Emergency Management May Reduce the Risk of CERCLA Liability for Natural Disasters

April 6, 2016Articles Disaster Recovery Journal

The federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), and corresponding state laws were designed to impose liability on parties determined to be responsible for releases of hazardous substances into the environment, and the potential costs of liability can be devastating.

Natural disasters can lead to unexpected liabilities under these laws. Emergency managers should pause to reflect on ways to minimize these risks.

Consider the case of Alcan Aluminum. In litigation brought in 1989 by the United States, Alcan was found to have improperly handled oily wastes in an underground tunnel in northeastern Pennsylvania. After heavy rains from Hurricane Gloria flooded the tunnel and washed some of that waste into the Susquehanna River, the federal government successfully recovered more than $1.3 million in cleanup costs. In imposing CERCLA liability, the court rejected Alcan’s argument that it should not be held responsible for the effects of a hurricane, holding instead that the company could have prevented the damage by exercising due care and foresight.

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