oversight

Superfund: Times to Assess and Clean Up Hazardous Waste Sites Exceed Program Goals

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-02-13.

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

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on National Economic Growth,
                          Natural Resources, and Regulatory Affairs, Committee on
                          Government Reform and Oversight, House of
                          Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
9 a.m. EST
                          SUPERFUND
Thursday
February 13, 1997

                          Times to Assess and Clean
                          Up Hazardous Waste Sites
                          Exceed Program Goals
                          Statement by Peter F. Guerrero, Director,
                          Environmental Protection Issues,
                          Resources, Community, and Economic Development
                          Division




GAO/T-RCED-97-69
    Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

    We are pleased to present the results of our examination of trends in the
    time taken to complete (1) evaluations of hazardous waste sites for
    placement on the National Priorities List (NPL)—the Superfund program’s
    list of the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites—and (2) cleanup of sites
    following their listing. This work was done at the request of the Chairman,
    House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. We plan to issue a
    report on our findings to the Committee within the next month. The pace
    of Superfund cleanups has been a long-standing concern of the Congress
    and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the 1986 Superfund
    Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA), the Congress set time goals
    for EPA to (1) evaluate sites for possible placement on the NPL and (2) begin
    various cleanup actions. EPA has also established targets for processing
    Superfund sites for budgeting and planning purposes.

    In summary, we found that:

•   For sites listed in 1996, it took an average of 9.4 years from site discovery
    to final listing on the National Priorities List. While this is some
    improvement over 1995, it is still longer than earlier listing times. For sites
    listed from 1986 to 1990, it took an average of 5.8 years from discovery to
    listing. SARA requires EPA to evaluate nonfederal sites for listing, where
    warranted, within four years of their discovery.1 Listing decisions were
    made within four years of discovery for 43 percent of the sites discovered
    from 1987 through 1991. A number of factors contributed to the long time
    needed to list a site, including a backlog of sites awaiting evaluation and
    EPA’s emphasis on completing already listed sites.
•   Cleanup completion times have also lengthened. From 1986 to 1989,
    cleanup projects were finished, on average, 3.9 years after sites were
    placed on the National Priorities List. By 1996, however, 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 fiscal year 1993 for its regions to complete cleanup within
    5 years of a site’s listing. At ten percent of sites listed from 1986 through
    1990, cleanup projects were completed within 5 years of listing. Much of
    the time taken to complete cleanups is attributable to 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 selecting
    remedies. EPA officials attributed the increased completion times for

    1
     This statement focuses on nonfederal sites, since they make up about 87 percent of all Superfund
    sites. However, our upcoming report to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee on
    Superfund evaluation and cleanup times will present data on both federal and nonfederal sites.



    Page 1                                                                        GAO/T-RCED-97-69
             cleanups to the growing complexity of sites, efforts to reach settlements
             with parties responsible for site contamination, 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 the sites or to compel the parties
             responsible for the contamination to perform the cleanups. As of
             November 6, 1996, there were 1,205 sites on the NPL and another 52 had
             been proposed for listing. One hundred fifty-one of the currently listed
             sites are federal sites. Currently, EPA has completed constructing cleanup
             remedies at 418 sites and has construction underway at another 491 sites.

             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 site that poses an immediate threat to
             human health or the environment. Remedial actions are generally
             longer-term and usually costlier actions aimed at implementing a
             permanent remedy. Sites referred to EPA for consideration under
             Superfund are screened through a number of evaluations leading to a
             decision about whether to place the site on the NPL. Once listed, sites are
             further studied for risks and cleanup remedies are chosen, designed, and
             constructed. (See app. I for a more detailed description of the Superfund
             evaluation and cleanup processes.)

             To promote timely cleanups, SARA required EPA to evaluate sites for listing
             within four years of their discovery if EPA determines that such evaluation
             is warranted.2 In 1992, EPA developed techniques to speed up the
             evaluation and cleanup of sites. These techniques included the expanded
             use of removal actions and the merging of certain site evaluations. EPA
             pilot-tested these techniques in 1992 and declared them operational in
             1994. For planning its Superfund activities, EPA set an expectation for 1993
             that sites would be cleaned up within 5 years of being listed. EPA officials
             said that they have not formally revised the expectation, but now believe
             that sites will be cleaned up within 7 or 8 years of their listing.

             For our review, we asked EPA to provide us with data on the time taken to
             evaluate sites for possible placement on the NPL and to complete cleanups
             of listed sites. The source of the data was EPA’s Comprehensive

             2
              SARA requires that this determination be made on the basis of a site inspection or a preliminary
             assessment.



             Page 2                                                                           GAO/T-RCED-97-69
                        Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System
                        (CERCLIS), which is the official repository of Superfund data. To measure
                        the time taken to evaluate sites for listing, we identified sites that were
                        added to the NPL each year and calculated the time between their listing
                        and their “discovery”, i.e., their entry into CERCLIS. To measure the time for
                        the cleanup process following listing, we identified the “operable units”3 at
                        which remedial actions had been completed each year and calculated the
                        time between the end of the remedial action and the date the site was
                        added to the NPL.

                        This use of a “date of event” analysis (NPL listing, completion of cleanup)
                        was chosen because of its usefulness in showing the productivity and
                        management of Superfund resources over time. It takes into consideration
                        the actual number of listings or cleanup completions in a given year
                        regardless of when sites were first discovered or listed on the NPL. Our
                        approach is consistent with how EPA has measured the program’s
                        accomplishments.

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


                        The time between discovering a site and placing it on the NPL has increased
Placing a Site on the   over the life of the Superfund program. (See fig. 1.)
NPL Takes Longer




                        3
                         EPA may divide a site into two or more “operable units” corresponding to different physical areas at a
                        site or different environmental media (such as soil or groundwater) to be cleaned up. There are an
                        average of 1.8 operable units at nonfederal Superfund sites.



                        Page 3                                                                           GAO/T-RCED-97-69
Figure 1: How Long It Took on Average to Place Sites on the NPL

Years
12


10


 8


 6


 4


 2


 0
     1986    1987      1988      1989     1990        1991     1992       1993        1994       1995       1996
                                                   Fiscal year
     No sites were placed on the NPL in fiscal years 1988 and 1992. Data for fiscal year 1996 exclude
     three sites that were added to the NPL without undergoing the usual evaluation because they
     posed imminent public health risks.




                                               As figure 1 indicates, sites listed in fiscal year 1996 had been discovered an
                                               average of 9.4 years earlier, down from 11.4 years in fiscal year 1995.4 SARA
                                               required EPA to evaluate nonfederal sites for listing, where warranted,
                                               within four years of their discovery. For those sites discovered from fiscal
                                               years 1987 through 1991, 43 percent had decisions regarding whether or
                                               not to list the site made within four years of discovery. However, the
                                               percentage of sites for which decisions were made within four years of
                                               discovery decreased in each succeeding year from 51 percent in fiscal year
                                               1987 to 36 percent in fiscal year 1991.


                                               4
                                                Sites listed in the first quarter of fiscal year 1997 had discovery dates averaging 11.2 years before
                                               listing. The sites added to the NPL during this first quarter were discovered as recently as 1993 and as
                                               long ago as 1979.



                                               Page 4                                                                             GAO/T-RCED-97-69
                       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 before the sites are listed. However, listing is necessary
                       before the full range of problems presented by many sites can be
                       addressed under Superfund.

                       The increase in the time taken to complete site listing is primarily a result
                       of delays in processing sites during the end stage of the listing process,
                       that is, after the sites have been inspected and the final analysis needed to
                       evaluate their eligibility is done. (See app.I for a description of the
                       Superfund process for evaluating sites for listing and cleanup.) The time to
                       complete this end stage rose from 1.7 years for sites proposed for the NPL
                       in fiscal year 1986 to about 6 years for sites proposed for the NPL in fiscal
                       year 1996.


