Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Corrective Action Program

In 1976, the U.S. Congress enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to protect public health and the environment from improper management of hazardous waste. The primary purpose of the Corrective Action Program under RCRA is to clean up releases of hazardous wastes or hazardous waste constituents that threaten human health or the environment.  The Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments Act (HSWA) of 1984 greatly expanded EPA authority under RCRA for requiring corrective action at permitted facilities and facilities operating under interim status.  In addition, the State of Maine has separate corrective action authorities for investigating and cleaning up releases of hazardous substances at any site where hazardous substances were or are handled.

There are five phases to a RCRA Corrective Action Program, and each phase has a goal associated with it.

Phase 1:  RCRA Facility Assessment (RFA) - This stage is comprised of a preliminary visual inspection of the site and file reviews. There may be some limited sampling of obvious spill areas. The goal of this assessment is to identify releases or potential releases of hazardous materials that may require further investigation.

Example:  The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) receives an anonymous phone call describing what might be illegal dumping of drums in back of a factory that makes electrical components. The DEP first reviews any files that there might be about this factory - files about what kind of materials are handled on site, what kind of wastes they ship off site, or any previous complaints or investigations. There is also a trip out to the site by DEP personnel to look for visible evidence of dumping or general contamination. Pictures are taken and samples of obvious staining or odorous areas may be taken for laboratory analysis.

Phase 2:  RCRA Facility Investigation (RFI) - Once it has been determined that there has been or might have been a release of a hazardous substance by the RFA, an RFI is conducted to fully characterize the extent of any release. The goal of this phase is to fully investigate groundwater, soil, sediment, surface water, biological species, and air contamination that may be present. This investigation can be conducted either voluntarily by the responsible party or required by the DEP with a license, order, agreement, closure plan, or by a DEP letter of approval.  At the conclusion of this investigation, an investigation report is developed by the facility to identify contaminants and to help the DEP determine if cleanup is necessary.  In certain situations, DEP may require an "interim measure" at a facility which is determined to have a release which is threatening or may threaten human health or the environment or where sources are easily identified for removal.  An interim measure is advantageous to both the facility and the environment in that the spread of contaminants is limited or eliminated completely which reduces both risk and cost.

Example:  An area of stained soil is found in back of the factory that the DEP has done an RFA on. There is also a strong chemical smell in the vicinity and some empty drums in a pile nearby. Based on this information, it is determined that a full investigation of this facility is needed (RFI). The DEP meets with the owner of the facility, and the facility owner agrees to voluntarily investigate and clean any contamination that may be present. The facility then hires a company to take further soil, water and air samples so that the extent and nature of the contamination can be identified. All of these activities must be done with the review and approval of DEP.

Phase 3:  Corrective Measures Study (CMS) - Once an investigation has been completed, and the extent of contamination has been delineated, a source removal plan may be developed or a CMS may be done.  Generally contaminants are removed whenever possible to eliminate potential risk and to keep properties in unrestricted use status.  Any corrective measure study that is developed should include this source removal concept to the fullest extent possible.  In this phase, decisions are made with regard to removal of contaminants and possible risk factors for humans and the environment. Corrective Measure Studies are designed for use in sites where the development of options for comparison is necessary.  Any option developed must be protective of public health, safety, welfare and the environment.  Cleanup numbers are values that are the maximum amount of contamination that could remain onsite in any given media.  If a chemical is found in excess of the number, the media is considered contaminated with a level of contamination that poses a threat to human health or the environment.  Facilities are responsible for cleaning up the releases of chemicals and contaminants that are not naturally occurring or that are in excess of cleanup numbers.  The DEP establishes cleanup numbers or conditions for these pollutants as a part of any cleanup decision for the site.  Cleanup numbers are based upon regulatory standards, risk based standards, or management decisions. Once a decision is made that a cleanup is necessary, the appropriate remedial action is selected. These actions are required of the responsible party, under a license, order, closure approval, consent agreement, or by a DEP letter of approval.

Example:  The electrical component factory that has conducted the site investigation has found that the groundwater has been contaminated with chlorinated solvents. They have agreed to curtail the dumping of wastes on the site and to dispose of future wastes properly. The surrounding properties belong primarily to residential homes that have private drinking water wells. The concentrations of chlorinated solvents in the groundwater are found to be above the cleanup numbers. There is also a stream running along the edge of the factory's property. There are levels of contaminants found in the surface water that are higher than aquatic life criteria (levels above which environmental impacts are likely to occur). It is determined that there is a significant risk to human health and the environment at this site and cleanup is necessary. The DEP and the factory agree upon a remedy that includes pumping the groundwater out of the ground and cleaning it. The factory must also supply clean water to the surrounding households until the groundwater is safe to drink again. The DEP issues a Compliance Order to the factory owner which describes the cleanup actions necessary and what the final cleanup goals are for the site.

Phase 4:  Corrective Measures Implementation (CMI) - Once the method of cleanup has been agreed upon, it is implemented. This phase includes removal of contaminants or waste management units, building the treatment systems, maintaining the system, and monitoring for its effectiveness. This phase would also include the monitoring of any deed restrictions or other restrictions on the property, such as the need to limit groundwater withdrawal, soil excavation, and any use restrictions. During this phase, the DEP is generally reviewing monitoring documents of the treatment system and/or media monitoring at the site (usually groundwater monitoring).

Example:  The factory hires a company to build a system that will pump the groundwater out of the ground and clean it. The water is then returned to the ground. This system is built and then monitored frequently for how well it is working. The groundwater in the area is also monitored frequently to determine if the contamination is being captured adequately. The monitoring is described in reports that are sent to the DEP, so that the DEP can be sure the cleanup is going well and the health of humans and the environment is being protected. This cleanup can go on for many years.

Phase 5:  Corrective Actions Completed/ No Further Action - Once the DEP has been able to ensure that all the contamination has been removed to levels that are safe and will continue to be safe, the remedial actions can be stopped. No further treatment or monitoring is necessary. With source removal there is confirmation sampling done to insure that all the contaminants have been removed.  With groundwater contaminants, there is a minimum of three years of groundwater monitoring required.

Example: The treatment system at the factory site has been running for many years (decades). Monitoring of the groundwater indicates that all the chlorinated solvents are gone. The water is monitored for three years to ensure that it is truly clean. Once the DEP agrees that the water no longer poses any risk to the environment or human health, the cleanup is considered complete and the system can be closed down. No Further Action is required.

RCRA Program quality Assurance Plan - document designed to be management tool to help guarantee high quality data.