Center for Progressive Reform

Reinvigorating Superfund

A Powerful Tool Left to Wither

In 1980, in response to the Love Canal fiasco and other well publicized instances in which toxic chemicals were dumped into the environment, Congress adopted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Better known as “Superfund,” the law had three principal objectives, as described by CPR’s Rena Steinzor in 2007 congressional testimony:

  • Create a method for the systematic identification and prioritization of abandoned toxic waste sites all over the country that require cleanup;
  • Create a multi-billion dollar fund supported by industry taxes to both prime the pump for cleanup and pay for so-called “orphan” sites – sites polluted by toxic waste of unknown origin, or by polluters that could not pay for cleanup; and
  • Financial liability for polluters that creates compelling incentives to clean up toxic waste sites, and allows government to recover most of the money spent upfront.

The law was reauthorized by Congress in 1986 – with Steinzor serving as subcommittee counsel to the Rep. James Florio, often called the “father of Superfund.” But since then, Congress has failed to reauthorize the law, allowing the all-important “corporate tax” on polluters to lapse, thus rendering Superfund’s financing considerably less than super.

That, coupled with the Bush Administration’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for proceeding with cleanups, has led to a slowdown in the pace of Superfund activity, a fact amply demonstrated by The Toll of Superfund Neglect: Toxic Waste Dumps & Communities at Risk, a 2006 report from the Center for Progressive Reform and the Center for American Progress. According to the report, toxic waste dumps continue to threaten communities across the country, with the annual rate of Superfund cleanups falling by more than 50 percent under the Bush Administration. Today, one in four Americans live within three miles of one of the 1,244 Superfund sites awaiting cleanup, and approximately 3 to 4 million children, who face developmental risks from exposure to environmental contaminants, live within one mile.




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© Center for Progressive Reform, 2013