Posted on November 2, 2016
Superfund practitioners have long known that unilateral orders issued by EPA under Section 106(a) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”), commonly known as the Superfund statute, can be very potent enforcement tools. Recipients of such orders who “willfully” choose to defy them, “without sufficient cause,” face the prospect of potentially ruinous civil penalties under Section 106(b) and treble damages under Section 107(c)(3). The term “sufficient cause” is not defined in CERCLA and has been subjected to very limited judicial interpretation. Making matters worse, by virtue of Section 113(h), Section 106 order recipients cannot obtain pre-enforcement review of such orders. Instead, they must wait until EPA brings an enforcement action, or one of the other triggers listed in Section 113(h) occurs (while the penalties and treble damages continue to accumulate, for a period which could last for years), before they can obtain a judicial determination of whether or not their defiance was “without sufficient cause.” This enforcement scheme has thus far withstood due process challenges on the ground that no penalties or treble damages can be imposed until there is a court hearing. Waiting for that court hearing can produce extreme apprehension on the part of defiant order recipients.
In United States v. Glatfelter, one of the prodigious number of reported decisions relating to the Lower Fox River Superfund Site, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, after concluding that permanent injunctions will not be available to enforce Section 106 unilateral orders, suggested how that apprehension might be relieved:
“Nothing we have said prevents the government from seeking declaratory relief to establish that a PRP lacks sufficient cause for noncompliance, such as the arbitrariness of the selected remedy or a defense to liability.”
This suggestion may trigger a whole new round of litigation regarding Section 106 orders. For instance, does a private litigant enjoy the same right to seek declaratory relief?
Posted on November 13, 2014
So the new Congress will be controlled by the GOP. The House and Senate will consider various bills to rein in EPA authority. Here’s one relatively modest suggestion for congressional consideration: amend CERCLA to limit EPA’s authority to recover oversight costs.
How many of us in the private sector have been in meetings with EPA where EPA had more technical people in attendance than the PRPs who were performing the remedy? How many of us have had clients receive oversight cost bills where the total amount of the oversight costs approached the amount spent on actually performing the remedy? How many us have had oversight requests that have turned response actions into research projects? All of this for a program that EPA’s own analyses always show to be at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to actual risks to the public.
Here’s the proposal. I’m not suggesting that EPA have no authority to recover oversight costs. Just limit it to 10% of the response costs incurred to actually design and implement the remedy. Make it 15% if you want to be generous.
Mitch McConnell, are you listening?
Posted on December 17, 2013
Purchasers and lessees of commercial or industrial properties know to obtain Phase I environmental site assessments to identify the presence of contamination - so-called recognized environmental conditions (RECs) - because of the very substantial liabilities these conditions may create. And their lenders generally require them. The industry standard for Phase I’s is based on EPA regulations that flesh out Superfund’s “all appropriate inquiry (AAI)” standard. In those regulations, EPA expressly approved use of a standard developed by ASTM, i.e., E1527-05. ASTM recently issued a new standard, E1527-13, that EPA initially approved in a final rule in August, but, as a result of unfavorable comment, withdrew in October. Pending the agency’s promulgation of that rule’s companion proposal, expected by the end of this year, the question is which standard purchasers and lessees should use - and which standard should their lenders require - in the meantime.
In addition to providing information pertinent to managing environmental risks associated with contamination, the performance of a Phase I that satisfies AAI also may help establish a defense for the purchaser/lessee under Superfund should contamination be found. Superfund provides three transaction-related defenses that each require AAI, the most pertinent of which is the so-called bona fide prospective purchaser defense. Congress required that EPA promulgate standards establishing AAI and it is those regulations - and the approved ASTM standard - that have become the industry standard for Phase I’s.
As EPA notes, the new ASTM standard includes a number of differences from the prior version, which arguably only makes the standard more rigorous. Among other things, the new standard distinguishes between historical RECS that have been regulatorily resolved or that allow for unrestricted residential use, which are no longer RECs, and those that though regulatorily resolved, require either institutional or engineering controls because contaminants remain in place and that are now referred to as “controlled” RECs. It also clarifies that vapor intrusion - the potential for vapors from contaminants in soils and groundwater to migrate into buildings where they may concentrate at levels that pose threats to human health - is to be considered a REC, like groundwater migration, and not excluded from consideration because it may affect indoor air quality, which itself is generally not within the scope of AAI. The fact the two standards are different creates some regulatory uncertainty.
The response to this temporary dilemma is that purchasers, lessees and lenders should be able to have their cake and eat it too by having environmental professionals indicate that they have satisfied both standards. Environmental professionals that perform Phase I’s and satisfy ASTM E1527-13 presumably will be satisfying ASTM E1527-05 as well. EPA informally has suggested that environmental professionals use the new standard and, in their reports, conclude that they have satisfied both. Presumably, the environmental professional’s certification should reference both as well.
Posted on July 22, 2013
On July 10, 2013, a divided Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act’s (“CERCLA’s”) federally-mandated commencement date preempts not only state statutes of limitations but also statutes of repose, an issue that has split federal courts and left considerable uncertainty about the timeliness of claims arising under CERCLA and environmental common law.
One of the unique aspects of CERCLA is that it imposes a universal statute of limitations on toxic torts and other state law claims for damages “caused or contributed to by exposure to any hazardous substance or pollutant or contaminant.” 42 U.S.C. § 9658(b)(4). This statute of limitations runs from the time the plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, the cause of the injury or damages. CERCLA expressly preempts state statutes of limitations that set an earlier commencement date, such as the date of the tortious conduct or the date of the injury.
CERCLA’s “federally required commencement date” has generated considerable commentary and confusion, with federal courts split over the scope of CERCLA’s preemptive effect. One particularly divisive issue involves whether CERCLA preempts state statutes of repose, which are separate from statutes of limitations. Statutes of repose generally provide a longer period in which to file a claim, but they cannot be tolled and often begin to run earlier as well. Noting that the federally required commencement date under CERCLA refers only to “statutes of limitations,” the Fifth Circuit has held “the plain language of [CERCLA] does not extend to statutes of repose.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Poole Chem. Co., 419 F.3d 355, 362 (5th Cir. 2005).
In Waldburger v. CTS Corporation, 2013 WL 3455775 (4th Cir. July 10, 2013), the Fourth Circuit adopted the contrary position, finding the relevant text of CERCLA to be ambiguous and interpreting it to preempt a North Carolina statute of repose. Reversing the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit held that courts and lawmakers have often used the terms “statute of repose” and “statute of limitations” interchangeably, and that the application of CERCLA’s federal discovery rule was more consistent with the statute’s remedial purpose. It therefore held a state repose period that required real property claims to be filed within 10 years of the tortious action did not apply to a nuisance claim alleging the discovery of groundwater contamination several years after the final alleged discharge. In dissent, Judge Stephanie Thacker argued that, “the plain and unambiguous language of § 9658 indicates only statutes of limitations were intended to be preempted.”
The Waldburger ruling will benefit plaintiffs harmed by the latent effects of environmental contamination, who may not become aware of their injuries until after a state statute of repose has run. Such plaintiffs must exercise reasonable diligence, however, to establish they did not have reason to know of the harm at an earlier date.
Posted on June 10, 2013
I believe in governmental environmental regulation. We have a complicated world and it is not surprising that many activities, including those generating greenhouse gases, cause negative externalities. At the same time, however, I have spent more than 25 years representing regulated entities in negotiations with government regulators and it is impossible to do such work without obtaining an appreciation for the very significant costs that bureaucracies impose.
With all due respect – cue the upcoming diss – to my many friends in government, the absence of market discipline or the ability to fire nonpolitical bureaucrats often leads to street level bureaucrats operating under a law of their own devising. Moreover, if a complex economy causes externalities requiring regulation, that same complexity should cause regulators to pause before imposing or revising complicated regulatory regimes. Unintended consequences abound.
