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United States v. Charter Int'l Oil Co.

ELR Citation: 26 ELR 21321
Nos. 95-1961 et al., 83 F.3d 510/43 ERC 1175/(1st Cir., 05/09/1996)

The court holds that the "matters addressed" in a consent decree between the United States and a settling potentially responsible party (PRP) do not include the cleanup work that prior-settling PRPs are performing under their consent decree, thus leaving the PRP open to suits for contribution under §113(f) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The court first holds that the settling PRP did not waive its right to challenge the district court's interpretation of the consent decree by consenting to entry of the decree. The court next holds that CERCLA §113(f)(2) does not dictate a particular method for assessing the scope of the decree. Turning to the district court's interpretation of the decree, the court holds that the text of the decree supports the government's interpretation that the decree does not provide the PRP with complete contribution protection against prior settlors. The United States did not assert claims against the PRP for remediation work being done by the prior-settling PRPs; the response costs at issue were defined as government response costs; and the decree explicitly referred to the prior settlements, in which the prior-settling PRPs retained the right to seek contribution from later nonsettlors. The court further holds that extrinsic evidence may not be considered to contradict the written terms of the decree because the decree is not ambiguous. The court next holds that although there was a fundamental dispute over the effect of the decree, it was not unreasonable for the district court to have entered the decree. The settling PRP was given the opportunity to withdraw, but refused. Moreover, the policies behind CERCLA are better served by holding the PRP to its roll of the dice. Finally, the court holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion by approving the government's interpretation of the decree. The district court properly determined that the decree is fair, reasonable, and consistent with CERCLA.

Counsel for Plaintiff
David B. Broughel
Day, Berry & Howard
260 Franklin St., 21st Fl., Boston MA 02110
(617)345-4600

Counsel for Defendant
Evelyn S. Ying
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000