Meghrig v. KFC Western Inc.

Decision Date19 March 1996
Docket Number9583
Citation134 L.Ed.2d 121,516 U.S. 479,116 S.Ct. 1251
PartiesAlan MEGHRIG, et al., Petitioners, v. KFC WESTERN, INC
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus*

Three years after complying with a county order to clean up petroleum contamination discovered on its property, respondent KFC Western, Inc., brought this action under the citizen suit provision of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a), to recover its cleanup costs from petitioners, the Meghrigs. KFC claimed, among other things, that the contamination had previously posed an "imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment," see § 6972(a)(1)(B), and that the Meghrigs were responsible for "equitable restitution" under § 6972(a) because, as prior owners of the property, they had contributed to the contaminated site. The District Court dismissed the complaint, holding that § 6972(a) does not permit recovery of past cleanup costs and that § 6972(a)(1)(B) does not authorize a cause of action for the remediation of toxic waste that does not pose an "imminent and substantial endangerment" at the time suit is filed. The Ninth Circuit disagreed on both points and reversed.

Held: Section 6972 does not authorize a private cause of action to recover the prior cost of cleaning up toxic waste that does not, at the time of suit, continue to pose an endangerment to health or the environment. Pp. __-__.

(a) A private party cannot recover the cost of a past cleanup effort under § 6972(a), which authorizes district courts "to restrain any person [responsible for toxic waste], to order such person to take such other action as may be necessary, or both." (Emphasis added.) Under a plain reading of this remedial scheme, a citizen plaintiff could seek a mandatory injunction that orders a responsible party to "take action" by attending to the cleanup and proper disposal of waste, or a prohibitory injunction that "restrains" a responsible party from further violating RCRA. Neither remedy, however, contemplates the award of past cleanup costs, whether denominated "damages" or "equitable restitution." A comparison with the relief provided in the analogous, but not parallel, provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 demonstrates that Congress knows how to provide for the recovery of past cleanup costs, and that § 6972(a) does not provide that remedy. Pp. __-__.

(b) Section 6972(a)(1)(B)—which permits citizen suits against persons responsible for "waste which may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment" (emphasis added)—does not authorize a suit based upon an allegation that the contaminated site posed such an endangerment at some time in the past. This timing restriction's plain meaning demonstrates that an endangerment can only be "imminent" if it threatens to occur immediately, and the reference to waste which "may present" imminent harm quite clearly excludes waste that no longer presents such a danger. This language implies that there must be a threat which is present now, althou gh the impact of the threat may not be felt until later. It follows that § 6972(a) was designed to provide a remedy that ameliorates present or obviates the risk of future "imminent" harms, not a remedy that compensates for past cleanup efforts. Other aspects of RCRA's enforcement scheme strongly support this conclusion, and the existence of such an elaborate scheme refutes the Government's contention that district courts may award past cleanup costs under their inherent equitable remedial authority. Pp. __-__.

(c) This Court does not consider whether a private party could seek to obtain an injunction requiring another party to pay cleanup costs arising after a RCRA citizen suit has been properly commenced. P. __.

49 F.3d 518 (C.A.9 1995), reversed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

On Writ of Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

John Palmer, for petitioners.

Jeffrey P. Minear amicus curiae, for U.S.

Daniel Romano, for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

We consider whether § 7002 of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. § 6972 (1988 ed.), authorizes a private cause of action to recover the prior cost of cleaning up toxic waste that does not, at the time of suit, continue to pose an endangerment to health or the environment. We conclude that it does not.

I

Respondent KFC Western, Inc. (KFC), owns and operates a "Kentucky Fried Chicken" restaurant on a parcel of property in Los Angeles. In 1988, KFC discovered during the course of a construction project that the property was contaminated with petroleum. The County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services ordered KFC to attend to the problem, and KFC spent $211,000 removing and disposing of the oil-tainted soil.

Three years later, KFC brought this suit under the citizen suit provision of RCRA, 90 Stat. 2825, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a) (1988 ed.),** seeking to recover these cleanup costs from petitioners Alan and Margaret Meghrig.

