Hazardous Waste:

Much Work Remains to Accelerate Facility Cleanups

RCED-93-15: Published: Jan 19, 1993. Publicly Released: Mar 1, 1993.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) administration of its hazardous waste facility corrective action program, focusing on the: (1) status of the corrective action program; (2) availability of funds for the corrective action program; and (3) effectiveness of data used to determine oversight costs.

GAO found that: (1) of the 3,400 facilities suspected of releasing contaminants into the environment, 860 have begun formal corrective action investigations and 43 have started comprehensive cleanups; (2) reasons for delays in contamination cleanup included limited resources, inadequate personnel, problems in defining the nature, extent, and complexity of the contamination, and determining what corrective actions were needed; (3) in fiscal year (FY) 1992, EPA was successful in assessing 875 facilities and ranking over 2,100 facilities, but lacked adequate information on the total number of remaining facilities that needed additional assessment work and ranking; (4) EPA planned to increase facility stabilization actions at a limited number of the highest priority facilities, but did not have an adequate way of measuring when stabilization was achieved; (5) budgeted funds for corrective actions decreased from $65.6 million in FY 1992 to $59.9 million in FY 1993; (6) EPA failure to maintain comprehensive regional or state corrective action budget data and outdated pricing factors limited its ability to set goals and communicate long-term budgeting needs; and (7) EPA has made limited progress in adopting methods for increasing corrective action reserves such as requiring owners to reimburse it for oversight expenses, collecting a hazardous waste user fee, moving contract resources to staff salaries, and using existing state cleanup programs instead of federal funds.

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: If EPA determines that it does not have the authority to require reimbursement, EPA should seek the authority, using as justification the concept underlying the Superfund program, that those responsible for hazardous waste contamination be responsible for both cleanup and oversight costs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA has reported that it does not intend to seek legislative authority to require reimbursement for oversight costs.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should: (1) determine under what circumstances the agency has the legal authority to require the owners of hazardous waste facilities to reimburse either the federal government or EPA for costs associated with overseeing corrective action; and (2) begin using such authority.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA reported that it is not authorized to require reimbursement to EPA for oversight costs. It has not determined whether it is authorized to require reimbursement to the Treasury.

    Recommendation: To aid in more accurate budgeting for the corrective action program, and in communicating the program's needs and expectation of progress toward facility cleanup, the Administrator, EPA, should develop current and accurate assumptions for the cost of providing corrective action oversight. The cost assumptions, or pricing factors, should be based on actual expenditure data gathered on a systematic and uniform basis from the regions and states. They should be revised regularly to reflect changes in personnel costs, the types of facilities being regulated, and other variables. This effort to develop current pricing factors will be necessary for EPA to develop the long-term budget strategy called for in congressional hearings.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has responded that it agrees that it needs to continuously improve workload estimates for budgeting purposes. EPA has reported that it has updated its pricing factors on the basis of a survey of the regions led by Region II. The action is not fully responsive in that EPA has not established a policy for routinely updating the pricing factors and does not have plans to do so.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should require that the regions use facility oversight plans or equivalent methods to determine the annual corrective action oversight needs of facilities and the resources required to carry out that oversight. EPA would then be in a better position to perform a national analysis of its tiered oversight program.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA has reported that it has decided not to require facility oversight plans because (1) it is not convinced of the need for them; and (2) it believes that such decisions should be left to the discretion of the regions.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should ensure that EPA has a management information system to capture data to measure the effectiveness of the new initiative to stabilize contamination at facilities. At a minimum, EPA needs to capture data to: (1) identify when facilities become "stabilized"; and (2) distinguish between situations where only one or some of the identified stabilization actions have been taken at facilities, as opposed to situations where all identified stabilization actions have been taken.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has in place five data elements that relate to stabilization. The first indicates the number of stabilization evaluations that have been done. The second indicates that stabilization measures have been implemented and the third indicates that stabilization construction is complete. The third element may or may not mean that the facility has been stabilized. The fourth and fifth elements record whether human exposure has been controlled and whether groundwater releases have been controlled. These measures are being used for facilities that are undergoing stabilization and for those undergoing traditional corrective action. The action is not fully responsive because the data elements do not provide details on distinct multiple stabilization activities at each facility, as illustrated in the recommendation's second example.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should develop a plan to conduct within a specific period of time adequate assessments at all existing facilities that need them, including assessing facilities newly added to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) universe within a specific period of time after becoming subject to RCRA. To avoid past problems, this plan should include minimum criteria for what constitutes adequate assessments.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has established in its 1994 RCRA Implementation Plan a goal of completing assessments of all facilities in the RCRA universe by the end of fiscal year 1996. EPA has also required that assessments be sufficient to prioritize facilities and to focus on follow-up investigations. EPA disagrees with the recommendation that calls for newly regulated facilities to be assessed within a certain time, citing the program's finite resources and competing priorities.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should, in order to better gauge the true universe of facilities requiring corrective action, require that the regions specifically identify all facilities, including converters and known nonnotifiers, that need but have not yet received an adequate assessment.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA reports that all but about 200 of the facilities that it plans to assess have been assessed. The 200 are known. The action is not fully responsive because EPA has decided not to include converters among those needing RCRA assessments. They will be handled by the Superfund program but have not yet all been identified. EPA is improving its data management system in order to identify converters.

    Recommendation: Until broader authority is obtained, EPA should establish the policy that the regions attempt, where possible, to enter into agreements with facility owners and operators whereby the federal government is reimbursed for costs associated with oversight of corrective action. The Region 6 approach could be used as national model.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA notes that the funds collected under consent orders go to the Treasury and not to EPA. EPA has decided not to adopt this policy because it would not financially benefit the agency.

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