The Deck is Still Stacked in the Government's Favor -- Is This A Good Thing?

Posted on July 22, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

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? 

Just askin’.

Alabama Court Dismisses CERCLA Section 107 Claims for Compelled Cleanup Costs

Posted on July 8, 2010 by Fournier J. Gale, III

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.  

A Combined Superfund and Stormwater Rant

Posted on July 7, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Sometimes, the practice of environmental law just takes my breath away. A decision issued earlier last month in United States v. Washington DOT was about as stunning as it gets. Ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Robert Bryan held that the Washington State Department of Transportation had “arranged” for the disposal of hazardous substances within the meaning of CERCLA by designing state highways with stormwater collection and drainage structures, where those drainage structures ultimately deposited stormwater containing hazardous substances into Commencement Bay -- now, a Superfund site -- in Tacoma, Washington.  

I’m sorry, but if that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, then you’re just too jaded. Under this logic, isn’t everyone who constructs a parking lot potentially liable for the hazardous substances that run off in stormwater sheet flow? 

For those who aren’t aware, phosphorus, the stormwater contaminant du jour, is a listed hazardous substance under Superfund. Maybe EPA doesn’t need to bother with new stormwater regulatory programs. Instead, it can just issue notices of responsibility to everyone whose discharge of phosphorus has contributed to contamination of a river or lake.

The Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment regarding whether the discharges of contaminated stormwater were federally permitted releases. Since the Washington DOT had an NPDES permit, it argued that it was not liable under § 107(j) of CERCLA. However, as the Court noted, even if the DOT might otherwise have a defense, if any of the releases occurred before the permit issued – almost certain, except in the case of newer roads – or if any discharges violated the permit, then the Washington DOT would still be liable and would have the burden of establishing a divisibility defense. 

If one were a conspiracy theorist, one might wonder if EPA were using this case to gently encourage the regulated community to support its recent efforts to expand its stormwater regulatory program. Certainly, few members of the regulated community would rather defend Superfund litigation than comply with a stormwater permit.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Just What We Need: More Community Engagement in Superfund Sites

Posted on May 26, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response announced release of its Community Engagement Implementation Plan. Who could be against community engagement? It’s as American as apple pie. It’s environmental justice. It’s community input into decisions that affect the community. It’s transparency and open decision-making.

 

Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m against it. Study after study shows that, in terms of the actual risks posed by Superfund sites, we devote too many of our environmental protection dollars to Superfund sites, when we should be focusing on air and water. Why do we keep doing this? Because the community demands it. As Peter Sandman has noted, perceptions of risk are driven only partly by the actual hazard posed. To a significant degree, those perceptions are more driven by outrage over the situation. In some circumstances, what Sandman calls outrage management makes sense, but I’m skeptical that EPA’s community engagement initiative is really about outrage management.

 

In any case, here’s the public policy question of the day. Does it really make sense to spend scarce environmental protection resources, not to reduce risk, but to reduce outrage?

BNSF No Big Deal, says U. S. District Court

Posted on May 25, 2010 by Rick Glick

The U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of California has denied reconsideration of its pre-BNSF order finding defendants jointly and severally liable under CERCLA. U. S. v. Iron Mountain Mines. Defendants had argued that the Supreme Court in the BNSF case mandated the district courts to consider grounds for reasonable apportionment. They had earlier argued for apportionment before BNSF and then cited the Supreme Court’s decision as an intervening change of law that entitles it to reconsideration.

 

The court disagreed, finding that BNSF did not change the law, rather it simply reaffirmed existing law and applied it to a specific set of facts. It seems strange that the Supreme Court would grant cert in a case where the law is settled just to apply the facts. In fact, the working presumption in CERCLA litigation had been that joint and several liability is the rule and apportionment is rare, even though CERCLA doesn’t say that. Most practitioners saw BNSF as a game changer, reopening the possibility of a hard look given to reasonable bases for apportionment in mediated allocations and in court. But the District Court followed the lead of the Justice Department, which has consistently said BNSF marks no departure from standard CERCLA jurisprudence.

 

It sure would be great if the Supreme Court would provide some clarity in its environmental decisions. Few would think Rapanos helped much with our understanding of the Clean Water Act, and now we need to muddle through a certain lack of precision in representing clients in Superfund matters. While BNSF opens the window, it remains to be seen whether the opening is just a crack or will really let some fresh air in.

Has the BNSF Case Changed the Superfund Practice?

Posted on February 5, 2010 by Bradley Marten

It has been nearly nine months since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company v. United States (BNSF),[1] a case some called a landmark decision that would change the Superfund practice.[2] In some respects that has turned out to be the case, in others it has not. There have been several reported cases citing BNSF, and all of them confirm that the decision requires both the EPA and potentially responsible parties (“PRPs”) to engage in a more fact-intensive inquiry into “arranger” liability. Less clear, however, is how the apportionment of liability among liable parties in private contribution cases will be affected, given the relatively small number of reported decisions.

Readers will recall that the BNSF decision had two elements: (1) it addressed the scope of arranger liability under CERCLA, and (2) it affirmed the view of several circuit courts that PRPs can avoid joint and several liability if a “reasonable basis” to apportion liability exists. This article reviews how lower court decisions issued subsequent to BNSF have applied those two components.

 

A Review of the BNSF Facts

BNSF was issued on May 4, 2009. The 8-1 decision written by Justice Stevens arose out of a fairly common fact pattern for CERCLA cases: a small chemical distributor Brown & Bryant, Inc. (“B&B”) owned and operated a facility that repackaged agricultural chemicals. B&B’s operation was on a 3.8-acre parcel, a portion of which was leased from predecessors to BNSF and the Union Pacific Railroad. Neither railroad played any part in B&B’s operations. The other PRP, Shell Oil, sold a soil fumigant to B&B which was shipped via commercial carrier FOB destination, meaning that the buyer was responsible for the product once it arrived at the facility.

After the State of California ordered B&B to clean up soil and groundwater contamination, B&B went out of business and then EPA listed the site on the National Priorities List. Both railroads and Shell were named as PRPs. The railroads were ordered to clean up the entire site, even though the portion of the site that they owned did not require remediation. Shell was named a PRP for having delivered chemicals to the site which it knew or should have foreseen would be spilled by B&B. In 1996, the United States and the State of California filed a cost recovery action against the railroads and Shell, seeking to recover over $8 million in response costs.

The Supreme Court’s Opinion
1. Arranger Liability

In affirming that “arranger liability” under CERCLA must be determined on a case-by-case basis, the Court set up a continuum. At one end are cases where an entity entered into a transaction “for the sole purpose of discarding a used and no longer useful hazardous substance.”[3] In such cases, there is a clear intent to discard the product, and therefore liability under section 107(a)(3). On the other end are situations where a company sells a useful product and “the purchaser of that product later, and unbeknownst the seller, disposed of the product in a way that led to contamination.”[4] The Court acknowledged that there were “many permutations of ‘arrangements’ that fall between these two extremes.” In these cases, based on a “plain reading” of the CERCLA statute, the Court held that “an entity may qualify as an arranger when it takes intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance.[5] Applying this statement of the law to the facts, the Court held that Shell’s mere knowledge of the spills did not amount to an “intent” that they be spilled or otherwise disposed of and that Shell was therefore not liable as an arranger.

