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Three primary programs have shaped the nation’s hazardous waste infrastructure: Superfund, RCRA, and Brownfields. Each of these three programs plays a distinct and important role in the overall infrastructure that manages hazardous waste. As evidence of the importance of maintaining and strengthening the nation’s hazardous waste infrastructure, more than half of the U.S. population lives within three miles of a hazardous waste site. Over 18,000 sites and an associated 22 million acres of land are addressed through these three programs.

Recognizing that hazardous waste disposal without planning and management endangers the public health and environment, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976 to manage hazardous waste from generation to disposal. The RCRA Corrective Action (CA) program drives the cleanup of legacy sites while the RCRA permitting program governs the generation and proper disposal of ongoing operations that result in hazardous waste.

To clean up hazardous waste produced and improperly disposed of prior to the enactment of RCRA, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. CERCLA created the hazardous waste cleanup program most commonly referred to as “Superfund.” The National Priorities List (NPL), maintained by EPA, contains the list of sites covered by Superfund. The NPL is routinely updated as sites are cleaned and removed from the list, and other sites are discovered, evaluated, and added.  As of September 2016, there were 1,180 non-Federal sites, and 157 Federal Sites on the NPL (these numbers exclude sites proposed for the NPL, but not yet final). 392 had been deleted from the NPL.

The current capacity of the nation’s hazardous waste infrastructure is generally adequate, owing in no small measure to significant improvements in managing materials through recycling and reuse, rather than disposal. As a result, the amount of hazardous material requiring long-term management has tended to decrease over time, even during times of economic expansion.

There have also been significant improvements in remediation technologies, resulting in faster and less resource-intensive cleanup approaches. While the impact of cleanup activities under Superfund and other programs is demonstrably significant, perhaps the most significant long-term impact is that the technical requirements and enforcement and liability provisions under these programs have led to a significant reduction in careless disposal of hazardous materials.

While Superfund is a mature program and technologies for cleanup are advancing, the capacity of the program (including funding) to take on very large and complex sites, including contaminated sediment sites and area-wide impacts from legacy mining sites, is inadequate. Contamination from more than 160,000 abandoned mines in the West poses costly and complex environmental and public health challenges.

Superfund

The Superfund program addresses contamination from uncontrolled releases at Superfund hazardous waste sites that threaten human health and the environment. The overarching goals of the program are to ensure the protection of human health and the environment and to maximize the participation of potentially responsible parties (PRPs). EPA places some of the most seriously contaminated sites on the National Priorities List (NPL). By definition, Superfund sites are the sites on the NPL.

Superfund cleanups help convert vacant and underutilized land into productive resources, bring economic benefits to communities by facilitating job creation, increase property values, and enhance local tax bases. At 454 Superfund sites where cleanup activities enable beneficial reuse, operating businesses are employing over 108,000 people and generating annual revenue sales of $29 billion—almost four times EPA’s cleanup expenditures at these sites.

Looking at Superfund actions and major milestones on a cumulative basis (Exhibits 3 and 4), shows that the Superfund program is essentially “steady state”—the rate of deletions from the NPL and construction completions has been very close to the rate at which new sites have been added to the NPL, and the size of the active NPL is essentially unchanged since 2003.

In FY 2014 and 2015, the Superfund program made significant progress in catching up on deferred projects. In FY 2015, 59 new remedial construction projects were started, including 33 government-led projects and 26 PRP-led projects, and oversight of cleanup was provided at more than 380 remedial construction projects started in prior fiscal years. The backlog of deferred shovel ready projects has been substantially reduced—a very positive development. What is not clear is whether this represents an actual acceleration in the pace of cleanup, or if funding constraints for hazardous waste cleanup programs—at the federal (i.e., Superfund), state, and regional levels—are resulting in fewer sites being addressed through these cleanup programs. It is reasonable to assume that both factors may be contributing to a smaller backlog of deferred projects.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)

While the RCRA waste management and cleanup program has established a solid foundation for protecting the nation’s health and the environment, its mission continues to evolve to meet waste management and cleanup challenges and leverage opportunities to integrate resource conservation into economic productivity.

The impact of the RCRA program is significant. There are about 6,600 facilities, with over 20,000 process units, in the full RCRA permitting universe, and between approximately 350,000 and 550,000 facilities that generate hazardous waste. Approximately 2.5 billion tons of solid, industrial, and hazardous waste resulting from the manufacturing and use of goods are managed through the program, of which 30 to 40 million tons are classified as hazardous waste annually.

RCRA corrective actions are addressing more than 3,700 existing contaminated facilities needing cleanup. The program also provides grant funding to help states implement authorized hazardous waste programs. RCRA has built-in incentives for regulated facilities to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions through materials and land management practices.

Some of the major challenges facing the RCRA program is the need to keep supporting the development of new manufacturing technologies and waste management methods, revisit regulatory frameworks, and make modifications that allow businesses, especially those in the manufacturing sector, to operate in accordance with the protection of human health and the environment, while streamlining the permitting process. The program’s shift to an electronic permitting program is an important part of that effort. The program has been a catalyst for encouraging process substitution, materials and energy recovery, as well as properly conducted recycling, reuse, and treatment, with a meaningful evolution from a strictly  “waste management” program to “sustainable materials management”.

A key measure of how the RCRA program is performing is its effectiveness in protecting populations and preventing exposure to hazardous chemicals. Recent data shows that 87% of RCRA facilities have controls in place that prevent human exposure to toxic chemicals, and 77% of RCRA facilities are effectively preventing the migration of contaminated groundwater.

Brownfields

The Brownfields Program is principally supported through a variety of grants from EPA to support local execution of environmental assessments, cleanup, and job training activities. In addition to EPA funding, other agencies across the government provide funding in support of brownfields redevelopment. While there are many publicly-supported levels of brownfields redevelopment, cleanup is typically an initiator, and therefore the assessment and cleanup investment is critical to beneficial progress.

The impacts of Brownfields redevelopment have included economic and environmental benefits.  Cleanup has led to improve home values and a greater tax base, with an economic benefit ratio of 18:1 for every federal dollar spent, including business expansion and job growth related to infrastructure improvements and improved business performance.

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