V. Natural Resources Damages
Federal, state, territorial, and tribal governments may seek compensation for natural resources that are
injured or destroyed when property becomes contaminated with certain pollutants, including haz ardous
substances and petroleum. As a general rule, the compensation for natura l resource damages (NRD) is
intended to restore the natural environment to its prior condition (also known as “baseline”) and compen-
sate the public for the interim lost use from the time of contamination until restoration.
e authority to seek NR D compensation is rooted in common-law principles, including the public
trust doctrine and others. Nonetheless, most modern NRD claims are brought pursuant to state or federal
environmental statutes, such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability
Act (CERCLA) and the Oil Pollution Act, which authorize relevant government agencies to act on behalf
of the public as natural resource trustees. e statutory fra mework authorizing NR D compensation pro-
vides trustees with a signicant enforcement mechanism for obtaining monetary damages at contaminated
sites. In addition to the large sums sometimes needed to restore natural resources a nd compensate for lost
use, the statutes generally i mpose a str ict liability regime upon a class of parties. e combination of large
compensatory damage s and st rict lia bility means t hat liable part ies often face si gnicant exposure from
A. Brief Summary of Key Points
Within the life cycle of a contaminated site, unlike a site cleanup or remediation, NRD claims seek the
restoration of damaged natural resources. e focus is on compensation to the public from contamination,
not the protection of human health and the environment from current or future risk. One way to consider
the distinc tion is that the remedy r emoves or isolates the contaminants, while the restoration replaces
the lost natural resources. In this way, the NRD eort is somet imes said to be the residua l work needed
after implementation of the remedy.
A distinction betwe en NR D and the toxic tort phase of a conta mina ted site is also important.
A toxic tort claima nt is a n individual or class. A n NRD claimant is the public through a governmental
trustee. Furthermore, the damages sought in an NR D matter are tied to the lost resources, while the dam-
ages in a toxic tort matter are tied to the imposition on the plai nti and the culpability of t he defendant.
A potentially responsible party (PRP) may be liable under CERCL A for three broad categories of dam-
ages in relation to natural resources: (1) the costs of assessing the extent of damages to natural resources;
(2) the cost of restoring, rehabilitating, replacing, or acquiring the equivalent of the damaged natural
resource (primary restoration); and (3) the interim loss in value of the damaged natural resource pending
restoration (compensatory restoration). If da mages to natural resources are understood as a “debit,” then
restoration, rehabilitation, a nd/or replacement generate “credits” to the PRP that oset the debit. When
credits equal debits, then the public has been compensated for its loss to natural resources. It is important
to note that the public is not entitled to restoration of resources to pristine condition but rather to t heir
Under CERCLA, injury is dened as an observable or measurable adverse change in a natural resource
or impairment of a natural resource service, occurring either directly (e.g., sh are injured by the toxic
Authors’ Note: is is intended as a brief overview of the application of NRD provisions and process. For a more detailed discussion, please see
Valerie Ann Lee et al., N R D A D: A L T A (2d ed. 2014).