GAO indicated that the processes for implementing the SA and NPL approaches, while similar in many ways, have several differences. EPA has accounted for some of these differences in its SA guidance by listing specific provisions for SA agreements with potentially responsible parties (PRP), such as owners and operators of a site. One such provision helps ensure cleanups are not delayed by a loss of funding if the PRP stops cleaning up the site. However, some EPA regions have entered into agreements with PRPs at sites that officials said were likely eligible for the SA approach without following the SA guidance. Such agreements may not benefit from EPA's provisions for SA agreements. EPA headquarters officials said the agency prefers regions to use the SA approach at such sites, but EPA has not stated this preference explicitly in its guidance. In addition, EPA's tracking and reporting of certain aspects of the process under the SA approach differs from that under the NPL approach. As a result, EPA's tracking of SA agreement sites in its Superfund database is incomplete; the standards for documenting the NPL eligibility of SA agreement sites are less clear than those for NPL sites; and EPA is not publicly reporting a full picture of SA agreement sites. Unless EPA makes improvements in these areas, its management of the process at SA agreement sites may be hampered.
The SA agreement sites showed mixed results in completing the cleanup process when compared with 74 similar NPL sites GAO analyzed. Specifically, SA agreement and NPL sites in GAO's analysis showed mixed results in the average time to complete negotiations with PRPs and for specific cleanup activities, such as remedial investigation and feasibility studies, remedial designs, and remedial actions. In addition, a lower proportion of SA agreement sites have completed cleanup compared with similar NPL sites. SA agreement sites tend to be in earlier phases of the cleanup process because the SA approach began more recently than the NPL approach. Given the limited number of activities for both NPL and SA agreement sites in GAO's analysis, these differences cannot be attributed entirely to the type of approach used at each site. Among other things, GAO recommends:
- the Administrator should provide guidance to EPA regions that defines each type of OCA deferral and what constitutes adequate documentation for OCA deferral and completion of cleanup;
- the Administrator should develop a method for EPA headquarters to identify and track other sites with long-term cleanups under the Superfund program (i.e., those that are outside of the NPL and SA approaches);
- the Administrator should update EPA's written policies on SA agreement sites, including taking steps such as clarifying whether the SA approach is EPA's preferred approach for long-term cleanup of sites under the Superfund program and outside of the NPL, specifying what documentation is sufficient to support the Hazard Ranking System score at SA agreement sites, and defining when the database code that identifies sites with SA agreements should remain in place; and
- the Administrator should report performance information on the progress of cleanup at SA agreement sites in a manner that is equivalent to such reporting for NPL sites.