Key Issues > U.S. Government's Environmental Liability - High Risk Issue
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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.

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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

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.

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High Risk: U.S. Government's Environmental Liabilities
  • portrait of David Trimble
    • David Trimble
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • trimbled@gao.gov
    • 202-512-3841