A Rant Against Superfund

As some of my clients know all too well, I’ve been spending a lot of time on some Superfund matters recently. Although I can’t remember a period when I didn’t have at least one moderately active Superfund case, significant immersion in complex remedial decision-making and negotiations provides an unwelcome reminder just how flawed CERCLA is. Almost 20 years after the acid rain provisions of the Clean Air Act ushered in wide-spread acceptance of the use of market mechanisms to achieve environmental protection goals and the state of Massachusetts successfully privatized its state Superfund program, the federal Superfund program, like some obscure former Russian republic which remains devoted to Stalinism, is one of the last bastions of pure command and control regulation.

Can anyone tell me why the remedy selection process takes years and costs millions of dollars – before any cleanup has occurred or risk reduction been achieved? Can anyone tell me why, after the remedy has been selected, EPA has to spend millions of dollars – charged back to the PRPs, of course – to oversee the cleanup? Oversight costs can easily exceed 10% of cleanup costs, while oversight during the remedial design and feasibility study process sometimes seem to be barely less than the cost of actually performing the RI/FS.

While there are certainly a multiplicity of causes, there are two factors which greatly contribute to the problem. One was, coincidentally, highlighted in a post today by my friend Rob Stavins. As Rob noted, unlike the acid rain program, which was new at the time, the Superfund bureaucracy is well entrenched and there are a number of actors with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo

The second issue relates to the genesis of the Superfund program, as well as its continuing raison d’être. Whenever EPA has ranked relative risks from different environmental hazards, Superfund sites come in at the bottom. However, if you think back to Superfund’s origins, what comes to mind? Love Canal and the Valley of the Drums – and some concerned near-by residents who rallied around a cause to ensure that the problem would be addressed. As renowned risk communications expert Dr. Peter Sandman has noted, there is not necessarily a significant correlation between actual risk levels and public outrage, and it’s not possible to decrease outrage simply by providing accurate information about risks.

In short, the public is outraged by hazardous waste sites and does not trust PRPs to clean them properly. All of those EPA oversight costs are, in large part, intended not to decrease risk, but to lower outrage.  Outrage is understandable in some circumstances, and efforts to reduce it are laudable, but is it really an appropriate use of scarce environmental protection resources to spend the money that gets poured into Superfund sites?

There has to be a better way. Indeed, there is a better way. It’s called a privatized system in which PRPs have to meet well-defined cleanup standards, but are allowed to do so on their own, in whatever manner is most cost-effective, subject to audits by regulators. Privatized programs such as the one in Massachusetts are not perfect. However, their flaws – which largely stem from a failure to fully support privatization — pale in comparison to the waste that is the federal program under CERCLA.

In other contexts, I’ve called on the Obama administration to embrace regulatory reform. Why not start with Superfund? Notwithstanding Rob Stavins’ point about the difficulty of overturning an entrenched status quo, if the states could do it, why not the federal government?

Besides, I have an entrenched personal reason for seeking Superfund reform. This stuff drives me nuts.

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