[Continuing our series on Superfund cleanups. Page numbers in our text refer to pages in the latest report from Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), cited in our last paragraph, below.]
When he took office in early 1981, one of Ronald Reagan's personal goals was to derail the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Sure enough, within two years, most of the programs in the agency had had their purchasing power cut by 20% to 40%. The agency's funding remained cut throughout the decade. In 1987, 1988 and 1989, the agency's purchasing power was less than it had been in 1975; meanwhile, the agency's responsibilities had doubled compared to 1975, as Congress passed new laws (for example, Superfund and Community Right to Know) and beefed up older ones (for example, the Clean Water Act).
As a consequence of budget cuts and new responsibilities, the agency became much less effective than it had been during the 1970s. Many professionals quit the agency--driven out by inadequate operating budgets and poor working conditions, or attracted away by offers of much higher salaries. With its professional staff dwindling, the agency was less able to conduct its own business itself, and it began to farm out more and more work to contractors. This suited Mr. Reagan just fine--the private sector can always do a better job than government, he believes (even private foxes guarding public chickens).
This attitude has deeply affected the Superfund cleanup program. To understand the problem, recall how Superfund works (see RHWN #160). When a site comes to the agency's attention, first a rough Preliminary Assessment is done; then a cursory Site Assessment is made; then the site is ranked by the Hazard Ranking System; at that point, 90% of the sites are dropped and 10% are added to the NPL (National Priorities List, the official Superfund list).
Once a site is on the official Superfund list, then it is subject of a major study called an RIFS (Remedial Investigation, Feasibility Study). This is the key study; it is the RIFS that determines how bad the problem is and what could be done about it. The RIFS presents the community with a range of options (from "do nothing" to "excavate the whole mess and truck it to Alabama"). After the RIFS is completed and has gone to a public hearing, then a ROD (Record of Decision) is issued, announcing which option the government has selected from the RIFS.
It must be obvious that, once a site is on the Superfund list, the key work is the RIFS; the RIFS is where the nature and size and urgency of the problem is defined. The RIFS is where someone decides what the cleanup goals should be (how clean is clean?) and the RIFS is where someone decides "here's what we could do to achieve our cleanup goals". The RIFS is where the evidence is gathered and presented, telling the community "No problem, not to worry" or, on the other hand, "Your next child is likely to be born damaged and you should move out of your home immediately," or something in between these two extremes.
Starting under Ronald Reagan, and escalating under George Bush, official EPA policy has sought to have more and more RIFS done by responsible parties--that is to say, by the people who created the problem in the first place. In 1988, one third of all RODs covered sites where responsible parties did the RIFS; from June, 1988 to June, 1989, half of all RIFS were done by responsible parties.
EPA has looked at the consequences of having responsible parties study the cleanup of their own messes; an EPA-funded study concluded that "Many of the RMSs [EPA managers responsible for a particular Superfund site] believe that the PRPs [potentially responsible parties] often seek the least expensive, rather than the best, clean-up techniques and are willing to expend considerable amounts of money in attempts to establish justification for the less expensive clean-up procedures." (pg. 52)
OTA (Congress's Office of Technology Assessment) believes the consequences are even worse: when PRPs do the RIFS work, instead of EPA doing it, non-permanent land disposal and containment techniques are used in place of permanent destruction technologies, untested technologies are selected, and less stringent cleanup goals are selected (clean isn't quite so clean).
OTA studied cleanups at four kinds of sites: wood preserving sites, PCB sites, lead battery sites, and big landfills. OTA said, "...we conclude that there is substantial difference in cleanup technology for sites in the enforcement program [where the work is done by PRPs] compared to sites in the fund program [where EPA is doing the work]." (pg. 163) For example, during fiscal year 1988, land disposal or containment was selected as a remedy in 42% of sites where PRPs did the work, vs. 12% where EPA did the work. OTA then observes, "There has been wide agreement for some time that land disposal and containment are not permanent remedies, are bound to fail eventually, and pose uncertain long-term costs and threats to health and environment. Indeed, many of EPA's RODs that have rejected land disposal and containment cite these reasons for doing so." (pg. 163)
The other side of this coin is that during the same period, permanent destruction techniques (incineration and biological treatment) were selected in 14% of the cases where PRPs did the work and in 44% of cases where EPA did the work.
OTA has suggested that Congress consider restricting the role of responsible parties to implementation of remedies and paying for remedies. After the social and political decisions are made (How clean is clean? Is non-permanent land disposal good enough for this community?), then it may be appropriate for a responsible party to perform the selected remedy. But the responsible party has a clear conflict of interest in deciding what should be done at a site they must pay to clean up; their goal, generally, will be to minimize their own costs, at the expense of the community. OTA considers this idea "ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THAT IT HAS OFFERED IN THIS REPORT FOR CONGRESS'S CONSIDERATION" (pg. 54; emphasis in the original). OTA says "A key goal of this [suggestion] is to BALANCE THE PARTICIPATION BY RESPONSIBLE PARTIES PRIOR TO RODS WITH THAT OF SITE COMMUNITIES" (pg. 55, emphasis in the original). The responsible party that conducts an RIFS has a major advantage over the community--the responsible party gets to control what information is collected, evaluated, and presented, and in what way. A responsible party doing an RIFS gains an inside track in the decision-making process leading up to the ROD. This is obviously unfair to the community that must live with decisions that are made on the basis of the RIFS.
Furthermore, says OTA, the current EPA oversight process, whereby
EPA tries to see that responsible parties are doing a good job on
RIFS, lacks accountability and provides "nearly no information to
affected communities (e.g., critiques of responsible party
contractor work)" (pg. 53).
Get: U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, CLEANING UP:
SUPERFUND'S PROBLEMS CAN BE SOLVED (Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1989). Available for $10 from U.S.
Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402-9325; request
GPO stock No. 052-003-01166-2. Phone (202) 783-3238. Charge it
to Visa, Mastercard or Choice.
Descriptor terms: superfund; landfilling; studies; remedial
action; how clean is clean; ota;
--Peter Montague, Ph.D. ===============  The crippling of EPA under the Reagan-Bush administrations has been cataloged by William Drayton, "Environment--Environmental Protection Agency," in Mark Green and Mark Pinsky, editors, AMERICA'S TRANSITION: BLUEPRINTS FOR THE 1990S (New York: Democracy Project [215 Park Avenue South, Room 1814, NY, NY 10003; phone (212) 674-8989], 1989), pgs. 212-232; see also Jonathan Lash, A SEASON OF SPOILS: THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION'S ATTACK ON THE ENVIRONMENT (NY: Pantheon, 1984).
Get: U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, CLEANING UP: SUPERFUND'S PROBLEMS CAN BE SOLVED (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989). Available for $10 from U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402-9325; request GPO stock No. 052-003-01166-2. Phone (202) 783-3238. Charge it to Visa, Mastercard or Choice.
Descriptor terms: superfund; landfilling; studies; remedial action; how clean is clean; ota;