WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, and U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD.), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Superfund, Hazardous Waste, and Regulatory Oversight, today released a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) entitled, “Superfund Sediment Sites: EPA Considers Risk Management Principles but Could Clarify Certain Procedures.”
In May 2015, Inhofe and Rounds requested the GAO to examine whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is following its own procedures to clean up contaminated sediment sites under the Superfund program in a cost-effective and timely basis that protects human health and the environment.
In the report, GAO notes that it found instances where regional Superfund program managers did not properly document how they considered required risk-management principles in investigating contaminated sediment sites and developing cleanup plans, as required by EPA policies. GAO recommended EPA improve internal procedures for how regional Superfund program managers coordinate with technical experts at EPA headquarters to ensure these experts have adequate information and documentation to perform their reviews. GAO also examined how sediment sites continue to present unique challenges for EPA’s Superfund program.
“It is troubling to learn that EPA has been sloppy in documenting how these sites should be cleaned up using the required risk-management principles,” Inhofe said. “These sites are often very expensive and technically challenging to clean up, and the process that regional staff should be following – but aren’t – was intended to get information to EPA’s technical experts in time to make informed recommendations and decisions. Documents obtained by GAO and reviewed by EPW Majority staff show that for many sites, EPA regions are engaged in little more than a check-the-box exercise and are not carefully considering how cleanup decisions should be tailored to the risks at individual sites. GAO brought these latest problems with EPA Superfund program to light, and it is important that Congress continues oversight to find ways to improve the performance of this environmental cleanup program.”
“The GAO report revealing improper management of the Superfund program is yet another example of the EPA failing to be transparent and thorough when making decisions,” Round said. “Tens of millions of dollars are spent to clean up the Superfund sites and make these contaminated sites safe. Proper documentation of EPA’s decision-making process is necessary to make certain the agency is being a good steward of these taxpayer dollars. By not following its own rules, the EPA continues to perpetuate a culture of distrust among local landowners and citizens.”
Since the 1980s, numerous GAO reports have found that EPA has often struggled to develop risk-management tools, staff expertise, and internal management controls necessary to successfully implement and manage the Superfund program. Given their complexity, environmental impact and cost, Superfund sites involving contaminated sediments have presented unique challenges, leading to a 2001 study from the National Academy of Sciences that recommended EPA apply risk-management principles to sediment sites. In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences issued a follow up report assessing the effectiveness of dredging at cleaning up large Superfund sediment sites.
In 2002, EPA issued a directive to regional Superfund program managers requiring they document their consideration of 11 risk-management principles in investigating a site and developing a cleanup plan, including use of an iterative approach to cleanups and ensuring cleanup levels are tied to risk-management goals. The 2002 policy also established the EPA Contaminated Sediments Technical Advisory Group (CSTAG) and required regional Superfund program managers to consult with it during their work at especially complicated or costly sediment sites.
GAO reviewed the coordination between regional Superfund program managers and headquarters technical experts at a sample of 18 sediment sites across seven EPA regions. GAO found that documentation to show consideration of the required risk-management principles has not been properly prepared or maintained for two of 18 sites it reviewed. Copies of documents obtained by GAO and reviewed by EPW Majority staff also show that regional Superfund program managers for at least seven of these sites did not include detailed analysis of all of the 11 required risk-management principles in the memoranda that were provided to the CSTAG for initial consideration. GAO’s report did not review the substance of the documentation prepared by regional Superfund program managers or evaluate the proposed cleanup plans.