oversight

Hazardous Waste: Time and Costs to Clean Up Superfund Sites Are Uncertain

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-06-11.

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

      United States

GAO   General Accounting Office
      Washington, D.C. 20548

      Resources, Community,            and
      Economic Development             Division


      B-282683


      June 11,1999


      The Honorable Sherwood L. Boehlert
      Chsirman, Subcommittee on Water Resources
        and Environment
      Committee on Transportation
        andInfrastructure
      House of Representatives

      Dear Mr. Chairman:

      Subject: Hazardous Waste: Time and Costs to Clean UD SuDerfund Sites Are Uncertain

      The Super-fund program is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) effort to clean
      up hazardous waste sites that threaten human health and the environment. EPA places
      the most seriously contaminated sites that need long-term cleanups under the program on
      the National Priorities I.&t. Almost 1,400 sites had been placed on the list as of the end of
      March 1999. Once listed, the sites are further studied to assess then risks, and cleanup
      remedies (referred to as cleanup facilities in this report) are designed and constructed. In
      March 1999, cleanup facilities had been constructed at more than 40 percent of the sites
      on the National Priorities List. Since 1980, EPA has spent well over $14 billion to address I
      the potential health and environmental threats from listed sites. Information about the
      costs to construct cleanup facilities at the sites on the National Priorities List and the
      length of time required to complete this process is important for determining the
      Super-fund program’s future funding needs.

      You asked us to provide information on (1) how long it will take to complete the
      construction of cleanup facilities at hazardous waste sites on the National Priorities List
      as of early 1999 and (2) how much it will cost.’

      In summary, we found the following:

      l   As of March 1999, cleanup facilities had been constructed at 599 sites on the National
          Priorities List. EPA’s goal is to complete, by the end of 2005, the construction of
          cleanup facilities at about 85 percent of the almost 1,400 sites that have been placed
          on the National Priorities List. To achieve this goal, EPA expects cleanup facilities to
          be constructed at about 595 additional sites between early 1999 and the end of 2005,


      ‘This report addresses only the time and EPA’s costs through the construction of the cleanup facilities, referred to by EPA
      as remedial construction completion.




                                                                                GAOIRCED-99-186B        Superfund   Site Cleanups
B-282683


        at an average rate of 85 sites each year. EPA believes that completing construction at
        some of the remainin g 15 percent of the sites, including some federal facilities, could
        take well beyond 2005.

l       EPA could not provide a reliable estimate of the costs to construct cleanup facilities
        at existjng Superfund sites. EPA has not released updated estimates of future
        Superhmd program costs since 1994. Although EPA is in the process of revising these
        cost estimates, they were not yet final as of May 1999. EPA requested $593 million to
        construct cleanup facilities at Superftmd sites for fiscal year 2000; this funding level
        would amount to about $3.6 billion for tical years 2000 through 2005, assuming the
        same annual funding.

Background

In 1980, the Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response,
Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which created the Superfund program to
clean up highly contaminated hazardous waste sites. Cleanup actions under the program
fall into two broad categories: removal actions and remedial actions. Removal actions
are usually short-term actions designed to stabilize or clean up the hazardous sites that
pose an immediate threat to human health or the environment. Remedial actions are
usually longer-term and more costly actions aimed at permanently cleaning up a site.

    CERCLA requires EPA to develop and maintain a list of hazardous sites, known as the
    National Priorities List, that the agency considers to present the most serious threats to
    human health and the environment. CERCLA authorizes EPA to compel the parties
    responsible for the contaminated sites to clean them up. The law also allows EPA to pay
    for cleanups and seek reimbursement from the parties. Although EPAmay take
    emergency or partial cleanup actions at contzuninated sites not on the National Priorities
    List, EPA’s regulations stipulate that only the sites placed on the list are eligible for
    remedial actions financed by EPA under the trust fund established by CERCLA

    EPA Estimates That Cleanup Facilities                  Will Be Constructed          at 85 Percent of the
    Superfund Sites by the End of 2005

    By the end of 2005, EPA plans to complete the construction of cleanup facilities at 1,180
    (85 percent) of the almost 1,400 sites on the National Priorities LisL2 As of the end of
    IQrch 1999, according to EPA, cleanup facility construction had been completed at 599
    National Priorities List sites and was under way at 460 sites. EPA expects that the
    construction of cleanup facilities will be completed at a total of more than 650 sites by
    the end of fiscal year 1999. EPA developed these estimates by assuming that construction




    ‘Statement of EPA’s Acting Ass&ant Adminbhator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response before the Subcommittee on
    Finance and Hazardous Materials, House Committee on Commerce (Mar. 23,1999).