The genesis of these musings was the confluence of a number of otherwise unrelated recent regulatory developments. The most significant was headline in the Daily Environment Report earlier this week noting that “EPA [is] Still Unable to Provide Time Frame For Revising Definition of Solid Waste Rule.” RCRA is the perfect example. No one can really quarrel with the need for hazardous waste regulation, in order to prevent the creation of more Superfund sites. However, if we’re still fighting over the definition of something as basic as solid waste more than 30 years after the inception of the program and EPA’s most recent efforts to update the definition remain fruitless after about five years of effort, then we have to acknowledge some serious implementation problems where the rubber is trying to hit the road.
I’ll also provide two recent examples from my home state of Massachusetts. MassDEP has been engaged in a serious regulatory reform effort, which has earned deserved praise. However, as NAIOP has recently noted in comments on the draft proposal to revise the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, MassDEP’s proposed Active Existing Pathway Elimination Measure Permit is “so cumbersome that it is not clear that a PRP or redeveloper would want to seek such a permit.” This calls to mind MassDEP’s reclaimed water regulations, which were intended to encourage water reuse, but are so cumbersome that no one is applying for the permits.
Thus, the final caution. The MassDEP example is extremely common – and extremely troubling. Regulator gets great idea for innovative program. Prior to implementation, concerns are raised about what happens if…. More effort is put into avoiding the perceived downsides than in actually making the program work. Program ends up being worse than nothing.
I believe in environmental regulation, but…
Posted on May 20, 2013
When the Supreme Court issued its 2009 decision in Burlington N. & Santa Fe RR. Co. v. United States (Burlington Northern), Superfund practitioners were encouraged to think that CERCLA joint and several liability could be avoided by arguing that the harm is divisible and therefore capable of being apportioned. Subsequent decisions in the lower courts have dampened that encouragement. The most recent case in point is the May 1, 2013 decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in United States v. NCR Corp. (NCR Corp.), the latest in a long line of decisions involving the Fox River Superfund Site.. After an eleven day trial, the District Court permanently enjoined NCR and the other defendants to comply with a unilateral administrative order requiring them to clean up PCB-contaminated sediments in the Fox River.
The court had previously issued a preliminary injunction to the same effect, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on interlocutory appeal. The District Court had also held that EPA’s remedy selection was not arbitrary, capricious or otherwise unlawful and that NCR was not entitled to contribution, decisions not yet reviewed by the Court of Appeals, leaving NCR with apportionment as its best argument in the District Court to avoid having to bear the entire burden of the cleanup.
In the latest decision, the District Court rejected attempts by NCR (and the other defendants) to prove that the “harm” in one of the operable units of the Fox River was divisible and could therefore be apportioned. The Seventh Circuit had ruled that “harm,” for this purpose, “was best defined with reference to the contamination, as set forth in the government’s remediation rules.” The District Court began its analysis of apportionment by pointing out that exceptions to joint and several liability will be “rare.” According to the District Court, to demonstrate that the harm is divisible, a defendant bears the burden of proving two things: first, that the harm is theoretically capable of being divided, a question of law, and second, that there is a reasonable basis for an apportionment, a question of fact. Burlington Northern, the District Court observed, involved only the second of these elements (“Yet, even though it is undeniable that Burlington Northern loosened the rules governing how a given harm might be apportioned, it did not address the key issue here, which is whether the harm is theoretically divisible in the first place” [emphasis in original]).
Applying the analysis of Sections 433A and 875 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, both Burlington Northern and the Seventh Circuit concluded that some harms will not be theoretically capable of apportionment. Thus, if one of the causes is “sufficient” in and of itself to bring about the result, the harm will not be divisible and apportionment will not be appropriate. The question is “whether one polluter should be considered such a significant cause of the harm that the harm attributable to that cause is incapable of being divided.” Further, some kinds of harms will simply be unsuitable for divisibility by their very nature, as when a chemical is deemed to be harmful when it “surpasses a certain amount” or when a chemical becomes harmful only when mixed with other chemicals.
It is interesting that the courts continue to follow the Second Restatement even though there is a more recent Third Restatement of Torts (2000). While the courts have not provided any basis for their continued reliance on the Second Restatement, some commentators have opined that the Third Restatement can be read as trending away from joint liability and encouraging apportionment.
The District Court observed that whether a harm is theoretically capable of apportionment, although a question of law, is heavily dependent upon the underlying facts. In this case, after an exhaustive review of the evidence, the District Court concluded that NCR had not met its burden of rebutting the government’s contention that the NCR discharges were a “sufficient cause” of the harm. The District Court defined the “harm” as contamination in the sediments above 1 ppm of PCBs. The Court found that NCR had not meaningfully disputed that the remedy for the sediments would have been the same even if NCR had been the only contributor. In other words, because of NCR’s discharges, the same remedial measures would have been required regardless of whether or not discharges from others had occurred. Since NCR’s discharges would, on their own, “require roughly the same remedial measures that are now being undertaken, [NCR] could be deemed a sufficient cause of the harm.” Under those circumstances, the District Court concluded, the harm could not be deemed divisible and apportionment would be inappropriate.
The District Court then went on to conclude that joint and several liability should attach even if NCR had not been a “sufficient cause” of the harm, “so long as the party is necessary to the harm.” Thus, for example, if one party’s discharge produces a concentration below action levels, such that it is not a “sufficient cause” of the harm, when that discharge is combined with other discharges that cause the concentration to exceed the action level, the first discharge is a “necessary” cause and joint and several liability should attach.
The District Court concluded that the “harm” was not theoretically capable of apportionment, thereby avoiding the necessity of determining how apportionment might be accomplished. This decision suggests that the battleground in the apportionment arena is likely to shift from how apportionment is conducted (the issue addressed by Burlington Northern) to the question of whether apportionment is appropriate in the first place. This decision provides a useful guide for practitioners regarding how courts may evaluate this threshold question, and highlights the importance of how courts define the “harm” at issue.
Posted on March 29, 2013
At the time when Superfund was flexing its muscle and impacting the ability of successful completion of property transfers, most states developed some form of voluntary cleanup program or “VCP”. Those programs were supposed to allow for rapid and effective assessment and remediation, and furnish liability releases or covenants with liability protection. Sounded good huh?
And how many of our clients have a small collection of such sites that they volunteered to assess and address with the sweet promise of walking away, and quickly? Some used the voluntary cleanup program as a risk allocation tool in property transfers. Others wanted the promised release or covenant in order to obtain an environmentally worry-free, and thus more valuable, property that was theirs to sell.
Some states have had the fortitude to reform their voluntary cleanup programs by privatizing the process. In those states licensed professionals determine whether property investigations and remediation are necessary and when they are complete. They then issue some form of certification that leads to a covenant not to sue or a release. [See "New Jersey Follows Massachusetts into the World of Licensed Environmental Consultants and Privatized Cleanup Oversight", David Farer ,July 9, 2009].
In other states the agencies have not overcome their dependence on the fees generated by voluntary cleanup programs, utilizing those fees to pay the salaries of agency personnel engaged in the oversight of voluntary cleanup activities. In these states "voluntary" really means "hooked and can't get out." Let's look at a familiar ballad - best read while listening to Eric Clapton's Voodoo Chile (Live from Madison Square Garden):
Well on the day I signed up
For the Voluntary Cleanup Plan
Well I was promised fast and efficient
Get you out of a jam
It gives you certainty and freedom
And you'll be able to transfer worry free
Lord I'm a VCP chump
Oh Lord, I'm a VCP chump
Well I had a grain elevator
With a little dab of carbon tet
Oh Yeah, just a little dab
In the shallow soil
VCP had me test it
Oh, just a little dab at low levels
Lord I'm a VCP chump
Oh Lord, I'm a VCP chump
And I said I am finished
But VCP said not so fast
So I started on the groundwater
Even though it was 200 feet down
Yeah I started drilling
And haven't hit bottom yet
Now it's 10 years later
From the time I began
Yeah, it's 10 years later
And I haven't found that carbon tet yet
But I 'm gonna keep goin
Cause I'm in the money so deep
My heirs and assigns ask me
Say – what's goin on?
