Meghrig et al. v. KFC Western, Inc. (95-83), 516 U.S. 479 (1996).
[ O'Connor ]
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 95-83. Argued January 10, 1996 -- Decided March 19, 1996

Three years after complying with a county order to clean up petroleum contamination discovered on its property, respondent KFC Western, Inc., brought this action under the citizen suit provision of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a), to recover its cleanup costs from petitioners, the Meghrigs. KFC claimed, among other things, that the contamination had previously posed an "imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment," see §6972(a)(1)(B), and that the Meghrigs were responsible for "equitable restitution" under §6972(a) because, as prior owners of the property, they had contributed to the contaminated site. The District Court dismissed the complaint, holding that §6972(a) does not permit recovery of past cleanup costs and that §6972(a)(1)(B) does not authorize a cause of action for the remediation of toxic waste that does not pose an "imminent and substantial endangerment" at the time suit is filed. The Ninth Circuit disagreed on both points and reversed.

Held: Section 6972 does not authorize a private cause of action to recover the prior cost of cleaning up toxic waste that does not, at the time of suit, continue to pose an endangerment to health or the environment. Pp. 3-9.

(a) A private party cannot recover the cost of a past cleanup effort under §6972(a), which authorizes district courts "to restrain any person [responsible for toxic waste], to order such person to take such other action as may be necessary, or both." (Emphasis added.) Under a plain reading of this remedial scheme, a citizen plaintiff could seek a mandatory injunction that orders a responsible party to "take action" by attending to the cleanup and proper disposal of waste, or a prohibitory injunction that "restrains" a responsible party from further violating RCRA. Neither remedy, however, contemplates the award of past cleanup costs, whether denominated "damages" or "equitable restitution." A comparison with the relief provided in the analogous, but not parallel, provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 demonstrates that Congress knows how to provide for the recovery of past cleanup costs, and that §6972(a) does not provide that remedy. Pp. 4-5.

(b) Section 6972(a)(1)(B)--which permits citizen suits against persons responsible for "waste which may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment" (emphasis added)--does not authorize a suit based upon an allegation that the contaminated site posed such an endangerment at some time in the past. This timing restriction's plain meaning demonstrates that an endangerment can only be "imminent" if it threatens to occur immediately, and the reference to waste which "may present" imminent harm quite clearly excludes waste that no longer presents such a danger. This language implies that there must be a threat which is present now, although the impact of the threat may not be felt until later. It follows that §6972(a) was designed to provide a remedy that ameliorates present or obviates the risk of future "imminent" harms, not a remedy that compensates for past cleanup efforts. Other aspects of RCRA's enforcement scheme strongly support this conclusion, and the existence of such an elaborate scheme refutes the Government's contention that district courts may award past cleanup costs under their inherent equitable remedial authority. Pp. 5-8.

(c) This Court does not consider whether a private party could seek to obtain an injunction requiring another party to pay cleanup costs arising after a RCRA citizen suit has been properly commenced. P. 8.

49 F. 3d 518, reversed.

O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.