academic environmental studies   macalester college
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:



When the environmental movement gained legitimacy in the 1960s and 70s, the government responded with legislation to limit and control emissions of toxins and disposal of pollutants. Over time, as we began to realize the extent to which damage had already been done to our environment, lawmakers shifted focus from controlling future pollution to correcting harms already done.

In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), more commonly referred to as the Superfund Act. The purpose of this piece of legislation was to clean up seriously contaminated hazardous waste sites throughout the country. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was given the job of overseeing the program. According to Harold C. Barnett, an economist and author of Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma, “A reading of the legislative history makes clear that major corporations in the petrochemicals, metals, electrical, and transportation industries were perceived by Congress as the perpetrators of the severe environmental damage to be addressed by Superfund” (Barnett, 1993). Superfund was Congress’s way of making industrial polluters financially responsible for cleaning up the messes they had created during preceding decades. With ethics, law and science all intersecting, the Superfund legislation was a landmark Congressional decision wherein the government was attempting to punish large corporations for perpetrating crimes against the environment.

The environmental disaster at Love Canal in New York State drew widespread public attention to the problem of toxic waste and was a primary reason behind the creation of CERCLA. In 1978, hazardous wastes were found in basements and school yards in Love Canal. The chemicals were remnants from the Hooker Chemical Company’s tenure in the area. Between 1942 and 1953, the company dumped more than 21,000 tons of toxic waste onto the then-abandoned site. In 1953, Hooker covered the area with soil and clay and sold it to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1. A school, playground and residential community were then built on the land. Over the course of the next two and a half decades, people who resided in the area noticed strange odors and reported thick sludges seeping into their basements. In the late 70s, groundwater tests and epidemiological studies were conducted in the town, leading to the New York Health Commissioner declaring a state of emergency. The town was evacuated, and the situation garnered national media attention. People around the country were fearful of toxic waste sites, believing they were “time bombs” waiting to be breached, just like Love Canal (Revesz and Stewart, 1995). Congress reacted to the public outrage with hearings, and in late 1980 Jimmy Carter signed CERCLA into law.


Danger keep out!
                                                        photo by telstar logistics

Last updated:  4/30/2007


Macalester College · 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105  USA · 651-696-6000
Comments and questions to