Natural Resources and Environment:

EPA's Inventory of Potential Hazardous Waste Sites Is Incomplete

RCED-85-75: Published: Mar 26, 1985. Publicly Released: May 3, 1985.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO evaluated the effectiveness of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state programs in determining the extent of hazardous waste cleanup problems. EPA and the states are required by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to complete a nationwide inventory of hazardous disposal sites. In addition, EPA is authorized to evaluate and clean up such sites. GAO focused on: (1) site discovery activities carried out by EPA and the states; (2) whether states are informing EPA of sites they discover; and (3) how federal and state site evaluation and cleanup roles are defined.

The nationwide EPA inventory is used as a basis for identifying National Priorities List sites, for which EPA intends to fund or enforce cleanup actions on a priority basis. GAO found that: (1) a complete inventory of hazardous sites does not exist; (2) EPA believes that aggressive state and federal discovery programs could result in the production of a complete inventory; (3) EPA has concentrated its resources on evaluating and cleaning up known hazardous sites instead of searching for new sites; (4) while EPA has broad authority to clean up hazardous sites, resource constraints have forced it to limit action to those sites included on the list; (5) while EPA believes that many more potentially hazardous sites remain to be discovered, it will require targeted and systematic programs to identify them; (6) the character and focus of the EPA program are expanding to include types of sites that were not targeted under previous discovery programs; and (7) some states have not conducted systematic site discovery programs, but most have discovered sites through citizen complaints or through inspections of active hazardous waste handlers. In addition, GAO also found that, while states are required by law to inform EPA of sites they discover, some states are not reporting sites because: (1) they believe that the EPA cleanup process is too slow; (2) they can force responsible parties to clean up sites; or (3) the threat of reporting sites to EPA can be used as a bargaining tool with responsible parties.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA believes that it already has an effective process to discover new sites. It sees no need to develop a comprehensive site discovery strategy. Rather, EPA will continue to emphasize site evaluation and cleanup over new site discovery efforts.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should develop a plan laying out: (1) what specific steps EPA intends to take to complete a comprehensive hazardous waste site inventory envisioned by section 3012 of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; (2) what priorities and resources EPA plans to devote to this effort; (3) what the states' role should be; and (4) how long it will take to accomplish.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has informally encouraged its regions to tell states to report newly discovered sites. EPA could provide no documentation. GAO envisioned in its recommendation a more formal notification to states.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should encourage the states to report the existence of hazardous sites by stressing the importance and need for EPA evaluation of the sites and EPA emergency or other response where necessary.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has informally encouraged its regions to incorporate state reported sites into the inventory. EPA could provide no documentation. GAO envisioned in its recommendation a more formal notification to regions.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should emphasize to the EPA regions the need to incorporate into the EPA inventory sites that are reported by the states.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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