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In the United States, hazardous wastes are subject to regulations mandated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Every month, we provide clear, in-depth guidance on a different aspect of the RCRA regulations. The information presented here is an excerpt from McCoy’s RCRA Unraveled, 2020 Edition.

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Corrective Action Process

Based on the complexity, agency oversight, and expense of the steps required to implement a full corrective action program (as detailed in this section), it is easy for some facilities to get bogged down in the process and difficult for them to actually clean up their sites. Through guidance, EPA is trying to encourage states to work with facilities to emphasize results rather than process:

“The purpose of the corrective action program is to stabilize releases and clean up RCRA facilities in a timely manner, not to ensure compliance with or fulfillment of a standardized process. Program implementors and facility owners/operators should focus on environmental results rather than process steps and ensure that each corrective action related activity at any given facility directly supports cleanup goals at that site.” [61 FR 19441]

EPA’s latest efforts in this area appear promising. Led by personnel at Regions 3 and 7, the agency is attempting to improve the efficiency of corrective action through the “Lean” process improvement system. “Lean” refers to a collection of principles and methods that focus on the identification and elimination of non-value-added activities involved in producing a product or delivering a service. More about EPA’s Lean efforts is available at

The first corrective action process selected for efficiency improvement is the RCRA facility investigation (RFI), which characterizes the nature and extent of contamination at a facility. Applying Lean to remove various redundant steps within the RFI process and front-loading goals and expectations through a “corrective action framework” (CAF) offers the potential for significant time savings. A CAF guide and template are available at Currently, this Lean RFI process is being piloted in all EPA regions.

The corrective action process involves five major elements or phases common to most environmental restoration projects: 1) an initial site assessment, 2) site characterization, 3) interim measures, 4) evaluation and selection of remedial alternatives, and 5) implementation of selected remedies. “These activities are not always undertaken as a linear progression towards final facility cleanup, but can be implemented flexibly to most effectively meet site-specific corrective action needs.” [Introduction to RCRA Corrective Action, EPA/530/K-02/017I, October 2001, available from EPA at] A process flow chart of the RCRA corrective action process is presented in Figure 1, and major elements are discussed.

Figure 1

RCRA facility assessment

The corrective action process typically starts when a facility applies for a RCRA permit by submitting its Part B permit application. The application must identify and describe any SWMUs at the facility. According to §270.14(d), the permit application must include the following information for each SWMU at the facility:

  • Location of the unit on a topographic map of the facility;
  • Designation of the type of unit;
  • General dimensions and structural description, with drawing if available;
  • Dates the unit was operated; and
  • Specification of all wastes that have been managed at the unit, to the extent available.

In addition, the facility owner/operator must submit all available information pertaining to releases from their SWMUs and may be required to sample and analyze ground water, soil, and other environmental media at the facility.

The information submitted by the permit applicant is then used to prepare the RCRA facility assessment (RFA). The purpose of the RFA is to identify all SWMUs at the facility and determine if there have been releases or suspected releases from them that require further investigation. An RFA is analogous to the preliminary assessment/site investigation conducted at Superfund sites.

Ordinarily, the RFA will involve a visual inspection of the facility and a review of the existing information on environmental conditions at the site. Existing plant records (e.g., inspection reports, permit applications, citizen complaints), interviews with personnel familiar with the facility, and historical monitoring data and documents (e.g., old photographs of the site, documentation of fish kills, odors, and/or worker illnesses) are reviewed for this purpose.

Typically, not much field work is conducted during the RFA, but the regulators may request additional information and/or sampling and analytical work. This information may be used to focus subsequent, more detailed investigation on areas, releases, and exposure pathways that pose the most significant risks to human health or the environment, or to eliminate areas from consideration during the next step in the corrective action process.

