Insightful Counsel, Sustainable Solutions SCHEDULE A MEETING

Understanding the Circumstances of Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) under CERCLA

Frank Hammond July 5, 2023

Environmental protection and remediation efforts are crucial to safeguarding our communities from hazardous substances and pollution. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, is a federal law enacted in 1980 to address the cleanup of hazardous waste sites across the United States. One of the key concepts introduced by CERCLA is the identification and designation of Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) who may bear liability for the contamination. In this article, we will explore the circumstances under which someone may be considered a PRP under CERCLA.

Understanding CERCLA

CERCLA was enacted in response to growing concerns over abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites and the potential risks they posed to human health and the environment. The law empowers the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to respond to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, and it establishes a mechanism to hold responsible parties accountable for the costs associated with cleanup and restoration.

Who is a Potentially Responsible Party (PRP)?

Under CERCLA, a PRP is an individual, corporation, or entity that may be held liable for the contamination of a hazardous waste site. The liability can extend to past and present owners or operators of a site, as well as those who generated, transported, or arranged for the disposal of hazardous substances at the site.

CERCLA identifies four categories of PRPs:

  1. Current Owners and Operators: The current owner or operator of a facility where hazardous substances were released or disposed of may be considered a PRP. This includes both the legal owner and the operator responsible for day-to-day activities at the site.

  2. Past Owners and Operators: Even if a party no longer owns or operates a contaminated site, they may still be held liable as a PRP. CERCLA recognizes that past owners and operators may have contributed to the contamination and should share in the responsibility for cleanup.

  3. Generators: PRP status can extend to those who generated or created hazardous substances, as well as those who arranged for their transportation or disposal. This category includes industries that produce or use hazardous materials in their operations.

  4. Transporters: Parties involved in the transportation of hazardous substances can also be designated as PRPs. This includes companies or individuals responsible for moving hazardous materials to or from a contaminated site.

Determining Liability

When determining liability, CERCLA follows a “strict liability” approach, meaning that fault or intent is not required for PRP designation. The focus is on the ownership, operation, or involvement in activities related to the release or disposal of hazardous substances.

The EPA has the authority to conduct investigations and allocate responsibility among PRPs based on factors such as the volume and toxicity of the hazardous substances released, the degree of involvement, and financial resources. The agency aims to ensure a fair allocation of costs and promote the principle of “polluter pays.”

Consequences and Remedies

PRPs may be held financially responsible for the costs associated with site cleanup, including investigation, assessment, containment, and remediation activities. The EPA has the power to recover these costs from PRPs or negotiate settlements to fund the cleanup efforts.

Furthermore, CERCLA allows the EPA to initiate legal actions against PRPs to enforce compliance or recover costs. PRPs found in violation of CERCLA can face civil penalties, injunctions, and, in some cases, criminal charges.

CERCLA’s PRP provision serves as a critical tool in ensuring that responsible parties are held accountable for environmental contamination caused by hazardous substances. By designating PRPs, the law enables the EPA to allocate costs fairly and facilitate the cleanup and restoration of contaminated sites. Understanding the circumstances under which someone may be deemed a PRP under CERCLA is essential for promoting environmental stewardship and protecting public health and the environment.

It is important to note that the information provided in this article is based on the knowledge available up until September 2021, and regulations or interpretations may have changed since then. For the most up-to-date and accurate information, it is advisable to consult the latest guidance from the EPA or seek legal advice when dealing with CERCLA-related matters.

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.