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Solid Waste and Emergency Response

Superfund - Cleanup of Uncontrolled Hazardous Waste Sites

Superfund is the federal government’s program to clean up the nation’s most serious uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. It is also the name of the fund established to pay for cleanups whenever the responsible parties are not available or capable of performing the cleanup. There are several steps involved in cleaning up a hazardous waste site. When a site has been reported to EPA by individual citizens, state agencies, or others, EPA follows a step-by-step process to determine the best way to clean up the site and protect human health and the environment.

Superfund Site Activities:

Community Engagement

Communities should be involved in all phases of the cleanup so that all of the contamination is found and cleaned up in a way that protects human health and the environment – now and in the future. Communities need to provide input on how the cleanup will be conducted and understand how it may affect community plans and goals.

Community members, former employees, and local government officials may be able to provide valuable information about a hazardous waste site that can help EPA determine the best way to clean it up. They can also provide information to EPA to help identify the parties responsible for the contamination and thereby assist the Agency’s enforcement actions. Local information can help determine the location of contamination, how people may be exposed to the contamination, and how the land may be used after it is cleaned up. If contamination will be managed at the site for long periods of time, the communities and local governments need to be consulted about how to apply institutional controls to prevent human exposures. Community members also may be able to provide information that will help monitor the effectiveness of the cleanup over the long-term such as reporting trespassing, flooding, odors or other unusual conditions.

Community engagement activities are not only a critical way to make clean-ups effective, but are also required by law. For example, the Administrative Record is legally required and provides public information throughout a Superfund cleanup. For a listing of community engagement activities that are required by either statute or regulation, see Appendix A of the Superfund Community Involvement Handbook, EPA 540-K-05-003 (PDF) (156 pp, 2.5MB, About PDF). For more information on tools that EPA employs to increase community engagement (even when not required by statute or regulation) see the Community Involvement Toolkit web page.

The Site Team

Superfund requires cooperation and partnerships at every step of the way. EPA identifies a "Site Team" to help streamline the cleanup process and to promote cooperation. Generally, the Site Team includes a Remedial Project Manager (RPM), a Community Involvement Coordinator (CIC); legal staff; and technical staff. The CIC advises the RPM of what community involvement activities are required and what activities are recommended based on the specific conditions at each project. The RPM oversees all site activities and works with the CIC to make sure the community is effectively engaged. The legal and technical team members are responsible for ensuring the site clean-up is effective and protective of human health and the environment. The legal team pursues the parties responsible for the contamination to compel them to perform or pay for the cleanup.


EPA has a long standing policy to pursue "enforcement first" throughout the Superfund cleanup process. This policy embodies the "polluter pays" principle which seeks accountability for the parties responsible for the contamination of a site. Therefore, the Agency has a number of options to ensure that the Superfund law is enforced. Public engagement is integral to this entire enforcement process. For example, the Agency may negotiate a cleanup agreement with the parties responsible for the contamination. If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, then EPA has the option to issue an order or to pursue legal action through the federal court system to compel action. The Agency also has the authority to move forward with the response activities on its own, using monies from the Superfund trust fund, and then recover its costs later. With each of these enforcement options, there are opportunities for community engagement. The Superfund law also provides authority for citizen suits, which can be brought against violators.

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What follows is a description of the Superfund cleanup process. Each point in the process is defined and explained by the Superfund law and regulations. We want your feedback on how EPA can be more proactive and robust in engaging affected communities in the cleanup process. Please share your experiences with these processes and your ideas for improvement.

Preliminary Assessment (PA)/Site Inspection (SI)

What hazardous substances are present at the site? Are they a threat to human health or the environment? Is further investigation needed?

The preliminary assessment (PA) involves gathering historical and other available information about site conditions to evaluate whether the site poses a threat to human health and the environment and whether further investigation is needed. The site inspection (SI) tests air, water, and soil at the site to determine what hazardous substances are present, whether they are being released to the environment, and whether they pose a threat to human health or the environment.

How we involve communities:
Depending on the situation, EPA may meet with local officials and opinion leaders, communicate potential risks and potential cleanup options to the public, conduct community interviews, prepare a Community Involvement Plan (CIP), establish an information repository, release a public notice to local media outlets, and designate an EPA Community Involvement Coordinator (CIC). In addition, the community can provide any information they may have about the site to the EPA.

Links to More Information:
The Superfund Process Diagram
Early and Meaningful Community Involvement Memorandum (October 12, 2001) (PDF) (6 pp, 53K, about PDF)
Revised Guidance on Compiling Administrative Records for CERCLA Response Actions (PDF) (40 pp, 749K, about PDF)

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Placement on National Priorities List (NPL)

How hazardous is this site? Should it be placed on the National Priorities List for Superfund clean-up?

