Progress, Problems, and Future Outlook

T-RCED-99-128: Published: Mar 23, 1999. Publicly Released: Mar 23, 1999.

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Peter F. Guerrero
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the status and management of the Superfund program and the outlook for the program's future, focusing on: (1) progress made toward cleaning up sites in the program; (2) continuing management problems; and (3) factors affecting Superfund's future workload.

GAO noted that: (1) in the past GAO has called attention to the slow pace of cleanups in the Superfund program; (2) however, 17 years after sites were first placed on the Superfund list, many of the sites have progressed a considerable distance through the cleanup process; (3) decisions about how to clean up the great majority of these sites have been made, and the construction and cleanup remedies have been completed at over 40 percent of the sites; (4) the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) goal is to complete the construction of remedies at 1,200 sites by 2005; (5) work to clean up groundwater will continue at many sites after remedies are constructed; (6) despite the progress that Superfund has made toward site cleanups, certain management problems persist; (7) these problems include the: (a) difficulty in controlling contract costs; (b) failure to recover certain federal cleanup costs from the parties who are responsible for the contaminated sites; and (c) selection of sites for cleanup without assurance that they are the most dangerous sites to human health and the environment; (8) these problems have caused GAO to include the program on its list of federal programs vulnerable to waste and abuse; (9) furthermore, GAO's analysis indicates that the costs of on-site work by cleanup contractors represent less than half of the spending in the program; (10) there is considerable uncertainty about the future workload of the Superfund program; (11) resolving this uncertainty depends largely on deciding how to divide responsibility for the cleanup of sites between EPA and the states; (12) the number of sites that have entered the Superfund program in recent years has decreased as EPA has focused its resources on completing work at existing sites and the states have developed their own programs for cleaning up sites; (13) according to EPA and state officials who responded to the survey, a large number of sites in EPA's inventory of potential Superfund sites are contaminating groundwater and drinking water sources and causing other problems and may need cleanup; (14) GAO recommended that EPA work with the states to assign responsibility for these sites among themselves; and (15) the Superfund reauthorization process gives Congress an opportunity to help guide EPA and the states in allocating responsibility for addressing these sites.

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