CERCLA Hazardous Substances

Author: Marketing
Date: August 14, 2015


As with other toxic materials, it’s important to know what’s defined as CERCLA hazardous substances. Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) or Superfund 40 years ago. The main goals of the 1980 congressional legislation included cleaning up closed/abandoned hazardous waste sites. Such sites pose a serious threat to public health and the local environment.

It’s important to be aware of what CERCLA does and doesn’t define as “hazardous waste.” This can help to differentiate it from household hazardous waste that includes substances like oil-based paints, aerosol cans, and car batteries, for example. Such know-how can also help to determine whether or not your facility has produced toxic waste that requires federal cleanup.

What is CERCLA?


CERCLA offers a federal Superfund that’s used to clean up shuttered or abandoned hazardous waste sites. Superfund also is used to clean up emergency contaminant/pollutant releases, including spills and accidents.

This federal legislation provides the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with authority to locate various parties that are responsible for toxic waste release. They must also ensure they cooperate with the cleanup.


The EPA has released nearly $8 billion (2021) through special accounts, according to the US agency’s homepage. The fund is supported through a tax on petroleum and chemical businesses.

Superfund’s main goal is to directly respond to hazardous waste sites that are negatively affecting local residents/environment. Some of the main functions of CERCLA include:

  • Providing liability for people responsible for releasing toxic waste at the sites
  • Establishing a trust fund for producing cleanups when responsible parties are identified
  • Establishing requirements/prohibitions for closed/abandoned hazardous waste sites

Response Actions

The legislation authorizes two main types of responses:

Short-term removals
 Actions are taken to deal with existing/possible toxic waste releases

 Long-term removals
These can significantly/permanently lower the dangers linked to the existing/possible release of hazardous substances. This can involve a major threat but not be immediately life-threatening.

Superfund Sites

The EPA cleans up closed/abandoned sites when it’s impossible to identify/locate/enforce possible responsible parties. The EPA can use a wide range of enforcement tools to conduct private party cleanups.

Here are some examples. This includes various small-party settlements like consent decrees and orders. The EPA can also collect funds from companies/individuals after the response action is completed.

The EPA has the authority to implement CERCLA in all US states/territories. Waste management agencies or state environmental protection help to coordinate Superfund identification, response, and monitoring.


The Superfund Amendments & Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986 authorizes CERCLA to keep nationwide cleanup activities. Congress added several definitions, clarifications, technical requirements, and specific amendments to the legislation.

This also included extra enforcement authorities. Meanwhile, another component of SARA is the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).

What Does CERCLA Identify as a Hazardous Substance?


Defining CERCLA hazardous substances is based on CERCLA section 103. This involves the official reporting of “hazardous substances.” CERCLA defines these toxic substances by referring to various non-CERCLA environmental statutes including:

  • Clean Water Act (CWA)
  • Clean Air Act (CAA)
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
  • Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA)

It’s important to reference these statutes directly to learn about the legislative background for CERCLA’s definition of “hazardous waste.” 

Hazardous Substances

CERCLA lists of hazardous substances include various items including:

  • Elements
  • Compounds
  • Mixtures
  • Radionuclides

In addition, this term also includes various:

  • Hazardous wastes
  • Water/Air pollutants
  • Toxic substances

This is based on the definitions provided in various environmental laws.

Meanwhile, CERCLA excludes various substances from its lists of hazardous substances. That includes petroleum/petroleum products in its definitions of hazardous substances. It also excludes certain emissions from particular operating hazardous waste facilities.

Extremely Hazardous Substance (EHS)

These particular chemicals pose major risks, including short/long-term health risks. CERCLA lists around 360 substances that are considered as both EHS and Hazardous Substances.

Reportable Quantity (RQ)

This quantity is the amount of hazardous substances that are released into the environment triggering reporting requirements. The Hazardous Substances and EHS lists include these quantities.

EPA Authority

CERCLA Section 102a also grants EPA authority to determine other hazardous substances as hazardous waste even if they’re not listed in the above-mentioned environmental statutes.

