April 20, 2020
Decided April 20, 2020
Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian, et al. No. 17-1498
Today, the Supreme Court held 7-2 that landowners at Superfund toxic waste sites must obtain EPA approval before seeking damages under state law for cleanup beyond what EPA has ordered.
In the 1970s, Atlantic Richfield purchased a now-defunct copper-smelting operation in Montana and has since spent more than $450 million cleaning up the site under a cleanup plan created by the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) pursuant to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”).
In 2008, nearby private landowners filed state-law claims against Atlantic Richfield in Montana state court, seeking around $50 million in “restoration damages” to pay for cleanup above and beyond what EPA had ordered. Atlantic Richfield argued that CERCLA bars the restoration-damages claims for three reasons: (1) the landowners’ claims are, in effect, a challenge to EPA’s plan and CERCLA Section 113 strips state courts of jurisdiction over such claims; (2) the landowners are “potentially responsible parties” under CERCLA § 122 who must get EPA approval for any remedial action; and (3) CERCLA preempts such state-law claims. The Montana Supreme Court rejected each of Atlantic Richfield’s arguments.
(1) Is a state-law claim for restoration damages in state court—seeking cleanup remedies that conflict with EPA-ordered remedies—a “challenge” to EPA’s cleanup plan that is jurisdictionally barred by CERCLA Section 113? (2) Is a landowner at a Superfund site a “potentially responsible party” that must seek EPA’s approval under CERCLA Section 122 before engaging in remedial action??
(1) No. CERCLA Section 113 strips state courts of jurisdiction only over claims brought under CERCLA, not those brought under state law.
(2) Yes. The landowners are potentially responsible parties because hazardous substances have “come to be located” on their properties. Thus, under CERCLA Section 122, the landowners cannot take “remedial action” on their lands without EPA approval.
“Interpreting ‘potentially responsible parties’ to include owners of polluted property . . . ensure[s] the careful development of a single EPA-led cleanup effort rather than tens of thousands of competing individual ones.”
Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court
What It Means:
The Court’s opinion is available here.
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