But lower federal courts have disagreed about what happens if a company voluntarily chooses to clean up a site: can it sue other companies, or the U.S. government, to recover costs? Or does the Superfund law require a company to be sued by the EPA first, before it can take action against other parties?
The U.S. government has taken the latter position. The Bush administration argued in court filings that requiring companies to be sued by the EPA before they can recover costs from other entities encourages companies to settle with the government.
There "is little evidence that...Congress," when it enacted the Superfund law, "intended to promote unsupervised cleanups at the expense of government-supervised cleanups pursuant to a settlement or suit," the Solicitor General, the government's lawyer, wrote.
Environmentalists and several U.S. business groups respond that such an interpretation would discourage companies from initiating their own cleanups. The EPA is stretched too thin to oversee the rehabilitation of every site, a coalition of business groups wrote in a court brief.
The case before the court Monday stems from a lawsuit filed by Atlantic Research Corp. in 2002. Atlantic Research retrofitted rocket motors under contract with the U.S. government in the 1980s at an industrial park in Camden, Ark., according to court filings.
Rocket propellant contaminated the industrial park as a result of the work, and the company voluntarily cleaned up the pollution. It then sued the federal government in 2002 to recover some of the costs.
A district court sided with the government, but the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Atlantic could proceed with its suit. The government then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Several business groups, including the Superfund Settlements Project and trade associations representing the chemical, oil, and utilities industries, signed onto a brief supporting Atlantic Research. The Superfund Settlements Project represents 10 corporations, including General Electric Co. and United Technologies Corp., that have spent $6 billion on hazardous waste cleanups, the group's lawyer said.