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What is meant by Superfund liability under CERCLA?

Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 9601-9675 ("CERCLA"), owners of a hazardous waste site bear responsibility for its cleanup. Yet when an area cannot be restored to its pre-contamination status, a company’s liability might be long-term.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is generally the entity that will assess the cleanup costs for a contaminated site.  There is a special classification for locations requiring a long-term response to hazardous waste contamination: Superfund sites.

The classification of a contaminated location as a Superfund site serves as a warning that the hazardous substances might affect local ecosystems. For that reason, Superfund sites are also added to the National Priorities List, which is an inventory maintained by the EPA of contaminated sites that may require further investigation due to their potential danger to the public health.

For example, a recent article discussed the possibility of a flash flood releasing the contaminants from the Superfund site where the former Oroville Plant operated by Koppers Co, Inc. is located. The company’s chemical wood treatments between 1948 and 2001 contaminated the soil, groundwater and surface water at the site with pentachlorophenol, or PCP.

According to the EPA, the average cost of cleaning up a single Superfund site is currently about $25-30 million. These costs generally break down as follows: the government’s cleanup, damages to natural resources, health assessments, and injunctive relief. Any one potentially responsible party (PRP) could be held jointly and severally liable under CERCLA for the entire cost. In our next post, we take a closer look at how companies might be deemed liable for the cleanup costs of a Superfund site.

Source: WaterCloud News, “Hazardous Waste in a National Priority List Superfund Site is Within Oroville Dam Spillway Flash Flood Warning Area,” Dr. Gretchen Boria-Perez, Feb. 14, 2017

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