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Earth Day 2000 Specialtopic(Ii) Addressing Hazardous Waste: the U.S. Epa's Emergency Response, Long Term Cleanup, and Redevelopment Activities



The United States' Superfund law was enacted in December 1980 to address the inherited legacy of decades of unrestricted hazardous waste disposal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) carries out the program, by identifying, assessing, and cleaning up abandoned hazardous waste sites; and by providing response mechanisms to address hazardous substances emergencies.

The problem turned out to be larger than anyone anticipated. Today, U.S. EPA has assessed over 30,000 potential waste sites. There have been over 6,500 emergency response actions. In addition, U.S. EPA has completed long-term clean-ups at more than 670 of the most contaminated sites from a list of over 1,400 waste sites known as the Superfund "National Priorities List." As experience has grown, others have developed the capabilities to deal with these sites, something we encourage. States, Indian tribes and local governments throughout the United States have instituted their own programs to address contaminated properties which, coupled with the EPA efforts, result in many thousands of hazardous waste sites successfully remediated.


The Superfund emergency response program is one of the most successful elements of Superfund. It operates through a network of regional offices throughout the country, and provides immediate response to spills or releases of hazardous materials. This program has recently completed an assessment of the "core elements" of its operation, identifying ten areas that each regional office should emphasize for continued success. These core elements include: access to transportation, health and safety protection, modem response equipment, proper identification clothing, well designed regional response centers, planning for back-up staffing during emergencies, proper delegation of authority to field personnel, well-planned notification and evaluation systems, training and field exercises, and establishment of planning and response partnerships with stakeholders. These core elements provide a useful model to assist other countries in managing hazardous substance emergency response efforts.


Just as the number of sites was larger than anyone anticipated, so has been the complexity of the sites. EPA maintains a list of sites, called the National Priorities List, that warrant long-term federal action. The Superfund Law establishes processes that apply to these sites, including standards for selecting a remedy, and a process for reviewing these sites after five years. Over 1,400 sites have been on the NPL, and we have completed construction of the remedy at over 670 of these.


In the nineteen years since enactment of the Superfund law, the U.S. EPA has widened its focus from one of assessing and remediating sites to include an emphasis on the re-use and, where appropriate, the re-development of contaminated properties. New national efforts have emerged to foster reclamation of "brownfields" properties, to stem urban sprawl and provide alternatives to so-called "greenfields" development. ("Brownfields" are sites that are abandoned or underutilized due in part to real or perceived contamination.) Many Superfund sites were valuable properties before they became heavily contaminated and are situated near urban areas, highways, rivers and harbors: potentially prime commercial locations if they can be safely re-used. Over 150 of these National Priorities List sites, former waste dumps, are now back in use as athletic fields, nature preserves, shopping malls, and transportation centers, and are again serving as productive parts of the national economy.

U.S. EPA efforts have sped brownfields redevelopment through a program of government site assessment grants, revolving loan funds for cleanup, technology development and information dissemination. The "Better America Bonds" initiative is also intended to foster redevelopment of disadvantaged properties. Re-use of sites on the National Priorities List has also been singled out as a high national priority activity for U.S. EPA, and significant progress has been made under this effort, including: development of engineering design guides for land re-use, funding for local government participation in planning, agreements to limit the liability of purchasers of contaminated properties, and successful efforts to put former military bases into productive environmental and/or economic use.

The lessons U.S. EPA has learned in creating a national Brownfields program and in Superfund site redevelopment efforts could provide a useful example for other nations interested in the productive environmental and economic re-use of contaminated lands. For example, the need to craft policies for effective cleanups that also reflect reasonably anticipated future land use, developing prudent use of waste treatment and containment techniques, and establishing long-term stewardship of waste sites,