Hazardous Waste:

Limited Progress in Closing and Cleaning Up Contaminated Facilities

RCED-91-79: Published: May 13, 1991. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 1991.

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Peter F. Guerrero
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) progress in completing closures and issuing post-closure permits at hazardous waste disposal facilities.

GAO found that: (1) nearly half of the facilities that treat, store, or dispose of hazardous waste have decided to close their operations because they are unable or unwilling to meet federal hazardous waste requirements; (2) EPA has made only limited progress in closing and issuing post-closure permits to disposal facilities; (3) timely closure of facilities that have ceased operations is important because the closure process involves stabilizing the facility, which minimizes the further spread of contamination; (4) under the Superfund Program, EPA can compel responsible parties to clean up contamination or pay for cleanup; (5) disposal facilities scheduled for closure can pose a serious threat of groundwater contamination; (6) EPA has neither tracked nor assigned specific targets to the number of disposal closures to be completed; (7) the average cost of cleaning up a Superfund site is $26 million; (8) by eliminating or minimizing the spread of contamination, closure provides an important first step in protecting the environment; and (9) the Environmental Priorities Initiative does not include national criteria and a scoring system for ranking facilities on the basis of environmental threat.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: While EPA disagreed that targets or goals should be established, it is taking steps to improve its tracking of closure completions in end-year reports required of its regions and in its monthly report on permit activities.

    Recommendation: To minimize and control contamination at closing land disposal facilities, the Administrator, EPA, should establish targets in its Strategic Targeted Activities for Results System for completing closure of land disposal facilities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has established beginning- and end-of-year reports to monitor regional prioritization decisions and specifically asked regions to document and justify how they determined the environmental priority for facilities.

    Recommendation: To ensure that its new approach for evaluating the environmental threat posed by facilities and for deciding which facilities to act on first for permits and corrective action achieves its intended goals, EPA should closely monitor the regions' and states' implementation of the new approach to ensure consistent interpretation and application.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has made clear in its fiscal year 1993 and 1994 guidance that the "environmental significance" criterion is the primary basis to be used in ranking the environmental priority of facilities and that lesser weight is to be given to the criteria of "environmental benefits" and "other considerations."

    Recommendation: As part of its monitoring, EPA should assess the need for further guidelines to define how the criteria of environmental significance, environmental benefits, and other considerations are to be weighed relative to each other in establishing the overall priority for which facilities should receive permits and corrective action.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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