    2                                                                 GAO/RCED-99-186R     Superfund Site Cleanups
B-282683


will be completed at an average of 85 sites a year-the current completion rate-through
2005.3

EPA has not estimated the time required to construct cleanup facilities at the remaining
15 percent of the sites on the list as of early 1999 or any sites that may be added to the list
in the future.’ EPA officials believe that constructing cleanup facilities at some of the
remaining sites-which include some federal sites-could take well beyond 2005.
Furthermore, EPA officials have said that they do not know how many more sites will
need to be listed on the National Priorities List. EPA plans to focus its listing activities on
sites proposed by states, sites involving potentially responsible parties that are
recalcitrant, or sites where cleanup is needed but is not occurring satisfactorily. EPA
officials do not expect to list more than 40 new sites in fiscal year 1999.

In addition, once the construction of the cleanup facilities is completed at existing and
future sites, EPA will continue to be responsible for post-construction activities under the
Superfund program. These activities include (1) conducting 5-year reviews of ongoing
cleanup actions and (2) overseeing the pumping and treatment of groundwater and long-
term operations and maintenance activities conducted by potentially responsible parties.

Information on Estimated Costs of Completing                             Cleanup Facility          Construction          at
Existing Superfund Sites Is Limited

EPA has not released updated estimates of the costs to construct cleanup facilities at
existing National Priorities I&t sites since 1994. As of May 1999, EPA was preparing
revised estimates of future program costs; therefore, at that time, these officials could not
provide us with a reliable estimate of the costs to construct cleanup facilities at existing
sites.

EPA’s fiscal year 2000 budget request may provide some indication of future costs to
clean up Superfund sites. EPA requested $593 million for constructing cleanup facilities
at Superfund sites for fiscal year 2000.5 Assuming steady annual funding, this would
amount to about $3.6 billion to construct cleanup facilities at these sites through 2005,
the year that EPA expects construction to be completed at 85 percent of the existing
National Priorities List sites. An unknown amount of additional costs for site
assessments and removal actions would also be incurred.


%PA’s Comprehensive Enviromnental Response, Compensation, and Liabiiity Information System data base includes
 stjmates of completion dates for remedial action for each site. Although these e&mate smightbeusedtoprojectwhen
&perfund site cleanups are likely to be completed, EPA officials do not consider these dates to be reliable for predicting
future ckanup activities beyond 5 to 7 years.
‘EPA maintains that the time required to clean up sites has been reduced to an average of 8 years; however, as we stated in
our January 1998 report entitled &merfund wnse         to EPA’s Lette r Con&ng    Recent GAO Reoom, (GAOIRCED
9855R), EPA did not present data to adeqkly     support this assertion.

?%is amount includes contractor ckanup costs, EPA headquzuters and regional office costs, and cooperatke agreements
with states for the oversight of cleanups.

6 This amount is inundiscounted 1998 dollars.


3                                                                       GAO/RCED-99-186R        Superfund    Site Cleanpps
                                                                                                       :
B-282683



Besides using EPA’s budget request data, we also looked at two alternative techniques for
forecasting future costs to construct cleanup facilities. In the past, EPA has used a
statistical model, the Outyear Liability Model, to calculate future Superfund program
costs. However, EPA officials told us that, as of May 1999, the agency was unable to use
the model to develop cost estimates because of changes in in-house and contractor
personnel.

