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EPA's Report on the Environment: External Review Draft

Current Human Exposures Under Control at High-Priority Cleanup Sites



Note to reviewers of this draft revised ROE: This indicator reflects data through 2011. EPA anticipates updating this indicator in 2014.

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Click the legend to turn layers on or off. Hover your mouse over the display to reveal data.

Introduction

The EPA Superfund and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Programs conduct a number of activities to address the nation’s most severely contaminated lands. The Programs investigate and collect data on potentially contaminated sites to determine whether they are contaminated and require cleanup. When a potentially hazardous waste site is reported to EPA, trained inspectors determine whether the site presents a hazard to human health and the environment. Sites that pose the greatest threat are placed on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) or RCRA Cleanup Baseline. For RCRA, “sites” are more commonly referred to as RCRA Corrective Action “facilities.”

One of the priorities for both the NPL and RCRA Cleanup Baseline sites is safeguarding against human exposures to site contamination. EPA and state officials determine whether there is a reasonable expectation that humans could be exposed to site contamination and if interim actions are needed to reduce or eliminate all current human exposure in excess of health-based standards. Such activities may include removing and/or isolating contaminated media, providing alternative water supplies, and restricting access or other land use controls. Exposure at levels below the standards is considered protective (i.e., under control). Although these standards may vary from state to state, EPA believes that they fall within an acceptable range for gauging whether human health is protected (U.S. EPA, 1999, 2012a,c,d). Determinations of potential human exposure at levels of concern are based on site-specific characterization information and monitoring data (usually many analytical samples) pertaining to relevant environmental media (e.g., soil, indoor air, outdoor air, ground water, and surface water), current human activity patterns, and actions taken to prevent human exposure. All potential exposure routes are assessed, including inhalation, dermal contact, and ingestion of the contaminated media or food affected by contaminated media (U.S. EPA,1999, 2012a,c,d).

This indicator describes the numbers of NPL Indicator Baseline sites and RCRA Cleanup Baseline facilities for which government officials have determined that (1) humans are not exposed to contamination in excess of health-based standards (i.e., exposure is under control); (2) there is reasonable expectation that exposure to contamination could be occurring in excess of health-based standards; or (3) insufficient information exists to make a finding of exposure to contamination in excess of health-based standards. The intention of the indicator is not to capture an “action” or “administrative determination” on the part of EPA, but to characterize environmental conditions relevant to the risk to human health from contaminants at RCRA Cleanup Baseline and NPL Indicator Baseline sites. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of NPL Indicator Baseline sites increased by 6 percent (from 1,494 to 1,583), and the number of RCRA facilities tracked by EPA as the “Cleanup Baseline” increased by 119 percent (from 1,714 to 3,747). Changes in the RCRA baseline are programmatic determinations and do not necessarily reflect the condition of the environment.

What the Data Show

Over the years 2000-2012, the percentage of RCRA Cleanup Baseline facilities where human exposure to contamination was under control increased from 37 percent (642 sites out of 1,714) in fiscal year (FY) 2000 to 81 percent (3,041 sites out of 3,747) in FY 2012 (Exhibit 1). This increase represents a combination of sites where mitigation has prevented exposure to contaminants and sites where there are sufficient data to show that exposure to contaminated media was not a problem, regardless of mitigation. The percentage of RCRA Cleanup Baseline facilities where there was reasonable expectations that humans could be exposed to contamination in excess of health-based standards has decreased from 13 percent (225 sites out of 1,714) in FY 2000 to less than 1 percent (24 sites out of 3,747) in FY 2012.

The Superfund NPL Indicator Baseline sites where human exposure to contamination was under control increased as a percentage of the total: 80 percent (1,199 of 1,494 sites) in 2002 and 86 percent (1,361 of 1,583 sites) in 2012 (Exhibit 2). At of the end of FY 2012, officials determined that there were reasonable expectations that humans could be exposed to contamination in excess of health-based standards at 5.7 percent (91 out of 1,583) of the NPL Indicator Baseline sites. This is a decrease from 2002, when the percentage was 8 percent (120 out of 1,494). In 2012, there was insufficient information to make a finding of exposure to contamination in excess of health-based standards at 8 percent (131 out of 1,583) of the sites.

Limitations

  • The NPL does not represent all of the contaminated or potentially contaminated sites listed in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS) database, which contains information on thousands of hazardous waste sites, potential hazardous waste sites, and remedial activities across the nation.
  • The indicator results are presented for 1,714 RCRA Cleanup Baseline facilities tracked from 2000 to 2005, 1,968 facilities tracked from 2006 to 2008, and 3,747 facilities tracked since 2009 and not the entire group of approximately 6,000 hazardous waste management facilities that are potentially subject to RCRA Corrective Action requirements (e.g., initial assessments and, if needed, more thorough investigations and cleanups) (see http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/correctiveaction/index.htm).

  • The indicator does not typically make measurements of exposure biomarkers among potentially exposed individuals at the NPL Indicator Baseline or RCRA Cleanup Baseline sites, but relies on environmental measures at or near the point of exposure and activities that should prevent exposure to contaminants.
     
  • Concentrations of toxic and hazardous contaminants that must not be exceeded to designate a site as having/not having human exposures to contamination in excess of health-based standards vary from state to state, although they fall within a range determined to be acceptable to EPA (U.S. EPA, 1999, 2008).
     
  • The indicator is based on certification by a responsible official that the criteria necessary to designate a site as having/not having human exposures to contamination in excess of health-based standards have been met (U.S. EPA, 1999, 2008). The trend in the number of sites may be underestimated to the extent that certification lags behind the potential human exposure to contamination or certification is delayed due to insufficient or outdated information.
     
  • This approach may not take into account certain risks (e.g., endocrine disruptors) where specific risk levels (e.g., to human health) may not have been established.
     
  • Some new sites (e.g., those created with the “reportable quantity” spill response program) as well as other known sites (e.g., spills) are not included in this indicator.

Data Sources

Data for this indicator were provided by EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) (U.S. EPA, 2013a,b). A list showing the current status of every RCRA baseline site is published online (U.S. EPA, 2012b). A discussion of NPL indicators is available (U.S. EPA, 2012c); information on the current status of any individual NPL site can be queried using EPAs CERCLIS database (U.S. EPA, 2012d) (http://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/srchsites.cfm). For RCRA sites, partial data for previous years can be accessed at http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/correctiveaction/baseline.htm; other previous year data are not publicly accessible, however, and must be requested from OSWER.

 

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