The RFA is usually conducted by the regulatory agency that is writing the facility’s permit (i.e., the state or EPA if the state is not authorized to administer corrective action). However, in the 1996 ANPRM, EPA indicated that facility owners/operators may conduct their own RFA:

“Where RFAs have not yet been completed, facility owners/operators may choose to conduct their own site assessment and submit the report to EPA for review. If EPA believes the site assessment is adequate, the site assessment may be approved and adopted as the RFA for the facility…. Facility owners/operators who choose to conduct or update their own RFAs should ensure that they address all solid waste management units and other areas of concern at the facility.” [61 FR 19443–4]

If the facility is operating under interim status and is not seeking a RCRA permit, the RFA may take place before the facility closes. [EPA/530/K-02/017I]

The most comprehensive guidance available on RFAs is RCRA Facility Assessment Guidance, EPA/530/86/053, October 1986. This guidance document is available at

If, based on the RFA, it seems likely that there has been a release from one or more SWMUs at a facility, the implementing agency will order an investigation. At that point, the facility owner or operator would begin the RCRA facility investigation.

RCRA facility investigation

A RCRA facility investigation (RFI) is a thorough, detailed site investigation conducted by the facility owner/operator and is comparable to the remedial investigation in the Superfund program. The purpose of an RFI is to characterize the nature, extent, direction, rate, movement, and concentration of releases from SWMUs at a facility. The scope and complexity of an RFI will depend on the nature and extent of the contamination, whether releases have migrated beyond the facility boundary, the amount of existing information at the site, and other pertinent factors. EPA provided the following list of specific information that may be required in an RFI [55 FR 30810]:

  • Characterization of the environmental setting;
  • Characterization of SWMUs;
  • Description of the human and environmental receptors that are, have been, or may potentially be exposed to contaminants released at the site;
  • Information that will assist the regulatory agency in assessing the risks to human and environmental receptors at the site;
  • Extrapolation of future contaminant movement;
  • Results of laboratory, bench-scale, or pilot-scale tests conducted to determine the potential effectiveness of treatment or other technologies that may be used as remedies at the site; and
  • Statistical analyses to aid in the interpretation of data obtained in the investigation.

Not all of the information listed above will be required in every RFI. The specific information required for a particular facility will typically be identified in an RFI work plan prepared by the facility owner/operator. EPA or the state must approve the plan before the RFI moves forward. The approved plan typically becomes an enforceable part of the schedule of compliance in the facility’s permit. Requirements for an RFI may also be specified in a corrective action order.

The permit or order may also include “action levels” for specific constituents in specific media under investigation. If the RFI indicates that the action levels have been exceeded, interim measures and/or a corrective measures study may be required for a SWMU or group of SWMUs. On the other hand, where action levels have not been exceeded, the agency may determine that no further action is required under corrective action for a SWMU or group of SWMUs. At the conclusion of an RFI, the facility will submit a final RFI report to EPA or the state. A summary of this report will be distributed to the interested public.

As noted in Figure 1, significant agency oversight and approval are required during the RFI. As a result, this phase of the corrective action process often takes many years. We know of situations where a facility has sent their RFI work plan to the state for approval, and nothing was heard from the state for three or four years. Sometimes, just when some progress is being made, there will be turnover at the state agency, and the review process starts all over again. In the 1996 ANPRM, EPA suggested ways to focus and accelerate the RFI process, including the use of conceptual site models, innovative site characterization technologies, and tailored data quality objectives. [61 FR 19444]

The most comprehensive guidance on the RFI process is Interim Final RCRA Facility Investigation (RFI) Guidance, EPA/530/SW-89/031, May 1989. This four-volume document can be accessed at

Action levels

Action levels are contaminant concentrations used to indicate whether cleanup of a release from a SWMU or group of SWMUs will be required. Contamination that is present below action levels would not generally be subject to cleanup or further investigation. Action levels are media-specific; that is, the action level for a given contaminant will vary depending on whether the contaminant is present in soil, ground water, surface water, or air. EPA recommends that action levels be health risk-based and/or environmental risk-based where environmental receptors are of concern. Action levels are often established at the more protective end of the risk range (e.g., one-in-one-million excess cancer risk to the maximally exposed individual over a lifetime of exposure) using conservative exposure and land-use assumptions. Maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) developed under the Safe Drinking Water Act are sometimes used as action levels for ground water. However, action levels based on less conservative assumptions may be appropriate based on site-specific conditions. For example, if the current and anticipated future uses of a site are industrial, action levels based on industrial exposure scenarios would be appropriate. [61 FR 19446]

