What Is CERCLA: A Guide to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act

Author: ACTenviro
Date: June 19, 2024

We all know what happens when we destroy our environment. So, taking care of it is everyone’s responsibility. Naturally, the US government enacted laws to ensure maximum environmental protection. CERCLA, 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. 

Let's discuss what CERCLA is and take an in-depth look at how it protects us and the environment from hazardous wastes.

What Does CERCLA Stand For?

CERCLA is an acronym for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. It is a US federal law that laid out the requirements for closing, cleaning, and abandoning hazardous sites and its related prohibitions. CERCLA also established liability for those who created the waste, referred to as “potentially responsible parties” or PRPs. 

CERCLA also oversees the Superfund, a trust fund to finance the cleanup of such sites when responsible parties cannot be identified or are unable to pay for the cleanup.

Can You Explain the History of CERCLA?

The CERCLA 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. Let's discuss a detailed overview of what led to the establishment of CERCLA.

1960s-1970s Environmental Awareness

  • During the 1960s and 1970s, high-profile environmental disasters such as the Santa Barbara oil spill (1969), the Cuyahoga River fire (1969), and the Bridgeport chemical fire (1977) highlighted the need for stronger environmental regulations. 

Love Canal Incident

  • One of the most significant events leading to CERCLA was the Love Canal disaster in 1979. A neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York was built on a former toxic waste dump site. Subsequently, this led to severe health problems and environmental contamination. The outcry over the Love Canal incident emphasized the need for federal legislation to address hazardous waste sites.

Congressional Action

  • In response to the growing demand for action, Congress began working on legislation to address the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. This effort resulted in the passage of the CERCLA.

CERCLA Enactment (1980)

  • CERCLA was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on December 11, 1980. The law aimed to address the problems associated with abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites and to ensure that responsible parties pay the cost of cleanup.


  • CERCLA also established the Superfund to finance the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. 

SARA Amendment (1986)

  • On October 17, 1986, CERCLA was amended by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA). Several changes and additions were introduced to the original CERCLA:  

- Importance is given to permanent solutions and new technologies in handling hazardous waste locations.
- The EPA was strengthened to take actions in considering the environmental laws and regulations by other states.
- The Superfund trust fund was increased to $8.5 billion.
- Citizen participation on how facilities should be cleaned up was encouraged.
- There is an additional focus on the dangers that hazardous waste sites have on human health.
- There is additional involvement of the state in all aspects of the Superfund program.
- New enforcement authorities and tools are delivered.

Brownfields Program

  • In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the EPA began focusing on brownfields---less contaminated sites that can be redeveloped. The Brownfields Program was created to encourage the cleanup and reuse of these sites.

Cleanup and Redevelopment

  • CERCLA has led to the cleanup of numerous hazardous waste sites, protecting public health and the environment. Many previously contaminated sites have been redeveloped for productive use.

Ongoing Challenges

  • CERCLA has faced criticism over the pace and cost of cleanups as well as legal complexities related to liability. Efforts to reform and improve the program continue to this day.

Who Enforces CERCLA?

an EPA team discussion

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) primarily enforces CERCLA. However, the EPA also coordinates with the Department of Justice (DOJ), state and tribal governments, and community stakeholders.

  • Department of Justice: The DOJ provides legal support to the EPA, representing the government in lawsuits to enforce CERCLA provisions and recover cleanup costs from responsible parties.
  • State and tribal governments: State and tribal governments cooperate with the EPA. Some states have their own Superfund programs and may receive federal funding to manage cleanup activities within their jurisdictions. If these agencies meet federal standards, the EPA may also delegate authority to oversee specific cleanup projects.
  • Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs): PRPs include current and former site owners, operators, transporters, and waste generators. They are required by law to comply with CERCLA enforcement actions such as conducting or financing cleanup activities and reimbursing the EPA for cleanup costs.
  • Community involvement: CERCLA mandates community involvement in the cleanup process. The EPA engages with local communities, providing information and opportunities for public comment and input on proposed cleanup plans.
  • National Response Center (NRC): Operated by the US Coast Guard, the NRC serves as the national point of contact for reporting oil spills and chemical releases. It coordinates with the EPA and other agencies to respond to environmental emergencies.

