oversight

Superfund: Times to Complete the Assessment and Cleanup of Hazardous Waste Sites

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-03-31.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                 United States General Accounting Office

GAO              Report to the Chairman, Committee on
                 Government Reform and Oversight,
                 House of Representatives


March 1997
                 SUPERFUND
                 Times to Complete the
                 Assessment and
                 Cleanup of Hazardous
                 Waste Sites




GAO/RCED-97-20
                   United States
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20548

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division

                   B-275267

                   March 31, 1997

                   The Honorable Dan Burton
                   Chairman, Committee on Government
                     Reform and Oversight
                   House of Representatives

                   Dear Mr. Chairman:

                   The pace of Superfund cleanups has been a long-standing concern of the
                   Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the
                   Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA), the
                   Congress set time goals for EPA and federal agencies to (1) evaluate
                   individual nonfederal and federal sites for placement, when warranted, on
                   the National Priorities List (NPL)—Superfund’s list of the nation’s worst
                   hazardous waste sites—and (2) begin various cleanup actions. In 1992, EPA
                   introduced several initiatives designed to expedite Superfund cleanups.

                   Given the congressional interest in the pace of Superfund cleanups, you
                   asked us to examine trends in the time taken to (1) evaluate and process
                   hazardous waste sites for possible placement on the NPL and (2) clean up
                   these sites following their listing.


                   EPA took an average of 9.4 years—calculated from the date of each site’s
Results in Brief   discovery—to evaluate and process the nonfederal sites it added to the
                   National Priorities List in 1996. While this evaluation and processing time
                   shows some improvement over 1995, when listing took an average of 11.4
                   years after discovery for nonfederal sites, it is generally longer than for
                   prior years. For example, listing took an average of 5.8 years after
                   discovery for the nonfederal sites added to the National Priorities List
                   from 1986 to 1990. SARA requires EPA to evaluate nonfederal sites for listing,
                   when warranted, within 4 years of their discovery. Listing decisions were
                   made within 4 years of discovery for 43 percent of the 8,931 nonfederal
                   sites discovered from 1987 through 1991. The average time between
                   discovery and listing for federal sites has also increased over the years,
                   rising from about 6.5 years for sites listed in 1990 to 8.3 years for sites
                   listed in 1995.1 Much of the increase in the time taken to list both federal
                   and nonfederal sites has occurred in the latter stages of the evaluation
                   process, after sites have been inspected and before final decisions about
                   the need to list them are made. EPA officials attributed the increases to a

                   1
                    No federal sites were listed in 1996.



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             number of factors, including the large numbers of sites initially referred to
             the agency for evaluation and EPA’s emphasis on completing work on
             already listed sites. Long waits for listing may continue because a large
             number of sites are potentially eligible for Superfund and a limited number
             of sites are being added to the program each year.

             Cleanup completion times have also lengthened. Nonfederal cleanup
             projects completed from 1986 through 1989 were finished, on average, 3.9
             years after sites were placed on the National Priorities List. By 1996,
             however, nonfederal cleanup completions were averaging 10.6 years. SARA
             did not set deadlines for completing cleanups within a certain number of
             years, but EPA set an expectation for 1993 for its regions to complete a
             cleanup within 5 years of a site’s listing. Ten percent of the cleanup
             projects at nonfederal sites listed from 1986 through 1990 were finished
             within 5 years of the site’s listing. Federal agencies took, on average, 6.6
             years from the date of listing to finish the cleanup projects they completed
             in fiscal year 1996. Much of the time taken to complete cleanups is spent
             during the early planning phases of the cleanup process, when cleanup
             remedies are selected. Less time has been spent on actual construction
             work at sites than on the selection of remedies. EPA officials attributed the
             increases in the time taken to complete cleanups to the growing
             complexity of the cleanup problems at sites, the agency’s efforts to reach
             settlements with parties responsible for the contamination at sites, and
             resource constraints.


             In 1980, the Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental
Background   Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as
             Superfund, to clean up highly contaminated hazardous waste sites. The act
             gave EPA the authority to clean up contaminated sites or to compel the
             parties responsible for the contamination to perform or pay for the
             cleanups. As of November 6, 1996, there were 1,205 sites on the NPL: 1,054
             nonfederal and 151 federal.

             Cleanup actions fall into two broad categories: removal actions and
             remedial actions. Removal actions are usually short-term actions designed
             to stabilize or clean up a hazardous waste site that poses an immediate
             threat to human health or the environment. Remedial actions are generally
             longer-term and usually costlier actions aimed at achieving a permanent
             remedy.




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To promote timely cleanups, the Superfund Amendments and
Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986 set numerical cleanup goals for all NPL
sites. SARA provided that, for facilities discovered after the act was passed,
a facility shall be evaluated for placement on the NPL within 4 years of the
site’s discovery if EPA determines on the basis of a site inspection or
preliminary assessment that such an evaluation is warranted. For certain
contaminated federal sites identified as of October 17, 1986 (the date of
SARA’s enactment), the act required EPA to ensure the performance of a
preliminary assessment of each such facility within 18 months (1.5 years)
after October 17, 1986. In addition, the act required EPA to ensure the
evaluation and placement of such sites on the NPL, if appropriate, within 30
months (2.5 years) after October 17, 1986.

In 1992, EPA implemented the Superfund Accelerated Cleanup Model. This
model introduced several initiatives designed to accomplish Superfund
cleanups in less time and at less cost. The initiatives included
(1) integrated site assessments—efforts to reduce redundancies in data
collection, (2) non-time-critical removals—efforts to reduce risks sooner
by accelerating some cleanup actions, and (3) presumptive
remedies—efforts to reduce the costs and time to study various cleanup
alternatives by identifying in advance the most effective cleanup remedy
for a given situation.

We reported2 last year that EPA’s regions were not effectively using one of
the initiatives—the authority to use non-time-critical removals to save time
and money. We found that although these removals show promise for
expediting Superfund cleanups, budgetary and legal issues have
constrained their wider use. EPA site managers estimate that using
non-time-critical removals instead of the full remedial process can, on
average, cut the time for similar cleanup actions by about 2 years and
reduce the costs by about half a million dollars. Compared to the full
remedial process, the removal process considerably shortens the
evaluation (study and design) steps but may conduct similar cleanup
actions.

EPA, other federal agencies, and state governments all play roles in the
Superfund process. EPA administers the program, evaluates nonfederal
sites for placement on the NPL, oversees cleanups performed by the parties
responsible for contaminating sites, and performs cleanups itself when
these parties cannot be found. Federal agencies are responsible, under
EPA’s supervision, for evaluating and cleaning up their own properties.


2
 A Superfund Tool for More Efficient Cleanups (GAO/RCED-96-134R, Apr. 15, 1996).



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States may enter into contracts or cooperative agreements with EPA to
carry out certain Superfund actions, including site evaluation and cleanup
oversight.

For this report, we asked EPA to provide us with data on the length of time
taken by EPA, authorized states, and federal agencies to evaluate sites for
possible placement on the NPL, to complete cleanups of listed sites, and to
accomplish the steps leading to listing and cleanup. The source of this
information was EPA’s Comprehensive Environmental Response,
Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS), which is the
official repository of Superfund data. For more detailed information on the
time taken to complete steps in the evaluation and cleanup phases of the
Superfund process, see appendixes I and II, respectively. Appendix III
presents the numbers of observations, by year, included in the average
time for each processing step (e.g., date of placement on the NPL) depicted
in the report’s figures.

We used a “date of event” analysis (e.g., date of a site’s placement on the
NPL, date of completing a cleanup) in presenting data on completion times
because of its usefulness in showing the productivity and management of
Superfund resources over time. (See app. IV.) This analysis considers the
actual number of listings, cleanups completed, or intermediate steps
completed in a given year regardless of when the sites were discovered or
placed on the NPL. Our approach is consistent with a method used by EPA
in its management reports to measure the program’s accomplishments.
This “date of event” analysis contrasts with a “date of submission”
analysis, which would track processing times by the year sites were
discovered or listed. Both methods are accepted forms of analysis. The
date of submission method can be useful for measuring the effects of
policy changes. We did not use this method in our analysis because the
changes EPA made to accelerate the Superfund process are too recent for
their effects to be reflected in the available data.

