Law School Case Brief
United States v. Olin Corp. - 107 F.3d 1506 (11th Cir. 1997)
The language of § 103 of Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) confirms that Congress believed its imposition of liability for cleanup upon former owners and operators in § 107(a) of CERCLA covered persons who were former owners and operators on December 11, 1980, as well as owners and operators who sold their interests after that date. Thus, CERCLA imposes retroactive liability for cleanup.
Defendant Olin Corporation operated a chemical manufacturing plant. The plant produced commercial chemicals that contaminated corporate property. Groundwater and soil pollution at the site made it unfit for future residential use. Plaintiff United States ("Government"), acting at request of the Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), brought a civil action in federal district court, seeking a cleanup order against Olin and reimbursement for response costs, pursuant to §§ 106(a) and 107 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). After negotiations, the parties agreed to a consent decree that called for Olin to pay all costs associated with remediation; the proposal resolved Olin's liability for contamination caused by disposal activities before and after CERCLA's effective date of Dec. 11, 1980. When the parties presented the consent decree to the district court, it sua sponte ordered them to address the impact of the United States Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Lopez on the legality of their proposal. Olin complied with that order by answering the original complaint. It asserted that the Lopez Court's construction of the Commerce Clause precluded constitutional application of CERCLA in the present case. In addition, Olin contended that CERCLA was not intended to impose liability for conduct predating the statute's enactment. The district court agreed with Olin, holding that: (1) the Constitution prohibited enforcement of CERCLA against a party if the environmental effects of that party's conduct remained limited to its own property; and (2) CERCLA's cleanup liability provisions applied prospectively only. The Government appealed.
Did the district court err in dismissing the Government's action under CERCLA?
The appellate court reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the matter. The court found that the district court's U.S. Const. art. 1§ 8, Commerce Clause, analysis conflicted with the proper standard. The court concluded that the statute was valid as applied in this case because it regulated a class of activities that substantially affected interstate commerce. The court held that CERCLA constituted a permissible exercise of Congress' authority under the Commerce Clause. The court noted that CERCLA's purpose, as evinced by the statute's structure and legislative history, also supported the view that Congress intended the statute to impose retroactive liability for environmental cleanup.
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