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GAO: Improvements Needed to Measure Progress of Cleanup of Formerly Used Defense Sites

The estimated cost to the federal government of cleaning up environmental contamination, referred to as environmental liabilities, was $613 billion in fiscal year 2021. This is an increase from $465 billion in fiscal year 2017. The Department of Defense’s (DOD) fiscal year 2021 share of environmental liabilities was the second highest among federal agencies, at about $82 billion. 

Federal law authorizes DOD to identify, investigate, and clean up contamination from hazardous substances and military munitions that it caused on properties used for military purposes and that were conveyed out of DOD’s jurisdiction prior to 1986. These types of contamination can harm both humans and the environment.

In 2021, DOD estimated that it would cost $11.9 billion to clean up 1,700 sites in its Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program. This program cleans up sites that have been contaminated with hazardous substances or military munitions.

Since the inception of the FUDS program, DOD has cleaned up 85 percent of Installation Restoration Program (IRP) hazardous waste sites and 45 percent of Military Munitions Response Program (MMRP) sites. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says some costs of future cleanup efforts are uncertain, in part because nearly 1,200 MMRP sites are under investigation, and cleanup remedies are not yet known. GAO added that DOD’s cost estimates for individual sites improve as it completes investigations and identifies specific remedies.

When prioritizing funding, DOD selects the sites posing the greatest danger to people and the environment by assigning risk scores for each site. However, GAO found that DOD assigns scores differently based on whether the site was contaminated by hazardous substances or by munitions. And the watchdog said DOD does not have guidance to weigh the relative risk between the two types of contamination.

Federal law requires that DOD report on progress of its cleanup programs. In 2012, DOD developed a goal for IRP to complete cleanup of at least 95 percent of sites by the end of fiscal year 2021. DOD did not develop a comparable goal for FUDS MMRP, stating, for example, that developing a goal for FUDS MMRP sites was not practical, given the large number of sites. However, DOD developed goals for other non-FUDS cleanup programs with a similar number of sites. GAO said that if DOD were to develop a cleanup goal for FUDS MMRP, Congress would be better positioned to hold DOD accountable for achieving a reasonable level of cleanup progress, and the public would be better informed.

In its June 16 report, the watchdog recommended that DOD develop guidance to weigh the relative risk or other factors between IRP and MMRP sites when selecting sites for funding, and establish a relevant cleanup goal for the FUDS MMRP. DOD concurred.

Read the full report at GAO

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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