Supreme Court Revives Guam Claim Over Dump Started by US

Facing a $160 million cleanup bill, Guam got a big win Monday in its fight to have the United States take responsibility for a “280-foot mountain of trash” built by the U.S. Navy in the 1940s.

(Image courtesy of the Guam Environmental Protection Agency via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a unanimous decision on Monday, the Supreme Court breathed new life into a suit Guam brought against the United States over a massive waste site leaking toxic chemicals into the Pacific Ocean.

“We are thrilled with the Court’s decision in favor of Guam today, which paves the way for the United States to pay its fair share for the cleanup of the Ordot Dump,” Gregory Garre, an attorney for Guam with the firm Latham & Watkins, said Monday.

Though the tiny Pacific Island territory closed the Ordot Landfill in 2011 as part of a $160 million settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it claimed that it should not have to foot the bill alone as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act contains a provision for settling parties to seek contribution from other responsible parties.

Indeed it was the U.S. Navy that created the dump that would become, as the D.C. Circuit quoted last year, a “280-foot mountain of trash.” Guam did take over the landfill when the U.S. ceded control of it, but prior to that, the Navy had dumped toxic military waste there for decades.

The D.C. Circuit threw out Guam’s suit, saying that Guam had waited too long to pursue its claims, but the Supreme Court was unanimous in reversing Monday.

“The most natural reading of §113(f )(3)(B) is that a party may seek contribution under CERCLA only after settling a CERCLA-specific liability,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the court. 

With the Supreme Court remanding the issue back to a lower court, Guam can now pursue U.S. payments under CERCLA. Shouldering the cost alone would be unduly difficult for the small island, as the bill exceeds the combined annual budget of its health, social services, police, fire, public works, solid waste and environmental departments.

“This is a great win for Guam,” attorney Joseph Diedrich said in an interview. “But it extends much further than Guam’s situation.”

Diedrich represents 24 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands in support of Guam, each with its own contaminated waste sites. He says that today’s decision makes it harder for the United States to evade liability to clean up these sites.

“Guam’s contaminated site is far from unique; there are well over 100 contaminated sites around the country — most often from military activity,” Diedrich said. “This allows for states to use their own legal regimes without worrying if CERCLA displaces state law standards.

“I found it encouraging that this case was unifying, both in its litigation and its outcomes,” Diedrich continued. “It shows that when there are legal principles and statutory interpretations that are straightforward, there’s no need for undue political division.”

Acting U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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