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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act: A Summary of Superfund Cleanup Authorities and Related Provisions of the Act

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 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. Several other laws also have amended CERCLA for specific purposes, including relief from cleanup liability for certain categories of parties, and the authorization of 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 from which a release occurs financially responsible for cleanup costs, natural resource damages, and the costs of federal public health studies. At waste disposal sites, generators of the wastes and transporters of the wastes who selected the site for disposal also are liable under CERCLA. The liability of these “potentially responsible parties” (PRPs) has been interpreted by the courts to be strict, joint and several, and retroactive. At contaminated federal facilities, federal agencies are subject to liability under CERCLA as the owners and operators of those facilities on behalf of the United States. Federal agencies also may be liable in instances in which an agency generated or transported waste for disposal at a non-federal facility.

CERCLA established the Hazardous Substance Superfund Trust Fund to pay for the cleanup of sites where the PRPs 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. Over time, Congress increased the contribution of general revenues to make up for the shortfall from the expired industry taxes. General revenues now provide most of the funding for the trust fund, but other monies continue to contribute some revenues (i.e., cost-recoveries from PRPs, fines and penalties for violations of cleanup requirements, and interest on the trust fund balance). The availability of these trust fund monies under the Superfund program is subject to appropriations by Congress. Private settlement funds deposited into site-specific Special Accounts within the Superfund Trust Fund also are available to EPA, but are not subject to discretionary appropriations.

Considering the liability of the federal government 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 to the agencies responsible for administering the facilities. However, EPA and the states remain responsible for overseeing and enforcing the implementation of CERCLA at federal facilities to ensure that applicable cleanup requirements are met.

Date of Report: June 14, 2012
Number of Pages: 44
Order Number: R41039
Price: $29.95

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