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.
system has glitches:
* Only the most outstanding
and largest messes make it onto the National Priorities
* 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
* 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.
on Superfund is available through the EPA's Superfund hotline at
800/424-9346 or its Web site at