Times to Complete the Assessment and Cleanup of Hazardous Waste Sites

RCED-97-20: Published: Mar 31, 1997. Publicly Released: May 8, 1997.

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Peter F. Guerrero
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund cleanup efforts, focusing on trends in the time taken to: (1) evaluate and process hazardous waste sites for possible placement on the National Priorities List (NPL); and (2) clean up these sites following their listing.

GAO noted that: (1) EPA took an average of 9.4 years, calculated from the date of each site's discovery, to evaluate and process the nonfederal sites it added to the NPL in 1996; (2) while this evaluation and processing time shows some improvement over 1995, when listing took an average of 11.4 years after discovery for nonfederal sites, it is generally longer than for prior years; (3) the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA) requires EPA to evaluate nonfederal sites for listing, when warranted, within 4 years of their discovery; (4) listing decisions were made within 4 years of discovery for 43 percent of the 8,931 nonfederal sites discovered from 1987 through 1991; (5) the average time between discovery and listing for federal sites has also increased over the years, rising from about 6.5 years for sites listed in 1990 to 8.3 years for sites listed in 1995; (6) much of the increase in the time taken to list both federal and nonfederal sites has occurred in the latter stages of the evaluation process, after sites have been inspected and before final decisions about the need to list them are made; (7) EPA officials attributed the increases to a number of factors, including the large numbers of sites initially referred to the agency for evaluation and EPA's emphasis on completing work on already listed sites; (8) long waits for listing may continue because a large number of sites are potentially eligible for Superfund and a limited number of sites are being added to the program each year; (9) nonfederal cleanup projects completed from 1986 through 1989 were finished, on average, 3.9 years after sites were placed on the NPL; (10) by 1996, however, nonfederal cleanup completions were averaging 10.6 years; (11) SARA did not set deadlines for completing cleanups within a certain number of years, but EPA set an expectation for 1993 for its regions to complete a cleanup within 5 years of a site's listing; (12) ten percent of the cleanup projects at nonfederal sites listed from 1986 through 1990 were finished within 5 years of a site's listing; (13) federal agencies took, on average, 6.6 years from the date of listing to finish the cleanup projects they completed in fiscal year 1996; (14) much of the time taken to complete cleanups is spent during the early planning phases of the cleanup process, when cleanup remedies are selected; (15) less time has been spent on actual construction work at sites than on the selection of remedies; and (16) EPA officials attributed the increases in the time taken to complete cleanups to the growing complexity of the cleanup problems at sites.

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