Outlook for and Experience With Natural Resource Damage Settlements

RCED-96-71: Published: Apr 16, 1996. Publicly Released: May 17, 1996.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed natural resource damage provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), focusing on: (1) the prospect for future claims by the federal government against polluters for natural resources damage; (2) the amount and use of settlements that federal agencies have already collected from polluters; and (3) the guidelines used by federal agencies to determine an appropriate amount of compensation for natural resources damage.

GAO found that: (1) the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate that 60 sites may eventually have claims for damages to natural resources that will equal or exceed $5 million and that up to 20 of these sites may have claims exceeding $50 million; (2) of the $83.8 million owed to the federal government for the five largest natural resource damage settlements, only about 40 percent has been collected, and 11 percent of these funds has been spent; (3) the collected money has been used to reimburse trustees for completed damage assessments and to pay for natural resource restoration plans; (4) while CERCLA did not require standards or methods to determine damages, it directed Interior to develop consistent procedures that trustees should consider when assessing damages to natural resources; (5) trustees rarely use either of the procedures, since one is limited in scope and the other is costly and time-consuming; and (6) the 95 settlements reached as of April 1995 used abbreviated procedures that use readily available site-specific information and scientific literature to quantify damages.

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