Superfund Enforcement: 35 Years of Protecting Communities and the Environment

Logo for 35th anniversary of Superfund enforcement programDecember 2015 marks 35 years since the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund, was enacted.

For 35 years, EPA’s Superfund enforcement program has enabled thousands of site investigations and cleanups, and has required viable responsible parties to either conduct that work and or pay for cleanups at Superfund sites. Our work promotes environmental justice and fairness, and benefits local communities across the nation.

The commitment that responsible parties make to conduct or pay for the cleanup of Superfund sites is driven primarily by settlements and EPA orders. The Superfund enforcement program’s efforts to negotiate settlement agreements and issue orders for cleanup work accounts for approximately 69 percent of all the cleanup work currently underway at Superfund sites around the country. For every one dollar that the Superfund enforcement program spends, private parties commit eight dollars toward cleanup work. 

The work of the Superfund enforcement program preserves taxpayer dollars and the scarce resources of the Superfund trust fund to address truly abandoned and orphaned sites and helps to make a visible difference in communities around the country.

For every dollar spent by the Superfund enforcement program, private parties commit to spending eight dollars toward cleanup work leading to restoration of land and water, facilitating reuse and revitalization, and protecting communities and taxpayers.

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Superfund fills a gap in protecting human health and the environment

On December 11, 1980, Congress passed the Superfund statute to fill in a major gap in environmental protection that came to light in the mid-1970s. Existing laws regulated how newly generated pollutants should be managed, but they did not address pollutants from the past, sometimes referred to as legacy pollution. Existing laws also only had limited emergency response capabilities. In the late 1970s, the country was only beginning to learn of the potential dangers posed by abandoned hazardous waste and past industrial practices. Communities such as Love Canal in New York, Valley of the Drums in Kentucky, and other sites around the country showed that wastes buried, discarded, and abandoned long ago – and mostly forgotten – were proving to be a serious threat to human health and the environment. The Superfund law is a federal cleanup program created to address these problems and to protect human health and the environment. The Superfund law includes the creation of a Hazardous Substance Trust Fund (the "Fund") that is to be used to address both emergency removal of hazardous substances and longer-term cleanups that often include stewardship of once contaminated lands. 

The law also allows EPA to hold private and federal government parties responsible for conducting the cleanup or for reimbursing the EPA when it uses the Fund to perform cleanup work. Thus, EPA’s Superfund cleanup program has a strong enforcement first policy where a viable polluter pays for the cleanup and not the taxpayer.

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Superfund enforcement ensures that polluters pay for cleanup

EPA’s enforcement program is based on the “polluter pays” principle, which provides that a party responsible for the pollution pays for cleaning it up. EPA’s Superfund enforcement program has three basic options when contamination needs to be cleaned up:

  • Conduct the cleanup using money from the Fund and then, where possible, seek to recover its costs from potentially responsible parties (PRPs);
  • Compel PRPs to perform the cleanup through administrative or judicial settlements and orders; or
  • Enter into settlement agreements with PRPs that require them to clean up the site or pay for the cleanup.

Over the past 35 years, EPA has secured more than $35.1 billion in PRP commitments to do cleanup work under the Superfund program.

By placing the burden of cleanup on those responsible for the contamination, EPA is able to use its limited Superfund money at sites where PRPs do not exist or the PRPs ability to pay for the cleanup is small or lacking altogether. 

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Evolution and implementation of the Agency’s "enforcement first" policy

Since 1980, the Superfund enforcement program has been strengthened through statutory revisions and administrative reforms and policies. The 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act encouraged and promoted the use of voluntary settlements, which resulted in less protracted and litigious interaction with PRPs. It also created the new federal facilities provisions to ensure that federal agencies cleaned up their contamination just like private parties.

In the mid-1990s, EPA established three rounds of administrative reforms to improve the Superfund cleanup and enforcement program. The reforms created a faster, fairer, and more efficient cleanup program and addressed several critical enforcement issues addressing allocation of responsibility, handling small waste contributors, and providing orphan share compensation.

The 2002 Brownfield Amendments to the Superfund law addressed real and perceived liability barriers to redeveloping blighted and abandoned industrial property. More information on the impact of the 2002 amendments is available from the Brownfields and Land Revitalization Cleanup Enforcement website.

The revisions to the Superfund statute and EPA’s “enforcement first” approach has proven critical to accomplishing the program’s overall mission of cleaning up contaminated sites.

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Decades of progress cleaning up contaminated federal facility sites

The federal government, like private entities, must comply with environmental laws and requirements in the same manner and to the same extent as any other regulated facility – this includes complying with Superfund and cleaning up sites for which it is responsible.