2. Apportionment

BNSF highlighted that the CERCLA statute does not contain joint and several liability language. Instead, the notion that PRPs should be held jointly and severally liable is a judicial doctrine grounded in Section 433A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. Applying the Restatement, the Court held – as had several circuit courts previously– that “apportionment is proper when there is a reasonable basis for determining the contribution of each cause to a single harm.”[6]

Where multiple parties cause a single harm, “CERCLA defendants seeking to avoid joint and several liability bear the burden of proving that a reasonable basis for apportionment exists.”[7] In BNSF, while both the district court and the Ninth Circuit had found that apportionment of the harm was possible, they disagreed on how to allocate responsibility. The district court came up with a nine percent allocation to the railroads. The Ninth Circuit criticized the evidence on which the district court had relied, finding that it was insufficient to establish the “precise proportion” of the Railroads’ responsibility. The Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s approach, holding that the evidence supporting apportionment need not be precise. There must simply be “facts contained in the record reasonably support[ing] the apportionment of liability.”[8]

Lower Court Decisions Applying BNSF
Cases Applying the Court’s Arranger Liability Ruling

Of the four published cases that have substantively applied BNSF in the context of arranger liability, all suggest that lower courts are taking seriously the Supreme Court’s instruction to conduct a factually-intensive review of the parties’ intent. Prior to BNSF, the view prevalent among at least some government attorneys, and even some private party attorneys, was that every party who somehow came into contact with a hazardous substance was liable as having “arranged for disposal.” That view has been shattered.

Two cases, in particular, illustrate this point. The first is Appleton Papers Inc. v. George A. Whiting Paper Co.[9] Plaintiffs in that case were companies who had manufactured and sold carbonless paper. The emulsion used in the paper contained microscopic capsules that burst when pressure was applied, releasing a dye, and allowing the words on a page to be transferred from one sheet to another. The microcapsules were dissolved in a solvent which contained PCBs. The PCBs were released into the Fox River from manufacturing plants which produced the paper. An even greater proportion of PCBs were released by companies that recycled carbonless paper and by municipal wastewater utilities that discharged PCB-contaminated wastewater.

Plaintiff manufacturers filed a contribution action under CERCLA §113 against the recyclers and municipalities (their §107 claim was previously dismissed by the court). The court bifurcated the case into a liability and apportionment phase. In the liability phase, on cross-motions for summary judgment, the court considered whether the defendants knew they were disposing of hazardous chemicals, and concluded that they did not. The analysis – while not explicitly using the word “intent” – focused on what the defendants knew when they recycled the carbonless paper or discharged wastewater from the plants that did. After reviewing a record that included roughly 900 exhibits – including expert reports, government reports, corporate records, laboratory records and deposition transcripts – the court sided with the defendants, finding that they had little or no knowledge that they were disposing of PCBs into the river.[10]

Defendants are recyclers of paper and municipal sewerage entities who simply processed paper and water, and they would have had little reason or ability to inspect or investigate the chemical makeup of anything that came in the door…[t]he recyclers were the ‘innocent victims’ of the circumstances [citation to record omitted]. This is even more true for Defendants who merely received and released wastewater containing invisible PCBs in it.[11]

Similarly, in a case in Washington state, the district court made clear that the issue of arranger liability after BNSF turns squarely on the facts. United States v. Wash. State Department of Transp.[12] In that case, EPA sued the Washington State Department of Transportation (“WSDOT”) to recover cleanup costs at a contaminated site that the state had acquired to build a bridge. During construction of the bridge, a contractor discovered three open-bottom tanks containing tar, which appeared to have been placed there by a coal gasification plant. The State counterclaimed, arguing that the United States was also liable, because the US Army Corps of Engineers (“USACE”) had dredged a portion of the waterway that the coal gassification plant was located on, thereby moving hazardous substances released by others and causing additional releases to the environment. The United States moved for summary judgment. Judge Bryan denied the motion, holding that the United States’ liability, if any, turned on a fact-intensive inquiry that the parties had yet to conduct.

At this point, the facts are insufficiently developed to determine what level of control USACE exerted over the dredging process and what responsibility it may have had regarding disposal of the dredged materials.… As the Supreme Court stated in Burlington Northern, “the determination whether an entity is an arranger requires a fact-intensive inquiry that looks beyond the parties’ characterization of the transaction as a ‘disposal’ or ‘sale’ and seeks to discern whether the arrangement was one Congress intended to fall within the scope of CERCLA’s strict-liability provisions.” 129 S. Ct. at 1879. Considering the USACE’s involvement with dredging the contaminated waterways in light of CERCLA’s strict liability standard, the court cannot say as a matter of law that upon further discovery, the facts will fail to show that the USACE “qualif[ies] as an arranger under [§107(a)(3) when taking] intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance” through the granting of permits to dredge the waterway.[13]

Meanwhile, across the country in Maine, a district court applied BNSF in the context of a cleanup of the Penobscot River.See Frontier Communications Corp. v. Barrett Paving Materials.[14] We previously reported on this case. See District Court in Maine Applies Supreme Court’s BNSF Decision on “Arranger” Liability, Marten Law Environmental News (July 22, 2009). The court in the Maine case reiterated that the question of arranger liability is “fact-intensive,” but it found that the record contained sufficient facts to conclude that the defendant had intended to dispose of wastes through a sewer into the river.[15]

Finally, in New Hampshire, General Electric asked a judge to reverse a prior ruling holding GE liable as having “arranged for disposal” of PCB-containing “scrap Pyranol” when it sold the material to a paint manufacturing company. GE relied on BNSF to argue that the phrase “arranged for disposal” required “an intentional action toward achieving the purpose: disposal.”[16] The court did not dispute GE’s reading of the law, but held that there was sufficient evidence of intent to hold GE liable as an arranger.

Cases Applying BNSF’s Apportionment Ruling

We have located two reported decisions expressly dealing with the “apportionment” arm of the BNSF decision. In the first case, the court essentially punted, holding that the best way to apportion liability was to let the case go to trial. See Evansville Greenway and Remediation Trust v. Southern IN Gas and Elec. Co., Inc.[17]

In Evansville, the BNSF decision was handed down while cross-motions for summary judgment were being briefed. The defendants claimed that BNSF “effected a dramatic change that will make it easier for PRPs to avoid the burden of joint and several liability,” while the plaintiffs argued that “BNSF amounts to nothing new.”[18] Noting that “the Supreme Court’s new decision has presented what might be called genuine questions of material law,”[19] the court declined to commit to a particular interpretation of the BNSF decision, based on the fact that the timing of the decision meant that the record before the court was sparse. Instead, the court granted the motion as to liability under 107(a), but reserved the question of apportionment for trial, so that “each side [can] present evidence relevant to its own and its opponents’ different interpretations of BNSF.”[20]

More interesting is the court’s decision in Appleton Papers, discussed above. In that case, the court engaged in an extended discussion of whether BNSF was applicable to a §113 contribution action (having previously dismissed the plaintiff’s §107 claims). The court concluded that, while “Burlington Northern changed the applicable standards for ‘arranger liability’ … there is nothing within Burlington Northern that requires courts to make some sort of threshold determination regarding joint and several liability or allow plaintiffs in a contribution action to make an apportionment argument.”[21]

One question not answered by BNSF is the quantum of proof necessary to establish a reasonable basis for apportionment. Judge Shira A. Scheindlin addressed that question in a non-CERCLA case involving environmental torts, holding that: (1) a fact finder may rely on the “available evidence” in apportioning liability among joint tortfeasors; and (2) the burden of production necessary to support a showing of divisibility is “low.” In re MTBE, S.D.N.Y. Case No. 00 MDL 1898, Docket No. 352 (July 14, 2009). See Applying BNSF, District Court in New York Finds “Best Available Evidence” Is Sufficient to Apportion Liability, Marten Law Environmental News (July 22, 2009). It remains to be seen whether this approach will be extended in a CERCLA context.

