August Mack Newsletter | January, 2018

RCRA FIRST: A Quicker Way Through RCRA Corrective Action?
by Dave Zbieszkowski

According to a study by U.S. EPA Regions 3 and 7, the average timeframe to complete the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) Facility Investigation (RFI) was 10 years and the average time frame for the Corrective Measures Study (CMS) and remedy selection is 6-8 years.  That is 16-18 years (on average) to investigate and develop a remedy, and does NOT include implementation of the remedy!  If this seems like a long time… are right.  Although this is just a snapshot of the universe of RCRA Corrective Action sites (two of the ten U.S. EPA Regions), I would suspect that these timeframes are generally in-line with sites in other Regions. 

The need to streamline the RCRA CA process was recognized back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  The overall streamlining approach is really an increased focus on “results” rather than the “process”.  Some of the initial streamlining initiatives in Corrective Action included more concise/streamlined Orders and Voluntary Agreements, achieving short-term goals using Environmental Indicators, and focusing on acceptable cleanups versus following a particular process.  In 2016, the U.S. EPA went a step further and issued the RCRA Facilities Investigation Remedy Selection Track: A Toolbox for Corrective Action (referred to as RCRA FIRST).  This is the latest guidance by U.S. EPA to facilitate a more streamlined and rapid investigation and remedy selection process for RCRA Corrective Action sites.   According to U.S. EPA, the RCRA FIRST approach is designed to improve the efficiency of investigation and remedy selection by:

  • addressing the root causes of delay,
  • understanding the project objectives at the outset of the project,
  • enhancing communication,
  • avoiding unnecessary do-loops and re-do loops, and
  • resolving disputes. 

It has always been our experience that these projects (and all projects) benefit tremendously from a pro-active communication approach, with all parties understanding the goals and having the right decision makers engaged early in the process.  In fact, when Regions 3 and 7 went through their evaluation, they identified 12 root causes of delay.  Many of these root causes of delay related directly to communication, project management, and issue resolution.  Other root causes identified by U.S. EPA included too many approval steps, competing objectives among parties, poor documentation, and a lack of defined product standards.  So, not surprising, the focus of RCRA FIRST is communication.

RCRA FIRST includes several key elements that are meant to reduce delays, simplify the process, and resolve conflicts.  These elements are as follows:

  1. Early understanding of goals and expectations.  This should be in the form of Corrective Action Framework (CAF) meetings with the responsible party, regulatory authority, and other stakeholders.  The RCRA First toolbox contains a model CAF Meeting Agenda.  The CAF meetings should be used by the stakeholders to establish the project team, understand roles and responsibilities, discuss project communications, present the Conceptual Site Model and current conditions, and establish objectives and expectations.  More than one meeting is anticipated.
  2. Understanding Corrective Action Objectives prior to remedy selection.  The Corrective Action Objectives should be laid out during a Remedy Selection Meeting. 
  3. Elevation of Issues. The RCRA FIRST guidance addresses one of the key issues resulting in delays in projects…when the parties are in dispute or reach an impasse, or are in the comment & response do-loop. RCRA FIRST has tools in place to streamline how to work through these issues, including empowering management to be responsible for the solution. The elevation process can be initiated by any project team member, and is meant to be a less stressful and more effective tool to resolve serious issues or concerns. 
  4. Three paths for remedy selection.  A common misconception is that RCRA requires that every site go through the RFI, CMS, and Corrective Measures Implementation following a similar process.  In fact, there is significant flexibility, particularly with the requirement of a CMS.  In RCRA FIRST, there are three options for sites depending on their circumstance:
  • No CMS.  A CMS may not be necessary for low-risk facilities, or sites where Interim Measures and/or presumptive remedies have already been conducted and are suitable for the final remedy, or when the only additional requirements are institutional controls.  
  • Limited CMS.  Applies to sites where additional pilot testing or field work may be required to support a final decision.  The process for work plan development and approvals should be discussed in a remedy selection meeting.
  • Full CMS.  This is the traditional CMS approach that evaluates multiple potential remedies against threshold and balancing criteria for remedy selection.  It is only necessary if there is more than one viable alternative that meets the threshold criteria of protecting human health and the environment, attaining cleanup objectives, and control of the release(s).

U.S. EPA believes that RCRA First will shorten the timeframe of the RFI to approximately five years or less, and the remedy selection process to one-two years.  That is less than half of the time it currently takes, and potentially a big step forward for getting a remedy in place.   This is a marked improvement in the process, and a goal worth pursuing to save money and headaches for both the regulated community, regulators, and other stakeholders.    Lastly, since the foundation of RCRA FIRST is improved communications with all stakeholders and eliminating unnecessary steps, it has been our experience that these concepts can be applied to almost any investigation and cleanup project. 

Dave Zbieszkowski is a Principal Geologist for closure services with August Mack Environmental, Inc. He has over 18 years of experience with extensive knowledge regarding geological and hydrogeological investigations, State and Federal regulatory programs (e.g., CERCLA, RCRA, UST, Voluntary Remediation), soil and groundwater sampling, vapor intrusion evaluation and mitigation, remedial evaluation and regulatory coordination, and property transaction related projects.  Dave can be reached at 317.916.3159 or via e-mail at

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