Enacted in 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, was designed to manage cleanup of the country’s most contaminated sites. 42 U.S.C. § 9601 et seq. For years, CERCLA has been used to identify sites for remediation, many of which were contaminated by historic operations. CERCLA was often characterized as a statute that would, at some point in the future, lose its importance in the patchwork of environmental laws. As historically contaminated sites were remediated under CERCLA, the list of sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) would dwindle, and investigation and remediation of active sites would be covered under other environmental programs, such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. 42 U.S.C. § 6901 et seq.
In 2018, nearly 40 years after CERCLA’s enactment, the program remains alive, though perhaps not well. Sites continue to enter the program, but the investigation and remediation process for many sites is long and inefficient. Often plagued by lengthy litigation battles between potentially responsible parties (PRPs), drawn-out investigation and remedial design periods, and long approval processes, CERCLA sites tend to take on a life of their own. These inefficiencies have detracted from the statute’s goal of accomplishing the cleanup of our most contaminated sites.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator E. Scott Pruitt would like to change that. His recent efforts and resulting EPA actions seem destined to change the trajectory of Superfund.