Last month, the Trump administration nominated Peter Wright from DowDuPont to serve as Assistant Administrator at the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM). This office plays a critical role in protecting public health by enforcing the Superfund program (the government’s effort to clean up sites that are contaminated with hazardous waste and posing a health risk). They also implement programs to help communities from chemical disasters, and deal broadly with regulations on hazardous waste disposal to best protect public health and hold polluters accountable.
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has identified the Superfund program as a priority area, which so far has meant taking sites off of the National Priorities List, but not necessarily making sure those sites are adequately cleaned up.
According to his Linkedin page, Wright has spent 19 years as Managing Counsel at the Dow Chemical Company, which since merging with DuPont in 2017 is known as DowDuPont. According to the White House, while there, he has provided counsel to the company’s leaders and led the company’s “legal strategies regarding Superfund sites and other federal and state-led remediation matters,” and provided counsel on mergers, acquisitions, and significant real estate transactions for the company.
One of the main functions of OLEM is to hold companies accountable for polluting peoples’ water, land, and air which is why it is a huge conflict that someone who has long represented the interests of a company that is a currently liable major historic polluter would be at its helm. Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, or its subsidiaries are listed as the parent company for over 200 Superfund sites, 50 Risk Management Plan (RMP) facilities and over 50 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) facilities with corrective actions.
As the potential future head of OLEM, can we really trust that Wright would be making objective decisions regarding DowDuPont Superfund sites, ensuring its facilities with RCRA permits are cleaning up current problems with mismanagement of hazardous waste, and overseeing implementation of the RMP Rule at DowDuPont sites? According to Dow, Wright was “directly involved” with at least 14 cleanup agreements with the EPA, but which sites and whether he advised or was involved less formally in other cases is still unclear.
Wright’s Superfund conflicts from coast to coast
To get a better sense of exactly how many Superfund conflicts would arise if Wright were to be confirmed as head of OLEM, we mapped the locations of Superfund sites (those both on the National Priority List and not on the list) at which DuPont, Dow, or a subsidiary company were named as a responsible party according to a 2013 EPA list. While parent companies aren’t always financially responsible for cleaning up a subsidiary’s Superfund sites, these locations still pose a potential conflict of interest as Wright would not be wholly independent of these sites.
In total, using the 2013 list but eliminating any sites that have since been deleted by EPA, we found 180 still active, proposed or partial National Priority List (NPL) sites and 57 non-NPL sites equating to 238 sites tied to DowDuPont in 44 different states. There is one additional Superfund site, the US Smelter and Lead Refinery site in East Chicago, that was listed as a Superfund site after 2013—so was not included in our count—but that is publicly linked to DuPont.
As Dow and DuPont’s 2014 through 2017 10-K forms (here, here, here, and here) indicate that more Superfund sites were added than deleted for the companies every year, there are likely many more Superfund sites than those listed here that are not included on this map. And it’s important to remember that there is a strong financial incentive for companies to evade responsibility and avoid paying for expensive remediation efforts, so they employ several different strategies to do so including name changes, mergers, and bankruptcies.
DowDuPont has over $200 million in payment obligations for Superfund sites alone, according to its own financial statements. Were Wright to be confirmed, decisions made about the timely cleanup of DowDuPont sites across the country will be made by a man who spent two decades on the payroll of that same company. And judging by the way the EPA’s ethics office has so far allowed conflicted appointees to participate in policy issues related to their former employers, it seems likely that Wright will be weighing in on issues in which he has a vested interest on day one.
When conflicts of interest hit close to home
A little-known fact about my home state of New Jersey is that it is home to the highest number of Superfund sites in the country, with 114 sites on the National Priority List alone.
Who knew such a small state could pack in so much hazardous waste! No wonder the one superhero hailing from our state is named the Toxic Avenger…
The consideration of what to do with the remediation of one DowDupont site in New Jersey, Berry’s Creek, will occur in the next few months, and because it comes with a large price tag ($80 million according to DowDuPont), its fate could be decided by Administrator Pruitt himself, who we know has already been swayed by Dow’s influence at least once before, with the counsel of Wright.
For me, Berry’s Creek is not a faraway place. I’ve been there. I grew up nearby. My parents now live a mile downstream. During college, I spent my summers as a chemistry intern, running water and sediment samples from the Hackensack River and other locations in the surrounding Meadowlands, extracting and measuring contaminants ranging from heavy metals to PCBs to pesticides.
These chemicals have contaminated the water and land surrounding the Meadowlands for decades, since the thoroughfare has been home to landfills, power plants, and other industrial sites that had been free to pollute without penalty until the Clean Water Act was signed in 1972. On one of many water sampling boat trips on the river, we approached a tributary of the Hackensack river, Berry’s Creek, and my environmental scientist colleague explained a little bit about its history and why we might not want to fall off the boat if we valued our health.
A mercury processing plant was operated by Ventron/Velsicol adjacent to the creek between 1927 and 1974 and was named a national priority site for the EPA’s Superfund program in 1984. The site was acquired by a long list of companies, but its liability has fallen to Rohm & Haas, a wholly owned subsidiary of DowDupont. According to NOAA, which is working with EPA to evaluate remediation efforts at the site, the mercury levels in Berry’s Creek are among the highest found in any freshwater ecosystem in the United States. The creek is hydrologically connected to wetlands that surround it and because it’s a tidal estuary, contamination has flowed both up and downstream of the original site. In 2005, EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USEPA) found dissolved mercury concentrations as high as 4,100 µg/L, 2,000 times the New Jersey groundwater quality standard of 2 ug/L! Mercury concentrations in the sediment at Berry’s Creek has been recorded as far deep as six feet below the sediment surface.
The area is also contaminated with cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, other heavy metals, and PCBs at levels exceeding New Jersey standards and will be until action is taken by DowDupont to finally clean it up. It’s only a matter of time before contamination issues are worsened by flood risks resulting from climate change, since the site is low-lying and the NJ towns surrounding the Meadowlands are in a high-risk area.
Wright is a great fit for Pruitt’s EPA (and that’s not a compliment)
My colleague, Andy Rosenberg, detailed why many of Pruitt’s team members and leadership at the EPA are incapable of protecting public health and safety. Wright fits the bill as well.
Wright’s confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled by the Senate, but I look forward to seeing members of the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ask him how exactly he expects to protect us from harmful chemicals and hold companies accountable for pollution prevention when he has direct financial conflicts of interest from haunting him from his previous employer in nearly every state. I’d like them to get some clarity on which DowDuPont Superfund sites, RMP, or RCRA facilities he has directly worked on or been involved with in any capacity and whether he will be recusing himself from all decisions made about those sites.
I agree with the Trenton Times editorial board that Wright’s nomination is “horrible, horrible news” not just for the state of New Jersey’s long list of contaminated sites and my friends and family living downstream, but for the rest of the country and for the integrity of the agency and its ability to protect public health over industry profits. I’d love to be proven wrong by Pruitt and Wright and to see Berry’s Creek and other NJ Superfund sites be the cleanup success stories we’ve been waiting for as long as we’ve been the NY metropolitan area’s dumping grounds.
But New Jersey and other states with Superfund sites (including Dow Chemical Company’s home state of Michigan) have been burned too many times by responsible parties and developers. We can’t afford to have another industry apologist making the calls about whether sites and communities are cleaned up and that responsible parties are held accountable.
I would like to acknowledge and thank my colleagues Emily Berman, Juan Declet-Barreto, and Yogin Kothari for their invaluable input.