Superfund Program:

Current Status and Future Fiscal Challenges

GAO-03-850: Published: Jul 31, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 2, 2003.

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Congress established the Superfund program in 1980 to clean up highly contaminated hazardous waste sites. Among other things, the law established a trust fund to help the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pay for cleanups and related program activities. The trust fund was financed primarily by three dedicated taxes until 1995, when the taxing authority expired. EPA continues to discover sites eligible for cleanup under the Superfund program. GAO was asked to examine the current status of the Superfund program, the factors guiding EPA's selection of sites to be placed on its National Priorities List, and the program's future outlook.

The balance of the Superfund trust fund available for future appropriations has decreased significantly since 1996, while highly contaminated hazardous waste sites continue to be added to the National Priorities List (NPL), EPA's list of the nation's most contaminated sites. A decline in revenues to the trust fund has led the Superfund program to rely increasingly on appropriations from the general fund. In EPA's fiscal year 2004 budget request for the Superfund program, the general fund appropriation would make up about 80 percent of the program's total appropriation. At the end of fiscal year 2002, the NPL had 1,233 sites in various stages of cleanup. EPA considers many factors in selecting from the sites that are eligible to be listed, the most prominent of which are the availability of alternative federal or state programs that could be used to clean up the site, the status of responsible parties associated with the sites, and the cost and complexity of the cleanup required. As the Superfund program continues to add sites to the NPL and funding sources shift toward general fund appropriations, the effect of EPA's actions to address future program challenges remains uncertain. Because Superfund lacks indicators to fully measure the outcomes of the program's cleanup efforts, EPA has asked an advisory council to develop criteria by which to measure the program's progress. However, it is unclear whether the advisory council will reach consensus on its recommendations, and its findings are not expected until December 2003, at the earliest. Performance indicators could help EPA and the Congress make the difficult funding, policy, and program decisions that the current budget environment demands.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In considering changes to the program to addres future challenges associated with the Superfund program's fiscal uncertainy, the Administrator, EPA, should develop indicators that can be used to measure program performance.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has established three indicators to measure Superfund program performance by fiscal year 2008: (1) control all identified unacceptable human exposures from site contamination at or below health-based levels for current land and/or ground water use conditions at 84% of Superfund human exposure sites; (2) control the migration of contaminated ground water through engineered remedies or natural process at 65% of Superfund ground water exposure sites; and (3) select final remedies (cleanup targets) at 82% of Superfund sites.

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