Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#160 - Superfund -- Part 1:problems With Superfund Are Serious, But They Can Be Solved, New Study Sa, 18-Dec-1989

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

=====

Descriptor terms: ota; landfilling; superfund; studies; siting;
remedial action; policies;