Hazardous Waste:

EPA Has Removed Some Barriers to Cleanups

RCED-00-224: Published: Aug 31, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) efforts to remove barriers to hazardous waste cleanup, focusing on: (1) cleanups of remediation waste at sites subject to the three Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) requirements; and (2) the management factors that had slowed the pace of cleanups under the corrective action program in particular.

GAO noted that: (1) several actions EPA has taken to revise its regulatory requirements for handling remediation waste have removed some barriers to cleanups; (2) in response to GAO's 1997 recommendation that EPA better inform cleanup managers of the existing options that could exempt remediation waste from the RCRA requirements, EPA, in October 1998, issued a memorandum on these options; (3) state cleanup program managers reported that their staff are now using these options to accomplish more site cleanups; (4) EPA issued new regulations governing the management of remediation waste that provided some relief from the barriers the three RCRA requirements posed, especially more flexible treatment requirements for soil; (5) the state and industry cleanup program managers believed that some portions of the new rules would help promote cleanups; (6) in February 2000, EPA settled a lawsuit in which groups had charged that a proposed 1993 rule providing flexibility under the RCRA requirements for certain on-site storage and disposal units for remediation waste did not sufficiently protect human health; (7) EPA agreed to amend the 1993 rule so that certain wastes would still be subject to somewhat more stringent requirements; (8) according to state and industry officials, EPA's agreement will reduce the flexibility that the 1993 rule allowed for cost-effective cleanups and will thus deter some cleanups; (9) on the other hand, EPA officials believe that these cleanups may increase now that the legal uncertainty surrounding on-site storage units has been removed; (10) the state, industry, and environmental officials differed as to whether any legislative changes were necessary to address any remaining cleanup barriers that EPA was unable to address through its regulatory actions; (11) EPA does not have a position on whether legislative changes are warranted; (12) in 1999, EPA implemented a set of administrative reforms that address several of the management factors GAO previously identified as slowing the pace of corrective action cleanups; and (13) the reforms include: (a) issuing new guidance on a more flexible process for selecting and implementing cleanup method and providing cleanup managers training on this guidance, an action GAO had recommended in GAO's 1997 report; and (b) establishing new goals under the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 to control human exposure to contamination and the migration of contaminated groundwater at "high-priority" facilities by 2005.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: With regard to part one of this recommendation, in January 2000, as part of a second round of reforms to the Corrective Action Program, EPA added the long-term goal of achieving final cleanup at all RCRA corrective action facilities to its existing performance goals. In addition, two of the 2001 reform measures--efforts to pilot innovative approaches and to accelerate changes in the culture of implementors and stakeholders--are actions that respond to problems GAO identified and are designed to expedite achievement of final cleanup while achieving near-term goals. Consequently, GAO is closing part one of this recommendation. With regard to part two of this recommendation, according to EPA, the agency did not, and most likely will not, ask for additional monies for the corrective action program because of competing demands for funds within the agency. Therefore, GAO is closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To achieve more cleanup progress in the corrective action program, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response to: (1) establish long-term and annual goals that delineate the number or portion of facilities that are implementing final cleanup actions; and (2) identify the additional funding the program would need to achieve these goals and consider these needs during annual budget deliberations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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