Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian

Justia Summary

For nearly a century, the Anaconda Copper Smelter contaminated 300 square miles with arsenic and lead. For 35 years, the EPA has worked with the now-closed smelter’s current owner, Atlantic Richfield, to implement a cleanup plan. Landowners sued Atlantic Richfield in state court for common law nuisance, trespass, and strict liability, seeking restoration damages, which Montana law requires to be spent on property rehabilitation. The landowners’ proposed plan exceeds the measures found necessary to protect human health and the environment by EPA. Montana courts rejected an argument that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, 42 U.S.C. 9601, section 113, stripped them of jurisdiction. Section 113 states that no potentially responsible party (PRP) "may undertake any remedial action” at the site without EPA approval and provides federal courts with “exclusive original jurisdiction over all controversies arising under” the Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in part. The Act does not strip the Montana courts of jurisdiction over this lawsuit. The common law claims “arise under” Montana law, not under the Act. Section 113(b) deprives state courts of jurisdiction over cases “arising under” the Act while section 113(h) deprives federal courts of jurisdiction over certain “challenges” to remedial actions; section 113(h) does not broaden section 113(b).

The Court vacated in part. The landowners are PRPs who need EPA approval to take remedial action. Section 107, the liability section, includes any “owner” of “a facility.” “Facility” is defined to include “any site or area where a hazardous substance has been deposited, stored, disposed of, or placed, or otherwise come to be located.” Because arsenic and lead are hazardous substances that have “come to be located” on the landowners’ properties, the landowners are PRPs. Even “innocent landowners,” whose land has been contaminated by another, and who are shielded from liability by section 107(b)(3), may fall within the broad definitions of PRPs in sections 107(a)(1)–(4). Interpreting PRPs to include property owners reflects the objective of a single EPA-led cleanup effort rather than thousands of competing efforts. The EPA policy of not suing innocent owners does not alter the landowners’ status as PRPs.