BUTTE — Democrat Senator Jon Tester got assurances Tuesday from Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt that he will enforce Superfund regulations despite seeking to slash $326 million from cleanup sites, including Butte, during a Senate hearing in Washington.
Pruitt's hearing before the 15-member Senate subcommittee on appropriations for the environment and other agencies provided an opportunity for Pruitt to discuss EPA’s proposed budget for 2018. Both Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines are members of the committee.
The proposed 2018 fiscal year budget is $5.65 billion. That is $2.6 billion below the 2017 fiscal year budget. Pruitt must get congressional approval.
During the discussion Tester brought Butte to Pruitt’s attention, highlighting the Berkeley Pit — a former copper strip mine now filled with metal-laden water.
“Butte, America has a pit a mile long and a mile wide that has been full of toxic water,” Tester told Pruitt. “You told me that you are going to punish bad actors. It is your job to hold these bad actors accountable and make sure they come to the table with a wallet that has money in it, and the EPA must oversee the cleanup. Tell me how this budget meets this core mission?”
Pruitt said that either the responsible party would pay for the cleanup or EPA would sue, which is the normal stratagem EPA pursues to get money for cleanup activity. In the case of Butte and Anaconda's cleanup, the responsible party, Atlantic Richfield, has been paying for the cleanup for years.
Pruitt assured Tester that his proposed stripped-down budget does meet EPA's core mission and said that while serving as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, he knew what it meant "to make bad actors responsible.”
Pruitt also said he wants EPA, under his direction, to “show progress,” and if Superfund is not “showing progress,” he would “advise and make you (Tester) aware of that.”
Despite Pruitt's assurances that the reduced budget would not mean a reduced EPA, Tester vowed to fight to restore the cuts as the Senate Appropriations Committee sets 2018 funding levels.
Tester also raised concerns with Pruitt over the lack of community input during Superfund negotiations between EPA and companies responsible for the pollution. He specifically referred to Butte and its confidential negotiations, which have been going on for years over the Butte Hill cleanup.
“The EPA consistently goes into negotiations with these companies and the local community is never told what is going on,” Tester said. “They are left out in the cold. Can you give me assurance that it is not business as usual and folks will know what is going on during these negotiations?”
“It’s already not business as usual,” Pruitt said.
An email query to EPA’s Washington, DC, office seeking more information on what that might mean was not answered by press time.
Critics of the proposed budget and of a new Superfund task force set to “incentivize” private investment at Superfund sites and implement "public-private partnerships," into the Superfund program say the real goal is to eliminate environmental regulations.
During his testimony, Pruitt said he “strongly supports cooperative federalism,” and stressed making efforts to partner EPA with states.
But whether that means Pruitt will continue to fund the Department of Environmental Quality with roughly $15 million annually is not clear. DEQ’s overall annual budget is $60 million.
An email requesting EPA’s Washington DC office to clarify on whether state funding would be affected was not responded to by press time.