Conclusion

It is still too early to get a good sense of whether BNSF will be the watershed case some had predicted. The first few cases have reinforced the Supreme Court’s holding that the inquiry into arranger liability is “fact-intensive.” Only two reported cases have addressed the apportionment arm of the decision, and neither reached the question of how apportionment is to be conducted.

[1] 129 S. Ct. 1870 (2009).

[2] See, e.g., J. Barkett, The Burlington Northern Decision, American College of Environmental Lawyers Blog (May 19, 2009).

[3] 129 S. Ct. at 1878.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 1879.

[6] Id. at 1881.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 1882.

[9] Slip Op., 2009 WL 5064049 (E.D. Wis., December 16, 2009).

[10] Id. at *15.

[11] Id. at *17.

[12] , ___ F. Supp.2d ___, 2009 WL 2985474 (W.D. Wa., September 15, 2009).

[13] Id. at *8.

[14] District of Maine, Case No. 07-00133.

[15] 2009 WL 1941920, *3

[16] General Electric Company’s Supplemental Memorandum on the Evidence of Intent or Knowledge Required to Prove that a CERCLA Defendant has “Arranged for” Disposal or Treatment of Hazardous Waste at 2, United States v. General Electric Co., 06-354, Doc. No. 89 (D.N.H. Nov. 5, 2008).

[17] ___ F.Supp.2d ___, 2009 WL 3163180 (S.D. Ind., September 29, 2009),

[18] Id. at * 21.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Appleton Papers, Inc. v. George A. Whiting Paper Co., Slip Op., 2009 WL 3921036 (E.D. Wis. 2009), **4, 5.

Practical Impacts of Burlington Northern on Multi-Party Superfund Sites

Posted on January 29, 2010 by William Hyatt

To many Superfund practitioners, United States v. Burlington Northern & Sante Fe Railway Company, __ U.S. __, 129, S. Ct. 1870 (2009) represents the latest in a series of surprises from the Supreme Court. The decision follows Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Aviall Services, Inc, 543 U.S. 157 (2004), from which we learned that the statutory words “during or following” really mean just what they say and contribution claims under the Comprehensive Response Compensation and Liability Act (also referred to as CERCLA or the Superfund statute) are only available in those limited circumstances. A few years later, in United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U.S. 128 (2007), we learned that “covered persons” (also referred to as potentially responsible parties or PRPs) under the statute may, in certain procedural circumstances, have cost recovery claims in the event they do not meet the criteria for contribution claims.   In Burlington Northern, we learned that “arranger” liability may not be as broad as we had thought it was, and that joint and several liability may not be the automatic we thought it was. It is probably fair to say that the outcome in Burlington Northern, like the outcomes in Aviall and Atlantic Research, was not intuitive to Superfund practitioners.

 

            A Superfund practitioner might have expected the Supreme Court decision in Burlington Northern to look more like the Ninth Circuit opinion it reversed (found at 502 F.3d 781), endorsing a broad reading of “arranger” liability under the statute and applying joint and several liability to all the defendants, the latter being the norm for more than 25 years since the seminal decision in United States v. ChemDyne, 572 F. Supp. 802 (S.D. Ohio 1983).

 

As with Aviall and Atlantic Research, it will probably take many years, and many decisions by the lower courts, before we fully appreciate the implications of Burlington Northern, but one thing is already clear. Defendants in multi-party Superfund sites will be contending for apportionment as the alternative to joint and several liability, if for no other reason than to avoid funding the orphan share represented by “covered persons” who can’t be found, no longer exist, or, as is more recently the case, are bankrupt. On the other hand, governments asserting cost recovery claims can be expected to continue to advocate aggressively for joint and several liability, so as to avoid having to absorb the orphan share themselves. The question is what practical impacts this battleground will have on Superfund practice at multi-party sites.

 

            Burlington Northern raises several practical questions which will have to resolved as the law and practice develop. Here are some of them.

 

Whether a defendant is entitled to apportioned liability is a fact-intensive inquiry, resolved in Burlington Northern only after a six week bench trial, and only after the district judge took four years to render a decision. Will governments be able to obtain liability judgments at the beginning of cost recovery actions, as they have typically tried to do in the past? Will Burlington Northern force more cases to go to trial? 

 

Whether liability is subject to apportionment is not likely to be decided until the end of a case, as it was in Burlington Northern. How will cost recovery defendants evaluate their chances of success in the early stages of a case? Will they feel compelled to develop a detailed record to support arguments that liability for a single harm is subject to apportionment, unlike the defendants in Burlington Northern, who limited their arguments to general denials of liability?

 

Governmental plaintiffs can be expected to insist that liability at multi-party sites is still joint and several, even after Burlington Northern. Will those governmental plaintiffs be willing to consider the litigation risk that liability may be subject to apportionment in negotiating settlements? If so, how will that litigation risk be taken into consideration?

If liability is apportioned, how will any resulting orphan shares be funded? Will EPA’s historic limitations on orphan share funding be adequate? If not, where will the funding come from? Is the Superfund tax more likely to be reinstated because of Burlington Northern?

 Will the organization of multiple “covered persons” into PRP groups be more difficult if the defendants believe they can escape liability through apportionment? How will defendants balance that possibility against the potential benefit in the form of reduced costs that might be gained by performing cleanup work themselves?

 

Will ADR emerge as the norm for dividing responsibility among defendants who believe their liability is subject to apportionment, as it has in allocating joint and several liability? What evidence will be used to apportion liability? Burlington Northern endorsed many of the same causation-related considerations as the equitable factors historically used to allocate joint and several liability; will some or all of the Gore factors still be relevant? Burlington Northern also endorsed estimations and compromises, considerations not normally found in legal determinations; how will the lower courts react to imprecise calculations of apportioned liability?

 

How will defendants argue for an orphan share? Will they seek to establish an orphan share from the bottom up (by quantifying the share of missing PRPs), or from the top down (by quantifying their own individual shares)? Whichever way defendants decide to approach the issue, they can be expected to develop the record the district judge found lacking in Burlington Northern.

 

Finally, in states whose statutes make joint and several liability explicit (e.g, the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act, N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.11g(c)(1)), how will apportionment decisions be made? Will the scope of liability be different to EPA and to such states?   Under such statutes, is there no instance in which liability will be subject to apportionment, even for distinct harms?

Like Aviall and Atlantic Research before it, Burlington Northern promises to be a fertile source of future litigation. 

Ninth Circuit Rejects CERCLA UAO Due Process Challenge

Posted on January 6, 2010 by Theodore Garrett

The 9th Circuit affirmed the dismissal, for lack of jurisdiction, over a “pattern and practice” claim by a company that complied with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unilateral administrative order (UAO) to conduct a remedial investigation. City of Rialto v. W. Coast Loading Corp., 581 F.3d 865 (9th Cir. 2009).  While acknowledging that CERCLA's judicial review provisions contain "some pitfalls and difficult decisions for a PRP that faces a UAO," the court stated that the pattern and practice claim was not an “automatic shortcut” to federal court jurisdiction. 

