Law School Case Brief
Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc. - 516 U.S. 479, 116 S. Ct. 1251 (1996)
That the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act's (RCRA) citizen suit provision was not intended to provide a remedy for past cleanup costs is further apparent from the harm at which it is directed. RCRA, 42 U.S.C.S. 6972(a)(1)(B) permits a private party to bring suit only upon a showing that the solid or hazardous waste at issue may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment. The meaning of this timing restriction is plain. An endangerment can only be "imminent" if it "threatens to occur immediately, and the reference to waste which "may present" imminent harm quite clearly excludes waste that no longer presents such a danger. This language "implies that there must be a threat which is present now, although the impact of the threat may not be felt until later. It follows that RCRA, 42 U.S.C.S. § 6972(a) was designed to provide a remedy that ameliorates present or obviates the risk of future "imminent" harms, not a remedy that compensates for past cleanup efforts.
Three years after complying with a county order to clean up petroleum contamination discovered on its property, respondent KFC Western, Inc., brought this action under the citizen suit provision of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), 42 U.S.C.S. § 6972(a), to recover its cleanup costs from petitioners, Alan and Margaret Meghrig. KFC claimed, among other things, that the contamination had previously posed an "imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment," and that the Meghrigs were responsible for "equitable restitution" under § 6972(a) because, as prior owners of the property, they had contributed to the contaminated site. The District Court dismissed the complaint, holding that § 6972(a) does not permit recovery of past cleanup costs and that § 6972(a)(1)(B) does not authorize a cause of action for the remediation of toxic waste that does not pose an "imminent and substantial endangerment" at the time suit is filed. The Ninth Circuit disagreed on both points and reversed. The Meghrigs filed a petition for certiorari review.
Did the citizen suit provision of the RCRA permit a private party to bring suit only upon an allegation that the waste presently posed an imminent endangerment, and not to provide a remedy for past cleanup costs?
The United States Supreme Court held that the statutory language of § 6972(a) and differences between RCRA and the comparable provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) made clear that a private party could not recover the cost of a past cleanup and could only bring suit upon allegations that the contaminated site presently posed an imminent endangerment.
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