Negotiated Cleanup of Hazardous Waste Sites Under CERCLA

  • Recommendation number: 84-4
  • Adopted on: June 29, 1984
  • Publication Date: June 29, 1984

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By enacting the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980, Congress undertook to provide a federal solution for the problem of abandoned and inactive hazardous waste disposal sites. Approximately 2,000 sites will require action, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. CERCLA created a $1.6 billion revolving “Superfund” for direct federal action to clean up these sites and respond to hazardous waste emergencies. The act supplements this public works authority with provisions for negotiating cleanups by “potentially responsible parties”—site owners and operators and users of sites such as transporters and waste generators. It also empowers the federal government to sue such parties for the cost of cleanups paid for out of the Superfund and, if waste disposal may present an “imminent and substantial endangerment,” to sue for orders directing responsible parties to clean up sites themselves. The act is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

By early 1984, although EPA had responded to hazardous waste emergencies at many sites, only a handful of sites listed on a statutory national priority list by the agency had been completely cleaned up by the federal government. A few more sites had been cleaned up by private parties. The causes of delay were varied: uncertainty about the extent of the problem and the efficacy of technical remedies; start-up problems inherent in a new program; and a two-year long effort to negotiate cleanups so that no Superfund revenues would have to be spent. By mid-1983, the strategy of conserving the Superfund had fallen apart amidst a major leadership crisis within the EPA. In a policy reversal, Superfund expenditures for cleaning up sites then took priority over other means available under the statute for effecting cleanups.

The current agency approach to CERCLA emphasizes cleanups paid for out of the Superfund coupled with actions to recover the expenditures, but also relies to a limited extent on negotiated cleanups and on lawsuits to compel responsible parties to act under CERCLA’s imminent endangerment provision. This strategy has resulted in a CE RCLA implementation effort that is slow and expensive.

Congress, the EPA, responsible parties, and other critics have suggested several means of speeding up and economizing on site cleanups. These include enlarging the Superfund, setting program deadlines, expanding the EPA program offices, empowering citizens to sue, and encouraging voluntary cleanup by industry. Although enlarging the Fund, providing more staff, and setting program deadlines would tend to accelerate the CERCLA effort, the Administrative Conference believes that a properly designed site cleanup negotiation process, through which responsible parties or third parties would agree to act directly to clean up sites, would also hasten cleanup while reducing its expense by tapping the technical and financial resources of the private sector. Involvement of the federal government and affected citizens in this process would ensure adequate protection of public health and the environment.

Although current EPA policy permits the negotiation of cleanups, the agency puts too little stress on negotiations and has adopted procedural and substantive requirements that unnecessarily constrict the number of negotiated cleanup agreements that the agency might beneficially conclude. The Conference recognizes, of course, that successful negotiations can only occur when private parties as well as the federal government are willing to respond to the problem of hazardous waste cleanup in good faith. The Conference intends no criticism of aggressive EPA enforcement efforts where responsible parties refuse to cooperate.

In this recommendation the Administrative Conference suggests a series of steps that the EPA might take to encourage and facilitate greater reliance on negotiated private party cleanups, in those situations where negotiations have a realistic chance of success.


1. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should emphasize the negotiation of voluntary cleanups at hazardous waste dump sites. The negotiation process for any site should include, at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner, the key interests, such as federal, state and local governments, parties potentially responsible for cleanup (including site users, site owners and operators, and waste transporters), and local citizens. Whenever possible, efforts to negotiate a cleanup agreement should begin well before the commencement of litigation concerning a site. To increase the likelihood that negotiations will succeed, the Administrator and other leading EPA officials, both at headquarters and in the regional offices, should support the negotiation process, follow its implementation, and be available to explain specific negotiated agreements before congressional oversight committees if necessary.

2. Citizens living in the vicinity of or otherwise directly affected by a site have a substantial interest in some issues related to the cleanup process—for example, medical diagnostic testing, relocation of public service facilities, measures to isolate the site, and the overall adequacy of the cleanup effort. Their interest in other aspects of the process, such as the allocation of costs among potentially responsible parties (or between potentially responsible parties and the government), is more problematic. EPA should consider means beyond complete reliance on local political institutions for involving these citizens, including the negotiation of collateral arrangements, participation of citizens groups in negotiations over the type and scope of the remedy, and the like. Even if not participants, local citizens ordinarily should be permitted to observe those aspects of the negotiations that concern them.

