Superfund:

EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Manage Risks from Climate Change

GAO-20-73: Published: Oct 18, 2019. Publicly Released: Nov 18, 2019.

Multimedia:

  • GAO Interactive Graphic
    INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: Superfund Sites and Climate Change

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Alfredo Gómez
(202) 512-3841
gomezj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Climate change may increase the frequency and intensity of certain natural disasters, which could damage Superfund sites—the nation’s most contaminated hazardous waste sites.

Federal data suggests about 60 percent of Superfund sites overseen by EPA are in areas that may be impacted by wildfires and different types of flooding—natural hazards that may be exacerbated by climate change.

We found that EPA has taken some actions to manage risks at these sites. However, we recommend it provide direction on integrating climate information into site-level decision making to ensure long-term protection of human health and the environment.

Superfund Sites Located in Areas that May Be Impacted by Flooding, Storm Surge, Wildfires, or Sea Level Rise

Map showing 945 potentially impacted sites

Map showing 945 potentially impacted sites

Multimedia:

  • GAO Interactive Graphic
    INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: Superfund Sites and Climate Change

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Alfredo Gómez
(202) 512-3841
gomezj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Available federal data—from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Forest Service—on flooding, storm surge, wildfires, and sea level rise suggest that about 60 percent of all nonfederal National Priorities List (NPL) sites are located in areas that may be impacted by these potential climate change effects. Additional information on these sites can be viewed in an interactive map and downloadable data file, available here (see figure).

Nonfederal NPL Sites Located in Areas that May Be Impacted by Flooding, Storm Surge, Wildfires, or Sea Level Rise

Notes: This map does not display all 1,571 active and deleted nonfederal NPL sites GAO analyzed, which also include six sites in American Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, though they are included in the counts above. Additional information on all sites GAO analyzed can be viewed at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-73. Storm surge data are not available for Alaska and Pacific islands other than Hawaii, wildfire data are not available outside the contiguous United States, and sea level rise data are not available for Alaska.

EPA’s actions to manage risks to human health and the environment from potential impacts of climate change effects at nonfederal NPL sites align with three of the six essential elements of enterprise risk management GAO previously identified, partially align with two essential elements, and do not align with one essential element. For example, EPA has not taken actions consistent with one essential element because it has not aligned its process for managing risks with agency-wide goals and objectives, which do not mention climate change. Without clarifying this alignment, EPA cannot ensure that senior officials will take an active role in strategic planning and accountability for managing these risks.

Why GAO Did This Study

Administered by EPA, Superfund is the principal federal program for addressing sites containing hazardous substances. EPA lists some of the most seriously contaminated sites—most of which are nonfederal—on the NPL and has recorded over 500 contaminants, including arsenic and lead, at those sites. Climate change may make some natural disasters more frequent or more intense, which may damage NPL sites and potentially release contaminants, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment.

GAO was asked to review issues related to the impact of climate change on nonfederal NPL sites. This report examines, among other objectives, (1) what available federal data suggest about the number of nonfederal NPL sites that are located in areas that may be impacted by selected climate change effects and (2) the extent to which EPA has managed risks to human health and the environment from the potential impacts of climate change effects at such sites. GAO analyzed available federal data; reviewed laws, regulations, and documents; interviewed federal officials and stakeholders; visited three nonfederal NPL sites that experienced natural disasters; and compared EPA actions to manage risk to GAO’s six essential elements of enterprise risk management.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations to EPA, including that it clarify how its actions to manage risks at nonfederal NPL sites from potential impacts of climate change align with current goals and objectives. EPA agreed with one recommendation and disagreed with the other three. GAO continues to believe that all four are warranted.

For more information, contact Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In its June 2020 response, EPA stated that it had convened a working group comprising of Superfund and regional officials to collect and disseminate geospatial information for all NPL sites to help EPA analyze, communicate, and respond to the impacts of natural disasters and weather. EPA has not, however, provided a schedule for completing this effort.

    Recommendation: The Director of the Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation should establish a schedule for standardizing and improving information on the boundaries of nonfederal NPL sites. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: As of June 2020, EPA has stated that it agrees with the recommendation but does not plan to take any action to respond to it because it believes its actions are aligned with agency goals and objectives. We continue to believe that clarifying this alignment to the agency's current goals and objectives is warranted.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should clarify how EPA's actions to manage risks to human health and the environment from the potential impacts of climate change effects at nonfederal NPL sites align with the agency's current goals and objectives. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: As of June 2020, EPA stated that it will be issuing a memorandum that would provide direction on integrating information on the potential impacts of climate change effects into risk assessments at nonfederal NPL sites in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020. At that time, we will review the memorandum to determine if it is responsive to our recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Director of the Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation should provide direction on how to integrate information on the potential impacts of climate change effects into risk assessments at nonfederal NPL sites. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: As of June 2020, EPA stated that it will be issuing a memorandum that would provide direction on integrating information on the potential impacts of climate change effects into risk response decisions at nonfederal NPL sites in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020. At that time, we will review the memorandum to determine if it is responsive to our recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Director of the Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation should provide direction on how to integrate information on the potential impacts of climate change effects into risk response decisions at nonfederal NPL sites. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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