I have to tell them
My sad, sad song
Lord I'm a VCP chump
Oh Lord, I'm a VCP chump
So, most ballads eventually come to an end. How can we continue VCP reform in states where the VCP Bluesy Ballad still is being sung?
Posted on March 14, 2013
In December 2012, EPA issued revised enforcement guidance to assist agency personnel in exercising enforcement discretion regarding the treatment of tenants under Superfund’s bona fide prospective purchaser (BFPP) defense. This guidance expands some of the protections provided by the prior, 2009 guidance. Though recognizing that “[l]easehold interests play an important role in facilitating the cleanup and reuse of contaminated properties,” the agency chose a relatively ineffectual tool for addressing prospective tenant liability and encouraging re-use of Brownfield properties. The agency could have better encouraged Brownfield development by providing tenants with guidance on how to avoid Superfund liability in the first place.
Under Superfund, a tenant's status and activities may give rise to "owner or operator" liability -- for the costs of investigating and remediating a contaminated site and for natural resource damages. The guidance does not flesh out the contours of tenant liability as an owner or operator, but instead assumes that tenant liability exists and explains how the BFPP defense under section 107(r) of Superfund might then be available.
To take advantage of the BFPP defense, an owner or operator of contaminated property must satisfy three statutory prerequisites. It must show: (1) it conducted all appropriate inquiry or AAI, e.g., by having conducted a phase I environmental assessment; (2) it has no affiliation with a potentially responsible party or PRP; and (3) it is satisfying specified continuing obligations, including, among other things, complying with applicable regulatory requirements and not impeding remedial actions.
In brief, the December 2012 guidance confirms that a tenant may receive protection as a BFPP derivatively from its landlord if the landlord conducted AAI, provided that all disposal occurred prior to the landlord’s acquisition of the property and the tenant satisfies the continuing obligations requirement. It also expands EPA's use of enforcement discretion for a tenant who relied upon its landlord for the BFPP defense to include situations in which the landlord loses the BFPP defense, provided the tenant meets the requirements of the BFPP defense other than having performed AAI. In addition, it makes clear that a lease will not disqualify a tenant from the BFPP defense for failure to have satisfied the "no affiliation" prerequisite. Furthermore, it confirms that EPA will use its enforcement discretion for a tenant who independently meets the BFPP prerequisites, including having performed AAI prior to execution of the lease.
The new guidance notes the obvious: all bets are off if the tenant itself engages in an activity that independently creates liability, e.g., by creating or exacerbating contamination. It also notes that, except as otherwise provided, the tenant itself must satisfy the BFPP prerequisites.
The agency explains that it generally will not proactively make determinations as to the availability of the BFPP defense in connection with any particular transaction, e.g., by issuing a comfort letter, though there may be limited circumstances where it might do so. And, of course, the agency’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion provides no comfort where the Superfund claim is brought by a third party, though the agency’s guidance may be persuasive to the court in which the claim is brought.
The problem with the BFPP defense is that it’s a defense, which must be asserted in response to a Superfund claim, and the tenant has burden of proof. Moreover, as far as defenses go, it’s not even the best. The third party defense, which doesn’t require AAI, generally should be available as long as the lease does not relate to the act or omission giving rise to the contamination. See “The Third Party and Transaction-Related Defenses,” J. Civins, M. Mendoza, and C. Fernandez, ABA-SEER Environmental Litigation and Toxic Torts Committee Newsletter, July 2005.
More significantly, as EPA recognizes, “the mere execution of a lease does not necessarily make a tenant liable as an owner or operator,” and the agency and the regulated community would have been better served had the agency issued guidance establishing safe harbors for tenants. A tenant’s first line of defense to Superfund liability should not be a defense, BFPP or other, but rather should be an assertion that it is not a Superfund owner or operator, placing the burden of proof on the plaintiff rather than on the tenant. And case law provides a good basis for EPA issuance of such guidance.
Arguably, a tenant should not be liable and have need of a defense as an owner unless it virtually stands in the shoes of its owner, e.g., by entering into a 99-year lease or by subleasing the property to one who contaminates it. Similarly, a tenant should not be liable as an operator, unless its action caused or exacerbated contamination. Regardless of whether case law adequately fleshes out the contours of a tenant’s owner or operator liability under Superfund, it would have been more useful for the agency to have issued guidance with respect to such liability rather than on the BFPP defense.
Posted on December 7, 2012
Since the early days of the Superfund program, EPA has required settling parties to provide financial assurance of the PRPs’ (potentially responsible parties) ability to perform the cleanup work. EPA regulations afford PRPs a choice of financial assurance mechanisms to fulfill this requirement including: a self-funded trust, bonds, letters of credit, insurance or the satisfaction of the “financial test” provided in 40 CFR §264.143(f).
As originally promulgated, the financial test applied to owners and operators of hazardous waste facilities permitted under RCRA. EPA has adopted this test for Superfund financial assurance requirements and state agencies have likewise borrowed it for their own programs. For many years, the “financial test” was the least cumbersome method for PRPs to satisfy their long-term financial assurance obligations. It was also attractive to PRPs because as long as at least one large company met the test, the other PRPs could save the cost of employing alternative financial assurance mechanisms such as prefunding their entire obligation or purchasing letters of credit. Further, while the financial test in 40 CFR §264.143(f) does include very specific and complex financial criteria, in practice EPA often found submission of financial statements or other public financial reports by large companies to be sufficient.
In recent years, perhaps in recognition of the new economic order where major airlines, automobile manufacturers and even manufacturers of famous brands such as Twinkies have filed for bankruptcy, EPA has made strict compliance with the financial means test a settlement priority. All of the forms for financial assurance are now prescribed via EPA’s website. Perhaps the most challenging form for a financial means proponent is the sworn letter from the company’s CFO or accountant certifying that the company satisfies the different elements of the financial test. The letter must be updated and resubmitted every year. The form letter may be found here.
In an era where CFOs and accountants are already burdened with a host of new Sarbanes-Oxley requirements and other regulatory controls, companies are less than enthusiastic about preparing another set of certifications to EPA concerning their company’s financial status. A further challenge presented by the letter is that it must be submitted on behalf of the specific entity participating in the settlement or its parent. Often, a parent corporation cannot or does not want to guaranty a subsidiary’s obligations, and its subsidiary’s financials may not be maintained in a format which makes compliance with the EPA letter practical or feasible.
EPA’s renewed emphasis on financial assurance requirements is understandable in today’s economic climate and even has some benefit for performing parties interested in ensuring that other settling PRPs likewise perform. Indeed, PRP Groups, with the self-interest of protecting themselves from each others’ business failures, often require their group members to provide letters of credit for the benefit of the Group or prefund their Superfund settlement shares into a Group- controlled trust, even if other financial assurance mechanisms have been selected to satisfy EPA.
Whether PRPs like it or not, what is clear is that the era of less than strict compliance with EPA’s financial assurance requirements for Superfund settlements is over.
Posted on November 21, 2012
On October 9, 2012, the Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari in Solutia, Inc v. McWane, Inc., declining to further clarify the question raised and expressly left unanswered in footnote six of the Court’s opinion in United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U.S. 128 (2007). The issue is what section of CERCLA provides private parties with the authority to recover their costs at Superfund sites from other “covered persons” liable under the statute — Section 107(a) or Section 113(f). The choice is important because different rules of liability and different statutes of limitation apply to contribution and cost recovery claims. In Solutia, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that a party subject to a consent decree is limited to a claim for contribution under Section 113(f) and does not also have a claim for cost recovery under Section 107(a).
In Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Aviall Services, Inc., 543 U.S. 157 (2004), the Court held that contribution under Section 113(f) is available to a private party only “during or following” a suit under Sections 106 or 107. In Atlantic Research, the question was whether a “covered person” under CERCLA could obtain cost recovery under Section 107(a)(4) in circumstances in which contribution was not available under the holding in Cooper Industries. In Atlantic Research, the Court explained that Sections 107(a) and 113(f) provide “clearly distinct” remedies available in different circumstances. Contribution under Section 113(f) is available “when a party pays to satisfy a settlement agreement or a court judgment,” because, then, the party “does not incur its own costs of response. Rather, it reimburses other parties for costs that those parties incurred.” “By contrast, § 107(a) permits recovery of cleanup costs but does not create a right to contribution. A private party may recover under § 107(a) without any establishment of liability to a third party. Moreover, § 107(a) permits a PRP to recover only the costs it has ‘incurred’ in cleaning up a site.”
That explanation left unanswered the question of what section of the statute applies in the common situation in which parties enter into settlements or sign consent decrees, agreeing to perform work. Those parties have a right to contribution under Section 113(f), but they also incur their own cost in cleaning up a site. In footnote 6 in the Atlantic Research opinion, the Court expressly declined to decide that question (“We do not decide whether these compelled costs of response are recoverable under §113(f), §107(a), or both.”).
Litigation of that unanswered question followed in the lower courts. The Eleventh Circuit in Solutia referenced decisions in the Second (Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 596 F.3d 112 (2d Cir. 2010)), Third (Agere Sys., Inc. v. Advanced Envtl. Tech. Corp., 602 F.3d 204 (3d Cir. 2010)) and Eighth (Morrison Enter., LLC v. Dravo Corp., 638 F.3d 594 (8th Cir. 2011)) Circuit Courts of Appeals to decide that parties settling their CERCLA liability with government agencies are limited to Section 113(f) contribution claims, even though they incur their own costs of response in complying with the settlement (“[w]e agree with our sister circuits that we must deny the availability of a §107(a) remedy under these circumstances in order [ ] ‘[t]o ensure the continued vitality of the precise and limited right to contribution”).
The Supreme Court’s denial of petition for certiorari in Solutia is not necessarily the final word on the long running saga of the interplay between Sections 107(a) and 113(f). For example, it may be appropriate to limit a potentially responsible party to Section 113(f) contribution claims when it is subject to a consent decree, because a consent decree would generally be filed with the court accompanied by a complaint, be subject to public comment, resolve a party’s CERCLA liability to the government, and provide the party with contribution protection. The Third Circuit in Agere found that the contribution protection granted to plaintiffs under a consent decree would allow plaintiffs complete recovery under §107(a), while at the same time shielding those plaintiffs from a contribution counterclaim. This would be a “perverse result,” as the plaintiffs had stipulated that they were responsible for a significant portion of contamination at the site. However, a different conclusion may be warranted under different facts. Indeed, the Court in Agere noted that it “need not decide the contours of the overlap postulated in Atlantic Research because, regardless of whether §107(a) and §113(f) remedies overlap at all, they cannot properly be seen to overlap here.” Thus, “the contours of the overlap” may be an issue to be decided another day.
Posted on May 14, 2012
The ACOEL blog has devoted several entries over the last two years to the question whether and how a plaintiff could recover, under CERCLA, costs it incurred for a cleanup performed under a consent decree or administrative settlement. One of the more intriguing developments for CERCLA practitioners has been the tension between and radical differences to cost recovery or contribution claims under Sections 107 and 113 of CERCLA. One of the more recent developments is the 11th Circuit decision in Solutia v. McWane (Full disclosure: I am counsel to several defendants in this case).
"Boots" Gale previously blogged about the District Court decision. The District Court dismissed Plaintiffs’ Section 113 claim on the basis that these Defendants had the benefit of CERCLA’s contribution protection obtained via their own administrative settlement with EPA. Initially, the District Court denied summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ Section 107 claim, but then reconsidered and reversed that decision.
The 11th Circuit noted that the Supreme Court's Atlantic Research decision declined to decide the issue of whether a party may bring a 107(a) claim for direct cleanup costs incurred via a consent decree entered as past of CERCLA Section 106/107 litigation. The 11th Circuit confirmed, however, the conclusion of the District Court that numerous federal Circuit Courts had reached that issue since that time, each one concluding Section 113 to be the party’s exclusive remedy, and denying the Section 107 claim. Relying in part on the conclusions reached by these other Circuit Courts, the 11th Circuit rejected Plaintiffs’ statutory interpretation arguments, and concluded that a party who has a CERCLA Section 113(f) claim cannot also maintain a CERCLA Section 107 claim. To find otherwise, the 11th Circuit concluded, would “thwart the contribution protection afforded to parties that settle their liability with the EPA…”, “destroy CERCLA’s statutorily-created settlement initiative…”, would allow a plaintiff to impose joint and several liability on defendants, and would prevent those defendants from asserting any Section 113(f) counterclaim since the plaintiffs would have their own CERCLA contribution protection via their consent decree.
The time has not run yet for the Plaintiffs in this case to seek certiorari from the Supreme Court. In light of the unanimity of the federal Circuit Courts on this issue, it seems unlikely that the Court would accept the case for decision, despite the importance of the issue and the Court’s decision not to reach the issue in its 2007 decision in Atlantic Research.
Posted on April 4, 2012
A Superfund cleanup project is, of course, an exercise in "greening" the environment, in that the remediation project is designed to remove contamination from the environment and return the affected property to beneficial use. With the February 2012 publication of EPA's "Methodology for Understanding and Reducing a Project's Environmental Footprint" report, EPA has begun to formalize a process for ensuring that the remediation itself is done as greenly as possible.
The methodology describes a total of 21 metrics by which the greenness of a cleanup can be measured across five core elements: air, water, energy, materials and waste, and land/ecosystems. The report contains planning checklists (warranted to be "user-friendly") and a series of spreadsheets (which are assuredly not user-friendly) illustrating formats for organizing raw data and quantifying impact estimates.
While the methodology will primarily be applied to future remediation projects, the techniques are already being tested at a few ongoing remediation sites that have "volunteered" to pilot the methodology. For example, at one site in the Midwest that is in the middle of long-term groundwater pump-and-treat, an EPA consultant examined the project to determine whether the carbon emissions associated with the electricity (generated by the local utility at a coal-burning power plant) needed to run the pumps and associated air strippers could be reduced.
No word yet on whether the next level of meta-analysis will require investigating how to minimize the resources used to analyze the footprint “greenity” of the underlying project itself.
Posted on February 17, 2012
According to a report in February 15’s Greenwire, President Obama’s proposed budget would reduce Superfund spending by 6%, from $565 million to $532 million. I still don’t understand why Obama, particularly with Cass Sunstein still at OMB, hasn’t turned this problem into an opportunity.
I know I’ve flogged this one before, but a significant part of the explanation for the size of the Superfund budget is related to CERCLA’s status as the last bastion of command and control regulation. Everyone who practices in this area could provide endless examples of the almost unbelievable extent of micromanaging indulged in by EPA and its consultants. Even where EPA is recovering oversight costs, such an approach taxes the system.
(And don’t we care about those unreasonable costs being passed on to PRPs? Oops. I forgot. They’re the bad guys. Don’t care if they incur needless costs.)
Several states have now successfully privatized their state superfund programs, saving both private and public sector funds, without any decrease in environmental protection. Now’s the time for feds to seize the opportunity presented by the budget cuts to change the way federal cleanups get done.
Posted on January 23, 2012
Phase I report “reliance letters” issued by an Environmental Professional (EP) may be misunderstood and misused in the context of conducting CERCLA All Appropriate Inquiry (AAI). The term “reliance letter,” in fact, is nowhere to be found in either the Federal All Appropriate Inquiry Regulations or the related ASTM Standard E 1527-05.
Consider the following common AAI situation: A client has contracted to buy property for which a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (Phase I ESA) report was recently prepared for the seller. To avoid the costs of obtaining a new Phase I report, the client asks whether it can use the Phase I provided by the seller to satisfy its environmental diligence obligations. The Phase I report explicitly states that it can be used and relied upon only by the contracting user for which it was prepared. The EP may be willing to issue a reliance letter to the client for a fee or occasionally at no cost. But what exactly is a reliance letter and how does it relate to the objective of compliance with AAI requirements?