What Does CERCLA Do?

CERCLA plays an important role in managing and mitigating the risks posed by hazardous waste sites. These are the key CERCLA provisions and functions:

  1. Site Identification and Prioritization
    • National Priorities List (NPL): CERCLA requires the EPA to compile a list of the most hazardous sites. These sites are prioritized for cleanup based on the severity of contamination and the degree of risk to human health and the environment. This list is known as the National Priorities List. 
  2. Response Actions
    • Removal Actions: These are short-term responses to immediate threats (chemical spills or leaks, for example) posed by hazardous waste sites. The EPA can undertake removal actions to mitigate these immediate dangers.
    • Remedial Actions: These long-term cleanups help permanently reduce the risks associated with hazardous waste sites. Remedial actions often involve extensive site investigations, feasibility studies, and the implementation of cleanup plans.
  3. Funding for Cleanup
    • Superfund: CERCLA established a trust fund, known as the Superfund, to finance the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. We will discuss the Superfund in detail in the next section. 
  4. CERCLA Liability and Enforcement
    • CERCLA Liability: CERCLA imposes strict liability on parties responsible for contamination. Current and past owners, operators, transporters, and waste generators can be held liable for cleanup costs regardless of fault.
    • Cost Recovery: The EPA has the authority to seek reimbursement of cleanup costs from responsible parties. If responsible parties are unable or unwilling to pay, the EPA can use Superfund money to finance the cleanup and then seek to recover costs through legal action.
  5. Community Involvement and Right-to-Know
    • Public Participation: CERCLA mandates the participation and cooperation of the public in the cleanup process. Communities are encouraged to be involved in the decision-making process through public meetings and comment periods.
    • Right-to-Know: The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which was established as part of SARA (an amendment to CERCLA), requires industries to report the storage, use, and release of hazardous chemicals to federal, state, and local governments. This ensures transparency and public awareness of potential environmental hazards.
  6. Brownfields Program
    • Revitalization: CERCLA provisions cover the assessment, cleanup, and redevelopment of brownfields, which are less severely contaminated sites. The Brownfields Program provides grants and technical assistance to promote the safe reuse of these properties.

What Is the Superfund?

Central to the CERCLA environmental law is the Superfund. Let's discuss the Superfund in detail.

  1. Trust Fund
    • The Superfund was initially financed through a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries. The collections were placed into a trust fund to be used for cleanup activities when responsible parties could not be identified or were unable to pay for the cleanup. Although the original tax provisions expired in 1995, the program continues to be funded by congressional appropriations.
  2. Site Assessment and Cleanup
    • The Superfund program involves a detailed process for assessing and cleaning up contaminated sites.
      • Site Assessment: Identifying and evaluating the extent of contamination
      • Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS): Determining the nature and extent of contamination and assessing cleanup options
      • Record of Decision (ROD): Documenting the selected cleanup plan
      • Remedial Design/Remedial Action (RD/RA): Designing and implementing the cleanup plan
      • Operation and Maintenance (O&M): Ensuring the long-term effectiveness of the cleanup
  3. Emergency Response
    • The Superfund program includes provisions for emergency response actions to address immediate human and environmental threats posed by accidental release of hazardous substances. 
  4. Community Involvement:
    • The Superfund program emphasizes public participation in the cleanup process. The EPA engages with local communities through public meetings, comment periods, and information sessions to ensure transparency and address community concerns.
  5. Brownfields Program
    • The Superfund program funds initiatives for less severely contaminated brownfields. 

What Are the Impacts of the Superfund Program?

