Here, I analyze the fundamental flaws of EPA’s Superfund Program, how it was carried out and the enormous transaction costs and time it took to get to actual cleanup of a toxic waste disposal site. Also, how to fix Superfund.

  • Superfund promoted a 100% solution where the problem was only 5% understood…
  • No matter how many test wells were driven or pits excavated during the remedial investigation phase, conditions were highly likely to be substantially different from those that were predicted, and upon which a ROD was issued, consent decrees signed, etc and subsequent final designs and treatment or removal remedies were based.
  • Superfund kept lawyers, engineers, administrators, scientists, public participation, and communication specialists and others employed for years in the EPA, states, the engineering profession, and regulated community.
  • Construction contractors and consulting engineers did not speak the same language.
  • Later in my tour with Canonie Environmental Services Corp., Mike Taylor and I produced a second publication called “Sequential Risk Mitigation” that was in direct response to EPA’s second attempt to break the endless do-loop of studies that was practiced under Superfund. This policy was known as the Superfund Accelerated Cleanup Model or SACM. SACM was the king with no clothes as it was nothing but a concept that further reflected EPA frustration (and total lack of imagination) with the lack of remedial actions being taking even after years of study and repeated failed attempts at actual field remediation.
  • Superfund and its National Contingency Plan had a very prescriptive process for approaching a site on the National Priorities Lists. Similar to the planning, design and construction paradigm of the Construction Grants process. The regulations governing the implementation of CERCLA, were massive and incomprehensible like my construction grants body of regulations and guidance.
  • I reflected on my experience with EPA and its decision-making, the flawed and contentious Superfund law that pitted the regulator, the regulated, and the local community in an often contentious drawn-out affair. In these instances EPA was always blamed by the local citizenry (and the states) for broken promises and incessant delays…
  • The fundamental flaw with CERCLA is the fact that Congress did not set up a two-step process similar to that constructed under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts; i.e., a technology-based standard based on cost effective interim steps, followed by an environmental standard. Instead, CERCLA was a one-step process that produced a remedy to meet cleanup standards that were human health-based – in other words a 100% solution based on maybe 5-10% understanding of the site.
  • The reason for this two-step approach stems from the need to balance the urgency of taking clean-up action (in the case of CERCLA, remediation) weighed against the damage to human health or the environment that may be caused by the delays which were often in years or decades and inevitable.
  • In defense of EPA’s Remedial Project Managers who were poorly trained and directed, they often had little or no technical background and were overworked. Personality style became a factor in how projects proceeded. Those who took charge often found themselves at cross-purpose with PRPs. Those, whose personality style was characterized by liking to be liked sometimes found themselves being manipulated by PRPs. Too, OSCs and RPMs often bore the brunt of media criticism for the failure to make any meaningful progress at actual remediation. This reality haunted EPA, particularly at environmental justice sites.
  • “Many [EPA] managers feel that decision making is in a different category from other activities for which they are responsible. They act as if decision making is an essentially unmanageable activity — that decisions emerge from the gut through procedures that are primarily intuitive, and thus difficult to quantify or fathom.” (Bill Cob, CH2M Hill)
  • In this case study, EPA crossed the line in one instance by invoking “retribution” in order to punish Canonie and SoilTech, Inc. for their “trial burn” performance at OMC Muskegon Harbor Superfund Project using an innovative technology called a thermal desorber…This was the first time I recall this particular behavior manifesting itself in such a stark manner, although when I was a young engineer in Region 4 in the early 1970s, payback was discussed in the context of bad actors who would not go along with our will, or who otherwise embarrassed EPA.
  • In the end, EPA Region 5 succumbed to its most basic instinct: to punish SoilTech and its owner, Canonie. It was hardly worth it.
  • Karl Hoenke (Chevron) was apoplectic, blinded by his angst towards EPA’s decision process — whatever that was. Jeff Wyatt, on the other hand, was a very cool and analytical character who kept his emotions in check. The point here is that I saw a great opportunity for a win-win scenario, but EPA and Chevron would have had to dramatically change their behavior, and we (I) would have had to find meaningful incentives for them to do so, i.e., a good risk-reward ratio for both EPA Region 4 and Chevron’s business manager.
  • After a pregnant pause, I said,“Nothing. On-scene coordinators have no decision-making authority, and yet they are often perceived at the local level as being the decision makers.
  • In the end, the partnership and high performance team approach far exceeded all our expectations. The results of the high performance team effort, as offered by Dean Williamson of CH2M Hill in a PowerPoint presentation, were:
    1. Completion in less than 4 years, versus an estimated 7-to-8 years;
    2. Two ROD amendments and three Explanation of Significant Differences (or ESDs) were implemented, without a loss of focus, time or momentum;
    3. Completion at a cost of 12 $MM, versus an estimated 18 $MM (including the internal costs of EPA and the State of Georgia);
    4. Quiet community, actual acceptance by opposition group;
    5. Property has been returned to productive use;
    6. Improved reputations of both EPA and Chevron;
    7. Strong, respectful, trusting relationships among all participants—the team had fun!
  • Phil Humphries personally went door-to-door (in Tifton, Georgia, an environmental justice community), introducing himself as Chevron’s decision-maker to local residents, some who had property abutting the Marzone site. This was unusual, to say the least! As Phil observed in our interview, “EPA had never made any attempt at talking to local residents.”
  • When you strip away the technical jargon and bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, this is what is left and all that a local resident wanted to hear and understand. Having this message delivered by a businessman who took ownership of and responsibility to get the job done as soon as possible (after years of broken promises and confusion) was the only concern they had.