What is a Superfund Site?

If you’re educating yourself about environmental issues, you might be wondering what is meant when someone mentions a “Superfund site.” This phrase typically refers to land located in the USA that has been so heavily contaminated with toxic material that cleaning it up is of concern to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It’s important to understand the differences between “Superfund sites” and the Superfund Act, otherwise known as “CERCLA.”

The US Federal CERCLA / Superfund Act of 1980

A federal act known as “CERCLA” gives the EPA authority to identify and decontaminate dangerously contaminated property. Some of the provisions and results of the act are as follows:

  • The EPA maintains and prioritizes a list of properties that are so heavily contaminated that they pose environmental or health dangers and are in dire need of decontamination.
  • There’s typically a culprit to blame when hazardous waste contamination occurs. The EPA has authority to identify the responsible parties and force them to participate in and pay for the cleanup efforts to the greatest extent possible.
  • CERCLA authorizes federal funds to be used to pay for cleanup efforts if that becomes necessary.
  • Various experts at the EPA and state level waste management and environmental agencies are responsible for deciding when the agency should step in and oversee cleanup efforts. The intention is for them to intervene in cases that contamination is deemed to be exceptionally threatening to human life or the environment.

The word “Superfund,” if used alone, might refer to the federal CERCLA act. The phrase “Superfund site” refers to a site contaminated with hazardous material that the EPA or various state authorities intend to investigate or work to decontaminate.

What Kinds of Hazardous Contaminants Are Typically Present at Superfund Sites?

Contaminants at Superfund sites can vary. Some are oil spills. Other contaminants can include nuclear radiation, lead, asbestos, dioxin and various chemicals. Sometimes the contaminants in question are live explosives or ordnance. High concentrations of ferrous materials such as cobalt, iron and nickel can also be of concern when they contaminate soil and groundwater.

What Technologies Are Used When the Authorities Step in to Clean up Superfund Sites?

The EPA uses various technologies to identify contaminants, determine their location, get them cleaned up and deal with the resulting environmental damage. The technologies environmental experts employ include gas chromatography, chemical sensors, chromatographic techniques, infrared spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, radar, LIDAR and many others. Simple magnets can sometimes help experts locate ferrous materials buried below ground. Test kits are important in identifying contaminants and determining the level of threat they pose.

How Can People Find Out Where Superfund Sites Are Located?

You can search Superfund sites at the EPA website. Any time you plan to buy real estate, it’s a good idea to check the list before you finalize your offer. You’ll want to confirm you won’t be buying a problematic property within or adjacent to a Superfund location.

We hope this information is helpful to you in understanding the meaning of the phrase “Superfund sites”. If you would like more information about Superfunds or a specific Superfund site, we encourage you to visit the Superfund main page at the EPA website.