KFC claimed that the contaminated soil was a "solid waste" covered by RCRA, see 42 U.S.C. § 6903(27) (1988 ed.), that it had previously posed an "imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment," see § 6972(a)(1)(B), and that the Meghrigs were responsible for "equitable restitution" of KFC's cleanup costs under § 6972(a) because, as prior owners of the property, they had contributed to the waste's "past or present handling, storage, treatment, transportation, or disposal." See App. 12-19 (first amended complaint).

The District Court held that § 6972(a) does not permit recovery of past cleanup costs and that § 6972(a)(1)(B) does not authorize a cause of action for the remediation of toxic waste that does not pose an "imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment" at the time suit is filed, and dismissed KFC's complaint. App. to Pet. for Cert. A21-A23 . The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, over a dissent, 49 F.3d 518, 524-528 (1995) (Brunetti, J.), finding that a district court had authority under § 6972(a) to award restitution of past cleanup costs, id., at 521-523, and that a private party can proceed with a suit under § 6972(a)(1)(B) upon an allegation that the waste at issue presented an "imminent and substantial endangerment" at the time it was cleaned up, id., at 520-521.

The Ninth Circuit's conclusion regarding the remedies available under RCRA conflicts with the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Furrer v. Brown, 62 F.3d 1092, 1100-1101 (1995), and its interpretation of the "imminent endangerment" requirement represents a novel application of federal statutory law. We granted certiorari to address the conflict between the Circuits and to consider the correctness of the Ninth Circuit's interpretation of RCRA, 515 U.S. ----, 116 S.Ct. 41, 132 L.Ed.2d 922 (1995), and now reverse.

II

RCRA is a comprehensive environmental statute that governs the treatment, storage, and disposal of solid and hazardous waste. See Chicago v. Environmental Defense Fund, 511 U.S. ----, ----, 114 S.Ct. 1588, 1590-1591, 128 L.Ed.2d 302 (1994). Unlike the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), 94 Stat. 2767, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 9601 et seq. (1988 ed. and Supp. V), RCRA is not principally designed to effectuate the cleanup of toxic waste sites or to compensate those who have attended to the remediation of environmental hazards. Cf. General Electric Co. v. Litton Industrial Automation Systems, Inc., 920 F.2d 1415, 1422 (C.A.8 1990) (the "two . . . main purposes of CERCLA" are "prompt cleanup of hazardous waste sites and imposition of all cleanup costs on the responsible party"). RCRA's primary purpose, rather, is to reduce the generation of hazardous waste and to ensure the proper treatment, storage, and disposal of that waste which is nonetheless generated, "so as to minimize the present and future threat to human health and the environment." 42 U.S.C. § 6902(b) (1988 ed.).

Chief responsibility for the implementation and enforcement of RCRA rests with the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), see §§ 6928, 6973, but like other environmental laws, RCRA contains a citizen suit provision, § 6972, which permits private citizens to enforce its provisions in some circumstances.

Two requirements of § 6972(a) defeat KFC's suit against the Meghrigs. The first concerns the necessary timing of a citizen suit brought under § 6972(a)(1)(B): That section permits a private party to bring suit against certain responsible persons, including former owners, "who ha[ve] contributed or who [are] contributing to the past or present handling, storage, treatment, transportation, or disposal of any solid or hazardous waste which may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment." (Emphasis added.) The second defines the remedies a district court can award in a suit brought under § 6972(a)(1)(B): Section 6972(a) authorizes district courts "to restrain any person who has contributed or who is contributing to the past or present handling, storage, treatment, transportation, or disposal of any solid or hazardous waste . . ., to order such person to take such other action as may be necessary, or both." (Emphasis added.)

It is apparent from the two remedies described in § 6972(a) that RCRA's citizen suit provision is not directed at providing compensation for past cleanup efforts. Under a plain reading of this remedial scheme, a private citizen suing under § 6972(a)(1)(B) could seek a mandatory injunction, i.e., one that orders a responsible party to "take action" by attending to the cleanup and proper disposal of toxic waste, or a prohibitory injunction, ...

