Superfund: After Nearly Forty Years, Still a Work in Progress

Posted on October 19, 2017 by William Hyatt

Since its enactment, the Comprehensive Environmental, Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as the Superfund statute, has probably received more diagnostic attention than any other environmental law.  That is not surprising, considering EPA has devoted more resources to the Superfund program than to any other program the agency administers.  Matters were not helped by the program’s rocky start, with allegations of impropriety swirling around the agency and the head of the Superfund program winding up in jail. Meanwhile, the liability regime designed to fund the Superfund program spawned an avalanche of litigation, resulting in crushing transaction costs.  Over the years, the Superfund program has been consistently controversial and has undergone a steady stream of “reforms,” reports to Congress and GAO studies. The statute itself has also been repeatedly criticized, including by the Supreme Court, for its lack of clarity.

As two recently released reports attest, the diagnostic process continues.  Both reports should be required reading for Superfund practitioners, but the question remains whether the underlying structural problems of the statute have been, or even can be addressed.

The first report is a paper commissioned by the American Council of Engineering Companies, entitled Superfund 2017, Cleanup Accomplishments and the Challenges Ahead.  The author, Katherine Probst, is a longtime, thoughtful commentator on Superfund matters and was a key member of the Resources for the Future team that issued a 2001 Report to Congress, entitled Superfund’s Future: What Will It Cost? A Report to Congress.  Her latest effort is largely a report card on the Superfund remedial program, lamenting the lack of sufficient information to conduct a thorough diagnosis. She makes a number of recommendations that the missing information be gathered, following which a new diagnosis would presumably be undertaken. In the meantime, the Probst report makes a number of interesting, but telling observations. For example, right from the start, EPA has struggled to measure the success of the cleanup program, but Probst points out that even though a significant percentage (24%) of non-federal sites have been deleted from the National Priorities List (NPL), and another 48% have been deemed “construction complete,” seven percent of sites on the NPL are still characterized as “human exposure not under control” and another 10% lack sufficient data to make a protectiveness determination.  Federal funding for Superfund continues to decline; states also face shrinking resources.  Not surprisingly, cleanup progress has slowed, not just for lack of funds, but also because the sites in the cleanup program today tend to be far more complex (and expensive) than the NPL sites of the past. EPA finds itself continuing to implement a prescriptive cleanup program that was not designed for many of the more complex sites on the 2017 NPL (e.g., mining and contaminated sediment sites).

The second document, entitled Superfund Task Force Recommendations, was issued by EPA in June, 2017. The Task Force was charged by the Administrator “to provide recommendations on an expedited timeframe on how the agency can restructure the cleanup process, realign incentives of all involved parties to promote expeditious remediation, reduce the burden on cooperating parties, incentivize parties to remediate sites, encourage private investment in cleanups and sites and promote the revitalization of properties across the country.”   These familiar themes led the Task Force to identify five basic goals, forty-two recommendations and various strategies for improving the Superfund program.  All the goals and recommendations are directed at speeding up the process of cleanup.  For example, one strategy advocates the use of “adaptive management” to expedite cleanup through use of early actions, interim records of decision and removal actions. Another advocates more centralized management of complex sites to assure consistency and aggressive oversight.

Even if all the recommendations contained in these two latest reports were to be accepted and implemented, the Superfund program would likely still be highly controversial with many of the challenges identified in the early days of the program still remaining to be solved.  Among those challenges are the following:

·         Is the National Contingency Plan (NCP) still the best “cookbook” for cleanup?  If not, what changes should be considered to achieve cleanup faster and better? Is the Superfund program too “process heavy?”  Is amendment of the NCP even politically feasible?

·         How can cleanups be accomplished with less study?  Particularly at complex mega-sites, NCP-compliant studies can take far too long.  Is the NCP process too prescriptive and too inflexible? 

·         How to measure success?  Should the key measurement be “construction complete,” or deletion from the NPL, or reduction of risk, or something else?  Should there be intermediate metrics of success?

·         Should there be greater centralized management of the Superfund program, as the report of the Superfund Task Force appears to advocate?  How should that be accomplished?  What is the appropriate role for CSTAG and NRRB?

·         How clean is clean?  Should the Superfund program chase every last molecule of hazardous substances, or reduce risk as quickly as possible?  Should there be greater use of the removal program?  As the saying goes, is “perfect the enemy of good?”

·         What should “cost effectiveness” mean in context of the Superfund program? Should proposed remedies be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis?

·         What is the proper role of EPA “guidance” in implementing the Superfund program?  Should guidance be binding on EPA?  Could that happen without notice and comment rulemaking?

·         Are the remedies implemented thus far in the Superfund program really effective?  For example, many groundwater cleanup programs were projected to have cleaned up contaminated groundwater by now.  Has that happened?  Can the pumps be turned off?

·         Should federal funds be used to leverage private party investment in cleanups?  Does EPA’s orphan share policy strike the right balance?

·         Does the statute strike the right balance between the federal and state interests in cleanup?  Should EPA and the states be true “partners”?

·         Should the lapsed Superfund tax be reinstated?  If so, in what form?

·         Finally, is there a role for fairness in Superfund?  Is the ban on pre-enforcement review too harsh a standard?

As this list of challenges demonstrates, Superfund will almost certainly remain a key subject for continued diagnosis in the future.