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RAND report details Superfund's slow progress.

RAND Report Details Superfund's Slow Progress

Congress established the Superfund program with the intention of providing immediate removal of hazardous wastes that posed a threat to human health or the environment, implementing long-term cleanup programs for a limited number of other sites, and encouraging more responsible disposal of hazardous wastes in the future. Ultimately, the government expected the responsible parties to pay all the remedial costs, stressing the liability and cost-recovery approach.

Critics have focused on the program's lack of accomplishments and blame either the EPA's administration or the program's basic design. One question asked about Superfund is whether the dollars being spent on the legal and administrative costs are buying appropriately large amounts of cleanup.

According to a report from the RAND Corporation's Institute for Civil Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency paid out 57 percent of the $4.5 billion in congressional appropriations to Superfund during its first eight years. Through September 1988, the EPA had made arrangements to recover only $230 million from private parties at 66 sites, or less than 10 percent of this outlay. The EPA does not intend to pursue cost recoveries at 920 sites, representing $483 million in past obligations.

In the first analytical report since its establishment, "Understanding Superfund: A Progress Report," by Jan Paul Acton, the program's financial, remedial and enforcement activities from 1980 to 1988 are reviewed. Although there has been much controversy about the complex program, little systematic, quantitative data regarding costs has been documented. The RAND study provides a basic description of the program and its progress, establishing a comprehensive basis for assessing the program's success.

Superfund was established with $1.6 million allocated by the Compensation and Liability Act of 1980. In 1986 Congress approved the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, which provided another $8.5 billion through 1991. If lawmakers had appropriated proportional amounts, Superfund would have received $5.3 billion through September 1988, instead the program received $4.5 billion. If the agency is to meet its growing obligations without significantly more federal money, it will be pressured to force private parties to assume more of the cost.

Of its allocated $4.5 billion, the EPA paid out 57 percent, or $2.6 billion. $1.6 billion of that outlay went towards investigating and remedying sites. The other 38 percent covered general overhead of administrative, laboratory, management and litigation costs. It is important to note that once a responsible party/parties have been identified, the EPA attempts to collect all its site-specific costs but attempts to collect only some of its overhead costs.

To date, about 30,000 sites were identified as potential Superfund targets, and 1,175 of these were proposed for the program's National Priorities List. Cleanup plans were approved by managers in 10 districts for 433 of those sites and remedial action began on 177. Work was completed at only 34 dumps, and 18 sites were removed from the list. Some sites declared clean were re-opened for additional work.

Superfund can conduct emergency cleanups at sites that are not on the list, and did so at 963 dumps during its first eight years. These sites accounted for 80 percent of its toxic removal work.

For a site to qualify for Superfund, the federal government must first become aware of it. This usually occurs through citizen complaints or state nomination. Next a preliminary site assessment is made, but only a fraction of these sites are inspected. If appropriate, the site goes through a formal hazard-ranking process and is assigned a number of the National Priorities List. The site then enters a process of remedial investigation and feasibility, to determine its characteristics, what suitable remedies or alternatives exist and what the resulting risk would entail. At the end of the planning process, the EPA issues a decision, after which remedial design and action can begin.

At any point in the process, it can be decided that something was not technically correct, and steps may be repeated. The process is also complicated when sites change in terms of which organization has lead responsibility, or whether the approach is based on fund financing or enforced private financing.

According to government data, eight years elapsed between the time a site came to the EPA's attention and remedial work began. EPA Administrator William K. Reilly has said that this process may lengthen to 13 years for dumps now on the priorities list.

Mr. Acton suggests that Superfund's "relatively small" accomplishments stem from four factors: the program's emphasis on a liability and cost-recovery approach; the long lead time to complete preliminary studies of dumps before undertaking costly construction; structural and operating inefficiencies; and the Reagan administration's initial reluctant support.

The report proposes that conflicting incentives of the Superfund program may affect the cost and pace of its achievements. Stressing the liability and cost-recovery approach makes the EPA and polluters legal adversaries, while they are encouraged to cooperate in devising remedies. If the EPA identifies potentially responsible parties, it may design an elaborate, expensive remedy since the agency will not bear the remedial costs. However, if no potentially responsible party is identified, the agency may proceed more slowly in its efforts in order to conserve the program's federally financed trust fund. Private parties may also only feel partially responsible for cleaning up a particular site and may prefer a slower remedy until other parties can be identified.

Echoing President Bush's call for tougher enforcement, Mr. Reilly pledged stronger efforts to force polluters to shoulder cleanup costs. However, Mr. Acton points out that "In the past two years alone, Superfund spent $2 on enforcement for every $1 it recovered from polluters. If the construction program is delayed by litigation, then beefing up enforcement may mean slowing cleanups even further."

Mr. Acton suggests that the program's lack of accomplishments may reflect previous leadership and that in a recently released report, Mr. Reilly announced a number of changes including a stepped-up enforcement program that would add 500 employees to the Superfund enforcement effort. At this point, it is unclear whether increasing this effort will accelerate the pace of program activities, increase private funding and improve the remedies selected, or whether the program is already so mired in litigation that increasing enforcement would only further delay program activities.

In the future, the RAND Institute for Civil Justice intends to look beyond the EPA record, says Mr. Acton, to the roles of state and local governments, private companies and insurers in dealing with toxic dumps. It also will consider Superfund's possible influence on voluntary cleanups or pollution prevention. Mr. Acton notes that the impact of this will not be reflected in EPA data but "could be or potentially greater significance than EPA's direct cleanup efforts."
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Publication:Risk Management
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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