SUPERFUND AND NATURAL RESOURCE DAMAGES
CRS Report for Congress
Superfund and Natural Resource Damages
Analyst in Environmental Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
The Superfund law gives government agencies that serve as natural resource
trustees the authority to require responsible parties to make good the environmental harm
they caused by restoring or replacing the injured natural resources, and by paying
damages for the lost use of publicly owned resources. This is in addition to EPA’s
authority to require the cleanup of spills and contamination from hazardous substance
releases. Natural resource damages (NRD) has become an issue because of very large
claims that have been filed, and because of the prospect of more of them. Key questions
are: (1) what costs should be included and how they should be measured; (2) who should
bear the burden of proof in NRD cases (the rebuttable presumption question); and (3)
when NRD cases go to court, should review be based solely on the compiled
administrative record, or should the parties be permitted to introduce new evidence?
This report will be updated as events warrant.
Amending the natural resource damages (NRD) provisions of the Superfund law has
been one of the most intractable issues in the reauthorization debate. While best known as
the nation’s principal law for cleaning up spills and contamination from hazardous waste sites,
Superfund (formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation
and Liability Act – CERCLA),1 also obliges potentially responsible parties to make good the
environmental harm they have caused on government lands and waters, by restoring or2
replacing the injured natural resources, and by paying damages for the lost use of publicly
owned resources.3 (See page 2 for examples of natural resource injuries.)
Background. CERCLA (at 42 U.S.C. 9601(16)) defines natural resources broadly to
include land, fish, wildlife, ground water, and other resources belonging to or managed by
federal or other governmental entities. The provisions establishing liability for restoration of
1 P.L. 96-510 (December 11, 1980; 42 U.S.C. 9601-9675)
2 In this paper “damages” refers to financial compensation, and does not mean “injury” or “harm.”
3 The Oil Pollution Act also provides for the recovery of natural resource damages, as do certain state
Congressional Research Service The Library of Congress
Examples of Injuries to Natural Resources
What kinds of incidents result in injuries to natural resources, and what exactly is injured?
The web sites of the Department of the Interior, the Fish and Wildlife Service (part of Interior)
and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) list 86 NRD cases. A
review of 46 of them for which information was electronically available found the following:
’15 sites where decades of industrial activities were accompanied by releases of a variety of
hazardous substances into rivers, harbors, marshlands and other wetlands, as well as one case
of disposal to the ocean.
’ 11 sites where mines and associated waste piles contaminated surface waters and
groundwater with acid drainage and leachate containing heavy metals.
’ 9 cases where vessels ran aground; in three of them oil was the cargo that spilled, in three
others the ships’ own fuel spilled, and in the other three incidents the ships ran onto coral reefs
causing damage to the reef.
’ 4 oil pipeline ruptures.
’ 2 cases where retaining walls ruptured, allowing gypsum slurry to be released into a bayou
in one case, and sewage into a river in the other.
’2 incidents where train derailments resulted in a spill of diesel fuel, and a spill of chemicals.
’2 oil well accidents that released oil and other liquids into bayous.
’1 case where containers of a toxic chemical were lost overboard in rough seas.
Except for the coral reef groundings, these incidents all involve spills of oil or releases of
hazardous substances into bodies of water. In addition to surface and ground water
contamination the harm incurred includes injuries to and death of fish, wildlife, and other biota,
contamination of their habitats (including breeding and spawning grounds), and pollution of
drinking water supplies.
Federal agencies, along with state and tribal governments, act as trustees for public lands,
as well as for protected wildlife and plants (e.g., endangered species and migratory birds).
