Congress initially authorized Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) legislation in 1980 to clean up abandoned dump sites in the United States that contained hazardous waste. The activities mandated under CERCLA were to be administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The program was reauthorized in 1986 by SARA. Several provisions of CERCLA were changed or clarified.
Superfund sites identified in the original legislation were virtually ignored during the early 1980s. Several key EPA officials resigned after they were charged with mismanaging the monies allocated by the original legislation. The EPA attempted to speed cleanup of contaminated sites, but progress was still too slow for critics, some members of Congress, and many citizens. When the program expired in September 1985, the cleanup activities at more than 200 sites were delayed for lack of funds. Concern about hazardous waste sites continued. This pressure on Congress was sufficient to facilitate reauthorization of CERCLA.
The Superfund was originally financed by a tax on receipt of hazardous waste and by a tax on domestic refined or imported crude oil and chemicals. The SARA reauthorization increased funding from $1.6 billion to $8.5 billion over five years. It also authorized the use of contributions from potentially responsible parties (persons who had created the environmental hazards or who currently owned the land where former dump sites were located). However, SARA declined to place the full financial burden of cleanup on oil and chemical companies. Funding is obtained from a broad-based combination of business and public contributions.
As of May 2018, some 1,346 sites were on the National Priorities List, and 52 new sites were proposed. Between the advent of the NPL and that date, 399 sites were delisted.
Over 40,000 uncontrolled waste sites have been reported to U.S. federal agencies. Factors used to rank the severity of reported sites include the type, quantity, and toxicity of the substance(s) found at the site, as well as the number of people likely to be exposed, the pathways of exposure, and the vulnerability of the groundwater supply at the site. If a site poses immediate threats such as the risk of fire or explosion, the EPA may initiate short-term actions to remove those threats before actual cleanup begins.
Critics charge that the number of hazardous waste sites nationwide is still underreported. Many states have developed their own programs to supplement the federal Superfund.
Under SARA guidelines, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry performs health assessments at Superfund sites. This program, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also lists hazardous substances found on sites, prepares toxicological profiles, identifies gaps in research on health effects, and publishes findings.
See also Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) ; Hazardous waste .
Macey, G., and J. Z. Cannon, eds. Reclaiming the Land: Rethinking Superfund Institutions, Methods, and Practices. Berlin: Springer, 2006.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “National Priorities List.” March 2, 2012. http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/npl/ (accessed August 16, 2012).
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Superfund: Cleaning Up the Nation's Hazardous Wastes Sites.” July 19, 2012. http://www.epa.gov/superfund/index.htm (accessed August 16, 2012).
Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20460, (202) 272-0167, http://water.epa.gov .
L. Fleming Fallon, Jr, MD, DrPH
Revised by Stacey Chamberlin