“International Pollution: Can We Really Just Blame Canada?”

This comment was written by former Comments Editor Jamie Wilhite appearing in JNREL Vol. 21 No. 2. Staff member Andrew Leung wrote the following abstract.

In deciding Pakootas v. Teck Cominco Metals, Ltd., 452 F.3d 1066 (9th Cir. 2006), the Ninth Circuit extended liability under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act ("CERCLA") to a foreign corporation when the disposal at issue occurred outside of the United States. "International Pollution: Can We Really Just Blame Canada?" explains the court's analysis and logic in making this revolutionary step for the environment.

The alleged polluting party in Pakootas is Teck Cominco Metals ("Cominco"), also a party to the infamous Trail Smelter Arbitration, a landmark case of international environmental law. Between 1906 and 1995, Cominco dumped smelting waste product ("slag") into the Canadian portion of the Columbia River. River currents then carried the slag and associated pollutants downstream into American territory, where the harm is alleged to have occurred. After investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") ordered Cominco to perform a remedial investigation/feasibility study of the area. When Cominco refused and the EPA failed to compel action, two members of the Colville Indian Tribes brought suit, seeking damages and injunctive relief.

CERCLA was enacted in 1980 by Congress as a remedial statute. "CERCLA promotes the cleanup of polluted areas and attaches strict liability for clean-up costs to those responsible for the pollution." The United States District Court for the Western District of Washington found that Cominco could be held liable either as a "generator" or an "arranger" potentially responsible party ("PRP"). The Ninth Circuit found that CERCLA liability could be extended to Cominco only if three conditions were satisfied: (1) a "facility" where the release or threatened release of hazardous waste occurred; (2) a "release" or "threatened release" of waste at aforementioned facility; and (3) a defendant that falls within one of the enumerated PRP categories.

The requirement of a "facility" is met when plaintiff demonstrates that defendant has a site where CERCLA hazardous materials are disposed of. The court found that Cominco's "facility" qualified because of the "extent of contamination in the United States associated with the Upper Columbia River." Although it in undisputed that Cominco released mining waste and byproduct into the Canadian portion of the Columbia River, courts have held that CERCLA liability only arises when there is a domestic release. To meet that requirement the Ninth Circuit found that an adequate domestic "release" occurred within American territory when chemicals and hazardous substances leached out of the slag after it had traveled downstream.

"Arranger" PRP liability applies only to "any person who by contract, agreement, or otherwise arranged for disposal or treatment, of hazardous substances owned or possessed by such party, by any other party or entity." Cominco argued that the act of disposing of one's own hazardous material falls without the scope of CERCLA "arranger" liability because it does not involve "any other party or entity." The Ninth Circuit rejected this interpretation, holding that it would seriously restrict CERCLA's reach and provide environmental agencies without recourse against companies that disposed of their own waste illicitly.

Pakootas v. Teck Cominco Metals, Ltd. is groundbreaking in that it is the first application of CERCLA to a foreign entity when the disposal of waste occurs outside of the United States. However, as a practical matter, CERCLA will not soon be extended to foreign entities across the globe whose activities will eventually have an effect on American soil.