The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980 transformed environmental law by imposing joint and several strict liability on those who contaminate the environment, referred to as potentially responsible parties (PRPs). Under the auspices of CERCLA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has overseen cleanup at thousands of sites, protecting public health and natural resources and returning land to productive use. But thousands more sites require attention.
The best opportunity for the continued success of CERCLA lies in the EPA’s ability to convince PRPs to enter settlements and agree to fund cleanups. CERCLA encourages settlement by protecting settling parties from contribution claims brought by other PRPs. Recent doctrinal developments, however, threaten to substantially undermine that incentive because now some PRPs—typically the least cooperative—may bring “cost recovery” actions, which appear to evade the protection against contribution claims.
This Article exposes this appearance as an illusion. Courts have long recognized that common law principles govern cost recovery claims. Where the government sues on behalf of the public, those principles render PRPs jointly and severally liable. But the common law treats claims brought by joint tortfeasors—like PRPs—differently. Such claims are quintessential contribution claims, and they are therefore barred.
Few courts or commentators have addressed the nature of PRP cost recovery claims. Yet this issue requires urgent attention to ensure that the EPA’s CERCLA program remains viable in the current political reality. This Article analyzes common law principles, statutory language, and case law and identifies a path forward. Recognizing that PRP cost recovery claims are contribution claims reinvigorates CERCLA’s settlement incentives while ensuring that each statutory provision retains importance and meaning.