Key Federal Laws

Comprehensive Emergency Planning and Community Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)

(as amended)

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA, also known as Superfund) was enacted by Congress to address growing concerns about the need to clean up uncontrolled, abandoned  hazardous waste sites and to address future releases of hazardous substances into the environment. Many states have state-level Superfund laws which complement and in some cases are more stringent than federal CERCLA requirements.

The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986 revised various sections of CERCLA, extended the taxing authority for Superfund, and created a free-standing law, SARA Title III, also known as the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Although part of the Superfund Amendments, EPCRA is a separately codified law; it is not considered part of the reauthorized CERCLA (see EPCRA section for description).

The term "Superfund" is based on the large fund of money that is collected by EPA to investigate sites and to pay for cleanups in cases where no responsible parties can be determined. (Otherwise, if responsible parties can be found, they will be held liable for cleanup costs).  The chemical industry (all SIC codes) pays about $300 million a year in Superfund chemical feedstock taxes.

Site Clean-Ups

Under CERCLA, site clean-ups are conducted under the procedures contained in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (40 CFR 300), typically referred to as the National Contingency Plan (NCP). The NCP includes provisions for permanent cleanups, known as remedial actions, and other cleanups referred to as "removals."

EPA generally takes remedial actions only at sites on the National Priorities List, which currently includes approximately 1300 sites, ranked according to a hazard scheme. Both EPA and states can conduct clean-ups at other sites, however, EPA provides responsible parties the opportunity to conduct removal and remedial actions and encourages community involvement throughout the Superfund response process. Responsible parties often have incentives to manage their own remedial or removal actions, rather than waiting for EPA or a state regulatory agency to conduct a clean-up.

CERCLA assigns responsibility for contamination following several criteria. First, potentially responsible parties (PRPs) can include a wide range of parties.  For example, if there is contamination at a waste disposal site, PRPs can include: current owners or operators of the site, previous owners or operators at the time of the disposal activities, all facilities that provided waste for disposal at the site, and all transporters that delivered waste to the site.

Furthermore,  CERCLA recognizes both "strict" and "joint and several" liability.  "Strict" liability means  that parties are responsible regardless of how careful they were in their practices.  "Joint and several" liability means that any one PRP is potentially liable for all costs no matter how much of the total contamination is directly a result of their activities.    While these standards are quite strict, they reflect the importance Congress has placed on controlling accidental releases of hazardous substance into the environment.

The general remediation process under CERCLA is specified by the National Contingency Plan and includes: 1) emergency removal to address immediate environmental problems, 2) a remedial investigation/feasibility study (RI/FS) to determine clean up approaches, 3) a Record of Decision (ROD) to document the approach EPA has selected for clean up, and 4) the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the
final cleanup.

The cleanup process is required to meet all other environmental requirements during its operation,  which are referred to as "ARARs" for "applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements". For example, air emissions could only be released during the cleanup under the standards of the Clean Air Act.  ARARs are also used to set cleanup levels.  For example, Safe Drinking Water Act MCLs may be used to determine the level of contaminant control for groundwater being remediated.

New Releases

With regard to new releases, the CERCLA hazardous substance release reporting regulations (40 CFR Part 302) are intended to insure an appropriate response to minimize harm to humans and the environment.  CERCLA directs the person in charge of a facility to report to the National Response Center (NRC) as soon as they have knowledge of any environmental release of a listed hazardous substance which exceeds a reportable quantity. The hazardous substances and reportable quantities are defined and listed in 40 CFR §302.4. The report of such a release may trigger responses by one or more federal, state and local emergency response agencies.

The National Response Center number is:  1-800-424-8802 or 202-426-2675.

EPA’s RCRA/Superfund/UST Hotline, at (800) 424-9346, answers questions and references guidance pertaining to the Superfund program. The CERCLA Hotline operates weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. ET, excluding Federal holidays.

Program office links:
Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response
Superfund Web site

40 CFR 300 National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan
40 CFR 302 Designation, Reportable Quantities, and Notification


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