Superfund:

Integrated Site Assessments May Expedite Cleanups

RCED-97-181: Published: Jul 24, 1997. Publicly Released: Aug 27, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the efficiency of the Superfund process, focusing on: (1) whether integrated site assessments have the potential to expedite hazardous waste cleanups, reduce their costs, and improve coordination among various Superfund units; (2) the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) implementation of this approach; and (3) any factors that could limit the use of integrated site assessments.

GAO noted that: (1) integrated site assessments have the potential to expedite the Superfund process; (2) in pilot tests conducted from about 1991 to 1995 in seven EPA regions, integrated assessments made data collection significantly more efficient, reducing the time for processing and study by 3 months to 4 years; (3) three of the pilot tests also quantified cost savings, which ranged from almost $3,000 to $300,000; (4) EPA has not fully evaluated the effects of integrated assessments on its cleanup operations, but an internal agency study concluded that certain integrated assessments produced 20-percent time savings; (5) in addition, according to regional officials GAO interviewed, the integrated approach, though not suited to all sites, can improve the Superfund process by reducing sampling, duplication of effort, and inactive periods between steps in the process; (6) the officials also reported that the approach promotes coordination among EPA's cleanup units, thereby improving decisions on the selection and timing of cleanup actions and focusing resources on the sites that pose the greatest risks to human health and the environment; (7) despite the potential benefits of the integrated approach, EPA's regions have not yet fully or consistently implemented it; (8) some regions have used it extensively, while others have very little experience with it; (9) the regions have also varied in their implementation of the approach, consolidating different data collection steps and reorganizing their programs to varying degrees to improve coordination and streamline data collection; (10) in addition, some regions have developed written guidance on implementing integrated assessments, while others have not; (11) two principal factors may be impeding the wider, more consistent use of integrated site assessments; (12) EPA headquarters has not followed through to ensure the effectiveness of the regions' implementation of the approach; (13) for example, although the agency developed initial implementing guidance and published summaries of the regional pilot tests' findings, it has not systematically measured the impact of the approach on the time and costs of Superfund cleanups or examined differences in the regions' use of the approach to identify best practices that could be implemented elsewhere; (14) according to EPA headquarters officials, the agency has not had the resources to provide more extensive oversight; and (15) the integration of site assessments can be difficult because of varying data requirements and operating methods among the separate Superfund units that conduct assessments.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA established goals for fiscal year 1998 for the regions to conduct a certain number of integrated site assessments. Similar goals are planned for future years.

    Recommendation: To encourage the full, appropriate use of integrated site assessments, the Administrator, EPA, should evaluate the regions' implementation of the integrated approach to determine why some regions have made little use of it and how its use has affected the time and costs of the Superfund process. If the assessment shows that the integrated approach has improved the Superfund process, then the Administrator should consider establishing goals for the wider use of integrated assessments.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has compared regional experiences with integrated site assessments and shared information on the assessments at several national conferences.

    Recommendation: To encourage the full, appropriate use of integrated site assessments, the Administrator, EPA, should evaluate the regions' implementation of the integrated approach to determine why some regions have made little use of it and how its use has affected the time and costs of the Superfund process. If the assessment shows that the integrated approach has improved the Superfund process, then the Administrator should identify best practices in regional offices and share them with all of the regions so that the other regions can incorporate the best practices in their own guidance and policies.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has recently covered integrated site assessment concepts in its training courses.

    Recommendation: To encourage the full, appropriate use of integrated site assessments, the Administrator, EPA, should evaluate the regions' implementation of the integrated approach to determine why some regions have made little use of it and how its use has affected the time and costs of the Superfund process. If the assessment shows that the integrated approach has improved the Superfund process, then the Administrator should provide regional officials with updated training on the integrated approach to ensure its effective use and to improve coordination among regional officials in various programs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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