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

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was established in 1980 by Congress. CERCLA's objective was to provide a regulatory mechanism in response to threats to human health or the environment from abandoned hazardous waste sites. Passage of CERCLA was heavily influenced by events at Love Canal, New York, where toxic chemicals oozing from an abandoned hazardous waste dump forced the abandonment of homes and a public school. Under CERCLA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was given funds and the authority to clean up such sites when a responsible party could not be identified. The funds were derived from taxes on industry, particularly the oil and chemical industries, and became known as Superfund.

CERCLA's major provisions establish (1) liability for hazardous waste cleanup by the generator of the waste; (2) a system for EPA to rank hazardous waste sites; (3) a national priorities list for the sites eligible for cleanup through Superfund; (4) and a national contingency plan that details the procedures to be followed to assess contamination at a site, the degree of hazard to public health or the environment, pathways for pollutant movement, alternatives to clean up a site, and the record of decision by EPA detailing how the site is to be remediated.

In 1986, the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) amended CERCLA. SARA provided an additional $8.5 billion for cleanup of hazardous waste sites and emphasized the need for faster cleanups and permanent remediation practices. Also, under SARA, EPA was given authority to enforce hazardous waste regulations at many government facilities operated by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.

In 1986, residents of Woburn, Massachusetts, relied on CERCLA's provisions to bring a lawsuit against potentially responsible parties for the contamination of drinking water wells located in the city of Woburn. The lawsuit claimed that three industries were responsible for contaminating the city's wells and were therefore liable for cleanup of the drinking water and for damages to residents. The suit claimed that an abnormally high incidence of leukemia in Woburn was the result of consumption of contaminated drinking water from the city's wells. One company was found not guilty while another settled for $8 million with no admission of wrongdoing. This case was depicted in A Civil Action, later made into a Hollywood film.

Hazardous waste legislation exists in most countries in the industrialized world; however, differences exist regarding the relative authority and oversight of central and local governments and liability of the waste generator after disposal of the waste.



LaGrega, Michael D.; Buckingham, Phillip L.; and Evans, Jeffrey C. (2001). Hazardous Waste Management, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Watts, Richard J. (1997). Hazardous Wastes: Sources, Pathways, Receptors. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Internet Resource

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Superfund homepage. Available from .

Thomas D. DiStefano

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