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A Brief History of Superfund

Superfund is a U.S. federal law enacted to clean up sites across the nation that are contaminated with toxic or otherwise hazardous substances.

Congress passed the law in 1980 in response to rampant pollution of American soil and water. Two particular disasters, the Love Canal in upstate New York and the Valley of the Drums in Kentucky, galvanized public opinion and political will, leading to the establishment of Superfund.

Shocking Crises

At Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, it was revealed that 21,000 tons of toxic waste had been buried by a chemical company, dating back to the 1920s. Homes were later built over the buried waste, which was eventually released into the environment, precipitating a public health crisis that ultimately resulted in evacuations. Health problems associated with the Love Canal disaster included increased incidence of miscarriages, birth defects, nervous disorders and cancers.

The Valley of the Drums is a 23-acre toxic waste dumping site near Louisville, Kentucky. Hazardous materials have been stored there since the 1960s. The site grabbed national attention in 1966 when many of the drums burst into flames and burned for over a week. By 1979, the site was so polluted that the EPA began an emergency clean-up. That effort officially ended in 1990.

Spurred to Action

These and other shocking environmental crises spurred Congress and the U.S. government to action. In addition to passing Superfund, the EPA began publishing its Hazard Ranking System in 1981 and the National Priorities List the following year. Billions of federal dollars were spent cleaning up Superfund sites, although early efforts were stymied due to President Reagan’s disdain for government programs, especially those dedicated to environmental causes.

As of late 2010, the National Priority List named 1,280 sites.

Thanks to Superfund, many of the most dangerously contaminated sites across the nation have been restored for safe use.

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