EPA Takes Action to Guide Health and Safety Decisions at Cleanup Sites During the COVID-19 Pandemic
WASHINGTON (April 10, 2020) — Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued interim guidance to the Agency’s regional offices to ensure that decisions about new or ongoing cleanup activities at sites across the country are made with the health and safety of communities, state and tribal partners, EPA staff, and contractors as the priority.
The interim guidance focuses on decision making at emergency response and longer term cleanups sites where EPA is the lead agency or has direct oversight of, or responsibility for, the cleanup work. This includes, but is not limited to, Superfund cleanups, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) corrective actions, Toxic Substance and Control Act PCB cleanups, Oil Pollution Act spill responses, and Underground Storage Tank Program actions. In addition, EPA is sharing this guidance with states to take into consideration as they encounter similar issues at state-lead RCRA cleanup sites.
“EPA remains committed to protecting human health and the environment as we continue to adjust to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “This guidance will allow us to keep workers and the residents in these communities safe while also being able to respond to any emergency that may present an imminent danger to the public health or welfare.”
EPA will, as appropriate, update this guidance as the current situation with COVID-19 evolves.
Guidance for EPA Regional Offices on Field Work Decisions at Cleanup Sites
To address the current challenges posed by the COVID-19 situation, EPA is making decisions about continuing, reducing, or pausing on-site activities on a case-by-case basis consistent with the following priorities:
- Protecting the health and safety of the public, as well as maintaining the health and safety of EPA staff and cleanup partners, is the Agency’s highest priority. Integral to the protection of health and safety is the close coordination with federal, state, tribal, or local health authorities.
- Maintaining EPA’s ability to prevent and respond to environmental emergencies, is also a critical priority for the Agency.
This same approach will apply to EPA’s decision making related to requests from outside parties engaged in cleanup and response sites (e.g., states, tribes, local governments, other federal agencies, other parties, property owners, etc.) for extensions or delays in performance. These decisions will be made in accordance with any existing agreements or enforcement instruments.
The interim guidance issued today also includes directions to the Agency’s regional offices on the following:
- Considering site-specific factors when deciding on whether response actions will continue or be reduced, paused or resumed: Consideration of these factors will help the Agency make nationally consistent decisions when addressing similar factual situations at sites. For example, regional management will consider whether failure to continue response actions would likely pose an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment, and whether it is practical to continue such actions.
- Applying Applicable Enforcement Instruments: Decisions to extend obligations or pause work obligations will be made in accordance with applicable enforcement instruments. These enforcement instruments may contain provisions allowing for adjustments to schedules to be made at the discretion of EPA’s project manager, and/or force majeure provisions, generally including directions to responsible parties on providing the requisite notice and other information to EPA related to a requested extension.
- Conducting Non-Field Site Work: Because much of the work to advance cleanup of sites is performed away from sites, to the extent possible, this work will continue. This includes important work that can be conducted virtually such as investigation reports (including pre-NPL work), modeling, negotiations between the parties, decision documents, cleanup documentation, workplans, progress reports, and maintaining compliance with obligations such as financial assurance.
- Planning for Next Steps After Pausing Site Work: If a decision is made to temporarily reduce or suspend field work, Regions will continue to monitor site conditions and plan the logistics for resuming field work as soon as possible when appropriate.
In addition, it is recommended that Superfund site teams cancel or postpone in-person public meeting events, door-to-door visits, and other site-related face to face interactions to be consistent with current COVID-19 guidance from the CDC and other federal, state, tribal and local officials. We fully encourage EPA staff to keep in contact with affected communities using virtual and other communication tools such as on-line meetings, webinars, conference calls, and call-in numbers, as well as fact sheets, postcards, phone, and social media.
As of the beginning of April, EPA has reduced or paused on-site construction work at approximately 34 EPA or PRP-lead Superfund National Priority List sites, or 12% of all EPA sites with ongoing remedial actions, due to the evolving situation with COVID-19. Regions have decided and may continue to decide to reduce or suspend response actions at particular sites for the following or similar situations:
- State, tribal, or local health officials have requested particular site operations or types of operations that would pertain to particular sites be suspended.
- Site workers have tested positive for or exhibited symptoms of COVID-19.
- Sites where there may be close interaction with high risk groups or those under quarantine, such as work inside homes.
- Sites where contractor field personnel are not able to work due to state, tribal, or local travel restrictions or medical quarantine.
- Sites where social distancing is not possible.
The Interim Guidance is available on the agency’s website at: https://www.epa.gov/superfund/interim-guidance-site-field-work-decisions-due-impacts-covid-19.