 

The case arose as a result of a unilateral administrative order (UAO) issued by EPA in July 2003 directing Goodrich to conduct a remedial investigation at a 160-acre site in Rialto, California. Goodrich elected to comply with the order. However, in late 2006 Goodrich filed a complaint against EPA alleging, inter alia, that the CERCLA review provisions on their face constitute a coercive regime violating due process. The district court held that it lacked jurisdiction over Goodrich’s “as-applied” challenge to the UAO because such pre-enforcement judicial review is foreclosed by §9613(h) of CERCLA. Goodrich then filed an amended “pattern and practice” claim alleging that EPA issues orders where no emergency exists, obstructs judicial review by delaying its discretionary certificates of completion, and controls and manipulates the record of decision. The district court granted EPA’s motion to dismiss, and Goodrich appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

 

The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The court of appeals concluded that Goodrich’s allegation that EPA routinely issues orders beyond its statutory authority was substantive because it necessarily depended on the facts of the particular UAO, and that meaningful judicial review of Goodrich’s substantive challenge is available under §9613(h). A claim that a UAO is unlawful can be addressed, the court stated, either by not complying with the UAO and defending an enforcement action, or by complying with a UAO and seeking reimbursement from the government. With respect to Goodrich’s claim that EPA routinely delays certifications of completion in order to thwart judicial review, the Ninth Circuit held that Goodrich’s claim is not ripe because the work required by the UAO has not been completed. Once Goodrich completes the work, it may bring a claim for reimbursement under §9606(b)(2). Finally, with respect to Goodrich’s allegation that EPA controls and manipulates the administrative record supporting the selected cleanup plan, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Goodrich allegations were not a “pattern and practice” claim , but rather were a challenge to the judicial review provisions of the statute itself, which were rejected by the District Court and not appealed by Goodrich. 

 

The Ninth Circuit noted that in General Electric v. Whitman, 360 F.3d 188, 191 (D.C. Cir. 2004), the D.C. Circuit remanded GE’s suit to the district court to address the merits of GE’s facial due process claim, and on remand the district court ruled on merits and rejected GE’s pattern and practice claim. General Electric v. Jackson, 595 F.Supp.2d 8 (D.D.C. 2009). This ruling on the merits contrasts with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that the district court lacked jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit, however, commented that its decision was “consistent” with the District Court’s decision in GE, noting that the District Court there held that it had jurisdiction not because of any independent analysis but because of its interpretation of the D.C. Circuit’s decision remanding the case for further proceedings. 

Companies receiving a UAO and facing the statutory pitfalls and difficult decisions will likely not find much solace in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion. The district court’s opinion in the GE case is being appealed.

Judge Dismisses Contribution Claims re: Fox River PCB Contamination

Posted on December 23, 2009 by Linda Bochert

“Thus, the Plaintiffs’ present claim that they never knew about the dangers of PCBs until after 1971 rings roughly as hollow as Captain Renault’s feigned outrage upon being ‘shocked, shocked’ to discover gambling at Rick’s Casablanca café.” 

Appleton Papers Inc. and NCR Corp. v. George A. Whiting Paper Co., et al. (slip op. at 25, US District Court, Eastern District of WI, Case No. 08-C-16)

 

With those words, on December 16, 2009 Judge William C. Griesbach, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin dismissed CERCLA §107 contribution claims brought by Plaintiffs Appleton Papers, Inc. (API) and NCR Corp. against all Defendants.   NCR and API sought contribution from 23 other paper mills, cities, utilities, and sewerage districts, and industrial dischargers to allocate the multi-million dollar costs of remediating the polychlorinated byphenyl (PCB) contamination in the Lower Fox River in northeastern Wisconsin. Defendants’ Summary Judgment motions asserted that Plaintiffs were not entitled to contribution because the Defendants are “essentially innocent parties who had no knowledge that recycling NCR paper or processing wastewater could lead to environmental damage.” Slip op. at 4. The Judge agreed.

 

Beginning in 1954, NCR developed a carbonless copy paper that relied on an emulsion based on Aroclor 1242, a PCB solvent manufactured by Monsanto Corporation. NCR created the emulsion and developed and sold the carbonless paper product. API’s predecessor manufactured the paper and coated it with the NCR emulsion. API’s wastewater was discharged to the Fox River, taking the PCBs with it. API also sold its waste paper to other mills to be recycled into paper products, resulting in PCB-containing wastewater discharges from those facilities. The result: significant PCB-contamination in the sediments of the Lower Fox River from the mouth at Green Bay to Lake Winnebago and what has been called the largest contaminated sediment cleanup in the world..

 

The decision turns on what the Plaintiffs knew about the potential harm of the PCBs in their carbonless copy paper and when they knew it. It includes an instructive recital of internal communications within and among NCR and API, Monsanto, and Wiggins Teape, NCR’s exclusive European-licensee, leading to the Court’s conclusion that “I am satisfied that by the late 1960’s Plaintiffs had access to the vanguard of data suggesting an appreciable risk of serious and long-lasting environmental damage resulting from the production and recycling of NCR paper.” (emphasis in original) Slip op. at 26.

 

Readers will find the case of interest on both the legal analysis -- application of the “Gore factors” in determining equitable allocation, consideration of successor liability, and the Court’s evaluation and weighing of the overall equities – and the factual history. On this latter point, the case may well serve as a primer on how a business’ historical records and risk management decisions can come back to haunt it with respect to future determinations of knowledge and liability: 

 

“In the face of increasing red flags, Plaintiffs’ approach in the late 1960s was to worry about publicity and wait for the ‘second shoe’ to drop. At its essence, Plaintiffs’ approach was a risk management strategy to accept the risk of potential environmental harm in exchange for the financial benefits of continued (and increasing) sales of carbonless paper containing Aroclor 1242.” Slip op. at 26.

 

Appeal decisions are still pending. For those who want to know more about the Fox River, PCB-contamination, and the clean-up, both the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the United States Environmental Protection Agency maintain extensive websites:

 

Click here for WDNR’s Fox River website

 

 

Click here for EPA Region 5’s website

Tenant Liability Under CERCLA: Is It time To Move Beyond Enforcement Discretion Guidance?

Posted on December 18, 2009 by Charles Efflandt

Arguably the most significant moderation of CERCLA’s harsh “owner” liability scheme occurred in 2002 through the enactment of the “Brownfields Amendments.” Included in those amendments was the creation of new liability protection for “Bona Fide Prospective Purchasers” (“BFPP”) who acquire ownership of a facility after January 11, 2002.

 

A relatively straightforward roadmap for prospective purchasers to achieve BFPP status is set out in the Brownfields Amendments and the subsequently-promulgated All Appropriate Inquiry rule. The extent to which tenants might obtain protection from possible “owner” liability has, however, always been far less certain.

 

The potential applicability of this liability defense to tenants is currently limited to a short parenthetical in CERCLA §101(40). Specifically, a “tenant of a person” that achieves BFPP status shares the liability protections of the property purchaser. Although this “derivative” BFPP status established by the Brownfields Amendments helped clarify the reach of the liability defense with respect to tenants, a number of questions remained unanswered. For example, what happens if the property owner loses its BFPP status through non-compliance with the statutory requirements? Also, does the language of the amendment as it relates to tenants preclude a tenant from independently achieving BFPP status?

 

Earlier this year, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance issued an Enforcement Discretion Guidance (“Guidance”) that addresses the applicability of the BFPP definition to tenants. That Guidance clarifies how EPA intends to exercise its enforcement discretion with respect to tenants “on a site-by-site” basis. In essence, the Guidance provides:

 

 

  • Tenants with “derivative” BFPP status will lose that status if the property owner ceases to be a BFPP for non-compliance with one or more of the statutory requirements. Nevertheless, EPA may exercise its enforcement discretion and not pursue the tenant under an owner liability theory if the tenant satisfies certain conditions, including not having disposed of hazardous substances on the property and fully cooperating with EPA in its response actions.
  • Tenants whose lease documents establish sufficient “indicia of ownership” and who satisfy all requirements of CERCLA §101(40)(A)-(H) and 107(r) may be deemed to have independently achieved BFPP status and thus possibly avoid an enforcement action under CERCLA’s owner liability provisions. Indicia of ownership include the term of the lease, the range of permitted property uses by the tenant, reserved rights on the property by the owner, etc.

