Federal hazardous waste regulation and cleanup programs suffer from poor prioritization, insufficient flexibility, high costs, and questionable benefits. Many of these problems are a result of excessive regulatory centralization. With the enactment of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and Comprehensive Emergency Response, Cleanup and Liability Act (CERCLA, aka "Superfund") Congress centralized environmental policy questions that are, in many respects, inherently local in nature. This produced a "mismatch" between those jurisdictions with regulatory primacy and the nature of the environmental problems at issue.

Contamination of soil and groundwater are site-specific, rarely crossing state lines. Due to the local nature of hazardous waste problems, state governments should be given the opportunity to assume leadership of hazardous waste regulation and cleanup. While the federal government has an important role to play in the regulation and management of hazardous wastes, this role requires more targeted and specialized efforts than the adoption and maintenance of a comprehensive cradle-to-grave regulatory system and a large scale waste site cleanup program that impose federal standards on local communities. Through technical guidance federal agencies can inform local waste management and cleanup decisions without imposing uniform federal standards that fit few jurisdictions well. With federal efforts confined to those areas in which the federal government possesses a comparative advantage, state governments will be freed to reassume leadership in hazardous waste policy and tailor state policies to local needs and concerns. This, in turn, could foster greater recognition of and accountability for the trade-offs inherent in hazardous waste policy, and a more justifiable regulatory regime for hazardous waste.


Hazardous waste regulation, RCRA, CERCLA, Superfund, EPA, cooperative federalism, ecological forbearance, regulatory primacy, federal role of waste management

Publication Date


Document Type


Place of Original Publication

New York University Environmental Law Journal

Publication Information

17 New York University Environmental Law Journal 724 (2008)


COinS Jonathan H. Adler Faculty Bio