Date: June 11, 1997
Contacts: Craig Hicks, Media Relations Officer
Mark Parsons, Media Relations Specialist
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Innovative Technologies in Toxic Waste Cleanup
Need Federal Boost

WASHINGTON -- Federal action is needed to bolster the use of innovative technologies in cleaning up contaminated soil and water at many of the 300,000 to 400,000 hazardous waste sites across the nation, says a new report* from a committee of the National Research Council.

"Wider use of innovative technologies can improve cleanup of contaminated soil and ground water, but current national policy inadvertently keeps most of these technologies from making it to the marketplace," said committee chair Suresh C. Rao, graduate research professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Companies responsible for cleaning up hazardous waste sites frequently choose established technologies over innovative ones, in spite of two decades of experience suggesting that at many sites such a choice leads to less than optimal cleanup. Moreover, because the expense of cleanup can be substantial, those responsible for the site often delay action, and often incur no penalty for doing so."

The federal government, in conjunction with the states, should undertake initiatives designed to stimulate the market for innovative cleanup technologies, to spur research on such technologies, and to promote development of measures for judging the success of cleanup efforts that are based both on scientific criteria and on public perceptions and expectations, the committee said.

Stimulating Markets

Billions of dollars are being spent each year to clean up soil and water that has been contaminated by hazardous waste, and it is projected that total costs over the next 75 years will climb to between $500 billion and $1 trillion. But companies that market new decontamination technologies are receiving little of this business and as a result have fared poorly, the report says. To increase the demand for innovative technologies, the federal government should create incentives so that those responsible for site contamination rapidly initiate cleanup using the best available technology. At the same time, the regulatory process needs to be more consistent so that technology developers and investors can more accurately predict their potential investment returns.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission should clarify and strictly enforce requirements that publicly traded U.S. corporations report hazardous waste sites as financial liabilities, the committee said. This action would encourage companies to initiate remediation rather than delay it, in order to clear their balance sheets of this liability. Moreover, companies should have their environmental liability reporting audited by a private third party in the same way their financial reports are audited. There should be strong penalties for companies that fail such audits.

In addition, Congress should pass legislation to allow business firms to amortize the remediation liabilities they report over a 20- to 50-year period, the report says. This would ensure that companies would not risk losing a major portion of their asset value as a result of the full disclosure of cleanup liabilities.

Action also is needed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the committee said. The agency should be more consistent and evenhanded in enforcing cleanup requirements of the Superfund and Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) programs. Currently, companies whose sites fall under these programs can delay cleanup with little financial risk, because the likelihood of a major penalty from EPA is low. Across-the-board enforcement of Superfund and RCRA requirements would help ensure that U.S. companies who spend money on timely cleanup of contaminated soil and water would not be placed at a competitive disadvantage compared to those who "save" money by delaying cleanup at their sites. EPA should establish a national registry of contaminated sites and make it publicly available on the Internet, the report says, to provide companies with an additional incentive for rapid cleanup and to give technology developers a way to assess different segments of the environmental remediation market.

EPA also should allow owners of contaminated sites to choose any remediation technology that can meet regulatory requirements for risk reduction and should make the approval process for selecting cleanup technologies faster and more consistent, the committee said. And the agency should encourage state environmental agencies to take similar steps.

The average time between placing a site on the Superfund National Priorities List and actual site cleanup is 12 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Although technical problems at a site can cause unavoidable delays, much of the delay often can be attributed to slow action by site owners and slow approvals by regulators, the committee said. Some start-up companies featuring innovative technologies have gone out of business while awaiting the approvals necessary to use their technology at enough sites to stay solvent.

The committee also recommended that federal site managers hire contractors to do decontamination work on a fixed-price basis and establish independent peer review panels to check progress made in reaching cleanup goals. Putting in place cost-containment and performance incentives, which currently are lacking, can speed cleanup and encourage contractors to choose innovative technologies.

Spurring New Technologies

Since 1980 much scientific research has been aimed at developing new decontamination technologies, with patent applications increasing from nearly zero that year to more than 430 in 1994. But few of these new ideas have been successfully commercialized. A major impediment to the transfer of promising new decontamination approaches from laboratory to widespread application has been the lack of available, peer-reviewed data on effectiveness, appropriate application, and cost, the committee said. The following efforts are needed to improve the quality and availability of information on the performance of new cleanup technologies:

> EPA -- in collaboration with technology developers, concerned citizens, and other stakeholders -- should develop a comprehensive and easily accessible system for the collection, evaluation, and dissemination of data on decontamination technologies. A mechanism should be put in place to ensure that the data have been peer reviewed, and the data should be accessible on the Internet.

> Government agencies, site cleanup consultants, and owners of hazardous waste sites should work to increase the sharing of information on technology performance and cost. Incentives should be developed to encourage submission of technology and cost data to the national database.

> Government agencies, regulatory authorities, and professional organizations should undertake periodic, comprehensive peer review of innovative cleanup technologies. This will help define the state of the art, build consensus, and provide a standard for design and implementation of new remediation methods.

In addition to better information, research is needed to increase the number of available technologies and improve the understanding and efficiency of existing methods, the committee said. Although there are relatively effective and well-understood methods for easily solved contamination problems, few technologies are available for decontaminating soil and water at the many sites that involve difficult-to-treat contaminants in complex geologic formations.

Measuring Success

While many sectors of the economy, such as the automotive and aerospace industries, have developed uniform standards for evaluating product performance, there are no standards for judging ground water and soil cleanup technologies.

Performance standards should be established to streamline the process of technology selection and to remove some of the obstacles that hamper acceptance of innovative technologies, the committee said.

EPA and state environmental regulators should begin requiring public involvement in discussions about hazardous waste site remediation as soon as the site is discovered, the committee said. A public that is well informed from the start is better prepared to participate in review of technology selection and to consider innovative methods.

When testing the performance of a decontamination technology, developers need to consider the potential concerns of the public as well as those of regulators and customers such as site owners and managers, the report says. Developers should assess a technology by its ability to reduce contaminant mass, concentration, mobility, and toxicity.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

*Pre-publication copies of Innovations in Ground Water and Soil Cleanup: From Concept to Commercialization are available from the National Academy Press at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $45.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain pre-publication copies from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources
Board on Radioactive Waste Management
Water Science and Technology Board

Committee on Innovative Remediation Technologies