Superfund:

Progress Made by EPA and Other Federal Agencies to Resolve Program Management Issues

RCED-99-111: Published: Apr 29, 1999. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) the efforts that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the other federal agencies with major cleanup responsibilities have made to set priorities for spending limited cleanup funds at the hazardous waste sites posing the highest risks to human health and the environment; (2) EPA's actions to recover its expenditures for cleanups from the parties that are legally liable for the contamination; and (3) EPA's efforts to better control contractors' cleanup costs.

GAO noted that: (1) for several years, GAO has included the Superfund program on its list of federal programs that pose significant financial risk to the government and potential for waste and abuse; (2) agencies have corrected some of these problems, but those that remain are important enough to prevent GAO from removing Superfund from the high-risk list; (3) 4 of the 5 agencies GAO reviewed--EPA, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy (DOE)--are setting cleanup priorities on the basis of the relative risk that sites pose to human health and the environment; (4) EPA, Agriculture, and Defense set nationwide priorities for most of their sites; (5) however, EPA may not know about all high-risk sites because states are taking on more cleanups and deciding, often on the basis of factors other than risk, which sites to refer to EPA for possible listing; (6) each DOE facility considers risk and other factors when setting priorities among its competing environmental management projects; (7) however, cleanups at one facility do not compete with those at another facility on a nationwide basis; (8) the Bureau of Land Management has not set nationwide cleanup priorities because it has not yet developed an overall cleanup strategy or an inventory of its hazardous waste sites, estimated to cost billions of dollars to address; (9) although EPA has succeeded in getting responsible parties to conduct 70 percent of long-term Superfund cleanups, it has been less successful in recovering its costs from responsible parties when it conducts a cleanup; (10) EPA has lost the opportunity to collect almost $2 billion it spent on cleaning up sites since the program began because it excluded large portions of its indirect costs when it calculated what costs to assess parties; (11) while EPA has developed a new method of calculating these costs that could increase their recovery, the agency has not implemented it; (12) EPA has eliminated almost all of its backlog of 500 required Superfund contract audits, and is trying to complete the new audits on time; (13) however, some of EPA's actions have been slow and have not gone far enough to address GAO's concerns that the agency was not using its own estimates of what contract work should cost to negotiate the best contract price for the government or to control contractors' program support costs; and (14) less money is going toward the actual cleanup of high-risk sites, and excessive amounts are still being spent on administrative support costs.