Unauthorized use prohibitions and reliance letters are intended to protect EPs from potential claims by third-parties who may rely on a Phase I report prepared for another. Nevertheless, an unsophisticated third-party recipient of a reliance letter may construe such a letter as documentation of compliance with AAI requirements. A reliance letter establishes the recipient’s status as an authorized “user” primarily for purposes of the party’s legal relationship with the EP. Requesting a reliance letter to establish authorized user status is only one of several AAI issues that should be considered by third-party users of Phase I reports.
Other important questions to be considered include whether the one year/180 day regulatory shelf-life of the report has expired. Also, what independent inquiries must a third-party undertake to satisfy the AAI regulations? Third-party recipients of reliance letters may easily overlook conducting the “user” inquiries required by the AAI regulations.
The ASTM Standard further contemplates that the results of the user’s separate inquiries be provided to the EP prior to completion of the EP’s Phase I tasks (the AAI regulations are less clear). How do those provisions of the ASTM Standard apply to the third-party reliance situation? Is the third-party user obligated to accumulate the necessary user information and provide it to the EP after-the-fact? If so, how should the EP deal with any new substantive information? Also, if the results of the user inquiry are not referenced in the Phase I report, how does the third-party document that it has satisfied those obligations?
Of course, the EP may decline to issue a reliance letter or may impose costs or terms that are unacceptable. The EP may even suggest that, absent such use and reliance authorization, a new Phase I ESA must be conducted. But is that correct? The regulations set out conditions for third-party use of information contained in a Phase I report prepared for another. No requirement that the EP preparing the report issue a reliance letter is included among those conditions. The ASTM Standard specifically provides that no particular legal relationship between the EP and the user is necessary for the user to satisfy AAI obligations. With or without a reliance letter, the AAI regulations and ASTM Standard contemplate that the third-party may use the results of a report prepared for another person to partially satisfy its AAI obligations.
These questions, and perhaps others, suggest that a third-party user of a Phase I report prepared for another should be aware of the limitations of a reliance letter, if issued, and carefully consider all pertinent regulations in conducting its AAI.
Posted on July 19, 2011
Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (Phase I ESAs) are conducted: (1) to assess environmental and health risks related to the acquisition and development of real property and (2) as a critical component of establishing the Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser (BFPP) or related defenses to “owner” liability under CERCLA. A recent ACOEL posting discussed the importance of compliance with post-closing BFPP obligations. What about the adequacy of the Phase I ESA process itself?
A Phase I ESA must satisfy the requirements of “All Appropriate Inquiry” (AAI), which have been incorporated in the ASTM E 1527-05 Standard. Phase I ESAs are not, however, typically examined by environmental agencies and there is a dearth of judicial interpretation of the AAI requirements. To date, the determination of AAI compliance and BFPP status has been the province of the regulated and not the regulators.
The scenario is familiar. A transaction includes the acquisition of commercial property. The client has a general notion of AAI and the importance of the Phase I ESA to achieve BFPP status. The client usually does not know, or care to know, the specific elements of AAI. The Phase I ESA often becomes a transactional commodity to be purchased from the lowest bidder. Lawyers are content to accept the results of the bidding war, relying on the self-certification of the Environmental Professional (EP) that the assessment is compliant with the ASTM Standard. The ESA is conducted, the report issued and the transaction closed with everyone satisfied that environmental risk management has been adequately addressed. This process appears appropriate, at least when agencies or courts are not called upon to perform a more rigorous evaluation.
A February 14, 2011 report issued by the EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) may serve as the impetus for a more cautious approach to selecting the EP in transactional and Brownfield grant matters and for more carefully evaluating Phase I reports. The OIG report documents the results of its evaluation of 35 AAI/Phase I reports generated by EPs for Brownfields Program grantees. The OIG concluded that none of the Phase I reports satisfied all of EPA’s AAI rule requirements. OIG criticized EPA for its complete reliance on EP self-certifications of compliance, its failure to establish accountability for compliant reports and the lack of procedures for reviewing reports to determine compliance with AAI requirements.
Although many of the AAI deficiencies cited by OIG were arguably very minor, the message sent was clear: Noncompliant Phase I ESAs introduce risk that the environmental conditions of a property have not been adequately assessed for the purpose of making informed property use and redevelopment decisions or for identifying risks to human health and the environment. OIG’s recommendations were equally clear - stop relying on EP self-certifications and develop a process for more careful scrutiny of AAI reports to determine actual compliance. The issues raised by the OIG report can, of course, be easily transformed into legal arguments in court where BFPP status may be in issue.
I suspect that many of us have been lulled to sleep by the self-certifications of the EP. Has the time arrived to more carefully assess the assessor and treat the Phase I ESA as a site-specific professional evaluation and not a low-bidder commodity required simply to seal the deal?
Posted on June 14, 2011
Since the passage of CERCLA, practitioners have been keenly aware of the necessity to negotiate contractual provisions allocating responsibility for environmental liabilities in the purchase and sale of industrial facilities. Such agreements typically include provisions aimed at protecting the buyer from liability for pre-purchase environmental claims and limiting the length of time that the seller may be obligated to indemnify the buyer for such claims.
A recent federal district court decision, Stimson Lumber Co. v. Int'l Paper Co., CV 10-79-M-DWM-JCL (D. Mont. 2011), illustrates the importance of not only including provisions in purchase and sale agreements for indemnity as to pre-closing conditions, but ensuring that such provisions unambiguously reflect the parties’ intentions regarding CERCLA statutory liability. On April 22, the court in Stimson Lumber held that the buyer of a lumber mill could sue the seller of the mill for costs incurred under CERCLA even though the period of seller's contractual indemnity for environmental claims had expired under the terms of the sale contract.
A 1993 asset purchase agreement (the "APA") pursuant to which Stimson Lumber Company bought a lumber mill from Champion International provided an indemnity for environmental claims relating to pre-closing conditions for a period of ten years. In 2008, after the indemnity had expired, Stimson filed suit against Champion's successor, International Paper, for costs incurred to clean up contamination at the mill. International Paper argued that the lawsuit was barred under the terms of the APA because the contractual period for indemnity for environmental claims had run. The court disagreed, finding that a provision setting forth the purchase price could have signaled the parties' intention that statutory CERCLA liability remains with the seller. The court found that the wording of the provision created an ambiguity regarding whether the parties intended for the buyer to assume the seller's statutory liabilities after the contractual indemnification obligations expired.
The court distinguished Armotek Industries, Inc. v. Freedman, 790 F. Supp. 383 (D. Conn. 1992), in which the purchase agreement had included a proviso that after the expiration of the indemnity period, "no claim for indemnification for losses . . . shall be made against Seller." The court in Aromtek found that this provision reflected the parties' unambiguous agreement that the seller's CERCLA liability had shifted to the buyer after the indemnity period expired. In reviewing the Stimson Lumber agreement, the court found no similar bar to claims after the expiry of the indemnity period, and held that the ambiguity in the terms of the APA precluded summary judgment for the seller.
The Stimson Lumber decision serves as a useful reminder that in drafting environmental provisions, the words must be either very broad and quite absolute in the allocation of future liabilities or very specific and complete in reflecting sometimes subtle distinctions between indemnity for and assumption of liability. Years after the fact, when the participants in the initial transaction are long gone and the cold words on a sheet of paper are the only guide to the parties’ intentions, only truly unambiguous language will protect against the revival of old liabilities thought extinguished long ago.