3. Many negotiations can be conducted by EPA without outside assistance. In other cases, where outside assistance is desirable, EPA should encourage efforts by independent mediating organizations or individuals to convene negotiations. This can be accomplished by asking such a convenor at an early stage—no later than the commencement of “remedial investigations and feasibility studies” (a statutory cleanup stage)—to determine whether conditions are favorable for negotiations at a site. Favorable conditions include: issues that are ripe for decision; absence of fundamental conflict about values among those with a stake in the outcome; adequate representation and organization of key interests; opportunity for mutual gain for those with a stake; a balance of power among participants; willingness to bargain in good faith and share information; and willingness of units of government to participate as equal parties. Where negotiation appears feasible, the convenor should attempt to organize a site negotiation group from among the parties with a stake in the site cleanup. If an initial meeting of the parties is successful, the participants should consider retaining the convenor or another person to serve as mediator for the duration of negotiations. EPA should consider using Superfund resources to support an entity, such as a non-profit corporation or another agency, that would undertake this initial convening effort and provide mediation services if the parties desired them. Alternatively, EPA should consider providing these services through personal service contracts with skilled mediators.

4. In order to take advantage of private funds and expertise while they remain available, EPA should encourage and participate in negotiations for cleanup of sites where there is a high likelihood of successful negotiations, even if they have not yet been allocated federal funding for remedial investigations or been added to the National Priority List, unless such negotiations will distort the agency’s priorities by diverting substantial agency resources or causing undue delay.

5. EPA should avoid wasting agency resources on unproductive negotiations by establishing, with the concurrence of other negotiating parties, reasonable deadlines for the conclusion of negotiations.

6. Successful negotiation requires that participation by all interests be through persons who, if not principals, have the confidence of, and easy access to, principals with the authority to make binding commitments. For EPA, the negotiators or persons readily accessible to the negotiators should have explicit, broad delegated authority to commit the agency to a negotiated outcome. To the extent that peer review and approval of agreements within the agency are nonetheless required, EPA should provide expedited means for obtaining them. One method of achieving this end would be for EPA headquarters to consolidate review of negotiated cleanups in a single panel of key officials.

7. The final agreement should take the form of an administrative consent order under section 106 of CERCLA or a judicial consent decree. Like other parties to the agreement, EPA should bind itself to undertake appropriate actions and follow agreed-upon schedules.

8. Negotiations undertaken in the context of litigation require procedures and standards different from the procedures and standards applicable to negotiations occurring before a matter reaches litigation. EPA should acknowledge that existing agency guidance memoranda on “case settlement policy” are appropriate for use only in litigation situations; to implement the proposed negotiation process, the agency should prepare new guidance memoranda that Actions of the Assembly Recommendation 84-4 53 bring more appropriate factors to bear on prelitigation negotiations.

9. The Conference recognizes EPA’s need to maintain a strong litigation posture in CERCLA cases in order to strengthen its ability to negotiate agreements in the public interest. However, the Conference also urges the agency to consider the possible advantages of greater flexibility in situations where cleanup arrangements are being negotiated rather than litigated. For example, in some cases it might be desirable for EPA to begin to negotiate even if 80% of cleanup costs has not been offered or to agree with the parties about the amounts of their individual responsibilities to pay cleanup costs even if the total responsibility adds up to less than 100 percent of cleanup costs (allocating Superfund resources to pay for the rest), as an incentive for cooperating parties to join promptly in an agreement. The intransigence of a few responsible parties should not be permitted to block agreement with others prepared to accept reasonable shares of responsibility; moreover, such partial agreements may free agency resources to pursue the intransigent parties.

10. Although the Conference believes that its recommendation can be implemented without additional legislation, it acknowledges that the effectiveness of expanded reliance on negotiated cleanups would depend upon the degree of support or opposition from relevant congressional committees. If EPA undertakes efforts to clean up dump sites through a negotiation process like that described in this recommendation, congressional committees should support and encourage these efforts, recognizing that negotiated solutions inevitably involve compromises.

11. To promote achievement of its site cleanup management objectives, EPA should publish statements of its CERCLA policies, such as conditions for undertaking voluntary cleanup negotiations, procedures for public involvement in site cleanup decisions, and site study criteria, in the Federal Registerand allow for public comment.



49 FR 29942 (July 25, 1984)

1984 ACUS 21


This recommendation was substantially implemented by EPA memorandum and by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986.


Anderson, Frederick R.  Negotiation and Informal Agency Action:  The Case of Superfund.  1984 ACUS 263, and 1985 Duke L. J.  261.