The Government’s “Bare Legal Title” CERCLA Defense Wears Thin

Posted on August 29, 2017 by Theodore Garrett

The United States has encouraged economic activities such as mining on federal lands.  Such activities have resulted in contamination and subsequent CERCLA cleanup orders.  Companies undertaking such cleanups have sought contribution from responsible parties including the United States.  Two recent decision reject the government’s argument that its “bare legal title” should not give rise to CERCLA owner liability.  A logical result and also poetic justice, since the United States has consistently urged that CERCLA be construed broadly and liberally as a remedial statute.  Turnabout is fair play.  

In Chevron Mining Inc. v. United States, the 10th Circuit on July 19, 2017 held that the United States was liable as an owner under CERCLA 107(a) because it owned national forest lands in New Mexico.  The lands were mined over several generations by Chevron Mining.  Chevron began remediation expected to cost more than $1 billion pursuant to three EPA administrative orders.  Chevron then filed suit against the United States seeking contribution.  The 10th Circuit held that owner liability attaches to the United States as the owner of portions of the site, and plaintiff need not show that the defendant caused the release of hazardous wastes that required cleanup.  The court rejected the government’s argument that “bare legal title” is insufficient to trigger owner liability, noting that CERCLA contains neither an express nor an implied exception for owners of “bare legal title.”  The court’s opinion also notes that Chevron received loans from the United States, under the Defense Production Act, to fund its exploration activities and received authorization from the Forest Service for pipelines to dispose of mine tailings.  The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings to determine the government’s equitable share. 

Similarly, in El Paso Natural Gas Company v. United States, the District of Arizona ruled on August 15, 2017 that the United States is liable under CERCLA as an owner of 19 uranium mines.  The mines are located on the Navajo Reservation and are being remediated by El Paso.  The court cited longstanding law that the United States owns fee title to reservation land.  The fact that the Navajo Nation has significant rights in reservation land is not inconsistent with the power of the United States over reservation land.  The court cited the Chevron Mining case above with approval, and also noted dicta from the 9th Circuit that the passive title owner of real property is liable.  Given CERCLA’s broad remedial purposes, the district court held that the United States, as a fee title holder with plenary and supervisory powers over reservation land, is an owner for purposes of CERCLA.  The court’s decision does not address the extent of the government’s liability, to be addressed in the equitable allocation phase of the case. 

These and other decisions will support efforts by companies responsible for remediation at CERCLA sites on federal land to have the government contribute an appropriate share of the cleanup costs.  Also, mindful of its potential liability, perhaps the government will more carefully consider risks and costs when making remedy decisions, which would be welcomed at all sites, whether or not on federal lands.