High Court Bolsters Anti-Pollution Program

Toxic Waste: Barrels labeled toxic waste with the Supreme Court Building
The Supreme Court strengthened a landmark anti-pollution program Monday, enabling companies to recover costs when they voluntarily clean up hazardous material.

In a unanimous ruling, the justices said the federal Superfund law allows lawsuits to recover costs incurred in voluntary cleanups. The Bush administration had argued otherwise.

The law is worded "so broadly as to sweep in virtually all persons likely to incur cleanup costs" and the government's interpretation "makes little textual sense," said the opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The case involves a company that contracted with the U.S. government to retrofit rocket motors. Atlantic Research Corp. voluntarily cleaned up pollution from rocket propellant that seeped into the soil and groundwater. The company then sued the government in an effort to recoup some of the cleanup costs.

The government is one of the nation's largest polluters, with environmental liability of more than $300 billion, according to federal data.

Many major corporations, state regulators and environmental groups say the Bush administration is trying to insulate itself from anti-pollution lawsuits.

The companies themselves must first be sued by regulators under the Superfund law or be targeted with government enforcement action before they can sue others, the administration argued.

The administration said the approach favored by Atlantic Research is contrary to congressional intent.

Congress wanted to reduce lawsuits while encouraging settlement and government-supervised cleanups, the federal government told the court.

Barring suits aimed at spreading the cost kills the incentive for voluntary cleanups, say the opponents of the federal government's position.

There are 450,000 commercial and industrial cleanup sites across the country, and regulators have enough resources to move against only the worst of them.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brings a few hundred enforcement cases a year.

In addition to the United States v. Atlantic Research Group, the Supreme Court ruled on the following cases:

  • Watson v. Phillip Morris — The Supreme Court ruled that Philip Morris Cos. Inc. cannot move a lawsuit by cigarette smokers into federal court. The unanimous decision came in a case that consumers filed against the cigarette company in state court in Arkansas. Philip Morris, a part of Altria Group Inc., moved the case to federal court in Little Rock, Ark., saying it could do so because the company was pervasively regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. et. al. v. Coke — The Court ruled that home care workers are not entitled to overtime pay under federal law. The court ruled on a case brought by a New York City woman. The unanimous decision upholds a 1975 Labor Department regulation exempting the nation's 1 million home care workers from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the regulation is valid and binding and does not exceed the Labor Department's rulemaking authority.
  • Beck Liquidating Trustee of Estates of Crown Vantage, Inc. et. al. v. Pace International Union et. al. — In a unanimous decision, the justices decided against imposing a new requirement on employer pension plans. The Court said companies do not have a duty to consider an invitation to merge their pension plans as an alternative to terminating them. The ruling came in the case of Crown Vantage Inc., a bankrupt paper company that received a merger proposal from a labor union pension fund to cover Crown's 17 pension plans. At the time, Vantage had already decided to terminate its pension plans and was considering using the money to buy annuities for plan participants and beneficiaries. Such a transaction would have enabled the company to recoup a $5 million surplus, which would have gone to the company's creditors.
  • Kimbrough v. U.S. — The Court agreed to review a Virginia case to decide whether judges must impose dramatically longer sentences for crack cocaine than for cocaine powder. Advocates for reducing the disparity say harsher penalties for crack cocaine unfairly punish blacks, because crime statistics show crack is more of an urban and minority drug while cocaine powder is used more often by the wealthy. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said judges cannot impose shorter sentences because they disagree with the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses. (At Derrick Kimbrough's sentencing, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson called the higher range mandated by law, 19-22 years, "ridiculous"; the government appealed the shorter sentence given.)