Action levels can be developed on a facility-specific basis or can be taken from standardized lists. Some states and EPA regions have developed standardized risk-based action levels for RCRA corrective action facilities and other cleanup sites (e.g., sites subject to cleanup under state Superfund-like programs). One widely distributed list of action levels was contained in Appendix A of the preamble to a 1990 proposal. [55 FR 30865] EPA subsequently indicated that some of the action levels in the 1990 proposal may no longer be appropriate for use—either because they are overly conservative or because they are based on out-of-date toxicity data. [61 FR 19446]

EPA’s soil screening guidance presents a framework for developing risk-based soil screening levels. These screening levels (i.e., contaminant concentration levels) can be used to eliminate areas, pathways, and/or chemicals of concern from further consideration during site investigations. Three guidance documents are available: Soil Screening Guidance: Fact Sheet, EPA/540/F-95/041, July 1996; Soil Screening Guidance: User’s Guide, EPA/540/R-96/018, July 1996; and Soil Screening Guidance: Technical Background Document, EPA/540/R-95/128, July 1996. These guidance documents are available at

Determination of no further action

Based on the results of the RFI, a facility may ask the implementing agency to determine that no further action is required for a SWMU or group of SWMUs. This request must be accompanied by documentation that shows there are no releases of hazardous waste or constituents from a SWMU or group of SWMUs at the facility that pose a threat to human health or the environment. This determination will be straightforward where the facility owner/operator can show that no release has occurred; however, such a determination may also be appropriate in situations where releases that exceed action levels have occurred. For example, when concentrations of hazardous constituents exceed action levels, but the contamination is in a highly saline aquifer that is not a potential source of drinking water, no further action may be necessary. Other examples would be where contamination in ground water can be shown to originate from a source outside the facility or where the risks posed by the contaminants are insignificant compared to the risks posed by naturally occurring contaminants at the facility. [55 FR 30813]

A determination of no further action requires a Class 3 permit modification at a permitted facility. A Class 3 permit modification is the most difficult permit modification to get approved and requires an opportunity for pubic involvement. Procedures for obtaining a Class 3 permit modification are specified in §270.42(c). In guidance, EPA indicated that it may be appropriate in some cases for EPA or a state to make a completion determination (e.g., a determination that no further action is required) for a portion of a facility. This might enable the facility owner to sell that portion of the facility. [February 25, 2003; 68 FR 8762]

Interim corrective measures

Since 1990, EPA has emphasized the importance of interim actions and site stabilization in the corrective action program. Interim measures may be undertaken during the site investigation process and well before a final remedy is selected. Typically, interim measures are used to control ongoing releases or abate obvious risks to human health or the environment. For example, a contaminated drinking water supply might necessitate an interim action to provide an alternative source of drinking water. The discovery of damaged or leaking drums that contain hazardous waste might be addressed by overpacking and/or removing the drums from the facility. Interim measures should be employed as early in the corrective action process as possible and should be compatible with, or a component of, the final remedy. [61 FR 19446; see also RO 11648]

Corrective measures study

Contamination at most RCRA facilities can be addressed using a number of remedial alternatives, each of which have certain advantages and disadvantages. Some remedial options will be very protective of human health and the environment but very expensive to implement. For example, excavating all of the contaminated soil at a facility and sending it offsite to a hazardous waste incinerator may be very protective of the health of those living near the facility, but it will likely be very costly. Other approaches will be less expensive but also less protective. For example, capping contamination in place or relying on natural attenuation are less expensive alternatives but are generally less effective in protecting human health and the environment.

Before choosing a cleanup approach, the regulators and facility owner/operator typically evaluate a range of remedial alternatives for each SWMU or group of SWMUs that require cleanup. This evaluation process is referred to as the corrective measures study (CMS), and it is comparable to the feasibility study conducted under the Superfund program. The CMS is normally conducted by the facility owner/operator, with oversight from the regulatory agency. The CMS report, which is the deliverable from this stage, proposes appropriate corrective measures for each SWMU or group of SWMUs. Included in the report are measures to control the source of contamination and actions required to abate problems caused by migration of contaminants from the source. The recommendations in the CMS report should include proposed media cleanup levels, points of compliance, and compliance time frames.