To continue reading

Request your trial
470 cases
  • Black Warrior River-Keeper, Inc. v. Drummond Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
    • May 7, 2019
    ...generated, ‘so as to minimize the present and future threat to human health and the environment.’ " Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc. , 516 U.S. 479, 483, 116 S.Ct. 1251, 134 L.Ed.2d 121 (1996). RCRA authorizes citizen enforcement actions against "any person ... who has contributed or is contrib......
  • Mallett v. Wisconsin Div. of Vocational Rehabilitation
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit
    • December 1, 1997
    ...court must be chary of reading others into it." TAMA, 444 U.S. at 19, 100 S.Ct. at 247; see also Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc., 516 U.S. 479, ----, 116 S.Ct. 1251, 1256, 134 L.Ed.2d 121 (1996). Together, the private right of action for states and the administrative appeal process for private......
  • U.S. v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co., Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of New York
    • August 31, 2004
    ...statute that governs the treatment, storage, and disposal of solid and hazardous waste." Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc., 516 U.S. 479, 483, 116 S.Ct. 1251, 134 L.Ed.2d 121 (1996); see also Chicago v. Envtl. Def. Fund, 511 U.S. 328, 331, 114 S.Ct. 1588, 128 L.Ed.2d 302 (1994) (noting that RCRA......
  • Portland Pipe Line Corp. v. City of S. Portland
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Maine
    • December 29, 2017
    ...transmission lines, 16 U.S.C. §§ 824p, and LNG pipeline facilities. 15 U.S.C. § 717f ; see e.g. Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc. , 516 U.S. 479, 485, 116 S.Ct. 1251, 134 L.Ed.2d 121 (1996) ("Congress thus demonstrated in CERCLA that it knew how to provide for the recovery of cleanup costs, and ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
46 books & journal articles
  • Environmental crimes.
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Vol. 45 No. 2, March 2008
    • March 22, 2008
    ...9601-9675. (385.) H.R. REP. No. 96-1016, at 22 (1980), reprinted in 1980 U.S.C.C.A.N. 6119, 6125; see Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc., 516 U.S. 479, 483 (1996) (quoting Eighth Circuit's statement of the two main purposes of CERCLA--"prompt cleanup of hazardous waste sites and imposition of all......
  • Environmental crimes.
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Vol. 43 No. 2, March 2006
    • March 22, 2006
    ...9601-9675. (376.) H.R. REP. No. 96-1016, at 22 (1980), reprinted in 1980 U.S.C.C.A.N. 6119, 6125; see Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc., 516 U.S. 479, 483 (1996) (quoting Eighth Circuit's statement of CERCLA's two main purposes--"prompt cleanup of hazardous waste sites and imposition of all clea......
  • 2019 NINTH CIRCUIT ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW.
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Vol. 50 No. 3, June 2020
    • June 22, 2020
    ...or a prohibitory injunction, i.e., one that 'restrains' a responsible party from further violating RCRA." Meghrig v. KFC W., Inc., 516 U.S. 479, 484 (63) 333 U.S. 103 (1948). (64) Id. at 104-05. (65) Id. at 114. (66) Id. at 113. (67) 42 U.S.C. [section] 6972(a). (68) Center, No. CV-12-08176......
  • CHAPTER 3 CERCLA LITIGATION: HOT TOPICS IN COST RECOVERY AND CONTRIBUTION ACTIONS
    • United States
    • FNREL - Special Institute Natural Resources & Environmental Litigation II (FNREL)
    • Invalid date
    ...hazardous substance). [141] 42 U.S.C. § 6972. [142] 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a)(1). [143] 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a). [144] 42 U.S.C. § 6972(e). [145] 116 S. Ct. 1251 (1996). [146] Id. at 1254-55. [147] Id. at 1255. [148] See, e.g., H.R. 2500 105th Cong. (1996). [149] Proposed amendments to S. 1285 105th ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT