Hazardous Waste Sites:

Improved Effectiveness of Controls at Sites Could Better Protect the Public

GAO-05-163: Published: Jan 28, 2005. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 2005.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

John B. Stephenson
(202) 512-6225
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) programs were established to clean up hazardous waste sites. Because some sites cannot be cleaned up to allow unrestricted use, institutional controls--legal or administrative restrictions on land or resource use to protect against exposure to the residual contamination--are placed on them. GAO was asked to review the extent to which (1) institutional controls are used at Superfund and RCRA sites and (2) EPA ensures that these controls are implemented, monitored, and enforced. GAO also reviewed EPA's challenges in implementing control tracking systems. To address these issues, GAO examined the use, implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of controls at a sample of 268 sites.

Institutional controls were applied at most of the Superfund and RCRA sites GAO examined where waste was left in place after cleanup, but documentation of remedy decisions often did not discuss key factors called for in EPA's guidance. For example, while documents usually discussed the controls' objectives, in many cases, they did not adequately address when the controls should be implemented, how long they would be needed, or who would be responsible for monitoring or enforcing them. According to EPA, the documents' incomplete discussion of the key factors suggests that site managers may not have given them adequate consideration. Relying on institutional controls as a major component of a site's remedy without carefully considering all of the key factors--particularly whether they can be implemented in a reliable and enforceable manner--could jeopardize the effectiveness of the remedy. EPA faces challenges in ensuring that institutional controls are adequately implemented, monitored, and enforced. Institutional controls at the Superfund sites GAO reviewed, for example, were often not implemented before the cleanup was completed, as EPA requires. EPA officials indicated that this may have occurred because, over time, site managers may have inadvertently overlooked the need to implement the controls. EPA's monitoring of Superfund sites where cleanup has been completed but residual contamination remains often does not include verification that institutional controls are in place. Moreover, the RCRA corrective action program does not include a requirement to monitor sites after cleanups have been completed. In addition, EPA may have difficulties ensuring that the terms of institutional controls can be enforced at some Superfund and RCRA sites: that is, some controls are informational in nature and do not legally limit or restrict use of the property, and, in some cases, state laws may limit the options available to enforce institutional controls. To improve its ability to ensure the long-term effectiveness of institutional controls, EPA has recently begun implementing institutional control tracking systems for its Superfund and RCRA corrective action programs. The agency, however, faces significant obstacles in implementing such systems. The institutional control tracking systems being implemented track only minimal information on the institutional controls. Moreover, as currently configured, the systems do not include information on long-term monitoring or enforcement of the controls. In addition, the tracking systems include data essentially derived from file reviews, which may or may not reflect institutional controls as actually implemented. While EPA has plans to improve the data quality for the Superfund tracking system--ensuring that the data accurately reflects institutional controls as implemented and adding information on monitoring and enforcement--the first step, data verification, could take 5 years to complete. Regarding the RCRA tracking system, the agency has no current plans to verify the accuracy of the data or expand on the data being tracked.

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: In order to ensure the long-term effectiveness of institutional controls, the Administrator, EPA should ensure that the frequency and scope of monitoring at deleted Superfund sites and closed RCRA facilities where contamination has been left in place are sufficient to maintain the protectiveness of any institutional controls at these sites.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, the agency indicated that its Revised Operation and Maintenance checklist, issued in April 2008, identifies additional requirements specific to monitoring institutional controls. In addition, a June 2007 EPA guidance document advises site managers and attorneys on options for implementing effective monitoring of institutional controls at RCRA facilities. EPA also presented information on monitoring best practices at a national meeting of state waste management officials in August 2009.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure the long-term effectiveness of institutional controls, the Administrator, EPA should ensure that, in selecting institutional controls, adequate consideration is given to their objectives; the specific control mechanisms to be used; the timing of implementation and duration; and the parties responsible for implementing, monitoring, and enforcing them.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2009, EPA issued revised institutional controls language for its model Superfund remedial design/remedial action consent decree that addresses each of the four key factors in this recommendation, among other things. In addition, a June 2007 EPA guidance document helps to ensure adequate consideration of these key factors at Resource Conservation and Recovery Act facilities, according to EPA.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure the long-term effectiveness of institutional controls, the Administrator, EPA should clarify agency guidance on institutional controls to help EPA site managers and other decision makers understand in what cases institutional controls are or are not necessary at sites where contamination remains in place after cleanup.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the time of our report, EPA has finalized four guidance documents that address various aspects of the implementation of institutional controls and conducted several training programs that address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure the long-term effectiveness of institutional controls, the Administrator, EPA should ensure that the information on institutional controls reported in the Superfund and RCRA corrective action tracking systems accurately reflects actual conditions and not just what is called for in site decision documents.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of August 2009, EPA regions had reviewed the accuracy of system data for over 92 percent of the construction complete sites stored in the system, and the quality assurance effort was still ongoing, according to EPA.

    Jul 28, 2014

    Jul 16, 2014

    Jul 15, 2014

    Jul 9, 2014

    Jun 30, 2014

    Jun 16, 2014

    May 22, 2014

    May 21, 2014

    May 19, 2014

    May 12, 2014

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here