SCOTUS sides with Guam in $160 million ex-Navy dump Superfund case

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  • Ruling 'paves the way' for U.S. to help pay for dump cleanup
  • States feared U.S. victory absolving feds of cleaning up military sites

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reversed a lower court ruling that had left the island territory of Guam on the hook for the $160 million cleanup of a former, polluting landfill it inherited from the U.S. Navy.

In a unanimous ruling, the court rejected the United States' argument that Guam waited too long to sue the federal government to recoup moneys for the Ordot Dump's remediation under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act because a previous settlement under a different statute had triggered a CERCLA statute of limitations.

U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Danielle Nichols declined to comment.

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Guam's attorney, Gregory Garre of Latham & Watkins, said the decision "paves the way for the United States to pay its fair share for the cleanup of the Ordot Dump."

The ruling resolves a circuit-court split over the question of whether non-CERCLA settlements can give rise to a contribution claim under the so-called Superfund law.

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas rejected the federal government's argument that a decade-old consent decree settling a lawsuit the United States brought against Guam under the Clean Water Act (CWA) triggered a CERCLA three-year time limit to recoup the cleanup costs through a mechanism known as "contribution."

Thomas said that the "the most natural reading (of CERCLA) is that a party may seek contribution under CERCLA only after settling a CERCLA-specific liability."

As a result of the ruling, Guam can now proceed with claims it has said are timely against the United States under a different CERCLA mechanism known as "cost recovery."

The cost-recovery mechanism is tied to a longer, six-year statute of limitations. Guam's 2017 complaint pursued that avenue, but the circuit court blocked it when it held only the contribution route was available. The contribution and the cost-recovery methods to recoup cleanup funds are mutually exclusive.

The cost to remedy the Ordot Dump, which the Navy used during World War Two to discard munitions and toxic waste including Agent Orange, is estimated at $160 million.

Guam took charge of the unlined landfill that has leaked toxic chemicals into the Pacific Ocean when its civilian government replaced the U.S. military one in 1950. It closed it in 2011 and began cleaning it up in 2013.

The island territory sued the United States in Connecticut federal court to force it, under CERCLA, to take on some of the financial responsibilities for the dump's cleanup.

A federal judge allowed the case to proceed, but last year the U.S. Circuit Court for the D.C. Circuit held that Guam's lawsuit was time-barred because the three-year statute of limitations of CERCLA's contribution provision had long expired.

The circuit court reasoned that a 2004 decree that settled the United States' CWA lawsuit had set off the statute of limitations for Guam to make CERCLA contribution claims.

Monday's ruling is also a win for a group of two dozen states that has warned in a friend-of-the-court filing that a victory by the United States would allow it to "dodge liability" for military-sites cleanup by construing non-CERCLA settlements as resolving CERCLA liability. The case is Territory of Guam v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 20-382. For Territory of Guam: Gregory Garre of Latham & Watkins For United States: Elizabeth Prelogar of the U.S. Department of Justice

Read more: Q&A: Samoan American turned D.C. lawyer on homeland's SCOTUS petition he helped draft SCOTUS presses U.S., Guam in longrunning ex-Navy dump Superfund case Guam to tell U.S. Supreme Court why Navy should pick up $160 mln cleanup tab

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