Environmental Cleanup Costs:

NASA Is Making Progress in Identifying Contamination, but More Effort Is Needed

NSIAD-97-98: Published: Jun 27, 1997. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 1997.

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Charles I. Patton, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) environmental cleanup costs, focusing on NASA's: (1) determination of the extent of contamination it may be responsible for cleaning up and progress in its cleanup program; (2) cost estimates for accomplishing cleanup; and (3) efforts to determine whether "potentially responsible parties" should share in cleanup costs.

GAO noted that: (1) although NASA began identifying sites nearly 10 years ago, it did not complete a comprehensive hazardous site inventory database until 1993; (2) NASA officials said that they now consider their inventory of 913 potentially contaminated sites to be about complete; (3) NASA is also in the early stages of determining what it will cost to clean up those sites that require remediation; (4) however, NASA needs better data before it can reliably estimate its cleanup cost; (5) NASA headquarters had estimated its total cleanup costs would be $2 billion to clean up all its potentially contaminated sites over a 20-year period; (6) it later lowered the estimate to $1.5 billion by eliminating sites where it believed no further action was needed; (7) this estimate assumed that all sites of the same type would cost the same, regardless of variances in the extent of contamination; (8) at GAO's request, NASA field facilities developed estimates of remediation costs totalling $636 million based on actual costs, local quotes, and input from other federal facilities; (9) however, the field facilities' estimates excluded some of the 383 sites that had not been studied; (10) neither the headquarters nor the field estimates included long-term operation and maintenance costs or considered NASA's potential costs for remediation at its contractor facilities; (11) furthermore, neither estimate considered the potential effect of infrastructure changes that could increase remediation cost; (12) although NASA's overall budget is projected to decline over the next few years, NASA headquarters is projecting that environment funding will remain about level in fiscal year 1998, then increase somewhat over the following 4 years; (13) the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) allows federal agencies and other entities that carry out cleanup activities to seek cost sharing or cost recovery from the potentially responsible parties whom the law would hold liable, such as past owners, operators, and contractors; (14) CERCLA cost recovery can also be available to a party conducting a cleanup under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) corrective action requirements; (15) despite the availability of a cost recovery mechanism, NASA headquarters has not had a policy for determining whether to seek contributions from other parties; (16) NASA is paying the remediation costs for virtually all of its field facilities; and (17) after GAO discussed the preliminary results of its review with NASA officials, they reported that they are now developing a policy statement addressing the issue of identifying and pursuing potentially responsible parties.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The schedules have been approved and included in the budget.

    Recommendation: The NASA Administrator should establish facility-based implementation schedules for completing cleanup of contaminated sites.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Contact with NASA in September 1997 indicates two of the three elements of this recommendation have been accomplished. The liability estimates are now reported in the Annual Accountability Report and are included in the liability estimates in the financial statements. NASA has not implemented the part of the recommendation that asks for contractors' remediation cost estimates for cleaning up contamination at contractor facilities that could represent future costs for NASA because it is uncertain what authority it has for requesting such information, since this is not a contract requirement. Although NASA can ask for this information, the contractor does not have to provide it. GAO's recent contact (July 2001) with NASA indicates that there is no intention to pursue this further.

    Recommendation: The NASA Administrator should estimate probable future costs by: (1) identifying all site-specific costs, including operation and maintenance costs, for sites believed to require remediation; (2) requesting contractors' remediation cost estimates for cleaning up contamination at contractor facilities that could represent future costs for NASA and taking any necessary contract action to require such estimates in the future; and (3) identifying infrastructure changes, such as planned property use and applicable cleanup standards that are consistent with requirements for the Annual Accountability Report, and documenting the impact of facility closure decisions on environmental cleanup costs.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The cleanup schedule has been prioritized and included in the budget documents.

    Recommendation: The NASA Administrator should prioritize the application of environmental funds in its cleanup efforts.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The policy statement was issued in July 1997.

    Recommendation: The NASA Administrator should issue a policy statement concerning potentially responsible parties and cost recovery.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration


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