Another possible approach to estimating future costs to construct cleanup facilities
would be for EPA to use Record of Decision (ROD) cost estimates in its data bases.
RODS are documents prepared at the completion of the assessment process that include
prehminary estimates of the costs to implement the selected method for cleaning up a
site or portion of a site. However, the extent to which the ROD cost estimates in the data
bases accurately reflect the actual costs of cleanup facilities is uncertain. F’irst, the data
often include operation and maintenance costs-which are not paid from Super-fund-as
well as construction costs. Second, many RODS are amended after the initial cost
estimates are made, and an EPA official told us that many of these revisions may not be
included in the data. Third, the ROD cost estimates in the data bases typically are present
values using different discount rates; to add these would require first normalizing all
these estimates using a common discount rate. F’inally, the ROD cost estimates do not
always employ the same estimation methodologies and assumptions, thus making it
difficult to derive an overall estimate for all sites. Calculating the future costs of cleanup
facilities using e&in&es from the ROD documents themselves would require a review of
several hundred individual RODS and would involve many of the same limitations found
in using the estimates in EPA’s data bases.

Agency Comments

We provided a draft of this report to EPA for its review and comment. We met with the
Director of the Planning Analysis and Resources Management Center within EPA’s Office
of Emergency and Remedial Response to discuss the agency’s comments. He said that
the report is balanced and accurately portrays the information that the agency has
available on the time and costs required to clean up existing Super-fund sites. This official
also provided technical and clarifying comments that we have incorporated in the report
as appropriate.

To obtain information on the time that will be required to complete the construction of
cleanup facilities at current Superfund sites, we relied on EPA’s most recent estimates
included in the March 23,1999, statement of EPA’s Acting Assistant Admmistmtor for
Solid Waste and Emergency Response during a hearing before the Subcommittee on
F’inance and Hazardous Materials, House Committee on Commerce. We also discussed
alternative approaches for calculating construction completion dates from available data
with the Director of the Planning Analysis and Resources Management Center within
EPA’s Office of Emergency and Remedial Response. To obtain information on the cost of
completing the construction of cleanup facilities at sites currently on the National
Priorities L&t, we discussed available data and alternative methods for estimating future


 4                                                      GAO/RCED-99-186R   Superfimd   Site Cleaxmps
   B-282683


   cleanup costs with the Director of the Planning Analysis and Resources Management
   Center.



   We conducted our work between February and May 1999 in accordance with generally
   accepted government auditing standards.

   Unless you announce its contents earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report
   until 10 days after the date of this letter. At that time, we will send copies of this report to
   Senator John Chafee, Chafrman, and Senator Max Baucus, Ranking Minority Member,
   Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works; Representative Thomas J. Bkley,
   Jr., Chairman and Representative John D. DingelI, Ranking Minority Member, House
   Committee 0; Commerce; Representative Bud Shuster, Chairman, and Representative
   James L Oberstar, Ranking Minority Member, House Committee on Transportation and
   Jr&&ructure; Representative Robert A. Bon&i, Ranking Minority Member,
   Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, House Committee on
   Transportation and Infrastructure; the Honorable Carol M. Browner, Admi&trator, El?&
   and the Honorable Jacob J. Lew, Director, Office of Management and Budget. We will
   also make copies available to others upon request. Please contact me at (202) 512-6111 if
   you or your staff have any questions. Major contributors to this report included James F.
   Donaghy, Vincent P. Price, and Joseph H. Cook.

   Sincerely yours,



QLPeter F. Guerrero
   Director, Environmental
   Protection Issues




   (160477)

   5                                                       GAO/RCED-99-186B   Superfund   Site Cleaunps
,..
Ordering    Information

The first copy of each GAO report and testimony      is free.
Additional   copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the
following address, accompanied by a check or money order
made out to the Superintendent     of Documents, when
necessary. VISA and Mastercard      credit cards are accepted, also.
Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address
are discounted 25 percent.

Orders by maih

U.S. General Accounting   Office
P.O. Box 37050
Washington, DC 20013

or visit:

Room 1100
700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. NW)
U.S. General Accounting Office
Washington, DC

Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 512-6000
or by using fax number (202) 512-6061, or TDD (202)       512-2537.

Each day, GAO issues a list of newly available reports and
testimony.   To receive facsimile copies of the daily list or any
list from the past 30 days, please call (202) 5126000 using a
touchtone phone. A recorded menu will provide information         on
how to obtain these lists.

For information on how to access GAO reports on the INTERNET,
send an e-mail message with “info” in the body to:

info@www.gao.gov

or visit GAO’s World Wide Web Home Page at:

htt&Iwww.gao.gov
United States
General Accounting  Office
Washington, D.C. 20548-0001


Oflicial Business
PenaJty for Private    Use $300

Address   Correction   Requested