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In a cost recovery action under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, the government must simply prove that the defendant's hazardous substances were deposited at the site from which there was a release and that the release caused the incurrence of response costs.
On November 24, 1989, the Government filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania under section 107(a) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, 42 U.S.C. § 9607(a) ("CERCLA") against 20 defendants, including Alcan Aluminum Corporation ("Alcan"), for the recovery of clean-up costs it incurred in response to a release of hazardous substances into the Susquehanna River. On October 11, 1990, the Government moved for summary judgment against Alcan, the only non-settling defendant, and on November 13, 1990, Alcan cross-moved for summary judgment. The district court, after receiving a report and recommendation from a magistrate judge, issued a memorandum and order granting the Government's motion for the reasons set forth in United States v. Alcan Aluminum Corp., 755 F. Supp. 531 (N.D.N.Y. 1991) (hereinafter called "Alcan New York"), another CERCLA case involving the release of hazardous substances generated by Alcan but at a different location. Accordingly, on May 8, 1991, the court entered judgment against Alcan in the amount of $ 473,790.18, which was the difference between the full response costs the Government had incurred in cleaning the Susquehanna River and the amount the Government had recovered from the settling defendants. Alcan appealed asserting that the amounts of hazardous materials in its industrial waste were too small to pose environmental threats.
Did the trial court err in entering a judgment against Alcan without a hearing to allow Alcan to attempt to prove that the harm was divisible and that the damages were capable of apportionment?
The court held that although CERCLA did not impose quantitative requirements on the definition of hazardous substances, or require the Government to establish a direct causal connection between Alcan’s hazardous substances and the release or plaintiff's costs, it was error to enter judgment against Alcan without a hearing to allow Alcan to attempt to prove that the harm was divisible and that the damages were capable of apportionment. If Alcan was then able to prove that its waste did not contribute to the release, Alcan would not be responsible for the costs.