WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency says an internal task force appointed to revamp how the nation's most polluted sites are cleaned up generated no record of its deliberations.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in May announced the creation of a Superfund Task Force that he said would reprioritize and streamline procedures for remediating more than 1,300 sites.
Pruitt on Dec. 8 named East Chicago's USS Lead Superfund site to a list of 21 Superfund sites in the U.S. to be targeted for "immediate and intense attention."
Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, appointed a political supporter from his home state with no experience in pollution cleanups to lead the group.
The task force in June issued a nearly three-dozen page report containing 42 detailed recommendations, all of which Pruitt immediately adopted.
The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, known as PEER, quickly filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking a long list of documents related to the development of Pruitt's plan.
After EPA didn't immediately release any records, PEER sued.
Now, nearly six months after the task force released its report, a lawyer for EPA has written PEER to say that the task force had no agenda for its meetings, kept no minutes and used no reference materials.
Further, there was no written criteria for selecting the 107 EPA employees the agency says served on the task force or background materials distributed to them during the deliberative process for creating the recommendations.
According to EPA, the task force also created no work product other than its final report.
"Pruitt's plan for cleaning up toxic sites was apparently immaculately conceived, without the usual trappings of human parentage," said Jeff Ruch, the executive direction of PEER. "It stretches credulity that 107 EPA staff members with no agenda or reference materials somehow wrote an intricate plan in 30 days."
The task force was led by Albert "Kell" Kelly, whom Pruitt hired at EPA as a senior adviser. Kelly was previously the chairman of Tulsa-based SpiritBank, where he worked as an executive for 34 years.
The Associated Press reported in August that Kelly was barred by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from working for any U.S. financial institution after officials determined he violated laws or regulations, leading to a financial loss for his bank. The FDIC's order didn't detail what Kelly is alleged to have done. Without admitting wrongdoing, he agreed to pay a $125,000 penalty.
Kelly attended several EPA meetings this year in East Chicago focused on the USS Lead site and a meeting organized by activists to fight a proposal to store highly toxic waste dredged from the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal in a confined disposal facility close to several schools. State and federal environmental officials in September said they would study an option for off-site disposal and capping of contaminated sediment “hot spots” in the canal.
EPA said last week the estimated cost of cleanup in two of the USS Lead site's three residential zones had ballooned from $22.8 million in 2012 to $84.9 million. The agency is currently accepting public comment on its proposed explanation of significant differences document.
EPA said this week it issued two unilateral orders to six companies to continue with soil excavation and indoor dust removal in zones 2 and 3. However, the agency declined to comment on why it chose to issue the orders rather than seeking a settlement with the companies, also called potentially responsible parties.
EPA estimated it would cost USS Lead, Atlantic Richfield Co., E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., The Chemours Co., U.S. Metals Refining Co. and Mueller Industries a total of $26.25 million to complete the work.
Times staff contributed to this report.