Major Superfund cleanup projects could lose steam without the EPA adviser who gave them a running start, consultants and activists said.
Albert “Kell” Kelly spearheaded Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Superfund reform plan as an adviser, but the EPA announced his resignation May 1.
Pruitt, who made cleaning up and reusing contaminated sites an agency priority, has targeted 22 sites for immediate action. Those efforts may lose momentum without Kelly, consultants, and community activists told Bloomberg Environment.
“Like anything else, any other job or position, it probably will slow down, at least in the short term,” Sean McGinnis, director of the Horinko Group, an environmental consulting firm in Washington, D.C., told Bloomberg Environment.
Many of the sites on the EPA’s National Priority List—among the most contaminated in the country—have been there for decades. Kelly helped Pruitt push along stalled cleanup plans for some of those locations, scoring early wins for the administration.
“This is a guy who’s been involved in 70 sites, and been directly involved in seven coming off the [National Priorities List], and initiated and instituted the first reforms to the program,” Rich Gold, an attorney at Holland & Knight LLP in Washington, told Bloomberg Environment.
Kelly will likely be replaced by career staff short-term, consultants told Bloomberg Environment, but since he was a political appointee, President Donald Trump’s administration has the opportunity to replace him. The agency declined to say when Kelly was leaving or who would replace him.
Gold, who represents companies in Superfund litigation and had proposed Superfund reforms at the EPA under the Clinton administration, said there were typically replacements at the ready when someone left. Much like shark teeth, new ones emerge when older ones are lost.
“I’m sure these guys will have their own great white shark tooth,” he said.
Before joining the EPA last year, Kelly was a banker in Oklahoma, but the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation banned him from the industry for life.
Pruitt was questioned about Kelly’s prior banking industry conflicts during a series of April 26 hearings before House committees. Democratic lawmakers wanted to know if Pruitt knew about Kelly’s banking past before he hired him to run the Superfund program.
“His conflicts and background made him undeserving of the public trust,” Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) said in a statement.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) called for the EPA’s inspector general to investigate Kelly. The agency has not yet responded to that request, Aaron Fritschner, a spokesman for Beyer, told Bloomberg Environment.
Need for Speed
Kelly ensured the EPA made significant progress toward cleanup decisions for many Superfund sites, Lois Gibbs, founder of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, told Bloomberg Environment.
With Kelly heading Superfund reform, the EPA took rapid action on cleanup decisions including those at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits outside Houston, Texas, and the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis, Mo.
“They moved quick on the Houston site, the St. Louis site, much quicker than others have in the past,” she said.
Having someone from EPA headquarters come out to see a Superfund site was rare, Rebecca Jim, who has been following the Tar Creek site in Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma, told Bloomberg Environment. Jim is executive director of the LEAD Agency, a community activism group.
“I really had hoped this was our chance to get this place in Oklahoma cleaned up that’s been on the list since the beginning,” she said. “I’ll still hold out somewhat.”
Matt Ward, chief executive officer of Sustainable Strategies, works with towns and other groups to get funding to clean up brownfields. Brownfields are properties where redevelopment is restricted or complicated by the appearance of contamination or actual contamination.
“Kelly has had an open door and collaborative approach to working with local government officials and development officials,” Ward told Bloomberg Environment. “He has been a positive presence in the brownfields world in the year that he’s been there.”