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United States v. Sterling Centrecorp Inc.

ELR Citation: 50 ELR 20235
Nos. 18-15585, (9th Cir., 10/05/2020)

The Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling in a lawsuit concerning the U.S. government's and California's recovery of cleanup costs from a hazardous waste spill in the Sierra Nevada foothills that released toxic amounts of arsenic into local groundwater. Plaintiffs sued the company that had acquired the mine where the spill occurred under CERCLA to recover response costs, and the company counterargued that the U.S. government was itself liable for the costs as a "prior operator" of the mine during World War II. The district court found the company was liable as a prior operator because it directed operations related to pollution at the mine, but that the government was not liable, and thus concluded that plaintiffs could recover all response costs. The appellate court found the record supported the district court's finding that the company was an operator of the mine because it maintained pervasive control over its operations, and that the record did not show the government ever managed, directed, or conducted operations specifically related to pollution at the mine. It thus concluded that the company but not the government was subject to CERCLA liability, and affirmed the district court ruling.