Implausible as it may sound, it’s not fully crazy to believe that the Trump administration has actually prioritized toxic clean ups. Kate Probst, an independent consultant and one of Superfund’s longest standing outside observers, says the program is likely the most palatable of all environmental options for this administration. “Superfund is not a regulatory program. It is the only non-regulatory program at EPA—it’s a cleanup,” she says. And if all politics is local, Superfund plays there too. “Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, if you live near a site, or you’re a member of congress with a site in your district, you want that site cleaned up,” she adds, noting that cleanups bring cash infusions into regions in the form of contract work for construction and remediation. Superfund, Probst says, “is not the same as anything else at EPA.”
“The success during the Trump administration thus far,” Gibbs’ organization, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, writes in a recent report, “is mostly due to an ability to find responsible parties who were willing to foot the bill.” In sites in Nevada, Montana and Texas, the agency has threatened to sue polluters for triple the damages they caused, a trump card in the statute that has rarely been invoked. In May, as environmentalists decried the agency for loosening enforcement in the face of coronavirus pandemic, the cities and corporations responsible for polluting the Portland Harbor Superfund site cried hardship and asked the administration to reduce the scale and cost of the cleanup. The agency refused. “You know the last time I saw something like this?” Gibbs asks. “Never.”
Early in the administration, Kelly, Pruitt’s ex-banker buddy, became an unexpected ally, too. He visited activists’ homes, dropping off documents in person. He remembered when a family member had a surgery and handed out his cell phone number to worried mothers. Multiple people told me they saw him tear up discussing the illnesses plaguing residents near toxic sites. The outsider with no environmental experience became a favorite among the exhausted, embittered activists. “Some people say, ‘Oh girls, he’s playing you.’ But I don’t think he was. There were no points to score,” says Chapman, the toxic landfill activist outside St. Louis. “He’s the reason why we were able to—and I’m going to throw this word in—forgive. He challenged us, I think, to see that these are human beings, too, at EPA.”
Each quarter Gibbs gathers a dozen or so local activists and residents like Worley-Jenkins and Chapman, flies them out to Washington, and marches them up to the third floor of the EPA’s imposing Federal Triangle building. At the meetings, which Covid has now made virtual, residents who have often endured decades of being ignored by Washington discuss the fine-tooth details of their hometown cleanups with administrator Wheeler and a bevy of other political appointees. It’s a bizarre scene: liberal environmental activists sitting across the table from staffers at the most business-friendly EPA ever. At regular intervals, EPA representatives file out of the room because a specific case has been brought up that involves a company where they previously worked—a potential conflict of interest. But each activist Gibbs takes to the quarterly meetings has a story, a success or a breakthrough that only happened because of their remarkable access to the agency’s political leaders. At one meeting in early 2018, Worley-Jenkins recalled, her tale of Minden’s cancerous plight moved Kelly from exasperation to anger. The Superfund boss slammed his fist on the table and turned to the staff attorney sitting next to him. “What the hell are we going to do about this,” he bellowed.
“It’s going on 10 years that I’ve been working with Superfund and we’ve never seen this level of communication and progress since administrator Pruitt came in,” says Jackie Young, head of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance and a fierce advocate for the San Jacinto Waste Pit site outside Houston. “It’s ironic, but the Trump administration does seem to be making Superfund its quote un quote environmental focus,” says Lee Ann Smith, leading citizen crusader at the CTS site in Asheville, North Carolina, adding “I’m hopeful.” On Superfund, says Larry Davis, who fights for the East Chicago USS Steel site, “some political appointees seemed to be pushing the envelope.” Kim Kasten, a Columbia University professor who works with a local non-profit at the Acton, MA site, feels optimistic. “We’re definitely seeing some motion,” she says. Linda Robles, who lives near the polluted Tucson Airport site, agrees: “They are doing good things. I have no complaints.” Susie Worley-Jenkins’ victory came in 2019, when Minden, WV was added to the National Priorities List, the roll call of Superfund’s worst sites, and a critical step toward getting cleaned up.
Despite her unprecedented access, however, Gibbs says no mainstream environmental organizations are interested in her “big, creepy” quarterly meetings. Maligned by the administration and opposed to nearly every other thing this EPA has done, the green groups aren’t about to focus on a Trump priority. “Nobody from any of these environmental groups wants to attend,” Gibbs says. “Nobody has asked.” And several of her donors, “who are progressive people with money,” have made “remarks” about her closeness to the administration. In May of 2018, Democrats in the House targeted Kelly, too. Facing an ethics investigation into his banking days, he resigned. “I cried when Kell left, I tell you,” Chapman says. She and another activist “sat in her living room and sobbed. We felt like we had lost a true ally.”
For Gibbs, saddled between an environmental movement unwilling to cooperate and an administration she can’t bring herself to trust, it’s been an uneasy place to operate. And despite all her successes, like most things in Trump World, the story gets more muddled the deeper you delve.
“At one time, we Black folk had limited number of places we could live,” Charlie Powell says from his home in North Birmingham, Alabama. “And they only did this in the Black neighborhoods.”
The this Powell refers to is a toxic mix of zoning and willful negligence, a neighborhood pocked and stained with heavy industry. For decades, his old 35th Avenue neighborhood has suffered the fallout from a two nearby coke oven plants, multiple asphalt batch plants, facilities that manufacture steel and piping, quarries, a coal gas storage tank and purification system, and the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Powell grew up in a large extended family, and the neighborhood took its toll. “It was 16 of us and there’s only six left,” he says of his childhood household. “And I’m the only one that’s lived to be 60. I’m 66. All my brothers dead but me. I got one sister left. It was 10 boys and six girls.”
For a decade, the EPA has said it plans to clean up the North Birmingham Superfund site, but the urgency and efficiency that have characterized the Trump administration’s approach to high-profile cleanups elsewhere have been absent in Powell’s home town. “I don’t really know what the EPA have been doing,” Powell, now 67, says. “Round here, to me, I think the whole thing is useless.”