Integrated Site Assessments May Expedite Cleanups Gao ID: RCED-97-181 July 24, 1997

To expedite its cleanups of hazardous waste sites, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced the Superfund Accelerated Cleanup Model in 1992. One component of the model, the integrated site assessment, was designed to streamline the evaluation of sites by merging assessments of their conditions and risks. Before, these assessments were done separately and often sequentially by various Superfund units in EPA's regional offices. Through this approach, EPA expected to shorten the duration of cleanups by years and to improve coordination among cleanup units. This report (1) determines whether integrated site assessments have the potential to speed hazardous waste cleanups, reduce their costs, and improve coordination among various Superfund units; (2) assesses EPA's implementation of this approach; and (3) identifies factors that could limit the use of integrated site assessments.

GAO noted that: (1) integrated site assessments have the potential to expedite the Superfund process; (2) in pilot tests conducted from about 1991 to 1995 in seven EPA regions, integrated assessments made data collection significantly more efficient, reducing the time for processing and study by 3 months to 4 years; (3) three of the pilot tests also quantified cost savings, which ranged from almost $3,000 to $300,000; (4) EPA has not fully evaluated the effects of integrated assessments on its cleanup operations, but an internal agency study concluded that certain integrated assessments produced 20-percent time savings; (5) in addition, according to regional officials GAO interviewed, the integrated approach, though not suited to all sites, can improve the Superfund process by reducing sampling, duplication of effort, and inactive periods between steps in the process; (6) the officials also reported that the approach promotes coordination among EPA's cleanup units, thereby improving decisions on the selection and timing of cleanup actions and focusing resources on the sites that pose the greatest risks to human health and the environment; (7) despite the potential benefits of the integrated approach, EPA's regions have not yet fully or consistently implemented it; (8) some regions have used it extensively, while others have very little experience with it; (9) the regions have also varied in their implementation of the approach, consolidating different data collection steps and reorganizing their programs to varying degrees to improve coordination and streamline data collection; (10) in addition, some regions have developed written guidance on implementing integrated assessments, while others have not; (11) two principal factors may be impeding the wider, more consistent use of integrated site assessments; (12) EPA headquarters has not followed through to ensure the effectiveness of the regions' implementation of the approach; (13) for example, although the agency developed initial implementing guidance and published summaries of the regional pilot tests' findings, it has not systematically measured the impact of the approach on the time and costs of Superfund cleanups or examined differences in the regions' use of the approach to identify best practices that could be implemented elsewhere; (14) according to EPA headquarters officials, the agency has not had the resources to provide more extensive oversight; and (15) the integration of site assessments can be difficult because of varying data requirements and operating methods among the separate Superfund units that conduct assessments.


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