Volume 86, Number 6

December 2011

Toxic Assets: The EPA’s Settlement of CERCLA Claims in Bankruptcy

Scott E. Blair

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent settlement of environmental
cleanup claims against Asarco, the highest such settlement in history, highlights the
incongruity between the tools at the Agency’s disposal to recover cleanup costs and
its actual behavior in pursuing such claims. The Comprehensive Environmental
Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1990 (CERCLA) provides statutory
authority that should allow EPA to force polluters to fully bear the burden of
cleaning up pollution. However, despite EPA’s relative success against solvent
responsible parties, EPA appears to be less aggressive in pursuing CERCLA
claims against insolvent polluters, even though the Bankruptcy Code provides additional
tools to give EPA an advantage relative to creditors. This Note explains the
statutory advantages that EPA has under CERCLA and the Bankruptcy Code, and
then explores how EPA fails to behave like a rational economic actor in pursuing
its CERCLA claims. I conclude by positing political factors and budget shortfalls
as two potential explanations of EPA’s behavior.