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Liability for cleanup of Superfund sites

In our last post, we mentioned that there has been opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal cleanup of a contaminated site in Brunswick, Georgia. As we noted, the area has already been designated as a Superfund site, meaning that it will be subjected to cleanup by the EPA.

Superfund cleanup efforts, for those not familiar with them, are not ultimately the public’s financial responsibility. Rather, the parties responsible for the contamination are held responsible. According to the EPA, Superfund liability is both strict as well as joint and several. This means that a potentially responsible party may be held responsible for the entire cost of the cleanup when the harm caused by each party cannot be distinguished. 

It also means that a party may be held liable regardless of whether he or she was negligent in the emission of hazardous waste. It doesn’t matter what industry standards were at the time of contamination—the party may still be held liable for the cleanup costs.

The EPA breaks down potentially liable parties into several different classes: paste and present owners of a facility which contributed to the contamination; parties which generated the hazardous waste and arranged for its disposal and transport; and parties which transported the waste and selected the site for its disposal.

Ordinary citizens have a potentially important part to play in the cleanup of contaminated sites. Although the government is responsible for keeping track of contaminated lands, private citizens often know about these sites before the government. Citizens are able to report potentially contaminated sites to state or local agencies, or to the EPA’s National Response Center Hotline. Citizens may also, in some cases, be able to pursue a citizen suit to enforce agreements related to a site’s cleanup. In a future post, we’ll look at this latter issue in greater detail.

Sources:

Environmental Protection Agency, “A Citizen’s Guide to the Superfund Program,” Accessed Feb. 9, 2015.

Environmental Protection Agency, “Superfund Liability,” Accessed Feb. 9, 2015. 

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