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What is Superfund?

Photograph of a mining site surrounded by a barbed wire fence

Superfund, a term that echoes both urgency and remediation, refers to a United States federal government program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. It aims to identify and clean up these sites to protect the environment and the health of the local populations. The program, officially known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), was enacted by Congress in 1980 in response to growing concerns over health risks posed by polluted sites across the country. This legislation represents a critical step towards rectifying the mistakes of the past, holding responsible parties accountable for environmental damage, and ensuring a safer, cleaner future for all.

In this guide, we will outline the EPA's Superfund program and address some commonly asked questions about Superfund sites and their impact on real estate.

What is Superfund?

Superfund is the term given to the environmental program established to address the challenge of abandoned hazardous waste sites. CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act), the formal title for Superfund, was established following a State of Emergency declaration at Love Canal, New York, in 1978. Love Canal, initially an abandoned canal project, turned into a dumping site where the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation disposed of nearly 22,000 tons of chemical waste in the 1940s and 1950s. This waste included hazardous materials such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxin, and pesticides, marking a significant environmental disaster.

The primary objective of Superfund is to rehabilitate hazardous-waste sites for productive purposes.  Superfund authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up contaminated sites. It further requires that the parties responsible for the contamination either manage the cleanups themselves or reimburse the government for the cleanup operations conducted by the EPA. The program is unique because it makes polluters responsible for paying part of the cleanup cost. Around 70 percent of Superfund cleanups have been paid by responsible parties. These locations have been transformed into a variety of uses, including wetlands, office complexes, new enterprises, manufacturing plants, and beyond.

What is a Superfund Site?

Superfund sites are the specific locations that are polluted with hazardous materials. These sites include manufacturing facilities, processing plants, landfills and mining sites. As of May 2024, there were a total of 1340 Superfund sites listed on the National Priorities List (NPL) nationwide.

Is it Safe to Live Near a Superfund Site?

Proximity to a Superfund site is critical, as Superfund sites contain toxic pollutants that can harm human health. Living, working or going to school near a Superfund site may have negative health effects depending on the specific toxins at the site. Approximately 24 million people live within 1 mile of a Superfund site (roughly 7% of the U.S. population). However, a property's close proximity to a Superfund site does not necessarily mean that it is contaminated.

How Close am I to a Superfund Site?

The EPA provides a map of all Superfund sites across the United States on their website. You can also discover your property's exact distance to the nearest Superfund site by getting a free property report on LandGate's map. This report will also provide you with a property risk score measured on a scale of 0-100, letting you gauge your property's potential for contamination at a glance.

Screenshot of industrial contamination data from LandGate's property report

What is the Biggest Superfund Site?

The Coeur d’Alene Basin Cleanup site, located in Smelterville, Idaho, stands as one of the largest and most intricate Superfund cleanup efforts in the United States. Covering an expansive area of 1,500 square miles and extending along 166 miles of river, the site has been sectioned into several zones to streamline the remediation process. This area has become heavily contaminated as a result of historical mining and milling activities, which involved the improper disposal of tailings into local rivers and streams. This led to the widespread distribution of pollutants across the floodplain of the South Fork Coeur d’Alene River. Additionally, contamination has stemmed from sizable piles of waste, discarded rock, and the airborne emissions previously released by smelting operations. As a consequence, the soil, sediment, groundwater, and surface water in the area have been tainted with heavy metals, including lead.

Designated as a priority on the National Priorities List in 1983, the site has since witnessed significant advancements in contamination cleanup, thanks to the concerted efforts of the EPA and its collaborating partners.

Which State has the Most Superfund Sites?

New Jersey has the most Superfund sites with a total of 115 as of April 2024. The high number of Superfund sites in New Jersey can be attributed to the state's industrial history, dense population and legacy of environmental contamination. Additional states with a high number of Superfund sites include California and Pennsylvania.

How Can a Superfund Site Affect My Property?

When exploring the potential contamination risk from Superfund sites near properties, it is critical to understand the broad spectrum of influences these hazardous locations can exert on real estate values, safety, and public health. The presence of a Superfund site in the vicinity of a property can lead to significant apprehensions among homeowners, prospective buyers, and investors alike, concerning the contamination risk and its subsequent effects on property valuation.

Buying & Selling Property

The proximity of a property to Superfund sites can significantly impact the buying & selling process along with the overall marketability of a property. For example, contamination risk falls under one of the types of real estate investment risks, so property investors must be aware of any potential contamination issues associated with a property before making a purchase. Various states enforce disclosure laws mandating owners to inform potential buyers about any pollution issues when selling their property. For precise information regarding such regulations or any deed restrictions on your property, it is advisable to consult with a real estate expert, relevant government bodies at the state or local level, or a legal advisor. These professionals can clarify if your state enforces these laws and guide you accordingly.

Property Values

Properties within close proximity to Superfund sites generally have lower property values. A good resource for property value information is a local government agency-such as your local taxing authority or planning commission-or a local real estate professional. They are experienced in appraising property values and determining the effect of contamination on property values. If your property value decreases due to close proximity to a Superfund site, property owners may want to consult with local government officials about the possibility of property tax abatements or adjustments, based on impacts on property values from pollution concerns; however, this is beyond the authority of the EPA and the federal government. The Superfund law does not authorize EPA to compensate individual property owners for losses of property value or other potential damages associated with designating an area as a Superfund.

How to Identify Potentially Contaminated Land

Whether you currently own land or property or are interested in buying land or property, understanding if a property potentially has environmental issues is crucial. A Phase 1 Report, often a critical first step in environmental due diligence, is the most accurate assessment designed to identify potential or existing environmental contamination liabilities on a property.

Discover the potential contamination risk of any property instantly with LandApp. While LandApp is not a substitute for a formal Phase 1 ESA report, it offers valuable insights into a property's proximity to Superfund sites, contaminated areas, underground tanks, and abandoned wells across the U.S. This innovative tool also delivers comprehensive data on specific contaminants, remediation efforts, chemical properties, and more, equipping you with critical information about a property's contamination risk at the click of a button.


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