We also attempted to measure trends in the time taken to complete listings
and cleanups, using SARA’s goals and EPA’s own standards as benchmarks.
Because these standards set 4- and 5-year completion goals, our analysis
was limited to sites discovered or listed not later than 1991. Because EPA’s
initiatives to expedite cleanups were introduced after this time, their effect
on achieving the standards cannot yet be determined using this approach.
We are, however, currently reviewing the implementation and possible
effects of these initiatives.




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                                                    The length of time between discovering a site3 and placing it on the NPL has
Listing Times Have                                  increased significantly over the life of the Superfund program. (See fig. 1.)
Increased                                           According to EPA, this increase is due largely to the backlog of sites
                                                    referred to the agency for evaluation, additional processing requirements,
                                                    and a reduction in the number of sites added annually to Superfund.


Figure 1: Average Time From Site Discovery to Placement on the NPL

                            Nonfederal sites                                                             Federal sites
       Years                                                                     Years
       12                                                                        12


       10                                                                        10


         8                                                                        8


         6                                                                        6


         4                                                                        4


         2                                                                        2


         0                                                                        0
             1986     1988       1990 1992              1994     1996                 1986      1988       1990 1992              1994           1996
                                  Fiscal year                                                               Fiscal year
             No nonfederal sites were listed on the NPL in fiscal                      No federal sites were listed on the NPL in fiscal years
             years 1988 and 1992. Data for fiscal year 1996                            1986, 1988, 1991-92, and 1996.
             exclude three nonfederal sites that were added to the
             NPL without undergoing the usual evaluation because
             they posed imminent public health risks.



                                                    Note: The broken lines indicate the years in which no sites were placed on the NPL.




                                                    Figure 1 shows a generally increasing trend in the time taken to place sites
                                                    on the NPL following their discovery. In 1996, EPA took an average of 9.4

                                                    3
                                                     In this report, the date of “site discovery” is the date that a site is entered into CERCLIS.



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                                        years to list nonfederal sites and, in 1995, 8.3 years to list federal sites.
                                        SARA’s goal was for EPA to evaluate nonfederal sites for listing, when
                                        warranted, within 4 years of their discovery. For federal sites, SARA’s goal
                                        was for EPA to evaluate certain sites identified as of October 17, 1986,
                                        within 2.5 years of that date. EPA established a policy goal to complete
                                        preliminary assessments and site inspections of federal sites discovered
                                        after October 17, 1986, within 1.5 years of their discovery. EPA made
                                        decisions4 about listing nonfederal sites within 4 years of their discovery
                                        for 43 percent of the 8,931 sites discovered from fiscal year 1987 through
                                        fiscal year 1991. However, as shown in figure 2, the percentage of sites for
                                        which decisions were made within 4 years of discovery decreased in each
                                        succeeding year, from 51 percent in fiscal year 1987 to 36 percent in fiscal
                                        year 1991.


Figure 2: Percentage of Nonfederal
Listing Decisions Made Within 4 Years
                                        Percentage
of Discovery
                                        100




                                            80




                                            60




                                            40




                                            20




                                            0
                                                     1987               1988               1989               1990               1991
                                                                                 Fiscal year of discovery




                                        4
                                         Listing decisions include decisions to propose sites for inclusion on the NPL and decisions that no
                                        further Superfund action is warranted at sites.



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According to EPA officials, decisions not to list sites are now being made
faster than during the period from 1987 through 1991, when many listing
decisions were delayed pending a revision of the standards for evaluating
hazardous waste sites. According to EPA, most sites are now excluded from
further consideration for Superfund after an early assessment of their
conditions.

EPA has made some progress in reducing the time between discovering a
site and completing certain steps required to place it on the NPL.
Specifically, the average time from discovery to the completion of initial
studies at nonfederal sites has declined from its peak in the late 1980s.
(See app. I.) In addition, in 1996, the average time taken to list nonfederal
sites fell to 9.4 years from 11.4 years in 1995. However, the time between
discovery and listing for the seven sites placed on the NPL in the first
quarter of fiscal year 1997 moved up again to an average of 11.2 years.
These sites were discovered as recently as 1993 and as long ago as 1979.

Although average processing times have lengthened, EPA can move quickly
to list some sites if circumstances warrant. For example, in 1996, it listed
three sites within about 9 to 12 months of their discovery, when the Public
Health Service’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued
a public health advisory concerning the sites. EPA used an expedited
process that bypassed its normal evaluation process to list these sites. In
addition, EPA may undertake removal actions at sites to deal with
imminent threats regardless of whether the sites are listed. However,
listing is necessary before the full range of problems presented by many
sites can be addressed under Superfund.

EPA officials gave a number of reasons why assessment times have grown.
They said that the Superfund program started with a backlog of sites
awaiting evaluation.5 They also cited changes in the program, such as
revised evaluation standards requiring the reevaluation of sites and the
need to seek a state’s concurrence for listing a site. In addition, the
number of sites placed on the NPL in recent years has declined.

The officials also said that the agency’s current priority is to finish
cleaning up the sites that have already been listed. Accordingly, EPA
reallocated its budget between 1994 and 1996, cutting the funds for
assessing sites by some 50 percent. The challenge for the future is
indicated by the large number of sites that could enter the Superfund

5
 Of the 40,665 sites referred to EPA for Superfund evaluation through 1996, 14,697 had been referred
by 1982.



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                       program in the future and the small number that have been placed on the
                       NPL in the recent past. In a 1996 report,6 we estimated that between 1,400
                       and 2,300 sites could be added to the program in the future. In contrast, 16
                       sites per year were admitted, on average, from 1992 through 1996.

                       EPA officials said that the listing of new sites is likely to remain constrained
                       and that EPA is emphasizing the use of alternative strategies to clean up
                       sites more quickly or to transfer the responsibility for cleanups to other
                       parties. These alternative strategies include (1) assigning more cleanups to
                       the removal rather than the remedial program, (2) expanding state cleanup
                       programs, and (3) encouraging voluntary cleanups by responsible parties.


                       For sites with completed cleanups, the average time between the site’s
Cleanup Completion     placement on the NPL and the cleanup’s completion increased significantly
Times Have Increased   from 1986 to 1996. For nonfederal sites, the time required to complete
                       cleanups increased from 2.4 years in 1986 to 10.6 years in 1996. For federal
                       sites, the time required to complete cleanups increased from about 3.3
                       years in 1990 to 6.6 years in 1996.7 The increase in overall cleanup times
                       was accompanied by a marked increase in the time taken to select cleanup
                       remedies—a period that includes the waiting time between placement on
                       the NPL and the start of remedy selection studies, the performance of the
                       studies themselves, and in some cases, negotiations to reach settlements
                       with the parties responsible for the contamination. For nonfederal sites,
                       this phase was completed in about 2.5 years in 1986 but about 8 years in
                       1996. In contrast, the average time taken to construct the actual cleanup
                       remedy for the nonfederal sites completing this cleanup phase in 1996 was
                       2.1 years.

                       For our analysis, we considered a cleanup to be complete as of the date of
                       EPA’s remedial action report indicating that construction has been
                       completed. According to its procedures, EPA approves this report when a
                       cleanup remedy has been put in place at an operable unit and, except
                       where long-term operation is needed, has achieved the required cleanup
                       levels. EPA would consider remedial action complete when a system for
                       pumping and treating contaminated groundwater has been installed, even
                       though the system may have to operate for years before the contamination
                       is reduced to acceptable levels. Our analysis of cleanup times considers


                       6
                        Impact on States of Capping Superfund Sites (GAO/RCED-96-106R, Mar. 18, 1996).
                       7
                        Average cleanup times for federal facilities will continue to grow, since many large federal cleanup
                       projects remain to be completed. For example, the Department of Energy expects that cleanups will
                       continue at its sites through the year 2070.



