What is Superfund?
Years ago, hardly anyone understood how certain wastes might affect people's health and the environment. Dangerous materials were dumped onto the ground, into rivers or left out in the open. As a result, hazardous wastes accumulated in vacant lots, at factories, warehouses, landfills and dumps across the United States. Among the most pressing problems were wastes that leached down through the ground to contaminate drinking-water supplies.
In response to growing concern about health and environmental risks posed by these pollutants, Congress established the Superfund program in 1980 to clean up waste sites. Superfund is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in cooperation with individual states and tribal governments. Superfund locates, investigates and cleans up hazardous-waste sites throughout the country.
"Environment" can mean many things: the air you breathe, the water you drink, surface water in rivers, lakes, puddles; plants and trees; other creatures—from pets to pests. The EPA is responsible for safeguarding all of it.
How sites are discovered
Hazardous waste sites can be discovered by local, state or tribal agencies, businesses, the EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard or by people like you. In an emergency, citizens may file a Preliminary Assessment Petition, and may also discuss concerns directly with an EPA Site Assessment Manager. Once a site is discovered, the Site Assessment process begins with a PA.
A number of the hazardous-waste sites reported to the National Response Center are emergencies and need fast action. Emergency actions eliminate immediate risks to ensure your safety. Superfund personnel are always on call to respond to chemical accidents or releases. Superfund's number-one priority is to protect communities near hazardous sites, as well as their environment. Typical chemical emergencies may include train derailments, truck accidents or incidents at factories. Superfund may respond or may help state and local authorities deal quickly with these emergencies. The hazardous materials are hauled away from the site for treatment and proper disposal, or they are treated on the site to remove any risk to the community. During an emergency action, you and your community will be kept informed of the situation and what is being done to protect your safety.
The National Priorities List
The National Priorities List (NPL) is a published list of U.S. hazardous waste sites that are eligible for extensive, long-term cleanup under the Superfund program.
How sites get onto the NPL
To evaluate the dangers posed by hazardous-waste sites, the EPA has developed a scoring system called the Hazard Ranking System. The EPA uses the information collected during the Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection to score a site according to the danger it may pose. Using HRS, the EPA assigns a numerical value based on three main factors:
- How likely it is that the site has or may release a hazardous waste.
- The amount and toxicity of the waste.
- Nearby people or sensitive environments affected by the release.
The HRS also examines the four pathways that may carry pollution: ground (underground) water; surface water; soil; and air. It scores the site on all of these factors. Sites with high enough totals (28.5+) are eligible for the National Priorities List.
If a site scores above 28.5 and meets the criteria, the EPA proposes that it be put on the List. A site also may be proposed for the NPL in two other ways: if the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) issues a health advisory for the site, or if it is chosen as the state's top-priority site.
The proposal is published in the Federal Register, and the public has an opportunity to comment in writing on whether the site should be included on the NPL. For more information about a proposed site, you can contact your Community Involvement Office, or NPL Coordinator Sabrina Forrest (firstname.lastname@example.org) at 303-312-6484.
Who pays for Superfund cleanups?
Superfund Cleanup is paid for either by the parties responsible for contamination or by money appropriated by Congress for cleanups. The U.S. Government funds the cleanup primarily when companies or people responsible for contamination at Superfund sites cannot be found, or cannot perform or pay for the cleanup work. Under the Superfund law, the EPA is able to make those who are responsible for the contamination perform and pay for the cleanup. The EPA negotiates to get them to pay for the plans and the work carried out under Agency supervision. The EPA also may use U.S. government funds to pay cleanup costs, then attempt to recover the money through legal action.
How you can get involved
Superfund cleanups are complex and require the skills of experts in science, engineering, public health, management, law, community relations and other fields. Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) who contributed to the pollution are contacted and involved in the cleanup. Members of the community and potential owners are informed of the process and invited to comment. All interested parties, including the EPA, are called stakeholders. Superfund's ultimate goal is to protect you and your environment from the effects of hazardous wastes. Your involvement is very important. You have the opportunity and the right to be informed about and to comment on the work being done. Information is passed on through fact sheets, letters, newspaper ads, phone calls, meetings, information repositories near the site, and the Internet. The The EPA supports a variety of programs to keep community members involved in Superfund cleanups. These include Preliminary Assessment (PA) Petitions, Community Advisory Groups (CAGs), Technical Assistance Grants (TAGs), Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) and others. Also see information on Long-Term Cleanups, in this document.
