Superfund (CERCLA)

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), more commonly known as Superfund, financed and created the federal program that cleans up hazardous substances nationwide. Initially, the law taxed the chemical and petroleum industries, as well as certain large corporations, to provide funds to clean up contaminated sites, or "brownfields" created by companies no longer in existence while holding existing companies fiscally liable for contamination they cause. The law also grants broad federal authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. Superfund is severely criticized for the high cost and long duration of cleanups, encouraging costly litigation, and unfairly assessing liability.

Since 1994 Congress has refused to reinstate the tax and today, with the Superfund depleted, funds come from general taxes, prompting criticism from some that the cleanup burden is now unfairly placed on the public, not the polluter. However, the "polluter taxes" funded cleanup for sites where the polluter could not be identified, or was insolvent, and so companies paying the tax were unfairly paying for some other company's pollution. Whether it is fairer to disburse costs over the industry or the general population is certainly open for debate.

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"At least three companies linked by the Environmental Protection Agency to hazardous waste sites are being paid by the government to clean up their own sites, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity."

"In sum, Superfund is not an effective way to reduce health risks. It reduced the traditional protections that people and companies can expect from legal due process, and it hasn't clearly helped anybody, except lawyers, consultants, and the EPA. Much the same has been shown to be true of many other regulatory programs. ...

Is there another way? Yes. The traditional way of dealing with...

"When one thinks of a Superfund site, the image is of a large landfill, a former mining pit, or an industrial site like Love Canal; places where massive contamination has released into the air, ground, or water over many, many years and where it is not safe to live, animals and benthic organisms may not even exist, and where the full power of the federal government is often needed simply to...

Sapien looks into the 114 toxic waste sites that, according to the EPA, are "not under control" and pose dangers to human health.  However, as Sapien points out, the EPA has been extremely evasive when outsiders (including U.S. Senators) ask for location and specific status of these sites.

What impact does Superfund have on real people? Robert Cox retells the story of how Superfund destroyed his business, a business he worked to build for 20 years.

"'We are facing a wide range of environmental problems, including the severe threats to our well being posed by climate change and water and air pollution,' Greenstone said. 'The findings suggest that less ambitious clean-ups like the erection of fences, posting of warning signs around the sites, and simple containment of toxics would free up resources to address environmental problems that...

This article discusses the problems with Superfund in the wake of reform efforts.

Chart or Graph

"Sites on the NPL are also categorized by types of industrial facilities or activities associated with the contamination, such as manufacturing, waste management, and recycling."

"Eleven companies received the most money in cost-plus contracts from the Environmental Protection Agency from fiscal years 1998 to 2005."

"The Superfund process begins when a potentially hazardous site is reported to EPA, usually by a state environmental agency, but sometimes by local or Tribal governments, individuals, and community groups."

This chart shows the number of sites proposed, deleted, finalized, and completed each fiscal year on the National Priorities List.

This chart shows the amounts of Superfund expenditures on administrative and programmatic costs for fiscal years 1999 through 2003.

The Hazard Ranking System (HRS) [shown above] is a numerically based screening system that evaluates five categories of concerns at each site.

"Figure II-8, from GAO's 2002 report on the Superfund Program, illustrates EPA's Superfund Program expenditures in FY 2002 for everything except expenditures to ORD and OIG."

"The total annual appropriation (including congressional earmarks) to the Superfund Program from 1993 to 2004 is shown in Figure II-7...."

Analysis Report White Paper

Tresch provides an excellent overview of the history of federal environmental law since 1970, the role of Superfund, and an assessment of Superfund.

Through interviews and a survey, this study examines Wisconsin's efforts to reform Superfund. Its background section provides a good introduction to the unintended negative outcomes of Superfund.

"The Clean Water Act and CERCLA should be revised so that liability attaches only if a new site owner leaves the site in worse condition than before. Such a law would encourage additional mining and additional cleanup."

This detailed study of, "the local welfare impacts of Superfund clean-ups of hazardous waste sites", ultimately concludes, "Overall, the preferred estimates suggest that the local benefits of Superfund clean-ups are small and appear to be substantially lower than the $43 million mean cost of Superfund clean-ups."

This article offers a comprehensive assessment of the cost-effectiveness of a selection of Superfund cleanups. The results reveal that many EPA Superfund remediations fail a partial benefit-cost test.

This report provides a critical analysis of Superfund and discusses possible ways to reform it.

Video/Podcast/Media

Lois Gibbs founded The Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an environmental grassroots group. While the video is edited, it gives a fascinating account from a resident affected by the hazardous waste at Love Canal. From a property rights/free market perspective, it's interesting to note that various levels of government took little to no action to uphold the property rights of the...

Primary Document

This report provides a detailed summary of the law authorizing the Superfund program.

"The National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) defines the organizational structure and procedures for preparing for and responding to discharges of oil and releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, and contaminants in the United States. The NCP was developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in response to the congressional enactment of The...

This very large report, prepared by the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT), provides mountains of information regarding program expenditures, development of new sites for the National Priority List (NPL), history of the Superfund and NPL, progress, success and failure, cost effectiveness, and other deep analysis information. NACEPT is an independent...

In 1993, the EPA set out to reform Superfund and, in subsequent years, it has instituted 62 reforms. This GAO study assesses the effectiveness EPA reforms and concludes that the majority are not working, and that while progress may have been made, recent trends suggest progress may be eroding.

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