The beleaguered Superfund program got a valuable boost from the U.S. Supreme Court this week.
In rebuking a Bush administration attempt to dodge liability for environmental pollution, the court upheld an important tenet of federal environmental cleanup law: People and companies that voluntarily pay to clean up hazardous waste sites should be encouraged, not punished.
The ruling stems from a suit filed by a company that contracted with the U.S. government to retrofit rocket motors, work that led to soil and groundwater contamination in Arkansas. Atlantic Research Corp. voluntarily cleaned up the pollution and then sought to recoup some of its costs from the federal government.
The Bush administration refused the claim, arguing that companies cannot seek recovery of their costs unless they had no responsibility for the contamination and were forced into doing the cleanup.
Of course, the feds have a big interest in limiting polluters’ exposure; they are one of the nation’s biggest, with $300 billion in environmental liability.
The Supreme Court saw right through the tactic. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said the government’s interpretation of the federal Superfund law “makes little textual sense.”
The interpretation also makes little common sense. Companies would have no incentive to step forward if it meant giving up their right to seek repayment from other responsible parties.
And without voluntary cleanups, there would be little progress on remediating the thousands of contaminated sites around the nation. In Washington, more than 1,200 properties are on the state’s list of contaminated sites. Only 250 are being cleaned up under formal oversight.
If communities were forced to wait for the government to act, they would be waiting a good long time. The Environmental Protection Agency only brings a few hundred enforcement actions a year. What’s more, the Superfund has been limping along since 1995, when Congress let the corporate tax that funded it expire. It now relies on yearly appropriations from Congress to help pay for environmental cleanups.
State regulators worried that the federal government’s interpretation could mean decades of delays. Thirty-eight states — represented by Washington’s deputy solicitor general, Jay Geck — signed onto the case in opposition to the feds. For them, Monday’s ruling was a victory that ensures that many old industrial sites won’t sit contaminated, unproductive — and untaxed.
But the biggest victory belongs to communities living with polluted sites. They face a brighter future now that the Supreme Court has re- affirmed that getting cleanup done quickly is more important than waiting to assign blame.