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Supreme Court Backs Guam’s Bid To Get Payments From U.S. For Hazardous Dumping

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OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion


The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision on Monday that gives new life into a lawsuit Guam brought against the United States over a massive waste site leaking toxic chemicals into the Pacific Ocean.

Guam closed the Ordot Landfill in 2011 as part of a $160 million settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In court filings over the years, Guam argued that it should not have to foot the bill alone as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act contains a provision for settling parties to seek contribution from other responsible parties.

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The ruling, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, reversed a decision by a lower court that found a prior settlement had adequately “resolved Guam’s liability” for the dump.

“The most natural reading of §113(f )(3)(B) is that a party may seek contribution under CERCLA only after settling a CERCLA-specific liability,” Thomas wrote the court.

At issue in the case is whether a 2004 settlement between the U.S and Guam under the Clean Water Act should prevent the U.S. territory from pursuing payment under another law that deals with hazardous waste cleanup known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

Monday’s ruling said Guam can pursue U.S. payments under the hazardous waste law.

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The court said that just because the U.S. and Guam had reached an agreement under a different environmental law, namely the Clean Water Act, that does not mean Guam can’t pursue additional payments under CERCLA.

During oral arguments, an attorney representing the federal government argued that what counts as a “response action,” under CERCLA isn’t specific to actions taken under the waste law.

The Navy for years dumped waste at Guam’s Ordot Dump, where the territory also dumped municipal waste.

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In the 2004 agreement, Guam paid the U.S. after it alleged that the territory had violated the Clean Water Act by discharging pollutants into U.S. waters without a permit.

In 2017, the territory sued the U.S., seeking money for the cost of cleanup at the now-closed site.

The Supreme Court on Monday remanded the issue back to a lower court.

“We are thrilled with the Court’s decision in favor of Guam today, which paves the way for the United States to pay its fair share for the cleanup of the Ordot Dump,” said lawyer Gregory Garre, who is representing Guam, in an email.

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Atlantic Richfield filed a similar petition in February in connection with a Superfund site in Montana.

The court has yet to announce how it will address those petitions.

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