The nation's Superfund program to clean up old, dangerous dumps is in serious trouble, but it is not hopeless. An important new study by Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) describes Superfund's problems and offers 38 changes that Congress could make to improve the program. This week we introduce the overall problems of Superfund; in future issues, we will discuss some of the changes that could make the program work the way Congress intended. Congress will soon begin debating whether to reauthorize Superfund; many changes could be made during the reauthorization process. This is a good time for us all to begin thinking about ways to improve the Superfund program. Page numbers in our text refer to pages in the OTA study, which is cited in our last paragraph.
Congress created Superfund in 1980 as an emergency cleanup program. The damaged children at Love Canal were on everyone's mind, and dangerous new dumpsites were being discovered left and right. In 1986 Congress reauthorized Superfund for a second 5 years with funding of $10 billion. (As we shall see, OTA believes a full-scale Superfund program will cost perhaps $500 billion over the next 50 years.)
The OTA study criticizes the Superfund program because it is not adequately protecting the environment, because it has wasted money, and because it has not gained public confidence. Despite these criticisms, OTA concludes that the Superfund program could be changed (by Congress, and by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]) into an effective, efficient and credible program.
In order to know what's wrong with Superfund and how it might be fixed, we must first understand how the program works.
How Superfund Works
Sites--places in the United States that are contaminated with chemicals--are identified and enter an inventory (which is called CERCLIS--Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Information System) because they may require cleanup. (Today the CERCLIS list contains 31,552 potential Superfund sites. As we shall see, OTA believes the list should be somewhere between 4 and 10 times larger.) If EPA officials decide an emergency exists, a Removal Action may be taken. Because of their emergency nature, Removal Actions are not subject to most of the rules that govern other Superfund activities. A Removal Action can be decided upon and taken at any time during the formal Superfund process.
The first step in a normal Superfund cleanup is a Preliminary Assessment (PA); some PA sites are dropped because they are deemed insignificant; others move on to a Site Inspection (SI); at this point some more sites drop out of the system, others are ranked by the Hazard Ranking System (HRS)--a way of scoring a site according to its hazard; if a site's HRS score is 27.50 or higher, the site is added to the NPL (National Priorities List), which is the list of official Superfund sites that will be cleaned up. About 10% of the sites that enter the system end up on the NPL. (Today the NPL contains 1224 sites; as we shall see, OTA believes the list should grow to include 10,000 sites during the 1990s.) As we will see, sites that don't make it onto the NPL may still present serious hazards to humans and the environment. Some states maintain their own site lists and have their own cleanup programs.
NPL sites receive an RIFS (Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study) to define contamination and environmental problems and to evaluate cleanup alternatives. The public gets an opportunity to comment on the RIFS and on the EPA's preferred cleanup alternative. Then EPA issues a ROD (Record of Decision), which says what remedy the government has chosen and why; the EPA can decide that no cleanup is necessary. The ROD also contains EPA responses to public comments. A ROD may deal with only part of a site and several RODs may be needed at a complex site. In a ROD, EPA sets cleanup goals and selects particular technology or technologies for cleanup. The ROD is like a contract in which EPA agrees to take certain actions to make the site safe. If Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) agree to clean up the site, they sign a negotiated consent decree with EPA; this spells out in detail how the responsible parties will proceed. If the cleanup uses federal Superfund money, the state must agree to pay 10% of the cleanup cost.
After a ROD is issued, the site receives a Remedial Design (RD) study to specify how the chosen remedy will be engineered and constructed. The entire process ends with the Remedial Action (RA), the actual carrying out of the selected remedy. Many cleanups include long-term monitoring to determine whether the cleanup is effective and whether further cleanup is needed. A ROD may be reopened and amended because of new information discovered, or difficulties encountered, during the RD and RA. When a cleanup is deemed complete and effective, EPA may remove ("delist") the site from the NPL. (pg. 7)
The essential goal of the Superfund program is to clean up land and water that are so contaminated that they constitute threats to human health and the environment. (pg. 9) The Superfund program has often lost sight of this fundamental goal; according to OTA's analysis, this loss has occurred partly because of mismanagement by EPA and partly because Congress has required EPA to meet unrealistic deadlines.
OTA's general conclusion about Superfund is that the program appears to have its priorities backwards. On paper, the program is supposed to set cleanup goals that will protect human health and the environment, then select remedies that will meet those goals, and finally find responsible parties to pay for the cleanup or, otherwise, use government funds.
OTA finds that in reality, the program has often worked "backwards" (pg. 9): on the basis of some rough measure of a site's problems, an amount of money for cleanup has been chosen, which responsible parties or the government might be willing to spend; then cleanup technologies were selected that could be carried out within the budget; and finally cleanup goals were selected because they could be met by the chosen technologies within the available budget. "[M]oney and bureaucratic imperatives to show that something is being done seem to dominate Superfund, instead of independent scientific investigation of sites, cleanup objectives based on health or environmental effects, and engineering analysis of cleanup options." (pgs. 9-10.)
Overall, OTA recommends changing the program in three fundamental ways: (1) rethinking the program's health and environmental priorities and goals; (2) Increasing the skills of the Superfund workforce and developing better cleanup technologies; and (3) improving government management of the program.
We consider this OTA report essential reading.
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 204029325; request GPO
stock No. 052-003-01166-2. Phone (202) 783-3238. Charge it to
Visa, Mastercard or Choice. Page 224 of this report lists
previous OTA reports on Superfund; together they constitute the
essential library on Superfund.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: ota; landfilling; superfund; studies; siting; remedial action; policies;