U.S. Supreme Court Preserves Potential State Court Superfund Site Claims – But Remedial Actions Requires EPA Approval

Environmental Law  

April 21, 2020

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a near unanimous decision in Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian which involves a group of landowners’ attempt to fashion their own clean-up remedies under state law at a Superfund site under U.S. EPA’s CERCLA authority. The Court found that the landowners could bring their state law claims in state court, but that the landowners must get EPA approval to take remedial action on their properties. Section § 113(b) of CERCLA, which states that “the United States district courts shall have exclusive original jurisdiction over all controversies arising under this chapter,” still allows claims to proceed under Montana (state) law. In writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts noted “[the Act] does not displace state court jurisdiction over claims brought under other sources of law.” However, the Court held that the landowners are considered PRPs under CERCLA, and are consequently required to obtain EPA approval to take remedial action on their properties, including actions that would meet more stringent clean up levels. Additionally, the Court concluded that such an interpretation reflects CERCLA’s purpose of implementing a single, carefully planned clean-up effort rather than a myriad of competing ones. Consequently, it appears that landowners at Superfund sites must first obtain EPA’s approval of any remedial actions beyond those encompassed by EPA’s approved remedy before they can seek damages in state court.

For additional background on this case, please see our previous Legal Alert from December 2, 2019.

If you have questions regarding the implications of this decision, please contact Steve Goldberg, Bob Soran, or Monica Browner.