Clean Up Liability and Costs Law and Legal Definition

In the context of environmental law, clean up costs and liability refers to the responsibility of a person or entity for hazardous waste removal. Such activities are governed at the federal level primarily by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). CERCLA gives the government broad powers to address the issues of hazardous waste, especially polluted industrial or storage sites that are no longer active. CERCLA allows the government to require a party potentially responsible for the waste to undertake cleanup efforts. The government can also choose to perform the cleanup itself and recover the cleanup costs from potentially responsible parties. Parties who pay cleanup costs can seek reimbursement by identifying another party responsible for the waste.

CERCLA liability arises by the past or present "release" of a "hazardous substance" into the environment. The EPA has identified a long list of substances it considers to be hazardous. There are four categories of potentially responsible parties who may be held liable: 1) the current owner or operator of the site; 2) the owner of the site at the time any hazardous waste was disposed of there; 3) a person who arranged for the disposal of a hazardous substance; and 4) a transporter of the substance to the site.

CERCLA imposes strict liability. Therefore. the government does not need to show fault or negligence on the part of the potentially responsible party (PRP). CERCLA also applies joint and several liability, which holds each PRP responsible for all of the damage. If there is only one PRP, it can be forced to pay the entire cost. If others are known, they will have to come up with the total together, but, each will be able to argue why its contribution should be minimal or nothing.

The statute contains an exception from liability if the release of the hazardous substance resulted through an act of God, an act of war, or an act of a third party who isn't acting as the agent or employee of, or under a contract with, the PRP. Also, the PRP must have used due care and tried to avoid foreseeable acts or omissions by third parties that could lead to the release of a hazardous substance.

Persons responsible for hazardous waste are required to report a release of a "reportable quantity" of such waste to the government's National Response Center. The more dangerous the hazardous substance, the smaller the reportable quantity will be. Failure to report such a release can lead to fines or imprisonment.

If the PRP refuses to do obey a clean up order, it may be fined up to $25,000 per day, and up to triple the amount of the total cleanup cost if the government is forced to undertake the waste removal. Private parties, including PRPs, may also sue other PRPs to recover cleanup costs. Courts will then apportion the costs with respect to each party's contribution to the hazardous waste issue. In some cases, disposing of a hazardous substance can create liability. Disposal may sometimes include the sale of a product that has hazardous ingredients, when the seller tries to disguise arrangements for the disposal of hazardous waste as the sale of a product.