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WASHINGTON, June 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to a hear a bid by a unit of British oil major BP to avoid a lawsuit by private landowners in Montana seeking to force the company to pay for a more extensive cleanup of a Superfund hazardous waste site than what federal environmental officials had ordered.
The justices took up Atlantic Richfield Co's appeal of a lower court ruling allowing a lawsuit by a group of property owners within the sprawling site of its former Anaconda copper smelter in western Montana to proceed to trial. Atlantic Richfield already has spent $470 million on soil and ground water restoration at the site ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The company, which is backed by industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers in the case, said the lower court's decision could lead to thousands more lawsuits nationwide against companies and further complicate federally mandated improvements to contaminated land.
The Superfund program, started in 1980, is intended to identify contaminated sites and ensure that those responsible for the pollution pay for the hazardous waste cleanup. It has been criticized over the years for slow efforts.
The Anaconda smelter, near the small community of Opportunity, Montana, operated between 1884 and 1980 and provided much of the world's copper supply. It was designated a Superfund site in 1983 to reduce arsenic contamination in residential yards, pastures and ground water.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)