Third Circuit Expands CERCLA Contribution Rights and Narrows RCRA Injunctive Power


In Trinity Industries, Inc. v. Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, No. 12-2059, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a precedential opinion interpreting contribution rights under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and limiting the reach of mandatory injunctions under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).


Plaintiff/appellant Trinity purchased a site in Pennsylvania previously owned by Chicago Bridge & Iron Company (CB&I). The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania initiated enforcement proceedings under its environmental statutes against Trinity resulting in a consent order naming Trinity as a “responsible person” for releasing hazardous substances and requiring Trinity to clean up the site. The consent order reserved Trinity’s right to pursue other parties not named in the order. Trinity then filed a suit for contribution against CB&I under CERCLA and RCRA, contending that CB&I caused some of the contamination at the site during its ownership.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of CBI on grounds that CERLCA did not authorize contribution claims arising from state enforcement actions. The court relied on two Second Circuit decisions holding that contribution only arose in actions arising “under CERCLA,” citing CERCLA legislative history and referencing 42 U.S.C. § 9613(f)(3)(B).


The Third Circuit broke with the reasoning of the Second Circuit cases, citing a later case suggesting that it had “begun to retreat” from its earlier rulings. The Trinity  ourt cited the argument by the amicus United States that the comment in the legislative history limiting contribution claims to those arising “under CERCLA” referred to a different section of the statue, 42 U.S.C. § 9113(f)(1). However, the relevant section relied upon by Trinity, 42 U.S.C. § 9613(f)(3)(B), provides that a “person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State” for environmental response costs in an approved settlement may seek contribution from non-parties to the settlement.  (Emphasis added.) Section 9613(f)(3)(B) is not limited to a claim under CERCLA. Therefore, Trinity was entitled to maintain its contribution claim, and the summary judgment was vacated.


This opinion presents in important option for parties seeking contribution under CERCLA where the underlying enforcement proceeding arises under state law, at least in the Third Circuit.


Trinity also sought injunctive relief under RCRA to compel CB&I to participate in the remediation. Although Trinity had proven the elements of a RCRA claim against CB&I, the district court nonetheless granted CB&I’s motion for summary judgment because there was “no meaningful relief available under RCRA in light of the Consent Order,” and injunctive relief would be “futile.” The district court also noted that a mandatory injunction compelling action, as opposed to a prohibitory injunction restraining action, is an extraordinary remedy to be used sparingly.  Here, the Pennsylvania  onsent order already compelled Trinity to remediate the damage. The Third Circuit agreed.  It noted that RCRA permits a district court to take such action “as may be necessary.”  A mandatory injunction is not “necessary” where an effective remedial scheme is already underway. The court also noted that the primary purpose of RCRA, unlike CERCLA, is to reduce the generation and handling of hazardous waste to “minimize” threats to health and the environment, not to effect the cleanup of toxic waste sites.  Ordering CB&I to participate in the remediation would not minimize such threats.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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