Environmental Law & LitigationEnvironmental Protection Laws, CERCLA, Supreme Court: Atlantic Richfield Co. vs. Christian Decision

April 22, 20200

A colleague pointed out this new U.S. Supreme Court decision. Hot off the presses, this decision is for a case related to environmental protection laws. Specifically, the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability and Act, also known as CERCLA or Superfund. To understand the decision, this blog post will discuss CERCLA, a summary of the case and the holding, and how the decision may impact future Superfund litigation.

CERCLA’s Place in Federal Law

CERCLA is one of several environmental protection laws spawned by the environmental movements of the 1970s. It was enacted to encourage and speed up expensive environmental cleanups by spreading liability amongst all potentially responsible parties (PRPs). CERCLA demands that if you were involved at all in the “release” of any listed hazardous substances or materials at an EPA-designated Superfund site, then you are on the hook to help pay for the cleanup of that site. This liability applies if you own the site, you disposed of or contracted/arranged for disposal at the site, or you took over ownership of the site. EPA enforces many environmental protection laws, here designating sites, identifying PRPs, and creating cleanup plans with the PRPs’ input.

Designating Atlantic Richfield Co.’s Anaconda Smelter as a Superfund Site

What does this process look like in practice? Picture it: Montana’s Anaconda Smelter. The Smelter was most recently owned by Atlantic Richfield Co., which ceased operations and demolished its buildings in 1980. This was the same year that Congress enacted CERCLA.

Like many dangerous jobs of the time, employment was dominated by recent immigrants to the United States, the poor, and the less educated. As an aside, most environmental protection laws help to remedy disproportionate effects on certain populations, like in this case. In 1983, the EPA designated a 300 square mile area around the Smelter as a Superfund site due to the presence of high levels of toxic materials on the site. Atlantic Richfield Co. was named one of the PRPs for this site, liable to pay in whole or in part for the cleanup.

The Supreme Court Weighs in on CERCLA

Now let’s get to the case. We are talking about Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian, U.S., No. 17-1498 (April 20, 2020). Almost 100 landowners brought a lawsuit against the company. The civil action was based on common law nuisance, trespass, and strict liability. The claims sought, among other things, restoration damages to further rehabilitate the Smelter site. These damages would have been in addition to those which the EPA determined were necessary under CERCLA. The Supreme Court had to decide whether CERCLA requires the landowners to seek EPA approval for the additional cleanup.

In a major win for the company, and for the EPA’s authority, the Court held that the landowners are PRPs and must seek the EPA’s approval for cleanup plans. The Court noted that Atlantic Richfield Co. can still be liable under Montana law for compensatory damages like loss of use and enjoyment of property and diminished value. However, the Court held that the claims for restoration damages go beyond what federal environmental protection laws like CERCLA require.

Many were concerned that this last part of the decision might really change the status quo of CERCLA, and a flood of similar lawsuits would come from landowners around the country. Others argue that the decision affects property rights, which the Court acknowledged during oral arguments, despite its decision. Future litigation is likely forthcoming on the common law state claims. But, for CERCLA, the Court decision reinforces EPA’s sole authority to control Superfund site cleanups.

If you receive a letter from EPA stating that you are a PRP for a specific Superfund site, or from RIDEM for similar environmental protection laws, contact our office to discuss your options in response. Desautel Browning has decades of experience dealing with these cases on behalf of PRPs and formerly representing state and federal government, and we can help you through the process. Call us today at 401.477.0023.

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