EPA Waste Official Calls For ‘Subdividing’ Superfund List To Aid Cleanups

September 13, 2019

BOSTON -- A top EPA waste official says the agency should be breaking down the National Priority List (NPL) of Superfund sites based on site-specific factors, such as the type of contamination involved, in order to develop better cleanup strategies, as one way to “evolve” the program based on advice from the just-concluded Superfund Task Force.

“We need to quit thinking of the National Priorities List as just a single list. We need to break it up . . . Landfill sites are different from radioactive contamination sites. Some sites can’t be cleaned up very quickly, while others are going to have a faster timeframe. So we need to be subdividing the list putting them in more logical groupings, and then do our deep data dive,” Steven Cook, EPA’s deputy waste chief, told a Sept. 12 Superfund panel at the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Environment, Energy & Resources fall conference here.

While he stopped short of promising that the agency will actually divide up the NPL, Cook reiterated the agency’s pledge to continue creating and tracking new metrics for the Superfund program that it first made in the Sept. 9 report wrapping up the task force’s study of how to speed cleanups at the NPL’s most contaminated sites.

“We are not done; this is an ongoing process. If you go back to the website a year from now, hopefully it will look very different, because we will have evolved,” Cook said.

But Kathleen Campbell, a partner at the industry-focused law firm Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox who shared the stage with Cook at the conference, said the agency’s reforms to the Superfund program have been at best a mixed blessing for potentially responsible parties (PRPs), and warned that further moves could fall flat unless officials step up their work with stakeholders.

Addressing EPA’s “emphasis list” of NPL sites targeted for intensive action, she said, “I’ve polled a bunch of people on this, and I got, I think, different responses from everyone I spoke to. It’s really been a mixed bag. ‘It’s all political’ -- that’s all this [answer] says. I’ve heard from people whose sites went on that list and it did absolutely nothing."

Campbell had similar criticisms of other additions to the Superfund program that came from the task force’s recommendations. The “Superfund Alternative Approach” that allows for cleanup agreements outside the NPL “does not advance the ball,” she said, because “in terms of what you need to be doing, nothing changes” compared with an NPL listing.

Moreover, she continued, “trying to negotiate changes at a Superfund Alternatives site is harder, significantly harder, than if your site is on the NPL,” apparently because officials are wary of giving the impression that an alternative-approach agreement is “getting some deal.”

Similarly, she said new model-settlement language designed to speed negotiations over new sites is unclear and inconsistently applied. “It is not finding its way down to staff who are negotiating settlements and consent decrees. She added that some provisions in the model settlement can also be hard for a defendant in the private sector to agree to, because it asks them to give up rights they may have against government PRPs. “That’s not incentivizing settlement, and that’s not incentivizing quick cleanups. It’s just not.”

“I might be sounding like a broken record: stakeholder involvement in these model document discussions is really important,” she concluded.

But during the panel’s question-and-answer session, Cook countered that gathering input from PRPs on Superfund reforms is easier said than done, thanks to the sheer diversity of entities that deal with the waste program.

“The resources to do that are not insignificant, and it is not fast. We’re trying to figure out other ways to have that dialogue,” he said.

“Not all PRPs are the same, or have the same viewpoint. . . . I doubt there would be a single revision that would have support of all of you, and what are we supposed to do with that?”

PFAS Research

While his primary focus was on the future of the Superfund program, Cook also gave an update on the waste office’s work addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under the EPA-led, multi-agency “roadmap” for studying, assessing and regulating the widespread drinking water contaminants.

Specifically, he said, the office is focusing on crafting new scientific methods that can be used to detect PFAS in soil or groundwater at levels of concern. “For us to get to where we can clean it up, we’ve got to know what we have. . . . That’s where a lot of our resources are now, on the research to develop analytical methods."

He noted that currently there are no analytical methods that detect PFAS in soil, while “we are starting to develop some in groundwater."

The ultimate goal, Cook concluded, is that “We have to have specialized lab equipment, specialized procedures."

In response to a question from Inside EPA following the panel, Cook said the agency is still reviewing comments on its controversial interim draft guide on addressing PFAS in groundwater, and that he could not comment on a timeline for finalizing the document, or whether the final version would include a default threshold above which regulators could order removals, which the agency originally included in the guide but says it dropped to avoid confusion. -- David LaRoss (dlaross@iwpnews.com)

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