Author: Marketing
Date: February 3, 2024


Is there really a difference between an RCRA Cleanup vs. CERCLA Cleanup? It’s important to know the key similarities and differences between the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA/Superfund). These laws were passed within a half-decade apart: 1976 (RCRA) and 1980 (CERCLA). 

This helps to explain why there’s some overlap between CERCLA vs. RCRA. Congress passed both legislative acts to deal with cleanups of hazardous waste facilities. However, while RCRA was implemented for waste treatment facilities that currently exist, CERCLA focuses on the hazardous waste removal and management of non-operating waste management facilities. There are other small differences, including RCRA’s regulation of hazardous waste transport.

What Exactly is an RCRA Cleanup?


The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) is a public law which creates the structure for the correct management of both hazardous solid waste and non-hazardous solid waste. 

The Congressional law gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to create the RCRA program. People often use the acronym for different meanings, including the laws/regulations and EPA policy/guidance.

What is RCRA?

This refers to a combination of the original federal solid waste regulations and the following amendments. They’re linked to the particular waste management program passed by Congress. This mandate provided the EPA with authority to create and develop the RCRA program. 

The term “RCRA” is also used to refer to the various rules, regulations and amendments; and EPA policies and guidance. The main difference is EPA regulation implements Congress’ goals by providing clear and legal requirements to conduct waste management. 

The EPA’s policy directives and guidance documents clear up issues connected to regulations’ implementation. RCRA policies and guidance are found at the EPA’s official website.

How Does RCRA Function?

RCRA creates the structure for a nationwide system for solid waste management. The act’s Subtitle D was developed to establish technical standards about how to design/operate waste disposal facilities. Individual states then give permits to make sure that waste management facilities are complying with national and state regulations.

The regulated group consists of a big, diverse group that must comprehend and adhere to RCRA regulations. The community can consist of:

  • Hazardous Waste Generators
  • Government Agencies
  • Small Businesses
  • Gas Stations with (underground) petroleum tanks

RCRA: Section C

Section C of RCRA regulates hazardous waste. The EPA has created a complete program to make sure hazardous waste gets safely managed from “cradle to grave.” This is from the time waste is generated until it reaches its final destination. 

The EPA might authorize states under Subtitle C to implement important provisions related to hazardous waste requirements in place of the federal government. 

In the case that a state program is non--existent, the EPA then directly enforces hazardous waste regulations for that particular state. 

Subtitle C regulations state criteria for hazardous waste:

  • Generators
  • Transporters
  • Treatment
  • Storage
  • Disposal

This process includes requirements, enforcement, and cleanup.

RCRA Cleanups

The main goal of the EPA’s Correction Action Program is to implement final cleanups. The EPA checks the program’s ongoing success using various measures such as environmental indicators that evaluate progress towards achieving cleanup goals. 

These measures were set based on the Government Performance Results Act (GPRA) passed in 1993. They’re reported after every fiscal year ends.

Environment Indicators

These Environment Indicators (EIs) are RCRA measures. The environmental indicators are a method of evaluating/reporting how acceptable various environmental conditions are at “corrective action facilities.” In addition, they provide the chance for facilities/regulators to indicate major progress. 

The EPA has created two EIs to show environmental quality during Corrective Action. This includes Current Human Exposures Under Control that makes sure people close to a particular facility aren’t exposed to high contamination levels. 

Then there’s also Migration of Contaminated Groundwater Under Control. This makes sure contaminated groundwater doesn’t spread and contaminates more groundwater.

What Exactly is a CERCLA Cleanup?


When comparing RCRA vs. CERCLA, it’s also important to know about the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). 

Congress passed this act in 1980 due to some unacceptable practices that took place in the 1970s. This was related to hazardous waste management and practices. The main goal of CERCLA was to determine hazardous waste sites where toxic substances affected public health or local environments.  

This was due to various events, including hazardous waste leaking, spilling, or overall mismanagement. It was especially related to the creation of effective removal plans for hazardous waste. 

Another important function of CERCLA was the hazardous waste cleanup. This involved ensuring that the responsible parties were legally responsible for the clean-up at so-called Superfund Sites.

What is CERCLA?

CERCLA is also referred to as Superfund. Congress passed the act in December 1980. This federal legislation generated a tax on the petroleum and chemical industries.  

CERCLA also created a wide federal authority to produce a direct response to releases or possible releases of hazardous substances that could pose a danger to public health or local environment. 

During the first five years, the federal government collected $1.6 billion. The money was added to a trust fund utilized for cleaning up mismanaged or abandoned hazardous waste sites. 

Some of the main goals of CERCLA included:

  • Providing liability of people responsible for releasing hazardous waste sites
  • Creating requirements/prohibitions for closed/abandoned hazardous waste sites
  • Establishing a trust fund for cleanup after no party responsible was identified
  • Revising National Contingency Plan (NCP). NCP provided guidelines/procedures required to deal with the release/possible release of hazardous substances, contaminants, or pollution.

How Does CERCLA Function?

CERCLA creates a wide liability net for parties responsible for hazardous waste situations. The enforcement takes place when there might be a significant or immediate risk to public health or local environment due to hazardous substances. 

CERCLA can be enforced in situations. This includes ones such as the hazardous waste’s effects being ongoing, and the action is a reimbursement rather than a punishment. 

The EPA searches for Potentially Responsible Parties (PRP) to figure out if there is a legally responsible party. The goal is to find out if PRPs that could have created waste at the site are linked to the matching hazardous waste at the site. 

PRPs could include:

Current Owners/Operators 
This still includes current owners even if they didn’t cause the hazardous substance’s release

Past Owners/Operators 
They’re legally responsible for the release of any toxic substances that took place during their control/possession of the land.

A chemical producer that makes products for use isn’t an arranger. 

This is based on the transporter having a role in the site’s selection where toxic substances are transported to.

CERCLA Cleanups

CERCLA defined two types of response actions:

Short-term removals
In this case, certain actions were taken to deal with releases/possible releases needing fast response.

Long-term removals
These actions permanently/significantly lowered dangers linked to hazardous waste releases/threats of releases. These hazardous wastes are serious yet not life-threatening. The actions could be performed only at sites included on the National Priorities List of the EPA. 

RCRA vs. CERCLA Similarities

EPA HWM Program

The EPA’s “Cradle-to-Grave” Hazardous Waste Management (HWM) program involves a similar goal involving CERCLA vs. RCRA cleanups. This is part of the US public’s concern about issues like hazardous waste production, waste disposal costs, etc.

Thus, the EPA takes several steps to manage hazardous waste safely and effectively. This can also involve the cleanup of operational and shuttered waste management facilities. 

Both CERCLA and RCRA cleanups are part of a regulatory program that helps to ensure waste is managed during its “cradle to grave” lifespan. The overall process involves different stages of toxic waste, including:

  • Generation
  • Transport
  • Treatment
  • Storage
  • Disposal


The main goals of RCRA and CERCLA are to deal with past practices involving waste management. The RCRA was passed more recently, but both legislative acts achieved a Congressional thumbs-up to deal with irresponsible hazardous waste disposal during the past. 

In fact, the site cleanup programs of both acts are quite similar. Most private facilities usually comply with one or the other program during a hazardous waste cleanup. 

However, it’s possible for a federal facility to be required to comply with the two regulatory programs throughout the cleanup. There are also some private facilities that must comply with the two EPA regulatory programs.


The main goal of RCA and CERCLA is to produce consistent outcomes. In fact, they’re different statutes that are used for federal management/cleanup of hazardous waste locations (RCRA). Another function is to respond to uncontrolled/abandoned hazardous waste facilities (CERCLA).