                       The average time between placing sites on the NPL and completing
Cleaning Up Sites Is   cleanups at these sites increased from 2.4 years for sites completed in 1986
Taking Longer          to 10.6 years for sites completed in 1996. Figure 2 shows, for fiscal years
                       1986 through 1996, the average time between placing sites on the NPL and
                       completing the cleanups at the operable units at these sites.




                       Page 5                                                      GAO/T-RCED-97-69
Figure 2: How Long It Took on Average to Complete Superfund Cleanup Projects

Years
12


10


 8


 6


 4


 2


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




                                        As the figure shows, the average time taken to complete cleanups of
                                        operable units has grown progressively longer. In 1996, cleanup
                                        completions averaged 10.6 years for operable units. SARA did not set
                                        deadlines for completing cleanups within a certain number of years, but
                                        EPA set an expectation for fiscal year 1993 that its regions would complete
                                        cleanup within five years of a site’s listing. Ten percent of sites listed from
                                        1986 through 1990 had cleanup completions on at least one operable unit
                                        within 5 years of listing.5 The percentage of sites with five-year
                                        completions increased from 7 percent for sites listed in fiscal year 1986 to
                                        15 percent for sites listed in fiscal year 1990.

                                        The increase in overall cleanup times was accompanied by a marked
                                        increase in the time it has taken to complete the selection of cleanup

                                        5
                                         Four percent of the sites listed from 1986 to 1990 had cleanups at all operable units within five years
                                        of listing.



                                        Page 6                                                                             GAO/T-RCED-97-69
                         remedies—the study phase of the cleanup process and a time during
                         which attempts are made to reach settlements with parties responsible for
                         contaminating sites. Sites that completed this phase in 1986 had been
                         listed an average of about 2-1/2 years earlier and sites that completed the
                         phase in 1996 had been listed an average of about 8 years earlier.


                         The Superfund database, which was the primary source for the data
Factors Influencing      presented in this statement, does not contain all of the information needed
the Time Taken to List   to fully explain the reasons for the changes in evaluation/listing and
and Clean Up Sites       cleanup times over the history of the program. However, our past reviews
                         and discussions with EPA officials indicate some of the factors that have
                         lengthened listing and cleanup times.

                         There are a number of reasons why the time from discovery to listing has
                         increased over the years. A major factor was that the Superfund program
                         started with a backlog of sites awaiting evaluation so that not all sites
                         could be processed at once.6 In addition, program changes—such as
                         revisions to eligibility standards requiring the reevaluation of many sites,
                         the need to seek state concurrence for listing sites, and reductions in the
                         annual number of sites that EPA added to Superfund—have also caused
                         delays. In addition, EPA reallocated its budget between 1994 and 1996,
                         cutting funds for assessing sites by some 50 percent. EPA officials said that
                         the agency’s current priority is to finish cleaning up sites that have already
                         been listed. The challenge for the future is indicated by the large number
                         of sites that could enter the program in the future and the small number of
                         sites that have been admitted to the Superfund program in recent years. In
                         a 1996 report,7 we estimated that between 1,400 and 2,300 sites could be
                         added to Superfund in the future. In contrast, an average of 16 sites per
                         year were admitted to the program in the period from 1992 through 1996.

                         EPA officials said that the upward trend in cleanup times might be linked to
                         the completion of more difficult cleanups. Our work supports this
                         explanation. In September 1994, we reported8 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
                         cleanups, cleanup times might grow longer because these ongoing projects

                         6
                          Of the 40,665 sites referred to EPA for Superfund evaluation through 1996, 14,697 came into the
                         program by 1982.
                         7
                          Impact on States of Capping Superfund Sites (GAO/RCED-96-106R, Mar. 18, 1996).
                         8
                          Superfund: Status, Cost, and Timeliness of Hazardous Waste Site Cleanups (GAO/RCED-94-256, Sept.
                         21, 1994).



