Jump to main content or area navigation.

Contact Us



Federal and State Laws on Hazardous Waste - Student Handout

Until 1980, there was no comprehensive Federal law that addressed the problems and threats posed by abandoned and inactive hazardous waste sites. Across the country there were thousands of abandoned and inactive hazardous waste sites that were exposing people to various Human Health & Ecological Risk risks. There were, however, a number of environmental laws that dealt with pollution, active hazardous waste facility management, and other environmental contamination.

In this exercise, your group will devise a program to deal with the problem of abandoned and inactive hazardous waste sites. By evaluating the following questions and developing responses, your group should be able to outline a program to address these sites. Remember, your program should include the underlying issues of identifying sites, assessing and ranking site hazards, reducing risk, identifying the people and companies responsible for the contamination, and financing the cleanup. While there are guidelines under each question to help you, feel free to discuss and adopt any approach that you feel responds to the question. These are the same basic questions addressed by Congressional and EPA policy makers when they developed the actual Superfund program.

  1. Should the government respond to threats posed by abandoned and inactive hazardous waste sites?

    Consider the implications of taking action to reduce and eliminate the threats posed by abandoned and inactive hazardous waste sites versus doing nothing. If nothing is done, then thousands of these sites will continue to expose public health and the environment to possible harm. If the government decides to act, however, it will be taking on an enormous task: hazardous waste sites are common to every area of the country, and hazardous waste is not easily cleaned up. The job is usually very expensive.

  2. Should the government clean up such sites by removing or treating hazardous waste, or take other measures such as isolating or containing the waste?

    Hazardous waste can be treated or disposed of in a way that reduces or eliminates risks to health and the environment. Most treatments include a process or technology that may increase the costs of taking action, but will reduce the Human Health & Ecological Risk risks to acceptable levels. Disposal in a permitted facility reduces risks by eliminating the danger of the uncontrolled wastes spreading. If the hazards are left untreated at the site, they could be dealt with more cheaply by somehow containing and isolating the site. This could be done with a fence or by posting warning signs. Remember that contaminants in soil will usually filter down and contaminate groundwater. 

  3. Should the government clean up all contaminated sites or a limited number?

    Tens of thousands of sites around the country contain at least 1 substance that negatively impacts human health or the environment. These could all be defined as hazardous waste sites. If the government attempts to identify and respond to all of these sites, there would be no end in sight, since "new" sites are created as old ones are being cleaned. If only a limited number are addressed, however, this leaves the government open to problems related to selecting some sites but not others.

  4. If only a limited number of sites are cleaned up, how should the government select sites for cleanup? What factors will affect site selection?

    Selecting sites as targets for cleanup can be based on a number of factors. Think about the factors that could affect this decision and list them. Then select the ones that make the most sense. For example, should site selection focus on protecting human health, the environment, or both? Should sites be selected based on the ease with which they can be cleaned up, allowing the program to demonstrate success early on? Should selected sites be restricted to those close to large populations of people, or will attention to these only cause undue alarm in the nearby communities? Should site selection focus on scientific assessment of the sites, selecting sites that possess the most significant concentrations of hazardous waste? Should site cleanups be evenly distributed around the country, so that no one region feels left out? What if a site is highly contaminated but is far away from any populated areas?

  5. If a site is selected for cleanup, how should the methods to be used to perform the cleanup be selected? What factors should be considered in selecting the cleanup methods? What degree of cleanup should be achieved? Should it be the same for all sites?

    As mentioned above, there are many ways to approach a cleanup. If waste is simply removed, the site can be quickly cleaned, but the waste still exists: it just becomes someone else's problem. If a treatment technology is to be used, this could entail time delays, labor, and other costs. Selecting among alternative treatment technologies can be difficult, and can depend on the level of cleanup to be achieved. Should cleanup jobs remove all risks posed by a site? Could a cleanup job leave behind a reasonable amount of controlled waste? What if a particular contaminant is difficult or impossible to treat? Should cost be a factor in selecting the approach? What about acceptance of the approach by the local community?

  6. Who should be liable (responsible) for the cleanup of a hazardous waste site?

    This is a critical issue in your statute and should be carefully considered. Who should perform the cleanup? Who should pay? Should the Federal or state government perform or pay for all cleanups, since the society at large benefits from the production of goods that result in the generation of hazardous waste? Where would the money come from? Higher taxes? If the government performs the cleanup, should the states have to contribute? Should it be a public works program (performed by government employees) or should the government hire private companies to do cleanup work? Should individual parties responsible for the presence of the contaminated waste at the site be liable? If you hold the responsible parties liable, should they be allowed to assess the site and select the methods for cleanup? If more than one person is responsible for the site contamination, how should liability for site cleanup be allocated? What if one of those parties is the Federal government or a state or local government? What if some of the responsible parties no longer exist or are bankrupt?

  7. How should the public be involved in your program?

    Should they be informed of what is happening at the site when it happens? After it's done? Do they have a say in the decisions? Will the public's preferences be the most important factor? What kinds of programs will you set up to involve the public.

Solid Waste and Emergency Response Home | Superfund Home | Innovative Technologies Home