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Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA): Overview

Legal Research Guide for information relating to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act passed in 1980, 42 U.S.C. § 9601 et seq.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on December 11, 1980. The law is known as CERCLA or Superfund since it created the Superfund program for cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants. The law was passed by Congress in response to several hazardous waste scares including the health problems exhibited by residents in Love Canal, New York and the fires at a toxic waste facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey. CERCLA was intended to address the dangers caused by abandoned and uncontrolled hazardous waste dumps by creating a program for response as well as a fund for cleanup and remediation. The slip law was PL 96-510 and the session law was 94  Stat. 2767. The provisions of CERCLA were codified in Title 42 of the United States Code. CERCLA was amended by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA) as well as the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986.

The first National Priorities List (NPL) was created by the EPA in 1983. This list classifies the top sites for cleanup under the Superfund. Only those sites listed on the NPL qualify for long-term remedial actions paid for through the Superfund. The first site to be removed from the NPL was Friedman Property in 1986. Love Canal, an original impetus for CERCLA, was removed from the NPL in September 2004. SARA added Section 120 to CERCLA and required federal agencies to comply with the law in the same manner as non-governmental entities.

In 1993, the EPA launched the Brownfields Initiative to redevelop abandoned, idle, or underused industrial or commercial sites where redevelopment is complicated by environmental contamination. The Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act was signed by President George W. Bush on January 11, 2002. It expanded the Brownfields program and provided protection from Superfund liability to landowners who meet certain criteria.

2015 saw the 35th Anniversary of CERCLA. In 2017, then Administrator of the EPA Scott Pruitt created the Superfund Task Force to provide recommendations for improving and expediting the cleanup process and increasing redevelopment.

The resources in this guide should be a starting point in your research. There are other materials available on your topic and this guide is intended to provide you with a good foundation for continuing your research into CERCLA.


Formerly known as the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER), the Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM) provides policy and guidance for the EPA's waste programs.The Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation (OSRTI) and Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization (OBLR) both work on CERCLA related matters.

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