hazardous waste infrastructure

Hazardous Waste

D+

Overview

There are an estimated 35 million tons of hazardous materials managed annually in the United States. In general, there is adequate capacity for the treatment and disposal of these materials through the year 2044. However, progress toward mitigating legacy sites where hazardous waste was produced and improperly disposed of has stalled. There are approximately 1,300 Superfund sites where cleanup activities are either incomplete or not yet begun, roughly the same number as four years ago. Meanwhile, the Superfund budget has remained essentially flat at around $1.1 billion over the last 10 years.

The two other hazardous waste programs — one for brownfields and one for hazardous waste regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — are also in a steady state. In general, grant funding for the Brownfields Program has increased, but the program is still oversubscribed, with just 30% of applicants receiving funding. Meanwhile, resilience is a growing concern at many hazardous waste sites. Around 60% of all nonfederal Superfund sites are located in areas that may be impacted by flooding, storm surge, wildfires, or sea-level rise related to climate change effects.

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Highlights

Fifty-nine Superfund

cleanup sites are home to renewable

energy projects

A 2019 GAO report

found that about 60% (945 of 1,571) of all nonfederal National Priorities List (NPL) sites re located in areas

a that may be impacted by flooding

Brownfields redevelopment

has resulted in significant economic and environmental benefits,

with an economic benefit ratio of 17:1 for every federal dollar spent,

Capacity & Condition

Recognizing that hazardous waste disposal without planning and management endangers the public health and environment, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976 to manage hazardous waste from generation to disposal. The RCRA Corrective Action (CA) program drives the cleanup of legacy contamination, while the RCRA permitting program governs the generation and proper transport, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste for ongoing operations that result in hazardous waste. To clean up hazardous waste produced and improperly disposed of prior to the enactment of RCRA, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. CERCLA created the hazardous waste cleanup program commonly referred to as “Superfund.”

Explore Capacity & Condition

Superfund

Superfund is a mature program, and technologies for cleanup are advancing; however, the capacity of the program (including funding) to take on very large and complex sites, including contaminated sediment sites and area-wide impacts from legacy mining sites, is not sufficient to address the scope of the problem. While the impact of cleanup activities is clearly significant, the major impact of our hazardous waste infrastructure is that the technical requirements, enforcement, and liability provisions have led to a significant reduction in careless disposal of hazardous materials.

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Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)

Whereas the Superfund program manages legacy hazardous waste sites, RCRA provides instructions for current hazardous waste generation. Under RCRA, hazardous waste is managed from the moment it is generated to its final disposal. More than 80% of all generated hazardous waste is produced by the chemical manufacturing industry and the petroleum and coal products manufacturing industry. Over half the nation’s hazardous waste is generated in the state of Texas.

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Brownfields

There are an estimated 450,000 brownfield sites in the U.S. Brownfields differ from Superfund sites in the degree and nature of the contamination, and often in the site’s commercial potential. Cleaning up and reinvesting in brownfield sites increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, utilizes existing infrastructure, reduces development pressures from open land, and both improves and protects the environment. There are multiple federal grant programs that provide funding and incentives that support brownfields cleanup and revitalization.

Brownfields redevelopment has resulted in significant economic and environmental benefits,

with an economic benefit ratio of 20:1 for every federal dollar spent, increasing home values near former brownfield sites, business expansion, and job growth related to infrastructure improvements and improved business performance. Since 2006, approximately 150,000 sites have been cleaned up, facilitating the creation of more than 144,000 jobs, with 2 million acres made ready for reuse.

Funding & Future Need

The Superfund budget has remained essentially flat at around $1.1 billion since 2009. In FY 2019, funding limitations resulted in deferring cleanup on 34 sites that were ready for remedial construction. Funding limitations have resulted in a growing backlog of deferred cleanups. In constant dollars, funding for the Superfund program has decreased by 43% since FY 2000.

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Public Safety & Resilience

The core purpose of the nation’s hazardous waste infrastructure is public safety — preventing the release of, and exposure to, hazardous and toxic substances. Therefore, the infrastructure is generally fit for that core purpose. However, its resilience is less certain. A 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that about 60% (945 of 1,571) of all nonfederal National Priorities List (NPL) sites are located in areas that may be impacted by flooding, storm surge, wildfires, or sea level rise related to climate change effects. A clear demonstration of this risk occurred in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 50 inches of rain over the greater Houston area, damaging several Superfund sites that contain hazardous substances. At the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site near Houston, floodwaters eroded the containment structure, releasing highly toxic wastes including dioxins into the river. In 2018, the Carr Fire in California burned through the Iron Mountain Mine site near Redding, California, nearly destroying the water treatment system. According to the GAO report, some high-density propylene lines that caught fire nearly resulted in an explosion in the mine.

