On April 20, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian holding that CERCLA does not strip state courts of jurisdiction to hear state-law claims brought by landowners seeking remediation of Superfund sites, but if the landowners are potentially responsible parties under CERCLA, they must receive EPA approval of any remedial plan before seeking monetary relief to pay for it.
For years, the Anaconda Copper Smelter in Butte, Montana was the state’s largest employer. It also contaminated over 300 square miles with arsenic and lead and became a Superfund site under CERCLA. A group of 98 Montana landowners sued Atlantic Richfield (the Smelter’s owner) in Montana state court for trespass, nuisance, and strict liability. As part of their relief, they sought money damages to pay for remediation of their properties beyond what the EPA’s cleanup plan for the site required. Atlantic Richfield argued that CERCLA stripped the state courts of jurisdiction and that, at a minimum, plaintiffs had to seek and receive EPA approval of their proposed remedial plans. The Montana Supreme Court agreed with plaintiffs on both grounds.
The Supreme Court granted review and affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Court affirmed the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling that it had jurisdiction to hear the landowners’ state-law claims because those claims did not arise under CERCLA. Atlantic Richfield had relied on Section 113(b) of CERCLA, which provides that “the United States district courts shall have exclusive original jurisdiction over all controversies arising under this chapter.” 42 U. S. C. §9613(b). But the Court held that the landowners’ state-law claims did not arise under CERCLA, they arose under state law. Atlantic Richfield further argued that Section 113(h) states that “[n]o Federal court shall have jurisdiction under Federal law other than under section 1332 of title 28 (relating to diversity of citizenship jurisdiction) . . . to review any challenges to removal or remedial action.” 42 U. S. C. §9613(h). But the Court held that this section applies only to federal courts, not state courts. Hence, the Montana state courts retained jurisdiction over the landowners’ claims.
The Court reversed, however, the ruling that “the landowners were not potentially responsible parties under [CERCLA] and therefore did not need EPA approval to take remedial action.” A “potentially responsible party,” noted the Court, includes any “owner” of a “facility,” and a “facility” includes “any site or area where a hazardous substance has been deposited, stored, disposed of, or placed, or otherwise come to be located.” This definition plainly covered the landowners’ properties, on which arsenic and lead had come to be located. It mattered not that the landowners could not be sued for the cleanup costs, whether because of “innocent landowner” status or the running of the limitations period. They still qualified as “potentially responsible parties” for purposes of the provisions requiring EPA approval of “remedial actions.”
The Court therefore remanded the case for the landowners to seek EPA approval of their proposed cleanup plan, commenting that the “approval process, if pursued, could ameliorate any conflict between the landowners’ restoration plan and EPA’s Superfund cleanup, just as Congress envisioned.”
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts. Parts I and II-A of the opinion were unanimous. Part II-B was joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Part III was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Kavanaugh. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Gorsuch filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justice Thomas joined.