Trump budget imperils Superfund cleanup

The site of former  W.R. Grace Co. is seen through the fence in Woburn, in a 2006 file photo.
The site of former W.R. Grace Co. is seen through the fence in Woburn, in a 2006 file photo. AP

You probably know the names, toxic remnants of the Commonwealth’s industrial past: W.R. Grace & Co., Nyanza Chemical Waste Dump, Baird & McGuire. These are some of the dozens of polluted Superfund sites in Massachusetts, many in the heart of residential communities, that are gradually being cleaned up, thanks in part to watchdogs from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

But that cleanup effort is seriously at risk unless Congress has the courage to scuttle President Trump’s budget proposal, which would slash the Superfund program by 30 percent. In an unfathomable twist, Trump’s plan was rolled out shortly after the EPA’s administrator, Scott Pruitt, issued a memo calling Superfund a “vital function” and recommending streamlined efforts to scrub polluted soil and water. “Protecting human health and the environment is the core mission” of the EPA, Pruitt wrote, a noteworthy bit of doublespeak even in an administration known for frequent misstatements and backtracking.

White House officials called the new Trumponomics a “taxpayer first budget.” That’s a misleading fantasy that ignores the long-term economic consequences for cities and towns burdened by Superfund sites that are still too polluted to develop fully. That’s land that could be used for housing, restaurants, or a startup incubator that would ultimately contribute more to the local tax base than Trump’s fallacious theories of supply-side economics.

Trump’s proposal to cut $2.5 billion from the EPA also comes at a time when the state Department of Environmental Protection’s workforce has been shrinking. Over the past decade, enforcement actions for serious violations have dropped by more than half, according to the Globe’s David Abel. “Cutting EPA’s budget will mean less environmental cops on the beat, and states are in no position to pick up the slack,” Ken Kimmell, DEP commissioner under former governor Deval Patrick, told Abel.


In fiscal 2016, DEP got more than $16 million in funding from the EPA, supporting 80 workers and covering everything from air quality to clean water to brownfields, according to administration figures. It’s no surprise, then, that scores of EPA workers protested the cuts by marching from their offices to Boston Common on May 24. Even if they don’t officially join the resistance, they need to continue to make their voices heard.


The cuts in the EPA’s office of science and research are even more worrisome. PFCs, or perfluorochemicals, which are used widely in everyday products like nonstick cookware, are showing up in a number of Superfund sites, as well as in drinking water, according to the Conservation Law Foundation. Some studies suggest that these chemicals may be harmful to human health, but more research is direly needed. Gutting the science office now could affect generations to come — a shortsighted move even for an administration well-stocked with flat-earth theorists.

There is a glimmer of good news: Presidential budgets are rarely adopted, and the GOP leadership in Congress has already made its disdain clear. But Trump promised his supporters in industry that he would reduce the EPA to “little tidbits.” He may yet be able to do so. In Massachusetts, our data-driven governor, Charlie Baker, is one of the rare Republicans who is not a climate denier. He can play a special role in this debate by working with the facts, and by making the case to Congress that these cuts are unacceptable.