Date of Award



Edward Van Buren


The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act –commonly known as the Superfund act-- was passed by Congress in 1980, in the aftermath of toxic waste disasters such as that in Love Canal, NY. CERCLA not only required that major corporations take responsibility for cleaning up their dangerous disposal or accidental release of toxic waste into the public, but it also created a trust fund to cover instances where a responsible party could not be found or went bankrupt. This “superfund” was financed by taxes on pollutant-producing companies.

However, these taxes expired in 1995, and the Republican controlled congress blocked efforts to renew them. The trust fund ran out in 2003, and since then CERCLA sites have relied on congressional allocation and approval for funding, severely hindering recovery efforts under Superfund.Even before the halt on pollutant taxes, CERCLA was underutilized, and cleanup efforts were often slow or excessively delayed. With the absence of a superfund for sites of contested or unattributed responsibility, more and more sites were left untreated, or have undergone very slow and incomplete restoration processes.

This historical investigation aims to examine both the historical context of CERCLA, and the Policy principles that both brought CERCLA into existence, only to doom it to invalidity, in order to concretely establish that CERCLA’s failure is solely due to a lack of proper execution and support on the federal level. Furthermore, this investigation will also examine the methodology by which the National Priority List for superfund sites are ranked and thusly addressed, and will consider the ethical and economic implications of this system, and whether it discriminates against lower income regions in its prioritization process.

It becomes evident through this investigation, then, that CERCLA itself is not a badly designed piece of legislation. In fact, if properly funded, enforced, and with minimal overhaul to the prioritization process, CERCLA could be the incredibly effective program it was intended to be, rather than the helpful but limited capacities of the law in its current form. The solution, thus, is an obvious one, but it is the only effective and just option: the superfund needs to be replenished through the reinstatement of CERCLA taxes on polluting petroleum and chemical companies, and EPA funding needs to be increased or redistributed in order to provide the extra necessary resources to help expedite the cleanup process, and thusly correct the negligent inaction that has harmed thousands of U.S. citizens living near untreated superfund sites in the past decade.