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Response Authorities through History

EPA gets its primary authority for responding to hazardous substance releases from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which is better known as the Superfund law as described in the CERCLA Overview. The Superfund law defines as a CERCLA hazardous substance more than 800 substances, pollutants, and contaminants that threaten human health and the environment, and directs EPA to respond to their uncontrolled release, or the threat of such release. This authority was expanded in 1986 when the law was amended by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, or SARA, which, among other things, enhanced the role of the affected community in an emergency response action through the Community-Right-to-Know Act.

The federal government first addressed the issue of hazardous substance releases in the 1970s, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act but, as described in the Clean Water Act Overview, it gave only limited authority to EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard to initiate responses. Over the years, as the National Contingency Plan Overview explains, Congress also broadened the scope of the National Contingency Plan (NCP) passed in 1968 to established the National Response System as a framework for responding to oil spills. Now, the NCP also covers releases of hazardous substances, including releases requiring longer-term remedial actions and short-term removal actions as distinguished by the Emergency Response Program and the Superfund Response Program.

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