Superfund: The Waste Left Behind

photography by Travis LaCoss | illustration by Nusrah Chowdhury

In 1978, Love Canal was a working-class community near Niagara Falls, N.Y. By 1981, the neighborhood was abandoned, and remedial work had begun to contain the toxic sludge buried beneath.

Throughout the U.S., there are thousands of sites contaminated with hazardous wastes. Ranging from manufacturing facilities to landfills, these sites pose a tangible threat to public health and the environment.

Signed into law on Dec. 11, 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, informally known as Superfund, was created to give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the broad authority it needed to directly respond to the risks posed by these locations.

The program, in all its successes and failures, provides an excellent case study for environmental response and legislation at the national level.

The Battle of Love Canal

For over 30 years, the Hooker Chemical Company (HCC) stored the byproducts of the dyes, perfumes and cleaning fluids that they manufactured in an abandoned canal. In 1953, they sold Love Canal to the local school board for one dollar.

While a thriving community developed around the now hidden waste dump, many strange problems plagued the neighborhood.

For one, black slime often leaked into the basements and backyards closest to the canal. More worryingly though, birth defects, cancers and miscarriages affected a large number of Love Canal residents.

In 1978, a local housewife, Lois Gibbs, read a newspaper article about the chemicals buried near her home. She quickly organized the community and pushed for action.

By 1980, Love Canal was making national news, and the federal government agreed to evacuate the neighborhood and buy all the homes.

In the aftermath of the fiasco, Superfund legislation was created. If another emergency were to occur, there would be money and manpower to remedy the situation.

Examining the NPL

There are over 1,800 Superfund sites across the country as of 2021, with over 1,300 on the National Priorities List (NPL). The NPL is used primarily as an information and management tool by the EPA to determine the order in which it addresses locations.

22 percent of the U.S. population lives within three miles of a site as of 2020. There are four within a 20 mile radius of RIT. How does Superfund help these communities?

The original bill’s various tenets offered a well-rounded approach. It started by establishing regulations on how hazardous waste and its disposal sites should be cared for.

It also made it easier for the Federal government, through the EPA, to go after polluters that they named Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs). Those PRPs would have to do the cleanup work themselves or be held responsible for the government’s costs.

This strict This strict joint and several liability meant that wrongdoers would be held fully accountable no matter how much they contributed or whether or not they acted with intent.

If a PRP can't be found, the site is considered orphaned and the cleanup costs are entirely covered by the program.

The titular “fund” in Superfund was mainly made up of a tax placed on chemical and petroleum companies, along with money provided by the Federal government.

This money is necessary; Superfund projects are long-term investments. For the most part, cleaning up a site is never as simple as just removing the toxic materials.

The waste often seeps into the ground and becomes an uncontrollable part of the environment. Once a cleanup is completed, most sites are monitored for leakage by air, soil, surface water or groundwater indefinitely.

The ultimate goal of Superfund is to return these sites back to productive use, whether as providers of clean energy, additional green spaces or various other applications. Direct community involvement is often central to developing these solutions.

A Half-Life Legacy

The program has gone through many changes since Love Canal. A majority of the strong policies that once kept the program in shape have either been repealed or appealed over time.

The NPL has rapidly grown over the last four decades, and while the 413 sites cleaned up and removed do indicate some sign of progress, many other factors state otherwise.

The chemical and petroleum tax that funded most early sites expired in 1995. By 2003, the fund was bankrupt, and all orphan sites since then have been paid in full by taxpayers.

A 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case also stripped Superfund of its strict joint and several liability. Without it, PRPs now only pay for a share of the cleanup costs and not the entire amount. also stripped Superfund of its strict joint and several liability. Without it, PRPs now only pay for a share of the cleanup costs and not the entire amount.

This lack of funding has led to Superfund being more of a bureaucratic hurdle than a functioning public system. Even those in support of the program have criticized its slow cleanup process.

In 2020, there were 38 sites ready for construction but left without funding, up from only three in 2015 — the largest backup of pending work since 2005.

Some also believe that the program is a prime example of government overreach. They often ask why individual communities should be a federal concern. This criticism doesn't take into account that, according to the EPA, the populations most at risk are often minority and lower income, therefore unable to fix the issues themselves.

At the same time, Superfund was never meant to be a 'big picture' program anyway. Clearing the NPL will not solve climate change, but that doesn't mean these communities don't deserve help. No one should have to live in a neighborhood literally oozing with waste.

Even if the Superfund of today does have its flaws, it is still important. The original program's roots in protest, speedy path through legislation and multi-pronged approach to combating a national issue still offers a partial framework for addressing current environmental concerns.

Recent events have even offered some hope for the successful continuation of the program. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law on Nov. 15, 2021, allocated an additional one billion dollars to Superfund. It also reinstated Superfund’s original chemical tax.

In 1988, Love Canal was renamed Black Creek Village, with the area around the canal deemed suitable for rehabilitation. While the EPA stresses that the monitoring systems they have in place keep the community safe, some people — Lois Gibbs included — still believe the neighborhood should remain empty. After all, nothing was ever removed from the canal. To this day, over 20,000 tons of chemicals remain buried below.