U.S. Water News Online
WASHINGTON -- Plaintiffs cannot use a 20-year-old environmental law to sue a polluter and recover money they spent cleaning up hazardous waste, the Supreme Court has ruled. The court ruled unanimously in a California case that the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 does not authorize such reimbursement.
Thirteen states had urged the justices to interpret the law more broadly to help those states that otherwise might have no legal recourse against some polluters. Those states were Alaska, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court that the 1976 law allows private citizens to sue "to minimize the present and future threat to human health and the environment" but the law "is not directed at providing compensation for past cleanup efforts."
The decision reversed a federal appeals court ruling that had allowed people to seek repayment for cleaning up contamination they did not cause and that once posed an "imminent and substantial endangerment" to their property.
The ruling was a defeat for KFC Western, which found gasoline contamination on property in Los Angeles where it operates a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.
KFC wanted to force Alan and Margaret Meghrig, a brother and sister from whom it bought the land in 1975, to pay for the cleanup. The Meghrigs owned the land for 12 years, and previous owners had operated a gasoline station on it.
KFC discovered gasoline contamination threatening groundwater in 1988, and spent more than $211,000 to clean it up. The company sued the Meghrigs in 1992, first under state law and then under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in federal court.
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