On April 20, 2020, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 7-2, held that owners of polluted land within designated Superfund sites are “potentially responsible parties” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Dozens of Montana landowners sued Atlantic Richfield for trespass and nuisance over its dumping of tons of heavy metals, arsenic, and lead on their properties—pollution which led EPA to designate a 300 square mile area as a Superfund site. In addition to compensation, the landowners sought remediation damages to pay for a cleanup beyond that previously ordered by EPA. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, concluded that the landowners’ case cannot proceed until they first obtain EPA approval for their cleanup plan. That narrow holding sidestepped the thornier issue, whether CERCLA preempts the landowners’ state common law claims. Justices Gorsuch and Thomas dissented, arguing that the majority’s interpretation is inconsistent with the statute’s text, undermines federalism and property rights, and tees up difficult constitutional questions.
To discuss the case, we have Jonathan Wood, Senior Attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation.
As always, the Federalist Society takes no particular legal or public policy positions. All opinions expressed are those of the speakers.