CERCLA defines around 800 substances as “hazardous.” Besides that, there are about 150 “radionuclides.” Over half of them are listed specifically in CERCLA.

CERCLA Hazardous Substances

When high quantities of CERCLA hazardous substances are released in amounts equal to/greater than the Reportable Quantity (RQ), CERCLA then requires them to be reported to the National Response Center (NRC).

Besides that, hazardous substance releases must undergo state/local reporting as per CERCLA guidelines. The legislative act includes multiple lists of various hazardous substances.

These lists include radionuclides and various chemical/metal compound categories. Each chemical category includes more explanation when more info is available.


CERCLA lists various metals, including:

  • Arsenic
  • Cadmium
  • Chromium
  • Copper
  • Lead
  • Nickel
  • Selenium
  • Silver
  • Zinc

In this case, no reporting of releases of solid form is necessary if the average diameter of solid metal pieces released is greater than a certain size.

Sulfur Monochlorid
This chemical compound is listed with a wrong CAS number and is found on CERCLA’s Hazardous Substances list. 

Ammonia/Ammonium Hydroxide 
These hazardous substances are listed separately. Ammonium hydroxide is actually a water solution of ammonia.

CERCLA Hazardous Substances Purpose

Enforcing Agencies

The Department of Justice and EPA are the federal agencies that enforce CERCLA. In some situations, a state environmental office might participate in responses/cleanups. The agencies’ involvement is based on situations that involve the release/cleanup of defined CERCLA hazardous substances.

Potentially Responsible Party (PRP)

The enforcing federal agencies can hold people/groups liable for the response/cleanup costs. In the case that they sent hazardous waste to/through a site or were responsible for operating the site.

After enforcing agencies determine the people/groups they then become PRPs. Under CERCLA, enforcing agencies are able to extend liability to past/present owners/operators. This can also include people who performed or arranged for hazardous waste transport/disposal.

Joint/Several Liability

In most cases, the PRPs share the total cleanup costs. This is known as “joint liability.” Meanwhile, in the case some PRPs don’t exist legally now, the other PRPs divide the total costs for the cleanup of toxic wastes. This is known as “several liability.” CERCLA permits enforcing agencies to use one/both types of liability to settle a response action’s costs.  


Besides the hazardous wastes themselves, particular requirements involving environmental laws like CERCLA include spill reporting obligations of hazardous waste generators. Key information regarding such spills is contained in the EPA’s List of Lists

In some situations, businesses/individuals are required to report hazardous waste spills to state/local authorities.

It’s critical to receive a general summary of federal release/spill reporting requirements under CERCLA. This is in addition to knowing which substances CERCLA defines as hazardous wastes. You also might be required to report such spills under other environmental statutes, including the Clean Water Act (CWA).

Public Health & Environmental Protection

One of the key benefits of CERCLA hazardous substances involves environmental protection. When the EPA cleans up the country’s most polluted hazardous waste sites, it’s also addressing or boosting:

  • Public health
  • Natural environment
  • Local economies
  • Quality of life
  • Future releases
  • Science and technology

The Superfund program also is present at natural disasters, including oil spills and long-term cleanups. It teams up with partners to allow local residents to live, work, and play in healthy environments.  

The EPA’s dealing with uncontrolled emission of hazardous substances can help to improve the public health of whole communities. Several urgent public health issues are addressed during the cleanups. This includes issues like poisoning, injuries, cancers, etc.

CERCLA Hazardous Substances Formats

The lists of CERCLA dangerous substances are available in different formats, including the following ones:

PDF version   

Changes to CERCLA

Microsoft Excel

It’s critical to note that the Excel file docs don’t contain:

  • Introduction explaining list/codes utilized in chemical tables
  • Appendix B: CERCLA’s radionuclides
  • Appendix D: Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) chemical categories
  • Appendix E: CERCLA hazardous substance chemicals

SARA (1986)

CERCLA and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) share jurisdictions in relation to hazardous substances, and (underground) storage tanks that contain petroleum products. Protocol/Guidelines for the tanks are contained in RCRA’s Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (1984). Meanwhile, CERCLA outlines the kinds of controlled waste.

