Understanding Superfund Discovery and Remediation

Posted on 7/10/2013 by Anthony R. Cardno

On May 21, 2013, EPA announced the addition of 9 hazardous waste sites to the National Priorities List (NPL) and a proposal to add 9 more. This brings the total number of sites listed on the NPL to 1,685. According to EPA, 68% of those sites (1,145) have cleanup remedies in place.

So how does a site become a “Superfund site” and ultimately subject to remediation?

1. The site is discovered and EPA is notified. EPA discovers potential superfund sites through reports of releases of hazardous substances to the National Response Center required under 40 CFR 302. EPA may also learn of a potential superfund site through notices of releases in excess of permitted values, incidental observations by the public, and petitions by motivated citizens.


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2. EPA conducts a preliminary assessment (PA), and a site inspection (SI) takes place. After discovering a potential cleanup site, the EPA sends a team to acquire and assess samples of contaminated air, water, soil, and other environmental media. The team also investigates pathways of chemical exposure and vulnerable target populations of citizens and natural habitat.

3. If warranted by the PA and SI, EPA will propose adding the site to the NPL. Using information garnered during the assessment and investigation, EPA ranks the site using its Hazard Ranking System. If a site scores highly, the Agency will propose adding it to the National Priorities List (NPL).

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4. Provided public comment does not change EPA’s opinion of the site’s hazards and cleanup requirements, EPA adds the site to the NPL. After deciding to propose a site as a candidate for the NPL, the EPA will publish a public notice in the Federal Register. This is an opportunity for the candidate site, and the affected community, to comment on the EPA’s decision.

The addition of a site to the NPL does not automatically initiate a cleanup action. A site’s ranking may rise or fall as new sites are added, delaying or hastening the initiation of cleanup. The ultimate goal of the NPL is to make sites safe and clean using new technology, focusing on the worst problems at the worst sites first.

However, when a site is listed on the NPL, liability is automatically assigned to any “potentially responsible party.” Liability is determined after a site is added to the NPL. If EPA cannot identify responsible parties for the newly listed sites, EPA is required to investigate the full extent of the contamination before commencing cleanup activities at the site.

Where are the Superfund sites? EPA has a searchable map!

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