Story at a glance

  • Plaintiffs from the town of Opportunity, Montana, are taking on the Atlantic Richfield Company in the Supreme Court.
  • Local residents claim the company needs more extensive cleanup efforts after their Superfund site filled land with toxic chemicals.
  • Plaintiffs cite cancer and property value loss as grievances.
  • Environmental watchdogs are looking for a wider-ranging verdict.

On Tuesday, a coalition of residents from a small Montana township will journey to the Supreme Court. Their fight is a timely one, with the climate change movement revving up significantly, so many eyes are on the case. The plaintiffs are challenging the Atlantic Richfield Company (Arco), a BP subsidiary, to clean up their lands after long-term mining projects left toxic chemicals on their properties. 

According to NPRresidents of Opportunity and Crackerville, Montana, demand that Arco increase their cleanup efforts to remove arsenic and lead debris leftover on their land after years of mining operations. Arco states that it has spent approximately $450 million in cleanup efforts and falls in line with the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. If the Montana landowners win this case, however, the EPA provision on arsenic cleanup could change. 

The mining site in question is formally called the Anaconda Co. Smelter site, on the former copper mining facility of the same name. EPA reports state that from more than a century of mining on that site, “high concentrations of arsenic, lead, copper, cadmium, and zinc were produced. These wastes contaminated soil, groundwater, and surface water with hazardous chemicals.” The EPA placed the Anaconda Co. Smelter location on a Superfund toxic waste program priority list to begin cleanup efforts in 1983. 

Still, Opportunity residents assert that arsenic levels are too high. The case escalated when one resident was diagnosed with two types of cancer in two years, per an NPR reportOther issues residents are concerned about include their property values and the health of extended family. 

After initially suing Arco in 2008, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of Opportunity residents in 2017. The company then petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that federal regulation trumps state rulingsArco ultimately believes that the state ruling will hinder current cleanup efforts and make it worse. The Montana residents will focus on the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act as a defense. Known as CERCLA, it states that landowners are allowed to bring cleanup requests to state courts, according to Bloomberg Law.

With multiple environmental activist groups watching closely, the forthcoming verdict could set an important precedent in regulations affecting climate change, sustainability, and the environment.

Published on Dec 03, 2019