BNSF No Big Deal, says U. S. District Court

Posted on May 25, 2010 by Rick Glick

The U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of California has denied reconsideration of its pre-BNSF order finding defendants jointly and severally liable under CERCLA. U. S. v. Iron Mountain Mines. Defendants had argued that the Supreme Court in the BNSF case mandated the district courts to consider grounds for reasonable apportionment. They had earlier argued for apportionment before BNSF and then cited the Supreme Court’s decision as an intervening change of law that entitles it to reconsideration.


The court disagreed, finding that BNSF did not change the law, rather it simply reaffirmed existing law and applied it to a specific set of facts. It seems strange that the Supreme Court would grant cert in a case where the law is settled just to apply the facts. In fact, the working presumption in CERCLA litigation had been that joint and several liability is the rule and apportionment is rare, even though CERCLA doesn’t say that. Most practitioners saw BNSF as a game changer, reopening the possibility of a hard look given to reasonable bases for apportionment in mediated allocations and in court. But the District Court followed the lead of the Justice Department, which has consistently said BNSF marks no departure from standard CERCLA jurisprudence.


It sure would be great if the Supreme Court would provide some clarity in its environmental decisions. Few would think Rapanos helped much with our understanding of the Clean Water Act, and now we need to muddle through a certain lack of precision in representing clients in Superfund matters. While BNSF opens the window, it remains to be seen whether the opening is just a crack or will really let some fresh air in.

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