Guam can pursue its $160 million claims against the U.S. Navy for the cost of cleaning up Ordot dump, the Supreme Court said in a ruling Monday that allows the island to turn the tables on the federal government.
The ruling capped a long-running dispute between the local and federal governments over the 70-year-old landfill, which cost Guam more than $200 million to shut down and replace.
The justices unanimously reversed a lower court's dismissal of Guam's lawsuit based on the statute of limitation.
Guam sued the Navy in 2017 under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, countering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2002 legal action that forced the local government to borrow money to cover the cost of closing Ordot and rebuilding a new landfill.
The court rejected the Navy’s argument that Guam's case was time-barred.
Guam argued that only a settlement of CERCLA-specific liability and not a Clean Water Act settlement could trigger the statute of limitations.
“To be sure, as the government points out, remedial measures that a party takes under another environmental statute might resemble steps taken in a formal CERCLA ‘response action,’” states the decision penned by Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. “CERCLA contribution requires resolution of a CERCLA-specific liability.”
“At the heart of this matter is accountability. With today’s unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, justice has been given to the people of Guam. We can finally pursue what’s owed to our people by the U.S. Navy for their share of the cleanup costs that Guam taxpayers incurred as a result of the Ordot Dump,” said Gov. Leon Guerrero. “Even if this is the start of more litigation, it also presents an opportunity to work with our federal partners to put this decades-old case to rest.”
Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio said the Supreme Court decision "opens the door to holding the federal government accountable for the long-term environmental and economic impacts from their prior decisions and land use.”
The lawsuit said the Navy, which built the dump in Ordot during the 1940s, deposited toxic military waste there before turning over control to Guam in 1950.
Guam ended up taking the blame for the environmental threats caused by Ordot dump.
The government of Guam’s solid waste system was placed under federal receivership in 2010 as a result of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2002 lawsuit for violation of the Clean Water Act. The federal receivership mandated GovGuam to close Ordot Dump and build a new landfill.
Leon Guerrero said any funds Guam may receive as a result of the Supreme Court ruling will be used to pay down the debt incurred to finance the process of closing the Ordot dump and opening a new landfill.
“The best way to safeguard the prosperity of our community is to live within our means and pay down the debt," the governor said.
Guam operated the dump for decades. The U.S. has said Guam “vastly expanded” it and “failed to provide even rudimentary environmental safeguards.”