Environmental Economics

Alternative Approaches to Hazardous-Waste Cleanup

  • Abstract
    In this project, the researchers propose to examine the operation of hazardous-waste cleanup programs in Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark -- countries chosen to provide contrasts to the U.S. Superfund program in both design and implementation. Their objectives are threefold: first, to have systematic discussion of real world alternatives; second, to assess how other nations deal with common operational problems such as remedy selection, determination of cleanup levels, and the allocation of the costs and risks of cleanup efforts; and, finally, to inform the literatures of public policy and regulatory strategy through a systematic analysis of alternative approaches to a similar environmental problem in different national contexts. In each country, the researchers will conduct a two-part investigation, based primarily on on-site interviews with government officials, business representatives, lawyers, academics and representatives of environmental groups. The first part will produce general descriptions of the design, operation, and aggregate accomplishments of the cleanup programs. The second will produce case studies of actual cleanups conducted under the different cleanup regimes of each country. The researchers will examine the effect of differing policy designs and implementation strategies used in these countries on two broad sets of dependent variables. The first concerns decision-making processes, especially the transaction costs and delays involved in resolving issues of remedy selection and allocation of cleanup costs among private parties, and between those parties and the government. The second set of dependent variables focuses upon substantive results: the remedies selected, the cleanup standards applied, and the indirect effects of the cleanup program on future behavior. The final report of the project will cover three broad topics: the general descriptions of the hazardous-waste programs in each country, reports of the case studies, and lessons for both hazardous waste cleanup in the United States, and more, broadly, for public policy analysis.
  • Metadata
    Principal Investigators:
    Church, Thomas W.
    Technical Liaison:
    Research Organization:
    State University of New York at Albany
    Funding Agency/Program:
    Grant Year:
    Project Period:
    Cost to Funding Agency:
  • Project Reports
          Excerpts from a letter from the Principal Investigator to Dr. Richard Williams, Exploratory Reserch Program, Office of Research and Development, EPA (views expressed are those of the author):

    "Beyond Hazardous Waste Cleanup in Europe and the United States," 7 Georgetown International Environmental Law Review (1994; with Robert Nakamura).
    "Assessing Environmental Risks: Lessons from Superfund," 2 Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 136 (1994; with Robert Nakamura and Jeryl Mumpower).

    Brief Review of Findings:

    The most comprehensive statement of our findings is the article forthcoming in the
    Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, "Beyond Superfund: Hazardous Waste Cleanup in Europe and the United States." The findings can be summarized very briefly in two observations:

    (1) Cleanup decision making in Europe is not as acrimonious and legalistic as in the United States. However, in all three of the countries we examined, public officials initially attempted to force private polluters to clean up polluted land through court action. These law suits, however, were in large part unsuccessful.

    (2) Cleanup of polluted land in Europe is presently primarily a public works program funded from general tax revenues; as a result, cleanups have been constrained in number and environmental outcome by limits on the public purse, and many of the most serious sites appear to have been postponed indefinitely.

    One of our goals was to examine European programs to ascertain if they had elements that might be transferable to this side of the Atlantic. We suggest that two common European practices may find a place in a modified Superfund program: a more explicit consideration of present or future land use in establishing cleanup standards and goals, and a widening of the subjects under negotiation with responsible private parties to include the timing and pace of cleanup actions.

    The first practice, a readiness to consider land use in setting cleanup goals, is most overt in Germany, which has no formal national cleanup standards and where scarcity of public and private cleanup funds necessitates getting the most aggregate cleanup possible from the resources available. However, despite a formal standard of "multifunctionality" in the Netherlands and Denmark, our interviewees in both countries suggested that land use was almost always a key consideration in cleanup decisions.
    Allowing lower cleanup levels on land posing less risk to human health and the environment can result in sizable savings in cleanup costs, since the final reductions in toxicity are inevitably the most expensive to obtain. Lower costs and an explicit authorization of land use-based cleanup criteria could be expected to lower the acrimony level in Superfund negotiations and make government-PRP cleanup agreements easier to reach. It might also result in more cleanup "bang" for each dollar expended.

    European practice also suggests that the variable of pace of cleanup might productively enter more explicitly into Superfund decision making. At most Superfund sites, a remedy is established in the Record of Decision, and -- - while actual construction and operation of that remedy may take several years (or even decades) to achieve success -- engineering considerations alone would seem to drive the timing of cleanup. Europeans are much more amenable to allowing economic considerations to enter into decisions regarding the pace at which cleanup will occur. For example, a temporary containment remedy may be allowed at a non-threatening site, with final cleanup to take place in stages over a decade or more. "Hot spots" may be required to be cleaned up immediately at some sites, with cleanup of less serious contamination to take place according to a multi-year schedule agreed upon at the outset. Typically, these timing decisions do not remove the ultimate obligation of the PRP to remediate polluted land. But the ability to spread costs over several years can make the ultimate cleanup bill easier for a business to absorb. For government negotiators, the ability to bargain over the cleanup schedule provides a negotiating tools that can speed settlement without diluting ultimate cleanup goals.

    A final, broader conclusion is perhaps our most important contribution to the current debate over reauthorization of Superfund. European regulatory practices have undeniably attractive elements -- especially when compared to the excesses of legalistic wrangling common to Superfund cases in the United States. They imply less resort to courts, fewer transaction costs, potentially faster cleanups. But -- and this point is usually ignored in the glowing descriptions of cooperative waste cleanup in Europe -- cooperation is most in evidence when costs are relatively low and where businesses have clear financial incentives to clean up. Thus, our investigations in Europe have not uncovered one privately financed cleanup that even approached the cost of an average Superfund remediation. Superfund consumes substantial transaction costs, and it brings with it high acrimony and legalistic delays. But it also does something that is not happening in Europe: it is getting private industry to pay a significant part of the very high costs of cleaning up abandoned waste sites. And, while we have no systematic data on this issue, it is our clear impression that since nearly all major cleanups in Europe must be paid for from scarce tax dollars, remedies lean much more toward containment rather than the complete remediation statutorily favored (and frequently obtained) at Superfund sites. Whether these differences in program output are good things or bad things was not the subject of this research. But the undeniable trade offs between public-private cooperation and very substantial expenditures of public moneys on the one hand, and acrimony and substantial cleanup burdens being assumed by private industry on the other, must surely be taken into consideration when any comparative evaluation takes place of the hazardous waste cleanup programs on both sides of the Atlantic.
  • Project Status Reports