Superfund Special Accounts
Special accounts are an important part of the Superfund program and play a critical role in achieving cleanup of contaminated sites nationwide.
The Agency's goal for the establishment and use of special accounts is to provide ready access to potentially responsible party (PRP) cleanup dollars for sites where future response work remains, which preserves resources from the Superfund Trust Fund for sites without viable PRPs.
Special accounts are funded entirely with money received from PRPs, and not with funds provided by Congress through the Superfund Trust Fund appropriation. EPA retains money received through settlements with PRPs in these site-specific accounts to conduct planned future cleanup work at the site based on the terms of the settlement agreement.
More than $7.9 billion has been made available in special accounts through the deposit of funds from PRP settlements and interest earned. Approximately $4.5 billion of that amount has been spent on Superfund site cleanups. The balance of $3.4 billion is planned to be used for ongoing or future Superfund cleanup work.
EPA policy and guidance documents on special accounts are available from the special accounts category of the Superfund cleanup policy and guidance document database.
On this page:
- What are Special Accounts?
- How are Special Accounts Used?
- Status of Special Accounts
- Managing Special Accounts
- External Reviews of Special Accounts
What are Special Accounts?
Special Accounts are PRP-funded, site-specific, interest-bearing accounts housed within Superfund’s "Hazardous Substances Superfund (Trust Fund)." The Superfund statute authorizes EPA to hold and use funds received in settlement with a PRP to carry out that settlement agreement. EPA uses the money deposited in special accounts for cleanup and enforcement activities at the site for which it received the money.
EPA policy is that funds from a settlement should be deposited into a special account only if future work remains at that site. The funds received in settlement can be money the PRP pays for future work at the site or to reimburse EPA for its previous costs at the site. The special account is established as a sub-account within the Superfund Trust Fund – a "special" account.
EPA often establishes special accounts when certain PRPs "cash out" their liability at a site rather than perform the cleanup work. EPA uses special account funds at the site for which the payment was made, and the agreement specifies how the money can be used. For this reason, special accounts are often referred to as "site-specific special accounts."
Special accounts provide three principal benefits:
- Serve as a settlement incentive for potentially responsible parties to perform work;
- Preserve appropriated resources for use at sites with no viable potentially responsible parties; and
- Complete more Superfund response work by maximizing both appropriated and special account funds.
How are Special Accounts Used?
Through use of special accounts, EPA is pursuing its "enforcement first" policy ensuring responsible parties pay for cleanup, so that the Superfund Trust Fund and other taxpayer resources are conserved for sites where no viable PRPs exist. As a result, special accounts not only provide site-specific cleanup funds, but also incentivize responsible parties to perform work, preserving scarce government resources.
In accordance with guidance, EPA may use the funds from special accounts
- to partially reimburse parties performing work at the site,
- to pay for EPA’s future cleanup related costs at the site,
- to pay for EPA’s past cleanup related costs at the site, or
- for other needs at the site specified in the settlement agreement.
Payments from PRPs not deposited into special accounts are deposited directly into the Superfund Trust Fund for future appropriation by Congress.
EPA is achieving successful cleanups at sites across the country with special account funds, as demonstrated by these examples.
Davis Liquid Waste Site in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Settlement with potentially responsible parties at the site will accomplish work that EPA would otherwise have had to conduct itself. The cleanup is estimated to cost $13.7 million dollars. Under the settlement, EPA will reimburse the parties up to $6.5 million of this amount, in recognition of the costs and site liabilities attributable to other parties who are not part of this settlement. In using this approach, EPA is ensuring that the site work is accomplished, while conserving funds that it would have otherwise spent conducting the work on its own. More information on the Davis Liquid Waste Site.
Sharon Steel Corporation Site in Lake County, Utah. Settlements with potentially responsible parties at the site financed the entire $60 million cleanup. Because of the special account, EPA avoided spending Trust Fund dollars (and state funds) at that site. The remaining expense for operation and maintenance is being performed by the State of Utah, but financed from the special account. More information on the Sharon Steel Corporation Site.
American Chemical Services Site in Griffith, Indiana. EPA agreed to provide over $20 million to a group of potentially responsible parties performing a $65 million cleanup. After ensuring that the responsible parties would not receive any undue benefit, EPA offered special account funds received in earlier settlements as an incentive to parties that were willing to perform more than their fair share of the cleanup. More information on American Chemical Services Site.