At some facilities, the CMS will be a complex, time-consuming, and costly process. However, EPA believes that at many facilities a more streamlined, highly focused CMS will be sufficient to identify an acceptable, environmentally protective remedy. In the 1996 ANPRM [61 FR 19447], EPA discussed opportunities to streamline the CMS. One way to do this is to integrate the CMS with the site investigation. This may enable the owner/operator to focus the data collection effort on collection of information needed to support an appropriate remedy. For example, in a situation where the contamination involves a large mixed-fill landfill, the remedial alternatives will likely involve physical and institutional controls. If these alternatives are identified early in the RFI, the owner/operator may be able to focus on collection of data necessary to support development of effective controls.

In “A Study of the Implementation of the RCRA Corrective Action Program,” April 9, 2002 (available as report number 531R02001 from, EPA indicated that a corrective measures study should focus on “realistic remedies” and encouraged the use of presumptive remedies. Presumptive remedies are preferred cleanup technologies for common categories of sites (e.g., wood treatment sites, or sites with volatile organic contaminants in soil). EPA began developing presumptive remedy guidance under the Superfund program to expedite the remedy selection process at those sites. EPA’s policies and procedures related to presumptive remedies, along with a sampling of these remedies developed for Superfund sites, may be accessed at

“Corrective Measures Study—Scope of Work,” July 14, 2011, available at, walks users through the four tasks associated with the CMS.

Performance-based approach

At facilities that will use a “performance-based” approach to cleanup, the CMS does not have to be submitted to an overseeing agency for review and approval. Instead, EPA or the state would oversee the facility investigation and work with the facility owner/operator to develop remedial goals. After the remedial goals undergo public review and comment and are approved by the agency, the facility owner/operator would design and implement a remedy that will achieve the remedial goals. Obviously, EPA or the state would monitor compliance with the remedial goals. If the goals are not achieved, additional remediation will likely be required. Many states attribute the success of their corrective action programs, in part, to use of a performance-based approach to achieve goals to which all parties have agreed rather than requiring agency review and approval of an expensive and time-consuming CMS. [61 FR 19447]

Remedy selection

As indicated above, the purpose of a CMS is to identify and evaluate various remedial alternatives. At the conclusion of a CMS, the facility owner/operator recommends remedies or remedial goals (if a performance-based approach is being used). However, the regulators actually select the remedy or remedies for a facility.

In the 1996 ANPRM [61 FR 19448], EPA identified its remedial expectations as follows:

  • Treatment should be used to address the principal threats posed by a site whenever practicable and cost-effective. Principal threats for which treatment is most likely to be appropriate include contamination that is highly toxic, highly mobile, or that cannot be reliably contained and that would present a significant threat to human health or the environment if exposure occurs.
  • Engineering controls, such as containment, should be used for wastes and contaminated media that can be reliably contained, pose relatively low long-term threats, or for which treatment is impracticable.
  • Institutional controls, such as water- and land-use restrictions, should be used primarily to supplement engineering controls. In general, institutional controls should not be the sole remedial action. Additionally, institutional controls should not be considered “no further action” remedies: “Institutional controls, while not actively cleaning up the contamination at the site, can control exposure and, therefore, are considered to be limited action alternatives.” [“Summary of Key Existing EPA CERCLA Policies for Groundwater Restoration,” June 26, 2009, available at] Guidance on institutional controls is available at
  • A combination of methods (e.g., treatment, containment, and institutional controls) may be necessary to protect human health and the environment.
  • Innovative remediation technologies should be used if they will perform better or cost less than conventional technologies.
  • EPA expects to return ground water to its maximum beneficial use whenever practicable, within a time frame that is reasonable. Often, this means cleaning up contaminated ground water to drinking water standards.
  • Contaminated soil should be remediated as necessary to prevent or limit direct exposure of human and environmental receptors and prevent the transfer of contaminants to air, ground water, or surface water (e.g., by airborne emissions, leaching, or run-off).

