Progress and Challenges

T-RCED-99-202: Published: May 25, 1999. Publicly Released: May 25, 1999.

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Peter F. Guerrero
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program, focusing on: (1) the progress, cleanup pace, and accomplishments of the program; (2) trends in the amount of funds that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spends on administrative and support activities in the program and the amount of these costs that it recovers from parties contributing to contamination at Superfund sites; (3) the number and types of waste sites that may be cleaned up by the program in the future; and (4) barriers to the redevelopment of brownfields--abandoned and idled industrial properties, often located in economically distressed urban areas--and federal efforts to remove these barriers.

GAO noted that: (1) the Superfund program has made progress in cleaning up a number of the nation's hazardous waste sites; (2) preliminary results from GAO's ongoing work to assess the status of cleanups are consistent with EPA's statements about the number of sites that have completed, or will soon complete, construction of the cleanup remedy; (3) EPA credits this progress in part to its administrative reforms; (4) the agency has stated that recent cleanups are faster, with some sites spending 8 years in the program; (5) because GAO has not recently done work assessing the pace of cleanup activities, GAO cannot validate EPA's statements that cleanups are completed more quickly; (6) from fiscal year 1996 to 1997, spending for support activities increased from about 51 to 54 percent of total Superfund expenditures, while spending for cleanup activities decreased from about 48 to 46 percent; (7) at the same time, EPA has not recovered large portions of its administrative costs from responsible parties; (8) EPA lost the opportunity to collect almost $2 billion since the program began because it did not assess parties more of the costs the agency incurred to run the program; (9) the future Superfund cleanup workload depends largely on the number and types of sites that states decide to manage within their own cleanup programs, rather than refer them to EPA for Superfund consideration; (10) GAO's recent survey of EPA's inventory of potential Superfund sites indicated that about 1,800 sites still need cleanup, but the states and EPA have not determined who will manage these sites; (11) fears of being held liable under Superfund law for extensive cleanup costs and facing high costs to assess a site for possible contamination are major barriers to the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields; (12) states want both the authority to relieve parties that clean up sites under state programs from Superfund liability and federal financial support to address brownfields; (13) federal agencies have provided limited liability relief and hundreds of million of dollars in financial support, most recently through an initiative called the Brownfield National Partnership Action Agenda; and (14) however, the agencies do not have the comprehensive data needed to measure the extent to which the Partnership achieved its intended economic outcomes of increased jobs, private sector investment in brownfields, and acres of preserved green space.

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