McGuireWoods Wins Appeal Allowing Asarco to Seek Cleanup Costs for Montana Superfund Site

August 14, 2017

McGuireWoods has won a significant victory for copper mining giant Asarco LLC in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, allowing the company to proceed with its lawsuit seeking partial reimbursement of costs associated with cleanup of a Montana Superfund site.

A three-judge panel unanimously reversed a 2014 U.S. District Court ruling that dismissed Asarco’s lawsuit that sought to compel Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) to reimburse Asarco for a share of the $110 million Asarco had paid to clean up the East Helena smelting Superfund site. The 9th Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision sending the case back to the lower court for trial. Asarco’s complaint alleges that a zinc fuming plant operated by ARCO’s predecessor, Anaconda Mining Co., contributed to at least half of all the groundwater pollution that Asarco paid over $110 million to cleanup.

In an important environmental law ruling, the appellate panel provided needed clarity on when a settling party such as Asarco can seek contribution from nonsettling parties for cleanup costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

The District Court had ruled that Asarco’s lawsuit was time-barred, concluding that Asarco’s 1998 site remediation settlement under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) triggered a three-year statute of limitations period in which the company could bring contribution claims. But the appeals court unanimously disagreed and determined that the 1998 decree did not definitively resolve Asarco’s response obligations. The appellate panel agreed with Asarco that the company’s 2009 CERCLA settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency resolved its liability for the first time and triggered the statute of limitations, making Asarco’s 2012 lawsuit timely.

“We are pleased for our client that the 9th Circuit panel unanimously held that Asarco should be allowed to present evidence showing why ARCO is liable for significant cleanup costs at the East Helena site,” said McGuireWoods partner Gregory Evans, who represented longstanding client Asarco in the District Court and argued the case on appeal. “We look forward to the opportunity to try this case on the merits.”

This is the third significant federal appeals court victory that Evans and McGuireWoods have won for Asarco this year. In June, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling allowing Asarco to proceed with a lawsuit seeking reinstatement in a copper mine partnership with Montana Resources. In January, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that a lower court abused its discretion by dismissing Asarco’s lawsuit against Noranda Mining Inc., seeking recovery of remediation costs associated with the Richardson Flat Superfund site in Park City, Utah.