After 20 years spent cleaning up old mines, chemical plants, landfills, rivers and other areas across the country contaminated by toxic waste, the EPA still has a lot more work to do, according to a new study, Superfund's Future: What Will It Cost?

The findings of this new Congress-commissioned report by Resources for the Future (RFF) scholars Katherine Probst and David Konisky will disappoint those who were expecting an imminent "ramp down" in the cost to EPA of administering the Superfund program. In fact, the report states there is enough work to ensure the agency's Superfund costs will not decline before 2006 at the very earliest, and then only by a small amount.

"It's just not realistic to think the costs of Superfund are going to decline much in the next 10 years," Probst, a senior fellow at RFF, says. "Though our study does not address whether or not the now-expired taxes that stocked the Trust Fund should be re-imposed, it's clear there's not enough money left to pay for 10 more years of EPA work."

Congress asked independent research institute RFF to estimate future Superfund costs, amid continuing debate on whether and how to reauthorize the program. The law was last reauthorized in 1986; only $1.3 billion was left in the Superfund Trust Fund at the end of fiscal year 2000.

The comprehensive RFF study estimates that the total 10-year bill from fiscal years 2000 through 2009 will range between $14 billion and $16.4 billion. In 1999, the cost of cleaning up nonfederal sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) and administering the program was $1.54 billion; it is unlikely to fall below $1.4 billion until 2008 and $1.33 billion in 2009.

The report recommends that Congress clarifies the role and priorities of the NPL, "Congress needs to clarify the role and priorities of the NPL," says Probst, who has been studying Superfund and hazardous waste management issues for the past 20 years. "The EPA and individual states need to do a better job of identifying sites destined for the NPL in the future, especially new 'mega-sites,' which, at an average cost of $140 million, are 10 times more expensive than most other sites," she adds.

RFF scholars also estimate EPA-funded cleanup costs at current NPL sites will be far greater through 2009 than at sites added between now and then. And despite the EPA having designated 57 percent of all sites on the current NPL "construction complete," there is more work to be done at some of these, and the amount of work at the remaining sites is significant.

They also found that EPA five-year reviews of NPL sites classified many sites as "protective," despite information in these reviews suggesting that the remedies, in fact, are not fully implemented, not functioning as designed or are unlikely to meet cleanup objectives. "Clearly, EPA needs to improve the quality of the five-year review process and clarify just what it means to have a protective remedy," the RFF researchers report.

To help Congress better predict and prioritize funding requirements, Probst and Konisky also recommend a reassessment of the level of management, policy, and administrative support resources needed to implement Superfund, as well as improvements to EPA management and financial systems for tracking Superfund progress and costs.