NOAA is the trustee for the nation’s coastal and marine environment, including commercial and
recreational fisheries, anadromous fish, and marine mammals. States have traditionally acted
as trustees for groundwater, their own lands (e.g., state parks and forests), and fish, game, and
Sources: For the Department of the Interior: [http://restoration.doi.gov/caselist.htm]; for the Fish and Wildlife
Service: [http://contaminants.fws.gov/Issues/Restoration.cfm]; and for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration: [http://www.darp.noaa.gov/darpcase.htm]. Other agencies of Interior do not list NRD cases on
their web sites.
the resources are not available to private citizens and their property.4 Only public resources
are covered, and the law makes federal, state, and tribal governments their trustees on behalf
of the public. The principal federal trustees are the agencies with stewardship over the
nation’s land and water – the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of
Land Management (all three in the Department of the Interior), the Forest Service
(Department of Agriculture), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
4 “Although private parties do not have a statutory cause of action for natural resource damages, they
may assert similar claims under common law theories, such as negligence and strict liability.” Bradley
M. Marten and Cestjon L. McFarland. “Litigating CERCLA Natural Resource Damage Claims,”
Environment Reporter. July 19, 1991. p. 671.
(Department of Commerce). The Departments of Defense and Energy also have large areas
of public land under their jurisdiction for which they act as trustee.
Natural resource damages are residual to cleanup, that is, they can only be sought for
injuries remaining after the response action is complete or the likely effects of the remedy
have been taken into account. “Residual injuries occur when (1) a cleanup leaves significant
contamination of the environment or (2) animal populations have been reduced or wildlife5
habitat has been destroyed and cannot recover quickly without human intervention.”
There are three basic cost components of an NRD claim: (1) the cost of performing the
damage assessment; (2) the restoration costs of bringing the resource back to the condition
that otherwise would exist today, taking into account the effects of time and natural and
human activities; and (3) the costs associated with the loss of the resources and the benefits
they provide. The damages recovered may be used “only to restore, replace, or acquire the
equivalent of” the subject natural resources (42 U.S.C. 9607(f)(1)). Recovered funds may
not go into the general revenues of the federal or state government, for example. They are
compensatory and remedial, with no punitive element.
The issue was brought to the fore by some very large NRD claims (in the multi-hundred
million dollar range) that were filed in the 1990s. (See page 4 for examples.) The companies
that were sued felt that the NRD provisions were being applied unfairly and contrary to
Congress’s original intent.
In an effort to achieve the bipartisan support that experience has shown is needed to
move a CERCLA reauthorization bill, the bills introduced in the 106th Congress by the
chairmen of the committees and subcommittees with Superfund jurisdiction – H.R. 1300,
H.R. 2580, and S. 1090 – did not contain NRD provisions. However the absence of NRD
language – and the inability to find an acceptable compromise – was one of the reasons the
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee finally ended its deliberations without
reporting a bill. One news source quoted Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, who said, “‘My
problem is not so much what is in as what’s out of the bill.’ Crapo explained that his main
concern is that natural resource damages are not addressed in the bill, but he also mentioned
his disappointment that the bill lacks remedy reforms and contains insufficient liability
Two different purposes are expressed in the cleanup and NRD provisions of CERCLA.
First, the Superfund cleanup, or remedial action, is intended to protect human health and the
environment from further harm; and second, the natural resource damage measures are
intended to restore injured resources, and/or provide substitute resources. Most NRD actions
are implemented concurrently with or shortly after the remedial action, and the majority of
NRD claims are settled in the context of the remedial action as part of the cleanup agreement
negotiated with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A 1996 General Accounting
Office (GAO) report found that in almost half the settlements where NRD was an issue, no
5 U.S. General Accounting Office. Superfund: Outlook for and Experience with Natural Resource
Damage Settlements. (GAO/RCED-96-71) April 1996. p. 4. [Hereinafter, GAO report]
6 Colleen Luccioli. “No Agreements on Senate Superfund Bill; NRD at Issue,” E & E Daily. August
March 20, 2000.
separate payment was made, because either the negotiated cleanup would rectify the injury
to the natural resource, or no such injuries were found. The Department of Justice reported
that through April 1995, of 98 cases settled, 48 involved no payment, and in the other 50,7
monetary recoveries ranged from about $4,000 to $24 million.
Nevertheless, industry groups have expressed concern because some very large natural
resource damage claims have been filed, and they would like to clarify what costs are covered
by the law, and to have limits placed on what they see as potentially open-ended liability.
They are also concerned about the procedural aspects of NRD litigation.
