juan Parras, director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, said in a statement. "It is unconscionable that the EPA and TCEQ are comfortable with members of our community being exposed to elevated levels of lead when, as stated by the CDC, any level of lead is unsafe."

The Reverend James Caldwell also sounded off, pointing to the MDI site as the standard Texans can expect if the Superfund budget is actually cut in 2018. "The MDI site was contaminated with lead, and elevated levels have been identified in the community. This is not only an environmental justice concern but one of public health," Caldwell stated. "This site was not properly addressed; this is a failure of the EPA, TCEQ and these partnership agreements. This was a cost-saving tactic. We cannot sacrifice our communities or our children. We must take a stand and say enough is enough.”

There's no telling if Pruitt or anyone else in the EPA will actually take any of the advice the People's Task Force comes up with, but at least if the EPA decides to sell the San Jacinto Waste Pits, for example, instead of going through the costly planned cleanup, nobody in the agency will be able to say that he was not warned that kind of approach could be a bad idea.

Clarification, August 3: Local activists are concerned about the groundwater below and around the MDI Site, which the EPA has continued to monitor, not necessarily the site itself.

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