Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous-Waste Cleanup Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1980 Superfund law was a major though inadequate effort to eliminate the dangers from numerous hazardous-waste dumps.

Summary of Event

Passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, commonly known as Superfund) completed the period of strong environmental action by Congress initiated by passage of the National Environmental Policy Act National Environmental Policy Act (1969) in December, 1969. Having legislated on air and water pollution and the preservation of species and natural areas, in 1976 Congress began to confront the less-understood problems of toxic chemicals. That year, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) (RCRA), which regulates the production and disposal of hazardous chemicals, and the Toxic Substances Control Act Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) (TSCA), which authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate and regulate chemicals not covered under previous laws. The RCRA and the TSCA sought to minimize future toxic chemical problems but left an important area unsolved: the legacy of decades of uncontrolled waste dumping. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980) Superfund (1980) Hazardous waste;legislation Waste;hazardous [kw]Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous-Waste Cleanup (Dec. 11, 1980) [kw]Hazardous-Waste Cleanup, Superfund Is Established to Pay for (Dec. 11, 1980) [kw]Waste Cleanup, Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous- (Dec. 11, 1980) Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980) Superfund (1980) Hazardous waste;legislation Waste;hazardous [g]North America;Dec. 11, 1980: Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous-Waste Cleanup[04340] [g]United States;Dec. 11, 1980: Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous-Waste Cleanup[04340] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 11, 1980: Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous-Waste Cleanup[04340] [c]Environmental issues;Dec. 11, 1980: Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous-Waste Cleanup[04340] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy Florio, James J. Stafford, Robert T. Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;environmental policy

The American public’s attention was drawn to the hazardous-waste problem in the late 1970’s by a series of events, the most important being the Love Canal incident. Love Canal incident Love Canal, a neighborhood near Niagara Falls, New York, became famous when it was evacuated in August, 1978, because long-buried chemicals had begun seeping into local basements and water supplies. Because the federal government had no authority to act, New York State funded the evacuation and cleanup, at a cost of $35 million. The media also publicized other sensational waste problems such as “the Valley of the Drums,” Valley of the Drums an area near Brooks, Kentucky, where uncounted amounts of unknown toxins were discovered, and the case of Times Beach, Missouri, Times Beach, Missouri;dioxin contamination where virtually the entire village had dioxin-contaminated soil. Clearly something had to be done about the thoughtlessly discarded toxic wastes of the past. The 1980 Superfund bill sought to clean up hazardous-waste dumps across the United States.

Superfund workers conduct drilling operations for soil sampling at Bruin Lagoon in Bruin, Pennsylvania.

(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Political groundwork for CERCLA began in 1979, when the administration of President Jimmy Carter proposed a similar but stricter toxic-waste cleanup program. In 1979, Superfund legislation was choked by disagreement over the legal liability of dumpers, who would bear the costs, and enforcement procedures. The next year, however, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills that contained major components of the final 1980 Superfund law. Under strong pressure from the bill’s sponsor, New Jersey Democrat James J. Florio, the Commerce Committee handled H.R. 7020, which would authorize emergency spill and dump correction and the recovery of cleanup costs from dumpers. Meanwhile, the Public Works and Merchant Marine Committee passed H.R. 85, which would establish an industry-financed fund to deal with chemical and oil spills into navigable waterways. The House Ways and Means Committee reviewed both bills.

Despite heated debate in the hearings over who should pay and what should be done, both bills passed easily with bipartisan support in late September, 1980. The ease of the passage was attributed to strong public demands for action, the numerous compromises made in committee hearings, and the surprising support provided by a major industry group, the Chemical Manufacturers Association Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA). The CMA’s support reflected its recognition of public sentiment and its satisfaction with the weakened provisions on fund size and industry liability.

In June, the Senate Environment Committee approved a far stricter bill cosponsored by committee chair Jennings Randolph Randolph, Jennings (Democrat from West Virginia) and Robert T. Stafford (Republican from Vermont). The Environment Committee’s bill was notable for proposing that victims of dumping should be able to sue companies for compensation and for endorsing a largely industry-financed $4.1 billion cleanup fund. S. 1480 faced powerful opposition outside of the committee, however, and was stalled until November.

In late 1980, CERCLA had two near deaths. First, because Republicans won control of the presidency and the Senate in the 1980 elections, some Republican senators believed that the matter should be left for the newly elected officials to decide. Led by Jesse Helms Helms, Jesse (Republican from South Carolina), these senators threatened to filibuster the bill. However, strong public support and indication from president-elect Ronald Reagan that he did not oppose the bill restored S. 1480’s momentum. The bill’s opponents significantly weakened the bill, however, particularly by dropping oil spills from coverage and restricting the liability of waste producers and handlers. Senator Stafford, a primary sponsor, played a critical role in finding and selling the compromises that led to the Senate’s passage of the much less stringent bill before Thanksgiving break.

