Superfund cleanup efforts continues to drain billions from taxpayers’ pockets

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – After 20 years spent cleaning up old mines, chemical plants, landfills, rivers, and other areas across the country contaminated by toxic waste, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still has a lot more work to do – enough to ensure the agency’s Superfund costs will not decline before 2006 at the very earliest, and then only by a small amount.

The findings of a new Congress-commissioned report by Resources for the Future scholars Katherine Probst and David Konisky will disappoint those who were expecting an imminent “ramp down” in the cost to EPA of administering the Superfund program.

“It’s just not realistic to think the costs of Superfund are going to decline much in the next 10 years,” says Probst. “Though our study does not address whether or not the now-expired taxes that stocked the trust fund should be re-imposed, it’s clear there’s not enough money left to pay for 10 more years of EPA work.”

What will it cost? Congress asked independent research institute Resources for the Future to estimate future Superfund costs, amid continuing debate on whether and how to reauthorize the program. The law was last reauthorized in 1986; only $1.3 billion was left in the Superfund Trust Fund at the end of fiscal year 2000.

The comprehensive RFF study, “Superfund’s Future: What Will It Cost?,” estimates that the total 10-year bill from fiscal years 2000 through 2009 will range between $14 billion and $16.4 billion.

In 1999, the cost of cleaning up nonfederal sites on the National Priorities List and administering the program was $1.54 billion; it is unlikely to fall below $1.4 billion until FY 2008 and $1.33 billion in FY 2009.

“Congress needs to clarify the role and priorities of the National Priorities List,” says Probst, who has been studying Superfund and hazardous waste management issues for the past 20 years.

“The EPA and individual states need to do a better job of identifying sites destined for the NPL in the future, especially new ‘mega-sites’ – which, at an average cost of $140 million, are 10 times more expensive than most other sites,” she adds.

EPA-funded cleanup costs at current National Priorities List sites will be far greater through 2009 than at sites added between now and then. And despite the EPA having designated 57 percent of all sites on the current list “construction complete,” there is more work to be done at some of these, and the amount of work at the remaining sites is significant.

N ot good enough. They also found that EPA five-year reviews of list sites classified many sites as “protective,” despite information in these reviews suggesting that the remedies, in fact, are not fully implemented, not functioning as designed, or are unlikely to meet cleanup objectives.

This was the case for 48 of 99 sites where the EPA concluded remedies were protective.

“Clearly, EPA needs to improve the quality of the five-year review process and clarify just what it means to have a protective remedy,” the RFF researchers report.

Recommendations. To help Congress better predict and prioritize funding requirements, Probst and Konisky also recommend a reassessment of the level of management, policy, and administrative support resources needed to implement Superfund, as well as improvements to EPA management and financial systems for tracking Superfund progress and costs.

And they suggest that two of EPA’s major internal management information systems – the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS) and the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMS) – need to be improved so that Congress can more clearly see how Superfund dollars are being spent.

For instance, they found that 75 percent of EPA regional Superfund payroll account funds (valued at $155 million in 1999) are not charged to specific sites – most likely due to insufficient tracking, accounting, or reporting procedures.

Governor’s veto. The RFF scholars also call for a review of the governor’s concurrence policy, which allows a state to effectively veto the inclusion of a contaminated site on the National Priorities List, either for political, economic, or other reasons – making it difficult to predict which sites will be included on the list.

About the list. As of June 14, 2001, there are 1,076 nonfederal “final” sites on the National Priorities List , and 222 “deleted” from the list. Of this total (1,298), some 736 are deemed “construction complete” by the EPA, leaving 562 sites that are not.

A further 61 nonfederal sites are currently proposed for inclusion on the NPL. Among the 36 nonfederal sites listed in FY 2000, two are expected to be “mega-sites” – Leviathan Mine in California and Midnite Mine in Washington.

So far this fiscal year, 17 new nonfederal sites have been added, including four expected “mega-sites” – Indian Refinery-Texaco Lawrenceville in Illinois, Malone Service Company in Texas, Gilt Edge Mine in South Dakota, and Portland Harbor in Oregon. At the end of FY 1999, there were 112 “mega-sites.”

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