U.S. Government's Environmental Liability - High Risk Issue
The federal government’s estimated liability for environmental cleanup activities has been growing for the past 20 years and is likely to continue to increase. When addressing these environmental liabilities, it is important to reduce risks to the public and the environment in cost-effective ways.
Federal Government’s Environmental Liability
The federal government is financially liable for cleaning up areas where federal activities have contaminated the environment. The federal government’s environmental liability has been growing for the past 20 years and will likely keep increasing as agencies continue to better understand the complexities of their clean-up mission.
The government’s estimated environmental liability was $465 billion in fiscal year 2017—up from $212 billion in fiscal year 1997. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD) are responsible for most of this liability. The remainder is managed by numerous departments and agencies, notably the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Departments of Transportation, Veterans Affairs, and Interior.
Total Reported U.S. Environmental Liability, Fiscal Year 2017
However, these estimates may not reflect all of the future cleanup responsibilities facing federal agencies. Federal agencies also do not always address their environmental liabilities in a cost-effective manner due to a lack of complete information about long-term cleanup responsibilities and their associated costs, as well as an inconsistent approach to making cleanup decisions. This makes it difficult for decision makers, including Congress, to understand the full scope of the federal government’s cleanup obligations.
Due to this—as well as the risk of contaminated sites to the public and the environment—the issue of federal environmental liabilities was placed on the High Risk List in 2017.
Department of Energy
DOE is responsible for the bulk of the federal government’s reported environmental liability—$384 billion in fiscal year 2017. Over the past 2 decades, DOE has spent billions on environmental cleanup, but its liability has more than doubled between fiscal years 1997 and 2017. For example, DOE’s environmental liability increased by nearly $130 billion from fiscal year 2014 to 2018 at the Hanford Site in Washington State, in part because of contract and project management problems with waste cleanup. DOE’s liability also grew by an additional $110 billion in fiscal year 2018.
Moreover, DOE’s estimated liability does not include billions in future costs. For example, it has not accounted for the more than $2.3 billion in costs associated with 45 contaminated facilities that will likely need to be cleaned up in the future.
DOE also relies primarily on individual sites to locally negotiate cleanup activities and establish priorities, which is not consistent with recommendations it has received over the last 2 decades to develop national priorities to balance risks and costs across its sites.
Department of Defense
DOD is responsible for the second-largest share of the federal government’s reported environmental liability—$68 billion in fiscal year 2017. And while DOD’s total reported environmental liability has remained relatively constant since 2000, its environmental cleanup costs are likely to exceed its current estimate because a number of activities are not fully included.
For example, a recent audit of DOD’s environmental liabilities found that the department did not consistently design, document, and implement the processes and procedures required to manage its environmental liabilities. DOD also did not appropriately prepare cost estimates for certain types of environmental liabilities. For example, the Army did not report its liabilities related to general equipment, nuclear reactors, and operational ranges.
GAO-19-28: Published: Jan 29, 2019. Publicly Released: Jan 29, 2019.
The Department of Energy is tasked with cleaning up waste from Cold War nuclear weapons production, much of which is hazardous or radioactive. The department's Office of Environmental Management estimates that future work could cost at least $377 billion—$109 billion more than last year's estimate. Each of the 16 cleanup sites sets its own priorities, which makes it hard to ensure that the grea...
GAO-18-374T: Published: Feb 6, 2018. Publicly Released: Feb 6, 2018.
The Department of Energy's (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) manages the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and supports nonproliferation efforts. DOE's Office of Environmental Management addresses contamination at nuclear weapons production sites. We testified that NNSA’s plans to modernize its nuclear weapons do not align with its budget, raising affordability concerns DOE's...
GAO-18-78: Published: Oct 18, 2017. Publicly Released: Oct 18, 2017.
DOD and EPA have found chemicals in drinking water at or near military installations that may cause cancer and other health issues. Some of these chemicals can be found in firefighting foam and rocket propellants. DOD has taken steps to limit individuals' exposure to some chemicals, including providing alternative drinking water supplies and installing water treatment systems. Still, DOD's incomp...
GAO-17-306: Published: May 3, 2017. Publicly Released: May 3, 2017.
90% of the nuclear waste in tanks at the Department of Energy's site in Hanford, WA is low-activity waste—it is much less radioactive than high-level waste. To solidify low-activity waste for safe disposal, it can be mixed with molten glass (used for high-level waste; costs more) or grout (costs less). DOE plans to treat up to 1/2 of this low-activity waste with glass, but hasn't decided abo...
GAO-17-151: Published: Jan 19, 2017. Publicly Released: Jan 19, 2017.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has captured and reported more comprehensive cost information in its environmental cost reporting for installations closed under the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process since GAO last reported on the issue in 2007. For example, GAO reported in 2007 that the costs DOD reported for environmental cleanup for installations closed under the 2005 BRAC round were n...
GAO-15-35: Published: Jan 16, 2015. Publicly Released: Feb 13, 2015.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of the Interior (Interior) have identified many contaminated and potentially contaminated sites, but neither agency has a complete inventory. As of April 2014, USDA had identified 1,491 contaminated sites and many potentially contaminated sites, including landfills and shooting ranges. However, USDA does not have a reliable, centralized...
GAO-06-427: Published: Mar 31, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 2006.
The nation's military installations and nuclear weapons production facilities have accumulated many types of waste and contamination over the years. The federal government estimated its environmental liability to clean up this waste at $249 billion in fiscal year 2004, representing the federal government's third largest reported liability. It represents a significant future outflow of funds at the...