Faced with the weak Senate version, some House members believed that they should strengthen the bill once more. Representatives were particularly annoyed that Senators Stafford and Randolf warned that the upper house would kill any amended measure. Ultimately, this threat and uncertainty about what the incoming Republican Senate and President Reagan would do led the House to approve the Senate’s measure with a bipartisan 274-94 vote on December 3, 1980. Bill proponents accepted the final bill as a matter of taking “the bird in the hand,” as Representative Thomas J. Downey Downey, Thomas J. (Democrat from New York) asserted. Although CERCLA was weaker and less comprehensive than his original proposal, President Carter lobbied hard for its passage and signed the bill into law on December 11, 1980.

The Superfund law sought to clean up the nation’s hazardous-waste dumps as rapidly as possible and to prevent further danger to people and property. CERCLA emphasized that the identification, ranking, and cleanup of sites be driven by the severity of the hazard, not by the availability of funding.

Four aspects of the law capture its strategy. Environmental Protection Agency;Superfund First, the EPA was to compile a list of hazardous-waste sites that might require action, aided by owners of hazardous-waste sites, who were to notify the agency of such sites by June, 1981. Second, the EPA was to prioritize the sites and clean up those on the national priority list immediately if the responsible private parties did not. To ensure that the EPA could act quickly and without budget considerations, the third components of the law established a “Superfund” to finance the agency’s cleanup activities. The largest portion, 87 percent, of the Hazardous Substance Response Fund, or Superfund, of $1.6 billion came from taxes placed on chemical manufacturers’ feedstock: petrochemicals or organic chemicals. In principle, the tax was a type of user fee, since those who produced chemical wastes would pay for their cleanup. The remaining 13 percent came from federal revenues.

Finally, Congress authorized the EPA to take legal action to force those responsible for spills or dumps to pay for the cleanup. CERCLA allowed the EPA to sue responsible parties for up to triple the costs of cleanup if they failed to remove or correct dangerous spills or dumps. Where many parties contributed to a hazardous situation, individual parties were liable to the extent that they contributed to the problem. The liability, enforcement, and penalty provisions sought to provide strong legal and financial incentives for private site remediation. The Superfund was to serve as a revolving source of funds refilled by the payments of waste creators, with the only real outflows going to “orphan” sites where the producers could not be identified or no longer existed.

Like many environmental laws, CERCLA was essentially an experiment. The magnitude of the problem, the technology of cleanup, and the practicality of the policy design were essentially unknown in December, 1980. Almost immediately after its passage, the inadequacy of the law became apparent as the extent and complexity of hazardous-waste problems were discovered.

An effort to correct the shortcomings of the first bill was made in 1986 when Congress passed the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986) (SARA). Among SARA’s major changes were the increase of funding to $8.5 billion; the establishment of an additional $500 million fund to handle abandoned underground liquid storage tanks; the mandating of more specific cleanup standards, including permanent remedies to the maximum extent feasible and using the best available technologies; and the creation of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986) which required that communities develop chemical emergency response plans and that they receive and store detailed information about dangerous chemicals made by, sited in, and emitted from local businesses.


The authors of CERCLA identified a critical problem, but they vastly underestimated its extent and complexity. Like many environmental policies, the first effort to correct past waste practices set a pattern for later legislation and revealed many previously unrecognized hurdles to policy success. The shortcomings of the 1980 Superfund legislation quickly became apparent. By 1986, only six of the almost one thousand sites on the EPA’s priority list had been cleaned up. The passage of more encompassing and strict amendments in 1986 reflected congressional dissatisfaction with the progress. Three problems affecting the Superfund program in the 1980’s illustrate some of the difficulties facing many environmental policies: the problem of irresponsible or incompetent administration, the complexity of many environmental issues, and the sheer magnitude and costs of problem correction.

The ultimate effectiveness of programs is often determined in their early days. To succeed, CERCLA required the EPA to act decisively in the identification and cleanup of sites and aggressively in litigating against dumpers in order to promote voluntary cleanup and recover cleanup costs. Responsibility for the Superfund’s initial implementation fell to Anne Gorsuch Burford, head of the EPA, and fellow Reagan appointee Rita Lavelle, assistant administrator for hazardous wastes. Both outspokenly declared their principal goal to be promotion of economic growth. This attitude explains why early implementation of CERCLA was marked by inconsistencies, delays, and improprieties.