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                                         whole sites as well as the cleanup projects (operable units) into which
                                         sites are often divided.8 Since EPA and federal agencies have cleaned up
                                         more operable units than whole sites, measuring the progress in cleaning
                                         up the operable units gives a more complete picture of the program’s
                                         activity.

                                         Figure 3 shows the average time between placing nonfederal and federal
                                         sites on the NPL and completing cleanups at operable units.


Figure 3: Average Time From Placement on the NPL to Completion of Cleanups at Operable Units


                  Nonfederal operable units                                           Federal operable units
      Years                                                            Years
      12                                                               12


      10                                                               10


       8                                                                8


       6                                                                6


       4                                                                4


       2                                                                2


       0                                                                0
           1986   1988   1990 1992           1994    1996                   1986     1988       1990 1992              1994       1996
                          Fiscal year                                                            Fiscal year
                                                                        Because few federal sites were cleaned up before fiscal year
                                                                        1990, we began our analysis of cleanups at federal sites starting
                                                                        in that year.




                                         8
                                          EPA or another federal agency may divide a site into multiple “operable units” corresponding to
                                         different physical areas at a site or different environmental media (such as soil or groundwater) to be
                                         cleaned up. Federal sites, which include military installations and major Department of Energy
                                         facilities, are often much larger (averaging 5.9 operable units) than nonfederal sites (averaging 1.8
                                         operable units).



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As figure 3 shows, the time taken to complete cleanups of operable units
has grown longer at both nonfederal and federal Superfund sites. In
addition, the time taken to complete the principal steps in the process
leading to the completion of cleanups has also grown longer (see app. II.)
In 1996, cleanup completions averaged 10.6 years for nonfederal operable
units and 6.6 years for federal operable units.

As noted, SARA set goals for starting certain cleanup actions, but not for
completing the cleanups. For fiscal year 1993, however, EPA set an
expectation for its regions to complete a cleanup within 5 years of a site’s
listing. At nonfederal sites listed from 1986 through 1990, 10 percent of the
operable units were cleaned up within 5 years of their site’s listing.9 As
shown in figure 4, the percentages of operable units cleaned up within 5
years increased from 7 percent for sites listed in fiscal year 1986 to
15 percent for sites listed in fiscal year 1990. EPA officials said that they
now believe that sites will be cleaned up within 8 to 10 years of their
listing.




9
 At 4 percent of the nonfederal sites listed from 1986 to 1990, cleanups of all operable units were
completed within 5 years of the site’s listing.



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Figure 4: Percentage of Nonfederal
Operable Units Cleaned Up Within 5    Percentage
Years of Listing                      100




                                       80




                                       60




                                       40




                                       20




                                        0
                                                   1986              1987              1988              1989       1990
                                                                               Fiscal year of listing



                                     Note: No nonfederal sites were placed on the NPL in fiscal year 1988.




                                     We also analyzed data on the time taken to clean up entire Superfund sites
                                     (as opposed to operable units). From 1986 to 1996, EPA recorded cleanups
                                     for 592 operable units at nonfederal facilities and for 118 operable units at
                                     federal facilities. During this same period, EPA recorded cleanups for 226
                                     nonfederal sites and for only 7 federal sites. Figure 5 shows the average
                                     duration of cleanups for the 226 nonfederal sites recorded as cleaned up
                                     from 1986 to 1996.




                                                                                                                                   Fig


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Figure 5: Average Time From Placement on the NPL to Completion of Cleanups at Sites


                                                Nonfederal sites
Years
12


10


 8


 6


 4


 2


 0
     1986     1987      1988      1989        1990       1991          1992        1993         1994         1995        1996
                                                      Fiscal year




                                         Figure 5 shows that the time taken to clean up entire sites (as opposed to
                                         operable units) has also increased. In 1996, cleanup completions averaged
                                         10.5 years. The averages for cleaning up both operable units and entire
                                         sites from 1986 through 1996 were almost identical: 7.7 years and 7.9 years,
                                         respectively. However, the upward trend in completion times for operable
                                         units may result in longer completion times for whole sites in the future.

                                         EPA officials said that the upward trend in cleanup times may be linked to
                                         the completion of more difficult cleanups. Our work supports this
                                         explanation. In September 1994, we reported10 that EPA’s data revealed
                                         longer average cleanup times for ongoing projects than for those already
                                         completed. In that report, we said that despite EPA’s efforts to expedite

                                         10
                                          Superfund: Status, Cost, and Timeliness of Hazardous Waste Site Cleanups (GAO/RCED-94-256, Sept.
                                         21, 1994).



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              cleanups, cleanups may take longer because of the greater complexity of
              these ongoing projects. In addition, we reported that EPA had shifted
              funding away from the remedy selection phase and toward the design and
              construction phases of the cleanup process. As indicated, the time taken
              to select remedies has increased greatly over the years. EPA officials also
              said that the effort to find the parties responsible for contaminating sites
              and reach cleanup settlements with them can increase cleanup times. They
              also thought that funding had affected the pace of cleanups. For example,
              they said that because of budget constraints, EPA was not able to fund
              $200 million to $300 million in cleanup projects in fiscal year 1996.


              The time taken to evaluate hazardous waste sites for inclusion in the
Conclusions   Superfund program and to complete their cleanup once they have entered
              the program has increased over the life of the program. Sites that have
              recently completed the Superfund listing process have taken over 9 years
              and those that have recently completed the cleanup process have taken
              over 10 years.

              Increasing completion times are a concern because many listing and
              cleanup activities remain in the Superfund program. EPA has made
              progress at many NPL sites—completing the construction of remedies at
              more than 400 sites—but construction work has yet to be completed at
              about 800 sites. Furthermore, although only 16 sites, on average, have
              been added to the NPL annually in the last several years, 1,400 to 2,300 sites
              could be added in the future. If entry into the Superfund program remains
              constrained, the listing of sites that are hazardous enough to qualify for the
              program could be prolonged, increasing the importance of EPA’s using a
              risk-based approach to identify the worst sites. Additionally, given the
              increased complexity of cleanups and the volume of activity that the
              program now handles, cleanups may not be completed as quickly as in the
              early days of the program. However, the steady increase in completion
              times for cleanups, especially for the earlier stages of the cleanup process
              ending with the selection of a remedy, raises concerns about the future
              pace of cleanups. Efforts to shorten the time required for future cleanups
              will have to deal effectively with delays in the earlier part of the cleanup
              process.

              EPA officials believe that recent initiatives will speed the listing and
              cleanup of sites. They said they expect to report on the effects of some of
              these initiatives in the near future.




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                     GAO is not making recommendations in this report because EPA has
                     recently implemented administrative reforms to accelerate the Superfund
                     process. In future reviews, we will be evaluating the implementation of
                     these reforms.


                     We provided a draft of this report to EPA for its review and comment. EPA
Agency Comments      provided written comments, which are reproduced in appendix V, along
and Our Evaluation   with our responses. Overall, EPA believed that the methodology used in the
                     report to show time trends in the completion of Superfund processing
                     steps is misleading and fails to acknowledge EPA’s recent efforts to
                     improve the timeliness of Superfund cleanups.

                     EPA questioned our method of presenting data on the history of the
                     program. It said that, in analyzing trends in the duration of stages in the
                     Superfund process, it prefers to compare the starting dates rather than the
                     ending dates for completed stages. For example, in analyzing the time
                     taken to place sites on the NPL, it prefers to compare the years in which
                     sites were discovered rather than the years in which the sites were listed.
                     Similarly, in presenting trends in the duration of cleanups, it prefers to
                     compare the years in which sites were listed rather than the years in which
                     cleanups were completed. In contrast, our report analyzes trends in
                     duration by comparing the ending dates for completed stages, thereby
                     presenting a historical record of the time taken to complete the various
                     stages involved in listing and cleaning up nationally significant hazardous
                     waste sites. As noted, our approach is consistent with a method used by
                     EPA in its management reports to measure the Superfund program’s
                     accomplishments.

