Hazardous Waste

Impediments Delay Timely Closing and Cleanup of Facilities Gao ID: RCED-92-84 April 10, 1992

In 1985, more than 800 of the nation's 1,538 land disposal facilities for hazardous waste were supposed to close because they failed to meet new operating requirements. As of October 1991, however, only 257 facilities had actually shut down. While the three states GAO reviewed generally complied with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) guidelines by regularly inspecting facilities, EPA recently relaxed its inspection timeframes due to resource constraints. As a result, violations may go undetected for a longer period of time. The success of the three states in ultimately closing facilities is closely linked to ensuring that facilities install adequate groundwater monitoring systems, which are essential in identifying any threat to human health and the environment; facilities that shut down with waste in place must monitor groundwater for at least 30 years. A lack of groundwater monitoring systems has delayed the closing and cleanup of facilities, as have lengthy negotiations and appeals once enforcement actions are started. A lack of guidance on the timing of post-closure permit applications can add further delays. As a result, contamination may continue to spread and endanger surrounding areas. GAO summarized this report in testimony before Congress; see: Hazardous Waste: Impediments Have Delayed the Closing and Cleanup of Land Disposal Facilities, by Richard L. Hembra, Director of Environmental Protection Issues, before the Subcommittee on the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources, House Committee on Government Operations. GAO/T-RCED-92-64, May 28 (17 pages).

GAO found that: (1) over a 5-year period, states conducted annual inspections 96 percent of the time for the 20 closing facilities; (2) states conducted 89 percent of the triennial inspections to determine the adequacy of facilities' groundwater monitoring systems, as EPA directed; (3) although those inspections disclosed serious violations that affected closure at 19 of the 20 facilities, EPA has revised its guidance by decreasing the number of inspections required because of resource constraints at the federal and state levels; (4) while none of the three states have conformed fully with the EPA enforcement policy, states' success in closing facilities has depended less on the type of enforcement action than the states' success in ensuring that facilities install adequate groundwater monitoring systems, which are necessary for certifying closure; (5) EPA has not determined how many closing facilities nationwide do not have adequate groundwater monitoring systems and, without such systems in place, the extent of the contamination threat is unknown; (6) once enforcement actions have been taken, lengthy negotiations and appeals delay final resolution; and (7) EPA has not yet developed a plan to determine which facilities nationwide will close or established the best means of closing them.


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