EPA Calls for New “Completion Strategies” at Contaminated Groundwater Sites


In October 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its draft “Groundwater Remedy Completion Strategy – Moving Forward with Completion in Mind,” which would establish a recommended strategy for an adaptive management-style approach to managing contaminated groundwater sites.  The strategy calls for rigorous data assessment of the performance of groundwater cleanup actions to achieve remedial action objectives (RAOs), and clarifies that RAOs and cleanup goals should be reevaluated if impediments prevent achieving those objectives. 

Buried in this regulatory jargon is one significant impact of the Completion Strategy – this document confirms EPA’s recognition that some groundwater sites present problems so intractable that RAOs and cleanup levels are not likely to be achieved in any reasonable timeframe. 

Although EPA clarifies that the Completion Strategy relies on–but does not alter–existing law and guidance, the document recommends that a remedy completion strategy be completed for all sites with groundwater remedies.  A completion strategy is “a recommended site-specific course of action(s) and decision making process(es) to achieve groundwater RAOs and associated cleanup levels using an updated conceptual site model, performance metrics and data derived from site-specific remedy evaluations.” 

The Completion Strategy lays out an adaptive management-style approach to evaluating remedy performance that proceeds through the following steps:

  • Understand site conditions, including timeframe estimated to achieve cleanup;
  • Design site-specific remedy evaluations, including endogenous and exogenous factors affecting remedy achievement;
  • Develop performance metrics–such as remedy operation metrics, progress metrics, and attainment metrics–and collect monitoring data;
  • Conduct remedy evaluations, including whether and when the remedy will achieve RAOs and cleanup levels; and
  • Make management decisions that feed these data points back into remedy design, potentially through an Explanation of Significant Differences (ESD) or a Record of Decision (ROD) Amendment.

The Completion Strategy’s data-centric approach reflects a current vogue in performance-based systems in environmental regulation.  By relying on augmented data feedback, the use of completion strategies may lead to more honest and sober reflection on whether remedial action objectives can be achieved for sites with complex groundwater contamination.  As a result, Superfund sites with intractable groundwater contamination problems may begin to find EPA to be more receptive to reevaluating RAOs based on intractable obstacles to remedy completion.

The comment period closed on December 20, 2013, and a final draft is expected in early 2014.  The draft Completion Strategy, supporting fact sheet, letter to “interested parties,” and a frequently asked questions document are all available here

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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