                     We do not believe that the method EPA’s letter says we should have used to
                     present data on the history of the program produces more equitable
                     results than our method. In fact, the method EPA recommended to us
                     would always show improvement in processing times because the data for
                     later years would exclude a higher proportion of ongoing work than the
                     data for earlier years. For example, under the method EPA recommended,
                     the average processing time for site inspections—calculated from the date
                     of each site’s discovery—was between 1,300 and 1,400 days for sites
                     discovered in 1985 and between 100 and 200 days for sites discovered in
                     1996—a clear downward trend (see app. V). However, for the sites
                     discovered in 1985, 92.2 percent of the inspections had been completed,
                     while for the sites discovered in 1996, only 3.3 percent of the inspections
                     had been completed. As time passes and more of the sites discovered in



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1996 are inspected, the average processing time for these inspected sites
will increase, perhaps substantially. Thus, under EPA’s method, we will not
know if there is a true downward trend in processing times between 1985
and 1996 until sometime in the future (see app. V, comment 4).

EPA believes strongly that the trend data presented in this report do not
capture the effects of the agency’s recent initiatives to reform the
Superfund program. EPA listed a number of the program’s recent
accomplishments. EPA said that its reforms have brought relevant
stakeholders into the process earlier, increased the number of small
parties who are protected from liability, adopted liability allocations
worked out by the relevant parties, and reduced the time required for and
the costs associated with Superfund cleanups. Through the full
implementation of its Superfund administrative reforms, EPA expects to
achieve a 25-percent reduction in the time required to clean up sites. EPA
also stated that the Superfund program is faster and more efficient today
than in the past, and that the agency has reduced cleanup costs, reduced
the delays attributable to liability lawsuits, and freed more than 14,000
parties from cleanup liability. Furthermore, according to EPA, cleanups are
complete at more than 25 percent of the NPL sites and well under way at
another 35 percent. It also pointed out that 75 percent of today’s cleanups
are paid for by responsible parties, cutting the taxpayers’ burden. Finally,
EPA cited factors such as budget shortfalls, legislative and administrative
weaknesses in the current program, and the continuing influx of large and
complex sites as barriers undermining its efforts to increase the pace of
assessments and cleanups.

We agree that the data in our report do not isolate any effects of recent
policy or procedural changes on processing times. EPA did not present any
specific data to substantiate its claims that its recent initiatives have
accelerated Superfund cleanups, although it said that such data are
currently being collected. EPA also provided other technical and clarifying
comments that we incorporated as appropriate.


We conducted our work from November 1995 through February 1997 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. A
detailed discussion of our objectives, scope, and methodology appears in
appendix IV.

As arranged with your office, unless you announce its contents earlier, we
plan no further distribution of this report until 30 days after the date of



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B-275267




this letter. At that time, we will send copies to the Administrator, EPA, and
the Secretaries of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and the Interior. We will
also make copies available to others on request.

We hope this information will assist you in considering the reauthorization
of the Superfund legislation. If you have any further questions, please call
me at (202) 512-6520. Major contributors to this report are listed in
appendix VI.

Sincerely yours,




Stanley J. Czerwinski
Associate Director, Environmental
  Protection Issues




Page 16                              GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Page 17   GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Contents



Letter                                                                                                 1


Appendix I                                                                                            20
                         Steps in the Process of Listing a Site                                       20
Time Taken to            Preliminary Assessments                                                      21
Accomplish the           Site Inspections                                                             23
                         Proposing a Site as a National Priority                                      25
Principal Steps in the   Duration of Evaluation Steps                                                 26
Process of Placing
Sites on the NPL
Appendix II                                                                                           28
                         Steps in the Process of Cleaning Up a Site                                   28
Time Taken to            Selecting a Remedy                                                           29
Accomplish the           Designing a Remedy                                                           31
                         Duration of Cleanup Steps                                                    32
Principal Steps in the
Process of Cleaning
Up Sites
Appendix III                                                                                          34

Number of
Observations
Represented in This
Report’s Figures
Appendix IV                                                                                           35

Objectives, Scope,
and Methodology
Appendix V                                                                                            38
                         GAO’s Comments                                                               52
Comments From the
Environmental
Protection Agency




                         Page 18                             GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                        Contents




Appendix VI                                                                                        57

Major Contributors to
This Report
Figures                 Figure 1: Average Time From Site Discovery to Placement on the              5
                          NPL
                        Figure 2: Percentage of Nonfederal Listing Decisions Made                   6
                          Within 4 Years of Discovery
                        Figure 3: Average Time From Placement on the NPL to                         9
                          Completion of Cleanups at Operable Units
                        Figure 4: Percentage of Nonfederal Operable Units Cleaned Up               11
                          Within 5 Years of Listing
                        Figure 5: Average Time From Placement on the NPL to                        12
                          Completion of Cleanups at Sites
                        Figure I.1: How a Site Gets on the NPL                                     20
                        Figure I.2: Average Time From Site Discovery to Completion of              22
                          the Preliminary Assessment
                        Figure I.3: Average Time From Site Discovery to Completion of              24
                          the Site Inspection
                        Figure I.4: Average Time From Completion of Site Inspection to             25
                          Proposal for Listing
                        Figure II.1: How Sites Are Cleaned Up                                      28
                        Figure II.2: Average Time From Placing a Site on the NPL to                30
                          Selecting a Remedy
                        Figure II.3: Average Time From Placing a Site on the NPL to                32
                          Developing a Remedial Design




                        Abbreviations

                        CBO        Congressional Budget Office
                        CERCLA     Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation,
                                        and Liability Act of 1980
                        CERCLIS    Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation,
                                        and Liability Information System
                        EPA        Environmental Protection Agency
                        NPL        National Priorities List
                        RI/FS      remedial investigation and feasibility study
                        SACM       Superfund Accelerated Cleanup Model
                        SARA       Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986


                        Page 19                           GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Appendix I

Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
Steps in the Process of Placing Sites on the
NPL
                                         We examined the time taken to accomplish the principal steps in the
                                         process of placing a site on the National Priorities List (NPL)—the
                                         preliminary assessment, the site inspection, and the proposal to list the
                                         site as a national priority.


                                         The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation implementing the
Steps in the Process                     Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
of Listing a Site                        of 1980 (CERCLA) outlines a formal process for placing hazardous waste
                                         sites on the NPL. (See fig. I.1)


Figure I.1: How a Site Gets on the NPL


                                                        Site discovery




                                                   Preliminary assessment




                                                        Site inspection




                                                   Hazard ranking system




                                               Proposed for placement on
                                               the National Priorities List



                                                   Final placement on the
                                                    National Priorities List




                                         Source: EPA.




                                         Page 20                               GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
              Appendix I
              Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
              Steps in the Process of Placing Sites on the
              NPL




              The listing process starts when EPA receives a report of a potentially
              hazardous waste site. A state government or private citizen most often
              reports a nonfederal site. A responsible federal agency reports a
              potentially contaminated federal facility to EPA for placement on a list
              called the federal facility docket. EPA enters a potentially contaminated
              private site into a database known as the Comprehensive Environmental
              Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS). EPA
              or the state in which the potentially contaminated nonfederal site is
              located then conducts a preliminary assessment to decide whether the site
              poses a potential threat to human health and the environment. A federal
              agency performs the preliminary assessment of its site under EPA’s
              oversight.

              If the site presents a serious, imminent threat, EPA or the responsible
              federal agency may take immediate action. If the preliminary assessment
              shows that contamination exists but does not pose an imminent threat, or
              if the site continues to pose a problem following an immediate action, EPA
              or the responsible federal agency, with EPA’s supervision, may proceed to
              the next step of the evaluation process, the site inspection, which takes a
              more detailed look at possible contamination. If at any point the site is
              found not to pose a potential threat, the site can be eliminated from
              further consideration under CERCLA.

