Since its inception, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) has remained controversial because it does not explicitly mention the term "retroactive" in its text. However, until recently, no court had ever rejected CERCLA's retroactive application. Nor had any court held that CERCLA was an unconstitutional stretch of Congress' Commerce Clause authority. On May 20, 1996, the Southern District Court of Alabama ignored fourteen years of precedent by holding that CERCLA could not be applied retroactively and that the law exceeded Congress' Commerce Clause authority in instances of intrastate groundwater contamination. The decision of United States v. Olin (Olin) was later reversed by the Eleventh Circuit in March of 1997. Since the Supreme Court has yet to resolve either issue, the possibility exists that the district court's opinion could be followed in other jurisdictions. Given the imminent threat that hazardous substances pose to the environment and human health, the Olin decision is an ominous one. This Case Note will examine the merit of the Olin decision. Part II of the Case Note provides background information and the legislative history of CERCLA, as well as an overview of case law preceding Olin. Part III presents the facts, procedural history, holding and reasoning of Olin. A critical analysis of the Olin court's decision to limit liability will examine the opinion's effect on existing law and future cases in Part IV. Part V contains a summary of the court of appeals' decision. Finally, Part VI concludes that the Olin court erroneously held that CERCLA was merely prospective and unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause.
Recommended CitationMary Frances Palisano, United States v. Olin Corporation: How a Polluter Got Off Clean, 15 Pace Envtl. L. Rev. 401 (1997)
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