Should CERCLA Contribution Action Be Available to Potentially Responsible Parties Absent Federal Civil Action?

Article By: Patricia L. Pearlberg; originally published in JNREL Vol. 19, No. 1

By: Natasha C. Farmer, Staff Member

Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Communication, and Liability Act ("CERCLA") on December 11, 1980. This Act was subsequently revised and reauthorized with the enactment of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act ("SARA"). These two enactments are collectively referred to as CERCLA. CERCLA was designed to prevent further contamination and the release of toxic substances by requiring clean-up of existing hazardous sites, ensuring that the costs of cleaning up these sites are borne by the "responsible" parties, and creating liability provisions to deter future environmental releases by imposing high costs on careless waste management and disposal practices.

Under CERCLA, Potentially Responsible Parties ("PRPs") are defined broadly and can include past operators and owners of facilities who can be sued. In determining liability, courts have determined that liability under CERCLA is strict, joint, several, and retroactive. In Avaiall Services, Inc. v. Cooper Indus., Inc., 312 F.3d 677 (5th Cir. 2002), the defendant and its predecessor companies owned and operated three facilities and were engaged in the business of aircraft engine maintenance that "required the use of petroleum and other hazardous substances." The plaintiff purchased the facilities and the aircraft engine maintenance business from the defendant. As a result of the hazardous substances seeping into the ground and groundwater, the plaintiff initiated an extensive cleanup, costing it millions of dollars and lasting for more than a decade. Soon after, the plaintiff filed a § 113(f)(1) contribution suit under SARA alleging the defendant as a PRP.

Section 113(f)(1) of SARA was enacted by Congress to encourage cost sharing among PRPs. This section allows PRPs to seek contribution from other PRPs if it assumed a disproportionate share of the cleanup costs, as the plaintiff claimed here. However, there is much dispute on what the statutory language of this section means. There are disputes to whether Section 113(f) is only limited to federal contribution actions "during or following" a federal action. Patricia L. Pearlberg's article, "Should A CERCLA Contribution Action Be Available To Potentially Responsible Parties Absent Federal Civil Action?" discusses CERCLA's statutory language and structure, legislative history, and public purpose of the Act.