Superfund:

EPA Should Take Steps to Improve Its Management of Alternatives to Placing Sites on the National Priorities List

GAO-13-252: Published: Apr 9, 2013. Publicly Released: May 10, 2013.

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What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) most commonly addresses the cleanup of sites it has identified as eligible for the National Priorities List (NPL) by deferring oversight of the cleanup to approaches outside of the Superfund program. As of December 2012, of the 3,402 sites EPA identified as potentially eligible, EPA has deferred oversight of 1,984 sites to approaches outside the Superfund program, including 1,766 Other Cleanup Activity (OCA) deferrals to states and other entities. However, EPA has not issued guidance for OCA deferrals as it has for the other cleanup approaches. Moreover, EPA's program guidance does not clearly define each type of OCA deferral or specify in detail the documentation EPA regions should have to support their decisions on OCA deferrals. Without clearer guidance on OCA deferrals, EPA cannot be reasonably assured that its regions are consistently tracking these sites or that their documentation will be appropriate or sufficient to verify that these sites have been deferred or have completed cleanup. Under the Superfund program, EPA oversees the cleanup of 1,313 sites on the NPL, 67 sites under the Superfund Alternative (SA) approach, and at least 38 sites under another undefined approach.

The processes for implementing the SA and NPL approaches, while similar in many ways, have several differences. EPA has accounted for some of these differences in its SA guidance by listing specific provisions for SA agreements with potentially responsible parties (PRP), such as owners and operators of a site. One such provision helps ensure cleanups are not delayed by a loss of funding if the PRP stops cleaning up the site. However, some EPA regions have entered into agreements with PRPs at sites that officials said were likely eligible for the SA approach without following the SA guidance. Such agreements may not benefit from EPA's provisions for SA agreements. EPA headquarters officials said the agency prefers regions to use the SA approach at such sites, but EPA has not stated this preference explicitly in its guidance. In addition, EPA's tracking and reporting of certain aspects of the process under the SA approach differs from that under the NPL approach. As a result, EPA's tracking of SA agreement sites in its Superfund database is incomplete; the standards for documenting the NPL eligibility of SA agreement sites are less clear than those for NPL sites; and EPA is not publicly reporting a full picture of SA agreement sites. Unless EPA makes improvements in these areas, its management of the process at SA agreement sites may be hampered.

The SA agreement sites showed mixed results in completing the cleanup process when compared with 74 similar NPL sites GAO analyzed. Specifically, SA agreement and NPL sites in GAO's analysis showed mixed results in the average time to complete negotiations with PRPs and for specific cleanup activities, such as remedial investigation and feasibility studies, remedial designs, and remedial actions. In addition, a lower proportion of SA agreement sites have completed cleanup compared with similar NPL sites. SA agreement sites tend to be in earlier phases of the cleanup process because the SA approach began more recently than the NPL approach. Given the limited number of activities for both NPL and SA agreement sites in GAO's analysis, these differences cannot be attributed entirely to the type of approach used at each site.

Why GAO Did This Study

Under the Superfund program, EPA may address the long-term cleanup of certain hazardous waste sites by placing them on the NPL and overseeing the cleanup. To be eligible for the NPL, a site must be sufficiently contaminated, among other things. EPA regions have discretion to choose among several other approaches to address sites eligible for the NPL. For example, under the Superfund program, EPA regions may enter into agreements with PRPs using the SA approach. EPA may also defer the oversight of cleanup at eligible sites to approaches outside of the Superfund program. GAO was asked to review EPA's implementation of the SA approach and how it compares with the NPL approach. This report examines (1) how EPA addresses the cleanup of sites it has identified as eligible for the NPL, (2) how the processes for implementing the SA and NPL approaches compare, and (3) how SA agreement sites compare with similar NPL sites in completing the cleanup process. GAO reviewed applicable laws, regulations, and guidance; analyzed program data as of December 2012; interviewed EPA officials; and compared SA agreement sites with 74 NPL sites selected based on their similarity to SA agreement sites.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that EPA issue guidance to define and clarify documentation requirements for OCA deferrals and clarify its policies on SA agreement sites. EPA agreed with the report's recommendations.

For more information, contact David C.Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On September 30, 2014, EPA updated its Superfund Program Implementation Manual in response to GAO's recommendation. This new version clearly defined the four types of Other Cleanup Activity (OCA) deferrals and what types of organizations were eligible for each. In addition, it provided minimum requirements for documenting the deferral of sites and cleanup completion. For example, when cleanup requirements have been met, EPA documents cleanup completion by using a closeout report submitted by the responsible organization. This additional guidance provides EPA greater assurance that it can track sites deferred to other entities.

    Recommendation: To improve the Superfund program's management of sites with contamination that makes them eligible for the NPL, including management of the SA approach and deferrals of cleanup oversight to other entities, the Administrator of EPA should provide guidance to EPA regions that defines each type of OCA deferral and what constitutes adequate documentation for OCA deferral and completion of cleanup.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA analyzed sites with long term cleanups overseen by EPA's Superfund program, but not on the National Priorities List or under the Superfund Alternative approach. EPA identified all of these sites in its Superfund database and created a report to track them. The report allows the user to get a list of all of these sites including site specific information, such as remedial activities at a site. This report gives EPA management the ability to effectively identify and track these sites, which allows EPA to track the approach and evaluate it.

    Recommendation: To improve the Superfund program's management of sites with contamination that makes them eligible for the NPL, including management of the SA approach and deferrals of cleanup oversight to other entities, the Administrator of EPA should develop a method for EPA headquarters to identify and track other sites with long-term cleanups under the Superfund program (i.e., those that are outside of the NPL and SA approaches).

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On September 30, 2014, EPA updated a section of its Superfund Program Implementation Manual with more detailed guidance on the Superfund Alternative approach. For example, it explains that the Superfund Alternative approach is EPA's preferred clean up approach for sites not listed on the National Priorities List. In addition, it clarified documentation requirements for the Hazard Ranking System package and established that the database code identifying sites with a Superfund Alternative approach agreement should remain in place no matter how the site cleanup proceeds. This expanded guidance on the Superfund Alternative approach can help EPA improve the management of sites under this approach, through improved data quality and the ability to track outcomes, among other things.

    Recommendation: To improve the Superfund program's management of sites with contamination that makes them eligible for the NPL, including management of the SA approach and deferrals of cleanup oversight to other entities, the Administrator of EPA should update EPA's written policies on SA agreement sites, including taking steps such as clarifying whether the SA approach is EPA's preferred approach for long-term cleanup of sites under the Superfund program and outside of the NPL, specifying what documentation is sufficient to support the Hazard Ranking System score at SA agreement sites, and defining when the database code that identifies sites with SA agreements should remain in place.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA incorporated sites with Superfund Alternative approach agreements into their performance measures. These measures are described in the Superfund Program Implementation Manual released on September 30, 2014. EPA began incorporating Superfund Alternative approach sites into its performance reports in fiscal year 2014. Specifically, the annual accomplishments summary for Superfund and the agency's eight year performance array report accomplishments at Superfund Alternative approach sites as well as those listed on the National Priorities List. By incorporating results from the Superfund Alternative approach into its Superfund performance measures, EPA is providing Congress with more complete information to inform its legislative actions.

    Recommendation: To improve the Superfund program's management of sites with contamination that makes them eligible for the NPL, including management of the SA approach and deferrals of cleanup oversight to other entities, the Administrator of EPA should report performance information on the progress of cleanup at SA agreement sites in a manner that is equivalent to such reporting for NPL sites.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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