Posted on May 4, 2011
In his July 8, 2010 ACOEL blog entry, Fournier “Boots” Gale of this firm reported on the then-most recent court decision dealing with whether and how a plaintiff could recover, under CERCLA, costs it incurred for a cleanup performed under a consent decree or administrative settlement. One of the more intriguing developments for CERCLA practitioners has been the tension between and radical changes to cost recovery or contribution claims under 107 and 113 of CERCLA. Boots reported on the July 2, 2010 decision by a federal judge here in Alabama to grant complete summary judgment to defendants, finding that a party compelled to incur such costs can only proceed under Section 113, and not 107. Because the defendants in that case had also entered into an administrative settlement with EPA for the same site, thus obtaining Section 113 contribution protection, all of plaintiffs’ claims were dismissed. That case is still on appeal to the 11th Circuit. The issue decided by the Alabama federal court--whether compelled costs were recoverable under Section 107, 113, or both—had been left unanswered by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U.S. 128 (2007). Courts have been struggling with this issue ever since.
The latest opinion on this issue is from the 8th Circuit, in Morrison Enterprises, LLC v. Dravo Corp., 2011 WL 1237526 (8th Circuit, April 5, 2011). The 8th Circuit was the federal circuit court whose decision was affirmed in the Atlantic Research case, so the result in this case is not surprising. Noting the question unanswered by the United States Supreme Court in Atlantic Research, the Morrison Court, as did the federal court in Alabama, concluded that Section 113 was the appellants’ exclusive remedy, confirming the summary judgment granted by the district court below on the Section 107 claim. One of the Morrison appellants argued to the district court that one of the contaminants it cleaned up was totally unrelated to its operations and, thus, the costs it incurred related to that contaminant were “voluntary” and thus recoverable under Section 107. Interestingly, the plaintiffs in the Alabama case made the same argument. Both the Alabama and 8th Circuit Courts rejected the argument because all of the work was performed under and pursuant to a consent decree, which was broad enough to encompass the costs for cleaning up the contaminant sought to be carved out as voluntary. In effect, even if one wishes to argue later that some costs incurred were for a contaminant for which one had no responsibility, if the costs incurred are pursuant to that consent decree, or administrative settlement, then the costs are not incurred voluntarily and a Section 107 claim is still barred. In a final blow to the cost recovery efforts in this case, the appellant attempted to amend its complaint to assert a Section 113 claim after summary judgment had been entered on its 107 claim, but the district court denied it as untimely (and the Morrison court affirmed on this issue, too).
Posted on April 22, 2011
In 2009, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin rendered a widely reported and discussed decision in Appleton Papers Inc. v. George A. Whiting Paper Co., No. 2:08-cv-16-WCG (E.D. Wis. Dec. 16, 2009) (Appleton I) that many remember as being unique. This is because rather than considering the usual so-called “equitable factors” to determine proportionate financial responsibility in a CERCLA contribution action such as waste-in volume or relative contaminant toxicity, the District Court focused entirely on a single marker of relative culpability i.e., Appleton Paper’s knowledge that their actions would cause environmental harm.
In February of 2011, the District Court issued an equally intriguing opinion in Appleton Papers Inc., v. Whiting Paper Co., No. 08-C-16, 41 ELR 2011 (E.D. Wis. Feb. 28, 2011) (Appleton II). Relying in large measure on the District Court’s 2009 decision, multiple defendants argued that the response costs already contributed to cleanup effort should be borne by NCR Corp. and Appleton Papers Inc. (collectively “the Appleton Plaintiffs”). All of the Defendant’s arguments highlighted the same equitable factor that barred the Appleton Plaintiffs from obtaining contribution it, e.g, knowledge that a generated waste might cause environmental harm. The District Court agreed, and determined that the Appleton Plaintiffs were liable to the Defendants for response cost of remediating four of the five operable units along the Lower Fox River. However, the Appleton Plaintiffs were determined not to liable for costs associated with Operable Unit No. One (“OU1”) because the OU1 defendants were unable to prove that the Appleton Plaintiffs contributed to the contamination of OU1 (OU1 is located upstream of the Appleton Plaintiffs’ facility) or that the Appleton Plaintiffs were arranges under CERCLA §107).
These cases warrant practitioners’ review as they clearly express the notion that contribution liability should rest upon satisfaction of the ultimate objective of the CERCLA liability scheme i.e., that the polluter pays the costs of resolving the pollution it causes. This objective should never be far from mind, as the fact based focus of inquiry utilized by the District Court in these cases may well be the undoing of practitioner’s efforts to rely upon supposed technical and legal attributes of relative responsibility. Instead, the focus should be directed to the essential inquiry at the root of the CERCLA legislative cost recovery scheme e.g., the polluter who causes pollution to occur should pay for its cleanup.
Posted on April 5, 2011
CERCLA liability under section 107 is often characterized as strict, joint and several unmitigated by considerations of causation, fault or fairness. Contribution is different, however. Congress, in section 113(f)(1), specifically authorized the courts to allocate costs “using such equitable factors as the court determines are appropriate.” Illustrative of this fundamental difference is the fight over who shall pay what for the massive PCB cleanup of the Lower Fox River.
NCR is incurring the bulk of the costs based on discharges of PCBs incident to the manufacture of carbonless paper at a facility on the River. It sued numerous paper mills along the River based on their discharges of PCB containing wastewater incident to the recycling of trim and waste carbonless paper. In late December 2009, Judge Griesbach of the Eastern District of Wisconsin dismissed NCR’s suit for contribution against the paper mills based on NCR's knowledge of the content and risks associated with PCB-containing carbonless paper as manufacturer/developer of the product compared to the recycling paper mills.
Framed thus — in old fashioned terms about knowledge of dangers and avoidance of risk—it was no contest. NCR was denied contribution because of its knowledge, learned gradually over time, about the toxic nature of PCBs as against those who merely, and without access to NCR’s superior knowledge of the product, processed it for recycling. The Court’s analysis, it said, “is governed by traditional principles of equity, such as the relative fault of the parties, any contracts between the parties bearing on the allocation of cleanup costs, and the so called ‘Gore factors.’” The lengthy recitation of the largely undisputed facts was nothing less than a moral indictment of NCR’s actions and reactions as the knowledge about PCB toxicity and its threat to the environment came to be documented and disseminated; in short, nothing less than a fault-based conclusion.
The flip side of this case came down in February 2011. Judge Griesbach decided that the paper mills, which had incurred expenses related to various EPA and Wisconsin DNR orders and settlements, monitoring and investigation, were entitled to contribution from NCR for those portions of the River where both recycling and manufacturing PCB contamination occurred. This time around the Court was satisfied that its singular use of NCR’s “fault” as the sole determinant to deny NCR contribution in 2009 was likewise sufficient to grant the paper mills a right of contribution against NCR. In other words, fault or culpability can become the overriding factor and permit the court to eschew consideration of any other equitable factors, including Gore factors. One sees in the Court’s emphasis on charging the financial cost on those “responsible” for creating the hazardous conditions a tone and direction quite at variance with the rather automatic analysis of liability under section 107. Hence, although approximately half of the PCBs originated with the paper mills and not NCR’s manufacturing, the Court, on culpability grounds, was prepared to impose the entire cost on NCR exclusive only of amounts reimbursed to the defendants by insurance.
Posted on April 4, 2011
A few months ago, a significant anniversary passed without much fanfare: the 30th anniversary of the passage of CERCLA. Interestingly, 30 years has another meaning today in the Superfund world as many of the CERCLA sites have passed through the active cleanup phase and into the long-term operation and maintenance phase. When practitioners began working with the Superfund statute in the early days, the question of when would a Superfund cleanup “end” was considered. Many of us thought that 30 years of monitoring at a site after completion of the active remediation stage was a reasonable expectation. This expectation, while not expressly stated in CERCLA or the National Contingency Plan, was based on the approach used in RCRA closures which generally require 30 years of post-closure monitoring.
