The Supreme Court strengthened a landmark anti-pollution program Monday, enabling companies to recover costs when they voluntarily clean up hazardous material.
In a unanimous ruling, the justices said the federal Superfund law allows lawsuits to recover costs incurred in voluntary cleanups. The Bush administration had argued otherwise.
The law is worded “so broadly as to sweep in virtually all persons likely to incur cleanup costs” and the government’s interpretation “makes little textual sense,” said the opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas.
The case involves a company that contracted with the U.S. government to retrofit rocket motors. Atlantic Research Corp. voluntarily cleaned up pollution from rocket propellant that seeped into the soil and groundwater.
The company then sued the government in an effort to recoup some of the cleanup costs.
The government is one of the nation’s largest polluters, with environmental liability of more than $300 billion, according to federal data.
Many major corporations, state regulators and environmental groups say the Bush administration is trying to insulate itself from anti-pollution lawsuits.
The companies themselves must first be sued by regulators under the Superfund law or be targeted with government enforcement action before they can sue others, the administration argued.
The administration said the approach favored by Atlantic Research is contrary to congressional intent.
Congress wanted to reduce lawsuits while encouraging settlement and government-supervised cleanups, the federal government told the court.
Barring suits aimed at spreading the cost kills the incentive for voluntary cleanups, say the opponents of the federal government’s position.
There are 450,000 commercial and industrial cleanup sites across the country and regulators have enough resources to move against only the worst of them.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brings a few hundred enforcement cases a year.