EPA believes that final remedies selected for RCRA corrective action facilities should achieve the following three performance standards [55 FR 30823]:

  1. Protect human health and the environment—This is EPA’s basic mandate under RCRA. Current and reasonably anticipated future land uses should be considered. This standard requires remedies to include measures that may not be directly related to media cleanup or source control. For example, at some facilities, it may be necessary to provide an alternative drinking water supply or to construct barriers to prevent people from entering contaminated areas.
  2. Achieve media cleanup objectives—The cleanup objectives should include proposed media cleanup levels, points of compliance, and compliance time frames. These concepts are discussed in greater detail below.
  3. Remediate the source of releases—The source includes both the location of the original release and any location to which significant masses of contaminants have migrated. This will typically involve removal or treatment of the source; however, in some situations, containment technologies and/or institutional controls may be sufficient.

Additional EPA guidance for selecting a corrective action remedy can be found in “Final Remedy Selection for Results-Based RCRA Corrective Action,” March 2000, available at

Media cleanup levels

Media cleanup levels are contaminant concentrations that may remain in the soil, ground water, surface water, and air at a facility when the cleanup is complete. The concentrations should be risk-based and should take into account site-specific conditions. At some facilities, generic cleanup levels, such as SDWA maximum contaminant levels or state cleanup standards, will be used. At other facilities, a site-specific risk assessment will be required to develop cleanup levels. Both approaches require a site-specific risk-based decision. When generic cleanup levels are used, the assumptions used to develop the cleanup levels should be consistent with conditions at the facility. Site-specific risk assessments conducted at RCRA facilities often rely on the extensive guidance EPA has developed for risk assessments conducted under CERCLA (available at

Cleanup levels for carcinogens should reduce the excess cancer risk to an individual over a lifetime of exposure to between one in one million and one in ten thousand (10–6 to 10–4 risk range). EPA’s preference is to set cleanup levels at the more protective end of the risk range (i.e., based on 10–6 excess cancer risk); however, cleanup levels anywhere within this range may be acceptable. For noncarcinogens, EPA recommends that cleanup levels be set at concentrations that avoid deleterious effects to humans over a lifetime of exposure. This means the hazard index should be less than or equal to one. Hazard index information for air toxics assessments can be found at

Media cleanup levels must also be protective of environmental receptors (i.e., plants and animals). EPA’s latest guidance on this topic is also available at This site provides guidance to site managers who are responsible for designing and conducting technically defensible ecological risk assessments.

Cleanup levels may be based on future land use. For example, contaminated soil at an industrial site may not have to be cleaned up to residential standards if the site will never be used for residential purposes. At some facilities, deed restrictions are used to ensure that the property will not be converted to residential use in the future.

Points of compliance

The point of compliance (POC) is the location or locations at which media cleanup levels are achieved. These are typically established as follows [61 FR 19450]:

  • For air releases, the POC is the location of the person most exposed or some point closer to the source of the release.
  • For surface water, the POC is the point at which releases could enter the surface water. A POC may also be established for sediments at facilities where sediments may be affected.
  • For soil, the POC is any point where direct contact to the soil may occur.
  • For ground water, the POC is throughout the plume of contaminated ground water or, when waste is left in place, at the boundary of the waste management area encompassing the original source.

The POCs listed above are typically used at corrective action facilities, but these are not hard-and-fast rules. For example, when determining the POC for ground water at a facility, the potential future uses of the ground water and the practicality of ground water remediation should be considered. Two useful guidance documents for evaluating ground water POCs are: Handbook of Groundwater Protection and Cleanup Policies for RCRA Corrective Action, EPA/530/R-04/030, April 2004 (available online at, and Guidance for Evaluating the Technical Impracticability of Ground Water Restoration, EPA/540/R-93/080, September 1993 (available as report number 540R93080 from

Compliance time frames

When EPA or the state selects a remedy at a corrective action facility, the agency will issue a permit modification or a corrective action order that specifies the remedy and establishes a remedy implementation schedule. EPA’s preference is for expeditious stabilization of releases, followed by timely completion of corrective actions and full restoration of contaminated ground water. However, the agency recognizes that uncertainties associated with remediation, especially ground water remediation, make it difficult to specify when a remedy will be completed.

