POLLUTION LOCATOR|An Overview of Superfund

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA, generally referred to as Superfund) authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to respond to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may threaten public health or the environment.

The law authorizes two kinds of response actions:
In 1986, Congress - concerned that too many Superfund cleanups had been of low quality - amended CERCLA to include a number of detailed provisions governing how cleanups are to be conducted. Among the most important provisions is the preference for cleanups that "permanently and significantly reduce the volume, toxicity, or mobility" of toxic contaminants in the waste. For the text of CERCLA, see Title 42 of the U.S. Code, sections 9601 and following.

Under Superfund, EPA can require "responsible parties" to conduct the cleanup under EPA oversight. Alternatively, EPA can conduct the work itself and sue the responsible parties for the cost. Superfund imposes "joint and several liability," meaning that any one responsible party, or group of parties, can be held liable for the complete cleanup costs. In turn, they can bring "contribution" suits against other companies that also qualify as responsible parties for that site, thus spreading the cleanup costs.

Opponents of Superfund argue that this approach is unfair, especially at sites that were created prior to Superfund's enactment, and that the resulting litigation has imposed excessive transaction costs. Proponents argue that it is appropriate for responsible parties to pay for cleanups regardless of when the site was created, and that joint and several liability is the only practical approach given the "toxic soup" present at most sites. Virtually everyone agrees that the polluter-pays system has created strong incentives for carefully managing wastes generated from now on.

For cleanup and program costs not covered by specific companies, Superfund created a set of three industry-funded taxes. The taxes, which generated roughly $1.5 billion annually in revenue, expired in 1995. Subsequently, the program has been drawing down funds from a reserve that had accumulated because Congress has been allowing fewer dollars to be spent than the tax raised. For the 2000 budget year, Congress appropriated half of the program costs from general taxpayer revenues. If the polluter-pays taxes are not restored before the remaining reserves in the Trust Fund are depleted, Congress can continue to fund the program from general appropriations.