United States v. Dixie Carriers, Inc.
Citation: 14 ELR 20602
No. No. 83-3321, 736 F.2d 180/21 ERC 1165/(5th Cir., 07/12/1984) Aff'd
The court rules that § 311 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) does not authorize a company responsible for an oil spill to subtract cleanup costs voluntarily incurred from the amount it must pay under § 311 to reimburse the federal government for the latter's cleanup costs. The court reads FWPCA §§ 311(f) and 311(i) to obligate those responsible for oil spills to clean them up, with reimbursement from the federal government limited to cases where the spill could be proven to have resulted solely from specified causes beyond the discharger's control. Absent adequate discharger cleanup, the federal government will take on the job, but the discharger is liable for the government's costs, up to a maximum amount in the case of a non-negligent discharger. Since the statute does not provide for a credit for voluntary expenditures against the statutory maximum that the government can recover from non-negligent responsible parties, the court declines to do so. The court is unpersuaded by appellants argument that the result is anomalous in light of the statutory objective of expeditious cleanup since it is the result prescribed by the statute. The court also rejects appellants' argument that the government is estopped from demanding payment of the statutory maximum by the "mistaken" Coast Guard statement that the company was legally obligated to clean up the spill. The flaw in the argument is that the Coast Guard read the FWPAC correctly; appellants were obligated to clean up the spill. Sectionn 311 limits a discharger's obligation to repay government cleanup costs, but does not erase the discharger's preexisting cleanup responsibility.
A dissent would treat appellants' voluntary payments essentially as prepayments of their statutory obligation to the government, so as to implement Congress' clear intent to limit non-negligent dischargers' liability and to avoid the creation of a counterproductive incentive for dischargers not to initiate cleanup actions.
Counsel for Appellants
Henry J. Read
Montgomery, Barnett, Brown & Read
18th Floor, First National Bank of Commerce Bldg., New Orleans LA 70112
Counsel for Appellees
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
Before RANDALL, TATE, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.