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Cleaning Our Toxic Nation

Cleaning Our Toxic Nation

History of Superfund
Details of Superfund Act
Current State of Program

Criticisms of Program

Hudson River Case Study

Possible Solutions
References & Links


Comments and questions to:


Many critics of the Superfund program wonder if an infusion of money would actually lead to more efficient projects, or just contribute to the red tape and protracted battles over who should pay the costs of clean-up. Some politicians think of the program as a legal mess that simply enriches lawyers, and others recognize the flaws of Superfund, but insist that it is the only recourse we have in many cases of extreme toxic waste. In fact, in Washington circles, CERCLA is also known as the Full Employment Act for Lawyers (Hird, 1993).

Criticisms of the Superfund program range from attacking the EPA’s system of designating sites, to questioning the viability of “polluter pay” schemes. Many critics of the site assessment system maintain that not enough toxic sites are receiving federal attention. In order to gain recognition as a Superfund site, an area must attain a high score on the EPA’s Hazardous Ranking System (HRS). With a score of 28.5 or higher, a site can be recommended to the National Priorities List (NPL), a collection of the sites deemed dangerous enough to warrant federal remediation. As of 1993, 4 percent of all sites identified in the HRS reached the priorities list. Because of this, some feel that Superfund does not represent a large enough commitment to addressing pollution issues. Of course, the EPA’s ability to address waste sites is limited to its budget, though some critics argue that dealing with only large-scale sites that make it on to the NPL is not the most cost-effective way to remediate pollution. Many smaller sites that would take less money to clean up could be addressed for the same amount that is projected for one NPL site.

     Proponents of the “polluter pays” scheme contend that it is effective because it deters corporations from being irresponsible with toxic waste – the possibility of having to pay millions of dollars to clean up a pollution site is a huge economic disincentive. Critics of the principle say that it works in theory, but is much more difficult in practice. The people who actually benefited from the improper disposal of chemicals in the past would be shareholders and managers of the company who enjoyed the higher profits and consumers who saw lower product prices. But years down the road, when EPA is looking to assign responsibility, these people can be difficult to identify. Current shareholders, managers and consumers, who would essentially be paying the price for clean-up, are not necessarily the guilty parties (Hird 327).

    When a responsible party is identified, the sometimes extreme cost of clean-up provides an incentive for the corporation to delay the project through tireless litigation. In fact, the companies that EPA often concentrates their efforts on due to their deep pockets are just the corporations that can best afford to delay remediation through lawsuits, with the hope of reducing project costs or simply wearing the EPA down. This is exactly what has been occurring in the case of General Electric’s project to clean up the Hudson, a case that is addressed in further detail on this site.


          A view of the Hudson

“By channeling federal resources only to sites that reach the NPL, and then in many cases remediating those sites beyond the point at which marginal benefits justify marginal costs, the program is unlikely to be eliminating as much risk as possible with current expenditures.”

-John A. Hird, Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Last updated:  4/30/2007


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