EPA Considers Privatizing Superfund Oversight

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By Sylvia Carignan

Companies that are cleaning up superfund sites will see lower oversight costs and faster remediation if the Environmental Protection Agency adopts a state licensing program for national use, past agency officials, cleanup professionals, and lawyers say.

The EPA currently handles oversight at many superfund site cleanups, but it is looking to third parties and state programs to take on that responsibility instead. In some states, including Massachusetts, licensed professionals already fill that gap by overseeing cleanup at sites, and some say those programs are effective.

“Work gets done more quickly, while still adhering to the health and safety standards that the government promulgates,” said Wendy Rundle, executive director of the Massachusetts Licensed Site Professionals Association, which focuses on cleanup of hazardous waste sites.

The EPA charges parties that are potentially responsible for contamination for conducting oversight at superfund sites. But the agency wants to cut costs for parties that are conducting “timely, high-quality cleanup” by having third parties handle oversight instead, according to the agency’s superfund task force recommendations, released in July.

Companies that are or have been potentially responsible parties at superfund sites, including General Electric, W.R. Grace, and Dow Chemical, declined to comment to Bloomberg BNA on third-party oversight.

Privatizing Oversight

The EPA could adopt a nationwide version of some states’ remediation professional certification programs. The agency itself hasn't yet decided whether that will be the case, EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham told Bloomberg BNA, because the task force is still working out the recommendations.

New Jersey’s Licensed Site Remediation Professional, Connecticut’s Licensed Environmental Professional, and Massachusetts’ Licensed Site Professional programs are state-authorized certification programs that identify qualified individuals to work on hazardous substance sites.

In Massachusetts, licensed site professionals perform oversight duties on site and communicate their progress with the state.

“Every site needs to have a [licensed site professional] of record. That person has to sign off on everything, oversee the work, the reports, make sure all the pieces fit together,” Rundle said.

The nearly 25-year-old Massachusetts program has led to more efficient site cleanups because the state’s Department of Environmental Protection didn't have enough staff to review each site’s reports in a timely manner, she told Bloomberg BNA.

Can It Work?

Mathy Stanislaus, former assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, which handles superfund, told Bloomberg BNA the EPA would need to set up consequences and penalties for those who are inappropriately certified or shirk their oversight duties.

“I think third-party oversight can work, with effective standards and transparency in that process,” Stanislaus said.

Stanislaus said the EPA would likely need a new regulation to establish a licensing program.

However, Lenny Siegel, executive director for the Center for Public Environmental Oversight in California, is concerned about the potential effects of cutting oversight costs.

“One of the strengths of superfund, compared to many state programs, is that EPA often is able to utilize the combined expertise of a complete team,” he told Bloomberg BNA, explaining that cutting those costs could mean cutting expert oversight.

Benefits of State Approach

But a more localized approach could be beneficial, Eric Williams, president of Legacy Land Stewardship, said. His public benefit corporation helps companies by acquiring their contaminated sites or tying up loose ends at sites that have been remediated.

His corporation would like to see more superfund oversight done at the state level, “which in many cases has proven to be a far more efficient and user-friendly process,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

One of those cases is the Asarco smelter site near Denver, where the state is leading cleanup. The state worked with the property owner to find separate remedies for soil and groundwater, according to Williams, and facilitated redevelopment at the site while groundwater remediation took place. Those actions—and assurances to lenders and investors that the site was ready for its next use—led to a new industrial park there.

“For true superfund sites in states that have very strong and agile programs, like Colorado...the idea isn’t to do away with EPA’s involvement entirely but rather let the state be the lead agency,” Williams said.

According to the task force recommendations, ordered by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency plans to assemble a work group on third-party oversight during the next fiscal year.

For More Information

EPA's recommendations for the superfund program are available at http://src.bna.com/q4W.

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