Unlike Superman, Superfund has never really flown. Mostly it has sat its great big, flabby, sweaty posterior on things and squished them. Superfund’s alter (and much less sexy) ego is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).
CERCLA was enacted by the US Congress on December 11, 1980. Among several changes to hazardous waste law, CERCLA gave the government the ability to identify liable parties for a contaminated site and compel clean-up or reimbursement for public expenditures on cleanup.
Liability under CERCLA is particularly tricky: the law identifies as a Potentially Responsible Party (PRP) the current owner or operator of the site, the owner or operator of the site at the time contamination occurred, the person who arranged for the disposal of the hazardous material (the generator), and the person who transported the material if they arranged for the final destination.
In addition, traditional statues of limitations do not apply to CERCLA cases. When a contaminated site is identified, the EPA can pursue recovery of cleanup costs against responsible parties, regardless of the date of contamination. There is a six-year limit from the time the EPA begins a physical on-site remediation action during which the EPA must initiate its recovery of costs from responsible parties.
CERCLA imposed a tax on the petroleum and chemical industries, creating a trust fund of $1.6 billion over a period of five years. This fund is used to cleanup abandoned and uncontrolled hazardous waste sites where no liable party is found.
According to Wikipedia citing a 2004 US General Accounting (occasionally ‘Accountability’) Office letter to Jim Jeffords, the Superfund balance was exhausted in 2004 and since that date Congress has paid for CERCLA cleanups where no responsible party was found through appropriations on the general fund. A National Geographic article agreed that the fund was bankrupt in 2003.
When a potential Superfund site comes to the attention of the EPA, they rank the site according to the Hazards Ranking System (HRS). Any person or organization can petition EPA to conduct a preliminary assessment using the Preliminary Assessment Petition. A site must meet a threshold score to be considered as a Superfund site. Of course this means that a site just fractions below the threshold will be ignored by CERCLA even if it is located in the center of a metropolis, while a site with a much higher score could receive cleanup attention, even if it was in the boondocks. Here’s a map of Superfund sites if you’re interested.
CERCLA has done a lot of good: there are probably quite a few serious messes that would have been left to fester for lack of clean-up funds. But, as seen by such triumphs of anachronism as farm subsidies and a good portion of copyright law, we have a knack for thinking legislation once enacted won’t need any substantial changes.