The NPL primarily is intended to guide the EPA in determining which sites warrant further investigation. Information about the site collected in the PA/SI phase helps EPA to evaluate the risks posed by the site using its Hazard Ranking System (HRS). Sites with a sufficiently high HRS score are proposed for the National Priorities List (NPL), a list of the most serious sites identified for long-term cleanup. If the site is added, the Superfund can be used to pay for long-term cleanup at the site. If it is not added, EPA and the States will still pursue the responsible parties to perform appropriate cleanup at the site.

How we involve communities:
When EPA proposes to add a site to the NPL, the Agency publishes a public notice in the Federal Register about its intention to propose the site. Members of the community can comment on the proposal. EPA then responds to comments received. EPA then will announce its final decision to list the site in the Federal Register.

After a site is added to the NPL and the final rule is published in the Federal Register, EPA is required to conduct community interviews, finalize a formal Community Involvement Plan (CIP), establish and maintain an information repository and issue a public notice, establish the Administrative Record, and publish a public notice of availability of Technical Assistance Grants (TAGs). In addition, EPA may also develop fact sheets on the site to inform the community about activities at the site.

Links to More Information:
The Superfund Process Diagram
Superfund Community Involvement Handbook, EPA 540-K-05-003 (PDF) (156 pp, 2.5M, about PDF)
OSWER Directive 9230.0-15, Role of Community Interviews in Development of a Community Relations Program for Remedial Response (PDF) (2 pp, 88K, about PDF)

If a site is listed, EPA will first look to the responsible parties to perform the cleanup. If those parties are capable of performing the cleanup, EPA has tools to compel them to perform the cleanup. This allows EPA to preserve the Superfund dollars to be used at sites where no responsible parties exist. At sites where EPA has successfully used its enforcement tools, the responsible parties will perform all of the steps in the cleanup process under EPA oversight. However, one notable exception to this is that EPA is the only entity that can select or approve the final remedy.

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Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS)

How much contamination is there? What type of contamination is it? How much will it cost to clean it up?

After a site is listed on the NPL, EPA or the responsible parties perform a remedial investigation (RI) to gather data needed to determine the type and extent of contamination at a site and to determine the amount of cleanup needed and associated costs. After the RI is completed the feasibility study (FS) presents a detailed analysis of alternatives for cleaning up the site. The results of the detailed analysis are included in an RI/FS report that provides the basis to identify a Preferred Alternative.

How we involve communities:
Typical community involvement activities include providing independent technical assistance (either a Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) or technical assistance support through the Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) contract), publishing regular fact sheets, conducting community visits, holding workshops, and holding regular briefings for local government officials and the community.

These activities help prepare the community for publication of the Proposed Plan. Some EPA regional offices organize public meetings at the beginning of the remedial investigation. With early communication and involvement, the community is equipped with the tools necessary to understand the remediation process. This is also a stage where the community may develop a Community Advisory Group (CAG) – a group of local residents that act as a sounding board for community concerns and help inform EPA’s management of the remediation process. EPA encourages the development of CAGs and may occasionally provide administrative support for their development.

Links to More Information:
The Superfund Process Diagram
Superfund Today: Focus on Risk Assessment: Involving the Community (EPA 540-K-98-004) (PDF) (6 pp, 87K, about PDF)
Risk Assessment Guidance for Superfund: Volume 1 Human Health Evaluation Manual Supplement to Part A: Community Involvement in Superfund Risk Assessments (RAGS Part A) (EPA 540-R-98-042)
OSWER Directive 9230.0-16, Making Superfund Documents Available to the Public Throughout the Cleanup Process, and Discussing Site Findings and Decisions as They are Developed (PDF) (7 pp, 509K, about PDF).
Technical Assistance Grants
Technical Assistance Services for Communities

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Proposed Plan/Record of Decision (RODs)

This phase begins with the consideration of various options for cleaning up the site and ends with a decision for which path to take.

The Preferred Alternative for a site is presented to the public in a Proposed Plan which is prepared by the lead agency. The Proposed Plan briefly summarizes the alternatives studied in the detailed analysis phase of the RI/FS, highlighting the key factors that led to identifying the Preferred Alternative. The Proposed Plan includes information on the site history, site description, site characteristics, community participation, enforcement activities, past and present activities, the nature and extent of the contamination, and the reasonably anticipated future land uses at the site. Public comment is taken on the Proposed Plan. The Agency responds to the public comments, and then issues a Record of Decision (ROD) selecting the cleanup plan for the site.

How we involve communities:
The agency publishes a Proposed Plan for public comment that includes: all remedial alternatives considered in the RI/FS; the preferred alternative that has been chosen; the agency’s reasoning for choosing the preferred alternative; any proposals for waivers to cleanup standards; and documents used to support the decision. The agency strives to make the Proposed Plan a clear description of the proposed course of action. In some cases, the agency supplements the Proposed Plan with a Proposed Plan "Factsheet".

In addition to the Plan itself, a brief description of it is published in a "major local newspaper of general circulation" to ensure that the community has ample opportunity to get involved. The full Proposed Plan is kept on file in the administrative record, and is made available at the Information Repository that has been designated for the particular site. The public comment period is 30 days (at a minimum) and may be extended upon request. A public meeting is held to discuss the Proposed Plan, and transcripts of the public meeting are kept and made public in the administrative record.

