Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cannon v. Gates (Defense Department)

Aug 26: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, Case No. 07-4107. Plaintiffs-Appellants F. Douglas Cannon, et al (the Cannons) brought suit against the Defendants-Appellees claiming two violations of the Solid Waste Disposal Act and one violation of the Administrative Procedures Act. The district court dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the jurisdiction-stripping provision at 42 U.S.C. § 9613(h). The Appeals Court concluded that the district court properly applied § 9613(h) because the Cannons’ suit constitutes a challenge to the Government’s selected removal action, and therefore affirmed the dismissal.

Cannon owned over 1,416 acres of land in Tooele County, Utah and in 1945 entered into a six-month lease with the U.S. War Department, in return for one dollar, which permitted the Government to enter his land to conduct Project Sphinx, which was designed to test means of battling Japanese forces entrenched in caves in the Pacific Islands. The Government agreed that, at the expiration of the lease, it would “leave the property of the owner in as good condition as it is on the date of the government’s entry.”

As part of that testing, the Government used incendiary weapons, including aviation fuel, butane, gasoline, napalm, PT jell, and napalm-gas mixtures. The Government also used chemical weapons, such as phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, mustard gas, and defoliants. Finally, the Government dropped conventional bombs on Cannon’s property. In the 1970s, the Government initiated efforts to study the contamination at the adjacent Dugway Proving Grounds, and included the Cannon property in some of these efforts. The Government, however, did not clean up the Cannon property at that time, and has yet to do so.

Frustrated by the slow progress in the Government’s clean up efforts, two of Cannon’s children, sued the U.S. in 1998 under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Following a bench trial, the district court found that the Government had diminished the value of the Cannons’ land from $176.26 to $25 an acre, and awarded them $160,937 in damages. The Tenth Circuit, however, reversed that judgment and held that the statute of limitations barred the Cannons’ FTCA claims.

In November 2005, the Cannons tried a different approach and initiated legal action alleging two claims under the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA). The Cannons alleged under two sections of SWDA that the United States was in violation of federal and Utah regulations applicable to generators of hazardous waste; and that the U.S. has contributed to conditions on their property that endanger the Cannons, other individuals mining on the property, and members of the general public who come onto the Cannons’ property. The Cannons also made a claim under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), to “compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed.”

The district court said SWDA § 9613(h) deprives federal courts of jurisdiction to consider “any challenges to removal or remedial action selected.” The Cannons' appealed and the Appeals Court determined that the "Government has already undertaken several
steps toward determining how it will address the contamination present on the Cannons’ property"; and thus, "the Government’s removal actions are therefore sufficient to trigger § 9613(h)." The Appeals Court said, "We are sympathetic to the Cannons’ frustration with the long delays; however, their suit falls within the broad ambit of § 9613(h)."

Access the complete opinion (click here).