What is CERCLA?

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980.  Commonly known as Superfund, this law was created in response to a growing national concern about the release of hazardous substances from abandoned waste sites.

The Superfund’s goals are to:

  • Protect human health and the environment by cleaning up contaminated sites
  • Make responsible parties fund the cleanup
  • Involve communities in the process
  • Return Superfund sites to productive use

Under CERCLA, the chemical and petroleum industries are taxed, and the Federal government is given broad authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. The law also: 

  • Establishes prohibitions and requirements concerning closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites 
  • Provides for liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste at the sites 
  • Allocates a trust fund to provide for cleanup when no responsible party can be identified 

CERCLA requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to maintain a Federal Agency Hazardous Waste Compliance Docket. This Docket contains a list of:

  • Federal facilities that are managing or have managed hazardous waste
  • Areas from which a reportable quantity of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants has been released  

Any time a hazardous substance, as defined under CERCLA, is released into the environment, the release must be reported to the National Response Center if it exceeds its reportable quantity within a 24-hour period.


The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) amended CERCLA on October 17, 1986. After six years of administering the program, the EPA made important changes, including:

  • Amplified the focus on human health problems posed by hazardous waste sites
  • Increased the size of the trust fund to $8.5 billion
  • Required Superfund actions to consider the standards and requirements found in other State and Federal environmental laws and regulations
  • Provided new enforcement authorities and settlement tools
  • Increased State involvement in every phase of the program
  • Encouraged more citizen participation in deciding how sites should be cleaned up
  • Required the EPA to revise the Hazard Ranking System to ensure it accurately assessed the degree of risk to human health and the environment posed by uncontrolled hazardous waste sites that may be placed on the National Priorities List (NPL)

SARA deals directly with assessing chemicals and developing an emergency plan should hazardous materials be released into the atmosphere.

Potential Responsible Party

A CERCLA Potentially Responsible Party (PRP) is the entity that the EPA will legally investigate to determine financial liability for the cleanup of hazardous substances on an abandoned/orphan property. When there are no PRP’s identified to pay for the cleanup, EPA itself will fund the remediation of the site. EPA reviews records associated with abandoned sites to determine what firms manufactured the chemicals present, what firms engaged in business with the site, and who the past or present property owners are.

These entities receive 104 (e) questionnaire letters advising them of their status as PRPs and inquiring as to their involvement with the site. Once the connection is established between the PRP and the site this party then becomes a Responsible Party (RP). If a site is unstable and at imminent risk to health and the environment, EPA can fund an Emergency Response, an effort of limited duration and scope to stabilize the site.

Project Example

As a consultant to a PRP entity, Cameron-Cole visited the targeted site and observed that it was unsecure (only partially fenced) and had unlabeled open barrels of waste chemicals scattered across the property. This condition was after the EPA had conducted its Emergency Response and expended funds up to the authorized limit. This site simply had more waste on site than EPA’s funding could manage.

Cameron-Cole proposed that its client submit a proposal through counsel to the EPA to voluntarily provide PRP-funded services to immediately secure the site with a fence and to remove and dispose of all the remaining chemical containers. Additionally, we would clean up the site and remove trash and debris that made the site attractive to trespassers seeking to scavenge recyclable materials. This early (in the process) and voluntary expenditure of funds to affect an ongoing and hazardous situation was very welcomed by the agency and in response Cameron-Cole’s client was granted credit against its share of the ultimate cost to remediate the site and to move its priority to the bottom of the list of PRPs to be pursued.  

This process was so attractive that additional PRPs obtained permission by EPA to join our client and share the cost and benefits of this voluntary action. Cameron-Cole oversaw the removal and disposal of over 1,000 containers of waste chemicals from the site and twenty truckloads of debris. This action was well-received by the property neighbors as it improved what had been an eyesore and a blight on the area for several years.

Learn more about hazardous waste management in this case study. 

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