The GAO study noted above reported that the Department of the Interior and the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that 60 sites might
result in claims of $5 million or more each, and as many as 20 of these sites might exceed $50
million each.8 Since then there have been some very large suits filed:
•EPA and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe are suing four mining companies for $970 million to
restore injuries from mining wastes in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin, Idaho; the trial is
set to begin in January 2001.
•The Montrose Chemical Corp. and other defendants agreed in October 2000 to settle
with the Department of Justice for disposal of DDT and PCBs on the ocean floor near
Los Angeles; terms of the settlement called for payments of $43 million for cleanup
activities and $30 million in natural resource damages ($73 million total), but federal and
state agencies sought $150 million at the start of the trial to cap the 17-square-mile area
• A partial settlement of $260 million was reached by the Department of Justice and
Atlantic Richfield Corp. in November 1998 for contamination from mining activities in
the Clark Fork River Basin, Montana; the suit was for $767 million when trial
commenced, and roughly $200 million in claims remain.
Issues. The controversy over natural resource damages has to do with (1) assessing and
valuing the injuries to the natural resource (also referred to as the measure of damages), (2)
the rebuttable presumption issue (who should bear the burden of proof), and (3) the related
question of record review vs. a new trial.
Measure of Damages. CERCLA does not require trustees to use a particular standard
or method for assessing natural resource monetary damages. It does, however, call for
standard procedures to be developed for all trustees to consider when assessing and valuing
the injuries to natural resources. The Department of the Interior promulgated the regulations
for land in 1986, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued the rules
for coastal and marine areas in 1996. As the law directed (42 U.S.C. 9651(c)), they issued
a Type A rule with standard procedures for simplified assessments that require minimal field
investigation, and a Type B rule with protocols for conducting assessments in more
complicated individual cases. The Type B rule is extensive and contains several valuation
7 GAO report. p. 5.
8 GAO report. p. 5.
methodologies, including contingent valuation, a controversial economic technique to provide
monetary values for goods, services, and public programs for which market data do not exist.
In a contingent valuation survey, respondents typically are asked how much they would
be willing to pay (in higher prices or in taxes) for a particular good or service. For example,
EPA used a contingent valuation survey to estimate the annual benefits of improving visibility
at the Grand Canyon by requiring an electric utility to install scrubbers at a cost of about $100
million annually. EPA’s survey estimated total annual benefits of $130-$250 million. The
utility responded with a contingent valuation survey of its own that showed benefits of only
$50 million. In another case, to determine the lost values caused by the Exxon Valdez oil
spill, the state of Alaska used a contingent valuation survey that asked how much respondents
would be willing to pay in additional taxes to ensure that such an oil spill would not recur
within the next 10 years. The state’s survey arrived at a median value of $31 per household,
or $2.8 billion ($31 times an adjusted number of U.S. households). All three of these studies
were subject to criticism by other reviewers.9
Some experts assert that, “The results of such surveys can always be questioned, because
of the array of possible measurement errors and biases, because of empirical evidence
challenging their reliability and validity, and because of incompatibility with market-based use10
values.” Proponents of the technique contend that the methodology is theoretically valid,
and that ignoring nonuse values would understate total damages. Opponents argue that
because the data collected by contingent valuation surveys are not comparable to traditional
measures of price and volume, and because the methodology itself is suspect, the results will
always be open to charges of being arbitrary. They also argue that lost use and nonuse
damages should not be compensated because the purpose of NRD is only to restore the
environment, and the payments should go to government entities, not to individuals who
experienced the loss.
This issue has proven particularly challenging in the CERCLA reauthorization debate.
After the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ended its extensive deliberations
of S. 1090 in the first session of the 106th Congress, Senators John Chafee and Bob Smith,
the past and current chairmen, introduced S. 1537 which incorporated changes to the law’s
NRD provisions. However, the committee did not return to its consideration of Superfund.
