For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the law on private cost recovery and contribution claims under CERCLA, following the decision in Atlantic Research, I recently participated in a panel discussion on the issue. A copy of my presentation can be found here.
The most contentious issue during the discussion was whether private parties who have settled with the government and performed direct cleanups – as opposed to reimbursing the government – as a result of such settlements have an action for cost recovery under § 107 of CERCLA or an action for contribution under § 113 of CERCLA.
My own view is that the Supreme Court has backed itself into a corner by so narrowly associating claims under § 113 with traditional contribution claims. It seems to me that the Court has limited contribution claims to situations where one liable party has reimbursed the original plaintiff for more than the contribution plaintiff’s fair share of the common liability. Thus, in a situation where the private plaintiff has directly incurred response costs – even if following a consent decree – no contribution claim lies. This is also consistent with a plain reading of § 107 – and we know that the Supreme Court loves plain language interpretations of CERCLA – which provides for claims for response costs, without any distinction being drawn between whether those costs were incurred voluntarily or not.
As I said at the panel, I just wish that the language of CERCLA was as clear to me and all of the practitioners with whom I work as it apparently is to Justice Thomas and the rest of the Supreme Court.