A Superfund site is an area that the United States Environmental Protection Agency has deemed significantly contaminated and in need of cleanup. The EPA’s Superfund programs respond in the event of toxic and harmful substances entering the environment.


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Formally referred to as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), Superfund programs allow the EPA to designate a site as contaminated, identify any parties responsible for the contamination, and force action such as cleanups or reimbursement for EPA-run cleanups.

A site will be designated as a Superfund if a significant quantity of hazardous materials has entered the environment through mismanagement, negligence, or an accident, such as an earthquake or flood. The EPA maintains the National Priorities List (NPL) which indexes all locations designated as Superfund sites located throughout all U.S. states, territories, and the District of Columbia. There are currently more than 1300 EPA Superfund sites included on the NPL.

How Does A Superfund Cleanup Work?

The Superfund Program relies on a standard cleanup process that starts with identifying the contaminated site, evaluating the severity of the hazards, including if they pose a threat to people, how much additional information will need to be collected from the site, and the immediacy of the cleanup.

Following the site assessment and determination that cleanup is warranted, the location will be added to the NPL. A site characterization process then evaluates the nature and full extent of the contamination, which will determine the options and parameters of the site treatment.

Any cleanup alternatives to be used at the Superfund site will be explained in the Records of Decision (ROD). The EPA may issue a Proposed Plan and gather public comments before issuing a final ROD.

Credit: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

The cleanup goes into the active stage with detailed plans that are developed and implemented through the remedial design and remedial action phases. These phases lay down cleanup specifications and then implements them. These plans will include hazardous material removal methods and can also involve the replacement or construction of infrastructure needed to decontaminate the site, such as the building of a water treatment facility.

The construction completion stage designates that the cleanup of the entire site is complete and the post-construction completion will follow through, which ensures the continuation of any ongoing maintenance and monitoring. Once fully decontaminated, the site is removed from the NPL. Once a site is deemed safe, reuse and redevelopment is permitted.

Are Superfund Sites The Same As Brownfields?

Superfund sites and brownfield sites may have some issues in common and they are both classifications used by the EPA, but there are key distinctions between the two. Brownfields are properties where some contamination is present and the level of contamination is enough to interfere with future land use, but the brownfield contamination is not toxic enough to pose a significant threat to human life or health. Brownfield development does require cleanup processes, but these are not federally managed like Superfund sites.

State and local governments and private landowners are instead responsible for land restoration and cleanup procedures as they pertain to specific development goals, such as the creation of a public park or construction of a shopping center.

The EPA does offer guidance for cleanup and redevelopment of these areas through its Brownfields and Land Revitalization Program. The program is designed to empower states, municipalities, and organizations to implement a manageable and sustainable cleanup and includes various grants and other resources to further land revitalization efforts.

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