Explaining How We Address Contaminated Sites – Learn About the Superfund National Priorities List

By Mathy Stanislaus

Love Canal. Valley of the Drums. In the late 1970s, these sites created a growing national awareness that if hazardous waste was released into the environment and left abandoned, it presented potential human health and environmental risks. On December 11, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, better known as “Superfund”) into law. Finally, the federal government had a statutory authority to clean up sites where releases had occurred or threatened to occur.

EPA maintains a list of the nation’s most serious abandoned and uncontrolled hazardous sites, the National Priorities List (NPL). The NPL helps us determine which sites warrant further investigation and cleanup. There is a statutory requirement to update the NPL annually, though as a matter of policy, we typically update the NPL twice a year. Recently, we added five and proposed seven hazardous waste sites to the NPL.

Only sites on the NPL are eligible for federal funding for long-term cleanup. The Superfund program operates on the principle that polluters should pay for the cleanups, rather than passing the costs to taxpayers. We search for parties legally responsible for the contamination at sites and the law holds them accountable for the cleanup costs. For the newly added sites without viable potentially responsible parties, we will investigate the full extent of the contamination before starting substantial cleanup at the site.

We undertake removal actions to address more immediate threats, including emergencies that require on-scene arrival within hours, and time-critical situations, where a response is needed within six months. Removal actions may speed up the cleanup of portions of a site or eliminate the need for long-term actions at portions of a site.

Listing a site on the NPL is a multi-step process. To propose a site to the NPL depends on many factors such as:

  • site complexity;
  • extent of stakeholder interest;
  • state and tribal support; and
  • availability of other cleanup options.

After initial investigation and sampling determines the site warrants further evaluation and potential remediation, the data gathered is used to   evaluate a site’s relative threat to human health or the environment through the Hazard Ranking System.

In addition, if the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) issues a health advisory recommending removing people from the site and we determine it will be more cost-effective to use our remedial authority rather than our emergency removal authority, a site can be placed on the NPL. Further, each state can designate one top-priority site for addition to the NPL (16 states or territories have yet to designate a top-priority site). Sites are proposed for addition to the NPL as a rulemaking published in the Federal Register. EPA generally accepts comments for 60 days, responds to the comments, and places those sites on the NPL.. For most sites, the time between proposal and final listing is six months.

State partnership is critical to the cleanup of Superfund sites. We often work with states to conduct site assessments, and as a matter of policy, we request state support to place sites on the NPL. In some cases, states lead the remedial action work with our oversight. As a statutory requirement, states contribute a “cost share” equal to 10 percent of the fund-financed costs of the remedial action, and are responsible for long-term operation and maintenance of the site remedy. When we list sites on the NPL, federally recognized tribes are afforded the same treatment as states at sites for which they have jurisdiction.

Superfund cleanups protect communities’ health, environment and economic wellbeing. The study Superfund Cleanups and Infant Health, shows that investment in Superfund cleanups reduces the incidence of congenital abnormalities in infants by as much as 25 percent for those living within 2,100 yards of a site. Another study found that once a site has all cleanup remedies in place, nearby property values reflect a significant increase as compared to their values prior to the site being proposed for the NPL.

Superfund not only protects health and the environment, it can serve as a catalyst for beneficial reuse.  Today hundreds of communities are reusing Superfund sites for ecological, recreational, industrial, military, commercial, residential, and other productive uses. At the end of FY 2014, based upon data from 450 of the of the 850 sites that have some type of reuse, ongoing operations of more than 3,400 businesses are generating sales of more than $30 billion and employing over 89,000 people representing a combined income of $6 billion.

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