Times to Complete Site Listing and Cleanup

T-RCED-98-74: Published: Feb 4, 1998. Publicly Released: Feb 4, 1998.

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Peter F. Guerrero
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GAO discussed two of its recent reports on the pace of cleanup in the Superfund program, focusing on the: (1) time taken to evaluate hazardous waste sites for possible placement on the National Priorities List (NPL) and the time to clean them up after the listing; and (2) status of cleanup for sites listed from 1986 to 1994.

GAO noted that: (1) GAO's March 1997 report stated that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took an average of 9.4 years--calculated from the date of each site's discovery--to evaluate and process the nonfederal sites it added to the NPL in 1996; (2) this evaluation and processing time was generally longer than for prior years; (3) the 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) requires EPA to evaluate nonfederal sites for listing, when warranted, within 4 years of their discovery; (4) listing decisions were made within 4 years of their discovery for 43 percent of the 8,931 nonfederal sites discovered in 1987 through 1991--the last year for which an analysis could be done at the time of GAO's review; (5) a number of factors contributed to the increased time to list a site, including a backlog of sites awaiting evaluation and a reduction in the annual number of sites being added to the NPL; (6) GAO's March report also stated that cleanup times have also lengthened for completed projects; (7) nonfederal cleanup projects completed in 1986 through 1989 were finished, on average, 3.9 years after the sites were placed on the NPL; (8) by 1996, however, nonfederal cleanup completions averaged 10.6 years; (9) although SARA did not set deadlines for completing cleanups within a certain number of years, EPA set an expectation for 1993 for its regions to complete a cleanup within 5 years of a site's listing; (10) much of the time to complete cleanups is attributable to the early planning phases of the cleanup process when the decision is made on the selection of cleanup remedies; (11) actual construction work at sites is being done quicker than the selection of cleanup remedies; (12) 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; (13) GAO's September report stated that because a large portion--87 percent--of the sites listed on the NPL in fiscal years 1986 through 1994 were still in the Superfund cleanup process as of July 1, 1997, the average cleanup time for this group of listed sites will exceed 8 years, possibly by a substantial margin; (14) EPA stated that the methodology used in GAO's March 1997 report was biased in favor of showing increasing completion times and that the report was inconsistent with GAO's earlier Superfund reports; (15) it claimed to have recently speeded up the Superfund process; and (16) GAO believes that its March 1997 report fairly portrays trends in the program and is consistent with its earlier reports.

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