 

EPA’s Guidance is a welcome clarification of how the agency intends to enforce CERCLA’s owner liability provisions in these situations. However, the Guidance goes beyond the derivative status language in the Brownfields Amendments in its discussion of potential limitations on tenant “owner” liability. The problem is that a guidance is just that. It offers none of the statutory certainty that prospective purchasers now enjoy under CERCLA.

 

Because of the importance of tenant-operated properties to the economy in general and to the development of Brownfields property in particular, I would submit that tenants should be afforded the same clarity and certainty with respect to potential liability under CERCLA as those who acquire title to the property. As the Brownfield Amendments are largely self-implementing, that clarity and certainty is likely to be achieved only through further amendments to the liability provisions of CERCLA.

EPA Issues a New Policy on Superfund Negotiations: Time For Another Rant?

Posted on October 19, 2009 by Seth Jaffe

Late last week, Elliott Gilberg, Acting Director of EPA’s Office of Site Remediation Enforcement (OSRE) issued an Interim Policy on Managing the Duration of Remedial Design/Remedial Action Negotiations. Members of the regulated community may not be surprised by the contents of the memo, but they certainly will not be pleased. In brief, the memorandum fundamentally makes two points:

EPA wants to shorten the duration of RD/RA negotiation

EPA is going to use the heavy hammer of unilateral administrative orders, or UAOs, to keep PRPs’ feet to the fire and ensure that negotiations move quickly.

PRPs will likely agree that shortening the duration of negotiations would be a good outcome in the abstract – but achieving it by greater use of UAOs? I don’t think so.

I can only wonder if EPA has even considered the impact of the Burlington Northern decision here. Is this a perverse reaction from EPA? A metaphorical throwing down the gauntlet to PRPs? It certainly feels that way.

I have a different suggestion, if EPA truly wants to shorten negotiations. First, acknowledge Burlington Northern and compromise on the merits in those great majority of cases where there are legitimate divisibility arguments. Second, stop acting like the last bastion of command and control regulation. Set cleanup standards and then, to the maximum extent permitted by existing law, let PRPs clean up to those standards, without micromanaging every detail of the cleanup process.

Statute of Limitations: Don't Miss Your CERCLA Deadline

Posted on September 14, 2009 by Earl Phillips

Overview       

There are three avenues of recovery under CERCLA - a contribution action and two types of cost recovery actions. These cost recovery actions are based on either the plaintiff’s “removal” of the hazardous substances or “remediation” efforts at the site. Each of these avenues has an independent statute of limitations provision.  Thus, whether the statute of limitations period has been triggered will depend on how an action is characterized, i.e. whether the action constitutes a contribution action, a cost recovery removal action, or a cost recovery remedial action. While there are various state-specific causes of action related to environmental contamination in Connecticut, this article is confined to the statute of limitations for CERCLA cost recovery and contribution claims. 

 

Analysis         

            Contribution Claim

           

            The statute of limitations analysis related to contribution claims is thankfully quite straight forward. Under CERCLA Section 113, these claims must be brought within three years of a civil action under Section 106 or 107, a CERCLA administrative order, or a judicially approved settlement with respect to costs or damages.  42 U.S.C. § 9613(g)(3). While questions may arise as to what may constitute a CERCLA “administrative order” or whether a “judicially approved settlement” must reference Section 106 or 107, we leave those discussions for another article.

 

            Cost Recovery Claim

 

 

            The analysis of what constitutes a viable cost recovery claim, whether it is removal or remedial, and when the statute of limitations is first triggered is more intricate. First, it is important to note that certain actions performed on a site may not trigger the statute of limitations period.   “[T]here are some cases in which work on a site is neither a remedial nor a removal action, but rather constitutes ‘preliminary’ or ‘interim’ measures that do not trigger the statute of limitations . . ..” Yankee Gas Servs. Co. v. UGI Utils., Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44282, *117 (D. Conn. May 22, 2009). While caselaw on what constitutes a preliminary remedy, as opposed to a permanent remedy, is limited, at least one court has determined that “evaluation, sampling, surveying and measuring” do not constitute the initiation of physical on-site construction because “these activities [do] not constitute ‘construction.’” Schaefer v. Town of Victor, 457 F.3d 188, 204 (2d Cir. 2006)(quoting United States v. Findett Corp., 220 F.3d 842, 848 (8th Cir. 2000)).

 

            Beyond this, the characterization of a cost recovery action as either removal or remedial is crucial to determining whether an action to recover response costs is time-barred because there are different statute of limitations periods for a removal action and a remedial action. The statute of limitations for recovery of costs related to removal actions is three years after the completion of the removal action, whereas the limitations period for recovery of costs related to remedial actions is six years after the initiation of physical on-site construction of the remediationAlthough there is a lack of clarity as to what constitutes a removal verses a remedial action, removal actions have generally been construed as “time-sensitive responses to public health threats . . ..”[1] Remedial actions, in contrast, are often described as “permanent remedies to threats for which an urgent response is not warranted.”[2]

 

             Assuming for this discussion that the efforts undertaken at a site are beyond preliminary, there is inconsistency as to whether the statute of limitations for remedial actions would only run after a final Remedial Action Plan (RAP) has been approved for the site. One court in the Ninth Circuit, for example, concluded that initiation of physical on-site construction of the remedial action “can only occur after the final remedial action plan is adopted, and that . . . the statute of limitations, therefore, could not have begun to run until the final remedial action was approved . . ..” Cal. v. Neville Chem. Co., 358 F.3d 661, 671 (9th Cir. 2004).  The Second Circuit, however, has rejected such a bright line rule and determined that the statute of limitations can be triggered without a final RAP, if the action is “consistent with a permanent remedy.” Schaefer v. Town of Victor, 457 F.3d 188, 205 (2d Cir. 2006). 

 

            Compounding the important distinction between removal and remedial actions is variability within the courts in determining the initial trigger for the statute of limitations period. Some courts apply a statute of limitations to an entire site after remediation commences on one portion of the site, while others look to multiple statute of limitations at a single property. See Colorado v. Sunoco, 337 F.3d 1233 (10th Cir. 2003) contra U.S. v. Manzo, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 70860 (D.N.J. Sept. 29, 2006). While the Second Circuit has not spoken on this issue, a recent District of Connecticut case has adopted the opinion that “there can be only one removal and one remedial action per facility, regardless of the number of phases in which the clean-up occurs.” Yankee Gas Servs. Co. v. UGI Utils., Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44282 (D. Conn. May 22, 2009)(emphasis added).  Should a court adopt a one site, one action approach, the statute of limitations would be triggered by the first removal or remedial action at the site.  Id.; see also Colorado v. Sunoco   Thus, it is important to evaluate what actions have occurred at your facility and whether those actions would be considered “removal” or “remedial” to ensure the statute of limitations for a cost recovery action does not run., 337 F.3d 1233 (10th Cir. 2003).

 

At Robinson & Cole, we have environmental attorneys who have broad experience representing clients in CERCLA actions and the prosecution or defense of other environmental claims. We stand ready to apply this experience and insight to your specific needs. If you would like to discuss statute of limitations concerns, or broader environmental issues, please contact any of the attorneys in our Environmental and Utilities Practice Group. 

