GAO Report Finds EPA Generally Consistent in Managing Superfund Sediment Sites, but Notes Limitations in EPA's Documentation

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By Ryan A. Benson

On October 24, 2016 the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee released a Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) report on the national consistency of the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) in managing two tiers of Superfund sediment sites (i.e., water bodies containing contaminated sediments) (available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/679957.pdf).  The report, requested by the Committee in May 2015, concluded that although EPA should clarify certain documentation requirements, EPA generally manages these sediment sites consistently.

The GAO examined EPA’s adherence to EPA procedures for consultation between headquarters and regional offices when the regional offices develop cleanup plans for Tier 1 sediment sites (i.e., those where cleanup will address more than 10,000 cubic yards, or 5 acres, of contaminated sediment) and Tier 2 sediment sites (i.e., those that are large, complex or controversial).  EPA headquarters has delegated remedy selection authority to the regions.  However, to ensure national consistency in the remedy selection process, regional offices must consider 11 risk management principles when developing a cleanup plan for a sediment site, in consultation with headquarters. 

Although the GAO found that the consultation process was generally followed, it noted that the operating procedures of EPA’s Contaminated Sediments Technical Advisory Group (“CSTAG”) do not state what documentation, if any, should be submitted to CSTAG before update meetings, causing inconsistency in submissions.  Therefore, the GAO recommended that EPA specify what documentation is necessary.

Despite providing some useful information, the GAO report had significant limitations.  Primarily, the GAO did not consider any technical information in the memoranda submitted by the regions to headquarters and thus did not assess the quality of the memoranda or of the cleanup remedies selected.  Further, the report was based on only a small sample of Tier 1 and Tier 2 sediment sites.

Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, criticized EPA’s documentation shortcomings as “sloppy” and stressed the importance of continuing Congressional oversight.  In light of the Republican majority in Congress and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, it will be interesting to see whether additional steps will be taken to address EPA’s management of sediment sites in 2017.