When CERCLA Preemption Fails, Defendants Fall Back on State Law Protections

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Interpreting the limits CERCLA imposes on state law environmental claims, the Southern District of California held that while plaintiffs’ environmental cleanup claims were not barred, plaintiffs could not claim damages for future remediation costs.  See Greenfield MHP Assocs., L.P. v. Ametek, Inc., Civ. No. 15-1525, Order Granting in Part and Denying in part Motion for Summary Judgment (S.D. Cal. Apr. 12, 2018).

Plaintiffs in this case are a group of mobile home park owners whose property was contaminated by a release of toxic chemicals from a nearby manufacturing facility prior to the facility’s closure in the 1980s.  Although the defendant, the former operator of the plant, has a remediation plan in place for its property and works with California state agencies to clean and monitor, the plan doesn’t include the plaintiffs’ properties.  Plaintiffs alleged that new contamination continued to occur to groundwater beneath their properties. 

Ametek moved for summary judgment, which the court denied in part and granted in part.  First the defendant argued that the plaintiffs’ involvement in the cleanup would conflict with California state agencies’ current involvement in implementing a CERCLA remedy.  The court held that even though CERCLA likely prohibits future restoration damages, Ametek presented no evidence that Congress intended for CERCLA to preempt state law claims where the federal government is not involved in the cleanup. 

The court sided with the defense, however, on future remediation costs.  Because future remediation costs would frustrate the purpose of the State’s Carpenter-Presely-Tanner Hazardous Substance Account Act (“HSAA”) and produce a high risk of double recovery, the court ultimately held that plaintiff’s claims were barred on these facts. 

By granting only partial summary judgment, the court made it clear that other forms of relief for damage to plaintiffs’ properties—such as injunctive or declaratory relief—were still available and the parties will proceed to trial.

[View source.]

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