CERCLA was established in response to the discovery, in the late 1970s, of a large number of abandoned, leaking, hazardous waste dumps that were threatening human health and contaminating the environment.17 One of the best-known dumps was Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, where a chemical company had buried large amounts of hazardous waste in a canal originally designed to transport water. After the canal was capped with clay and soil, an elementary school was built over the site, and the city of Niagara Falls grew rapidly around it.
In the 1970s, an unusual number of community residents (especially those who attended the elementary school) developed serious health problems. Moreover, the residents complained of noxious fumes and of chemicals oozing out of the ground. Subsequent government investigations found extensive contamination of the area, including groundwater supplies. In 1978, President Carter declared Love Canal a federal disaster area, and most of the residents in the area around the site were relocated.
At the time, declaring the site as a federal disaster area was the only viable option available to the federal government. RCRA did not provide relief because the problem did not involve the current or future management of wastes. Legal actions against the responsible parties did not offer a solution because such action was too time consuming and costly. Unfortunately, subsequent investigations indicated that the scope of the waste dump problem went far beyond Love Canal, making the federal disaster relief option impractical. In late 1980, Congress passed CERCLA to address other uncontrollable hazardous waste sites similar to Love Canal throughout the country.
CERCLA, as originally enacted in 1980, authorized a five-year program by the federal government to perform the following primary tasks2:
1. Identify those sites where releases of hazardous substances had already occurred or might occur and posed a serious threat to human health, welfare, or the environment.
2. Take appropriate action to remedy those releases.
3. Force those parties responsible for the release to pay for the cleanup actions.
To accomplish these tasks, CERCLA gave new cleanup authority to the federal government, created a $1.6 billion trust fund to pay for government cleanup, and imposed cleanup liability on those responsible. This "Superfund" consisted primarily of tax assessments on oil and designated chemicals.
During the five-year period of the original CERCLA program, two facts became increasingly clear: The problem of abandoned hazardous waste sites was more extensive than originally thought, and its solution would be more complex and time consuming. Unlike RCRA response actions where the owner and operator of a site are known, CERCLA may deal with environmental threats due to activities conducted long ago, and thus the responsible party may be unknown, no longer in existence (e.g., a defunct company), or unable to pay. To address these additional concerns, the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) not only extended CERCLA for another five years, but increased the fund from a total of $1.6 billion to $8.5 billion.18 SARA also established new standards and schedules for site cleanup and also created new programs for informing the public of risks from hazardous substances in their community and preparing communities for hazardous substance emergencies.
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