May 25, 2021
Decided May 24, 2021
Guam v. United States, No. 20-382
Yesterday, the Supreme Court held 9-0 that only the resolution of CERCLA-specific liability could give rise to a contribution claim under the Superfund statute. The Court’s decision revives Guam’s cost recovery action against the U.S. Navy for the cleanup of hazardous waste on the island.
Section 113(f)(3)(B) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) allows a party to seek contribution from other responsible parties for costs incurred in cleaning up a contaminated site. The provision states that “[a] person who has resolved its liability to the United States … in an administrative or judicially approved settlement” may bring a contribution claim for some or all of the costs of a “response action” under that settlement, no later than threeyears after the settlement is entered. 42 U.S.C. § 9613(f)(3)(B).
Guam sued the United States to recover response costs it spent remediating the Ordot Dump, a landfill containing hazardous waste formerly used by the U.S. Navy. The D.C. Circuit agreed with the United States that Guam’s suit was time-barred under Section 113(f)(3)(B)’s three-year statute of limitations, since Guam’s cleanup around the Ordot Dump was part of its obligations under a 2004 consent decree for Clean Water Act violations. The court reasoned that, although the consent decree did not involve any CERCLA claims and resolved liability only under the Clean Water Act, it still gave rise to, and started the clock for, a contribution claim within the meaning of Section 113(f)(3)(B), which expired in 2007.
Whether a non-CERCLA settlement can give rise to a contribution action under Section 113(f)(3)(B).
No. A settlement must resolve a CERCLA liability to trigger Section 113(f)(3)(B)’s contribution right.
“The most natural reading of [CERCLA] § 113(f)(3)(B) is that a party may seek contribution under CERCLA only after settling a CERCLA-specific liability.”
Justice Thomas, writing for the Court
What It Means:
The Court’s opinion is available here.
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