Superfund Sediment Sites: EPA Considers Risk Management Principles but Could Clarify Certain Procedures

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What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established risk management principles and a consultation process to help provide national consistency in its management of Superfund sediment sites. Specifically, EPA developed a framework of 11 risk management principles, including assessing sources of contamination and ways to control them early in the cleanup process, that EPA regional officials are to consider in developing a site’s cleanup remedy. EPA also established a consultation process between EPA’s headquarters and 10 regions for two tiers of sediment sites—Tier 1 sites, those with proposed cleanups of 10,000 cubic yards or more of contaminated sediment, and Tier 2 sites, those that are large, complex, or controversial. As part of the consultation process for Tier 1 and Tier 2 sites, regional officials are to prepare and submit consideration memorandums to headquarters to document how the 11 principles are being considered as the region develops a cleanup remedy for each site. Additionally, for Tier 2 sites, EPA established the Contaminated Sediments Technical Advisory Group (CSTAG) to monitor the progress of and provide advice on sites throughout the cleanup process. The CSTAG is to review the consideration memorandums for Tier 2 sites and meets with regional staff as part of the consultation process. CSTAG is to provide recommendations to regions on their proposed cleanup approach, and regional staff are to provide written responses to CSTAG recommendations.

EPA generally followed its steps for providing national consistency in its management of Superfund sediment sites at selected Tier 1 and Tier 2 sites GAO reviewed. At 5 of 6 Tier 1 sites reviewed, regional officials submitted memorandums explaining how the 11 principles were considered in developing the cleanup remedy. At 11 of 12 Tier 2 sites reviewed, officials submitted consideration memorandums prior to their initial meeting with CSTAG; CSTAG provided recommendations on the regions’ consideration of the principles, and regional officials provided written responses, as required in CSTAG’s operating procedures. At 5 of the 12 Tier 2 sites where CSTAG held additional meetings, or update meetings, consideration memorandums were not submitted to CSTAG. CSTAG’s operating procedures do not clearly describe what type of information and documentation, if any, should be prepared by regional officials and provided to CSTAG in advance of these meetings. Under federal standards for internal controls, agencies are to clearly document internal controls, such as in operating manuals. Clarifying, in the operating procedures, the types of information and documentation, if any, that should be prepared for CSTAG before update meetings would help to ensure that CSTAG was getting information needed to inform its reviews and meetings.

EPA faces two main challenges in managing cleanups of Superfund sediment sites—technical complexities and stakeholder involvement—according to EPA officials. Technical complexities include site characteristics and the use of sampling and modeling in developing a cleanup remedy. Challenges with stakeholder involvement include the differing opinions and competing interests of stakeholders—such as communities, local governments, and industry—and the varying levels of knowledge among these stakeholders about the Superfund process, which officials said can take EPA time and resources to address.

Why GAO Did This Study

Water bodies in the United States, including rivers and harbors, may contain contaminated sediments that pose risks to ecosystems and human health. The federal government’s principal program to clean up hazardous waste sites, including sediment sites, is EPA’s Superfund program, authorized by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Recently estimated costs for cleanups of some large Superfund sediment sites have ranged from about $500 million to $1.4 billion, according to EPA documents.

GAO was asked to review issues related to Superfund sediment sites. This report examines: (1) the steps EPA has taken to help provide national consistency in its management of Superfund sediment sites; (2) the extent to which EPA followed these steps at selected Superfund sediment sites; and (3) the challenges EPA officials said the agency faced in managing cleanups of Superfund sediment sites. GAO reviewed applicable laws, regulations, and guidance; a nonprobability sample of 6 of the 71 Tier 1 and 12 of the 17 Tier 2 Superfund sediment sites; and EPA documents from selected sites. GAO interviewed EPA officials and representatives of two stakeholder groups.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that EPA clarify CSTAG’s operating procedures for the type of information and documentation, if any, that should be prepared for CSTAG in advance of update meetings. EPA agreed with GAO’s recommendation.

Strategy for Addressing the Retail Sector under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act’s Regulatory Framework

U.S. EPA’s Retail Strategy lays out a cohesive and effective plan to address the unique challenges the retail sector has with complying with the hazardous waste regulations while reducing burden and protecting human health and the environment.

