Superfund Matures Gracefully

Superfund, one of the main programs used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up serious, often abandoned, hazardous waste sites, has been improved considerably in recent years. Notably, progress has been made in two important areas: the development of risk assessments that are scientifically valid yet flexible, and the development and implementation of better treatment technologies.

The 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) provided a broad refocus to the program. The act included an explicit preference for the selection of remediation technologies that “permanently and significantly reduce the volume, toxicity, or mobility of hazardous substances.” SARA also required the revision of the National Contingency Plan (NCP) that sets out EPA’s rules and guidance for site characterization, risk assessment, and remedy selection.

EPA has been slow in embracing other methodologies, such as probabilistic exposure analysis, that might offer more accurate risk assessments.

The NCP specifies the levels of risk to human health that are allowable at Superfund sites. However, “potentially responsible parties”–companies or other entities that may be forced to help pay for the cleanup–have often challenged the risk assessment methods used as scientifically flawed, resulting in remedies that are unnecessary and too costly. Since SARA was enacted, fundamental changes have evolved in the policies and science that EPA embraces in evaluating health risks at Superfund sites, and these changes have in turn affected which remedies are most often selected. Among the changes are three that collectively can have a profound impact on the selected remedy and attendant costs: EPA’s development of land use guidance, its development of guidance on “principal threats,” and the NCP requirement for the evaluation of “short-term effectiveness.”

Before EPA’s issuance in 1995 of land use guidance for evaluating the potential future public health risks at Superfund sites, its risk assessments usually would assume a future residential use scenario at a site, however unrealistic that assumption might be. This scenario would often result in the need for costly soil and waste removal remedies necessary to protect against hypothetical risks, such as those to children playing in contaminated soil or drinking contaminated ground water, even at sites where future residential use was highly improbable. The revised land use guidance provided a basis for selecting more realistic future use scenarios, with projected exposure patterns that may allow for less costly remedies.

Potentially responsible parties also complained that there was little room to tailor remedies to the magnitude of cancer risk at a site, and that the same costly remedies would be chosen for sites where the cancer risks may differ by several orders of magnitude. However, EPA’s guidance on principal threats essentially established a risk-based hierarchy for remedy selection. For example, if cancer risks at a site exceed 1 in 1,000, then treatment or waste removal or both might be required. Sites that posed a lower lifetime cancer risk could be managed in other ways, such as by prohibiting the installation of drinking water wells, which likely would be far less expensive than intrusive remedies.

Revisions to the NCP in 1990 not only codified provisions required by the 1986 Superfund amendments, but also refined EPA’s evolving remedy-selection criteria. For example, these revisions require an explicit consideration of the short-term effectiveness of a remedy, including the health and safety risks to the public and to workers associated with remedy implementation. EPA had learned by bitter experience that to ignore implementation risks, such as those associated with vapor and dust emissions during the excavation of wastes, could lead to the selection of remedies that proved costly and created unacceptable risks.

Although these changes in risk assessment procedures have brought greater rationality to the evaluation of Superfund sites, EPA still usually insists on the use of hypothetical exposure factors (for example, the length of time that someone may come in contact with the site) that may overstate risks. The agency has been slow in embracing other methodologies, such as probabilistic exposure analysis, that might offer more accurate assessments. Thus, some remedies are still fashioned on risk analyses that overstate risk.

Technological evolution

Cleanup efforts in Superfund’s early years were dominated by containment and excavation-and-disposal remedies. But over the years, cooperative work by government, industry, and academia have led to the development and implementation of improved treatment technologies.

The period from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s was marked by a dramatic increase in the use of source control treatment, reflecting the preference expressed in SARA for “permanent solutions and alternative treatment technologies or resource recovery technologies to the maximum extent practicable.” Two types of source control technologies that have been widely used are incineration and soil vapor extraction. Although the use of incineration decreased during the 1990s because of cost and other factors, soil vapor extraction remains a proven technology at Superfund sites.

Just as early source control remedies relied on containment or excavation and disposal offsite, the presumptive remedy for groundwater contamination has historically been “pump and treat.” It became widely recognized in the early 1990s that conventional pump-and-treat technologies had significant limitations, including relatively high costs. What emerged to fill the gap was an approach called “monitored natural attenuation” (MNA), which makes use of a variety of technologies, such as biodegradation, dispersion, dilution, absorption, and volatilization. As the name suggests, monitoring the effectiveness of the process is a key element of this technology. And although cleanup times still may be on the order of years, there is evidence that MNA can achieve comparable results in comparable periods and at significantly lower costs than conventional pump-and-treat systems. EPA has taken an active role in promoting this technology, and its use has increased dramatically in recent years.

As suggested by the MNA example, what may prove an even more formidable challenge than selecting specific remedies is the post-remedy implementation phase–that is, the monitoring and evaluation that will be required during coming decades to ensure that the remedy chosen is continuing to protect human health and the environment. Far too few resources have been devoted to this task, which will require not only monitoring and maintaining the physical integrity of the technology used and ensuring the continued viability of institutional controls, but also evaluating and responding to the developing science regarding chemical detection and toxicity.

Coming challenges

In recent years, the rate at which waste sites are being added to the National Priorities List (NPL) has been decreasing dramatically as compared with earlier years. In fiscal years 1983 to 1991, EPA placed an average of 135 sites on the NPL annually. The rate dropped to an average of 27 sites per year between 1992 and 2001. Although many factors have contributed to this trend, three stand out:

  • There was a finite group of truly troublesome sites before Superfund’s passage, and after a few years most of those were identified.
  • The program’s enforcement authority has had a profound impact on how wastes are managed, significantly reducing, although not eliminating, the types of waste management practices that result in the creation of Superfund sites.
  • A range of alternative cleanup programs, such as voluntary cleanup programs and those for brownfields, have evolved at both the federal and state levels. No longer is Superfund the only path for cleaning up sites.

But such programmatic changes are about more than just site numbers. In 1988, most NPL sites were in the investigation stage, and the program was widely criticized as being too much about studies and not enough about cleanup. Superfund is now a program predominantly focused on the design and construction of cleanup remedies.

This shift reflects the natural progress of sites through the Superfund pipeline, the changes in NPL listing activity, and a deliberate emphasis on achieving “construction completion,” which is the primary measure of achievement for the program as established under the Government Performance and Results Act. It is a truism in regulatory matters that what gets done is what gets measured, and Superfund is no exception.

In the late 1990s, many observers believed that the demands on Superfund were declining and that it would be completed sometime in the middle of the first decade of the new century. But this is not proving to be true. Although expenditures have not been changing dramatically over time, the resource demands on the program are greater today than ever before.

Few people would have predicted, for example, that among the biggest technical and resource challenges facing Superfund at this date would be the cleanup of hard-rock mining sites and of large volumes of sediments from contaminated waterways and ports. These sites tend to be very costly to clean up, with the driver behind these great costs weighted more toward the protection of natural resources than of human health. In mapping the future course of the program, Congress and EPA must address the question of whether Superfund is the most appropriate program for cleaning up these types of sites.

There are other uncertainties, as well. The substantial role that Superfund has played in emergency response in the aftermath of 9/11, the response to the anthrax attacks of October 2001, and the program’s role in the recovery of debris from the crash of the space shuttle Columbia were all totally unforeseeable. Although many valuable lessons have been learned over the past 20 years of the program, there remain substantial opportunities for improvement as well as considerable uncertainty about the kinds of environmental problems Superfund will tackle in the coming decade.

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Cite this Article

Harris, Robert H., Jay Vandeven, and Mike Tilchin. “Superfund Matures Gracefully.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003