Superfund:

A More Vigorous and Better Managed Enforcement Program Is Needed

RCED-90-22: Published: Dec 14, 1989. Publicly Released: Jan 23, 1990.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) enforcement of the Superfund program, focusing on: (1) its process for identifying liable and financially viable parties to hold responsible for cleaning up Superfund sites; (2) enforcement tools, including negotiations, unilateral administrative orders, and mixed funding and de minimis settlements; and (3) recovery of site cleanup costs.

GAO found that: (1) although the program's success depended largely on finding the liable parties to fund cleanups, EPA had not found the liable parties for one-third of the sites ready for cleanup; (2) many of the searches were incomplete because of data collection deficiencies and poorly conducted interviews; (3) although EPA took some corrective actions, it needed to keep better track of responsible party information, systematically identify searches needing to be redone, and promote a toll-free hot line for reporting the identity of suspected responsible parties; (4) search delays due to staff shortages have hampered EPA efforts to find responsible parties willing to finance cleanups; (5) EPA used administrative orders only sparingly to force action or close lengthy negotiations; (6) a legislative requirement that orders were only enforceable upon demonstration of imminent and substantial endangerment was a barrier to EPA use of administrative orders; (7) EPA had collected only 35 percent of the costs it hoped to recover by 1991, because it considered cost recovery a low priority; (8) EPA regions issued letters demanding payment from 4 to 18 months late, which cost the government interest income and reduced the program's credibility; (9) EPA excluded various indirect costs totalling $800 million from its definition of recoverable costs; (10) EPA cost recovery actions remained uncertain because legislation did not specifically authorize recovery of indirect costs and court actions on the issue were inconsistent; and (11) although EPA planned greater program enforcement, staffing constraints contributed to many of the problems.

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

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To help EPA in its cost recovery efforts, Congress may want to amend section 107 to specifically authorize the recovery of Superfund's indirect costs. Additionally, Congress may wish to identify the kinds of indirect costs that EPA should seek to recover when recovering response action costs from liable potentially responsible parties (PRP).

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Superfund was reauthorized at the end of 1991 without substantive change. There is no present indication that Congress will act on this recommendation.

    Matter: Congress may want to consider what purposes are being served by the imminent and substantial endangerment requirement and, if appropriate, it may want to repeal the requirement. As an alternative, it may want to consider substituting in the place of the "imminent and substantial" requirement, a requirement that there only need be a release or threat of release of a hazardous substance in order to facilitate EPA issuance and enforcement of orders for the cleanup of Superfund sites.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Superfund was reauthorized at the end of 1990 without substantive change. There is no present indication that Congress will act on this recommendation.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To further improve the PRP search process, the Administrator, EPA, should provide its regions with criteria (policies and procedures) for identifying previously completed (older) PRP searches that should be redone, and set up controls to ensure that those identified as such are redone.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 1989, EPA established guidance and priority rankings for PRP search reassessments to determine the quality of earlier searches and, when necessary, it has been strengthening past searches.

    Recommendation: To further improve the PRP search process, the Administrator, EPA, should provide a toll-free hotline telephone number for the general public to use to report the identity of PRP suspected of being involved at hazardous waste sites and freely publicize its availability.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has encouraged its regions to establish toll-free hotlines in order to identify PRP on a site-by-site basis, and has provided the resources to them to do this. EPA plans to continue this practice for sites where it is having difficulty identifying PRP. It is not practical to have a hotline for all sites because of the time and costs to follow up leads.

    Recommendation: To further improve the PRP search process, the Administrator, EPA, should ensure that its regions have an adequate information system in place for tracking and monitoring information request letter activities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has issued general guidance establishing ground rules for tracking "request letters" sent to those thought to have information about PRP activities. In this guidance, EPA encourages regions to use an automated database developed by the National Enforcement Investigations Center to supplement information obtained and stored in their existing regional databases.

    Recommendation: To further improve the PRP search process, the Administrator, EPA, should determine whether the National Enforcement Investigations Center (NEIC) is more economical and effective than PRP search contractors in providing financial research and assessments and, if so, seek ways to optimize the use of this resource.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has determined that using the NEIC Superfund Financial Assessment System as a model to determine how much a PRP can pay is not more efficient than hiring search contractors. Since many PRP are privately-held firms, NEIC cannot obtain complete data for storage in its system.

    Recommendation: To provide a systematic planning process to guide its initiatives for improving the management of the Superfund program, particularly its enforcement activities, the Administrator, EPA, should establish long-term measurable goals for achieving the objectives set forth in the Administrator's June 1989 report and use those goals to tie various EPA enforcement plans and strategies together.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has completed the development of OERR environmental indicators, as well as critical enforcement indicators to measure PRP site remediation activity. EPA is continuing to develop its new accountability system (STARS). GAO will be addressing this matter again in a forthcoming report on Superfund settlements.

    Recommendation: To provide a systematic planning process to guide its initiatives for improving the management of the Superfund program, particularly its enforcement activities, the Administrator, EPA, should identify the resources required to meet the long-term measurable goals of the Superfund enforcement program.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In November 1991, GAO issued a report (RCED-92-20) which restated the need for this recommended action. GAO will continue to track and follow-up on EPA corrective action in this area as part of GAO follow-up efforts for that assignment.

    Recommendation: To provide a systematic planning process to guide its initiatives for improving the management of the Superfund program, particularly its enforcement activities, the Administrator, EPA, should communicate these results to Congress and the public and provide them with periodic progress reports in meeting goals and objectives.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA provides Superfund indicators information to Congress through regular reports and end-of-year press conferences. EPA has created the Office of the Assistant Administrator for Congressional Relations to coordinate these activities. In an FY 1990 OSWER report to Congress, EPA reported recovering $1.3 billion from 60 percent of identified PRP. STARS will include results-oriented indicators.

    Recommendation: To improve the recovery of cleanup costs from PRP, the Administrator, EPA, should provide sufficient staff resources, if cost-beneficial, to address its backlog of cost recovery cases. In implementing this recommendation, EPA should consider using productivity measures.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA stated it would not be cost-beneficial to reallocate staff resources to address the backlog as this would divert resources from other critical activities and would significantly increase resource demands on the Department of Justice.

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