Supreme Court Allows “PRP” Landowners to Bring State Common Law Claims at Superfund Cleanup Site

April 23, 2020 | Insights

By Dan Vineyard, Lindsey Moorhead, & Carolyn Campion

In Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian, the United States Supreme Court recently held that a state court had jurisdiction over landowners’ state common law claims against Atlantic Richfield Company related to the Anaconda Smelter Superfund Site near Butte, Montana. The landowners owned property within the Anaconda Site and sought restoration damages and other relief pertaining to releases at and from the Site.

The Court also held that the landowners were potentially responsible parties (PRPs) under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—even though the six-year statute of limitations had run so as to time-bar CERCLA claims for remedial costs. Under CERCLA § 122(e)(6), the landowners needed approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take remedial action pertaining to their state law claims.

As background, Atlantic Richfield Company (the current owner of the former smelting operation) has worked with EPA pursuant to a consent decree for decades to cleanup approximately 300 square miles of property contaminated with arsenic and lead. Atlantic Richfield has spent roughly $450 million on cleanup thus far, and remediation is expected to continue through 2025.

In 2008, landowners filed a lawsuit against Atlantic Richfield in Montana state court, asserting claims for trespass, nuisance, and strict liability. The landowners also proposed a cleanup plan that exceeded EPA’s own. The Montana Supreme Court held that (i) Montana state courts had jurisdiction over the landowners’ claims and (ii) the landowners were not potentially responsible parties because they had never been treated as such in the entire history of the Site. Atlantic Richfield appealed.

In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the United States Supreme Court held that even though CERCLA § 113(b) deprives states courts of jurisdiction over cases “arising under” the federal law, CERCLA allows both federal and state courts to hear state law claims challenging Superfund cleanups. The Court also held that the Montana Supreme Court erred by holding that the landowners were not potentially responsible parties under CERCLA. Looking to the first category of covered persons in CERCLA § 107(a), any “owner” of a facility (defined to include any area where hazardous waste has come to be located) is a potentially responsible party. Because the landowners met this definition, they were required to obtain authorization from EPA in order to take any remedial action on their property pursuant to CERCLA § 122(e)(6).

This case demonstrates that state law claims can be a viable form of recovery of damages against potentially responsible parties at Superfund cleanup sites. It also affords EPA the ultimate decision making authority when it comes to site remediation. Further, it clarifies that a party who is an owner by definition is still a “PRP” regardless of whether it was pursued under CERCLA during the statute of limitations.

Meet Dan

Daniel E. Vineyard is a recognized authority on CERCLA/Superfund and State cleanups. Dan has been lead counsel in more than 30 CERCLA cost recovery or contribution cases in federal courts around the country, has represented clients at numerous Superfund sites and in each EPA region, and counsels clients on environmental provisions in commercial transactions and property sales or purchases, due diligence, audits, and the handling of hazardous wastes. In addition, Dan is a certified mediator and has successfully mediated numerous matters to resolution.

Meet Lindsey

Lindsey C. Moorhead represents clients participating in site cleanup and remediation projects, including cost recovery and contribution actions, regulatory enforcement actions, and representation of potentially responsible parties (PRP). Lindsey has negotiated consent decrees and administrative settlement agreements on behalf of PRPs with the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice and defended governmental enforcement actions and claims involving natural resource damage, personal injury and property damage, and cost-recovery and indemnification.

Meet Carolyn

Carolyn Campion counsels clients on CERCLA, RCRA and their state analogs. She also represents clients in litigation involving these federal statutes and other environmental matters. In addition, Carolyn has experience bringing cost recovery actions, representing clients in business litigation, and in handling pipeline matters.

The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.