Times to Assess and Clean Up Hazardous Waste Sites Exceed Program Goals

T-RCED-97-69: Published: Feb 13, 1997. Publicly Released: Feb 13, 1997.

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GAO discussed the results of its examination of trends in the time taken to complete: (1) evaluations of hazardous waste sites for placement on the National Priorities List (NPL), the Superfund Program's list of the nation's worst hazardous waste sites; and (2) cleanup of sites following their listing.

GAO noted that: (1) for sites listed in 1996, it took an average of 9.4 years from site discovery to final listing on the NPL; (2) while this is some improvement over 1995, it is still longer than earlier listing times; (3) for sites listed from 1986 to 1990, it took an average of 5.8 years from discovery to listing; (4) the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate nonfederal sites for listing, where warranted, within 4 years of their discovery; (5) listing decisions were made within 4 years of discovery for 43 percent of the sites discovered from 1987 through 1991; (6) a number of factors contributed to the long time needed to list a site, including a backlog of sites awaiting evaluation and EPA's emphasis on completing already listed sites; (7) cleanup completion times have also lengthened; (8) from 1986 to 1989, cleanup projects were finished, on average, 3.9 years after sites were placed on the NPL; (9) by 1996, however, cleanup completions were averaging 10.6 years; (10) SARA did not set deadlines for completing cleanups within a certain number of years, but EPA set an expectation for fiscal year 1993 for its regions to complete cleanup within 5 years of a site's listing; (11) much of the time taken to complete cleanups is attributable to the early planning phases of the cleanup process, when cleanup remedies are selected; (12) less time has been spent on actual construction work at sites than on selecting remedies; and (13) EPA officials attributed the increased completion times for cleanups to the growing complexity of sites, efforts to reach settlements with parties responsible for site contamination, and resource constraints.

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