In a case of first impression, the Eastern District of Washington recently ruled in Anderson, et al., v. Teck Metals, Ltd. CV-13-420-LRS that CERCLA displaced federal common law public nuisance claims for alleged damages from the release of hazardous substances in smelter emissions. This case is an important example of potential defenses that may be available for entities facing common law damages claims that may be addressed by CERCLA or other federal statutes.

In the case, the class action plaintiffs alleged that emissions from Teck Metals, Ltd.’s (“Teck Metals”) Canadian smelter were responsible for the health problems of U.S. residents in the Upper Columbia River Region. Among the plaintiffs’ numerous causes of action were public nuisance claims under federal common law. Teck Metals argued that the public nuisance claims must be dismissed because CERCLA, which addresses liability for contamination, “displaced” such claims.

The plaintiffs argued that CERCLA’s legislative history proved that Congress rejected the inclusion of any statutory personal injury provisions and thus did not intend to “occupy the field” of personal injury liability caused by contamination. The court rejected this argument as too narrow and held that it improperly focused on the irrelevant factor of the type of remedy asserted. Instead, the court found that the “question at issue” was liability for the release and threatened release of hazardous substances. The court held that Congress had “spoken directly to” this issue by enacting CERCLA. Accordingly, the court concluded that CERCLA occupied the field to the exclusion of federal common law and the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ federal common law public nuisance claims.