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: To ensure that all federal waste sites are being adequately addressed, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Deputy Under Secretary for Environmental Security and Chief of the Forest Service, respectively, to work together to clarify cleanup requirements for lands with former or current Defense activities that may pose risks to human health and the environment. Furthermore, the Department of Defense, in consultation with the Department of Agriculture, should work to ensure that these cleanup requirements are met.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since GAO made this recommendation, DOD, USDA, and the Department of the Interior have established a joint working committee. This committee meets periodically and has five workgroups, including one workgroup responsible for addressing issues such as the contamination and cleanup of public lands. The joint working committee and its workgroups continue to meet and are making good progress at identifying sites, establishing if DOD had activities at the sites and was therefore responsible for cleanup, and adding these sites to DOD's inventory. Because the number of already identified and yet-to-be identified sites is large, the agencies will be continuing with their collaborative efforts for a number of years. DOD is making cleanup progress, although it is somewhat slow because (1) the extensive and time-consuming studies that must be conducted at a site before initiating cleanup, and (2) DOD's very limited cleanup budget compared to the high costs of addressing an individual site. Because of this latter point in particular, DOD is only able to address a relatively small number of new sites each year. Given that the agencies will be involved in their efforts to respond to GAO's recommendation over the long term, but acknowledging that the agencies have the organizational structure in place to respond and are making good progress, GAO is closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that all federal waste sites are being adequately addressed, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Deputy Under Secretary for Environmental Security and Chief of the Forest Service, respectively, to work together to clarify cleanup requirements for lands with former or current Defense activities that may pose risks to human health and the environment. Furthermore, the Department of Defense, in consultation with the Department of Agriculture, should work to ensure that these cleanup requirements are met.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since GAO made this recommendation, DOD, USDA, and the Department of the Interior have established a joint working committee. This committee meets periodically and has five workgroups, including one workgroup responsible for addressing issues such as the contamination and cleanup of public lands. The joint working committee and its workgroups continue to meet and are making good progress at identifying sites, establishing if DOD had activities at the sites and was therefore responsible for cleanup, and adding these sites to DOD's inventory. Because the number of already identified and yet-to-be identified sites is large, the agencies will be continuing with their collaborative efforts for a number of years. DOD is making cleanup progress, although it is somewhat slow because (1) the extensive and time-consuming studies that must be conducted at a site before initiating cleanup, and (2) DOD's very limited cleanup budget compared to the high costs of addressing an individual site. Because of this latter point in particular, DOD is only able to address a relatively small number of new sites each year. Given that the agencies will be involved in their efforts to respond to GAO's recommendation over the long term, but acknowledging that the agencies have the organizational structure in place to respond and are making good progress, GAO is closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To more effectively use its limited cleanup funds and better leverage funds from responsible parties to clean up its hazardous waste sites so as to protect the public and the environment, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, the Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management, and the Solicitor of the Interior to work together to ensure that the Bureau of Land Management: (1) develops a national database of all its known hazardous waste sites and abandoned mine sites; (2) develops and implements a strategy for updating its national database, which includes collecting new information on potential hazardous waste sites and abandoned mines in a consistent manner across all of its state offices; (3) develops and applies a mechanism for setting cleanup priorities among sites on a nationwide basis using risk and other factors, as appropriate; (4) develops a comprehensive cleanup strategy, including specific goals and timelines for cleaning up the site on the basis of their risk-based priorities; and (5) develops nationwide procedures for conducting searches of potentially responsible parties and for using the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act authorities, where appropriate, to get more responsible parties to perform or pay for cleaning up contamination.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has made progress in addressing these recommendations. The agency (1) has built and continues to add to a database of abandoned mines and hazardous waste sites; (2) has instructed staff to work on the accuracy and completeness of its abandoned mines database as they enter new data and plans an online training for state offices to ensure the consistency of information entered into the hazardous site database; (3) for abandoned mines, has agreed to follow the priorities its state agencies set among the watersheds in their jurisdictions based somewhat on the risks posed and, for its other hazardous sites that do not require emergency cleanup, uses a nationwide annual panel process to prioritize funding among projects based on risk to human health; (4) as part of its Annual Performance Plan, has developed a strategy with Government Performance and Results Act goals and milestones to begin to address both mining and hazardous sites and, at least for hazardous sites, uses risk-based priorities to select cleanups; and (5) has hired a contractor to perform potentially responsible parties (PRP) searches, will hire an attorney to pursue the results of PRP searches, and has entered into settlements over the past year on the abandoned mine side, while the hazardous waste program requires a PRP search and cost recovery plan for each site. However, BLM officials cautioned that, for most of their sites, PRPs are small operators, no longer around, or bankrupt.

    Recommendation: To more effectively use its limited cleanup funds and better leverage funds from responsible parties to clean up its hazardous waste sites so as to protect the public and the environment, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, the Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management, and the Solicitor of the Interior to work together to ensure that all of Interior's bureaus and regional offices understand the purpose and size of the Interior's Central Hazardous Materials Fund and the criteria Interior uses to allocate dollars to cleanups, including both remedial and removal actions.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To improve understanding of the purpose and size of the Central Hazardous Materials Funds (CHF), members of Interior's Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance met with the Bureaus in fiscal year 1999 to discuss the CHF, and they have made presentations at several training sessions for Bureau environmental personnel. On November 22, 1999, Interior issued a memorandum to the heads of all Bureaus and Offices explaining the purpose of the fund and the information needed for nominating sites for funding. As a result, funded projects increased from 10 to 17 between fiscal years 1998 and 1999.

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's ability to recover cleanup costs from private parties, the Administrator, EPA, should ensure that the Superfund cost recovery program applies the agency's new indirect cost rate as soon as it is approved as part of cost recovery settlements.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA adopted a new method to calculate the costs it incurs to operate the Superfund program. By using the new cost rate, EPA should be able to increase recoveries from responsible parties in situations where EPA initially pays for the cleanup. Indirect costs are those prorated across all sites because they are not attributable to a particular site and, in the past, EPA did not include many of them in its indirect cost calculations. EPA estimates the new indirect cost rates will enable it to pursue the recovery of up to $600 million on those cleanups currently awaiting a final settlement and, on average, about $100 million per year on future cleanups.