 

Earl Phillips                                           W. Richard Smith                                 Lauren Vinokur

(860) 275-8220                                   (860) 275- 8218                                  (860) 275-8341

ephillips@rc.com                                  wrsmith@rc.com                                  lvinokur@rc.com



[1] United States v. W.R. Grace & Co., 429 F.3d 1224, 1228 (9th Cir. 2005); see also OBG Tech. Servs. v. Northrop Grumman Space & Mission Sys. Corp., 503 F. Supp. 2d 490, 524 (D. Conn. 2007)(“[w]hether . . .actions are properly characterized as remedial or removal actions is a question of law for the Court to decide”); Geraghty & Miller, Inc. v. Conoco Inc., 234 F.3d 917, 926 (5th Cir. 2000)(“the CERCLA definitions [of removal and remedial action] are expansive enough that certain activities may well be covered by both…[and] the cases on this issue tend to be highly fact-specific . . ..”)

[2] United States v. W.R. Grace & Co., 429 F.3d 1224, 1228 (9th Cir. 2005); see also W.R. Grace & Co. v. Zotos Int'l, Inc., 559 F.3d 85, 92 (2d Cir. 2009). Under 42 U.S.C. § 9601(24) a remedial action “includes, but is not limited to, such actions at the location of the release as storage, confinement, perimeter protection using dikes, trenches, or ditches, clay cover, neutralization, cleanup of released hazardous substances and associated contaminated materials, recycling or reuse, diversion, destruction, segregation of reactive wastes, dredging or excavations, repair or replacement of leaking containers, collection of leachate and runoff, on-site treatment or incineration, provision of alternative water supplies, and any monitoring reasonably required to assure that such actions protect the public health and welfare and the environment.”

The Burlington Northern Decision

Posted on May 19, 2009 by John Barkett

The Supreme Court’s decision in Burlington Northern was not unexpected from my vantage point especially given the literal interpretation of CERCLA by the Court in Aviall and Atlantic Research and the flow of the oral argument. 

I was a little surprised that Justice Stevens was assigned the task of writing the opinion since Justice Thomas wrote Aviall and Atlantic Research.  But with 7-2 (Justices Ginsburg and Stevens dissented in Aviall because the Court would not decide the issue of entitlement to sue under Section 107), 9-0 (Atlantic Research decided the Section 107 private of action question left unresolved in Aviall), and 8-1 (Justice Ginsburg was the lone dissenter in Burlington Northern) votes in these three opinions, the Court is not going out of its way to fix CERCLA’s language. Section 113(f)(1) means what it says. Section 107 means what it says. An arranger must have an intent to dispose. And joint and several…

 

Wait a second. The statute says nothing about “joint and several liability.” It does not set a liability standard at all. In fact in 2007, in note 7 of Atlantic Research, the Court wrote, “We assume without deciding that §107(a) provides for joint and several liability.”

Two years later, the Court appears to have deftly answered this question, albeit indirectly. It called the holding in Chem-Dyne the “seminal opinion on the subject of apportionment in CERCLA actions …written in 1983 by Chief Judge Carl Rubin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.” Quoting Judge Rubin, the Court said that joint and several liability is not mandated in every CERCLA cost recovery action and that Congress intended the scope of liability to “’be determined from traditional and evolving principles of common law[.]’”

As the entire environmental world now knows, the Court held that the district court’s findings should not be disturbed: “The District Court’s detailed findings make it abundantly clear that the primary pollution at the Arvin facility was contained in an unlined sump and an unlined pond in the southeastern portion of the facility most distant from the Railroads’ parcel and that the spills of hazardous chemicals that occurred on the Railroad parcel contributed to no more than 10% of the total site contamination, some of which did not require remediation.”

Going forward, the facts will dictate the outcome. The Court blessed the use of basic allocation or apportionment principles that have been applied in numerous CERCLA cases and numerous consent decree approval orders over the past 25 years. Indeed, it was mildly critical of the Ninth Circuit for talking out of both sides of its mouth: “Although the Court of Appeals faulted the District Court for relying on the ‘simplest of considerations: percentages of land area, time of ownership, and types of hazardous products,’ 520 F. 3d, at 943, these were the same factors the court had earlier acknowledged were relevant to the apportionment analysis. See id., at 936, n.18 (‘We of course agree with our sister circuits that, if adequate information is available, divisibility may be established by ‘volumetric, chronological, or other types of evidence,’ including appropriate geographic considerations’ (citations omitted)).”

In cases where there is no orphan share and multiple parties, it will behoove EPA and the parties to work on apportionment issues up front to save litigation costs. Yes, I relate “apportionment” to “allocation” in saying this, but after Burlington Northern, it will be the rare case that will lack the facts to make a reasonable basis for apportionment. Volumetric waste-in information may be controlling. Or varying toxicities of released hazardous substances may be. Or geography or time of ownership or operation. There may be equitable factors as between or among jointly and severally liable parties, e.g., cooperation, that may not relate to apportionment, but not that many cases have utilized this allocation factor, and most judges engage in an allocation exercise that is indistinguishable from an apportionment exercise, as was the case in Burlington Northern. Cf. Restatement of the Law (Third) Torts, §1, cmt. a., §26 cmt. a. (focusing on the role that comparative responsibility now plays in tort law).

Where there is an orphan share, the stakes are much higher after Burlington NorthernCf. United States v. Newmont USA Limited, 2008 WL 4612566 (E.D. Wash. Oct. 17, 2008) (after a six day trial, submission of dozen depositions or deposition excerpts and 1,600 exhibits, finding the two defendants—one of which was alleged to be an orphan--jointly and severally liable but then finding for the defendants on their counterclaim in contribution against the United States, and then equitably allocating response costs 1/3 to the United States and 1/3 each to the two defendants).

It will still behoove the regulator and the regulated to work things out. If EPA becomes the “bank” (funds the work) at a site, post Burlington Northern, it may find itself absorbing the orphan share or at least not knowing whether it will until after a trial on the merits. (Time will tell but presumably summary judgments will become rare on apportionment issues given the fact-intensive nature of the exercise.) A PRP may be reluctant to become the bank where there is a large orphan share if it does not receive assurance that the orphan share will be addressed fairly, and that may mean more than what EPA is currently offering in its orphan share policy. See, generally, Barkett, Orphan Shares, 23 N.R.E. 46  (2008). Consent order and decree negotiations should become less one-sided in the future. But budget constraints may result in more contention (trials), especially in cases where the orphan share potentially is quite large.

Arrangers of used but useful products can take comfort in Burlington Northern. The entity that recycles solvents or used oil, for example, will embrace the decision especially if reclamation wastes are disposed of at a location other than the recycler’s facility. Sellers of used but useful products will as well. Again, the facts will dictate the outcome.

A Rant Against Superfund

Posted on April 15, 2009 by Seth Jaffe

As some of my clients know all too well, I’ve been spending a lot of time on some Superfund matters recently. Although I can’t remember a period when I didn’t have at least one moderately active Superfund case, significant immersion in complex remedial decision-making and negotiations provides an unwelcome reminder just how flawed CERCLA is. Almost 20 years after the acid rain provisions of the Clean Air Act ushered in wide-spread acceptance of the use of market mechanisms to achieve environmental protection goals and the state of Massachusetts successfully privatized its state Superfund program, the federal Superfund program, like some obscure former Russian republic which remains devoted to Stalinism, is one of the last bastions of pure command and control regulation.

