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United States v. Stringfellow

Citation: 17 ELR 21134
No. No. CV 83-2501 TMI (MCx), 661 F. Supp. 1053/26 ERC 1624/(C.D. Cal., 06/04/1987) Gov'ts' motion for partial summary judgment granted in part

The court holds 15 defendants jointly and severally liable under Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) § 107(a) for response costs at the Stringfellow site in California. The court holds that all the elements for liability under § 107(a) are satisfied. The court notes that "facility" under CERCLA includes places where hazardous substances were disposed of and is not defined by the owner's property lines. The court rules that this case is an appropriate one in which to apply joint and several liability. The court holds that defendants have not met their burden of showing that the harm is divisible, concluding that such a division is impossible in this case. The court rules that under CERCLA § 107(a) traditional causation need not be proved, and it is sufficient that defendants are in the classes of persons listed in § 107(a) and a release or threatened release of hazardous substances from that facility occurs, causing the incurrence of response costs. The court reserves for future decision whether the court will apportion liability among defendants.

The court holds that the defenses to liability in CERCLA § 107(b) are not available in this case. Heavy rains in 1969 and 1979 were not exceptional natural phenomena but rather foreseeable and capable of prevention. Moreover, the rains were not the sole cause of the release, as would be required for the Act of God defense in § 107(b)(1) to apply. Similarly, allegations of negligent and reckless conduct by the California state government are insufficient to meet the requirements of the third party defense in § 107(b)(3) since there were multiple causes of the release. The court rules that only defenses listed in § 107(b) are available under CERCLA, noting the language to this effect in § 107(a), the Supreme Court's decision in Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo, 12 ELR 20538 (1982), and that equitable defenses to liability cannot be raised against the government when it acts in its sovereign capacity to protect public health and safety.

Finally, the court reviews the Special Master's Report in this case, noting specific areas that it does not adopt, and sua sponte granting partial summary judgment against the current owners of the Stringfellow site based on ownership of the property rather than contribution to the release.

[Related opinions in this case appear at 14 ELR 20381, 14 ELR 20385, 14 ELR 20388, 14 ELR 20799, 15 ELR 20402, 16 ELR 20458, and 17 ELR 20559.]

Counsel for Plaintiff
Michael R. W. Green
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-5413

Counsel for Defendant
James W. Ward, Sharon J. Waters
Thompson & Colgate
3610 Fourteenth St., P.O. Box 1299, Riverside CA 92502
(714) 682-5550