Topic 19.9: The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)

Learning Objective

After successfully completing this topic, you will be able to describe the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

CERCLA Overview

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) is important to sellers, landowners, brokers, developers, and operators who may be held responsible for the cleanup of hazardous substances. The potentially responsible persons (PRP) include
• present owners and operators of the contaminated site,
• persons who owned or operated the site when hazardous substances were found on the site,
• persons who cause hazardous substances to be on the site, and
• persons who transported hazardous substances to the site.

It doesn’t matter whether the PRP was aware of the hazardous substance. Liability may be either strict and/or joint and several. Under the strict liability rules, the gov­ernment need only show that the person falls within the definition of a PRP. Joint and several liability means that one or more persons in a group, or the entire group, may be liable, and that any person or persons sued are responsible for the total costs of cleanup. Owners have paid amounts in excess of $500,000 for cleanup.

In order to avoid these liabilities, a landowner may claim to be an “innocent landholder.” To support the claim, the landowner, before buying the property, must have
• carried out all appropriate inquiries into the previous ownership and uses of the property consistent with good commercial and customary standards and practices,
• taken reasonable steps to stop any continuing release of toxic substances,
• prevented any threatened future releases, and
• prevented or limited any human, environmental, or natural resource exposure to any previously released hazardous substance.

To avoid liability under the statute, a person must do intensive research, usually in the form of an environmental audit. The audit is broken into phases.
• Phase I is a basic assessment.
• Phase II follows to investigate specific problems found in Phase I (soil test needed).
• Phase III is the actual cleanup.
• Phase IV is a Land Disposal Restriction (LDR) rule that prohibits the land disposal of hazardous wastes unless the waste meets specific treatment standards.