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Navigating Contribution Actions under CERCLA: A Lawyer’s Perspective

Frank Hammond July 5, 2023

Environmental contamination is a growing concern in our modern world, and addressing the cleanup and allocation of responsibility for such contamination is crucial. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund, is a federal law that aims to protect human health and the environment by providing a framework for the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. As a lawyer specializing in environmental law, I have encountered numerous cases involving contribution actions under CERCLA. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of contribution actions and shed light on their significance in environmental litigation.

Understanding CERCLA and Contribution Actions

CERCLA was enacted in 1980 to establish a process for identifying, investigating, and cleaning up hazardous waste sites. It also created a liability scheme to hold responsible parties accountable for the costs associated with remediation. CERCLA’s liability provisions are broad and impose liability on potentially responsible parties (PRPs), which may include current owners, operators, past owners, and other parties who contributed to the contamination.

Contribution actions, as provided under CERCLA Section 113(f), allow PRPs to seek reimbursement or contribution from other liable parties for the costs incurred in cleaning up a contaminated site. This provision is crucial in ensuring a fair and equitable distribution of cleanup costs among all responsible parties involved.

Key Elements of Contribution Actions:

To bring a successful contribution action under CERCLA, certain key elements must be established:

  1. Liability as a PRP: The plaintiff must establish that they are a PRP under CERCLA, meaning they fall within one of the defined categories of responsible parties. This can include current or former owners, operators, generators, or transporters of hazardous substances.

  2. Incurred Costs: The plaintiff must demonstrate that they have incurred costs related to the cleanup of a hazardous waste site. These costs can include investigation, remediation, monitoring, and legal expenses.

  3. Response Costs: The plaintiff must show that the costs incurred were necessary and consistent with the National Contingency Plan (NCP). The NCP outlines the procedures and standards for responding to hazardous waste sites.

  4. Proof of Contribution: The plaintiff must establish that the defendant is also a PRP and bears some responsibility for the contamination. This can be done by showing evidence of the defendant’s involvement in the generation, transport, storage, or disposal of hazardous substances at the site.

Benefits of Contribution Actions:

Contribution actions play a vital role in environmental litigation and the cleanup process for contaminated sites. Here are some key benefits:

  1. Cost Recovery: PRPs who have shouldered the burden of cleanup costs can seek reimbursement from other responsible parties, ensuring a fair allocation of expenses and preventing undue financial strain on a single party.

  2. Incentive for Cooperation: The availability of contribution actions encourages responsible parties to work together and reach settlement agreements. Collaboration among PRPs can expedite the cleanup process and reduce litigation expenses.

  3. Encouraging Settlements: Contribution actions often lead to settlement negotiations, which can result in faster resolution and reduced legal costs compared to protracted litigation. Settling parties can establish a structured payment plan and allocate costs based on each party’s share of responsibility.

  4. Preserving Natural Resources: By facilitating the cleanup of contaminated sites, contribution actions promote the protection and restoration of our natural resources, reducing potential risks to human health and the environment.

Contribution actions under CERCLA are powerful tools that enable responsible parties to seek reimbursement from other liable parties for the costs incurred in cleaning up hazardous waste sites. These actions foster a fair and efficient allocation of cleanup expenses, encouraging collaboration, and expediting the restoration of contaminated areas. As an environmental lawyer, I believe that understanding the intricacies of contribution actions is essential for navigating the complex landscape of environmental litigation and ensuring a just resolution for all parties involved. By leveraging the provisions of CERCLA, we can work towards a cleaner and safer environment for future generations.

With more than three decades of experience, we have a deep understanding of how regulations can intersect with land use issues and development projects. For a consultation with our Portland office, call or email us directly.