Wildlife Management:

National Refuge Contamination Is Difficult To Confirm and Clean Up

RCED-87-128: Published: Jul 17, 1987. Publicly Released: Aug 14, 1987.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the status of cleanup activities at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge to determine whether the federal government: (1) assessed the extent of contamination at refuges nationwide; (2) developed water quality criteria to protect wildlife and refuge habitats from contamination; and (3) dealt with actual or potential contamination from agricultural drainage water or other sources.

GAO found that the: (1) Bureau of Reclamation stopped the flow of contaminated water to the Kesterson Refuge and prepared a phased cleanup plan to initially treat contamination in place, rather than dispose of it; (2) board responsible for protecting California's water resources rejected the phased plan and approved the concept of on-site disposal; and (3) cleanup will cost an estimated $27 billion. GAO also found that the Department of the Interior: (1) intensified efforts to identify contaminated refuges, since an Interior survey indicated that 85 of 430 refuges were or could be contaminated by agricultural drainwater or by municipal, industrial, or military activities; and (2) did not use survey techniques that would identify all contaminated refuges. GAO concluded that obstacles to identifying and cleaning up sites include the: (1) lack of water quality criteria to determine when contamination threatens wildlife and refuge habitats; (2) lack of federal regulatory authority over agricultural drainage water; and (3) lengthy process of identifying the party responsible for cleanup, deciding on a cleanup plan, and obtaining cleanup funds.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Because the agencies have not taken action since 1987 to fully implement the recommendation, GAO is closing it out.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in close coordination with the Secretary of the Interior, should develop water quality criteria for protecting wildlife and refuge habitats. If current resources and funding levels are insufficient for this program, the Secretary and the Administrator should submit estimates of the additional needs to Congress for consideration.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Because the Secretary has not taken action since 1987 to fully implement the recommendation, GAO is closing it out.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should evaluate the results of the ongoing studies to determine if agricultural drainage traceable to a single source is occurring elsewhere.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Because the agencies have not taken action since 1987 to fully implement the recommendation, GAO is closing it out.

    Recommendation: If agricultural drainage traceable to a single source is occurring elsewhere, the Secretary of the Interior should work with the Administrator, EPA, in preparing a legislative proposal to amend the Clean Water Act to require that agricultural drainage traceable to a single source be subject to discharge permit requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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