The U.S. Supreme Court appears to side with Montana Superfund site owner Atlantic Richfield Co. in its argument against allowing landowners near a former copper smelter to require property cleanup beyond what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required, court watchers said in response to Dec. 3 oral arguments.

Atlantic Richfield says, based on the EPA plan, it has spent about $500 million since 1980 cleaning up hazardous waste. Landowners want further cleanup to restore the property to its original condition. At issue is whether federal Superfund law preempts state common law claims for remedies.

It is wrong to assume it is always better to remove hazardous waste than to leave it, said Atlantic Richfield attorney Lisa Blatt during oral arguments. “Whether risks are worth benefits should be evaluated by EPA, not by jurors … ad hoc,” she said, claiming added cleanup could release more waste into groundwater.

Landowners’ attorney Joseph R. Palmore said EPA should not control his clients’ ability to remove “even a shovel of dirt” from their yards, contending that EPA did not pursue groundwater cleanup due to cost.

Christopher Michael, a U.S. government attorney, warned that what landowners seek would jeopardize EPA waste cleanup at the Montana site and elsewhere. According to Bloomberg Environment, justices “on both ends of the ideological spectrum seemed troubled by … hindering landowner rights, but reluctant to interfere with [EPA] authority.”

In a second high court case with industry impact, U.S. government and corporate lawyers and 18 state attorneys general defended, in briefs filed earlier this month, U.S. Forest Service authority to approve the $7.8-billion Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline under the Appalachian Trail. Work halted in December 2018. Environmental challengers have until mid-January to file response briefs, with oral argument on Feb. 24. About 1,000 trail miles is within national forest land.