CERCLA – Still – Remains Constitutional

Last year, I analogized PRP efforts to have CERCLA’s unilateral administrative order provisions declared unconstitutional to Chevy Chase’s repeated announcements during the first year of Saturday Night Live that Francisco Franco was still dead. Eventually, that joke wore out. With yesterday’s decision by the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals, in General Electric v. Jackson, upholding EPA’s UAO authority, these legal challenges may be similarly about to wear out.

The analysis in GE v. Jackson is pretty straightforward. EPA may not obtain fines or treble damages if a PRP defies a UAO unless the agency goes to court and the court concludes that the PRP is in fact liable under CERCLA and that none of the statutory defenses apply. Because PRPs thus have a “pre-deprivation” remedy, there is no due process violation. At a formal level, that’s hard to dispute. The formal pre-deprivation remedy and the absence of a circuit split make it unlikely that the Supreme Court will have any interest in hearing this case.

GE’s most cogent argument, to me, is that, as a practical matter, the deck is so heavily stacked in EPA’s favor that it really is very difficult for PRPs to take advantage of the due process rights that CERCLA provides. The Court gave this argument short shrift, noting that, out of 1,638 recent UAOs, PRPs had refused to comply with 75, or 4.6%. However, we do not know the details underlying these data. Many of these 75 non-complying PRPs could simply be deadbeats, rather than viable PRPs who considered themselves not liable or had reason to believe that EPA’s remedy was arbitrary and capricious.

There are limits to the use of anecdotal evidence, but does anyone who has a lot of CERCLA experience really deny that the coercion faced by PRPs is extreme? This is why liberal friends of mine who consider themselves environmentalists, but who aren’t lawyers and don’t know how CERCLA works, are often shocked when I describe some of these cases – in an unbiased way, of course – and ask how CERCLA can be constitutional.

My own sense is that the D.C. Circuit decision is probably right as a matter of constitutional law. Not every law that is unfair is unconstitutional. I certainly think that CERCLA’s UAO provisions are unfair. I also think that they are bad law, masquerading as “polluter pays” provisions. However, to the extent one can really even speak about Congressional intent given the haphazard way CERCLA was drafted, Section 106, as interpreted in GE v. Jackson, is pretty clearly what Congress intended and, for now, it’s the law.

Francisco Franco is still dead, and so are constitutional challenges to EPA’s UAO authority under CERCLA.

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