Justices Take Up Limits on Toxic Cleanup Lawsuits

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court agreed Monday to review a case that would deem the owner of a Superfund site a responsible party for pollution damages and require it to fork out funding for toxic cleanups beyond what is mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The case was brought by a group of Montana landowners with property bordering a site operated by the Atlantic Richfield Company, which was polluted by a now dilapidated copper smelter. They sued the company in state court, seeking state-law restoration damages.

The smelter stopped operating in 1980, leaving the surrounding land and water laced with arsenic and lead. Within three years, the Environmental Protection Agency already deemed the contaminated land a federal Superfund site under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA.

The law is designed to ensure parties the agency determines as responsible for contaminating sites with pollutants pay up to remove the waste.

But property owners neighboring the polluted site said it was not enough and are suing the Atlantic Richfield Company — better known as ARCO, and owned by oil and gas giant BP – for additional restoration damages, raising the question of whether ARCO is responsible under both state and federal law.

Over the last 35 years, the company has worked with the EPA on the Montana Anaconda Smelter Superfund site at the cost of approximately $470 million.

But the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the private landowners may bring additional restoration claims under state law requiring the company to pay for remedies that could be at odds with the EPA’s designated cleanup strategies.

ARCO appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the outcome of the lawsuit would have been different had it been filed in federal court in Montana, subject to Ninth Circuit precedent.

In its petition asking the justices to review the case, ARCO described the Montana property owners’ demands as “madness.”

According to the petition, the Montana court’s decision to allow demands for additional remedies will create confusion and delay, requiring companies to undertake costly restoration methods including removing soil, digging trenches and erecting barriers that the EPA has not determined as critical to the cleanup.

“The decision permits juries to order ‘restoration’ remedies affecting tens of thousands of people even where EPA concludes those remedies would harm the environment,” the petition states. “The decision permits countless landowners to undertake remedial efforts on their own without consulting EPA.”

Per its custom, the Supreme Court did not comment Monday on its decision to take up the case.

Attorneys for the Montana property owners and ARCO did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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