Superfund:

Stronger EPA-State Relationship Can Improve Cleanups and Reduce Costs

RCED-97-77: Published: Apr 24, 1997. Publicly Released: May 28, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) the lessons learned from five states that have had significant experience in leading Superfund cleanups; and (2) how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can help to ensure that interested states are successful in their efforts to take on increased Superfund responsibilities.

GAO noted that: (1) on the basis of GAO's review of the five states' cleanup programs, two critical factors affect a state's ability to successfully lead cleanups at National Priorities List (NPL) sites: (a) the ability of EPA and the state to develop a constructive and efficient relationship that is characterized by a clear division of responsibility and by a level of oversight by EPA that is commensurate with the state's cleanup capabilities; and (b) the availability of technical and financial support to help a state perform its additional responsibilities; (2) in connection with the EPA-state relationship, GAO found instances in which EPA disagreed with the state's view that it could assume added responsibilities without EPA's detailed oversight; (3) on the positive side, however, GAO found cases in which the elimination of a duplication of effort by EPA and state regulators led to a more efficient utilization of resources and an ability to achieve cleanups more quickly and at a lower cost; (4) a useful practice in establishing this relationship has been an explicit agreement between senior management representing both EPA and the state agency that articulates each agency's responsibilities and the manner in which EPA's oversight will be exercised; (5) in connection with technical and financial support, all of the states contacted by GAO indicated that: (a) the need for EPA's research and technical support will continue and, in some instances, may increase as the states' cleanup responsibilities grow; and (b) the states' capability and willingness to participate in future Superfund cleanups will also be contingent on continued federal financial participation; (6) GAO identified a number of areas in which action by EPA could help ensure that greater state involvement in the Superfund program leads to effective and more efficient cleanups; (7) in particular, EPA has yet to develop criteria needed by its regions to determine and communicate the circumstances under which the states may assume increased responsibilities; (8) guidance is also needed to: (a) promote a consistent approach among EPA regions that reduces the duplication of responsibilities by EPA and state regulators; and (b) encourage the use of explicit agreements between the two parties to document and communicate the understandings reached; and (9) in connection with the states' technical and financial needs, EPA has acknowledged that it must play an increased role in this area, but it has yet to detail a specific plan that identifies what the states' specific needs are and how the agency will meet them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The recommended criteria were developed and incorporated in the agency's May 1998 "Plan to Enhance the Role of States and Tribes in the Superfund Program."

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to work with state representatives in developing criteria identifying the requirements and circumstances under which states may be granted additional responsibilities to clean up NPL sites. The criteria development process should involve state representation and its outcome should be consistent with EPA's expressed desire to encourage greater state responsibilities in NPL cleanups.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The recommended guidance, including the text of a model agreement to be used by EPA regional offices and states, was included in the agency's May 1998 "Plan to Enhance the Role of States and Tribes in the Superfund Program."

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to work with state representatives in developing guidance on how EPA regions and states can best divide NPL cleanup responsibilities. The guidance should recommend use of an explicit agreement articulating each side's responsibilities and should reinforce the agency's stated goal of eliminating duplication of effort by EPA and state regulators overseeing NPL cleanups.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: An EPA-state workgroup has developed the strategy, which was published in the agency's May 1998 "Plan to Enhance the Role of States and Tribes in the Superfund Program."

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to work with state representatives to develop a detailed strategy indicating how the agency will meet the states' technical and resource needs so that they may take a lead role in successfully cleaning up Superfund sites. Among the kinds of technical support such a plan might include are: (1) providing technical assistance at specific sites; (2) identifying ways to accelerate research on innovative technologies; and (3) serving as a national clearinghouse for information on new cleanup technologies and other best practices. Among the potential elements of its plan to help address the states' resource constraints are strategies to: (1) use federal funds efficiently to assist state-led NPL cleanups; (2) continue leading certain NPL cleanups beyond the capability of individual states; and (3) encourage cooperation by recalcitrant primarily responsible parties (PRPs) with state authorities by serving as a backup regulatory authority.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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