              Using information from the site inspection, EPA applies the hazard ranking
              system to evaluate the federal or nonfederal site’s potential risk to public
              health and the environment. The hazard ranking system is a numerically
              based scoring system that uses information from the preliminary
              assessment and the site inspection to assign each site a score ranging from
              0 to 100. This score is used as a screening tool to determine whether a site
              should be considered for further action under CERCLA. A site with a score
              of 28.5 or higher is considered for placement on the NPL. EPA first proposes
              a site for placement on the NPL and then, after receiving public comments,
              either places it on the NPL or removes it from further consideration. The
              hazardous waste sites on the NPL represent the highest priorities for
              cleanup nationwide.


              Figure I.2 shows, for nonfederal and federal sites, the average time taken
Preliminary   to complete a preliminary assessment of conditions at a site following its
Assessments   discovery.




              Page 21                                        GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                                           Appendix I
                                           Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
                                           Steps in the Process of Placing Sites on the
                                           NPL




Figure I.2: Average Time From Site Discovery to Completion of the Preliminary Assessment



                          Nonfederal sites                                                    Federal sites
        Years                                                          Years
        6                                                              6




        4                                                              4




        2                                                              2




        0                                                              0
            1986   1988     1990    1992      1994      1996               1986    1988        1990     1992      1994     1996
                             Fiscal year                                                        Fiscal year




                                           Figure I.2 shows that from 1987 to 1989, EPA sharply reduced the average
                                           time between discovery and completion of the preliminary assessment at
                                           nonfederal sites. EPA officials attributed this decrease to EPA’s effort to
                                           reduce the time for completing preliminary assessments following the
                                           passage of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986
                                           (SARA).

                                           After SARA’s passage, EPA adopted a policy of completing a preliminary
                                           assessment within 1 year of a site’s discovery. The preliminary assessment
                                           was completed within a year of discovery at about two-thirds of the sites
                                           that were discovered after fiscal year 1987 and were preliminarily assessed
                                           by the end of fiscal year 1995. The officials said that EPA’s efforts to
                                           complete assessments within 1 year had reduced the backlog of sites
                                           needing assessments and shortened the time required for the assessments.



                                           Page 22                                        GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                   Appendix I
                   Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
                   Steps in the Process of Placing Sites on the
                   NPL




                   However, since 1989, the time from discovery to completion of the
                   preliminary assessment has gradually increased.

                   For federal sites, the average time between discovery and completion of
                   the preliminary assessment has fluctuated over the years but has
                   consistently exceeded SARA’s goals. In fiscal year 1996, the preliminary
                   assessment was completed for federal sites, on average, 2.5 years after
                   discovery. SARA specified that EPA take steps to ensure that the assessment
                   for all sites entered on EPA’s first federal facility docket be completed
                   within 1.5 years.11 An EPA policy extended SARA’s deadline to all subsequent
                   dockets. EPA officials told us that federal sites are typically larger and more
                   complex than nonfederal sites and therefore their assessment requires
                   more work and more time to complete. The officials also said that studies
                   prepared by federal agencies often lack needed data, requiring EPA to ask
                   the agencies to do more work to satisfy CERCLA’s requirements.12 The
                   officials also noted that EPA does not have much leverage over how federal
                   agencies conduct their preliminary assessments.


                   Figure I.3 shows, for nonfederal and federal sites, the average time
Site Inspections   between discovery and completion of the site inspection.




                   11
                     We reported in Superfund: Backlog of Unevaluated Federal Facilities Slows Cleanup Efforts
                   (GAO/RCED-93-119, July 20, 1993) that EPA had not met SARA’s deadlines for evaluating federal
                   facilities for possible placement on the NPL.
                   12
                    We reported this problem in Federal Facilities: Consistent Relative Risk Evaluations Needed for
                   Prioritizing Cleanups (GAO/RCED-96-150, June 7, 1996).



                   Page 23                                         GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                                          Appendix I
                                          Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
                                          Steps in the Process of Placing Sites on the
                                          NPL




Figure I.3: Average Time From Site Discovery to Completion of the Site Inspection


                      Nonfederal sites                                                     Federal sites
      Years                                                         Years
      10                                                            10



       8                                                             8



       6                                                             6



       4                                                             4



       2                                                             2



       0                                                             0
           1986   1988    1990 1992        1994     1996                 1986    1988       1990 1992         1994     1996
                           Fiscal year                                                       Fiscal year




                                          As figure I.3 shows, the average time from discovery to completion of the
                                          site inspection has declined in recent years for both nonfederal and federal
                                          sites. EPA has made progress over the past 5 years in reducing the time
                                          from discovery to completion of the site inspection for nonfederal sites. In
                                          1991, EPA took an average of 6.6 years to complete the site inspection,
                                          whereas in 1996, it brought this average down to 4.1 years. EPA officials
                                          told us that the time for completing site inspections increased until 1991
                                          because EPA concentrated its resources on completing preliminary
                                          assessments within 12 months and this effort created a backlog of site
                                          inspections. They said that after reducing the backlog of preliminary
                                          assessments, EPA focused on reducing the backlog of site inspections,
                                          bringing about the recent improvement in the time for completing site
                                          inspections.




                                          Page 24                                        GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                                           Appendix I
                                           Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
                                           Steps in the Process of Placing Sites on the
                                           NPL




                                           For federal sites, EPA’s policy was that inspections were to be completed
                                           within 1.5 years. In 1996, inspections took 6.5 years to complete, on
                                           average, from the time of site discovery.


                                           Figure I.4 shows, for nonfederal and federal sites, the average time
Proposing a Site as a                      between completing the site inspection and proposing to place the site on
National Priority                          the NPL.


Figure I.4: Average Time From Completion of Site Inspection to Proposal for Listing

                      Nonfederal sites                                                       Federal sites
      Years                                                          Years
      12                                                             12


      10                                                             10


       8                                                              8


       6                                                              6


       4                                                              4


       2                                                              2


       0                                                              0
           1986   1988    1990 1992        1994      1996                 1986      1988       1990 1992              1994       1996
                           Fiscal year                                                          Fiscal year
                                                                          The broken line indicates that no federal sites were proposed
                                                                          for the NPL in fiscal year 1987. Only two federal sites were
                                                                          proposed for the NPL in fiscal year 1995, and only one was
                                                                          proposed in fiscal year 1996.




                                           As figure I.4 shows, the average time required to propose a site for
                                           placement on the NPL generally increased for both nonfederal and federal




                                           Page 25                                        GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                   Appendix I
                   Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
                   Steps in the Process of Placing Sites on the
                   NPL




                   sites from 1986 to 1996. For nonfederal sites proposed for listing in 1986,
                   the proposal took 20 months from the completion of the site inspection,
                   compared with 6 years in 1996. For federal sites proposed for listing in
                   1986, the proposal took only 10 months from the completion of the site
                   inspection, compared with 5.5 years in 1994, the last year in which a
                   substantial number of federal sites were proposed for listing.

                   According to EPA officials, the increases in the time required to propose
                   sites for listing are partly attributable to revisions in the hazard ranking
                   system mandated by SARA. SARA directed EPA to obtain additional data so
                   that the system could more accurately assess the relative risk to human
                   health and the environment posed by sites and facilities nominated to the
                   NPL. EPA officials said that the agency decided to limit listings while it was
                   revising the hazard ranking system. EPA announced in April 1987 that it
                   was considering revisions to the system, and in December 1988 it
                   requested comments on proposed revisions. In December 1990, EPA
                   promulgated final revisions to the hazard ranking system.

                   EPA  officials said that the revisions to the hazard ranking system led EPA to
                   seek additional data on 5,275 nonfederal sites and 27 federal sites from
                   1992 through 1996. For these sites, EPA developed a temporary
                   intermediate step—referred to as a site inspection prioritization—to
                   gather the additional information needed on the sites’ risks to human
                   health. EPA officials also said that the time taken to assess sites has grown
                   because of the large backlog of sites at the start of the Superfund program,
                   enforcement activities, and the need to seek a state’s concurrence for
                   listing a site. In addition, the number of sites placed on the NPL has
                   declined in recent years.


