Chapter 6: Superfund at 40: Unfulfilled Expectations

In “Chapter 6: Superfund at 40: Unfulfilled Expectations,” Katherine N. Probst writes about the 1980 enactment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), better known as “Superfund;” the statute’s major amendments in 1986; and the implementation and administration of Superfund over the last 40 years by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The chapter includes a wealth of data on program funding and accomplishments.

CERCLA was a direct response to the problems at the Love Canal site in upstate New York and growing awareness among Members of Congress, EPA, and the White House that there were in fact many such sites across the country. In the late 1970s, local residents at Love Canal, horrified by the thick black substances oozing into their basements and concerned about possible health effects, sought help from state and local health officials. State and local agencies did not have the resources to clean up the contamination, nor did the federal government.

Superfund filled a major gap in the nation’s environmental laws by providing funding and authority for the EPA to respond to releases of hazardous substances at sites across the country and by creating a far-reaching liability system making site owners and operators as well as those who disposed of toxic chemicals at a site responsible for paying for cleanup, even if their actions had been legal at the time. Congress also created a trust fund, stocked by taxes on oil and chemical feedstocks, to pay for cleanup when those responsible could not, or would not, do so themselves.

While many sites have been addressed under Superfund, much work remains to be done. The program is underfunded, cleanups are taking too long to complete, and there are hundreds of sites that currently present risks to human health. While the underlying statute provides powerful tools to address contaminated sites across the country, the law is only as good as its implementation. Program success depends on adequate funding, effective program management, and strong enforcement. The current level of annual appropriations, pace of cleanup, and the number of National Priorities List (NPL) sites where there are current risks to public health all raise concerns about whether the program is meeting its intended goals.

About the Author

Katherine N. Probst is an independent consultant who has written widely about the Superfund program. She spent much of her career as a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C. and has provided expert testimony about the Superfund program at a number of congressional hearings. She has a BA from Wesleyan University and a MA in City and Regional Planning from Harvard University.