David M. Bearden
Specialist in Environmental Policy
Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA, P.L. 96-510) in response to a growing desire for the federal government to ensure the cleanup of the nation's most contaminated sites in order to protect the public from potential harm. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (P.L. 99-499, SARA) clarified the applicability of the statute's requirements to federal facilities, and modified various response, liability, and enforcement provisions. Since then, several other laws have amended CERCLA for specific purposes, such as relief from cleanup liability for certain persons who were not involved in actions that led to contamination, or who contributed only very small quantities or certain types of waste to a site. Congress also has amended CERCLA to authorize federal assistance for the cleanup of abandoned or idled "brownfields" where the presence or perception of contamination may impede economic redevelopment.
CERCLA authorizes cleanup and enforcement actions to respond to actual or threatened releases of hazardous substances into the environment, but generally excludes releases of petroleum and certain other materials covered by other federal laws. Considering the limitation of federal resources to address the many contaminated sites across the United States, CERCLA directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to maintain a National Priorities List (NPL) to identify the most hazardous sites for the purpose of prioritizing cleanup actions. The states and the public may participate in federal cleanup decisions at NPL sites. The states primarily are responsible for pursuing the cleanup of sites not listed on the NPL, with the federal role at these sites limited mainly to addressing emergency situations.
CERCLA established a broad liability scheme that holds past and current owners and operators of facilities that caused the contamination financially responsible for the costs of cleanup. At waste disposal sites, generators of the waste sent to the site for disposal, and transporters of the waste who selected the site for disposal, also are responsible for the cleanup costs. The liability of these "potentially responsible parties" has been interpreted by the courts to be strict, joint and several, and retroactive. At contaminated federal facilities, federal agencies are subject to cleanup liability under CERCLA as the owners and operators of those facilities on behalf of the United States.
CERCLA established the Hazardous Substance Superfund Trust Fund to pay for the cleanup of sites where the potentially responsible parties cannot be found or cannot pay. A combination of special taxes on industry and general taxpayer revenues originally financed the Superfund Trust Fund, but the authority to collect the industry taxes expired on December 31, 1995. As the industry tax revenues were expended over time, Congress increased the contribution of general taxpayer revenues to make up for the shortfall from the expired industry taxes. These general revenues now provide most of the funding for the trust fund, but other monies continue to contribute some revenues (cost-recoveries from potentially responsible parties, fines and penalties for violations of cleanup requirements, and interest on the trust fund balance). The availability of trust fund monies under the Superfund program is subject to appropriations by Congress.
Considering the liability of the federal government as a potentially responsible party at its own facilities, the cleanup of federal facilities is not funded with Superfund Trust Fund monies under the Superfund program, but with other federal monies appropriated for other programs administered by the agencies responsible for these facilities. However, EPA and the states still are responsible for overseeing and enforcing the implementation of CERCLA at federal facilities to ensure that applicable cleanup requirements are met.
Date of Report: January 21, 2010
Number of Pages: 41
Order Number: R41039
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Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act: A Summary of Superfund Cleanup Authorities and Related Provisions of the Act
David M. Bearden