                   We attempted to obtain data from CERCLIS showing the duration of some of
Duration of        the major steps in the process of evaluating sites for placement on the NPL:
Evaluation Steps   the preliminary assessment, the site inspection, and the site inspection
                   prioritization. However, the starting date for many of these steps is not
                   recorded in the database13. For example, the beginning and ending dates
                   are available for only 27 percent (4,693 of 17,469) of the site inspections
                   completed at nonfederal sites through fiscal year 1995. However, the data
                   that are available indicate that these steps account for only a portion of
                   the total time taken to evaluate a site for listing. The available data show
                   that in fiscal year 1995, preliminary assessments at nonfederal sites were

                   13
                    Because the starting dates for some processing phases were not indicated, we also measured
                   durations from the date of discovery to the end of these processing phases. (See figs. I.2 and I.3)



                   Page 26                                           GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Appendix I
Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
Steps in the Process of Placing Sites on the
NPL




completed on average in 8 months; site inspections in 12 months; and sites
inspection prioritizations in 12 months. These numbers suggest that a
substantial portion of the time between discovery and listing elapses while
a site is awaiting the next step in the process.




Page 27                                        GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Appendix II

Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
Steps in the Process of Cleaning Up Sites

                                        In addition to measuring the total time taken from the placement of a site
                                        on the NPL to the completion of its cleanup, we examined the time taken to
                                        complete two of the principal intermediate steps—the preparation of the
                                        record of decision, which documents the final remedy selected after
                                        completing the remedial investigation and feasibility study (RI/FS), and the
                                        remedial design, which includes the technical drawings and specifications
                                        for the selected remedy. We also obtained data on the duration of the RI/FS,
                                        the remedial design, and the remedial action.


                                        EPA’sregulation implementing CERCLA outlines the remedial process for
Steps in the Process                    cleaning up sites on the NPL. (see fig. II.1)
of Cleaning Up a Site
Figure II.1: How Sites Are Cleaned Up
                                                  Remedial investigation/
                                                     feasibility study



                                                   Selection of remedy/
                                                    record of decision



                                                     Remedial design




                                                       Remedial action




                                        Source: EPA.




                                        The remedial responses to an NPL site consists of several phases. If a site is
                                        divided into discrete cleanup projects, known as operable units, each of
                                        the operable units may pass through these phases. First, through the RI/FS,
                                        the conditions at a site are studied, problems are identified, and alternative
                                        methods to clean up the site are evaluated. Then, a final remedy is




                                        Page 28                              GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                     Appendix II
                     Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
                     Steps in the Process of Cleaning Up Sites




                     selected, and the decision is documented in a record of decision. Next,
                     during an engineering phase called the remedial design, technical
                     drawings and specifications are developed for the selected remedy.
                     Finally, in the remedial action phase, a cleanup contractor begins
                     constructing the remedy according to the remedial design. Once EPA, in
                     consultation with the state in which the site is located, determines that the
                     work at a site has achieved all of the desired cleanup goals, the site can be
                     removed (deleted) from the NPL.


                     Figure II.2 shows, for nonfederal and federal operable units, the average
Selecting a Remedy   time taken from the placement of a site on the NPL to the selection of a
                     remedy for its cleanup.




                     Page 29                                     GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                                          Appendix II
                                          Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
                                          Steps in the Process of Cleaning Up Sites




Figure II.2: Average Time From Placing a Site on the NPL to Selecting a Remedy


                   Nonfederal operable units                                          Federal operable units
       Years                                                        Years
       10                                                           10



        8                                                             8



        6                                                             6



        4                                                             4



        2                                                             2



        0                                                             0
            1986   1988    1990 1992        1994     1996                 1986       1988       1990 1992             1994       1996
                            Fiscal year                                                          Fiscal year

                                                                          Because few federal sites had remedies selected prior to fiscal
                                                                          year 1990, we began our analysis of remedy selection at federal
                                                                          sites starting in that year.




                                          Figure II.2 shows that the average time taken to select a remedy at
                                          nonfederal sites has steadily increased over the years. In 1986, selecting a
                                          remedy after a site’s listing took an average of 2.6 years, compared with an
                                          average of 8.1 years in 1996. The average time taken to select a remedy at
                                          federal sites has also increased over the years, from an average of 2 years
                                          in 1990 to an average of 6.3 years in 1996.

                                          The cleanup phase that ends with the selection of a remedy comprises two
                                          periods: the time between listing and the start of the RI/FS and the time for
                                          the RI/FS. Both of these periods add significantly to the total time taken to
                                          complete cleanups. For nonfederal sites at which RI/FSs were begun from




                                          Page 30                                        GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                     Appendix II
                     Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
                     Steps in the Process of Cleaning Up Sites




                     1991 through 1996, an average of 4.5 years had elapsed since the sites were
                     proposed for listing. For federal sites at which RI/FSs were begun during
                     the same years, an average of 3.5 years had elapsed. For the nonfederal
                     sites at which RI/FSs were completed in 1995 (the last year for which
                     complete data were available), the RI/FS took an average of 4.4 years to
                     complete, or about 2 years more than in 1986. For federal sites, the RI/FSs
                     took an average of 4.4 years to complete in 1996, up about 2.5 years from
                     1991.


                     Figure II.3 shows, for nonfederal and federal operable units, the average
Designing a Remedy   time taken to develop the remedial design, or the technical drawings and
                     specifications for the selected remedy. The elapsed time is measured from
                     the date of a site’s placement on the NPL.




                     Page 31                                     GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
                                          Appendix II
                                          Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
                                          Steps in the Process of Cleaning Up Sites




Figure II.3: Average Time From Placing a Site on the NPL to Developing a Remedial Design


                   Nonfederal operable units                                       Federal operable units
       Years                                                        Years
       10                                                           10



        8                                                             8



        6                                                             6



        4                                                             4



        2                                                             2



        0                                                             0
            1986   1988   1990 1992         1994     1996                 1986    1988       1990 1992             1994       1996
                           Fiscal year                                                        Fiscal year
                                                                      Because few federal sites had remedial designs completed
                                                                      before fiscal year 1990, we began our analysis of remedial
                                                                      designs at federal sites starting in that year.




                                          As figure II.3 indicates, remedial designs are generally completed more
                                          quickly at federal sites than at nonfederal sites. EPA officials attributed this
                                          difference to the fact that federal cleanups do not usually involve
                                          negotiations or litigation with private responsible parties.


                                          EPA’s records indicate that the actual time taken recently to complete the
Duration of Cleanup                       latter phases of the cleanup process—the remedial design and the
Steps                                     remedial action—is less than one-half of the total time taken, from listing,
                                          to complete recent remedial actions. Nonfederal remedial designs took 2.3
                                          years to complete in 1996, up from 1.6 years in 1991. Nonfederal remedial
                                          actions took about 2 years in 1996, essentially as long as they took in 1991.




                                          Page 32                                      GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Appendix II
Time Taken to Accomplish the Principal
Steps in the Process of Cleaning Up Sites




Federal remedial designs were done in 1 year in 1996, up slightly from
about 10 months in 1991. Federal remedial actions were completed in 1.6
years in 1996, again up slightly from 1.4 years in 1991.




Page 33                                     GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Appendix III

Number of Observations Represented in
This Report’s Figures


Figure         1986    1987        1988      1989         1990          1991          1992     1993      1994       1995     1996
1
Nonfederal      169      67           0         93          224             7             0       26        19        22       10
Federal           0      28           0          8           74             0             0         7       24          6       0
2
                   a                                                                       a         a         a         a      a
Nonfederal             2,004   2,005        1,640         1,572        1,710
3
Nonfederal       17      24          17         37           34            51            72       96        80        86       78
                   a       a          a            a
Federal                                                        5            3            13       14        20        35       23
4
                                                                             a             a         a         a         a      a
Nonfederal      227      77           0       101           197
5
Nonfederal        8       7           9          7             8           10            31       32        38        40       36
I.2
Nonfederal     3,969   3,704   2,671        2,151         1,566        1,327          1,611    1,361       899       710      753
Federal          73      86         145         68          124            54          236       122       112        72       21
I.3
Nonfederal     1,178   1,295   1,272        1,805         1,971        1,991          1,277      648       551       535      318
Federal          20      42          44         54           54            28            57       62        24        42       24
I.4
Nonfederal       41      52         197          9           23            17            20       32        21          7      18
Federal           2       0           9         43             1            2             4       13        12          2       1
II.2
Nonfederal       82      73         152       130           145          166           118       122       105        92       63
                   a       a          a            a
Federal                                                      18            21            42       59        59        75       77
II.3
Nonfederal       23      48          69         83           55          103             99      112       113       122      108
                   a       a          a            a
Federal                                                        2           17            25       30        48        44       54
                               a
                                Data are not presented for this year because the year is not included in the corresponding
                               figure.