To ensure that the public comments are fully considered in Agency decision-making, a "responsiveness summary" is prepared that includes the Agency’s responses to all significant comments. This summary becomes part of the "Record of Decision."

EPA may have to address significant changes to the Proposed Plan prior to selection of the final remedy. In particular, EPA may receive information that significantly changes basic features of the selected remedy. The Agency must issue a revised Proposed Plan if the changes could not have been reasonably anticipated by the public. (If the changes could have been reasonably anticipated by the public, then EPA is merely required to include an explanatory discussion in the final ROD.)

Only EPA can select or approve the final remedy decision. Even where responsible parties or other Federal entities propose a certain remedy, only EPA can finally select the remedy. A public notice must be published in a major local newspaper to notify the community that the ROD is available for inspection. EPA will also revise the Community Involvement Plan, if necessary, to reflect community concerns that pertain to the remedial design and construction phase.

If significant changes must be made to the ROD with respect to the scope, performance or cost, EPA must publish a notice that summarizes the explanation of significant differences (ESD) in a major local newspaper, and make the information available to the public in the information repository. If fundamental changes to the ROD are necessary, EPA will develop a proposed ROD amendment, issue a public notice through the local media to notify the community, and hold a public meeting to discuss the proposed changes and to take comments. EPA then develops a Responsiveness Summary to formally respond to public comments received.

After the ROD is issued, EPA seeks to commence settlement negotiations with the parties responsible for the contamination to implement the cleanup. Some EPA Regional offices provide updates on such negotiations for communities. At a minimum, EPA will issue a notice of any proposed settlement in the Federal Register and solicit and consider public comments prior to finalizing the settlement.

Links to More Information:
The Superfund Process Diagram
Superfund Today: Focus on Cleanup Costs (EPA 540-K-96/004) (PDF) (4 pp, 145K, about PDF)
A Guide to Preparing Superfund Proposed Plans, Records of Decision and Other Remedy Selection Decision Documents (PDF) (26 pp, 507K, about PDF)
OSWER Directive 9203.0-06, Superfund Responsiveness Summaries (PDF) (3 pp, 124K, about PDF)
Citizen’s Guides to Cleanup Methods Fact Sheet Series
Customized ROD reports

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Remedial Design/Remedial Action (RD/RA)

This phase begins with the detailed design of how the remediation will move forward, and ends with actual implementation of the clean-up.

Remedial Design/Remedial Action (RD/RA) is the phase during which EPA or the responsible part designs and implements the cleanup remedy selected in the Record of Decision (ROD).

How we involve communities:
During Remedial Design, the site team continues to conduct appropriate community involvement activities to ensure continued engagement and community input about the process. Once the Remedial Design is approved, there are more community involvement opportunities prior to beginning construction activities. The Agency issues a fact sheet and holds a public briefing. During the briefing, the community should be informed about the work to be done, planned work hours, truck traffic, health and safety precautions, and monitoring to confirm that there are no releases. The purpose of the briefing is to inform the community of all of the practical ways the remediation may impact their day-to-day lives. The site team will continue to work with the community in order to address issues that may arise during the cleanup.

Links to More Information:
The Superfund Process Diagram
Superfund Today: Focus on Construction Completion- EPA Celebrates 900th Superfund Site Construction Completion (PDF) (8 pp, 1.4MB, about PDF)

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Operation and Maintenance (O&M)/Five-year Review

This phase involves continued monitoring of the cleanup.

During the Operation and Maintenance (O&M) phase, detailed O&M activities are conducted to maintain the remedy and ensure that it remains protective over the long-term. EPA also is required to conduct a review of the remedy every five years. The review may include examining site data, inspecting the site, taking new samples, and talking with affected residents.

How we involve communities:
EPA is required to notify the community and other potentially-interested parties that a Five-Year Review will be conducted at their site. Community members may also be interviewed to get their views about current site conditions, problems, and concerns.

Links to More Information:
The Superfund Process Diagram
Superfund Today: Focus on Five Year Reviews Involving the Community (PDF) (2 pp, 194K, about PDF)

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NPL Deletion

This phase marks the end of a successful cleanup by a determination that the site is no longer on the National Priorities List.

A site or a portion of a site can be deleted from the NPL when EPA determines that no further response is needed.

How we involve communities:
When the cleanup has been completed and all cleanup goals have been achieved, EPA publishes a notice of its intention to delete the site, or a portion of the site, from the NPL in the Federal Register and notifies the community of its availability for comment. EPA then accepts comments from the public on the information presented in the notice and issues a Responsiveness Summary to formally respond to public comments received. If, after the formal comment period, the site or portion of the site still qualifies for deletion, EPA publishes a formal deletion notice in the Federal Register and places a final deletion report in the Information Repository for the site.

Links to More Information:
The Superfund Process Diagram

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