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United States v. Stringfellow

Citation: 14 ELR 20385
No. No. CV-83-2501-MML, 20 ERC 1905/(C.D. Cal., 04/05/1984) Ruling on liability

The court rules that § 107(a) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) allows imposition of joint and several liability, but that the imminent hazard provisions of CERCLA and other environmental statutes do not. The court first rules that CERCLA § 107(a) permits, but does not require, joint and several liability. The legislative history indicates that joint and several liability could be imposed and the deletion of a provision requiring joint and several liability does not preclude it. The court next rules that there should be a uniform federal common law rule governing when joint and several liability is appropriate. It agrees with the court in United States v. A & F Materials, 14 ELR 20105, that liability is joint and several unless defendants carry the burden of establishing a basis for apportionment or the court determines that apportionment is appropriate on equitable grounds.

The court declines to extend its ruling on joint and several liability to the imminent hazard provision in CERCLA § 106(a). It finds no reason why the section must be interpreted in parallel with § 107(a). Section 107(a) addresses past dischargers and provides legal relief; § 106(a) addresses current hazards and operates through equity. Thus the court holds that § 106(a) does not provide an alternative means of reimbursement for government response costs. Rather, actions under § 106(a) to compel abatement action or for payment of money (an equitable remedy distinct from damages) must specify the action or payment required of each defendant.

The court next turns to § 7003 of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, § 504 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and § 1431 of the Safe Drinking Water Act, imminent hazard provisions similar to CERCLA § 106(a). It rules that these provisions do not allow joint and several liability. The language and legislative history of the imminent hazard provisions indicate that Congress intended to apply established equitable remedies for nuisances to the pollution problems addressed by each statute. While Congress did make the imminent hazard provisions broader than nuisance law, the remedies still are essentially equitable and the court's analysis of joint and several liability under CERCLA § 106(a) applies.

Finally, the court holds that California common law allows joint and several liability, but that the California Hazardous Substances Account Act does not. The Act explicitly requires apportionment of recoverable costs. California nuisance law, on the other hand, allows joint and several liability if the injury cannot be apportioned.

[Related cases are published at 14 ELR 20381 and 20388 — Ed.]

Counsel are listed at 14 ELR 20381.