                               Page 34                                           GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Appendix IV

Objectives, Scope, and Methodology


              The Chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform and
              Oversight asked us to provide information on the pace of Superfund
              cleanups. He specifically asked that we examine trends in the time taken
              to (1) evaluate hazardous waste sites for possible placement on the NPL
              and (2) clean up the sites following their listing. To accomplish these
              objectives, we asked EPA to provide us with data from the Comprehensive
              Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System
              (CERCLIS). This information system is the official repository of Superfund
              data and provides integrated information on the evaluation (preremedial)
              and remedial programs as well as the removal program.

              To determine the time taken to evaluate sites for placement on the NPL, we
              asked EPA to provide us with data on the sites that had moved through the
              various stages of the assessment process from fiscal year 1986 through
              fiscal year 1996. For this report, we concentrated our analysis on the
              following four phases of each site’s evaluation: (1) from discovery to
              placement on the NPL, (2) from discovery to completion of the preliminary
              assessment, (3) from discovery to completion of the site inspection, and
              (4) from completion of the inspection to the proposal for listing.

              To determine the time taken to clean up sites placed on the NPL, we asked
              EPA to provide data on sites that had progressed through the stages of the
              remedial cleanup process. These data also covered fiscal years 1986
              through 1996. For this part of the analysis, we examined data for three
              principal stages of the cleanup process: (1) from the site’s placement on
              the NPL to the selection of a remedy, (2) from the site’s listing to the
              completion of the remedial design, and (3) from the site’s listing to the
              completion of the cleanup. We also measured the duration of the RI/FS, the
              remedial design, and the remedial action and the time from the proposal
              for listing to the start of the RI/FS.

              We used a “date of event” (such as NPL listing or completion of cleanup)
              analysis in our review to measure the duration of listing and cleanup
              phases. This method classifies sites by the year in which they completed
              an activity. Our approach is an accepted form of analysis useful for
              showing the productivity and management of resources over time.
              Another analytical approach would have grouped sites by their “date of
              submission” (discovery or listing) and compared the duration of
              processing steps among these groups. This method can be useful in
              assessing the effect of policy or operational changes. We did not use it in
              our report because EPA’s initiatives to speed up the Superfund process are
              so recent. We also used goals for the completion of listing or cleanup set



              Page 35                             GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Appendix IV
Objectives, Scope, and Methodology




out in SARA or EPA directives as benchmarks for comparison with actual
listing and cleanup times.

We used EPA’s definitions of site discovery and cleanup completion. Site
discovery for this report is defined as the date of a site’s listing in CERCLIS.
Cleanup completion is defined as the end of the remedial action phase,
that is, the date when, under EPA’s procedures, the designated regional or
state official signs a document indicating that the physical construction is
complete for all remedial and removal work required at a site and, except
where the long-term operation of a remedy is needed, the required cleanup
levels have been attained.

EPA’s management data track a site’s projects, or operable units.
Nonfederal sites average 1.8 operable units, while federal sites average 5.9
operable units. Each operable unit generally proceeds through the
individual cleanup stages.

For example, the Department of Energy’s Rocky Flats Environmental
Technology Site was placed on the NPL in 1989 as one site. DOE
subsequently categorized the known or suspected hazardous waste
sources into 16 operable units on the basis of its cleanup priorities, the
type of waste, the unit’s geographic location, and public input. EPA’s
records show that cleanups at 3 of Rocky Flats’ 16 operable units have
been completed, 2 in 1992 and 1 in 1993. Tracking the time required to
clean up operable units allows EPA to measure progress without waiting
for entire sites to be cleaned up. At some complex sites—like Rocky
Flats—work may extend well into the future. We also examined data for
sites where all of the operable units had been cleaned up.

While we did not independently verify EPA’s data for completeness or
accuracy, EPA took a number of steps to ensure the accuracy and reliability
of its data. For example, sites without valid identification numbers or with
inappropriate status codes were excluded. Also, any times for individual
study phases that could not possibly be valid were excluded from the
analysis. For example, negative times were excluded. Also, sites with
times exceeding the mean by more than three standard deviations were
eliminated to prevent a few sites on the high or low end of the spectrum
from skewing the overall results. These adjustments resulted in the
exclusion of fewer than 1 percent of the sites.

EPA provided written comments on a draft of this report. These comments
are discussed and evaluated in the pertinent sections of this report and are



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Appendix IV
Objectives, Scope, and Methodology




reprinted in appendix V. We conducted our work from November 1995
through February 1997 in accordance with generally accepted government
auditing standards.




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Appendix V

Comments From the Environmental
Protection Agency

Note: GAO comments
supplementing those in the
report text appear at the
end of this appendix.




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Comments From the Environmental
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                 Protection Agency




See comment 1.




See comment 2.




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                 Protection Agency




See comment 3.




See comment 4.




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                 Protection Agency




See comment 5.




See comment 6.




See comment 7.




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                  Protection Agency




See comment 8.




See comment 9.




See comment 10.




See comment 11.




See comment 12.




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See comment 13.




See comment 14.




See comment 15.


See comment 16.



See comment 17.




See comment 18.




See comment 19.




See comment 20.




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                         Appendix V
                         Comments From the Environmental
                         Protection Agency




See comment 21.




See comment 22.
Now figure 3 on p. 10.
Now on p. 30.




See comment 23.




See comment 24.




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                  Appendix V
                  Comments From the Environmental
                  Protection Agency




See comment 25.




See comment 26.




See comment 27.




See comment 28.




See comment 29.




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                 Appendix V
                 Comments From the Environmental
                 Protection Agency




                 The following are GAO’s comments on EPA’s letter dated December 23,
                 1996.


                 1. The graphs presented in this report represent the actual recorded time
GAO’s Comments   frames for all Superfund sites and projects that moved through the
                 Superfund processing pipeline from 1986 through 1996. This method of
                 analysis is analogous to measuring a company’s bottom-line financial
                 performance over time. We did not attempt to forecast the potential
                 effects of EPA’s recent initiatives to accelerate the pace of the Superfund
                 program.

                 2. We have revised the title of the report to more precisely indicate the
                 report’s contents.

                 3. The graphic depiction of trend data in this report is a historical
                 presentation of the average time spent in the Superfund process by those
                 sites that were listed and cleaned up in a given year. The information
                 responds to the Committee’s questions on (1) how long it took to evaluate
                 and process sites for possible placement on the NPL from the time of their
                 discovery and (2) how long it took to clean up sites after they were placed
                 on the NPL. We agree with EPA that our presentation of historical data may
                 not fully reflect the effects of recent policy changes. Nevertheless, in
                 reviewing EPA’s initiatives to accelerate the pace of Superfund cleanups
                 under the Superfund Accelerated Cleanup Model (SACM) and in discussing
                 this report with agency personnel, we found that EPA lacks data for
                 measuring the extent to which these initiatives have been implemented or
                 the effects of these initiatives. Our recent report on the non-time-critical
                 removal component of SACM showed that although non-time-critical
                 removals have an excellent potential to reduce costs and expedite the
                 protection of human health and the environment, the program’s full
                 implementation has been constrained by budgetary and legal issues.
                 Without adequate data, we were unable to assess the effects of the new
                 initiatives on reducing the overall duration of stages in the Superfund
                 process. EPA told us that it is currently embarking on an analysis of its
                 recent initiatives to better communicate to stakeholders and communities
                 the successes of Superfund.

