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Federal and State Laws on Hazardous Waste

Duration 1 class period
Grade Level 7-12
Key Terms/

Hazardous waste
Potentially Responsible Parties

Social Studies


GavelStudents become familiar with how legislation on hazardous waste is developed, enacted, implemented, and enforced. Students gain an understanding of how hazardous waste cleanup laws are enacted and intended to function by creating a statute and set of regulations that parallel the issues covered by Superfund.


Hazardous waste comes from a variety of sources, from both present and past activities. Years ago, before we understood the dangers of hazardous waste, there were no laws controlling its disposal. Many businesses simply threw out their hazardous waste with the rest of their trash-so it ended up in a landfill, was left behind when they moved, dumped in a river or lake, or buried in the ground.

Eventually, thousands of uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites were created in abandoned warehouses, manufacturing facilities, harbors, processing plants, and landfills, to name a few. Congress created the Superfund Program to investigate and clean up hazardous waste sites nationwide.

Fact Flash 2: The Superfund Cleanup Program, provides a good overview of what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is trying to accomplish with the Superfund Program.

Under the law creating the Superfund Program, the people and companies responsible for the presence of the hazardous waste at a site are liable for its cleanup. EPA can make these responsible parties pay for or perform the study and cleanup work at the site. EPA negotiates with the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) to reach an agreement. If the PRPs refuse to act, EPA pays for the cleanup with money from the Superfund trust fund and seeks to recover those costs from the responsible parties. If the PRPs cannot be identified or cannot pay for the cleanup, EPA can pay for the work out of the fund.

The law also creates severe liability for the PRPs EPA identifies at a particular site. This means that any individual PRP can be held responsible, or liable, for the cost or performance of the entire cleanup job, rather than just the portion that they caused. This kind of liability is unusual and gives EPA a powerful legal tool. The reason for it is best explained by the question "Who should pay?" The answer is that the polluter pays. Sites are usually abandoned, making the identification of all PRPs very difficult. Past recordkeeping at the site is frequently faulty, and often potential PRPs no longer exist or are bankrupt. Also, many sites are waste dumps often containing wastes from many different generators that have been mixed together; this makes equitable apportionment of liability impossible. The law says that those who profited from the businesses that created the harm should pay to clean it up instead of the public.

Finally, different contaminants pose different threats. Quantifying threats, as discussed in Activity 6: Examining the Effects of Pollution on Ecosystems and Activity 7: Identifying Risks at a Superfund Site, is complicated at best. For example, one PRP may have sent a small amount of a highly toxic waste to a site, while another may have sent a larger volume of a slightly toxic substance. Under Superfund, the government chooses not to try to apportion this liability among the PRPs.

To help prepare your students for this unit, use Warm-Up 2: EPA's Superfund Program-Overview.

As a follow-up to this unit, have your students perform Activity 6: Examining the Effects of Pollution on Ecosystems; Activity 7: Identifying Risks at a Superfund Site; and Activity 11: What the Community Can Do.

For more in-depth information on the topics covered in this unit, see Fact Flash 10: Superfund Community Involvement Program and Fact Flash 11: Other Major Environmental Laws. For additional information, see the Suggested Reading list found at the end of the Haz-Ed materials.


  1. Gather the following materials:
  2. Read Fact Flash 2 to prepare your lecture.

  3. Distribute the Student Handout and Fact Flash 2. Assign students to read Fact Flash 2 for homework and prepare responses to the questions in the Student Handout.

  4. Explain that for the lesson on hazardous waste laws, students will be divided into groups. Each group will discuss the questions on the handout and devise a program for dealing with hazardous waste sites based on group consensus.


  1. Divide the class into groups. (The number of groups may vary, but each should include 5 or 6 students.)

  2. Briefly review the concerns raised in the handout and the questions that students must answer when they are devising their program. If they were in charge, what would they do? What kind of laws would they need?

  3. Have members of each group discuss among themselves how best to determine goals for dealing with hazardous waste sites and design a program to accomplish these goals. The group should also be prepared to discuss and advocate their program, and to answer questions posed by other students.

  4. Remind the students that each member of the group should state his or her position on the issues, and the group should adopt a response to every question before moving on to the next one. If the group agrees on an issue, it should move on to the next one. If it cannot agree in a short time (e.g., 5 minutes), it should move on, considering the next question(s) in light of the alternative positions that were suggested for the problem question, until one response comes out as the best.

  5. For the last 10 minutes of the period, tell the students to outline the program they have decided on. They should list the features of the program that respond to each question.

  6. Collect the outlines and briefly review the features of each, noting where the groups agree and where the programs diverge.

Extentions (Optional)

  • A second class period can be scheduled to compare and contrast the programs designed by the students with the actual Superfund Program. Each group can designate a spokesperson to respond to questions from the class and defend the approach taken by the group.

  • Make copies and distribute Fact Flash 11: Other Major Environmental Laws. Discuss how the approach to environmental protection can differ according to program goals and the means available to achieve those goals.

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