Friday, June 3, 2011

Superfund: Information on the Nature and Costs of Cleanup Activities at Three Landfills in the Gulf Coast Region
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one in four Americans lives within 3 miles of a contaminated site, many of which pose serious risks to human health and the environment. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) provided the federal government with authority to respond to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances and created a trust fund to provide for certain cleanup activities. Under CERCLA, EPA established the Superfund program to address the threats that contaminated sites pose. Although EPA has paid for the cleanup of many of these sites through the Superfund program, funding for these cleanups has diminished in recent years. In 2010, we reported that EPA’s estimated costs to clean up existing contaminated sites exceed the Superfund program’s current funding levels and that some sites have not received sufficient funding for cleanup to proceed in the most cost-efficient manner.  Additionally, in July 2009, we reported that EPA does not collect sufficient information on the cost of cleanup activities at Superfund sites and recommended, among other things, that EPA assess and improve the data it collects on the status and cost of cleanups.

EPA coordinates the cleanup of Superfund sites by identifying sites potentially requiring cleanup action and placing eligible sites on its National Priorities List (NPL). EPA may compel the parties responsible for contaminating these sites to clean them up, or the agency may, using resources from the trust fund established by CERCLA, conduct cleanups itself and seek reimbursement from responsible parties. In some cases, EPA may not be able to obtain reimbursement because the agency cannot identify a responsible party or the responsible party or parties may be insolvent or may no longer exist.

One category of contaminated sites—landfills and other waste disposal facilities—made up more than one-third of the 1,397 sites EPA placed on the NPL from 1983 through 2007, and EPA’s expenditures at these 511 sites totaled about $3.6 billion through fiscal year 2007.3 According to EPA, landfill sites on the NPL generally share similar characteristics and present similar threats to the environment. For example, these sites generally exhibit contamination in various media, such as soil, surface water, or groundwater, and many landfills at Superfund sites contain hazardous waste that may contaminate nearby soil or water.
Further, some have argued that landfills used for the disposal of debris created by disasters may also contain hazardous waste that could have long-term, negative environmental impacts. Consequently, concerns have been raised by various studies and environmental groups about the potential for such landfills to become Superfund sites. For instance, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a Louisiana emergency order authorized some potentially hazardous materials to be disposed of in landfills permitted to receive construction and demolition debris rather than in landfills with liners approved for such waste. Studies by a Louisiana State University research institute and an environmental engineering firm found that these categories of waste can introduce hazardous materials into landfills, increasing the likelihood of pollution.

In this context, you asked us to review issues related to the cost to clean up the Agriculture Street Landfill Superfund site, which received debris from Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and other Superfund sites involving landfills in the Gulf Coast region where cleanup has been completed. Our objectives were to determine (1) what is known about the nature and costs of the cleanup activities at Superfund landfill sites and (2) the costs to clean up the Agriculture Street Landfill site and two additional selected Superfund landfill sites in the Gulf Coast region, and the key factors that influenced these costs.

To determine what is known about the nature and costs of the cleanup activities at Superfund landfill sites, we reviewed relevant statutes and EPA regulations, guidance, and studies. We also interviewed EPA officials and responsible parties’ representatives. To determine the costs to clean up the three Superfund landfill sites in the Gulf Coast region and the key factors that influenced these costs, we first obtained data from EPA’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System, and we also interviewed EPA officials to identify landfills (1) that are located within 10 miles of the Gulf of Mexico, (2) that have reached construction complete status or have been deleted from the NPL, and (3) for which cleanup cost data are available. In addition to the Agriculture Street Landfill in Louisiana, the Beulah and Taylor Road landfills in Florida met these criteria. Second, we obtained cleanup cost data from EPA and responsible parties and analyzed them to determine the total cleanup costs and the key factors that influenced those costs at each site. We also reviewed relevant documentation and interviewed EPA and responsible party officials to assess the reliability of the cleanup cost data for each site. We tried to obtain supporting explanations and documentation to verify these data but were unable to obtain complete information for all three sites. Consequently, we have varying confidence in the reliability of cost data from the three sites: while we believe that most of the data components are sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this report, we were unable to fully determine the reliability of some components of the Taylor Road Landfill cleanup cost data.

Nevertheless, because these are the only available data, we included them in our estimated cleanup costs at the site. Finally, we interviewed EPA officials and responsible parties’ representatives about the history, contamination, cleanup activities completed, and current status of each of the three landfills, and we visited each site.
While only limited cleanup cost data are available, we estimated that the costs to clean up three Superfund landfill sites in the Gulf Coast region—the Agriculture Street, Beulah, and Taylor Road landfill sites—ranged from about $13 million to about $55 million. This range is largely the result of differences among the sites in such factors as site geology and proximity to residential areas.
EPA spent about $55 million to clean up the Agriculture Street Landfill Superfund site in New Orleans, Louisiana. Because EPA found that extensive lead contamination in soil at the site posed an immediate risk to nearby residents, the agency completed most of its cleanup activities as removal actions. We estimated that these actions—which included removing contaminated playground equipment, excavating contaminated soil, placing a landfill cap, and installing clean soil—represented approximately 50 percent of EPA’s cleanup costs at the site. Available documentation shows that the remaining costs were related to litigation and community relations activities, among other things.

We estimated that cleanup of the Beulah Landfill Superfund site near Pensacola, Florida, cost Escambia County—the responsible party for the site—about $12.5 million.13 The cleanup activities we identified included formally closing two landfill areas that lacked caps to prevent storm water from mingling with the landfill contents. According to Escambia County officials, a major component of the closure costs was the clay and synthetic material needed to adequately cap these landfill areas. Available county documents show that these cap materials cost approximately $4 million; the county spent the remaining $8.5 million on, among other things, management and oversight of the landfill closure as well as annual operations and maintenance activities.

U.S. Government Accountability Office

The Honorable James M. Inhofe, Committee on Environment and Public Works, United States Senate
February 18, 2011

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