Burlington N. & S. F. R. Co. v. United States,
556 U.S. 599 (2009)

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (John Paul Stevens)  | 
  • Dissent (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 07–1601. Argued February 24, 2009—Decided May 4, 2009

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) is designed to promote the cleanup of hazardous waste sites and to ensure that cleanup costs are borne by those responsible for the contamination. In 1960, Brown & Bryant, Inc. (B&B), an agricultural chemical distributor, began operating on a parcel of land located in Arvin, California. B&B later expanded onto an adjacent parcel owned by petitioners Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company and Union Pacific Railroad Company (Railroads). As part of its business, B&B purchased and stored various hazardous chemicals, including the pesticide D–D, which it bought from petitioner Shell Oil Company (Shell). Over time, many of these chemicals spilled during transfers and deliveries, and as a result of equipment failures.

      Investigations of B&B by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (Governments) revealed significant soil and ground water contamination and in 1989, the Governments exercised their CERCLA authority to clean up the Arvin site, spending over $8 million by 1998. Seeking to recover their costs, the Governments initiated legal action against Shell and the Railroads. The District Court ruled in favor of the Governments, finding that both the Railroads and Shell were potentially responsible parties under CERCLA—the Railroads because they owned part of the facility and Shell because it had “arranged for disposal … of hazardous substances,” 42 U. S. C. §9607(a)(3), through D–D’s sale and delivery. The District Court apportioned liability, holding the Railroads liable for 9% of the Governments’ total response costs, and Shell liable for 6%. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed that Shell could be held liable as an arranger under §9607(a)(3) and affirmed the District Court’s decision in that respect. Although the Court of Appeals agreed that the harm in this case was theoretically capable of apportionment, it found the facts present in the record insufficient to support apportionment, and therefore held Shell and the Railroads jointly and severally liable for the Governments’ response costs.


   1. Shell is not liable as an arranger for the contamination at the Arvin facility. Section §9607(a)(3) liability may not extend beyond the limits of the statute itself. Because CERCLA does not specifically define what it means to “arrang[e] for” disposal of a hazardous substance, the phrase should be given its ordinary meaning. In common parlance, “arrange” implies action directed to a specific purpose. Thus, under §9607(a)(3)’s plain language, an entity may qualify as an arranger when it takes intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance. To qualify as an arranger, Shell must have entered into D–D sales with the intent that at least a portion of the product be disposed of during the transfer process by one or more of §6903(3)’s methods. The facts found by the District Court do not support such a conclusion. The evidence shows that Shell was aware that minor, accidental spills occurred during D–D’s transfer from the common carrier to B&B’s storage tanks after the product had come under B&B’s stewardship; however, it also reveals that Shell took numerous steps to encourage its distributors to reduce the likelihood of spills. Thus, Shell’s mere knowledge of continuing spills and leaks is insufficient grounds for concluding that it “arranged for” D–D’s disposal. Pp. 8–13.

   2. The District Court reasonably apportioned the Railroads’ share of the site remediation costs at 9%. Calculating liability based on three figures—the percentage of the total area of the facility that was owned by the Railroads, the duration of B&B’s business divided by the term of the Railroads’ lease, and the court’s determination that only two polluting chemicals (not D–D) spilled on the leased parcel required remediation and that those chemicals were responsible for roughly two-thirds of the remediable site contamination—the District Court ultimately determined that the Railroads were responsible for 9% of the remediation costs. The District Court’s detailed findings show that the primary pollution at the site was on a portion of the facility most distant from the Railroad parcel and that the hazardous-chemical spills on the Railroad parcel contributed to no more than 10% of the total site contamination, some of which did not require remediation. Moreover, although the evidence adduced by the parties did not allow the District Court to calculate precisely the amount of hazardous chemicals contributed by the Railroad parcel to the total site contamination or the exact percentage of harm caused by each chemical, the evidence showed that fewer spills occurred on the Railroad parcel and that not all of them crossed to the B&B site, where most of the contamination originated, thus supporting the conclusion that the parcel contributed only two chemicals in quantities requiring remediation. Pp. 13–19.

520 F. 3d 918, reversed and remanded.

   Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Breyer, and Alito, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

 Together with No. 07–1607, Shell Oil Co. v. United States et al., also on certiorari to the same court.

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