Community Advisory Groups
One of the ways the EPA fosters public involvement in the Superfund process is through Community Advisory Groups (CAGs). They provide a public forum for community members to discuss their concerns about sites near them and to get involved in cleanup decisions. CAGs are made up of people representing many different community interests. The EPA makes sure that low-income residents, minorities and new immigrants get the facts and have a say in solving problems.
Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) program
Under the Superfund law, the EPA can award Technical Assistance Grants (TAGs) of up to $50,000 per site. TAGs allow neighboring communities to hire an independent expert to help them interpret technical data, understand site hazards, and become more knowledgeable about the different technologies being used to clean up sites.
Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC)
The TASC program provides technical assistance to communities affected by hazardous substances but that may not meet all the requirements for a TAG.
Your Community Involvement office
If you have a question about a site near you, or about Superfund in general, you can contact your EPA Community Involvement Office. In Region 8—Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming—the office is at:
U.S. EPA, Region 8
1595 Wynkoop Street (OC-PAI)
Denver, CO 80202-1129
800-227-8917 ext. 312-6600 (toll free Region 8 only)
How a cleanup works
If the EPA determines that a release presents an immediate danger, it takes steps to make sure the situation is quickly remedied. For example, if a site has drums leaking a substance that could ignite or harm someone when touched or inhaled, the EPA would arrange immediate action. Quick action might include preventing human contact with the contaminant; removing it from the site; preventing a spread; or providing bottled water to residents whose drinking water had been contaminated. In rare cases, residents might even need to be evacuated.
Long-term actions are extensive. Some sites were caused by years of pollution and may take years, even decades, to clean up. Built into this process are several phases that lead to the ultimate goal of restoring the site and making it safe. Long-term actions also may include restoring ground water or taking measures to protect wetlands, estuaries and other ecological resources. First, detailed studies of the site are done to identify the cause and extent of contamination, the possible threats to the community, and options for cleaning it up. The EPA uses this information to develop a proposed plan for long-term cleanup. The plan is presented to citizens and to local and state officials for comment. The community has at least 30 days to respond in writing. The EPA also invites community members to a public meeting to express their views and discuss the plan with EPA (and sometimes state) officials. Once community concerns are addressed, the EPA publishes a Record of Decision (ROD), which describes how the Agency plans to clean up the site. A notice is placed in the local newspaper to inform the public of the cleanup decision. The community has an opportunity to inspect and comment on the ROD. The Remedial Design and actual cleanup are conducted by the EPA, the state or by the parties responsible for the contamination at the site. The EPA closely oversees the design phase and the development of the cleanup. When the design is completed, the Agency distributes a fact sheet to the community, describing the design and the action that will take place. The EPA often hosts a meeting or open house to describe the clean up action and answer questions about it. The EPA can provide equipment and manpower to clean up hazardous wastes, but it may take a long time to restore a site to the way it was before it was contaminated. Some sites, due to the extent of contamination, will never return to the way they were before the pollution; however, the EPA will make sure that the site will be safe for the people living near it now and in the future. The EPA regularly monitors every National Priorities List site to make sure it remains safe. If any problem arises, immediate action will be taken to make the site safe again.
What it all means to you
The EPA's Superfund program is the most aggressive hazardous-waste cleanup program in the world. Every day, Superfund managers are involved in critical decisions that affect public health and the environment. They use the best available science to determine risks at sites. New and innovative technologies are being developed to achieve faster and less expensive ways to clean up sites. And where possible, old hazardous waste sites are being restored to productive use. Millions of people have been protected by Superfund cleanup actions. You may well be among them. The Superfund program has one ultimate goal: To protect your health and your environment.
Preliminary Assessment process
If you have reason to believe your immediate environment is endangered by a hazardous-waste site, you can call:
National Response Center Hotline: 800-424-8802 (toll free)
In an emergency, you may file a Preliminary Assessment Petition
You can also discuss your concerns directly with an EPA Site Assessment Manager:
Site Assessment Team Leader
NPL Coordinator and Site Assessment Manager for Colorado and South Dakota
Site Assessment Manager for Colorado and South Dakota
Site Assessment Manager for Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming
Site Assessment Manager for Utah