Superfund:

Extent to Which Most Reforms Have Improved the Program Is Unknown

RCED-00-118: Published: May 12, 2000. Publicly Released: Jun 8, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund program administrative reforms, focusing on the: (1) reforms' demonstrated results and the performance measures EPA uses to gauge these results; and (2) legislative changes to the program that either EPA or key stakeholders--including, among others, officials representing parties responsible for cleanups, environmental groups, and states--believe are still necessary.

GAO noted that: (1) EPA claims and stakeholders agree that, in general, the Superfund program has improved and the administrative reforms have collectively contributed to this improvement; (2) however, GAO determined that, for a majority of the 62 reforms, it is difficult for EPA to demonstrate the extent to which they are working and have met the goals set for them--to make the program faster, fairer, and more efficient; (3) while maintaining that all the reforms are important, EPA reform managers acknowledged that 42 reforms did not have a fundamental effect, and EPA could not easily collect the data to measure the results achieved for most of them; (4) 20 reforms had a fundamental effect, and for these reforms: (a) EPA's performance measures demonstrated that 7 had achieved benefits, such as dollar savings--EPA has saved $70 million to date by identifying less costly cleanup alternatives--and greater community involvement in cleanups; (b) EPA's measures counted the number of times that 7 were implemented but did not demonstrate the results achieved; and (c) EPA did not have measures to demonstrate the results that 6 had achieved; (5) EPA's data for the 14 fundamental and measurable reforms show two trends suggesting that the progress made to date may be eroding; (6) the implementation rates for almost half of these reforms peaked in fiscal year 1997 and declined in subsequent years; (7) the implementation rates for some reforms varied widely among the regions, possibly indicating inconsistent application; (8) stakeholders identified regional inconsistency as a problem with some reforms; (9) therefore, better measurement and oversight of the key reforms, as well as better understanding of the reasons for regional variation in the implementation of some, could help EPA obtain the maximum benefits possible from its reform initiative; (10) EPA and stakeholders agree that targeted legislative changes would do more than EPA's administrative reforms to protect certain parties from the current Superfund law's liability provisions, however, they disagree on the extent of change; (11) according to EPA, it is not seeking any legislation to codify its reforms, but it would support legislative proposals to limit liability for some parties that stakeholders have identified; (12) these parties include prospective purchasers of contaminated property and owners who are not responsible for or aware of contamination on their property; and (13) EPA does not see a need for other legislative changes, such as limiting liability for small businesses, because it believes its reforms have created the tools needed to provide relief for these parties.

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: To achieve the maximum benefits possible from the Superfund administrative reforms, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response, who manages the Superfund program, to address, in EPA's internal review and update of the reforms, ways in which EPA can cost-effectively obtain additional data--for those reforms with the greatest potential for improving the program--that would help it better assess the reforms' results, including continuing to pursue authority from the Office of Management and Budget to solicit input from private parties and other key stakeholders on the success of the reforms.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2001, EPA developed Information Collection Requests (ICRs) to obtain stakeholder feedback on EPA's implementation of, and the effects of, three Superfund administrative reforms relating to (1) effective oversight management, (2) de minimis settlements, and (3) orphan share compensation. The respondents will be able to provide information on their overall satisfaction with the reform, whether it met its intended goals, and what can be done to improve it. OMB reviewed the ICRs and recommended revisions, including that the ICRs be tested before general distribution. EPA plans to complete testing of the orphan share survey and receive OMB approval for all ICRs by the end of 2003.

    Recommendation: To achieve the maximum benefits possible from the Superfund administrative reforms, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response, who manages the Superfund program, to address, in EPA's internal review and update of the reforms, ways in which EPA can target incentives or other strategies as necessary to sustain the implementation of some reforms and better understand whether regional variation in their use reflects inconsistencies that need to be addressed.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA believes that it has invested resources to ensure that eligible reforms are considered for use in the regions when appropriate. EPA stated that it will reinforce the progress made to date and encourage vigilance in applying the reforms. EPA believes that its July 2000, Superfund Reforms Strategy is evidence of its commitment to continuous improvement of the program and fundamental Superfund reform. Furthermore, EPA believes that a June 2000 report by the National Academy of Public Administration, attests to the success of the regional reforms: NAPA's review of the reforms in two regions and interviews with national actors and those familiar with other regions suggested that the broad goals of the reform effort have been obtained to a significant degree throughout the country.

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