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Superfund, super results

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

EPA’s Superfund program has been effective towards cleaning up hazardous waste sites.

For those concerned about effective clean-up of hazardous waste sites, the current issue of National Geographic has good news: Our Superfund cleanup system is working!

There are more than 1,700 Superfund sites in the country and as Paul Voosen describes in “Wasteland,” nearly one in six of us lives within three miles of one of these hazardous sites:

“[Each site] has a story. Some are sacrifices to national security, like the 586 square miles at Hanford, in Washington State, where reactors have made plutonium for atomic bombs since the Manhattan Project. Others are the shells of mines, like the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, excavated in pursuit of copper and now filling with water. There are chemical manufacturers, smelters, and grain elevators that were once drenched in fumigant.

“That these contaminated places are no longer the focus of national attention is in part due to a rarely cited phenomenon: governmental competence.”

The Superfund program came out after several well-publicized toxic waste disposal disasters in the late 1970’s highlighted the need for improved practices.  The personal dramas and national implications at Love Canal shocked the American public.  When emergency actions were needed to protect local communities, the states turned to the federal government for help.  Congress responded with the creation of the Superfund law.

In December 1980, President Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which created a $1.6 billion federal fund derived from taxes on crude oil and 42 different commercial chemicals.  Hence the name “Superfund.” It was later expanded over four-fold.

The Superfund was to be used for remedial cleanup of thousands of abandoned waste sites, and for responding to emergencies involving hazardous substances.  In addition, EPA was empowered to order responsible parties to perform cleanup operations, or to sue them to repay EPA’s expenditures.

Because of the complexity of abandoned waste sites, CERCLA’s scope was far broader than many other environmental statutes.  CERCLA dealt with all media: air, surface water, groundwater, and soil. CERCLA could apply directly to any type of industrial or commercial facility, including federal government facilities. Immediate threats to public health and the environment are handled with streamlined processes.  The major part of Superfund involves EPA or the responsible parties undertaking remedial, or long term solutions for non-emergency situations.  Solving the problems caused by hazardous waste in the environment requires considerable design engineering.  Extensive studies are needed to determine the best course of action at the site, and sometimes take years to complete.  That’s because the work is complex and generally costs millions of dollars.  But in the end, a long-term solution for the site will be recommended, rather than a quick fix.

The language in CERCLA very clearly defines who is liable at hazardous waste sites.  These include past and present owners and operators, generators, and transporters.  This liability scheme provides a “wide net” to capture parties with resources sufficient to pay for the cleanup.

Although there has been dramatic progress in site cleanup over the past 35 years, significant problems still remain.  Dawson and Associates has the expertise and experience to guide its clients through the detailed and complex processes to achieve a satisfactory resolution of Superfund concerns.

Tom Voltaggio Senior Advisor

During nearly 20 years service at the Environmental Protection Agency, Tom directed Superfund hazardous waste site cleanup program in the Mid-Atlantic states.  He was responsible for more than 500 complete cleanups. 


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