But 30 years of working with the Superfund statute has made it clear that 30 years is not a meaningful benchmark for long-term O&M, at least not to EPA. The critical documents in the Superfund process, the Records of Decision, the Consent Decrees and the EPA Guidance documents usually do not specify when long-term operation and maintenance may cease. As a result, because groundwater contamination at many Superfund sites has proven to be so difficult to remediate to drinking water or some other agreed upon standards, many PRP Groups are faced with the possibility that their Superfund site may require perpetual monitoring. In addition, since the Consent Decrees require a five year review process by EPA for all active sites, the possibility of enhanced monitoring or additional remediation always looms on the horizon.
The uncertainties in knowing when a Superfund site will “end” creates many challenges for performing parties and their counsel. Among those difficulties:
- Continual disclosure on company financials and SEC filings;
- Time and expense of keeping PRP Groups functioning over many years and paying for government internal and contracted oversight costs;
- Lack of certainty or predictability in budgeting long-term costs for Superfund liabilities; and
- Loss of institutional memory and familiarity at sites where, over time, companies and their divisions are sold and counsel, consultants and EPA personnel move on and/or retire.
These risks and costs, of course, are spared for de minimis parties and other PRPs who structure their settlements as cash-outs either to EPA or to other PRPs. For those performing parties left behind, however, the ability to determine a reasonable end point to the commitment they entered into years, if not decades earlier, often remains a largely unresolved and perhaps undeterminable question under present regulation and practice.
Many of us are working in PRP Groups where active remediation has been completed yet the groundwater remains substantially above the Performance Standards. In many of these sites, the groundwater plume is controlled and presents no risk to human and other environmental receptors yet reasonable predictions about when the monitoring program and the Superfund “machine” can be turned off remains a mystery. With the 30th anniversary of Superfund now passed, it is time for more discussion and coordination between EPA and the PRP community about how and when Superfund sites, especially those with long-term groundwater monitoring requirements, may “end.”
Posted on March 22, 2011
We all know that the bona fide prospective purchaser (BFPP) provision provides a defense to CERCLA liability for contaminated sites and allows a knowing purchase of contaminated property. It encourages brownfields and voluntary cleanup programs across the country.
Judicial interpretations of the BFPP defense are scarce. In October 2010, a federal district court in South Carolina issued its opinion which was a nasty turn of events for BFPP’s. (Ashley II of Charleston, LLC v. PCS Nitrogen, Inc. (“Ashley II”), Case No. 2:05-cv-02782-MBS). The case was for recovery of cleanup costs associated with a former fertilizer manufacturing plant in Charleston, South Carolina.
The court decided that Ashley was not a BFPP, as it claimed, and was responsible for five percent of the clean-up costs based on the following facts: (1) Ashley had torn down some structures in 2008, which allowed rainwater to contact cracked sumps containing hazardous substances. As a result, disposal of hazardous substances had occurred after Ashley took possession of the property; (2) Ashley was “affiliated” with other PRPs because Ashley had indemnified them and, more significantly, attempted “to discourage EPA from recovering response costs covered by the indemnification”; and (3) Ashley had not exercised appropriate care because it failed to address recognized environmental conditions (RECs) that were identified in the environmental site assessment as well as other potential site hazards.
The lesson here is that Purchasers should consider the effect of indemnity provisions and any interactions they may have with government agencies regarding other PRPs. In addition, because “disposal” may be defined very broadly, purchasers should thoroughly evaluate construction, demolition, and other site activities to determine if such activities could cause a release of hazardous substances. Finally, it is critical that all RECs be addressed, beginning no later than the time the purchaser acquires the property and continuing for the duration of its ownership.
Posted on February 23, 2011
As we all know by now, in Burlington Northern and Sante Fe Railway Co. v. United States, decided in May, 2009 (BNSF I), the Supreme Court surprised us yet again by interpreting CERCLA differently than the lower courts and Superfund practitioners had come to understand the statute to mean. The Court held (a) that “arranger” liability under Section 107(a)(3) of CERCLA is triggered only if there is an intent to dispose of hazardous substances, and (b) that joint and several liability under CERCLA may be avoided if there is a reasonable basis for apportioning harm among the “covered persons,” affirming divisibility on facts that most practitioners would not have expected to prevent joint and several liability. Since then, the lower courts have been wrestling with the application of these rulings under CERCLA. Meanwhile, however, the state courts have begun to address these issues under state law counterparts to CERCLA. Recently, the Supreme Court of Montana did just that. State of Montana v. BNSF Railway Co. (BNSF II)
Montana, like many other states, has its own version of CERCLA, called the Comprehensive Environmental Cleanup and Responsibility Act (“CECRA”). CECRA has its own categories of liable parties, including a broad class of “arrangers,” but unlike CERCLA, explicitly provides for joint and several liability. These differences result in greater potential exposure for defendants in hazardous waste cases.
BNSF II involved three adjoining properties north of Kalispell, MT, all of which had been listed as state Superfund sites. One of the sites, called the Reliance site, was a former crude oil refinery. BNSF transported petroleum products into and out of the Reliance site, using railroad cars that sometimes leaked badly. The trial court found that “[r]efinery workers occasionally ‘got a soaking’ when unloading crude oil” from BNSF railcars and that “when shipments of crude oil arrived and the holding tanks were full, the crude oil was dumped onto the ground in pools on BNSF property in the area.” The trial court found that BNSF “had been involved in dumping petroleum products onto the surface of the earth.”
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) sued seven parties, six of whom settled, with the result that a Final Unified Abatement Order was entered, holding BNSF jointly and severally liable for the Reliance site, as an “arranger” under CECRA, even though the trial court made no finding that BNSF intended to release a hazardous substance at the site.
Like CERCLA, CECRA contains no definition of an “arranger.” Instead, Section 75-10-715(1)(c) of CECRA includes among the list of liable parties “a person who generated, possessed, or was otherwise responsible for a hazardous or deleterious substance and who, by contract, agreement, or otherwise, arranged for disposal or treatment of the substance or arranged with a transporter for transport of the substance for disposal or treatment,” language that differs somewhat from Section 107(a)(3) of CERCLA.
The trial court held BNSF liable as an “arranger” under CECRA because of its “involvement” with Reliance in the dumping of petroleum on the Reliance site. The trial court relied on the Ninth Circuit decision in BNSF I, adopting a broad form of “arranger” liability, and refused to reconsider its ruling when the Ninth Circuit was reversed by the Supreme Court.
The Montana Supreme Court began its review of the trial court decision by noting that Section 114(a) of CERCLA provides that nothing prevents a State from imposing additional liability beyond those imposed by CERCLA. The Court then held that “an entity need not specifically ‘intend’ to dispose of a hazardous substance for imposition of ‘arranger’ liability ” It was enough that BNSF “possessed or was otherwise responsible for the materials it shipped” and that “[a] necessary and foreseeable consequence of shipping the material was unloading the material.” Since BNSF employees moved full tank cars of crude oil to the Reliance site so Reliance employees could dump the crude oil on the ground, “BNSF participated in the unloading process which resulted in the release of the materials it possessed.” In holding that the trial court did not err in holding BNSF liable as an “arranger,” the Court set a low bar for “arranger” liability under CECRA.
Unlike CERCLA, which is silent as to whether or not “covered persons” are jointly and severally liable under the statute, CECRA provides, in relevant part, that “notwithstanding any other provision of law,*** the following persons are jointly and severally liable for a release or threatened release of a hazardous or deleterious substance***” .
Notwithstanding this statutory language, the trial court entered a pretrial order that once the state proved that BNSF is a liable party, “BNSF must come forward with evidence to show it was only responsible for a portion of the contamination at the site to avoid the possibility of joint and several liability for all the surface contamination.” When BNSF failed to make such a showing, the trial court held BNSF jointly and severally liable. Because BNSF had failed to prove the factual basis for apportionment, the Supreme Court declined to rule on whether apportionment would ever be possible under the statutory language. Thus, BNSF II leaves unanswered the question of whether liability can ever be apportioned under a statute that explicitly provides for joint and several liability, no matter how distinct the harms may have been.
As the United States Supreme Court continues to read CERCLA narrowly, state statutes, like CECRA, may become more important in the development of hazardous waste law. BNSF II may very well represent the beginning of a trend.
