Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act

We all know what happens when we destroy our environment. So, taking care of it is everyone’s responsibility. Naturally, the U.S. government enacted laws to ensure maximum environmental protection and the CERCLA Act, commonly known as “Superfund, is one such example. To put simply, the CERCLA Act regulates the control and management of hazardous and toxic wastes detected within abandoned or “orphaned” facilities that can affect not just the environment but also the health of the public. 

Under CERCLA, approximately $1.6 billion was collected from a special tax on the petroleum and chemical industries that lasted until 1995.  This money, along with revenue from companies that created the problem is used for clean-up and waste management at abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.

What is CERCLA?

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) is also known as the Superfund act. CERCLA was passed by the U.S. Congress on December 11, 1980. CERCLA laid out the requirements for closing and abandoning hazardous sites and its related prohibitions and established liability for those who created the waste, referred to as “potentially responsible parties” or PRPs.  After identifying the proper hazardous waste removal plan for a specific, abandoned area, called Superfund sites, the next step is to try to ensure that the PRPs will be held accountable. 

As mentioned in the introductory section of this article, CERCLA also imposed a tax on the chemical and petroleum industry.  The funds from this tax (which was in effect from 1980 to 19995) were placed in a trust fund to be used for cleaning up activities in cases where no person or party can be identified as responsible for the hazardous waste.

CERCLA is under the administration of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The amounts that CERCLA or Superfund accumulates is for a specific use. Obviously, this means that the government is not allowed to spend it on anything else. 

CERCLA is also known as

Comprehensive Environmental Response
Compensation Liability Act
Compensation And Liability Act 

What caused CERCLA?

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act was ratified in 1980 but the reason behind CERCLA started in the ’70s with several unacceptable, tragic incidents and unlawful practices of mismanaged toxic, hazardous waste disposal. Here are some notable examples:

A grave accident at a chemical treatment facility  happened in 1977 that left six people dead and thirty-five people hospitalized in Bridgeport, New Jersey. The incident started from a spark of a welder’s torch which came in contact with some chemicals in the facility. This resulted in a big fire in the chemical-waste treatment facility. The event raised an alarming concern from the public and got the government’s attention because it covered the city of Bridgeport in huge black smoke.

Another terrible incident concerning hazardous waste happened in the Love Canal neighborhood near Niagara Falls, New York that prompted then-President Jimmy Carter to declare a State of Emergency in 1978. The residents started to develop rashes, pregnant women experienced miscarriages, and babies were born with birth defects. The case was traced from a former chemical facility which dumped their wastes in the canal near the Niagara River. 

Due to these unfortunate incidents, the House and Senate committees met in 1979. They discussed the risk of these hazardous waste dumps and filed bills to create a “superfund” to deal with these kinds of disasters. 

The same year that CERCLA law was passed, another catastrophe happened in a waste storage facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey. A huge fire broke out and sent up into the atmosphere thick black smoke and ash. The public feared chemical contamination since the fire lasted for ten hours and covered a 15-mile area. 

These tragedies pushed President Carter to sign the CERCLA Act.

What’s the difference between the RCRA and CERCLA?

Before CERCLA came into fruition, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA) was enacted first to create an office in the government that has control over hazardous waste, from its generation to disposal as there was a growing concern by the public regarding “midnight dumping” of hazardous wastes.

RCRA (1976)

CERCLA (1980)

Focuses on specific approaches to both solid and hazardous waste management within facilities, sites and areas that are abandoned yet identified to contain environmentally hazardous substances.

CERCLA Response Actions

There are two kinds of response actions that the CERCLA law allows: short-term removals and long-term remedial response actions. These responses are administered by the EPA.

The short-term removals are taken when the threat of a toxic waste accident requires an immediate response. On the other hand, long-term remedial response actions are taken when the threat of a toxic waste release is grave but not life-threatening. These actions are only allowed at locations included in the National Priorities List (NPL) by the EPA. 

CERCLA later revised the National Contingency Plan (NCP) which handles the NPL. The NCP created the provisions and procedures for the needed responses to the threat of toxic waste releases, or actual releases. 

Aside from the authority to decide over the kind of response actions to take, the EPA’s responsibility also covers cleaning up sites where the identification of parties responsible is not possible or when the parties just failed to act. The EPA recovers the cost of the cleanup from financially able individuals or companies who are involved when the response action is completed.

The cleanup enforcement program of the EPA aims to provide protection to human health and the environment by imposing regulations on parties responsible for the toxic waste release. The EPA either orders for cleanup or reimbursement for the cleanup that they will conduct to avoid public exposure to toxic waste.

Another important goal of the EPA for their cleanup enforcement program is the reusability of the previously contaminated facility. This is done by encouraging cleanup of the facility in accordance with the Superfund liability concerns. The facility owner liability protections are also implemented. 

When facilities under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) do not properly manage their toxic waste, the EPA and the states oblige the individuals responsible to do the cleanup under CERCLA. 

CERCLA Amendments

The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) was an amendment made to reauthorize CERCLA on October 17, 1986. Several changes and additions to the program were made as follows:

Most significantly though Title III of SARA authorized the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).   EPCRA was a direct response to a catastrophic release chemical disaster in Bhopal India, where a release of methyl isocyanate killed or injured thousands of people.

EPCRA requires states and local governments to establish local chemical emergency preparedness programs for their communities and requires businesses to report hazardous materials storage as well as emergency releases.  EPCRA also requires EPA to establish and maintain a publicly available toxic chemical release inventory (TRI) of facility-specific chemical release and waste management information.


CERCLA is one of the key pieces of environmental legislation in the US.  CERCLA created a mechanism to identify abandoned hazardous waste sites and ensure they are cleaned up, in order to protect the public and the environment.  The costs for clean-up are covered from the superfund trust (originally funded by a tax on the petroleum and chemical industries), as well as revenue from potentially responsible parties.  In addition, Title III of SARA requires states to establish emergency preparedness programs and requires businesses to report the hazardous materials they use, as well releases of those hazardous materials.

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