                         Page 7                                                                           GAO/T-RCED-97-69
               were more complex. EPA officials also said that the time taken to find the
               parties responsible for contaminating sites and reach cleanup settlements
               with them can increase cleanup times. The officials 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. In addition, EPA has shifted funding
               away from selecting remedies and toward the design and construction
               phases of the cleanup process. As indicated, the Superfund phase ending
               in the selection of remedies has increased greatly over the years.


               Sites that have recently completed the Superfund listing process have
Observations   taken over 9 years and those that have recently completed the cleanup
               process have taken over 10 years. These completion periods have
               generally lengthened over the history of the program. Increasing
               completion times are a concern because of the amount of remaining listing
               and cleanup activity still to be addressed in the Superfund program.

               EPA has made progress at many sites—completing the construction of
               remedies at 418 sites—but construction work remains to be completed at
               about 800 NPL sites, and 1,400 to 2,300 sites could still be added to
               Superfund in the future. EPA officials believe that recent initiatives will
               speed up both the listing and cleanup of sites. They told us that they
               expect to report on the effects of some of these initiatives in the near
               future.

               Our analysis identified where times have risen, but further evaluation is
               needed to pinpoint the causes. We will be working with this Committee
               and others during the year to help answer some of these questions. For
               example, we are currently reviewing EPA’s recent initiatives to speed up
               site processing and implement other administrative reforms.


               Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I will be happy to
               respond to your questions or the questions of Committee members.




               Page 8                                                      GAO/T-RCED-97-69
Page 9   GAO/T-RCED-97-69
Appendix I

The Superfund Process Steps in the Process
of Listing a Site

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


Figure I.1: How Sites Get on the NPL



                                                      Site Discovery




                                                 Preliminary Assessment




                                                      Site Inspection




                                                 Hazard Ranking System




                                                 Proposal to the National
                                                      Priorities List



                                                   Final Listing on the
                                                  National Priorities List




                                       Source: EPA.




                                       The listing process starts when EPA receives a report of a potentially
                                       hazardous waste site. State governments or private citizens most often
                                       report nonfederal sites. EPA enters potentially contaminated private sites
                                       into a database known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response,




                                       Page 10                                                     GAO/T-RCED-97-69
                       Appendix I
                       The Superfund Process Steps in the Process
                       of Listing a Site




                       Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS). EPA or the state
                       in which a potentially contaminated site is located then conducts a
                       preliminary assessment to decide whether the site poses a potential threat
                       to human health and the environment.

                       If the site presents a serious, imminent threat, EPA 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 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 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. Sites with a score of 28.50 or higher are
                       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. Hazardous
                       waste sites on the NPL represent the highest priorities for cleanup
                       nationwide.


                       EPA’s regulation implementing CERCLA also outlines the remedial process
Steps in the Process   for cleaning up sites on the NPL. (See fig.I.2.)
of Cleaning Up Sites




                       Page 11                                                      GAO/T-RCED-97-69
                                       Appendix I
                                       The Superfund Process Steps in the Process
                                       of Listing a Site




Figure I.2: How Sites Are Cleaned Up


                                                 Remedial Investigation/
                                                   Feasibility Study



                                                 Selection of Remedy/
                                                  Record of Decision



                                                    Remedial Design




                                                    Remedial Action




                                       Source: EPA.




                                       Remedial responses to NPL sites consist of several phases. First, through
                                       the remedial investigation and feasibility study, conditions at a site are
                                       studied, problems are identified, and alternative methods to clean up the
                                       site are evaluated. Then, a final remedy is selected, and the decision is
                                       documented in a record of decision. Next, during an engineering phase
                                       called the remedial design, drawings and specifications are developed for
                                       the selected remedy. Finally, in the remedial action phase, a cleanup
                                       contractor begins constructing the remedies according to the remedial
                                       design. Once EPA and the state in which the site is located determine that
                                       the work at a site has achieved the desired cleanup goals, the site can be
                                       removed (deleted) from the NPL.




(160383)                               Page 12                                                    GAO/T-RCED-97-69
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