Superfund Matures Gracefully

By Harris, Robert H.; Vandeven, Jay et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Superfund Matures Gracefully


Harris, Robert H., Vandeven, Jay, Tilchin, Mike, Issues in Science and Technology


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.

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.

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Superfund Matures Gracefully
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