In the early 1980’s, the EPA relied excessively on negotiation instead of litigation, often accepting inadequate cleanups and undermining the willingness of industry to clean up voluntarily. Priority sites went uncorrected as the EPA underfunded Superfund administration and avoided spending Superfund monies. Favoritism and political manipulation affected cleanup decisions and timetables. Lavelle openly considered political strategy in her program; for example, she delayed the cleanup of the infamous Stringfellow dump site in California to frustrate the senatorial campaign of Democrat Jerry Brown. Brown, Jerry Although never convicted of malfeasance in her administration, Lavelle was found guilty and went to prison for perjury during congressional investigations into the EPA’s Superfund program. The problems of EPA maladministration were compounded by personnel cuts and interference by the president’s Office of Management and Budget, which sought to minimize the cost to business.

The technical complexity of the chemical dump issue would have challenged more committed and capable administrators. Some key areas of uncertainty or debate included the need to decide what chemicals are dangerous, in what amounts and for how long substances are dangerous, the proper means of cleaning up contaminated sites, and how to handle public worries about hazardous-waste sites. The EPA is responsible for evaluating sites, determining the order of their cleanup, getting private parties to do remediation where possible, and coordinating state and local efforts, since the lower governments bear responsibility for following up on problem correction. Even in the best of circumstances, site cleanup takes years of pressure and work. The challenges are both scientific and administrative, and perhaps no agency could have solved the problem under the 1980 law. The 1986 amendments made some improvements, but the task remained a difficult one.

The sheer magnitude of the task deserves specific attention. There are no accurate counts of the abandoned and potentially hazardous-waste sites, but in 1987 the General Accounting Office estimated that there might be more than 425,000 hazardous-waste sites of all kinds, although twenty years later the EPA estimated that the number was probably closer to 350,000. The Reagan maladministration and the explosion of site numbers caught many off guard, but when combined with the toxic chemical laws of the 1970’s, the Superfund legislation made important steps toward a “cradle to grave” management of toxic wastes and the correction of past unregulated waste practices. The great economic benefits chemicals provided to the United States in the twentieth century came at a price, and only recently has the full price become clear. Neither simple nor cheap, the effort to clean up past practices requires a long-term government commitment. Public concern over this matter seems to be strong and consistent, promising that the pressure for action will be sustained. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980) Superfund (1980) Hazardous waste;legislation Waste;hazardous

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fenster, David E. Hazardous Waste Laws, Regulations, and Taxes for the U.S. Petroleum Refining Industry. Tulsa, Okla.: PenWell, 1990. Primarily directed toward those in the petroleum industry, but provides a clear, simple overview of the various hazardous-waste laws. Gives practical insight to how hazardous-waste laws really operate and what they mean to industry. Includes a broad, useful bibliography and several appendixes that direct readers to various state and federal offices involved with hazardous-waste regulation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lash, Jonathan, Katherine Gillman, and David Sheridan. A Season of Spoils: The Reagan Administration’s Attack on the Environment. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. Critiques the Reagan administration’s record on implementing environmental policies in its first years. Despite a strong value orientation, provides a clear and accurate account and illustrates not only the problems of misdirected administrative action but also the issues and extent of the toxic-waste problem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Piasecki, Bruce W., ed. Beyond Dumping: New Strategies for Controlling Toxic Contamination. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 1984. Collection of essays covers the wide range of issues affecting the correction and future containment of hazardous wastes. The five chapters in part 1, “Factors Sustaining the Crisis,” are particularly interesting analyses of specific problems complicating the Superfund’s early progress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Piasecki, Bruce W., and Gary A. Davis. America’s Future in Toxic Waste Management: Lessons from Europe. New York: Quorum Books, 1987. Reaches beyond the problems that spurred the creation of the Superfund and describes how hazardous chemicals can be handled from “birth to death.” Provides examples of European handling of wastes and observations on how these could apply to the American context. Intended for those active in the field but clear enough for most lay readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenbaum, Walter A. Environmental Politics and Policy. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2004. Provides a broad overview of the environmental policy context and makes some practical observations on the problems of uncertainty and competing values. Each chapter contains a suggested reading list and references. Includes discussion of the development of the American toxic-waste management system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yandle, Bruce. The Political Limits of Environmental Regulation: Tracking the Unicorn. New York: Quorum Books, 1989. Discusses the political compromises inherent in environmental policy making and implementation. Focuses on the Superfund and toxic-waste cleanups. A provocative and thoughtful work.

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Categories: History