 

Can anyone tell me why the remedy selection process takes years and costs millions of dollars – before any cleanup has occurred or risk reduction been achieved? Can anyone tell me why, after the remedy has been selected, EPA has to spend millions of dollars – charged back to the PRPs, of course – to oversee the cleanup? Oversight costs can easily exceed 10% of cleanup costs, while oversight during the remedial design and feasibility study process sometimes seem to be barely less than the cost of actually performing the RI/FS.

While there are certainly a multiplicity of causes, there are two factors which greatly contribute to the problem. One was, coincidentally, highlighted in a post today by my friend Rob Stavins. As Rob noted, unlike the acid rain program, which was new at the time, the Superfund bureaucracy is well entrenched and there are a number of actors with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo

The second issue relates to the genesis of the Superfund program, as well as its continuing raison d’être. Whenever EPA has ranked relative risks from different environmental hazards, Superfund sites come in at the bottom. However, if you think back to Superfund’s origins, what comes to mind? Love Canal and the Valley of the Drums – and some concerned near-by residents who rallied around a cause to ensure that the problem would be addressed. As renowned risk communications expert Dr. Peter Sandman has noted, there is not necessarily a significant correlation between actual risk levels and public outrage, and it’s not possible to decrease outrage simply by providing accurate information about risks.

In short, the public is outraged by hazardous waste sites and does not trust PRPs to clean them properly. All of those EPA oversight costs are, in large part, intended not to decrease risk, but to lower outrage.  Outrage is understandable in some circumstances, and efforts to reduce it are laudable, but is it really an appropriate use of scarce environmental protection resources to spend the money that gets poured into Superfund sites?

There has to be a better way. Indeed, there is a better way. It’s called a privatized system in which PRPs have to meet well-defined cleanup standards, but are allowed to do so on their own, in whatever manner is most cost-effective, subject to audits by regulators. Privatized programs such as the one in Massachusetts are not perfect. However, their flaws – which largely stem from a failure to fully support privatization -- pale in comparison to the waste that is the federal program under CERCLA.

In other contexts, I’ve called on the Obama administration to embrace regulatory reform. Why not start with Superfund? Notwithstanding Rob Stavins’ point about the difficulty of overturning an entrenched status quo, if the states could do it, why not the federal government?

Besides, I have an entrenched personal reason for seeking Superfund reform. This stuff drives me nuts.

Pres. Obama's DOJ Takes Second Shot at Citizen Suit Dismissal

Posted on April 3, 2009 by Jarred O. Taylor, II

Citizen suits in the environmental world are those filed in federal court under the authority Congress gave to a citizen to seek enforcement of the environmental laws, typically when the citizen believes the regulatory authority (i.e. EPA or a state agency) is not doing its job or has missed a violation.  

 

Entire articles have been written about the efficacy of such suits, and their appropriateness in the face of an already-initiated governmental enforcement or cleanup action. Recent cases suggest the courts want to encourage, and not discourage, such filings, although one recent US Supreme Court decision found the citizens lacked standing because there was not an actual, live, dispute. Summers v. Earth Island Institute, __U.S.__(No. 07-463, March 3, 2009) (see ACOEL blog entry of March 4, 2009).

 

Some, therefore, found it surprising when, on March 6, 2009, President Obama’s Justice Department filed a motion seeking the dismissal of a citizen suit filed against the United States over alleged mining contamination in a national forest. What some found even more surprising was this was not the DOJ’s first shot at the citizen group, the DOJ having attempted to get the case dismissed one time before, under Pres. Bush’s DOJ.

 

In Washington Environmental Council v. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (W.D. Wash, CV No. 06-1249), the United States had argued in 2007 that it was already taking action at the site under Superfund, and argued that the citizen suit was a barred challenge to the United States’ “removal or remedial action” under Section 113(h) of Superfund. The federal district court denied this first motion to dismiss on the basis that the US Forest Service was just at the inspection and investigation stage, and had not actually selected a remedy.

 

On March 6, 2009, with the citizen suit still pending, DOJ filed another motion to dismiss, arguing that the US Forest Service had advanced its Superfund work so that all of its inspections were complete and it was beginning to perform the engineering evaluation for remediation, and to calculate those costs. DOJ argued in its motion that such activity, even though before any cleanup had been actually conducted, does meet the Section 113(h) criteria barring such challenges, and that the citizen suit should be dismissed. The author is unaware of a court ruling on this recent motion.

 

One hopes the administration’s position in this case (whether right or wrong) would be the same if the subject of the citizen group’s complaint was a non government organization or other private company, and not the United States. Comments?

Superfund Liability and Apportionment - Burlington Northern v. United States

Posted on January 20, 2009 by Theodore Garrett

Although the Superfund statute is now 28 years old, basic issues of liability and apportionment of liability remain unresolved. This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide a case with broad implications for CERCLA liability, Nos. 07-1601 and 07-1607, Burlington Northern v. United States. These consolidated cases, which will be argued early in 2009, raise important issues concerning the circumstances under liability is divisible and the scope of “arranger” liability under CERCLA.  If the Ninth Circuit’s approach is upheld, the heightened evidentiary standards may impose a difficult hurdle on parties to prove reasonable apportionment of liability. The Ninth Circuit’s approach to “arranger” liability is of concern to entities that sell chemicals or other products in the ordinary course of business. The allocation of risk and provisions for insurance and best practices to avoid spills in contracts between suppliers and common carriers may need to be reviewed in light of the Supreme Court’s opinion in this case. 

 

Although the Superfund statute is now 28 years old, basic issues of liability and apportionment of liability remain unresolved. This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide a case with broad implications for CERCLA liability, Nos. 07-1601 and 07-1607, Burlington Northern v. United States. These consolidated cases, which will be argued early in 2009, raise important issues concerning the circumstances under liability is divisible and the scope of “arranger” liability under CERCLA.  If the Ninth Circuit’s approach is upheld, the heightened evidentiary standards may impose a difficult hurdle on parties to prove reasonable apportionment of liability. The Ninth Circuit’s approach to “arranger” liability is of concern to entities that sell chemicals or other products in the ordinary course of business. The allocation of risk and provisions for insurance and best practices to avoid spills in contracts between suppliers and common carriers may need to be reviewed in light of the Supreme Court’s opinion in this case. 

 

                                    Background

A now-defunct company, Brown & Bryant, Inc. (B&B), owned and operated a facility at which chemicals were stored and distributed. The B&B operations were conducted in part on land owned by two railroad companies. Some of the chemicals used by B&B were supplied and delivered by Shell Oil Company. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) brought suit under CERCLA to recover their response costs.

 

In 1996, the EPA and the State filed CERCLA actions against B&B, the Railroads, and Shell for reimbursement of their investigation and cleanup costs.   The district court, after a twenty-seven day bench trial, issued a detailed, 191-page decision holding the Railroads liable under CERCLA § 9607(a) as owners of the facility and as persons who “at the time of disposal of any hazardous substance owned or operated any facility at which such hazardous substances were disposed of.”  Shell was held liable under CERCLA § 9607(a)(3)as a “person who ... arranged for disposal ... of hazardous substances.”  

 

The district court found that the harm to the site was capable of apportionment.  The parties had not provided arguments concerning apportionment, leaving the district court to independently perform the equitable apportionment analysis. For the Railroads, the district court multiplied three proportions: (1) the percentage of the overall site that was owned by the Railroads, 19.1%; (2) the percentage of time that the Railroads leased the parcel in relation to B&B’s total operations, 45%; and (3) the fraction of hazardous products attributable to the Railroad parcel, 66%. This calculation resulted in a determination of 6% liability.  To account for any “calculation errors,” the district court assumed 50% error and raised the Railroads’ proportion of the total liability to 9%. For Shell, the district court approximated the volume of spills of Shell’s product attributable to Shell, and set Shell’s proportion of the total liability at 6%. 

