The Supreme Court Monday let stand a decision that states cannot independently obtain federal court orders requiring polluting companies to pay for cleanup of their hazardous sites.
The court let stand a ruling that Congress never intended states to have such power when it enacted exhaustive environmental cleanup legislation in 1980 and 1986.The case involved a dispute over whether an order from the Environmental Protection Agency was needed before the Idarado Mining Co., its corporate parent and another company could be forced to pay for cleanup of environmental hazards caused by their mining of a 16.5-mile area in southwestern Colorado.
A federal district court in 1989 ruled that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act - which fostered state and federal cooperation in dealing with environmental hazards - gave states the right to obtain federal court injunctions requiring firms to pay up-front for the cost of cleaning up their pollution.
However, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals then reversed the decision, finding that a federal court can issue an injunction only if it has been requested by the federal government, usually through the EPA.
Colorado claimed the EPA cannot begin to keep up with the majority of pollution sites nationwide. It said restricting court-ordered cleanup to federally approved sites would result in thousands of smaller hazards remaining untouched.
Fifteen other states filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to accept the case and reverse the 10th Circuit.
While at least 31,000 hazardous pollution sites exist nationwide, only about 1,200 have been placed on the EPA's "national priority list" and thus would be subject to court-ordered remedies under the 10th Circuit's reasoning, the states argued.
While the decision to let the ruling stand set no national precedent, it could slow the cleanup of many pollution sites, especially in the states covered by the 10th Circuit, which include Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
In other rulings Monday, the court
- Agreed to decide whether states may ban political campaigning within 100 feet of polling places while still allowing other forms of free speech there.
- Said it will consider making cities easier targets for federal lawsuits when municipal workers are killed or injured on the job.
- Let stand a decision that the Constitution allows states to tax churches buying Bibles and other religious items from neighboring states. The justices refused to hear an appeal of an Iowa law that does not exempt churches from its 4 percent retail use tax.
- Let stand a ruling that a federal warning on tampon packages about the risk of toxic shock syndrome precluded a lawsuit on behalf of a Washington state woman who died of the disease.