Superfund strives for accountability

  • ONE OF MANY: Reclamation site in Colorado

    EPA photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In 1980, two years after toxins oozed out of a landfill and seeped into a suburban housing development called Love Canal in Niagara Falls in upstate New York, Congress passed the Superfund Law. Officially known as CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, Superfund tries to ensure that companies clean up the poisonous messes they make.

Here's how it works: The Environmental Protection Agency determines whether a site is contaminated enough to make it onto the National Priorities List. Then it starts searching for the responsible company. If a company is found liable, it pays for cleanup. If not, the EPA pays with dollars that come from congressional appropriations and a tax on chemical corporations. In the West, 85 percent of Superfund cleanups are paid for by the responsible company.

But the system has glitches:

* Only the most outstanding and largest messes make it onto the National Priorities List.

* Even when a site is listed, years can pass before any reclamation begins, because expensive lawsuits over liability bog down the process.

* There are 1,204 sites on the list (60 are related to mining) but only a couple of dozen cleanups are completed each year. Last December, the EPA celebrated its 500th cleanup in Superfund's 17 years; over half of these were completed since President Clinton took office.

* The Superfund Law expired in 1995, and so the EPA can no longer tax chemical corporations. Reauthorization is tied up in Congress, where mining companies are lobbying for more lenient cleanup requirements and permission to remine areas without inheriting liability for reclamation. Environmentalists and state governments want to make sure the states will not be left with exorbitant clean-up costs.

More information on Superfund is available through the EPA's Superfund hotline at 800/424-9346 or its Web site at