Contaminated Federal Sites Cost $447B in Liability, Watchdog Says

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By Sylvia Carignan

The government’s own contaminated sites will need help from agencies and Congress to get cleaned up, a watchdog said Feb. 15.

The Government Accountability Office’s biennial “high risk” report identifies government operations that are more vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement, or those that need an overhaul to be more efficient or effective.

Environmental liabilities stemming from the federal government’s contaminated properties are new to the “high risk” list this year.

According to David Trimble, the GAO’s natural resources and environment director, the government’s environmental liabilities are at high risk of waste and mismanagement because they amount to billions of dollars. Current practices also revealed opportunities to improve the economy and the efficiency of cleanup programs, he said.

Though agencies will need to make the bulk of the changes the GAO recommends, legislation may also be necessary to effectively address current efficiency issues.

Cost of Cleanup

The GAO recommended in 1994 that Congress require agencies to report back on their plans to complete site inventories and the costs of cleanup by amending the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

“We believe these recommendations are as relevant, if not more so, today,” GAO’s Feb. 15 report said.

But, the GAO found that the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management is not giving Congress complete information about its cleanup obligations, which may affect congressional appropriations for cleanup activities.

Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who chairs the House Committee On Appropriations, said the committee “continues to look into the issue and will make any necessary funding decisions as part of the (fiscal year) 2018 appropriations process.”

In fiscal year 2016, the GAO estimated the government’s environmental liabilities at about $447 billion, an increase from $212 billion in 1997.

However, the GAO said Feb. 15, the ultimate cost of cleanup at contaminated federal sites is probably higher.

Agencies’ Liabilities

The Department of Energy holds 83 percent of the $447 billion of the government’s liability estimate, mostly related to its nuclear waste cleanup. The Department of Defense is about 14 percent of that total, and other federal agencies—including NASA, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Agriculture—hold the remaining 3 percent.

As of 2016, half of the Department of Energy’s environmental liability is held at two locations—the Hanford Site in Washington state and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Both are on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List, which includes the country’s most contaminated sites.

In a statement from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, a Senate aide said inadequate short-term funding will only increase long-term cleanup costs.

“It is important (that) Congress fully understand the exact nature and cost of the remaining cleanup obligations at Hanford, and it is equally important that Congress adequately fund the work,” the aide said.

According to Walter Mugdan, acting regional administrator for EPA Region 2, rough estimates show that cleanup will take 45 years to complete at the Hanford site.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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