The original superfund law to clean up old dumps was called CERCLA; in
1986 CERCLA was substantially amended and is now called SARA. Under
SARA, Congress ordered the EPA to prefer PERMANENT remedies for old
dumps. EPA is generally ignoring this direct order from Congress.
Permanent remedies are usually more expensive than temporary ones, and
EPA usually chooses to save money today at the expense of future
Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) recently studied 100
Records of Decision (RODs) from superfund. A ROD is the official
explanation of what EPA has decided to do about a superfund site; the
ROD is the culmination of the RIFS (remedial investigation, feasibility
study) process. After looking at 100 RODS, OTA wrote up 10 case studies
that typify superfund problems. The OTA report is short (76 pgs.) but
landfill fighters everywhere, and anyone working on a superfund
cleanup, will find a wealth of useful information among the 10 case
This week, in Part 1, we'll present GENERAL lessons that citizens can
learn about superfund cleanups. Next week, well present DETAILED
information that landfill fighters everywhere should know.
The OTA report gives an excellent overview of how superfund works (pg.
It is "not uncommon [says OTA] to have a multi-million dollar cleanup
decision made without ANY technical data to support it, either from the
technical literature or from tests done on site material." (pg. 10)
CITIZENS MUST INSIST THAT EPA GIVE REAL EVIDENCE FOR ALL ITS CLAIMS.
Very often the Agency selects a remedy without actually testing the
chemicals from a site to see if they are amenable to the selected
remedy. For example, they may call for "solidifying" or "fixing"
chemicals in the ground without any evidence that such solidification
can work, and sometimes despite direct evidence that it CANNOT work.
"Treatability testing"--to see if chemicals at a site can be made safe
by the proposed method--is an important part of designing a good
remedy, but EPA VERY OFTEN selects remedies without any treatability
testing. Furthermore, CITIZENS MUST INSIST THAT TREATABILITY TESTING BE
DONE DURING THE RIFS PROCESS, WHICH PRECEDES THE ROD, NOT AFTER THE ROD
IS PUBLISHED. (pgs. 10-11)
In the absence of treatability studies, a remedy may actually
constitute a research project, not a reliable, proven solution to a
problem, but EPA often fails to note that a selected remedy is
experimental or highly uncertain. (pg. 15) By EPA's own rules,
superfund remedies are not supposed to be experimental--they are
supposed to use proven technologies (pg. 52). CITIZENS MUST INSIST ON
EVIDENCE THAT A TECHNOLOGY HAS WORKED ELSEWHERE.
Often the agency says a remedy will be used and if it fails a second
remedy will be used, but "failure" is not defined. Lawyers and
engineers can argue for decades whether a remedy has "failed," so RODS
MUST CONTAIN QUANTITATIVE CRITERIA FOR DECIDING WHAT CONSTITUTES
Experience at other superfund sites is often not used in RODs. For
example, chemical stabilization or fixation at the Conservation
Chemical site in Kansas City, MO, failed [started leaking] after only a
few years of use, yet this technique is being proposed at similar sites
MORE THAN EVER BEFORE. EPA does not seem to learn from its past
mistakes (pg. 10). CITIZENS MUST INSIST ON EVIDENCE THAT A REMEDY HAS
BEEN USED SUCCESSFULLY ELSEWHERE.
Risk estimation is an art, not an exact science, and deciding on
'acceptable risk' is highly political. The ROD for the Re-Solve site in
North Dartmouth, MA, says 25 ppm [parts per million] of PCBs in soil
will produce a risk of 1 cancer among 100,000 people living near the
site; the ROD for the Liquid Disposal Site in Michigan says 1 to 6 ppm
PCBs in soil will produce the same cancer risk.
Furthermore, EPA allows vastly different levels of risk to be deemed
acceptable; sometimes they allow risks as great as 1 cancer in 10,000
people, but other times they use 1 in 10 million [a risk 1000 times
lower]. The usual risk used is 1 in 1 million, but there's no
consistency. PUBLIC PRESSURE CAN CHANGE THE RISKS THAT ARE DEEMED
Citizens need to be wary that a remedy will be selected because the
engineering firm preparing the FS (feasibility study, which is supposed
to provide a technical basis for the ROD) may own a particular cleanup
technology, or one of its subsidiaries may stand to profit if a
particular remedy is selected.
Sometimes EPA says it has evidence that a remedy will work when in fact
it has no such evidence. RODs sometimes cite studies that have never
been conducted and claim to be based on results that have never in fact
been reported (e.g., pg. 22). Some RODs use fake prices to make certain
technologies look expensive, thus fraudulently tilting the balance in
favor of other technologies (e.g., pgs. 44, 48).
EPA often claims that a solution is permanent "even when technical
factors suggest a high probability of failure, that is, of release of
hazardous substances, and of another cleanup" (pg. 11). INSIST ON A
DEFINITION OF PERMANENT, AND INSIST ON EVIDENCE THAT PERMANENT REMEDY
CAN BE ACHIEVED BY THE SELECTED METHOD.
Contrary to the law, RODs recommending containment and land disposal
seldom analyze the risks of future failures, damages and future
cleanups (pg. 11). Containment means trying to contain wastes on a
site, usually by installing a plastic or soil cap over the site,
sometimes by installing a cap and a "slurry wall" (an underground wall
built by deep trenching around the site). Containment is a temporary
solution because the cap or wall will eventually fail and leak. Some
RODs admit containment is temporary; other RODs claim containment is a
permanent solution. But as OTA says, "...there is widespread agreement,
even within EPA, that landfill technology will ultimately fail." (pg.
14) RODS ARE SUPPOSED TO DISCUSS WHAT WILL HAPPEN (WHO WILL BE HARMED,
WHO WILL PAY, for example) when containment or capping fails (pg. 12).
Another popular EPA "solution" is to excavate wastes and re-bury them
in a different landfill. OTA comments: "Moving hazardous waste from one
hole in the ground to another is the nonsolution that was behind SARA's
preference for permanent cleanup." (pg. 14) Yet EPA persists in
favoring such nonsolutions.
When EPA decides to move wastes from one place and bury them in a
landfill elsewhere, often the new landfill does not meet the
requirements of RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] Subtitle
C, which calls for double liners, leachate collection systems,
groundwater monitoring and a cap. Subtitle C burial is expensive and
RODs often save money by recommending burial in unlined landfills,
which the law specifically prohibits.
Pressure from the community can definitely be effective. You need to
get involved way before the ROD is prepared, and knowing what has
appeared in RODs elsewhere can help you get what you want at your site.
For a free copy of ARE WE CLEANING UP?, write to Joel Hirschhorn,
Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment,
Washington, DC 20510-8025; or phone (202) 224-8713. If that fails,
purchase a copy for $3.75 from U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC 20402-9325; phone (202) 783-3238; request GPO stock
Descriptor terms: sara; cercla; landfilling; congress; epa; ota;
records of decision; remedial action; studies; findings; monitoring;
waste treatment technologies; conservation chemical; risk assessment;
pcbs; cancer; ma; mi; soil; soil contamination; laws; leaks;
containment; capping; rcra; landfill liners; joel hirschhorn;