Supreme Court Debates Pollution Lawsuits

Oct. 8, 2004

The Supreme Court considered Wednesday whether companies that voluntarily sought to clean up their polluted land could sue former owners to help cover the costs. The case could have important ramifications for communities with abandoned toxic plants, landfills and mines.

At issue for the court is a dispute over property in Dallas that had been home to four aircraft engine maintenance businesses. Aviall Services Inc. bought the land in 1981 and spent about $5 million cleaning pollution originating from the property — pollution that the former owner had produced.

The work was done at the urging of a state conservation agency, and Aviall went to court to recover some of the money from the past owner, electrical product maker Cooper Industries.

Richard Faulk of Houston, an attorney for Aviall, said Wednesday that "standing in line" waiting for federal regulators to get around to the project was not an option because of concerns about a nearby lake and groundwater.

Federal law allows the EPA to designate areas that are highly polluted as Superfund sites. Officials can seek money from current and former owners for the cleanup costs.

Wednesday's debate focused on whether the Superfund law's logic can be used by the owners of the many thousands of properties in which the government has not gotten involved and demanded cleanup.

During the argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only court member who appeared concerned about preventing such lawsuits.

"You might be sitting around waiting forever until EPA comes after you," she said. "It seems like EPA has higher priorities."

The case pits the Bush administration against 23 states that argue that the Superfund law, passed in 1980, allows lawsuits when companies on their own volition seek to clean their properties. Not only are those efforts often very expensive, but they can also involve multiple former owners.

Jeffrey Minear, a lawyer for the Bush administration, said that companies could still clean up land but that they must work with the government in advance to make sure it is done properly.

Source: The Associated Press

Image courtesy Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ).
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