Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co.,
Annotate this Case
491 U.S. 1 (1989)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co., 491 U.S. 1 (1989)
Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co.
Argued October 31, 1988
Decided June 15, 1989
491 U.S. 1
Respondent's predecessors operated a coal gasification plant, which produced coal tar as a byproduct, along a creek in Pennsylyania. Shortly after acquiring easements in the property along the creek, and while excavating to control flooding, the State struck a large deposit of coal tar which began to seep into the creek. Finding the tar to be a hazardous substance, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the site the Nation's first Superfund site, and the State and the Federal Government together cleaned up the area. The Government reimbursed the State for cleanup costs and sued respondent to recoup those costs under §§ 104 and 106 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 9604 and 9606, claiming that respondent was liable because it and its predecessors had deposited the tar in the ground. Respondent filed a third-party complaint against the State, asserting, inter alia, that it was liable as an "owner and operator" of the site under § 107(a) of CERCLA. The District Court dismissed this complaint on the ground that the State's Eleventh Amendment immunity barred the suit. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding no clear expression of intent to hold States liable in monetary damages under CERCLA. However, after this Court vacated that decision and remanded for reconsideration in light of subsequent amendments to CERCLA made by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA), the Court of Appeals held that the statute's amended language clearly rendered States liable for
monetary damages, and that Congress had the power to do so under the Commerce Clause.
Held: The judgment is affirmed, and the case is remanded.
832 F.2d 1343, affirmed and remanded.
JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, concluding that CERCLA, as amended by SARA, clearly expresses an intent to hold States liable in damages in federal court. 491 U. S. 7-13.
(a) The statute's plain language authorizes such suits. Section 101(21)'s express inclusion of States within its definition of "persons," and § 101(20)(D)'s plain statement that state and local governments are to be considered "owners or operators" in all but very narrow circumstances, together establish that Congress intended that States be liable for cleanup costs under § 107 along with everyone else responsible for creating hazardous waste sites. The fact that § 101(20)(D) uses language virtually identical to § 120(a)(1)'s waiver of the Federal Government's sovereign immunity is highly significant, demonstrating that Congress must have intended to override the States' immunity from suit. This conclusion is not contradicted by § 101(20)(D)'s exclusion of States from the category of "owners and operators" when they acquire ownership or control of a site involuntarily by virtue of their function as sovereign, by § 107(d)(2)'s general exemption of States from liability for actions taken during cleanup of contamination generated by other persons' facilities, or by 42 U.S.C. § 9659(a)(1)'s express reservation of States' Eleventh Amendment rights in citizen suits, since those provisions would be unnecessary unless suits against States were otherwise permitted by the statute. 491 U. S. 7-10.
(b) Pennsylyania's arguments to the contrary are not persuasive. If accepted, the contention that CERCLA creates state liability only to the Federal Government would render meaningless the § 101(20)(D) language making States liable "to the same extent . . . as any nongovernmental entity, including liability for [damages]," since no explicit authorization is necessary before the Federal Government may sue a State for damages. Moreover, § 101(20)(D) obviously explains and qualifies the entire definition of "owner or operator," and does not, as Pennsylyania suggests, render States liable only if they acquire property involuntarily and then contribute to contamination there. Nor can it be decisive that § 101(20)(D) mentions local governments, which do not enjoy immunity, in the same breath as States, since it was natural for Congress to discuss governmental entities together. Pp. 491 U. S. 11-13.
JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE MARSHALL, JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded in Part III that Congress has
the authority to render States liable for money damages in federal court when legislating pursuant to the Commerce Clause. Pp. 491 U. S. 13-23.
(a) This Court's decisions indicate that Congress has the authority to override States' immunity when legislating pursuant to the Commerce Clause. See, e.g., Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Dept., 377 U. S. 184; Employees v. Missouri Dept. of Public Health and Welfare, 411 U. S. 279. This conclusion is confirmed by a consideration of the special nature of the plenary power conferred by the Clause, which expands federal power by taking power away from the States. Cf. Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U. S. 445, 427 U. S. 454-456; Ex parte Virginia, 100 U. S. 339, 346. Pp. 491 U. S. 14-19.
(b) By giving Congress plenary authority to regulate commerce, the States relinquished their immunity where Congress finds it necessary, in exercising this authority, to render them liable. Since the commerce power can displace State regulation, a conclusion that Congress may not create a damages remedy against the States would sometimes mean that no one could do so. Indeed, this Court has recognized that the general problem of environmental harm is often not susceptible to a local solution. See Illinois v. Milwaukee, 406 U. S. 91; Philadelphia v. New Jersey, 437 U. S. 617. Moreover, in many situations, it is only money damages that will effectuate Congress' legitimate Commerce Clause objectives. Here, for example, after failing to solve the hazardous substances problem through preventive measures, Congress chose to extend liability to everyone potentially responsible for contamination, and, because of the enormous costs of cleanups and the finite nature of Government resources, sought to encourage private parties to help out by allowing them to recover for their own cleanup efforts. There is no merit to Pennsylyania's contention that the allowance of damages suits by private citizens against unconsenting States impermissibly expands the jurisdiction of federal courts beyond the bounds of Article III, since, by ratifying the Constitution containing the Commerce Clause, the States consented to suits against them based on congressionally created causes of action. Cf. Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, supra. Pp. 491 U. S. 19-23.
JUSTICE WHITE agreed with the plurality's conclusion that Congress has the authority under Article I to abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity, but disagreed with the reasoning supporting that conclusion. P. 491 U. S. 57.
BRENNAN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part III, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 491 U. S. 23. SCALIA, J.,
filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in Parts II, III, and IV of which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. 491 U. S. 29. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in Part I of which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. 491 U. S. 45. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 491 U. S. 57.