SARA shows the EPA’s expertise in managing various complex Superfund programs. This was from CERCLA’s creation until the 1986 amendments. It made many key changes/additions to the existing CERCLA.

Some of the most significant changes included:

  • Boosting focus on public health issues caused by toxic waste sites
  • Requiring Superfund actions to take up requirements/standards in federal/state environmental laws/regulations
  • Boosting trust fund size to $8.5 billion
  • Stressing the significance of innovative treatment tech and permanent remedies in the cleanup of hazardous waste facilities
  • Offering new settlement tools and enforcement authorities
  • Encouraging more citizen participation to make decisions about the cleanup of hazardous waste sites

The EPA was also required under SARA to revise the Hazard Ranking System. This helped to ensure it evaluated the risk to the local environment and human health triggered by hazardous waste facilities that could be added to the National Priorities List (NPL)

EPCRA (1986)

The Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) was created through SARA. Congress passed it as national legislation regarding community safety. The law was created to assist local communities by protecting the local environment, and public health/safety from chemical hazards.

Congress required each US state to appoint its own State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) in order to implement EPCRA. The goal was to make sure all needed elements required for the planning process were represented. This included wide representation of:

  • Health officials
  • Emergency managers
  • Firefighters
  • Community groups
  • Media representatives
  • Industrial facilities

BUILD Act (2018)

This act made major changes to CERCLA. The EPA requested comments about the BUILD Act up to July 2018. It then incorporated the amendments in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 brownfields grants guidelines.

The BUILD Act implemented a few major amendments to CERCLA. It boosted funding for Brownfield Development grants. The BUILD Act also formally extended Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser (BFPP) statutory defense to contaminated sites’ tenants. In the past, this was an EPA policy.

The BUILD Act also extends BFPP defense to brownfield sites’ tenants whose leases started following January 2002. This provides tenants with three different ways to claim their BFPP status, which can thus possibly escape any liabilities from brownfield site occupation.

Designation of CERCLA hazardous substances


The designation of hazardous substances involves lists of various hazardous substances. This includes different elements, chemical compounds, and toxic wastes. They’re listed in Section 102a of the Federal Act.

Solid wastes that aren’t excluded from hazardous waste regulation are classified as “hazardous substances” based on Section 101 of CERCLA. This is based on whether it contains 1+ characteristics listed in the legislation.

Columns & Numbers

This refers to the Chemical Abstracts Service Registry Number (CASRN). Each hazardous substance contains an individual CASRN.

Statutory Code
This shows the statutory source for defining each toxic substance as a particular CERCLA hazardous substance. The codes include:

1: Clean Water Act (section 311b)
2: Clean Water Act (section 301a)
3: Clean Air Act (section 112)
4: Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (section 3001)

RCRA Waste Number
This shows the waste identification numbers that various RCRA regulations give to different substances

Pounds/kg Column
The column shows the reportable quantity adjustment for every hazardous substance in lbs. and kg.

Appendix A to § (302.4) 
This offers a sequential order listing of CERCLA hazardous substances based on CASRN. It designates a per-substance categorization of regulatory synonyms. This is especially related to how every hazardous substance gets identified by name via the implementing regulations of other statutes.


Hazardous waste can be defined in several ways, including the EPA’s CERCLA passed in 1980. For four decades, the federal agency’s Superfund has been used to clean up some of the nation’s most polluted hazardous waste sites. This fund is part of the EPA’s overall mission of protecting the USA’s natural resources, including air, soil, and water sources.  

If your business produces toxic wastes, it’s important to know whether your facility’s hazardous waste is among the roughly 800 substances classified as such by CERCLA. Besides general hazardous substances listed, others include radionuclides.

It’s critical to know whether your hazardous waste site contains 1+ of CERCLA-defined hazardous wastes. This can help to determine if cleanup is warranted based on federal, state, and local laws.

Other issues are also important after determining this information. They include possible CERCLA litigation, CERCLA amendments, and the purpose, designation, and formats of CERCLA hazardous substances. This can help to trigger the safe and effective cleanup of contaminated sites, which can benefit both local environments and public health.


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