Environmental Contamination:

DOD Has Taken Steps to Improve Cleanup Coordination at Former Defense Sites but Clearer Guidance Is Needed to Ensure Consistency

GAO-03-146: Published: Mar 28, 2003. Publicly Released: Apr 28, 2003.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is in charge of addressing cleanup at the more than 9,000 U.S. properties that were formerly owned or controlled by the Department of Defense (DOD) and have been identified as potentially eligible for environmental cleanup. The Corps has determined that more than 4,000 of these properties have no hazards that require further Corps study or cleanup action. However, in recent years, hazards have surfaced at some of these properties, leading state and federal regulators to question whether the Corps has properly assessed and cleaned up these properties. In this context, Congress asked us to (1) analyze federal coordination requirements that apply to the cleanup of these properties, (2) assess recent DOD and Corps efforts to improve coordination, and (3) identify any issues regulators may have about coordination with the Corps.

Federal law requires DOD and the Corps of Engineers to consult with state regulatory agencies and EPA during the process of cleaning up formerly used defense sites (FUDS). However, the law only provides specifics for the cleanup phase for hazardous substances. DOD's Management Guidance and the FUDS Program Manual do not provide clear direction or specific steps for involving regulators in the FUDS program. In addition, both the law and the guidance are silent on the subject of consultation or coordination with regulators during the preliminary assessment phase, when the Corps makes decisions on whether a former defense site is eligible for DOD cleanup and whether further investigation and/or cleanup are needed. DOD and Corps officials told GAO that they would revise their guidance to include specific, but as yet undetermined, instructions for coordination with regulators during such decisions. DOD and the Corps have recently taken several steps to improve coordination. For example, they are working with the regulatory community to develop specific steps that Corps districts can take, such as providing states with updated lists of current and future FUDS program activities in their states and initiating a new pilot program in nine states that has the Corps working side by side with regulators in the cleanup of former defense sites. In addition, several Corps districts have independently taken steps to improve coordination with state regulators. DOD and the Corps will need to assess the effectiveness of these various initiatives to determine which are successful and should be included in program guidance to all districts. Despite the improvements in coordination, regulators still raised two major issues about Corps coordination on the FUDS program. First, some states believe that they lack the information necessary to properly oversee cleanup work at former defense sites and to judge the validity of Corps decisions. For example, 15 of the 27 states GAO contacted believe they need to be involved in knowing what the Corps is doing during the preliminary assessment phase. Also, 9 of the 27 states believe they need to be involved in project closeouts, so that they can ensure that the Corps has met state cleanup standards. Second, EPA believes it should have a larger role in the cleanup of former defense sites. Although states are the primary regulator at the majority of former defense sites and EPA is the primary regulator for only the 21 former defense sites that are on the list of the nation's worst hazardous sites, EPA believes that its role even on the unlisted sites should be greater. The agency believes that this would improve the effectiveness of the cleanups and increase public confidence overall. The Corps disagrees, and the two agencies have been unable to establish an effective working relationship on the cleanup for former defense sites. Commenting on a draft of this report, DOD stated that it generally agreed with the recommendations and was taking or planned to take steps that should, when completed, substantially correct the problems GAO cited.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: As a starting point, the Secretary of the Department of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Department of Army to assess the impact of the Corps' recent efforts to improve coordination through actions such as directives and the Management Action Plan pilot program and incorporate the successful components as requirements into its FUDS Program Manual.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD implemented this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In addition, in view of the need for federal agencies to ensure that cleanup efforts are done properly and that scarce resources are best utilized, DOD and EPA should work together to clarify their respective roles in the FUDS cleanup program for properties that are not listed on the National Priorities List. The agencies should agree on a time frame to establish a memorandum of understanding that will lay out an overall framework for how they will work together, including their roles and responsibilities, during the assessment and cleanup of FUDS properties.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD implemented this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure consistent coordination with regulators during all phases of FUDS investigation and cleanup, the Secretary of the Department of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Department of the Army to follow through on its plans to develop and incorporate clear and specific guidance in the Corps' FUDS Program Manual as to how, when, and to what extent coordination with regulators should take place, including during preliminary assessments of eligibility. Moreover, in view of the states' concerns and hazards posed by ordnance and explosive waste, the coordination guidance should address these types of projects as well, not just those involving hazardous waste. In developing the guidance, the Army should work with regulators to develop a consensus on how, when, and to what extent coordination should take place.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD implemented this recommendation.

    Recommendation: As a starting point, the Secretary of the Department of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Department of Army to assess practices individual Corps districts have used to coordinate with regulators and develop a list of best practices for dissemination throughout the Corps that districts might use to improve their coordination.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD implemented this recommendation.

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