 

The State and EPA appealed the district court’s judgment.  Shell cross-appealed the finding that it was liable as an “arranger” under CERCLA. The federal district court held the Railroads and Shell liable for a minor portion of the total cleanup costs. The agencies appealed. A panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the portion of the judgment that imposed liability on Shell as an arranger and reversed the portion of the judgment that declined to impose joint and several liability on the Railroads and Shell. 

 

The Supreme Court granted certiorari. The questions presented are whether the 9th Circuit correctly (1) affirmed the district court’s ruling that Shell is liable as an arranger and (2) reversed the district court’s apportionment of liability. The case is scheduled to be argued early in 2009.

 

                                    The Ninth Circuit’s Decision

 

A panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the portion of the judgment that imposed liability on Shell as an arranger and reversed the portion of the judgment that declined to impose joint and several liability on the Railroads and Shell, holding that petitioners did not satisfy their burden of proof on apportionment. United States v. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway, 502 F.3d 781 (9th Cir. 2007), as amended 520 F.3d 918 (9th Cir. 2008). The amended opinion was issued to accompany a denial of en banc review, which prompted an unusual dissent by eight Ninth Circuit judges including the Chief Judge.

 

Apportionment of Liability. The Ninth Circuit notes that § 433A(1) of the Restatement allows for apportionment of damages where “(a) there are distinct harms or (b) there is a reasonable basis for determining the contribution of each cause to a single harm.” 520 F.3d at 934-35.  

On the facts presented, the court found no dispute on the first, purely legal question -- whether the harm is capable of apportionment, but held that the district court erred in finding that there was a “reasonable basis” apportioning the harm based on percentages of land area, time of ownership, and types of hazardous products.  The Ninth Circuit held that there was no evidence linking these factors to the proportion of leakage, contamination, or cleanup costs. 520 F.3d at 945-46. With respect to Shell, the Ninth Circuit similarly found that the evidence relied on by the district court was too speculative to determine the amount of leakage of Shell’s chemicals.  520 F.3d at 946-47.

 

“Arranger” Liability. The Ninth Circuit rejected Shell’s arguments that the district court applied the wrong legal standard in determining whether Shell was an “arranger.”  The Ninth Circuit held that the useful product cases do not apply in this case because “Shell arranged for delivery of the substances to the site by its subcontractors; was aware of, and to some degree dictated, the transfer arrangements; knew that some leakage was likely in the transfer process….” 520 F.3d at 950. The Ninth Circuit cited evidence that spills occurred every time the deliveries were made; that Shell arranged for delivery and chose the common carrier that transported its product to the site; that Shell changed its delivery process so as to require the use of large storage tanks, that Shell reduced the purchase price of the chemicals to reflect loss from leakage; and that Shell distributed a manual and created a checklist to ensure that the chemical tanks were operated in accordance with Shell’s safety instructions. 520 F.3d at 950-51.

 

The Dissent. The order denying the petition for rehearing en banc provoked a strong dissent by Judge Bea, joined in by seven judges including the Chief Judge. The dissent cites the detailed factual findings made by the district court and states: “If this evidence does not provide a ‘reasonable estimate’ for apportionment of liability, I do not see how -- short of ‘perfect information’ sufficient to trace every molecule of pollution to the landlord’s parcel -- apportionment could ever be possible under CERCLA.”  520 F.3d 953. The dissent was equally critical of the panel’s imposition of “arranger” liability on Shell, stating: “The panel’s imposition of arranger liability on a mere seller, which relinquished control over its products upon delivery and before spillage occurred, goes far beyond the statutory language and creates inter-and intra-circuit splits.” 520 F.3d 954.

 

Issues Before The Supreme Court

1. Apportionment of Liability.  Petitioner Burlington Northern argues that the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of apportionment departs from common-law principles, which allow for rough apportionment based on reasonable assumptions. The Ninth Circuit has pushed the “polluter pays” principle in CERCLA beyond all rational limits. Burlington argues that imposing joint and several liability in all but extraordinary cases, as the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning would dictate, would raise a multitude of constitutional problems, citing Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel, 524 U.S. 498 (1998).

 

The United States counters petitioners failed to even attempt to identify and prove a reasonable basis for apportionment and the Supreme Court should not relieve petitioners of the consequences of their litigation strategy. Further, the United States argues that a district court does not have the same “broad discretion” in determining whether and how liability should be apportioned. 

 

2. “Arranger” Liability.  Shell Oil Company argues that “arranger” liability may not be imposed on a manufacturer who merely sells and ships, by common carrier, a commercially useful product, transferring ownership and control to a purchaser who causes contamination involving that product.  Any inadvertent spillage that occurred was the result of the transfer of a useful product, thus Shell cannot be said to have arranged for the discard of waste. Shell did not own the chemicals at the time of any disposal. Shell also argues that a company should not be penalized for providing its customers with a safety manual and other information for the safe handling of its products.

 

The United States argues that Shell is liable because it entered into transactions that it knew would directly result in disposals of hazardous substances. The government’s brief emphasizes that Shell inserted itself over the transfer process by hiring the common carriers used for delivery and because the common carriers used equipment required by Shell. Lack of intent to dispose of a hazardous substance does not preclude arranger liability, the United States argues, where the arranger has advance knowledge of the disposal. 

 

                                    Conclusion

In cases where there is a significant orphan share, the failure to apportion liability may result in the imposition of liability for the entire cleanup cost on parties with minimal responsibility.  If the Ninth Circuit’s approach is upheld, the heightened evidentiary standards may impose a difficult hurdle on parties to prove reasonable apportionment. Alternatively, the Supreme Court might decide the issue on narrow grounds suggested by the United States, namely that petitioners failed to offer evidence concerning apportionment and thus did not meet their burden of proof.

The Ninth Circuit’s approach to “arranger” liability is of concern to entities that sell chemicals or other products in the ordinary course of business. Does every sale and delivery of a useful product potentially subject the supplier to CERCLA liability if leakage or spills occur? If not, how does one draw the line?  Should arranger liability attach only when the sole purpose of a transaction is for disposing a hazardous substance?  The allocation of risk and provisions for insurance and best practices to avoid spills in contracts between suppliers and common carriers may need to be reviewed in light of the Supreme Court’s opinion in this case. 

 

Theodore Garrett is a partner in the law firm Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C. and is Co-Chair of the firm's environmental practice group. His practice involves major regulatory and enforcement issues and transactions, particularly involving air quality, water quality, hazardous waste, and natural resource damages. He has been lead industry counsel in numerous cases seeking judicial review of EPA air and water regulations and has represented clients in numerous Superfund matters. Mr. Garrett advises clients on compliance and related business issues and has been extensively involved in administrative proceedings and litigation, including Supreme Court cases. Mr. Garrett has spoken and written widely in the environmental area. He is the editor and principal author of The Environmental Law Manual and the RCRA Compliance Manual, and is a contributing author to Environmental Litigation and The Clean Water Act Handbook. Mr. Garrett served as a U.S. Supreme Court law clerk to Chief Justice Warren Burger.  He is past Chair of the ABA Section of Environment, Energy and Resources. Mr. Garrett was honored as the Environmental Lawyer of the Year 2008 by Who’s Who International.

 

Contact Information: tgarrett@cov.com or (202) 662-5398