Superfund Liability

The Superfund law (officially the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, "CERCLA") imposes liability on parties responsible for, in whole or in part, the presence of hazardous substances at a site.

Superfund Liability is:

  • Retroactive - Parties may be held liable for acts that happened before Superfund's enactment in 1980.
  • Joint and Several - Any one potentially responsible party (PRP) may be held liable for the entire cleanup of the site (when the harm caused by multiple parties cannot be separated).
  • Strict - A PRP cannot simply say that it was not negligent or that it was operating according to industry standards. If a PRP sent some amount of the hazardous waste found at the site, that party is liable.

Superfund liability is triggered if:

  • Hazardous wastes are present at a facility,
  • There is a release (or a possibility of a release) of these hazardous substances,
  • Response costs have been or will be incurred, and
  • The defendant is a liable party.

A PRP is potentially liable for:

  • Government cleanup costs,
  • Damages to natural resources (e.g., to a fishery),
  • The costs of certain health assessments, and
  • Injunctive relief (i.e., performing a cleanup) where a site may present an imminent and substantial endangerment.

Types of Superfund Liable Parties

There are four classes of Superfund liable parties:

  • Current owners and operators of a facility,
  • Past owners and operators of a facility at the time hazardous wastes were disposed,
  • Generators and parties that arranged for the disposal or transport of the hazardous substances, and
  • Transporters of hazardous waste that selected the site where the hazardous substances were brought.

Some PRPs have unique circumstances that impact their liability due to either one or all of the following:

  • the small amount of waste that they contributed,
  • the limited hazard posed by the waste they contributed,
  • their status as municipalities, private homeowners, handlers of municipal solid waste, or owners of property above contaminated aquifers, and/or
  • their inability to pay for the cleanup.

Defenses to Superfund liability are limited to cases in which the release was caused by:

  • An act of God,
  • Acts of war, or
  • Acts/omissions of a third party with whom a PRP has no contractual relationship.

The Superfund law does provide several exemptions from and protections to Superfund liability.

More information is available from the Superfund enforcement policy and guidance database.

Learn More about Superfund liability:

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