Public Release: 

Linking Land Use To Superfund Cleanups Presents Challenges For Managing Site Contamination And Sustaining Public Involvement Over The Long-Term

Resources for the Future (RFF)

WASHINGTON, DC - As the United States Congress debates revisions to Superfund, the law that governs the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances, one of the most important questions is whether to require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to base cleanup decisions on the expected future land use at a Superfund site. Such an approach has the potential to reduce cleanup costs, help local governments redevelop sites that have sat idle, and encourage more public deliberation in cleanup decisions. However, such a policy could result in higher levels of residual contamination at sites destined for industrial or commercial uses. At these sites, EPA, along with state and local governments, will have to devise effective land use controls to prevent future exposure and will have to more effectively involve the public in cleanup and reuse decisions, according to a new report published by Resources for the Future's (RFF) Center for Risk Management.

In their report, Linking Land Use and Superfund Cleanups: Uncharted Territory, RFF's Katherine Probst, Robert Hersh, Kris Wernstedt and Jan Mazurek raise a number of concerns related to land use-based remedies.

"The debate about linking land use and remedy selection at Superfund sites has been going on for the past few years," project director Katherine Probst says. "There has, however, been little investigation of what happens at sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) when land use plays a prominent role in the remedy selection process. There also has been little analysis of what institutions are involved in making land use decisions and maintaining land use restrictions over time. Our report aims to fill these gaps."

In their report, Probst, Hersh, Wernstedt and Mazurek examine how EPA currently integrates future land use into remedy selection and describe the institutions involved in land use regulation. To illustrate the interaction between remedy selection and land use, the researchers present case studies of cleanups at three NPL sites----Abex (Portsmouth, Virginia), Industri-Plex (Woburn, Massachusetts), and Fort Ord (Monterey, California). Each case study examines how land use considerations influence site cleanup decisions.

From their investigation and analysis, the researchers conclude that:

  • Agreement about the future use of a site may not lead to agreement about the appropriate remedy-or cleanup standards-for that site.
  • It is often not possible to determine the "anticipated future use" of a site, and the remedy selection process can lead to unanticipated land uses at Superfund sites.
  • Institutional controls-restrictions placed on groundwater and land use-are often critical to ensuring long-term protection, often neglected and left to the end of the remedy selection process, and subject to legal, administrative, and social pressures that may limit their effectiveness.
  • Linking cleanup decisions to land use considerations places an even heavier responsibility on EPA to effectively involve the public in the remedy selection process.

Probst, Hersh, Wernstedt, and Mazurek recommend that EPA revise the National Contingency Plan (NCP)-the regulatory blueprint for the Superfund program-to address the role of land use in remedy selection, including incorporating the development of institutional controls into the formal remedy selection process. They also advise that EPA, in consultation with state and local governments, develop a strategy (for eventual codification in the NCP) to ensure effective long-term regulatory oversight of Superfund sites where contamination remains at levels that present a risk to public health after the remedy has been constructed and implemented.

"Institutional controls 'work' only if they are complied with," Probst cautions. "And while this is true of any site remedy, institutional controls require monitoring and enforcement over long time periods."

"It is unclear what legal mechanisms are most effective, what institutions will be responsible for enforcing institutional controls, and who's going to pay for these additional responsibilities," Probst says. "We need to be able to answer these questions if land use-based remedies are to be protective over the long term."

The research for the report was supported in part by EPA's Office of Emergency and Remedial Response and Office of Policy Analysis. The report can be downloaded on the internet at http://www.rff.org/research/reports/home.htm. Hard copies can be ordered by calling (202) 328-5000.

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