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Innovation

Remediation Technologies

Remediation technologies continue to improve, and more effective site characterization and cleanup strategies are being employed by EPA, other federal entities, and the private sector, emphasizing adaptive management and optimization of treatment systems. 

Raising the Grade

Solutions that Work

Increase funding for Superfund at a level sufficient to eliminate the backlog of unfunded remedial actions within a three-year period, while also accelerating the implementation of positive program reforms identified by EPA’s Superfund Task Force.

Address staff shortages, training gaps, and contracting delays in the Superfund program.

Focus on Superfund and RCRA Corrective Action sites located near historically disadvantaged, low-income communities, as these communities have been disproportionally harmed by exposure to contamination from these sites.

Accelerate and increase investment in PFAS research aimed at characterization, treatment, and analysis of these compounds, as well as understanding health impacts. Drive that research to establish a protective and scientifically sound regulatory framework for managing PFAS in the environment.

Emphasize a robust technical focus and establish a stable, designated funding source for mining site cleanup, which already consumes a large percentage of the Superfund budget.

Increase funding to state and tribal RCRA programs to address shortfalls resulting in staff shortages, limited compliance oversight, and slowed permitting.

Expand brownfields competitive grant programs to fund a larger percentage of Brownfields grant applications, to support investment in post-assessment and post-cleanup planning and project implementation activities, increasing leverage and stimulating greater investment from state, regional, local, and private funding sources.

Address funding shortfalls for state and tribal brownfields agencies, which limit the number of beneficial redevelopment projects that get implemented

Conduct further research on more sustainable, cost-effective remedial approaches for mining sites.

Invest in technology to optimize and improve efficiency of groundwater treatment systems.

Unfunded New Construction Projects

View Report Sources

1 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2020a. RCRAInfo, Hazardous Waste Report data, reporting years 2001-2017.

2 House Committee on Appropriation for the Department of Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, multiple years.

3 U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Superfund: EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Manage Risks from Climate Change,” GAO-20-73, October 18, 2019.

4 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “National Capacity Assessment Report Pursuant to CERCLA Section 104(c)(9),” December 17, 2019.

5  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, https://rcrapublic.epa.gov/rcrainfoweb/action/modules/br/summary/summarysearch;jsessionid=F52B8ECB8812AC217D90778C30D4EA89

6 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Superfund, “Superfund: National Priorities List (NPL).” 

7 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Superfund, “Abandoned Mine Lands: Site Information.”  

8 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Superfund FY 2019 Annual Accomplishments Report,” EPA publication number 540R20001. 

9 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Superfund Task Force Final Report,” EPA publication number 540R119008, September 2019.

10 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hazardous Waste, “Measuring Progress at Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Corrective Action Facilities.” 

11 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hazardous Waste, “Measuring Progress at Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Corrective Action Facilities.”

12 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Brownfields, “Brownfields Program Accomplishments and Benefits: Leveraging Resources to Revitalize Communities.” 

13 Probst K, “Superfund 2017: Cleanup Accomplishments and the Challenges Ahead,” 2017.

14 Probst K, New York University School of Law and Environmental Law Institute, “Looking Back to Move Forward: Resolving Health & Environmental Crises,” Chapter 6: Superfund at 40: Unfulfilled Expectations, November 2020.

15 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Superfund FY 2019 Annual Accomplishments Report,” EPA publication number 540R20001.

16 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “FY 2021 EPA Budget in Brief,” February 2020. 

17 Personal Communications, Association of State & Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials, April 24, 2020.

18  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Brownfields, “Brownfields Program Accomplishments and Benefits: Leveraging Resources to Revitalize Communities.”

19 U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Superfund: EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Manage Risks from Climate Change,” GAO-20-73, October 18, 2019.

20 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2018.”  


PHOTO ATTRIBUTIONS

  1. Photo courtesy of Jacobs Engineering
  2. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management of Oregon & Washington
  3. Creative Commons
  4. Creative Commons 
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