Superfund: Cleaning America – Part 1

The Superfund cleanup process provides the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the authority to oversee the elimination of pollution and potentially hazardous waste from sites throughout the United States. The program tackles the worst and most polluted or contaminated sites in our country.


The impetus for the Superfund was provided by the public reaction to the Love Canal environmental crisis in upstate New York. The Love Canal was an uncompleted waterway which turned into a chemical wasteland ( The site was sold in 1953 to a school district for one dollar accompanied by paperwork regarding the chemicals that were dumped there for so many years.


Despite the knowledge of the chemicals in the ground, the school was built on that site, and over time, neighborhoods filled in around the school. Then, 35 years ago, around 1978, people in that area got very sick, the contaminants began seeping into homes, and even miscarriages were being reported ( The New York State government and the Federal government declared the area an environmental emergency and dealt with the relocation of 239 families.


Then, in 1980, the government purchased the homes of 500 families who sought relocation out of that area. The public pressure was mounting on the federal government to take action. In response, the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 which became known as the Superfund (


Setup and mandate


The EPA set up Superfund by dividing the United States into 10 regions in order to more efficiently review all of the potentially hazardous sites. The mandate of the Superfund has evolved over time but according to the EPA website it is:


  • Conduct removal activities
  • Enforce against responsible parties
  • Ensure community involvement
  • Involve the state governments
  • Ensure long-term protectiveness


The Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) has oversight responsibility for the Superfund program ( The process of designating a potentially hazardous site into a Superfund site for cleanup and remediation has numerous and very particular steps, so the proper oversight protocols are critically important.


Cleanup Process


The first step of the process is the site discovery, which can be made by a variety of potential parties from individuals, groups, local government employees, state agencies, or regional EPA officials.


The data from the site is entered into a computerized inventory of the released substances. Then, based on the types of hazardous materials or pollutants present, and the levels of those harmful components currently at the site, the determination is made on how to most effectively treat the polluted area.


A state agency or another permissible authority can treat a polluted site. However, if a site has very high levels of various dangerous chemicals or materials, then the EPA will get involved in the cleanup process.


Once an area is designated a Superfund site, it can be approached in a variety of ways depending on the severity of the contamination level of the respective site.  The polluted area could be worked on over a long period of time, or it could be remediated in a very rapid time frame.


The cleanup process steps are as follows (courtesy of

  • Preliminary Assessment
  • Site Inspection ( this determines the level of severity and response time)
  • Emergency Response
  • National Priority List (N.P.L.) the most serious sites are designated here
  • Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study
  • Records of Decision- explains cleanup alternatives (if it exceeds $25 million it goes to National Remedy Review Board)
  • Remedial Design/Remedial Action (Preparation and Implementation of Plans and Specifications for site remedies) Bulk of remediation/cleanup is done in this phase
  • Construction Completion
  • Post Construction Completion
  • N.P.L. Delete
  • Site Reuse/Redevelopment


The Emergency Response situation has to do most often with the following:

  • Abandoned Chemicals
  • Community Access
  • Chemical Spill Response
  • Oil Spill Response


The sites and the corresponding data are entered into the C.E.R.C.L.I.S. database where it can be searched and accessed by the general public, the media, and various other entities (  The information is listed in terms which are easy to understand and the system does not use technical terminology.


Hazard Ranking System and the N.P.L.


The EPA uses an entirely separate criteria to deal with the most serious and potentially dangerous sites within Superfund. Those sites are put on the National Priority List (N.P.L.) through a particular protocol.


The Hazard Ranking System (H.R.S.) is the criteria used to place sites on the N.P.L. and it includes:

  • Numerically based investigations
  • Preliminary assessment
  • Site inspection


It is important to note that any person or group can request the EPA to carry out a preliminary assessment of a site by completing a Preliminary Assessment Petition ( If the scoring total deems a site is needed for listing on the N.P.L. then a more detailed inspection is conducted via the remedial listing – feasibility study which takes place after the site is listed.


In addition, the H.R.S. method of scoring sites is achieved by designating numerical values to certain risk factors at the site. Those risk factors are split into 3 groups as per the EPA website:


  1. The likelihood the site has released or has the potential to release hazardous substances into the environment.
  2. The characteristics of the waste involved (toxicity levels, amounts of waste in the ground)
  3. The people or the sensitive environmental components affected by the release or potential release of hazardous substances



The H.R.S. has four pathways which are scored:


  1. Ground water migration (drinking water)
  2. Surface water migration (drinking water, human food chain, sensitive environmental factors)
  3. Soil exposure ( resident population, nearby population, sensitive environments)
  4.  Air migration ( population, sensitive environments)



The inclusion on the N.P.L. can also be a decision that is made by a single pathway. The rationale being if that one pathway is deemed a critical threat to the water supply, the food chain, or the resident population; then the score will be high enough to place it on the N.P.L. in order to adequately address the pollutant source.


The next part of this series will focus on the enforcement measures used by the EPA, the types of contamination at a given site, and the involvement of the community in the site cleanup process.