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Superfund is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), a United Statesmarker federal law designed to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites Superfund created the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and it provides broad federal authority to clean up releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. The law authorized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify parties responsible for contamination of sites and compel the parties to clean up the sites. Where responsible parties cannot be found, the Agency is authorized to clean up sites itself, using a special trust fund.


Superfund was enacted by Congress in response to the Love Canalmarker disaster in New Yorkmarker, dioxin exposure in Times Beach, Missouri and the environmental contamination at the Valley of the Drumsmarker in Kentuckymarker.

After its initial passage, the Reagan administration appointed Rita Lavelle, a former hazardous waste-producing company employee, as Superfund's administrator. Due to a dramatic shortage of necessary funds, very little was accomplished in hazardous waste regulation until her resignation, the resignation of EPA administrator Anne Burford, and the passage of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA). These amendments increased the funding of Superfund to $9 billion and provided for studies and the use of new technologies.


CERCLA authorizes two kinds of response actions:
  • Removal actions. These are typically short-term response actions, where actions may be taken to address releases or threatened releases requiring prompt response. Removal actions are classified as: (1) emergency; (2) time-critical; and (3) non-time critical. Removal responses are generally used to address localized risks such as abandoned drums containing hazardous substances, contaminated surface soils posing acute risks to human health or the environment, etc.
  • Remedial actions. These are usually more long-term response actions than a removal action. Remedial actions permanently and significantly reduce the risks associated with releases or threats of releases of hazardous substances that are serious but lack the time-criticality of a removal action, and include such measures as preventing the migration of pollutants and neutralization of toxic substances. These actions can be conducted only at sites listed on the EPA National Priorities List (NPL), in the United States and territories.

Four classes of parties, termed "potential responsible parties," may be liable for contamination at a Superfund site:
  • the current owner or operator of the site;
  • the owner or operator of a site at the time that disposal of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant occurred;
  • a person who arranged for the disposal of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant at a site; and
  • a person who transported a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant to a site; that transporter must have also selected that site for the disposal of the hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants.

CERCLA also enabled the revision of the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP). The NCP provided the guidelines and procedures needed to respond to releases and threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. The NCP also established the NPL. The NPL, which appears as Appendix B to the NCP, primarily serves as an information and management tool for EPA, and helps the Agency prioritize sites for cleanup. The NPL is updated periodically.

The identification of a site for the NPL is intended primarily to guide EPA in:
  • determining which sites warrant further investigation to assess the nature and extent of the human health and environmental risks associated with a site;
  • identifying what CERCLA-financed remedial actions may be appropriate;
  • notifying the public of sites EPA believes warrant further investigation; and
  • serving notice to potentially responsible parties that EPA may initiate CERCLA-financed remedial action.

Inclusion of a site on the NPL does not in itself require potentially liable parties to initiate action to clean up the site, nor does it assign liability to any person. The NPL serves primarily informational purposes, identifying for the States and the public those sites or other releases that appear to warrant remedial actions.

Despite its name, the Superfund trust fund lacks the sufficient funds to clean up even a small number of the sites on the NPL. As a result, the government will typically order "potentially responsible parties" to clean up the site themselves. If a party fails to comply with such an order, it may be fined up to $25,000 for each day that noncompliance continues. A party that spends money to clean up a site may sue any "potentially responsible parties" (commonly called "PRPs") under CERCLA. A related provision allows a party that has reimbursed another party's response costs to seek contribution from other PRPs, during or after the original lawsuit.


Map of Superfund sites in the United States.
Red indicates currently on final National Priority List, yellow is proposed, green is deleted (usually meaning having been cleaned up).
This map is as of 2008
Upon notification of a potentially hazardous waste site, the EPA conducts a Preliminary Assessment/Site Inspection (PA/SI) which involve records reviews, interviews, visual inspections, and limited field sampling. Information from the PA/SI is used by EPA to develop a Hazard Ranking System (HRS) score to determine the CERCLA status of the site. Sites that score high enough to qualify for the full program then proceed to a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS). The RI includes an extensive sampling program and risk assessment in order to define the extent of the site contamination and risks. The FS is used to develop and evaluate various remediation alternatives. The preferred alternative is presented in a Proposed Plan for public review and comment. The selected alternative is approved in a Record of Decision (ROD). The site then enters into a Remedial Design phase and then the Remedial Action phase. Many sites include Long-Term Monitoring and 5-year reviews once the Remedial Action has been completed.


As of December 12, 2008, there are currently 1,255 sites listed on the National Priority List, an additional 332 have been delisted, and 63 new sites have been proposed.

Approximately 70 percent of Superfund cleanup activities historically have been paid for by parties responsible (PRPs) for the cleanup of contamination. The only time cleanup costs are not borne by the responsible party is when that party either cannot be found or is unable to pay for the cleanup. For those sites, the Superfund law originally paid for toxic waste cleanups through a tax on petroleum and chemical industries. The chemical and petroleum fees were intended to provide incentives to use less toxic substances. Over five years, $1.6 billion was collected, and the tax went to a trust fund for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. The last full fiscal year in which the Department of the Treasurymarker collected the tax was FY1995. At the end of FY1996, the invested trust fund balance was $6.0 billion. This fund was exhausted by the end of FY2003; since that time funding for these orphan shares has been appropriated by Congress out of general revenues.


Several attempts have been made to reform the Superfund legislation. In 1986, such an attempt was successful, resulting in the 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA), which increased Superfund appropriations and provided for studies and new technologies to be used. In 1994, the Clinton administration proposed a new Superfund reform bill, which was seen as an improvement to existing legislation by some environmentalists and industry lobbyists. The effort was blocked, however, by Republican opponents.

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