Hazardous Waste Sites

State Cleanup Practices Gao ID: RCED-99-39 December 24, 1998

As of October 1998, about 1,200 of the nation's most contaminated hazardous waste sites were being cleaned up under the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund program. States are addressing thousands of other hazardous waste sites in their own cleanup programs. Some of the state programs, which were originally modeled after the Superfund program, have been modified over the years to encourage more cleanups by site owners and others and to make cleanups more efficient. This report (1) identifies practices that are both used in state programs at sites that may be contaminated enough to qualify for long-term cleanup under the Superfund program and that are believed by State officials to reduce the time and expense of cleanups and (2) presents the views of EPA, environmentalists, and other stakeholders about whether the states' practices may be applicable to the Superfund program.

GAO noted that: (1) state hazardous waste program officials identified cleanup practices that they believe lead to faster or less costly cleanup of sites and that have been applied at sites that qualify for the Superfund Program, and said that the practices facilitated cleanups in that: (a) some practices promoted faster decisionmaking about how to clean up sites, that is, decisions about which cleanup remedies to use; (b) their programs allow less costly cleanup remedies than the Superfund law requires, which are nevertheless, they believe, protective of health and the environment; and (c) two state programs reduce litigation costs, speed up cleanups, and improve the fairness of the cleanup process by not holding some parties responsible for cleanup who would be liable under the Superfund law; (2) although the officials provided some anecdotal evidence illustrating the benefits of these practices, none could provide a formal assessment of time and cost savings; (3) environmental policy stakeholders that GAO interviewed, including EPA, state and national environmental organizations, and representatives of local governments, generally did not dispute that the state practices identified can facilitate faster or less costly cleanups; (4) because they can reduce costs, the state practices are generally advantageous to private companies and others responsible for cleaning up sites; (5) however, EPA and environmental and local government groups said that applying some of the practices to the Superfund program could have disadvantages; (6) environmental groups, as well as representatives of state and local officials, noted that containment remedies leaving contamination at sites would require control over the use of the sites, such as restrictive zoning, to reduce human exposure to the contaminants; (7) a number of stakeholders, including state officials, said that a lessening of the Superfund program's more rigorous cleanup requirements or liability standards could negatively affect the state programs; (8) they noted that states can refer sites at which parties responsible for cleanup refuse to comply with state requirements to EPA for possible action under the Superfund program; and (9) the belief of responsible parties that the Superfund requirements are more onerous than the states' is a powerful incentive for cooperation with state authorities that might be weakened if the Superfund program became more like the state programs.

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