EPA’s Superfund Program Turns 44 This Year: 

Authors: Pete Delano, PE, Director of Project Development & Scott Harding, PE, Vice President of Business Development

In the early 20th century, industrial activities and improper waste disposal practices led to the accumulation of toxic substances in various locations across the United States, posing a threat to both the environment and public health. To counteract this and reduce future impacts, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set forth on a mission to identify and remediate contaminated sites and to hold accountable parties responsible for the costs associated with these clean-ups. Thus, in 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was born – more commonly known as the “Superfund”.

How does it work?

The Superfund has served as the primary Federal regulatory mechanism to address hazardous waste sites across the United States, responding to potential environmental human health risks from abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites in cooperation with States and Tribal Nations. It is a complex process that can be broken down into six primary steps:

  1. Site Discovery and Assessment: Often, this phase begins with a notification to EPA by a local or State agency of a potential or actual spill, leak, or release, followed by EPA conducting a brief site inspection and some limited initial sampling to determine if regulated hazardous materials are present and to establish the severity of potential risks to human health and the environment.


  1. Placement on the National Priorities List (NPL): During this phase, EPA will conduct a pre-CERCLA screening, more site sampling and investigation is completed to establish the nature and extent of contamination further, and the site is ranked and prioritized against other hazardous sites that qualify for Superfund resources and efforts.


  1. Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS): This stage involves an evaluation of the nature and extent of contamination at a site and assessing risk to human health and the environment. This stage of the process also includes evaluation of the potential performance and cost of the remedial options identified for a site.


  1. Records of Decision (ROD): The ROD explains which cleanup alternatives will be used at NPL sites. Leading up to the issuance of the ROD, the EPA recommends a preferred remedy and presents the cleanup plan in a document called a Proposed Plan for public comment.


  1. Remedial Design/Remedial Action: Detailed cleanup plans are developed and implemented during the remedial design/remedial action (RD/RA) stage. Remedial design includes development of engineering drawings and specifications for a site cleanup. Remedial action follows design and involves the actual construction or implementation phase of site cleanup.


  1. Post Construction Completion: Activities undertaken during this phase help ensure that cleanup work at a site continues to protect human health and the environment. Work can include routine monitoring of a site; routine reviews of the site to ensure cleanup continues to be effective; and enforcing any long term site restrictions.


EPA’s goal is to make sure site cleanup is consistent with the likely future use of a site. Consideration of reuse at a site can occur at any point in the Superfund cleanup process, from site investigation activities to deletion from the NPL. EPA works with communities to make sure sites or portions of sites are used safely.

Throughout the CERCLA process, EPA relies on a pool of engineering and environmental firms to conduct this CERCLA work that have been deemed to be qualified as having the necessary engineers, geologists, scientists, chemists, toxicologists, and other related CERCLA expertise.

So, who funds the Superfund?

The EPA has had success seeking out responsible polluters to perform or fund their site cleanups – in 2023 alone, the EPA’s enforcement actions resulted in more than $900M in responsible party commitments, further helping to fund needed cleanups. But what happens when a responsible party can’t be identified or in situations like natural disasters where no one can be held responsible to foot the bill? In those cases, the EPA must rely on additional funding.

For instance, in 2021, the Bilateral Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) assigned $3.5B to the EPA’s Superfund program. On top of this, the long-discontinued Federal petroleum tax was reinstated. This is a reinstated Federal excise tax placed on every gallon of gasoline and diesel fuel sold in the US and is expected to generate more than $50B in revenue over the next 10 years, potentially allowing the Superfund program to accelerate many more site cleanups well into the future.

What does the future hold?

Over the years, the Superfund has made significant progress in cleaning up contaminated sites and protecting communities. Thousands of sites have been addressed and successful cleanups have led to the revitalization of once-polluted areas. The Superfund program has not only improved environmental quality, it has enhanced public health and safety.

Since 1980, 457 sites have successfully been deleted from the NPL. Today, about 1,335 sites remain and about 1,242 sites are considered substantially “Construction Complete”, according to data published by the EPA.

Moving forward, the EPA has stated that their plans and priorities to evolve the Superfund’s future priorities are as follows:

  • exploring the potential for beneficial reuse of rehabilitated sites to construct solar, wind, and other renewable energy projects;
  • adapting Superfund site cleanups to account for climate change;
  • establishing environmental justice criteria to prioritize selected site cleanups;
  • and continuing to focus on new and emerging contaminants including PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl) substances, microplastics, pesticides, pharmaceutical wastes, and other chemical-based products.

Since its inception, the EPA’s Superfund has certainly experienced ebbs and flows in its funding, progress, priorities, and political pressures. But overall, its primary mission remains the same today as it has for over forty years: protect human health and the environment, make responsible parties pay, involve communities in the process, and ultimately return Superfund sites to productive use. The work is complex and it can take many years to navigate the entire CERCLA process, but it’s a critically important effort towards improving the communities we live in now and for generations to come.

back to all resources