    Recommendation: To build on EPA's momentum to address the contract management concerns GAO has identified, the Administrator, EPA, should instruct the director of the Office of Acquisition Management to work with the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response to develop procedures to ensure that the corrective actions EPA implements in response to recommended actions from the Army Corps of Engineers result in improved cost estimates.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the Corps' and GAO's recommendations, EPA has worked with the Corps to draft new guidance on cost estimating--including amassing data on actual past costs--that will be available to work assignment managers by the end of 2001. The agency also developed new training on preparing estimates. About 10 percent of the agency's approximately 500 work assignment managers have attended the training to date and they have generally found the course to be useful, according to the course evaluations they prepared. Because EPA has made significant progress in addressing GAO's concerns about its cost estimating, GAO is closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To build on EPA's momentum to address the contract management concerns GAO has identified, the Administrator, EPA, should instruct the director of the Office of Acquisition Management to work with the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response to periodically review whether the regions have consistently implemented the corrective actions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2001, GAO reported that Superfund managers, with officials from the Office of Acquisition Management, review all Superfund contracting activities in the regions by visiting each of the 10 regions approximately once every 3 years to conduct reviews. Superfund managers assured GAO that, in response to the concerns GAO raised in 1999 regarding estimate quality, the reviews conducted in the past 2 years have included an examination of the quality of a region's estimates. At the time of the report's issuance, the three most recent reviews, beginning with the review of the Seattle region in June 1999, contained assessments of estimates and recommendations for improvement. In addition, Superfund managers told GAO that they use the periodic meetings and monthly teleconferences of the Senior Regional Management Acquisition Council as a forum to exchange information on issues or problems affecting estimates and that the discussion of estimates is a regular topic on the agenda for the Council's semiannual conferences. Superfund mangers plan to continue to rely on the regional reviews, supplemented by the Council's and other discussions, to determine whether the quality and usefulness of contract estimates have improved in the regions as a result of the new guidance and training. They pointed out that recent regional reviews have found that estimate quality has generally improved in the regions. Although the director of the division in the Office of Acquisition Management that oversees Superfund contracting activities believes that more frequent monitoring would probably be beneficial, he and the Superfund managers cite limited resources, which preclude more frequent regional reviews. Because of the progress EPA has made in this area, GAO is closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To build on EPA's momentum to address the contract management concerns GAO has identified, the Administrator, EPA, should instruct the director of the Office of Acquisition Management to work with the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response to identify a cost-effective method of providing estimators with access to the detailed historical site-specific cost data they need to generate more accurate estimates.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2001, GAO reported that, in response to the Corps' and GAO's recommendations, EPA has worked with the Corps to draft new guidance on cost estimating--including amassing data on actual past costs--that will be available to work assignment managers by the end of 2001. The agency also developed new training on preparing estimates. About 10 percent of the agency's approximately 500 work assignment managers have attended the training and they have generally found the course to be useful, according to the course evaluations they prepared. Because of EPA's progress in this area, GAO is closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To build on EPA's momentum to address the contract management concerns GAO has identified, the Administrator, EPA, should instruct the director of the Office of Acquisition Management to work with the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response to complete a review of the number of contracts the agency needs to keep in place, given the future cleanup workload, and do so before it loses the opportunity to close out some of the contracts whose base periods are expiring, allowing the agency to choose whether to exercise its option to renew these contracts for another 5 years.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2001, in GAO's Performance and Accountability update on this issue, GAO reported that EPA has significantly reduced its program support cost rates. The agency did this in part by reducing the number of cleanup contracts it maintains, from 45 in 1995 to 18 as of June 2000, when GAO had last reviewed and reported on this issue. In January 2001, GAO found that only five of the 18 existing contracts had program support cost rates that exceeded EPA's goal of 11 percent of total costs, ranging from 12 to 18 percent. The rates for the remaining contracts were well within EPA's goal, ranging from one to 11 percent. Consequently, GAO is closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help EPA regions better plan their cleanup workload and be responsive to local communities' concerns about hazardous waste sites in their areas, the Administrator, EPA, should task the agency's regional offices to work with the states in their regions to determine how to share information on the progress of cleanups at those sites of highest risk or concern considering any successful efforts currently under way in the regions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA regional offices have completed negotiations with almost all of the states to decide what remaining sites need to be assessed and who will manage the assessments. Then, they will negotiate who will manage any necessary cleanup activities. In addition, EPA has revised its Superfund management information system so that it can track the status of certain cleanup activities that the states are managing.

    Recommendation: To build on EPA's momentum to address the contract management concerns GAO has identified, the Administrator, EPA, should instruct the director of the Office of Acquisition Management to work with the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response to ensure that the Contracts 2000 initiative results in a comprehensive strategy, with specific tasks and milestones for their completion, for improving the agency's contract management practices.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 1999, EPA issued a Contracts 2000 strategy, with milestones and performance measures, for analyzing the contracting types that the regions currently use for Superfund cleanups and those that will be needed in the future. According to EPA officials, in September 2000, EPA had completed most of its analysis and made decisions about which contracting vehicles it should keep available for the Superfund program. GAO believes that EPA has made sufficient progress in this area.

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