- WEB EXCLUSIVE
- PE COFFEEHAUS
In late May, the Government Accountability Office finally completed its report on the federal effort to transform Brownfields into useable land. The report, EPA's Estimated Costs to Remediate Existing Sites Exceed Current Funding Levels, and More Sites Are Expected to Be Added to the National Priorities List (read it in pdf format), recommends that the EPA do a better job in identify potential NPL sites, and that the administrator decide whether it will consider vapor intrusion in listing NPL sites and its effect on the number of sites listed in the future. In commenting on a draft of this report, the EPA agreed with GAO's recommendation. It is assumed that the agency expects to supplement its effort through Superfund, specifically in reinstating the "polluter pays" provisions that Congress and President Clinton allowed to lapse in 1995.
At the end of fiscal year 2009, the EPA's NPL included 1,111 of the most seriously contaminated nonfederal hazardous waste sites, according the report. Of these sites, the agency had identified 75 with unacceptable human exposure, 164 with unknown exposure, and 872 with controlled exposure that may need additional cleanup work. The GAO said the federal agency may fund long-term cleanup from its trust fund, and compel responsible parties to perform or reimburse costs of the cleanup (hinting at Polluter Pays).
The purpose of the repot was to determine (1) the cleanup and funding status at currently listed nonfederal NPL sites with unacceptable or unknown human exposure; (2) what is known about the EPA's future cleanup costs at nonfederal NPL sites; (3) the EPA's process for allocating remedial program funding; and (4) how many NPL sites some state and EPA officials expect to be added in the next five years, and their expected cleanup costs.
At over 60 percent of the 239 nonfederal NPL sites with unacceptable or unknown human exposure, all or more than half of the work remains to complete the remedial construction phase of cleanup, according to EPA regional officials. By the end of fiscal year 2009, the EPA had expended $3 billion on the 75 sites with unacceptable human exposure and $1.2 billion on the 164 sites with unknown exposure. Despite the relatively high level of expenditures at sites with unacceptable exposure, EPA officials told GAO that, in managing limited resources, some sites have not received sufficient funding for construction to be conducted in the most time- and cost-efficient manner.
The agency's future costs to conduct remedial construction at nonfederal NPL sites will likely exceed recent funding levels, the report found. EPA officials estimated that the angency's costs will be from $335 to $681 million each year for fiscal years 2010 to 2014, which exceed the $220 to $267 million allocated annually for remedial actions from fiscal years 2000 to 2009.
The report said these cost estimates are likely understated, since they do not include costs for sites that are early in the cleanup process or for sites where a responsible party is currently funding remedial construction but may be unable to do so in the future. Also, according to EPA officials, the agency's actual costs are often higher than its estimates because contamination is often greater than expected.
EPA regional officials estimated that from 101 to 125 sites – about 20 to 25 sites per year – will be added to the NPL over the next five years, which is higher than the average of about 16 sites per year listed for fiscal years 2005 to 2009. Most of the 10 states' officials GAO interviewed also expected an increase in the number of sites listed from their states.
However, neither EPA regional officials nor state officials were able to provide cost estimates for cleaning up many of the sites. In addition, the number of sites eligible for listing could increase if the EPA decides to assess the relative risk of vapor intrusion, a pathway of concern among EPA regional officials and state officials interviewed. The agency's Hazard Ranking System, the mechanism used to identify sites that qualify for NPL listing, does not recognize these risks; therefore, unless a site with vapor intrusion is listed on some other basis, the EPA cannot clean up the site through its remedial program.
SOURCE: GAO Office of Public Affairs website