No more linking private suits to Superfund cases, US says

On the face of it, the federal government and the communities at Times Beach, Mo., are grappling with the same problem: dioxin-contaminated oil that was sprayed on roads to control dust. Now the area is so contaminated that an entire community has been forced to move. Since the government is making tests and preparing evidence for litigation against the private firms that spread the oil, community members who are seeking damages figured the most efficient approach would be to consolidate their cases with Washington's.

But Roger Marzulla, who heads the United States Justice Department's Lands and Natural Resources Division, does not agree. In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Marzulla said the department wants to go solo when it comes to environmental cleanup cases. ``We need to remind [private plaintiffs] that there is not a shortcut whereby they can cut through the Superfund patch and make it to a pot of gold more easily,'' he said.

Although their trials may be related and involve much of the same information, combining them ``slows down the process'' of cleaning up a site, he says.

A bigger worry, however, is that if government and private cases are combined, the government may start losing its battles. Under the Superfund law, the government has only to prove that the defendant caused the pollution problem and that the Environmental Protection Agency's remedy isn't arbitrary and capricious. Since private suits are held to a stricter standard, individual plaintiffs like to hitch their cases to the government's.

But that could ``pollute the Superfund law,'' Marzulla says, and the courts would eventually begin to apply the more difficult standard of proof to the government.

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