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U.S. Supreme Court Rules CERCLA Does Not Preclude State Law Claims 
U.S. Supreme Court Rules CERCLA Does Not Preclude State Law Claims 

On April 20, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in the Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian et al. matter, finding that federal law under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) does not preempt suits under state law for remedial work beyond what is required under the Act.  

The case specifically involves the Anaconda Co. Smelter Superfund site, the location of a copper smelting operation. Atlantic Richfield, who purchased the property, has been working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remediate the site. Almost 100 landowners brought suit in Montana state court against Atlantic Richfield, claiming that harmful amounts of heavy metals remain in the soil and seeking funding for additional restoration work.

In a split decision, the Supreme Court found that CERCLA does not preclude the landowners’ right to assert state law claims that do not arise under CERCLA (i.e., claims such as nuisance or trespass). Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, indicated that “The act does not strip the Montana courts of jurisdiction over this lawsuit. It deprives state courts of jurisdiction over claims brought under the Act. But it does not displace state court jurisdiction over claims brought under other sources of law.”

However, the Supreme Court further held that the landowners can only pursue these claims with the EPA’s blessing. Specifically, the Court found that Section 122(e)(6) of CERCLA requires potentially responsible parties to obtain EPA approval before conducting a remedial action. As the landowners were potentially responsible parties, they needed to seek EPA approval of their restoration plan. Since the landowners did not seek this approval, they could not seek restoration damages from Atlantic Richfield under Montana law.

The decision may introduce new opportunities for challenges to CERCLA clean ups; if the EPA approves, these state law challenges may increase the remediation required of and agreed to by parties under the Act. As a result, this decision may impact how future settlements and agreements are structured between performing parties and the EPA, in an attempt by settling parties to diminish the possibility of challenge from state suits.

  • Agnes  Antonian
    Partner

    As Chair of Connell Foley's Environmental Law practice group, Agnes Antonian draws on her engineering background to address a broad range of complex environmental litigation and land use matters. Her environmental litigation ...

  • Christina  Sartorio Ku
    Associate

    Christina Sartorio Ku practices in Connell Foley’s Environmental Law group, where she applies a background in biological sciences and environmental regulation to a wide range of complex environmental matters. In particular ...

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