What exactly is the “Superfund” law?

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

What exactly is the “Superfund” law?

—Jill Horn, Bozeman, MT

Congress established the Superfund Program, also called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), in 1980 to locate, investigate, and clean up the thousands of hazardous waste sites created by industry, mining, and military activity over the past several decades. This Superfund law also created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries responsible for pollution. The tax was the basis of a trust fund of $1.6 billion over five years to fund cleanup projects. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA), enacted in1986, added an additional $8.5 over the next five years. In 1994 $5.1 billion was authorized.

Superfund authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to negotiate with parties that helped create hazardous waste sites, known as potentially responsible parties, to get them to clean up the sites. If those parties refuse to cooperate, EPA can order them to conduct the cleanup, or EPA can conduct the cleanup using money from the Superfund Trust Fund. The fund can also be used when responsible parties cannot be identified. Regardless of how the cleanup is conducted, CERCLA also gives EPA the authority to take legal action to recover any costs it incurs as part of the response effort, according to the EPA

A similar law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), ensures that industry is held accountable from creation to destruction of their waste material. The law sets stringent guidelines that regulate the generation, transportation, storage and disposal of chemicals.

According to the Sierra Club, since the Superfund tax expired in 1995, industry has saved $10 billion and citizen taxpayers have had to pay a greater share of cleanup costs. The trust fund has been reduced from a high of about $3.7 billion in fiscal year 1996, to about $400 million in fiscal year 2002, according to EPA. The fund is expected to be depleted by the end of the fiscal year 2004. EPA estimates that more than 112,000 sites still need to be cleaned up at a cost of billions of dollars. Since 1996, the Superfund Program had completed cleanup work on about 86 contaminated sites each year. This number has dropped by almost 40 percent under the Bush administration.

The Sierra Club is advocating for a reauthorization of the tax. “Preliminary estimates show that reinstating the Superfund tax would generate $15 billion to $16 billion over the next 10 years which is enough to cover the costs of cleanups for the next decade,” according to its Web site.

CONTACT: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (800) 424-9346 (RCRA, Superfund and The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act Call Center), www.epa.gov/superfund; Sierra Club, 85 Second Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105, (415) 977-5500, www.sierraclub.org/toxics/superfund, jessica.frohman@sierraclub.org