  • Environmental protection: The Superfund program has successfully cleaned up numerous hazardous waste sites, reducing risks to public health and the environment.
  • Economic redevelopment: Many cleaned-up Superfund sites have been redeveloped for commercial, residential, and recreational use.
  • Deterrence: The Superfund program discourages negligent behavior and promotes responsible waste management practices by holding polluters legally accountable for their actions.

What Is the Difference Between CERCLA vs RCRA?

CERCLA and RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) are both important environmental laws in the US. However, they serve different purposes and address different aspects of hazardous waste management

CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act)

Purpose: Cleanup of hazardous waste sites and respond to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment

Focus: Remediation of existing contaminated sites including abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. It also focuses on past disposal practices and cleaning up contaminated environments.


  • National Priorities List: A list of the most hazardous sites that require long-term remedial action
  • Superfund: A trust fund to finance cleanup activities
  • Liability and Enforcement: Imposes strict liability on responsible parties for the costs of cleanup
  • Emergency Response: Allows for immediate removal actions to address imminent threats

Agency: Administered primarily by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Enforcement: Involves identifying responsible parties and holding them liable for cleanup costs

Funding: Relies on the Superfund

RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act)

Purpose: To manage hazardous waste from its creation to its disposal, often summarized as "cradle to grave" management. It helps prevent the creation of potential hazardous waste sites through proper waste management practices.

Focus: Generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. It does so by setting standards and regulations for waste management practices.


  • Subtitle C: Regulates hazardous waste by establishing a framework for tracking hazardous waste from its point of generation to its final disposal. Requires permits for facilities that treat, store, or dispose of hazardous waste.
  • Subtitle D: Addresses non-hazardous solid waste including household garbage and industrial non-hazardous waste
  • Corrective Action: Requires facilities that treat, store, or dispose of hazardous waste to clean up any contamination that occurs

Agency: Administered by the EPA, with significant roles for state environmental agencies

Enforcement: Involves regulatory compliance, permitting, and monitoring of hazardous waste management facilities.

Funding: Relies on compliance and permitting fees, with costs borne by waste generators and handlers

What are CERCLA Hazardous Substances?

an image of a hazardous waste container

CERCLA hazardous substances are specific chemicals or compounds the law designates as hazardous. These substances are identified based on their potential to pose a risk to public health or the environment. 

The EPA has a comprehensive list of hazardous substances under CERCLA. These substances are identified as "hazardous" under various other environmental statutes such as the Clean Air Act (CAA), Clean Water Act (CWA), and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Any release of a CERCLA hazardous substance above a certain threshold, known as the Reportable Quantity (RQ), must be reported to the National Response Center (NRC). The RQs vary for different substances and are specified by the EPA.

What are The Categories of CERCLA Hazardous Substances?

The CERCLA hazardous substances list includes, but is not limited to, the following categories:

  1. Heavy metals: Lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, etc. Heavy metals are usually found in industrial waste and can be highly toxic to humans and wildlife.
  2. Pesticides and herbicides: DDT, chlordane, lindane, atrazine, etc. These chemicals are used in agriculture and pest control and can contaminate soil and water.
  3. Organic chemicals: Benzene, toluene, xylene, trichloroethylene (TCE), etc. Many of these chemicals are solvents used in industrial processes and can pose significant health risks.
  4. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs): PCBs are widely used in electrical equipment and are highly persistent in the environment.
  5. Petroleum products and derivatives: Diesel fuel, gasoline, oil, etc. While petroleum itself is not always listed as a hazardous substance under CERCLA, its components, additives, and derivatives often are.
  6. Industrial chemicals: Asbestos, cyanide, phenols, etc. These chemicals are used in various manufacturing processes and can be highly hazardous.
  7. Radionuclides: Uranium, radium, thorium, etc. These radioactive substances can be extremely dangerous and pose long-term health risks.


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 to protect the public and the environment.  The costs for clean-up are covered by the superfund trust 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 release of those hazardous materials.

If you want to know more about CERCLA or if you want to ensure that your business complies with environmental laws, ACTenviro can help you through consultations, assessments, onsite studies, and more.


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