Law School Case Brief
Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co. - 491 U.S. 1, 109 S. Ct. 2273 (1989)
Congress intended that states be liable along with everyone else for cleanup costs recoverable under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C.S § 9601 et seq.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in an effort to control flooding, obtained easements to property along a creek and began excavations, in the course of which workers struck a large deposit of coal tar which began to seep into the creek. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered that the site be cleaned up, and the Commonwealth and the Federal Government jointly undertook to do so. The Government reimbursed the Commonwealth for its costs. Thereafter, in an effort to recover some of the cleanup costs from respondent Union Gas Co., whose predecessors had operated a coal gasification plant along the creek and had allegedly deposited the coal tar there, filed an action in federal district court against Union Gas §§ 104 and 107 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) (42 U.S.C.S. §§ 9604, 9607). Union Gas, denying any liability, filed a third-party complaint against the Commonwealth, alleging that the Commonwealth was liable for at least part of the cleanup costs because it had negligently caused or contributed to the discharge of coal tar into the creek, and was an "owner or operator" of the hazardous-waste site within the meaning of § 9607(a)(1). The district court dismissed the third-party complaint on the ground that such an action was barred by the Commonwealth's immunity from suit in federal courts under the Federal Constitution's Eleventh Amendment. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, holding that CERCLA did not evidence any congressional intent to abrogate the states' Eleventh Amendment immunity. While the Union Gas' petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States was pending, Congress amended CERCLA by enacting the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA). Thereafter, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for reconsideration of the case in light of SARA. On remand, the court of appeals reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings, holding that CERCLA, as amended by SARA, clearly showed Congress' intent to allow Superfund suits by a citizen against a state, and Congress, when acting under the Constitution's commerce clause (Art I, 8, cl 3) to enact CERCLA and SARA, possessed the power to abrogate the Eleventh Amendment. The Commonwealth was granted a writ of certiorari.
In light of SARA, which amended CERCLA, was the Commonwealth liable for a part of the cleanup costs in question?
The Supreme Court of the United States found that CERCLA rendered the Commonwealth liable for money damages in federal court and that Congress had the authority to render states so liable when legislating pursuant to the Commerce Clause. According to the Court, CERCLA, as amended, clearly expressed Congress' intent to permit a suit for money damages, for conduct described in the statute, to be brought against a state in federal court, in light of the express inclusion of states in CERCLA's definition of "persons" in 42 U.S.C.S. § 9601(21), together with the plain statement in § 101(20)(D) of SARA (42 U.S.C.S. § 9601(20)(D)) that states were to be considered "owners or operators" of hazardous-waste sites in all but very narrow circumstances.
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