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Highlights

Prior to the 1980s and the passage of environmental legislation--particularly the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) governing environmental cleanup--Department of Defense (DOD) activities contaminated millions of acres of soil and water on and near DOD sites. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which enforces CERCLA, places the most contaminated sites on its National Priorities List (NPL) and requires that they be cleaned up in accordance with CERCLA. EPA has placed 140 DOD sites on the NPL. Disputes have recently arisen between EPA and DOD on agreements to clean up some of these sites. In addition, most sites were placed on the NPL before 1991; since fiscal year 2000, EPA has added five DOD sites. In this context, we agreed to determine (1) the extent of EPA's oversight during assessment and cleanup at DOD sites and (2) why EPA has proposed fewer DOD sites for the NPL since the early 1990s. GAO interviewed officials at EPA and DOD and reviewed site file documentation at four EPA regions.

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Recommendations

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Given the critical nature of Superfund cleanup for protecting public health, and the long-term commitment necessary to maintain strong environmental stewardship at federal facilities, Congress may wish to ensure accountability by DOD and EPA by raising concerns about the impasse between these federal agencies, if IAGS are not finalized within 60 days following issuance of this report. Specifically, Congress may wish to consider amending CERCLA Section 120 to authorize EPA to impose administrative penalties at federal facilities placed on the NPL that lack IAGs within the CERCLA-imposed deadline of 6 months after completion of the remedial investigation and feasibility study. This leverage could help EPA better satisfy its statutory responsibilities with agencies that are unwilling to enter into agreements where required under CERCLA Section 120. In addition, Congress may wish to consider amending Section 120 to authorize EPA to require agencies to complete preliminary assessments within specified time frames.
Closed - Not Implemented
As of December 2016, there has been no Congressional action on CERCLA Section 120.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency To facilitate congressional oversight of the Superfund program and provide greater transparency to the public on the cleanup of DOD sites, the Administrator of EPA should improve its record keeping in the following manner. Consistent with good management practices defined in EPA's Superfund program implementation manual and to ensure that meaningful data are available for the agency's reports to Congress, EPA should establish a record-keeping system, consistent across all regions, to accurately document EPA decisions regarding the proposal of DOD sites for inclusion or exclusion on the NPL and the basis for each decision.
Closed - Implemented
EPA established a record-keeping system, consistent across all regions, to document decisions regarding the proposal of DOD sites, and other federal sites, for inclusion or exclusion on the NPL. While GAO's recommendation was specific to DOD, EPA's system changes encompass all federal sites. Specifically, in December 2011, EPA's CERCLIS data system was updated to require users updating a sites' Site Assessment rationale to document whether or not further assessment is required to determine if the site belongs on the NPL and to incorporate an explanation in the Decision/Rationale field. Since this field, which was previously optional, is now required, EPA has created a means of tracking the basis of site assessment decisions consistent across all regions, which meets the intent of our recommendation. In addition, during FY 2012, EPA also culminated a two-year effort to determine the assessment and cleanup status of 514 federally owned sites which appeared to lack, or be missing, Site Assessment documentation. EPA has worked to address the backlog of previously undocumented site assessment decisions. As information is updated it is available on the FFSEP website at: http://www.epa.gov/fedfac/ffsep/

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