United States District Court, D. Arizona
G. Campbell, United States District Judge.
El Paso Natural Gas Company LLC brings claims against
Defendants United States of America, the Department of the
Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Geological
Survey, the Department of Energy, and the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (collectively, the “United States”)
under §§ 107 and 113 of the Comprehensive
Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
(CERCLA). El Paso seeks to recover response costs incurred in
remediating 19 historical uranium mines located on the Navajo
Reservation (the “Mine Sites”). Doc. 55,
has moved for summary judgment on its claim that the United
States is an “owner” of the Mine Sites under
CERCLA. The Court previously resolved some of the arguments
made in the parties' summary judgment briefing, but
called for additional briefing on the owner issue. See El
Paso Nat. Gas Co. LLC v. United States, No.
CV-14-08165-PCT-DGC, 2017 WL 2405266 (D. Ariz. June 2, 2017).
The parties have now provided further briefing. Docs. 130,
parties stipulate that the United States has owned fee title
to the Mine Sites since at least 1952. Doc. 83, ¶¶
23-24. The United States argues, nonetheless, that is not an
owner within the meaning of CERCLA because its ownership
interest is limited - it holds reservation land in trust for
the benefit of the Navajo Nation.
considering the broad remedial purposes of CERCLA, the
ordinary meaning of property ownership, the nature of the
Navajo Nation and United States interests in reservation
land, and other relevant authorities, the Court concludes
that the United States is an owner under CERCLA. Because
further factual development is needed, the Court cannot at
this time determine whether the United States is entitled to
a limit on its liability under CERCLA § 107(n) based on
its role as a fiduciary.
Court's previous order noted that the Ninth Circuit has
looked to the relevant common law to identify an owner under
CERCLA, and directed the parties to brief the federal law
that applies to reservation lands. El Paso, 2017 WL
2405266 at *5-6. Although the Court continues to find federal
statutory and common law relevant, and will consider it in
this order, the Court also concludes that the remedial
purposes of CERCLA and the ordinary meaning of property
ownership are important in this case. The Ninth Circuit cases
cited in the Court's previous order considered whether a
person other than the fee title holder could be an owner
under CERCLA, and looked to common law for the answer.
See Long Beach Unified Sch. Dist. v. Dorothy B. Godwin
California Living Tr., 32 F.3d 1364 (9th Cir. 1994);
City of Los Angeles v. San Pedro Boat Works, 635
F.3d 440 (9th Cir. 2011). The question in this case is the
reverse - whether a fee title holder can be deemed a
non-owner for purposes of CERCLA. On this basic question, and
after reviewing the parties' supplemental briefing, the
Court finds the purposes of CERCLA and the ordinary meaning
of “owner” to be highly relevant, as did the
Tenth Circuit in the recent case of Chevron Mining Inc.
v. United States, --- F.3d ---, 2017 WL 3045887, at *7
(10th Cir. July 19, 2017).
The Purpose of CERCLA.
Court's conclusion that the United States is an owner
under CERLCA is strongly influenced by the approach CERCLA
takes to environmental cleanup. CERCLA seeks “to
promote the ‘timely cleanup of hazardous waste
sites' and to ensure that the costs of such cleanup
efforts [are] borne by those responsible for the
contamination.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. v.
United States, 556 U.S. 599, 602 (2009) (citation
omitted). To accomplish this goal, CERCLA casts the liability
net broadly, capturing virtually everyone connected with the
property or the contamination, with specific levels of
responsibility to be assigned by the court in an equitable
allocation process. As the Supreme Court has explained,
“[t]he remedy that Congress felt it needed in CERCLA is
sweeping: everyone who is potentially responsible
for hazardous-waste contamination may be forced to contribute
to the costs of cleanup.” United States v.
Bestfoods, 524 U.S. 51, 56 n.1 (1998) (emphasis in
original; citation omitted). Liable parties include entities
and individuals who may have had little or nothing to do with
the actual contamination. “CERCLA is a strict liability
statute in that it does not require a party to act culpably
in order to be liable for clean up.” Voggenthaler
v. Maryland Square LLC, 724 F.3d 1050, 1061 (9th Cir.
2013). To achieve CERCLA's broad remedial goals, courts
interpret the statute “liberally.” Id.
are four types of persons liable under CERCLA: owners,
operators, arrangers, and transporters. 42 U.S.C. §
9607(a). These are “broad categories” of liable
persons, United States v. Atl. Research Corp., 551
U.S. 128, 134 (2007), and they can include the United States.
Under § 9620(a)(1) of CERCLA, “[e]ach department,
agency, and instrumentality of the United States . . . shall
be subject to . . . this chapter in the same manner and to
the same extent, both procedurally and substantively, as any
nongovernmental entity, including liability under section
9607 of this title.” 42 U.S.C. § 9620(a)(1). This
provision waives sovereign immunity to the extent the United
States is a liable party under CERCLA. El Paso, 2017
WL 2405266 at *2-4.
The Ordinary Meaning of “Owner.”
defines “owner” as “any person
owning” a facility. 42 U.S.C. § 9601(20)(A). This
definition, of course, is circular. As the Ninth Circuit has
noted, it “is a bit like defining ‘green' as
‘green.'” Long Beach, 32 F.3d at
1368. When a statute provides such a circular definition of a
term, courts normally look to the term's plain and
ordinary meaning. Id.
ordinary meaning of the word “owner” is the
person or entity which holds title to property. As the Tenth
Circuit recently noted in Chevron Mining,
“[t]he ordinary or natural meaning of ‘owner'
includes, at a minimum, a legal title holder.” 2017 WL
3045887 at *7; see also Own, Black's Law
Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (“To rightfully have or
possess as property; to have legal title to.”);
Owner, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014)
(“Someone who has the right to possess, use, and convey
something; a person in whom one or more interests are vested.
An owner may have complete property in the thing or may have
parted with some interests in it (as by granting an easement
or making a lease).”). “Dictionaries published
around the time of CERCLA's enactment in 1980 affirm this
natural meaning.” Chevron Mining, 2017 WL
3045887 at 7; see Own, Black's Law Dictionary
(5th ed. 1979) (“To have good legal title; to hold as
property; to have a legal or rightful title to; to have; to
possess.”); Owner, Black's Law Dictionary
(5th ed. 1979) (“The person in whom is vested the
ownership, dominion, or title of property;
proprietor.”). “For purposes of CERCLA, then, an
owner includes the legal title holder of contaminated
land.” Chevron Mining, 2017 WL 3045887 at
*7. Because the United States holds legal title to
the Mine Sites, it is the owner of the Mine Sites under the
ordinary meaning of “owner.”
The Nature of Reservation Land.
Court's review of federal law does not alter this