New Bedford Harbor Site in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In September 2013, the EPA placed $366.25 million in a site specific special account for the Site pursuant to a landmark cash-out settlement with AVX Corp.. Prior to the availability of the settlement funds, the EPA had estimated that the remaining work at the Site would take another 40 years to complete, since the EPA typically had only been able to allocate $15 million per year for this Site from annually appropriated funds. With the special account funding, the New Bedford Harbor Superfund cleanup will be greatly accelerated and is expected to be substantially completed within 5 to 7 years from construction contract award (awarded Fall 2016). Since 2014, EPA has dredged approximately 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, as opposed to the approximately 20,000 cubic yards/year it typically funded under the $15 million/year funding stream in the past. More information on New Bedford Harbor Site.
Pacific Sound Resources Site in Seattle, Washington. Approximately $17 million in settlement dollars has been used to fund contaminated site cleanup and operation and maintenance to date. More information on Pacific Sound Resources Site.
Status of Special Accounts
The number of special accounts, and the amount of funds available in them, has grown over the last several years due to the success of EPA’s enforcement program in reaching settlement with PRPs and due to the continuing financial needs at many of EPA’s Superfund sites.
In fiscal year (FY) 2019, EPA
- deposited about $374.4 million into special accounts,
- disbursed or obligated approximately $236.7 million for response work,
- reimbursed itself for approximately $13.3 million worth of past cleanup related costs at sites,
- closed 21 special accounts, and
- transferred $2.8 million of special account receipts to the Superfund Trust Fund.
From FY 1990 through FY 2019, EPA
- created approximately 1,493 special accounts,
- deposited over $7.4 billion into special accounts,
- earned more than $585.2 million in interest on its special accounts,
- for a total of $7.9 billion,
- disbursed or obligated $4.0 billion for response work,
- reimbursed itself for approximately $438.9 million worth of past cleanup related costs at sites,
- closed 389 special accounts, and
- transferred over $35.8 million of special account receipts to the Superfund Trust Fund.
Managing Special Accounts
As the number of special accounts has grown so has the importance of appropriate management controls. EPA has taken the following positive steps to improve the management of special accounts.
Special Accounts Senior Management Committee
Established in January 2009, the Special Accounts Senior Management Committee (SASMC) is responsible for EPA’s national oversight and management of special accounts. Through the SASMC, EPA ensures appropriate management, transparency, and accountability among the Regions and the Headquarters offices involved with special accounts. Under its Charter, the SASMC meets at least twice a year to discuss the status of special accounts and special accounts management topics, and issues an annual report to EPA senior management of activities undertaken to manager special accounts.
Special Accounts Management Strategy
The Senior Management Committee is charged with overseeing the implementation of the Superfund Special Accounts Management Strategy. The Strategy focuses on four main areas:
- Coordination and Transparency;
- Special Account Use and Planning Efforts;
- Monitoring Special Accounts; and
- Regional Support, Guidance and Training.
The strategy is updated every three years. The updated Special Accounts Management Strategy for 2019-2021 was issued on May 9, 2019.
Plans for Using Special Accounts
At the beginning of each year and mid-year, EPA Headquarters and the Regions review special account available balances and update how the special account will support future cleanup work at the site. A summary of the plans are provided to the Special Accounts Senior Management Committee to keep them informed of the status of special account numbers, balances, and uses.
The status and planning for special accounts is also summarized in EPA’s annual Congressional Justification document sent annually to Congress as part of the budget process. Information on current special account data is available on EPA's Planning, Budget and Results website.
External Reviews of Special Accounts
In February 2006, EPA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report titled EPA Can Better Manage Superfund Resources (PDF)(42 pp, 483 K, About PDF). The report included recommendations about the use and management of special accounts. In response, EPA agreed to continue to improve its ongoing efforts to monitor the use of special accounts and implement special account guidance.
In March 2009, EPA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report titled Improved Management of Superfund Special Accounts Will Make More Funds Available for Clean-ups (PDF)(61 pp, 249 K, About PDF). The report provided a number of recommendations, including EPA designating a central management and action official for Superfund special accounts, all of which EPA has implemented.
In January 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report titled Status of EPA’s Efforts to Improve Its Management and Oversight of Special Accounts. The report found that EPA has implemented processes and policies to better monitor and manage special accounts and did not provide any recommendations to EPA.
Learn More: Complying with Superfund cleanup agreements and orders