Superfund:

EPA's Costs to Remediate Existing and Future Sites Will Likely Exceed Current Funding Levels

GAO-10-857T: Published: Jun 22, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 22, 2010.

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This testimony summarizes the findings of our report on funding issues related to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund program. To protect human health and the environment from the effects of hazardous substances, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980, which established the Superfund program. Since 1980, EPA has identified more than 47,000 hazardous waste sites potentially requiring cleanup. As of the end of fiscal year 2009, 1,269 of the most seriously contaminated sites were included on EPA's National Priorities List (NPL): 1,111 nonfederal sites and 158 federal facilities. At the time of listing, EPA had determined that these sites posed relatively high risks to human health or the environment from releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, such as lead and polychlorinated biphenyl. These substances can cause a variety of health effects--such as birth defects, cancer, and developmental disorders--in people exposed to them. Of the nonfederal sites listed on the NPL at the end of fiscal year 2009, EPA identified 75 that have "unacceptable human exposure"--actual or reasonably expected exposure of an individual to hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants at levels that present an unacceptable risk--to contaminants for people living, recreating, and/or working in the surrounding areas. In addition, another 164 of the sites listed on the NPL at the end of fiscal year 2009 may potentially pose serious risks since EPA is in the process of determining if there is unacceptable human exposure at these sites.

Over 60 percent of the 75 nonfederal NPL sites with unacceptable human exposure have all or more than half of the work remaining to complete remedial construction. According to EPA regional officials' responses to our survey, EPA has plans to control human exposure at all of the 75 sites with unacceptable human exposure; however, our survey results also show that EPA regional officials expect 41 of the sites to continue to have unacceptable exposure until fiscal year 2015 or later. Similarly, over 60 percent of the 164 nonfederal NPL sites with unknown human exposure have all or more than half of the work remaining to complete remedial construction, according to EPA regional officials' responses to our survey. The majority of the sites with unknown human exposure that have all of the work remaining to complete construction are in the remedial investigation phase, which is when EPA usually determines a site's human exposure status, according to EPA guidance. EPA may also designate a site as having unknown human exposure during the construction phase of work, or after a site has met the construction complete milestone, if new information suggests that there may be risk at the site, or if an investigation is under way to assess a potential exposure pathway not previously analyzed. EPA's annual costs to conduct remedial construction in the most efficient manner at nonfederal NPL sites for fiscal years 2010 through 2014 may range from $335 million to $681 million, according to EPA regional officials' estimates. These estimates include EPA's costs to conduct remedial actions at 142 of the 416 nonfederal sites that are not construction complete. For the remaining 274 sites, EPA regional officials were unable to provide cost estimates for 57 sites, expect responsible parties to fully fund remedial actions at 206 sites, and do not expect to incur additional costs to complete construction at 11 sites because these sites are already fully funded. These annual cost estimates for remedial construction at these sites exceed past annual funding allocations for such actions. For example, EPA regional officials' cost estimates for remedial construction for the next 2 years--fiscal years 2011 and 2012--are $253 million to $414 million greater than the $267 million in annual funding that EPA allocated for remedial actions in fiscal year 2009. From fiscal years 2000 through 2009, EPA allocated $220 million to $267 million in annual funding for remedial actions. According to EPA headquarters officials, however, funds from additional sources--such as prior year funds, settlements with responsible parties, and state cost share agreements--may also be available to fund remedial construction from year to year. While the amount of funding available through these sources may vary substantially from year to year, according to EPA headquarters officials, approximately $123 to $199 million was available from additional sources for remedial actions in fiscal years 2007 through 2009.

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