Jon Cannon

Adaptive Management in Superfund: Thinking like a Contaminated Site

NYU Environmental Law Journal


Over the last three decades adaptive management has emerged as one of the most promising innovations in natural resource management and environmental regulation. Yet the possible benefits of this approach for Superfund, which is among the nation’s most expensive and controversial environmental programs, have not been comprehensively explored. A 2003 study by the National Research Council (NRC) represented the first serious effort to apply adaptive management principles to cleanup of contaminated sites, with specific attention to contaminated Navy facilities under Superfund, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and state regulatory statutes (NRC 2003; NRC et al. 2003). This chapter examines adaptive management for Superfund as a whole, including the privately owned sites that predominate within the Superfund universe. It elaborates the principles of adaptive management, explains how these principles might work within the legal and policy framework of Superfund, and explores their implications for managing individual Superfund sites as well as for administering the entire inventory of these sites. In the process, it sheds further light on the potential usefulness of adaptive management, which was developed for management of complex natural ecosystems, for a program dealing with local site contamination in largely urban settings.


Jonathan Z. Cannon, Adaptive Management in Superfund: Thinking like a Contaminated Site, 13 NYU Environmental Law Journal 561-612 (2005).

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