Joel Eagle


From the moment of landfall, Hurricane Katrina instantly became synonymous with unprecedented damage, destruction, and loss. The exceptionally intense storm and subsequent flooding in New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast was quickly deemed one of the worst disasters in United States history. A particularly destructive consequence of Hurricane Katrina has been the environmental effects, in part caused by oil spills and chemical releases from many of the industrial sources concentrated in the Gulf Coast region.

A question that will likely remain in contention for years or even decades to come is who should be liable for the cleanup costs associated with these releases? Congress included an Act of God defense in a number of federal environmental statutes, offering potentially responsible parties an opportunity to avoid severe cleanup expenses. This article examines the scope of the defense from various perspectives—including legislative history, judicial interpretation, and public policy—and concludes that, when faced with the decision, courts should construe the defense narrowly and hold sources liable for the cost of cleanup. By holding these parties strictly liable, cleanups will be efficiently and effectively accomplished, the cost of cleanup will be borne by those most closely related to the releases, and the associated costs will act to deter poor facility maintenance and may even lead to reconsideration of facility placement in the future.

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