State Voluntary Programs Provide Incentives to Encourage Cleanups

RCED-97-66: Published: Apr 9, 1997. Publicly Released: May 9, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the voluntary cleanup programs that states have created to facilitate privately initiated cleanups, focusing on: (1) the voluntary cleanup programs' accomplishments; (2) these programs' organization, funding, and major characteristics; and (3) the effects of federal hazardous waste policies on voluntary cleanups and the types of federal assistance that could further support voluntary programs.

GAO noted that: (1) voluntary programs' accomplishments include identifying, evaluating, and cleaning up many contaminated sites that would not have been addressed under other federal or state cleanup programs for some time, if at all, according to the state managers GAO surveyed; (2) because of these programs' cooperative nature and reduced cleanup procedures, voluntary cleanups are also less costly for the states and participants and take less time; (3) most of the 17 programs are organized to supplement their state's enforcement program, but a few are responsible for nearly all of the cleanups in their state; (4) all of the programs allowed volunteers to come forward on their own, saving their state from having to take time-consuming and costly enforcement actions; (5) all of the programs received funding through the fees paid by volunteers to participate, but most also relied on some federal and state funds; (6) nearly all of the programs admitted any type of site, including highly contaminated sites that could qualify for the federal program; (7) as an incentive to encourage cleanups, all of the programs gave volunteers some assurance of relief from future state liability at a completed site, but the legal strength of this assurance varied considerably; (8) in addition, to cut cleanup time and costs, all of the programs reduced the requirements they imposed on voluntary cleanups; (9) several programs balanced the requirements they implemented with incentives to attract volunteers by tailoring the stringency of the requirements to the risks and conditions at individual sites; (10) the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) authority under Superfund to ensure that any cleanup protects public health and the environment and the federal law's stringent liability provisions deter participation in voluntary programs because potential volunteers fear they could face expensive and indefinite cleanup liability; (11) Congress and EPA have supported voluntary programs by allowing the states to use a portion of the funds they receive through the federal Superfund program to develop and implement the voluntary programs; (12) to address liability issues, EPA has been working with the states over the past year to develop final guidance for negotiating agreements between EPA and the states, under which EPA generally will not plan to take further action at sites in a voluntary program that meets the agency's criteria for ensuring effective and protective cleanups; and (13) in the meantime, EPA has issued an interim memorandum outlining six criteria for voluntary programs that EPA's regions can use to enter into agreements with the states.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA drafted guidance that met GAO's recommendations. After many discussions with various stakeholders, EPA concluded that there was no consensus on critical aspects of the guidance, and that instead, the flexibility offered in the framework provided EPA Regions on November 14, 1996, provides the appropriate level of guidance for future Superfund Memorandum of Agreement (SMOA) negotiations concerning State Voluntary Cleanup programs. EPA has used this prior framework to sign SMOAs with 11 states and will continue to negotiate state SMOAs according to this framework.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should work with the states to more clearly define in the agency's final guidance the criteria that state voluntary cleanup programs should meet to obtain an agreement limiting EPA's involvement at sites, particularly in the areas of monitoring after cleanup, acceptable oversight practices, and public participation. EPA could consider as possible models the approaches that several state programs have taken to tailor the requirements for cleanups to the risks and conditions at individual sites.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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