EPA contaminated land clean-up programme to continue on full power for at least 10 years

The US’s toxic land clean-up programme will need between $14 billion and $16.4 billion between 2000 and 2009, and should not be ratcheted down as some sources had predicted, according to an independent study into how much money will be needed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement the Superfund programme.

The report, Superfund’s Future: what will it cost?, by the independent research institute, Resources for the Future (RFF), was commissioned by Congress amid continuing debate about how or whether to reorganise the programme. The study also found that there are a number of faults with the programme, not least that of the sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) which have been classified as ‘protective’, around half of the remedies are not being fully implemented, not functioning as designed or are unlikely to meet cleanup objectives.

“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. As well as this, although 57% of NPL sites have been signed off as ‘construction complete’, there may still be work that needs to be done to completely remove the hazard, and the amount of work at the remaining 43% of sites is significant, says the report. “Sometimes the way that they are being addressed means there is still some contamination on site,” Probst told edie. This could include work such as capping contamination with clay, rather than removing it, she said.

The report’s authors also found that nearly half of the EPA’s five year reviews of NPL sites classified as ‘protective’ – those where all hazards to human health are fully protected against – indicated that remedies had not been fully implemented, are not functioning as designed, or are unlikely to meet clean-up activities.

One recommendation by the authors of the report is for Congress to clarify the role and priorities of the NPL. “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 extensive than most other sites,” said Katherine Probst, a senior fellow at RFF, one of the authors of the report.

There is also insufficient accountability regarding how funds are spent, says the report, explaining that 75% of EPA regional Superfund payroll account funds, valued at $155 million in 1999, are not charged to the clean-up of specific sites, which is most likely due to poor tracking, accounting, or reporting procedures. Probst and co-author David Konisky also recommend a reassessment of the level of management, policy, and administrative support resources needed to implement Superfund, as well as improvements to the EPA management and financial systems for tracking the programme progress and costs. Systems also need to be improved so that Congress is also able to see how money is being spent.

“It’s just not realistic to think the costs of Superfund are going to decline much in the next 10 years,” said 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.” Industry and other bodies responsible for the contamination of land currently pay for 70% of clean-up costs in the US, Probst told edie.

The authors of the report are also calling for a review of the policy which allows states to veto the inclusion of a contaminated site on the NPL, either for political, economic, or other reasons.

“This is one of the most extensive efforts to date to assess the Superfund programme, and we intend to take its recommendations seriously,” said EPA Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher. “Administrator Whitman and I are committed to a strong Superfund programme to ensure that President Bush’s vision of cleaner, safer communities is achieved. EPA will review and analyse the report’s recommendations and will issue an action plan to address the report.”

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