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EPA's Penalties for Hazardous Waste Violations

RCED-97-42: Published: Feb 28, 1997. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 1997.

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Peter F. Guerrero
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the penalties assessed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against other federal agencies for hazardous waste violations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, focusing on the: (1) number and dollar amount of EPA-assessed penalties; and (2) costs associated with negotiating the final amount of the penalty for selected cases.

GAO noted that: (1) from November 1989 through October 1996, EPA assessed penalties in 61 cases totalling $16.4 million against federal agencies for violating the hazardous waste management and cleanup provisions of RCRA and CERCLA; (2) penalties were assessed against the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and the Interior and the U.S. Coast Guard; (3) forty-one cases having EPA-assessed penalties of $8.2 million were settled for $8.4 million, including the value of supplemental environmental projects; (4) agencies made settlement through direct cash payments of $2.4 million and also by agreeing to perform supplemental environmental projects costing about $6 million; (5) twenty cases with assessed penalties of $8.2 million are still being negotiated, and final settlements have not been determined; (6) GAO reviewed three settled cases that had EPA-assessed penalties of $6 million against the Departments of Defense and Energy, which represented more than one-third of the value of all the assessed penalties; (7) after negotiations, which lasted from 7 to 20 months, were finalized, these cases were settled for $3.7 million; (8) one case involving a Navy facility was finally settled for $125,000 more than the assessed penalty because of two supplemental environmental projects; (9) EPA and the Departments of Defense and Energy incurred about $364,000 in salaries, travel costs, and other costs to negotiate these three settlements; (10) because each case has its own unique attributes, GAO cannot say whether these costs would be typical for all cases; and (11) for the most part, the settlement costs reflect the number of personnel assigned to a case and the time they devote to its resolution.

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