Libby Superfund Basics

Libby MontanaWhat does "Superfund" mean and how does it apply to Libby, MT?
Superfund is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), a United States federal law designed to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances.

Libby Montana Recovery

Libby Superfund FAQ

What is a Superfund Site?

Superfund, officially The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), was enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980. This law created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries and provided broad federal authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. Over five years, $1.6 billion was collected and went to a trust fund for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. CERCLA:

  • Establishes prohibitions and requirements concerning closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites.
  • Provides for liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste at these sites.
  • Establishes a trust fund to provide for cleanup when no responsible party can be identified.

The law authorizes two kinds of response actions:

  • Short-term removals, where actions may be taken to address releases or threatened releases requiring prompt response. 

  • Long-term remedial response actions, that permanently and significantly reduce the dangers associated with releases or threats of releases of hazardous substances that are serious, but not immediately life threatening. These actions can be conducted only at sites listed on EPA's National Priorities List (NPL).

CERCLA also enables the revision of the National Contingency Plan (NCP). The NCP provides the guidelines and procedures needed to respond to releases and threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. The NCP also establishes the NPL. CERCLA was amended by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) on October 17, 1986.

Who cleans up a Superfund site?

The simple answer is that the responsible party pays for the cleanup. If the responsible party no longer exists or cannot be determined, trust fund monies are used to complete the cleanup. However, the actual work involved in a Superfund cleanup can be very complex and require the efforts of many experts in science, engineering, public health, management, law, community relations and numerous other fields.

In the case of the Libby Superfund Site, the potentially responsible party is W.R Grace Co.

There are a number of groups within EPA and other government agencies that play a leading role in Superfund site cleanups. EPA has specialists spread out across the ten Superfund regions in the country who are responsible for cleanup activities, including On-Scene Coordinators, Community Involvement Coordinators, and Site Assessment specialists. National teams of specialists from the EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry take part in Superfund cleanup efforts, too.

Once a hazard has been identified and cleanup options have been studied for effectiveness and feasibility, the EPA determines what it believes to be the appropriate cleanup. The party responsible for the contaminants at the site is, in most cases, also responsible for cleanup costs.

How do people get exposed to hazardous substances?

There are a number of ways people are exposed, such as through:

  • contaminated air
  • direct contact with hazardous waste
  • contaminated drinking water
  • fire or explosion
  • the food chain
  • contaminated ground water
  • contaminated soil
  • contaminated surface water

The sources of exposure vary depending on the site, and not all of these exposure threats exist at every site. That's why the EPA scientists must assess a site and figure out the type of exposure threats that exist. Once they know that, the best way to protect the health of the surrounding community and environment can be determined and the cleanup can begin.

In addition to human health, the EPA considers impacts to the environment and wildlife (particularly endangered species).

 More on hazardous waste

What is the difference between hazardous and other waste?

Ordinary waste, not specifically classified as hazardous, is defined by the EPA as any garbage, refuse, or sludge from a wastewater treatment plant, water supply treatment plant, or air pollution control facility, and other discarded material.
Discarded material includes solid, liquid, semi-solid or contained gaseous material resulting from industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural operations, and from community activities.

Waste is hazardous when it is ignitable, corrosive or reactive (explosive). Also, if waste contains certain amounts of toxic chemicals, it is considered hazardous. There are 500 specific hazardous wastes that have been defined by the EPA. For more information on this subject, read the office of Solid Waste's fact sheet, What Makes a Waste Hazardous? on the EPA's site. You'll find a link to that site on our links page.

How does the EPA decide on a cleanup option?

The analysis of alternatives under review shall reflect the scope and complexity of site problems and alternatives being evaluated and consider the relative significance of the factors within each criteria. The nine evaluation criteria are as follows:

  1. Overall protection of human health and the environment.

  2. Compliance with applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements (ARARs) under federal environmental laws and state environmental or facility siting laws.

