CERCLA Rights to Sue for Clean Up Costs Reinstated

In the case of United States v. Atlantic Research Corporation, the Supreme Court ruled that potentially responsible parties (PRPs) that voluntarily clean up contaminated sites may sue other PRPs to recover their cleanup costs under section 107 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The reinstatement of this right comes after many years of federal court battles over the issues of authority and methodology for recovering cleanup costs from other PRPs.

When CERCLA was originally enacted, the courts interpreted section 107(a) as providing a method for PRPs to recover their costs from other PRPs. However, in 1986, Congress enacted the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA). Section 113(f) of this law outlined explicit means for PRPs to pursue contribution from other PRPs. After the enactment of SARA, some federal courts held that section 113 was the only remedy for cleanup cost recovery. Other courts prevented PRPs from suing under section 107 of CERCLA and expanded section 113 to allow PRPs’ contributions without the need for a suit.

Section 107 makes PRPs liable for “all costs of removal or remedial action incurred by the United States Government or a State or an Indian tribe” and “any other necessary costs of response incurred by any other person.” In Atlantic Research, the United States argued that the section 107 use of “any other person” was limited to suits brought by “non-PRPs.”  That meant that Atlantic Research, a PRP, was barred from filing suit. The Supreme Court held that all the words of the statute must be “read as a whole.” They added that using the United States’ reading of the language would decrease the number of plaintiffs permitted to sue to almost zero, which would make Section 107 worthless.

Section 113 prohibits claims against PRPs who have satisfied their liability to the United States or a state in an administrative or court approved settlement. In Atlantic Research, the United States argued that permitting PRPs to seek recovery under section 107 negates the protection offered to PRPs who have settled under section 113. The Supreme Court conceded this. However, the Court stated that this “supposed loophole” would not discourage settlements because district courts would take into account any earlier settlements when assigning the level of liability to the various PRPs involved.

The Supreme Court also ruled that section 107 and 113 provide two “clearly distinct” remedies. Section 107 permits PRPs to recover cleanup costs they have incurred from other PRPs. A PRP that has satisfied a settlement agreement or court judgment under CERCLA may pursue contribution from other PRPs through section 113. The Court made clear that simultaneous recovery under section 107 and section 113 is not allowed. PRPs can’t choose their method of recovery. The appropriate remedy will depend on the circumstances in each case.