It’s worth noting that while the statutes aren’t exactly similar, there are various similarities. In addition, the main goal is to protect human health and the Earth’s environment.

Public Outreach

The public outreach/involvement processes are similar for both RCRA and CERCLA work. Both promote public involvement via the investigation/cleanup. It also requires public participation through picking response actions. 

The EPA creates a community relations plan at particular CERCLA sites. Meanwhile, it creates documents released to the public during the investigation/cleanup for both RCRA and CERCLA facilities.

Proposed Plan

When the EPA provides the public with a Proposed Plan, a Superfund-sponsored public meeting is held. A transcript is created to record all comments. 

Afterwards, the EPA creates a responsiveness summary that functions as a response to public comments. It becomes a part of the remedy selection.

Meanwhile, the EPA has followed an outreach/public involvement process that usually takes place at an RCRA Corrective Action location.


While the two legislative acts use different terminology, they actually implement similar processes. For instance, CERCLA refers to an investigation/sampling as Remedial Investigation (RI) and evaluation of possible remedy options such as Feasibility Study (FS). 

Meanwhile, in RCRA these two processes are known as RCRA Facility Investigation (RFI) and Corrective Measures Study (CMS). 

In the case of RCRA following the completion of RFI & CMS, the EPA then issues a Proposed Statement of Basis. It also accepts and weighs public comments. It then issues a Final Decision & Response to Comments.

RCRA vs. CERCLA Differences


A big difference is the status of the facilities themselves. For example, RCRA is related to the management of hazardous waste at facilities that are currently in-use. Meanwhile, CERCLA focuses on the management and reversal of environmental damage of non-operating and abandoned sites. 

A related issue is the owners/operators of RCRA facilities are now utilizing/managing/disposing of hazardous wastes. 

Furthermore, RCRA regulates hazardous waste transport. This doesn’t apply to CERCLA cleanups since the solid waste facilities are non-operational.


CERCLA hazardous substances are more wide-ranging and contain all RCRA hazardous substances. RCRA is referred to as hazardous waste since it manages the storage/disposal of facilities/generators now operating. 

CERCLA involves hazardous substances since the substances discovered at contaminated sites might or might not be technically “hazardous waste.”


While the intended outcomes of RCRA and CERCLA are the same, they maintain different statutes. More specifically, the statutes aren’t 100% similar. However, they still have the same ultimate goal of protecting public health and the local environment.


As noted above, the RCRA and Superfund programs use different technology for similar processes. This includes the Remedial Investigation (CERCLA) versus Feasibility Study (RCRA).


The program administration of the two legislative acts is different. The EPA’s Superfund Division manages the Superfund program. Meanwhile, the EPA’s Land and Chemicals Division manages the Corrective Action Program (RCRA).

Technical Assistance

The National Priorities List (NPI) lists eligible groups for Technical Assistance Grants (TAGs) at NPI’s sites. An initial grant is offered to comprehend CERCLA’s site documents/actions. 

A community group manages TAG/technical adviser. RCRA doesn’t offer TAG grants. However, the program known as Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) might be available for RCRA and CERCLA programs. TAG offers communities various technical assistance services via an EPA-managed contract.


The RCRA and CERCLA programs have the same overall goal of improving public health and the planet’s environment. In fact, Congress passed the legislative acts within the timeframe of 1976 and 1980. They were both created to improve the medical and environmental health of hazardous waste facilities. CERCLA and RCRA are also part of the EPA’s ongoing goal of protecting the USA’s natural resources since 1970.

The two programs are similar in various ways. This includes issues like the EPA’s hazardous waste management (HWM) program, goals/outcomes, and public outreach. Even when the means to manage those issues are different, the overall goal is the same.

Meanwhile, some clear differences between the two programs exist. Some examples include facilities, administration, and terminology. However, even in these situations the ultimate RCRA vs. CERCLA goals of cleaning up waste management facilities, improving public health, and protecting local environments are the same.


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