  3. Long-term effectiveness and permanence.

  4. Reduction of toxicity, mobility or volume through treatment.

  5. Short-term effectiveness.

  6. Implementability. The ease or difficulty of implementing the alternatives must be assessed.

  7. Cost. The types of costs that shall be assessed include the following: (1) Capital costs, including both direct and indirect costs; (2) Annual operation and maintenance costs; and (3) Net present value of capital and O&M costs.

  8. State acceptance. Assessment of state concerns can't be completed until comments on the Feasibility Study are received. The state concerns include the following: (1) The state's position and key concerns related to the preferred alternative and other alternatives; and (2) State comments on ARARs or the proposed use of waivers.

  9. Community acceptance. This assessment includes determining which components of the alternatives interested persons in the community support, have reservations about, or oppose. This assessment may not be completed until comments on the proposed plan are received. (NOTE: This is separate and distinct from the public's ability to comment on the process or on what alternatives it wants implemented. Therefore, the public may comment at any time to the Governor and EPA!)

Complete Outline of Nine Criteria

Can local citizens impact the EPA's decision?

Absolutely. The Superfund process allows for public input through scheduled meetings at critical points in the process, but anyone can write letters or e-mail the EPA and their state Governor and legislators at any point. Comments sent to the EPA are tallied in a "for or against" fashion. They need not be long. They need only give your opinion on the issue.

Briefly, here are the steps followed to determine cleanup.

  1. Designation. Site is determined to contain hazardous waste that poses a threat to human and/or environmental health.

  2. The party responsible for the waste, the EPA and other groups collect data on impacts and study options for cleanup.

  3. The potentially responsible party presents its findings to the EPA in what is called a Feasibility Study.

  4. The Feasibility Study is reviewed by the EPA and the site's Technical Assistance Committee. These two groups compare the study to their own data and interpretations.

  5. Questions and comments are submitted to the potentially responsible party by the EPA and TAC.

  6. Taking these questions and comments into account, the potentially responsible party then issues a Feasibility Study to the EPA. This study includes a range of options for cleanup and proposes a specific option be selected by the EPA.

  7. The EPA releases the Feasibility Study to the public.

  8. At this point, the public is given a comment period. During that period, it is absolutely vital that local citizens express their views. State government and local community acceptance are two of the criteria strongly considered by the EPA. To facilitate public comment the EPA holds a series of meetings called scoping meetings.

  9. Once the comment period closes (usually 4 to 6 weeks after it begins), the EPA reviews the public comments and creates a Proposed Plan.

  10. Again, a series of meetings is held where the public and interested parties can comment on the Proposed Plan (though changes at this point are typically minimal and have more to do with implementation rather than substance).

  11. After the comment period has ended, the EPA considers the comments, makes any revisions it deems necessary, and issues a record of decision.

Is the EPA's decision final?

Yes and no. The decision process can be very involved and there are avenues for legal recourse, so it's difficult to be black and white in describing the finality of the EPA's decision. Superfund issues are often decided by federal courts. However, Superfund is set up to work as follows:

If the EPA directs the responsible party to clean up the waste in a certain fashion, the responsible party is bound by law to comply. If the EPA determines that no cleanup is necessary or feasible, the responsible party is released from responsibility and cannot be held accountable in the future.

As we said, though, Superfund does provide for legal recourse. If the responsible party does not agree with the EPA's decision, the responsible party can refuse to comply. The result of this refusal is generally a lawsuit brought by the EPA to force the responsible party to act according to the EPA's decision. Conversely, if another party, for example a state government or public interest group, disagrees with the EPA's decision, that party can sue the EPA for violating its mission to protect the environment and hold accountable responsible parties.

More on hazardous waste

Why would a potentially responsible party follow the EPA's decision if it doesn't have to?

If the EPA sues the responsible party for noncompliance and wins, the responsible party can be held accountable for treble damages - an amount equaling three times that of the projected cost of the EPA-selected cleanup for the site, plus all legal fees. This significant penalty was included to avoid frivolous suits caused by noncompliance.

end faq



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