(CN) – Companies that may have contributed to groundwater contamination in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Basin can oppose settlements with the government on cleanup costs, even if they chose not to settle, the 9th Circuit ruled, addressing an issue that has split the federal courts.
A three-judge panel in Pasadena joined the 8th and 10th Circuits in ruling that potential polluters who opt out of the settlements on cleanup costs can oppose settlements being negotiated by those who do decide to settle.
Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, non-settling parties are responsible for any cleanup costs not paid by those who choose to settle.
After identifying a contaminated site, the Environmental Protection Agency and other state agencies negotiate with potential pollution contributors to allocate costs equitably. The parties can also seek contributions from one another to share responsibility evenly.
In 2007, the costs for cleaning up an 8 square-mile unit in South El Monte had risen to $87 million after state agencies found in 1979 that the unit contained “volatile organic compounds.”
Chief U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins in Los Angeles refused to let the non-settling potential polluters intervene in a consent decree issued by the EPA. She entered the consent decree the next day.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit ruled that the interests of the non-settling parties “are not adequately represented” by the settling parties.
Judge William Fletcher concluded that the non-settling parties have a right to intervene to protect their interests.