Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Court Scoffs at Repayment Clause in Law

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Court Scoffs at Repayment Clause in Law

Article excerpt

THE SUPREME COURT appeared ready Wednesday to bar people from using a 20-year-old environmental law to recover money that they spent to clean up hazardous waste on their property.

Seeking to interpret the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 197

6, five of the nine justices voiced considerable skepticism that the law could allow such reimbursement. The case stems from a suit filed in 1992 by KFC Western in Los Angeles, where the company bought land in 1975 from Alan and Margaret Meghrig, a brother and sister. The Meghrigs owned the land for 12 years before the sale. The previous owners had operated a gasoline station on the site.

In 1988, KFC discovered gasoline contamination threatening ground water and spent more than $211,000 to clean it up.

The company sued the Meghrigs in 1992, first under state law and then in federal court under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The state-court case failed. A federal judge threw out the claim.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco reinstated the federal suit. It ruled that the federal law allows private suits to stop imminent threats and generally does not allow any awards for monetary damages. But an award of cleanup costs could be treated as restitution - not the same as monetary damages, the court ruled.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in July.

John Zaimes, a Los Angeles lawyer representing the Meghrigs, seemed to find some sympathy from the justices on Wednesday while arguing that the federal law's "plain words" bar the payment KFC seeks.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist suggested the case was too old.

Rehnquist said the environmental threat was no longer "imminent" when the suit was filed in 1992, and, "It seems to me that this statute requires (such) at the time you bring the lawsuit."

Justice Antonin Scalia agreed, and suggested that the law's wording does not provide for any monetary recovery, even restitution, for old hazards. …

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