How States Establish and Apply Environmental Standards When Cleaning Up Sites Gao ID: RCED-96-70FS March 20, 1996

One issue being raised as part of the debate over Superfund reauthorization is whether to revise or eliminate the requirement that hazardous waste site cleanups comply with federal and state standards protecting public health and the environment. Among these standards are numeric limits on the concentrations of toxic chemicals in the environment. Those responsible for cleaning up Superfund sites have raised concerns that complying with these standards can result in more-extensive and costlier cleanups than necessary to safeguard public health. This report discusses whether states, (1) when setting numeric standards, based them on estimates of the human health risks posed by exposure to contaminants and (2) when using such standards, provided the flexibility to adjust the level of cleanup prescribed by the standards to take into account the conditions and risks found at individual hazardous waste sites. GAO also discusses the degree of correspondence between the state and federal standards governing the cleanup of groundwater that could be a source of drinking water.

GAO found that: (1) 20 of the 21 states reviewed base their hazardous waste site standards on the danger posed to human health, and the cost and technical feasibility of achieving them; (2) states base their groundwater standards on existing federal drinking water standards; (3) when states set their environmental standards at levels other than the federal limit, they tend to be more stringent; (4) states provide more flexibility in adjusting the cleanup level when the cleanup involves soil pollution rather than groundwater pollution, in order to reflect a particular site's condition and health risk; (5) more than half of the states with soil standards regularly allow their cleanup levels to be adjusted for site-specific conditions; (6) less than one-fourth of the states with groundwater standards allow their cleanup levels to be adjusted; and (7) those states not allowing cleanup level adjustments view their groundwater as a potential source of drinking water and implement different standards, depending on the projected use of land or groundwater.

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