Posted on February 1, 2011
Over the past three decades, EPA has issued more than 1,700 CERCLA UAOs to roughly 5,400 PRPs ordering the performance of response actions at CERCLA sites costing in aggregate in excess of $5 billion. Only a small handful of those orders, however, have ever been challenged in court, and vanishingly few have been subject to any independent third party review whatsoever.
Why is that? Well, as even EPA might agree, it is not because the Agency is infallible. No, the reason for EPA’s essentially unreviewed exercise of its UAO authority is the CERCLA statute itself, which (a) by operation of Section 113(h), precludes any challenge to a UAO order until the ordered response action has been completed (typically many years later at an average cost of $4 million dollars) and (b) by operation of Sections 106 and 107, subjects any PRP who elects to defy a UAO to treble punitive damages and additional penalties of $37,500 per day, which accumulate until EPA, at its sole discretion, brings an enforcement action.
In this regard, CERCLA is an outlier in administrative law. Though instances are common where federal statutes give agencies the power to issue administrative orders, virtually every other comparable scheme affords recipients of such orders either a prior hearing or the prompt opportunity for independent review after the order is issued. CERCLA, of course, provides neither.
So what justifies this unusual approach? It has been suggested on occasion that due process must be dispensed with because UAOs are needed to address emergency conditions. They can only be issued, after all, where an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health or the environment is shown. There are two problems with that rationale, however. First, the courts have largely upheld EPA’s position that “imminent and substantial endangerment” doesn’t really mean “imminent” or “substantial” – there really is no site involving a hazardous substance and a release (actual or threatened) that doesn’t meet the statutory criteria for UAO issuance. Second, as EPA has conceded in litigation, the fact is that EPA doesn’t issue UAOs in true emergencies; in those circumstances, it does the work itself and seeks to recover its costs later.
Okay, so even if true emergencies are not implicated, it’s still the case that EPA has a need to act quickly and that allowing pre- (or prompt post-) issuance review would unduly impede cleanup of hazardous sites, right? Well, as it turns out, that’s not true, either. Analysis of EPA’s CERCLIS database reveals an average 8-year lag-time between identification of a site and issuance of a UAO and a 4-year lag between remedy selection and UAO issuance. Obviously, there’s plenty of time in the system for a little due process.
So why haven’t past procedural due process challenges to this UAO scheme (and there have been a number of them) succeeded? The courts that have rejected those challenges have commonly concluded that the challenging PRPs couldn’t show a pre-hearing deprivation of property, as is required to trigger Fifth Amendment protections. Those courts reasoned that a PRP could simply refuse to comply with and wait for EPA to sue to enforce the UAO, and in that event would suffer no pre-hearing deprivation of property since penalties and damages could only be awarded following a court hearing.
Though the conclusion is facially appealing, its fallacy is demonstrated by the record of the most recent constitutional challenge brought by GE. There, following extensive discovery from EPA and expert testimony on both sides, GE was able to demonstrate empirically that a PRP that elected to defy a UAO would be immediately punished by the equity and capital markets, which would recognize the massive contingent liability such defiance would create and account for it by lowering the PRP’s stock value and increasing its cost of financing, with consequent impacts on its ability to bid for new projects or to hire additional employees, among other things. Indeed, although he took issue with GE’s assessment of the magnitude of the impact, even EPA’s economic expert agreed that defiance would occasion such harmful effects and that they would be significant. And the District Court agreed, as well, that defiance would not avoid a deprivation of property, though it ultimately ruled against GE on the basis that the burden to EPA of providing hearings outweighed the private party interests favoring such hearings.
On appeal the D.C. Circuit rejected the district court’s finding of a pre-hearing property deprivation, however, and ruled instead that such harmful impacts did not involve constitutionally protected property rights and so dismissed GE’s constitutional challenge on that predicate ground without reaching the District Court’s balancing analysis. The potential implications of that holding – which GE believes is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent – extend well beyond CERCLA confines, and so GE has sought certiorari review. The government’s response to GE’s petition is due February 4.
Posted on July 22, 2010
Last week, in City of Pittsfield v. EPA, the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed denial of a petition by the City of Pittsfield seeking review of an NPDES permit issued by EPA. The case makes no new law and, by itself, is not particularly remarkable. Cases on NPDES permit appeals have held for some time that a permittee appealing an NPDES permit must set forth in detail in its petition basically every conceivable claim or argument that they might want to assert. Pretty much no detail is too small. The City of Pittsfield failed to do this, instead relying on their prior comments on the draft permit. Not good enough, said the Court.
For some reason, reading the decision brought to mind another recent appellate decision, General Electric v. Jackson, in which the D.C. Circuit laid to rest arguments that EPA’s unilateral order authority under § 106 of CERCLA is unconstitutional. As I noted in commenting on that decision, it too was unremarkable by itself and fully consistent with prior case law on the subject.
What do these two cases have in common? To me, they are evidence that, while the government can over-reach and does lose some cases, the deck remains stacked overwhelmingly in the government’s favor. The power of the government as regulator is awesome to behold. Looking at the GE case first, does anyone really deny that EPA’s § 106 order authority is extremely coercive? Looking at the Pittsfield case, doesn’t it seem odd that a party appealing a permit has to identify with particularity every single nit that they might want to pick with the permit? Even after the Supreme Court’s recent decisions tightening pleading standards, the pleading burden on a permit appellant remains much more substantial than on any other type of litigant.
Why should this be so? Why is it that the government doesn’t lose when it’s wrong, but only when it’s crazy wrong?
Posted on July 8, 2010
On July 2, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama published a must read opinion regarding cost recovery claims under CERCLA. See Solutia, Inc., et al. v. McWane, Inc., et al., Case No. 03-1345, Document No. 622 (N.D. Ala. July 2, 2010).The case was originally filed by plaintiffs in 2003 as a CERCLA cost recovery and contribution action against several industrial defendants located in Anniston, Alabama related to plaintiffs' cleanup of historic PCB contamination throughout the Anniston area. In June 2008, the Court had previously granted defendants' motion for summary judgment regarding plaintiffs' CERCLA Section 113 claims for contribution but had allowed plaintiffs to proceed with their CERCLA Section 107 cost recovery claims. However upon motion for reconsideration, the Court on July 2 issued a detailed opinion also dismissing with prejudice plaintiffs’ cost recovery claims under Section 107.
Of interest to CERCLA practitioners, the dismissal opinion provides a lengthy analysis, based on recent Circuit Court decisions, as to whether a plaintiff who seeks to recover costs of a cleanup performed pursuant to obligations under a consent decree or administrative settlement (aka “compelled” cleanup costs) can bring a claim under Section 107(a)(4)(B). Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court did not decide the appropriate route for recovering “compelled” costs (under Section 107(a), 113(f), or both) in its most recent opinion addressing CERCLA Sections 107 and 113. United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U.S. 128 (2007). Nevertheless, the Northern District of Alabama agreed to reconsider defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiffs' Section 107 claims in light of Circuit Court decisions issued subsequent to Atlantic Research as well as new evidence. Indeed, the Court agreed with the defendants' assessment that the majority of Circuit Court decisions decided after the Northern District’s previous denial of defendants’ motions for summary judgment have held that a party who incurred “compelled” cleanup has a viable Section 113 claim for contribution and not a Section 107 claim for cost recovery.
Ultimately the Court concluded that the recent Circuit Court decisions were correct in their assessment that Congress had intended for Section 113(f) to be the exclusive remedy to recover costs incurred pursuant to a judgment, consent decree, or settlement. Because the Court agreed withdefendants' argument that plaintiffs’ costs related to its PCB cleanup were incurred by virtue of a prior consent decree, the plaintiffs only had a potential right to a Section 113 claim for contribution (which was previously dismissed) – not a Section 107 claim for recovery.
Again, the opinion is a helpful summary of evolving jurisprudence under CERCLA regarding Section 107 and Section 113 claims.