Federal government facilities include buildings, installations, structures, land, public works, and other property owned by the federal government. Like private sites, much of the contamination on federal lands was deposited before the dangers were fully understood, and some in the context of military or other national security activities.

In addition to making federal facilities subject to the same Superfund mandates that apply to private parties, Superfund imposes additional requirements on federal facilities, including the federal government’s waiver of sovereign immunity to permit individuals and states to bring citizens suits if an agency is not adhering to a Superfund requirement.

Federal Superfund sites are generally cleaned up under an enforceable interagency agreement, often referred to as a federal facility agreement, with EPA and often the state in which it is located. Among other things, the agreement lays out the federal agency’s cleanup responsibilities and cleanup milestones, long-term operation and maintenance, and EPA’s oversight and enforcement role at the site. Another significant distinction at federal cleanup sites is that generally speaking, Fund money cannot be used to clean up the contamination at federal facility sites.

There are 175 federal Superfund sites that encompass thousands of acres of federal land throughout the country. Many of these sites have been cleaned up and returned to public use as open space or park land, or transferred and developed to private parties who may complete the cleanup and develop them for other commercial uses. 

To get more information about federal facility Superfund sites please visit the Agency’s Federal Facilities on the National Priorities List (NPL) in Your Area website.

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Producing results for 35 years

Working together with states, tribes, communities, local governments, and other stakeholders, the Superfund enforcement program has produced impressive results. On its 35th anniversary, the Superfund enforcement program can point to many accomplishments.

Since 1980, the Superfund enforcement program has obtained

  • Over $35.1 billion in private party commitments for cleanup work conducted at approximately 2551 NPL and Non-NPL sites.
  • Over $6.9 billion in cost recovery of past cleanup costs.

Since fiscal year 2004, these enforcement agreements and orders have addressed the cleanup of over 8 billion cubic yards of contaminated soil and ground water at Superfund sites.

Case-specific cleanup accomplishments include:

  • October 2015 marked the conclusion of the dredging at the Hudson River PCB Superfund Site in New York. GE dredged about 2.7 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment and removed over 300,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the river. This cleanup work was carried out under a 2006 consent decree with General Electric.
  • In 2014, EPA, along with the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, settled a historic fraudulent conveyance case related to the Tronox bankruptcy proceedings. The cleanup settlement provide $4.4 billion in funding to federal, state, and tribal communities for cleanup work from New Jersey to California.
  • In 2009, EPA reached a cleanup agreement valued at $975 million for cleanup at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. The cleanup agreement required TVA to clean up contamination caused by a catastrophic failure of a diked impoundment area at its plant which released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash waste into the Emory River and adjacent land.
  • In 2007, EPA collected more than $124 million from Hercules Incorporated in satisfaction of judgment for EPA response costs incurred in cleaning up the Vertac Chemical and Jacksonville Landfill Superfund Sites in Jacksonville, Ark.
  • In 2006, EPA entered into an agreement with a non-liable party to clean up the Many Diversified Interests, Inc. (MDI) Superfund site in Houston, Texas. The agreement with ClintonGregg Investments, L.P. saved the Agency $6.6 million in on-site cleanup of lead-contaminated soil and assured EPA that the buyer has sufficient funds to complete the cleanup and pay for the Agency’s oversight costs.

Superfund enforcement evolves

Superfund enforcement has evolved from its early days seeking cost recovery for money spent on cleanup. Now, EPA first seeks out responsible parties to the get the work done. The past 35 years have brought significant changes to the statute through amendments, changes to perspective through reauthorization discussions, changes to practice through case law, changes to our understanding of threats through new science, and most recently, changes through budget restrictions.

Building on past successes, the Superfund enforcement program continues to be protective of human health and the environment as well as adapt to evolving science and the law. Where possible, the enforcement program encourages those cleanups to include Next Generation tools and technologies to strengthen enforcement of environmental laws. Not only does Superfund enforcement compel polluters to pay for cleanup, the enforcement program deters activities that negatively impact a community’s health and the environment. The Superfund enforcement program will continue to encourage compliance and good industry practices for management of hazardous waste that minimize threats of releases.

The human health and environmental threats posed by newly created sites, processes and new chemicals and chemical combinations mean that Superfund’s response authorities will continue to be needed in the future to ensure protection of human health and the environment. Standing alongside the cleanup program will be the enforcement arm, making sure that those parties responsible for the cleanup, conduct or pay for it. 

More information on the 35th anniversary is available from the Agency’s Superfund at 35 website.

More information how the Superfund enforcement program operates is available from the Agency’s Superfund Enforcement website.

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