The recent lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan has led to discussions regarding water quality, pollution, and environmental regulations. We have learned from discussions in which we have been involved that the general public (and most lawyers) are unfamiliar with many of the issues surrounding large environmental disasters. Nor are most people with the action(s) taken by the U.S. government to clean up environmental contamination. For example, those who are not involved with toxic tort litigation may have heard of EPA’s Superfund and CERCLA, but may not know what these terms mean. The following is a brief overview of EPA’s Superfund program, for those who are interested.
After a series of large environmental disasters, including Love Canal in 1979, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which “provides a Federal ‘Superfund’ to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites as well as accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants into the environment.” The EPA was also granted the authority to seek out potentially responsible parties (PRP’s) and attempt to force them to carry out cleanup efforts and/or to fund cleanup efforts. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “EPA’s Superfund program is responsible for cleaning up some of the nation’s most contaminated land and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters. To protect public health and the environment, the Superfund program focuses on making a visible and lasting difference in communities, ensuring that people can live and work in healthy, vibrant places.” The EPA was reauthorized to carry out these functions in all fifty states with the passage of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986.
When the EPA becomes aware of “known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants” at a site, the site is placed on the National Priorities List (NPL). PRP’s are then identified and pursued by the EPA. Various defenses are available to PRP’s. The EPA has been involved with thousands of Superfund sites all over the country, a list of which is located here. Apparently, some of the most common contaminants at Superfund sites include lead, asbestos, dioxin, and radiation, generally.