30 years ago tomorrow, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which is commonly known as the Superfund law. CERCLA, which Congress amended in 1986, was created to address the most contaminated properties in the United States and to provide federal authority to respond to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances. Congress passed CERCLA in response to public outcry from a series of environmental disasters such as Love Canal – where in 1978, carcinogens from long-ago abandoned chemical operations began percolating from the ground, causing residents of the New York town to experience miscarriages, birth defects and countless other health problems.
Today, CERCLA is a cornerstone for dealing with contaminated properties. CERCLA imposes strict liability for the cleanup of contaminated sites on various “potentially responsible parties,” including past or present owners of a site contaminated with hazardous substances and companies that arranged or transported hazardous substances to the site. Liability under CERCLA is difficult to avoid. A party may be liable under CERCLA even if it did not intentionally or negligently cause the contamination. Even current owners of contaminated sites can be held responsible for cleaning up the property, regardless of whether they caused the contamination. EPA credits the act with protecting “thousands of communities by cleaning up hazardous waste sites in the United States and responding to thousands of chemical spills.” Even though CERCLA’s been around for 30 years, courts are continuously tasked with interpreting the act. (Click here and here for recent CERCLA decisions) Thus, CERCLA will surely evolve before it reaches its next milestone.