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San Diego: Environmental Law Update: No Help for Toxic Waste Cleanup

In San Diego, there are many defense contractors which maintain aircraft engines. Many of these have large factories and plants. Our firm of Law Office of Scott C. Soady, A Professional Corporation, LLP has been in San Diego for over a decade. We would be pleased to offer you a complimentary and confidentiary consultation on an estate planning issue and feel free to send an e mail or call our firm.

A company bought an aircraft engine maintenance business and operated the business for a few years. It then discovered that the property on which the business was located was contaminated with toxic waste, both because of the company’s activities and the activities of the previous owner. The company reported itself to a state environmental agency, which told the company that it was in violation of state laws and directed that the site be cleaned up. However, neither the state agency nor its federal counterpart, the Environmental Protection Agency, ever brought a proceeding to force the cleanup.

Under the state’s supervision, the company cleaned up the property (incurring costs in the millions of dollars) and unsuccessfully sued the previous owner that had contributed to the contamination, in hopes of getting a contribution to the cleanup costs as well. This case is a study in how a few words in a statute can control the outcome in a dispute where large sums of money are at stake.

The claim for a contribution to the cleanup costs rested on a part of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). That statute states that any person “may” seek contribution from any other person who is or may be liable under CERCLA, “during or following any civil action” under CERCLA. The U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the statutory language as meaning that the company could not seek contribution from the previous owner (and fellow polluter) because no proceeding under CERCLA was ever instituted against the company that cleaned up the toxic waste.

The use of “may” by Congress meant that an action for contribution was authorized only if the conditions that followed were present, including a civil action under CERCLA. Appeals by the company based on the underlying purposes of CERCLA fell on deaf ears before the Court. As the Court put it, “It is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”

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