The measure of damages under S. 1537 included the reasonable costs of (1) restoring,
replacing, or acquiring the equivalent of the injured or lost natural resource to reinstate its
human uses and environmental functions; (2) providing a substantially equivalent resource
during the period of any interim lost use to the extent that a substitute resource is not
reasonably available; and (3) assessing the damages. The bill language eliminated recovery
of damages for nonuse values. Instead, it stated that “Where a unique resource has been
9 CRS Report RL30242, Natural Resources: Assessing Nonmarket Values through Contingent
Valuation, p. 9.
10 Ibid., p. i. For discussions of these difficulties see Peter A. Diamond et al., “Does Contingent
Valuation Measure Preferences? Experimental Evidence,” and William H. Desvousges et al.,
“Measuring Natural Resource Damages with Contingent Valuation: Tests of Validity and Reliability,”
both in Contingent Valuation: A Critical Assessment, ed. J.A. Hausman (Amsterdam: North Holland,
1993). Also see Daniel Kahneman and Jack L. Knetsch, “Valuing Public Goods: The Purchase of
Moral Satisfaction,” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, v. 22 (1922): 57-70.
destroyed, lost, or cannot be restored, the measure of damages may include the reasonable
costs of expediting or enhancing the restoration of appropriate substitute resources” (sec.
1090, and in response to negotiations, but they were insufficient to bring the committee back
to formal consideration of Superfund.
Rebuttable Presumption. The natural resource trustees (the federal, state, and tribal
agencies with responsibility for the resources in question) are not required to use NOAA’s
and Interior’s damage assessment rules, but if they do, CERCLA gives them a presumption
of correctness – a “rebuttable presumption” – if the case goes to administrative hearing or
court. (42 U.S.C. 9607(f)(2)(C)). The rebuttable presumption moves the burden of proof to
the defendants (those against whom a claim is made) to show that the trustees and the damage
assessment they performed is somehow in error or otherwise lacking. This differs from
typical court proceedings, and industry groups feel it imposes an unfair handicap on them.
The other side of the argument is that the presumption can be used to promote fairness or to
pursue policy goals, such as “to correct the imbalance resulting from one party’s superior
access to the evidence, to facilitate the prompt resolution of claims, and to favor certain
claims for social and economic reasons.”11 Speeding matters up also conserves financial
resources which could be used to repair the injured resources.12
Record Review versus De Novo Review. An issue related to the rebuttable presumption
question, and one that has been litigated inconclusively is whether the defendants challenging
the trustees’ case in court are limited to arguing the record that the trustees have assembled,
or whether the case should be argued de novo. Industry groups feel record review is
prejudicial against them, and denies them a chance to present their evidence in their own way.
They argue it thus denies them fair judicial hearing. They want to be able to start fresh in the
court proceeding and present their own evidence in their defense. The trustees’ perspective,
however, is that the defendants have ample opportunity to present their arguments during
comment periods provided by the DOI and NOAA rules. To start over from the beginning
in court, they argue, is a burden that is both time consuming and expensive.
Conclusion. Changing CERCLA’s NRD language has become a priority for industry
groups but the likelihood of near-term amendment is not high. Trustee agencies, who serve
as stewards on behalf of the public, argue that those responsible for injuries to natural
resources should bear the cost of restoring or replacing them, and that the costs should
incorporate those values which do not have a market price. The rebuttable presumption and
record review are part of the NRD structure that Congress created in enacting CERCLA, they
say. The advocates of change argue that the current system is unfair and places them at great
financial risk. The nature of the issue makes it difficult to find a middle ground, and a rewrite
might have to be in the context of a full Superfund reauthorization bill where there could be
opportunities for negotiation and compromise.
11 Frederick R. Anderson. “Natural Resource Damages, Superfund, and the Courts,” Environmental
Affairs, v. 16, p. 436. 1989. Quoted in Suellen Keiner. “Implications of Proposed CERCLA
Reforms for Recoveries of Natural Resource Damages,” Environmental Law Review, v. 28, p. 10090.
12 For additional discussion of rebuttable presumptions, see Miriam Montesinos, “It May Be Silly, But
It’s an Answer: The Need to Accept Contingent Valuation Methodology in Natural Reource Damage
Assessments,” Ecology Law Quarterly, v. 26 (1999), no. 1, p. 75-78.