Hazardous Waste:

Progress Under the Corrective Action Program Is Limited, but New Initiatives May Accelerate Cleanups

RCED-98-3: Published: Oct 21, 1997. Publicly Released: Dec 5, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Corrective Action Program, focusing on: (1) the progress made in cleaning up facilities under the program; (2) factors affecting progress; and (3) any initiatives that EPA, the states, and industry have taken to accomplish cleanups.

GAO noted that: (1) only about 8 percent of the nonfederal facilities nationwide that treat, store, or dispose of hazardous waste, including about 5 percent of the facilities considered to pose the highest risk, have completed cleanup actions, according to EPA's data; (2) about 56 percent of the facilities, including about 35 percent of those posing the highest risk, have yet to begin the formal cleanup process; (3) some facilities have undertaken cleanup actions outside of the program; however, the extent of these efforts is unknown because they are not reflected in EPA's program data; (4) according to EPA, state, and company cleanup managers: (a) cleaning up the contaminated facilities under the program is time-consuming and costly because the process EPA developed for cleanups, and which some states authorized to implement the program have adopted, has multiple reporting and review requirements; (b) EPA, the states, and companies often disagree on how cleanup should be pursued, which prolongs the cleanup process because more time is needed to negotiate cleanup terms, and companies must sometimes meet the duplicate requirements of both federal and state regulators; (c) unless EPA or the states direct the companies to begin cleanup, the companies appear to perform cleanups only when they have business incentives to do so; and (d) EPA and the states lack the resources they need to direct more companies to begin their cleanups and to provide timely oversight at the facilities already performing cleanups; (5) EPA, some states, and industry have undertaken initiatives to streamline the cleanup process and make cleanup decisions on the basis of risk, rather than on the basis of the more generic process specified for the program; (6) EPA and the states are looking for ways to leverage their limited resources to accomplish cleanups more quickly, including putting facilities into alternative programs that streamline cleanups; (7) while these initiatives promise to allow faster and cheaper cleanups, some of them may involve tradeoffs in the stringency of the standards applied, the permanence of the remedies selected, and the level of public participation required; (8) these tradeoffs increase the need for long-term oversight to ensure that the remedies continue to protect human health and the environment; (9) although companies' cleanup managers favor many of the initiatives, several of them expressed reservations about EPA's and the states' willingness to use these initiatives; and (10) EPA's strategy of adopting new approaches to corrective action may not be sufficient to ensure that the approaches are implemented nationwide.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 1999, EPA's Office of Solid Waste announced that it is implementing a number of reforms aimed at improving the implementation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Corrective Action Program. These actions, if successfully implemented, would address the issues GAO identified. Specifically, EPA has formalized the primary corrective action program guidance to be used by cleanup managers and has begun a training program on using the guidance consistently, to be presented to all EPA and state cleanup managers during 1999 and 2000.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should devise a strategy with milestones for ensuring that cleanup managers in EPA's regions and the states authorized to implement the program have a consistent understanding of the new approaches provided by the guidance or regulations as well as how to apply these approaches to cleanup decisions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Solid Waste has continued to implement various forms of oversight of the program to evaluate whether new approaches are being used to improve the pace of cleanups. These approaches include conducting regional corrective action program visits; issuing the 1998 Beginning of the Year Plan guidance and interacting with the regions pertaining to implementation of that guidance; and continuing to place more emphasis on the results-based tracking measures embodied within the Resource Conservation and Recovery Information System (RCRIS) database. In addition, as part of the RCRA reforms announced in July 1999, EPA is making information about cleanup methods and progress more transparent and available to stakeholders via training sessions and the Internet, enabling stakeholders to assist EPA in its oversight efforts.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should oversee program implementation to determine if cleanup managers are appropriately using the new approaches as they direct cleanups.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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