A Superfund site is a location contaminated by hazardous waste that has been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for management and cleanup. Superfund sites are prioritized in the National Priorities List, which has been maintained since 1983. The Superfund system was established in 1980, when a federal law creating a special fund for cleaning up such sites was passed. As of 2007, there were 1,569 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
Thousands of locations throughout the world have been polluted by long-lasting toxic substances, including metals such as mercury and lead, asbestos, and organic pollutants such as dioxins. Many of these sites are in industrialized countries, including the United States. For many decades, industry was free to dump such toxins into the ground or nearby waterways, or to accumulate poorly secured stockpiles of waste in drums or other fragile containers with little legal oversight. In the 1970s, as the environmental movement became strong, several severe pollution disasters made national headlines in the United States.
One of the most notorious of these was the Love Canal neighborhood of the town of Niagara Falls, New York, where 21,000 tons of toxic chemical waste were dumped by the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Company from 1942 to 1952. The waste was covered with dirt, and about 200 homes and a school were built near the site. Gradually, it became clear that the residents of Love Canal were suffering from cancers and other diseases at an unusually high rate. The cause was traced to the chemical waste, and President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency for the neighborhood in 1978 and 1980. Another notorious toxic disaster site was the Valley of the Drums in Bullitt County, Kentucky, where tens of thousands of leaking drums of toxic chemicals had been strewn over a 23-acre site.
In response, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known simply as the Superfund Act) in 1980 to deal with abandoned toxic dumps. The law authorized the EPA to deal with threatening releases of “any pollutant or contaminant which may present an imminent and substantial danger to public health or welfare.” When possible, the parties responsible for creating dangerous sites would be forced to pay for cleanup. When this could not be done—as, for example, at Love Canal, where the polluting corporation was no longer in business—CERCLA also established a trust fund, the Superfund. Money for the fund came mostly from a tax on crude oil and some industrial chemicals and an income tax on some corporations. The Superfund would pay for cleanup when there was no other recourse. Finally, CERCLA specified which substances would be considered actionable pollutants. This list has since been expanded.
In 1986, CERCLA was followed by SARA (Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act). This made several changes to the Superfund system. One of SARA’s most important provisions was that it extended CERCLA to federal facilities, not just private property. Both laws apply only to sites in the United States.
Before being dealt with under CERCLA, a toxic site must be deemed officially needy of Superfund treatment. When the EPA is notified of the existence of a possible Superfund site, it adds it to a list called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System. Either the EPA or the state where the candidate site is located investigates the site to deter-Superfund Site
WORDS TO KNOW
REMEDIATION: A remedy. In the case of the environment, remediation seeks to restore an area to its unpolluted condition, or at least to remove the contaminants from the soil and/or water.
mine the level of contamination that exists. If it is severe enough according to the EPA’s Hazard Ranking System, it is added to the National Priority List (NPL) and becomes eligible for Superfund money, if needed, for long-term remediation.
IN CONTEXT: FUNDS FOR THE SUPERFUND
The types of remediation that the EPA uses at Superfund sites varies depending on the type of hazard in the location. In emergency situations, the EPA removes hazardous material immediately, often incinerating the waste. In some cases, people are relocated to protect them from exposure to the toxins. In most cases, removal of the toxic material takes much longer, months or even years.
When a site is listed on the Superfund National Priority List (NPL), the EPA attempts to fund the cleanup from those responsible for dumping the chemicals. These groups are known as Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs). If these groups cannot be identified or are no longer viable entities, then the money for the cleanup comes from the Superfund trust that was initially generated from taxes on petrochemical companies. The fund was exhausted by 2004 and Superfund remediation was then funded from general revenues.
Impacts and Issues
The first NPL was announced in 1983 and contained 406 sites, including Love Canal and the Valley of the Drums. From 1983 to 2007, the EPA placed 1,569 sites on the NPL. Plans for final cleanup at 75% (1,180) of the sites had been adopted by 2007, and construction of remedial solutions had been finished at two thirds (1,030) of NPL sites.
The infamous Love Canal site was added to the National Priority List in September 1983. Federal funds were used to relocate 800 families from the Love Canal neighborhood, one of the most dramatic actions taken at a Superfund site. Similar action was taken in Pensacola, Florida, where in 1991, an emergency cleanup action at a former wood-treatment plant created a heap over 5.4 million cubic ft (153,000 cubic m) of dioxin-contaminated dirt that became known as “Mount Dioxin.” Over 400 households were relocated.
Macey, Gregg P., and Jonathan Z. Cannon, eds. Reclaiming the Land: Rethinking Superfund Institutions, Methods and Practices. New York: Springer, 2007.