The Advent of Superfund - An Interview with Barry JordanFour years after President Gerald Ford signed the RCRA into law, the EPA still lacked the legal authority to clean up hazardous waste sites or respond to emergencies with dangerous chemicals. That all changed on December 11, 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or more commonly known as CERCLA, the Superfund Act.
Superfund sites were made up of the worst hazardous waste disposal grounds throughout the country. The new law gave the EPA the authority and a funding mechanism to begin extensive cleanup on these sites immediately. The law also allowed the EPA to recoup the cost of decontaminating the land by seeking funds directly from the responsible parties.
Love Canal and SuperfundOne of the most notorious dumping sites, and a direct precursor to the Superfund program, is Love Canal. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the Hooker Electrochemical Company used land in Niagara Falls, NY, as a dumpsite for 21,000 tons of chemical waste. In 1953, after dumping had ceased and the site had been filled in, the local school district acquired the land to build a new school. Ultimately two schools were built, and infrastructure for residential homes was constructed for a planned development. While building the sewer walls for the private residential homes, the construction crew breached through the clay seal at the dumpsite, exposing the toxic chemicals to the ground and well water in the area.
As residents moved into the homes, none were aware that a toxic waste dumpsite lay hidden down the street, and it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the connection was made. Many health anomalies were identified, including enlarged limbs, birth defects, and an abnormal incidence of miscarriages. As more tests were completed, the size and scope of the problem became apparent. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter allocated federal funds to the site, which was the first time federal funds were used for a situation other than a natural disaster.
Shortly thereafter, the Superfund Act was passed. All told, more then 800 families were evacuated from their homes and resettled in new locations as a result of the Love Canal incident.
The Success of SuperfundToday, the Superfund has been recognized as instrumental to accomplishing hazardous waste cleanup across the United States. Many of the worst areas were “midnight dumping sites,” places where random trucks would pull in to dump their waste at night. Determining who was responsible for cleanup costs at these locations was almost impossible, and, without proper funding, cleanup may never have occurred. But even at sites with clear owners, identifying the responsible party wasn’t always accomplished easily.
In many cases, a landfill could have 200 to 300 companies on record as having dumped waste there. The EPA would have to find the records on each party to determine how much liability each company bore for the cleanup. Today, the EPA is still involved in determining liable parties and collecting funds to help with cleanup.
Sixty years of toxic waste mismanagement has required a herculean effort by the EPA to identify, remedy and collect restitution for the worst sites across the country. Many Superfund sites are still active today throughout the United States, and the work of the EPA is ongoing to meet the important goals of protecting natural resources and citizens.
Barry Jordan is a retired Veolia employee whose career included 6 years with the US EPA.