Natural attenuation

Natural attenuation is an approach to remediation in which natural processes, such as biodegradation, dispersion, dilution, and/or adsorption, are used to achieve remedial goals. At some facilities, natural attenuation can be used to remediate contaminated ground water. Natural attenuation remedies are not “no further action” remedies. Considerable design, construction, operation, maintenance, and monitoring costs may be involved in such a cleanup option.

Remedies involving natural attenuation should include: a thorough site characterization, source control or removal where appropriate, documentation of the existence of attenuation processes at a facility and of their ability to achieve remedial objectives, a long-term monitoring plan, and, in some cases, a fall-back plan in case natural attenuation appears to be ineffective. [61 FR 19451]

Summary of the remedy selection process

Remedy selection is the responsibility of the regulatory agency that is overseeing corrective action at a facility. However, in actual practice, selecting a remedy is a negotiated process. A facility owner/operator may propose a remedy that is affordable, but not optimum in terms of protecting human health and the environment over the long term. The regulators may counter with a more expensive and more protective remedy. If the facility owner/operator cannot afford the more expensive remedy, it probably will not be implemented. Whatever remedy the two parties ultimately agree upon is subject to review and comment by interested members of the public before it becomes an enforceable requirement of the facility’s permit.

Financial assurance

After a remedy or remedies have been selected for a facility, owners/operators are required to provide assurances of financial responsibility. [§264.101(b–c)] In other words, the facility owner/operator must be able to show that he/she can pay for the cleanup. RCRA permits include financial assurance provisions. Financial assurance is also typically included in corrective action orders. On October 24, 1986 [51 FR 37854], EPA proposed detailed regulations governing financial assurance for corrective action. Under the proposed rule, the mechanisms that could be used to provide financial assurance included trust funds, surety bonds guaranteeing performance, letters of credit, financial tests, and corporate guarantees. These are similar to the mechanisms used to provide financial assurance for closure and post-closure care of RCRA-permitted facilities. EPA subsequently indicated that insurance would also be an acceptable mechanism. Financial assurance is typically required at the time of remedy selection. The 1986 proposal also discussed remediation cost-estimating procedures for determining the amount of financial assurance required.

In 1990, EPA proposed to require a demonstration of financial responsibility for corrective action within 120 days of the permit modification used to select a remedy. [55 FR 30855] Neither of the proposed rules dealing with financial assurance for corrective action were finalized. The only codified regulations are in §264.101(b) and (c). Therefore, EPA and states have considerable discretion in this area. A useful guidance document is Transmittal of Interim Guidance on Financial Responsibility for Facilities Subject to RCRA Corrective Action, September 30, 2003, available at

Corrective measures implementation

The final step in the corrective action process is referred to as corrective measures implementation (CMI). This involves design and construction, operation and maintenance, and monitoring of the selected remedy, which is comparable to the remedial design/remedial action phase of a Superfund cleanup. For example, at this stage in the process, hazardous waste in a SWMU that is the source of a release to ground water may be excavated and shipped offsite for treatment and disposal. At the same time, a ground water pump-and-treat system may be installed. The remedial measures selected for a facility may be prescribed in the facility’s permit or corrective action order. In other cases, a performance-based approach, in which the facility owner/operator has considerable flexibility in deciding how to meet remedial goals, may be used. In either case, periodic reports on CMI progress will be required.

A model scope of work for the CMI is available in “Corrective Measure Implementation—Scope of Work,” July 14, 2011, available at Information on 30 specific corrective actions is contained in Treatment Experiences at RCRA Corrective Actions, EPA/542/F-00/020, December 2000, available at by downloading the report numbered 542F00020.


Topic: Point of Generation for Waste Military Munitions

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This document addresses issues of a general nature related to the federal RCRA regulations. Persons evaluating specific circumstances dealing with the RCRA regulations should review state and local laws and regulations, which may be more stringent than federal requirements. In addition, the assistance of a qualified professional should be enlisted to address any site-specific circumstances.