                 4. We disagree that using the year of listing, rather than the year of
                 completion, would array the data in a more equitable way. The method
                 using the year of listing attributes longer processing times to sites listed in
                 earlier years and shorter times to more recently listed sites. In other



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Appendix V
Comments From the Environmental
Protection Agency




words, this method will always show that recent processing times are an
improvement over earlier processing times. As sites are completed in the
future, average completion times will grow for each listing year containing
these sites.

5. EPA’s efforts to explore alternatives to listing sites are noteworthy.
However, the Congress in the 1986 SARA legislation established a goal for
completing evaluations of nonfederal sites within 4 years of their
discovery and for certain federal sites within 2.5 years. The agency still
maintains these time goals as its stated policy. We disagree with EPA’s
assertion that shortening the average time taken to evaluate sites for
placement on the NPL may not be desirable. Placing a site on the NPL
associates it with the nation’s most hazardous waste sites. To be
considered for listing, a site must demonstrate that it has potential adverse
effects on human health or the environment. For communities near a toxic
waste site, the time taken to investigate and decide on a site’s listing may
indeed be relevant and an early decision may be desirable.

6. We revised our statement of the act’s purpose and included enforcement
activities among the reasons EPA officials cited for long listing and cleanup
time frames.

7. According to EPA, the results of its recent changes will not be complete
for 8 to 10 years. We previously testified that EPA’s current policy
initiatives are a step in the right direction to improving the pace of
Superfund cleanups. However, to effectively manage the new initiatives,
EPA managers cannot wait 8 to 10 years to determine whether the recent
changes work. EPA managers need data to measure the effects of the new
policy initiatives.

8. See comment 4. EPA’s reference to figures 1 and 2 applies to the two
parts of figure 1.

9. EPA stated that backlogs of sites awaiting processing increase the time
taken to list and clean up sites over time. We agree that backlogs have
contributed to increased time frames. In July 1993, we reported in
Superfund: Backlog of Unevaluated Federal Facilities Slows Cleanup
Effort (GAO/RCED-93-119) that the existence of substantial backlogs of
unevaluated federal sites was a principal reason why EPA had not met its
statutory deadlines under SARA for making listing decisions. We reported
that EPA had not placed a high enough priority on assessing federal
facilities and that EPA and other federal agencies had never established a



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Comments From the Environmental
Protection Agency




plan for jointly responding to SARA’s deadlines. For nonfederal sites
awaiting Superfund listing decisions, SARA provided that EPA should
evaluate such sites for listing, when warranted, within 4 years of SARA’s
enactment. For many sites, this goal was not met. We believe—and EPA
agrees elsewhere in its comments—that backlogs of sites dating from the
creation of the program are not the only reason for the increase in
completion times.

10. The data we used in preparing our charts showing the average time
between site discovery and the completion of various steps leading to
listing did not include extensive periods preceding CERCLA’s enactment in
1980. Specifically, 200 sites discovered before October 1, 1969, were
excluded from the analysis, and all sites discovered between October 1,
1969, and September 30, 1979, were adjusted to set a discovery date of
October 1, 1979. However, we have revised the charts to begin the trend
lines in 1986 to exclude possibly unrepresentative sites completed early in
the program.

11. See comment 4.

12. There are extremes at either end of the processing time curve. While
some sites may take only a few months to list, as EPA maintains, others
take significantly longer than average. We do not disagree with EPA’s
statement that the agency can expedite the processing of certain sites.

13. EPA argues that because it does not have full control over the time
between a site’s proposed and final listing, the length of this period is not a
good measure of its performance. EPA’s data indicate that the time required
for this processing step has remained fairly constant over the life of the
program and was not a factor leading to the increase in processing times.
For example, from 1992 through 1995, it took 1.2 years, on average, to
finalize the listing of a nonfederal site proposed for listing. This is slightly
less than the 1.4 years taken, on average, from 1983 though 1995.

14. We included federal facilities listed in 1983 and 1984 because they were
included in CERCLIS. However, in view of EPA’s comment and the limited
number of federal listings until 1990, we have deleted federal facilities
listed before 1990.

15. We have revised our report as suggested and deleted the sentence in
question.




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Appendix V
Comments From the Environmental
Protection Agency




16. A statement indicating EPA’s disagreement with our presentation of the
duration data was added to the agency comments section of the report.
See comment 4.

17. We have deleted the years before 1986 from our analysis to eliminate
possibly atypical sites that were completed early in the history of the
Superfund program. Also, we have added the data in appendix III to the
report to supplement the trend lines shown in the report’s figures and
indicate for the reader how many sites or operable units were tracked in
these figures.

18. See comment 4.

19. Sentence deleted.

20. See comment 4.

21. See comment 17. Also, we note that our report does present data on
“discrete milestones.” For example, it presents information on the times
taken to complete preliminary assessments, site inspections, the selection
of remedies, and other steps in the Superfund process.

22. The data mentioned by EPA from figure 3 represent the average time
taken to clean up 17 distinct operable units in 1986. The data in figure II.2
represent the average time taken to select a remedy for 82 other distinct
operable units for that same year. These data are not inconsistent or
inappropriate, as EPA implies, because they represent two distinct
universes.

23. See comment 3.

24. The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) 1994 study is based on
“estimated” average durations from the proposal for listing through the
completion of construction, while our data represent actual durations for
operable units and sites from the final listing through the completion of
the remedial action. The main finding of CBO’s report was that the average
time between the proposal for listing and the completion of construction
will be at least 12 years for the first 1,249 sites. CBO obtained its data
through interviews with remedial project managers. The managers
estimated that the completion time for the nonfederal sites proposed for
listing from 1981 through 1983 would average 12.9 years, while the




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Comments From the Environmental
Protection Agency




completion time for the nonfederal sites proposed from 1984 through 1992
would average 9.6 years.

CBO’s report said that the difference between the two estimates (of 12.9
years and 9.6 years)

“may merely be evidence of the overoptimism suspected by officials at EPA
headquarters. The sites listed more recently have generally not progressed
as far through the Superfund pipeline; for example, only 16 percent of
those with actual or estimated completion dates had been finished by
1993, compared with 31 percent of the early sites.”

25. We continue to believe that EPA’s efforts to expedite cleanups are steps
in the right direction. However, enough time has now elapsed for EPA to
evaluate the progress and effects of the program to date. Over 4 years have
elapsed since EPA formally initiated SACM, and over 2 years have elapsed
since the agency proceeded to fully implement the program. As indicated
in this report, our review of non-time-critical removals showed limited use
of this SACM component in EPA’s regions.

26. We have revised our report to indicate in the agency comments section
that EPA regards factors such as budget shortfalls, legislative and
administrative weaknesses in the current program, and a continuing influx
of large and complex sites as barriers that undermine its efforts to
increase the pace of assessments and cleanups.

27. See comment 9.

28. The presumptive remedy for municipal landfills was issued by EPA in
September 1993. An EPA directive with the same date stated that
presumptive remedies were expected to be used at all appropriate sites.
The time savings cited by EPA were achieved at three pilot sites that used
the landfill presumptive remedy in the spring of 1992. EPA’s December 1996
annual report on Superfund administrative reforms stated that the agency
is beginning to collect and analyze data on the use of presumptive
remedies. At the time of our review, no adequate data were available to
assess the effects of presumptive remedies on the time taken to complete
the Superfund process.

29. We added EPA’s estimate of the time savings attributable to these
reforms to the report.




Page 56                             GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
Appendix VI

Major Contributors to This Report


               James F. Donaghy, Assistant Director
               Robert J. Tice, Evaluator-in-Charge
               Larry D. Turman, Evaluator
               Pauline Lichtenfeld, Evaluator
               Mitchell B. Karpman, Senior Operations Research Analyst
               Annette Wright, Graphics Analyst
               Bess Eisenstadt, Communications Analyst
               Lynne L. Goldfarb, Publishing Adviser




(160329)       Page 57                          GAO/RCED-97-20 Duration of Superfund Process
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