Cut Down On Bee-Killing Pesticides? Ontario Finds It’s Easier Said Than Done

Read the full story from NPR.

Nobody loves pesticides, exactly. But one kind of pesticide, called neonicotinoids, is provoking a particularly bitter debate right now between environmentalists and farmers. The chemicals are highly toxic to bees. Some scientists think they are partly to blame for the decline in pollinators.

For the past year, the province of Ontario, in Canada, has responded to the controversy with a novel experiment. Ontario’s government is asking farmers to prove that they actually need neonicotinoids, often called neonics. It turns out that “need” is a word that’s hard to define.

Washington State Could Pass the Nation’s First Carbon Tax. Why Are Environmentalists and Democrats Fighting It?

Read the full story in Governing.

In Washington state, officials have wrestled with plans to curb pollution for years. Now that one such plan is on the ballot this fall, it’s received a lukewarm response — even from the state’s environmentalists.

National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutant Emissions: Petroleum Refinery Sector

Read the full Federal Register Notice.

On December 1, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized amendments to the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) Refinery Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) 1 and Refinery MACT 2 regulations and the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for petroleum refineries. Subsequently, the EPA received three petitions for reconsideration of the final rules. The EPA is announcing reconsideration and request for public comment on five issues raised in the petitions for reconsideration where petitioners claim that the public was not afforded an opportunity to comment. Additionally, the EPA is proposing amendments to the final rule to clarify a compliance issue raised by stakeholders subject to the final rule and to correct a referencing error. The EPA is seeking comment only on the five identified petition issues and on the proposed compliance issue clarification and referencing error amendments. The EPA will not respond to comments addressing any other issues or any other provisions of the final rule.

It helped save the ozone layer. Now the refrigerant is being phased out as a culprit in global warming

Read the full story in the Los Angeles Times.

On Saturday, at a meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, leaders from nearly 200 nations reached what they hope will be another historic agreement — a global pact to dramatically reduce emissions of HFCs. Experts say that if the reductions are implemented, global temperatures at the end of this century could be cooler by nearly half a degree Celsius.

EPA Acts on New Chemical Law to Fast-Track Five Chemicals

EPA is taking swift steps to carry out requirements in the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act and to reduce exposure to certain persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) chemicals.

“The threats from persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals are well-documented,” said Jim Jones, assistant administrator in EPA’s office of chemical safety and pollution prevention. “The new law directs us to expedite action to reduce risks for these chemicals, rather than spending more time evaluating them. We are working to ensure the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act signed in June of this year delivers on the promise of better protecting the environment and public health as quickly as possible.”

The five chemicals to receive expedited action are:

  • Decabromodiphenyl ethers (DecaBDE), used as a flame retardant in textiles, plastics and polyurethane foam;
  • Hexachlorobutadiene (HCBD), used in the manufacture of rubber compounds and lubricants and as a solvent;
  • Pentachlorothio-phenol (PCTP), used as an agent to make rubber more pliable in industrial uses;
  • Tris (4-isopropylphenyl) phosphate, used as a flame retardant in consumer products and other industrial uses; and
  • 2,4,6-Tris(tert-butyl)phenol, used as a fuel, oil, gasoline or lubricant additive.

The statutory deadline for EPA to propose action is June 22, 2019.

The new law gave manufacturers an opportunity to request by September 19, 2016, that EPA conduct risk evaluations for the PBT chemicals on EPA’s 2014 Work Plan, as an alternative to expedited action.  Requests for risk evaluations were made for two chemicals that can be used in fragrance mixtures.

For the remaining PBT chemicals, EPA must move ahead to take expedited action to reduce exposure to those chemicals to the extent practicable.  After EPA finishes identifying where these chemicals are used and how people are exposed to them, the Agency will move directly to propose limitations on their use.

PBT chemicals are of particular concern because they remain in the environment for significant periods of time and concentrate in the organisms exposed to them.  These pollutants can transfer among air, water, and land, and span boundaries of geography and generations.

The new amendments to TSCA will help bring significant improvements to public health as EPA continues to take the steps necessary for its successful implementation.

More about the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act and EPA’s implementation activities and to sign up for updates, visit: