How Long Should We Wait for Those Good Things They Say are Worth Waiting For?

On July 25, 2017, the EPA’s recently created Superfund Task Force released a number of recommendations on how to “streamline and improve the Superfund program.” These recommendations (e.g., recommendation number one is “Target NPL Sites That Are Not Showing Sufficient Progress Towards Site Cleanup and Completion”) were generated after the EPA director criticized the cleanup time involved in the Superfund process. Has the process been taking too long?

The Superfund program involves both an identification and investigation process that’s been time consuming. To start the process, EPA identifies the potentially contaminated site and conducts an investigation. Then, on the basis of what EPA refers to as a Hazard Ranking System, it may propose that a site be added to the National Priorities List — a published list of hazardous waste sites that are eligible for federal funding for clean-up costs. Once a site is on the NPL, an investigation (environmental testing) and feasibility study (potential methods for cleanup) is conducted. EPA will then offer a clean-up plan to the public for comments, and after receiving the community’s comments, EPA delivers a decision that explains what clean-up methods will be used at the site. Detailed clean-up plans are then drafted/developed and implemented, and EPA announces that any physical clean-up activities have been completed. It then conducts routine monitoring, and enforces any restrictions to ensure that the site continues to protect human health and the environment. The site is then eligible to be delisted from the NPL, and EPA will allow the site to be reused or redeveloped. All these steps, however, can be a lengthy and complex process.

But when should the public be concerned that this process is not working fast enough? The point of this post is merely to take some basic facts and ask what some may describe as a loaded question: is the Superfund process taking too long?

Let’s look at the history of Superfund as implemented in the State of New York. New York has had a total of 118 locations named to the NPL. Of those 118, 78 were listed in the 1980s (66 percent). Of those 118 sites, 32 have been delisted at some point in time. Of those 32 delisted sites, 27 were added to the NPL in the 1980s. Therefore, of the 78 sites listed in the 1980s, 65 percent are still active Superfund sites. And today, 51 of New York’s 86 active Superfund sites were listed at some point in the 1980s; 42 of the 86 were listed at least 30 years ago. Therefore, about 60 percent of New York’s current sites have been on the list since the 1980s. And about 50 percent have been on the list for at least 30 years.

While these numbers do not reflect the efforts or accomplishments that have been attained, it’ll be interesting to see how these numbers are impacted by EPA’s recent Superfund Task Force recommendations and the resulting sufficiency or insufficiency of the NPL sites that are fast-tracked toward completion.



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