Waste Legislation: Resource Conservation and Recovery Act vs. the Superfund Act

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  • 0:07 Waste Legislation
  • 0:47 RCRA
  • 2:07 Superfund Act
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

In this lesson, we will explore two federal laws that were established to deal with the issue of hazardous waste. We will also compare the scope of these laws and their impacts.

Waste Legislation

In terms of waste management, what do you think the two acronyms RCRA or CERCLA stand for? You may never have heard of these two acronyms before, but they stand for two important federal laws that regulate how hazardous waste is managed and disposed of in the United States.

Hazardous waste is any solid or liquid waste that is considered toxic, chemically reactive, flammable or corrosive. Due to the potential danger of hazardous waste, many laws have been created to manage it and help keep people and the environment safe.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The first of these two important federal laws was the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, also known as 'RCRA,' which was established in 1976. This law created the first program for testing and managing hazardous substances. The program required that facilities and organizations involved with hazardous substances keep detailed information on the handling and processing of the materials.

The law covered the facility that created the hazardous substance, the consumer who used the product, the company that transported it and the waste facility that treated it and disposed of it. The detailed information was then delivered to a state agency for review and monitoring.

Although this may seem like a basic idea, this legislation was in fact very important because it created a network that could be used to track and manage hazardous waste from creation to disposal.

Although the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was a good start to hazardous waste management, its focus was small and only dealt with monitoring certain types of hazardous waste. Unfortunately, this law only regulated around 5% of all hazardous waste created in the United States.

The Superfund Act

In an attempt to expand hazardous waste management, in 1980 the federal government created the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as 'CERCLA,' or the 'Superfund Act.' This law covered many aspects of hazardous waste, such as containment, cleanup and remediation of used toxic waste sites. The main goal of this law was to identify locations of hazardous waste contamination and provide regulations for cleaning up the locations.

When the law was first established, it required that the people responsible for the contamination pay for the cleaning of the location. This part of the law resulted in a reduction of the number of illegal waste dump sites, and also a reduction in the amount of hazardous waste created because companies began to fear having to pay for cleaning contaminated areas.

The law also created a tax on the chemicals used to create hazardous substances. This tax was paid by the companies and was put into a fund, known as the Superfund, that would be used to help identify contaminated areas, protect groundwater and aid in cleanup costs.

Unfortunately, over time companies couldn't afford the cleaning, responsible parties could not be determined and the tax was not renewed, which meant that the bill for cleaning contaminated sites eventually fell on the taxpayers.

Although the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act did have issues, overall it was successful in cleaning many contaminated locations. From 1980-2012, over 350 sites had been identified and cleaned. Unfortunately, there are still over 1,300 other sites that are still on the list and awaiting action.

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