Will President Trump and the man he appointed to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, rig our system for determining which sites are the most environmentally dangerous in the country by ignoring the threat of vapor intrusion that these sites pose to human beings living near them?
Sadly, there are many thousands of industrial sites around the US that are badly contaminated. These are sites where, years ago, companies dumped, spilled or buried toxic chemicals. The key question for each of these sites is: does it threaten human health? Can its dangerous chemicals travel in water or air to where people live and work?
For years, the US has evaluated these contaminated sites to determine which pose the greatest threat to Americans, and therefore which deserved the greatest attention and resources for getting cleaned up. The most contaminated sites appear on the “Superfund National Priorities List.” They are often referred to as “Superfund” sites.
The formula used to decide if a contaminated site is dangerous enough to be a “Superfund” site is known as the Hazard Ranking System (“HRS”). You can think of the HRS as asking many different questions all aimed at learning the likelihood that chemicals dumped at that site threaten human health. We have been using the same HRS formula since 1990.
Now, however, due to the efforts of those in the Obama EPA, the HRS is scheduled to include the contaminated site’s risk of creating “vapor intrusion”. Vapor intrusion refers to chemicals in the form of a gas (or “vapor”) penetrating (or “intruding” into) the air that people breathe in a home of office. For many years, certain highly toxic chemicals-like TCE, PCE, Vinyl chloride and Benzene-which were dumped many years ago and allowed to bleed down into the soil and groundwater, have been known to vaporize, and then drift back up through soil, and slip through even concrete basement floors and foundation walls, and into the air that people breathe inside.
Inhaling these types of chemicals is the most dangerous way for humans to be exposed to them.
Unquestionably, vapor intrusion is a threat to human health posed by many contaminated sites. The State of Michigan, for example, recently announced that some 4,000 sites within the state must be evaluated for the threat of vapor intrusion. Other states are now acknowledging that they, too, must begin to test their many old industrial sites for possible vapor intrusion. Therefore, unquestionably, the HRS formula should include the possibility that a site will cause vapor intrusion when our government determines just how dangerous a certain site is, and whether it deserves the highest level of resource attention that comes from being designated a Superfund site.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is what happens next…..specifically, will Trump and Pruitt allow “vapor intrusion” to be added to the HRS formula? What a terrible thing to even have to ask, but Trump and Pruitt’s extraordinarily reckless and dishonest environmental decision making thus far demands that the question be asked.
You see, polluters don’t like “vapor intrusion” being added to the HRS, because it will show many sites to be more dangerous than previously thought, and therefore more expensive and urgent to clean up than previously thought. That will cost polluters money. And Trump and Pruitt’s early environmental decision making has been nothing short of a total capitulation to big polluters. For example, Trump has proposed to dramatically reduce the funding EPA has for, among other things, enforcing clean air and water regulations……reduced enforcement means polluters are less accountable for having caused the pollution, and that they will have to spend less money cleaning it up. Music to their ears. For his part, Pruitt has welcomed discussion on whether the EPA should be abolished. He has even contradicted all of the world’s legitimate scientists by declaring that CO2 emissions (coming from plants owned by Pruitt’s many big oil company friends) are primarily responsible for climate change/global warming. Pruitt has also announced that his EPA will suspend the enforcement of rules that ensure we have clean air and water. So his polluter friends do not have to obey them.
Will Trump and Pruitt once again do the bidding of big polluters, and forbid the threat of vapor intrusion to be included in the formula used for determining just how dangerous a contaminated site really is?
Only a fool would bet against it.