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
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).
 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;