Hazardous Waste:

Remediation Waste Requirements Can Increase the Time and Cost of Cleanups

RCED-98-4: Published: Oct 6, 1997. Publicly Released: Oct 31, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) the ways, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and selected state program managers and industry representatives, that the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act's (RCRA) requirements, when applied to waste from cleanups (often referred to as remediation waste), affect cleanups; and (2) the actions EPA has taken to address any impediments.

GAO noted that: (1) three key requirements under RCRA that govern hazardous waste management--land disposal restrictions, minimum technological requirements, and requirements for permits--can have negative effects when they are applied to waste from cleanups; (2) the requirements have been successful at preventing further contamination from ongoing industrial operations, according to EPA cleanup managers; (3) however, when the requirements are applied to remediation waste, they can pose barriers to cleanups; (4) because much remediation waste does not pose a significant threat to human health and the environment, subjecting it to these three requirements in particular can compel parties to perform cleanups that are more stringent than EPA, the states, industry, or national environmental groups believe are necessary to address the level of risk; (5) consequently, EPA and state program managers and industry representatives maintain, parties often try to avoid triggering the requirements by containing waste in place or by abandoning cleanups entirely; (6) in the late 1980s, when establishing national Superfund guidance, EPA recognized that these three requirements would make some cleanups more difficult and began developing policy and regulatory alternatives to give parties more flexibility in dealing with the requirements; (7) however, these alternatives do not address all of the impediments to cleanups, and some state cleanup managers were not always aware of or did not fully understand the alternatives, while others found them cumbersome to use and inefficient; (8) industry representatives were also concerned that because of the ways that some states are using these alternatives, EPA or a third party may challenge whether the cleanup fully meets RCRA requirements; (9) to allay these concerns, in 1996, EPA proposed a new rule to comprehensively reform remediation waste requirements; (10) the rule included a range of options to exempt some or all remediation waste from hazardous waste management requirements and to give states more waste management authority; (11) EPA had estimated that these options could save up to $2.1 billion a year in cleanup costs; (12) however, EPA recently decided that because stakeholders disagree over whether the agency can exempt remediation waste from the requirements, the agency would face a prolonged legal battle over the new rule; and (13) although areas of disagreement may still need to be addressed, EPA has concluded that the best way to achieve comprehensive reform is to change the underlying cleanup law.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the first part of the recommendation, in October 1998, EPA issued a memorandum to all EPA regions entitled "Management of Remediation Waste Under RCRA", which consolidates regulatory alternatives into one guidance document. The document provides information on regulations and policies that apply to all remediation waste, and specifically, contaminated media (such as soil) and contaminated debris. In response to the recommendation that EPA train regulators on the use of existing remediation waste regulations under CERCLA, EPA developed a series of classes which, among other things, explains remediation waste regulations and their appropriate uses to regulators around the country.

    Recommendation: Until comprehensive legislative reform is achieved to address RCRA's disincentives to cleanups, the Administrator, EPA, should take steps to ensure that regulators overseeing cleanups have a more consistent understanding of how to apply EPA's existing policy and regulatory alternatives to RCRA's requirements for managing remediation waste. These steps could include, for example, consolidating the policy and regulatory alternatives into one guidance document, training all cleanup managers in its appropriate use, and providing follow-up legal assistance for site-specific implementation questions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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