Do air emissions of pollutants constitute a “disposal” under the federal hazardous waste laws? The Ninth Circuit said “no” in Pakootas, et al. v. Teck Cominco Metals, Ltd. based upon its reading of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund). The decision both sets important precedent and showcases the judicial process to discern legislative intent when a statute’s plain language is stressed by an unusual fact pattern. If air pollutants can create CERCLA disposals, then emissions from any stationary or mobile source, including animal emissions of methane (which is considered a pollutant subject to CERCLA by EPA), may be the basis of cleanup liability.
The decision involves a smelter located just north of the border with British Columbia. An earlier decision in that case held that a foreign-based facility can be liable under CERCLA for slag discharges into a river running to the United States. Plaintiffs then alleged the facility arranged for disposal by emitting hazardous air contaminants which were carried by the wind and deposited in Washington State. The district court denied a motion to dismiss and certified the matter for immediate appellate review.
Reading the plain language of CERCLA, the Ninth Circuit found that “a reasonable enough construction” of the law would be that the facility “arranged for disposal” of its air pollutants. No legislative history or EPA rules shed light on this subject. However, the Court concluded it was not writing on a blank slate. Noting that CERCLA incorporates the definition of “disposal” from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Court cited its prior decision in Ctr. for Cmty. Action and Envtl. Justice v. BNSF Rwy. Co., which held that diesel particulate emissions “transported by wind and air currents onto the land and water” did not constitute “disposal” of waste within the meaning of RCRA. To be a disposal, the solid or hazardous waste must first be placed into or on any land or water and thereafter be emitted into the air. The Court also cited its en banc decision in Carson Harbor Vill., Ltd. v. Unocal Corp., holding that passive migration was not a disposal under CERCLA.
The Court thereby found that arranging for “disposal” did not include arranging for air “emissions.” This interpretation of “disposal” was largely consistent with CERCLA’s overall statutory scheme. The Court expressed concern that plaintiffs’ more expansive reading would stretch CERCLA liability beyond the bounds of reason. “[I]f ‘aerial depositions’ are accepted as ‘disposals,’” the Court said, “‘disposal’ would be a never-ending process, essentially eliminating the innocent landowner defense.”
The Court did not discuss in detail the statutory interplay with the Clean Air Act, which regulates air emissions under a complex regulatory and permit scheme. Under CERCLA, federally permitted releases are excluded from liability. But because air permits often specify the control equipment parameters rather than an emission limit, a CERCLA plaintiff may allege that the mere existence of a permit does not provide a blanket immunity from liability and the facility would remain liable for any releases that were not expressly permitted, exceeded the limitations of the permit, or occurred at a time when there was no permit. The Court in passing did note its skepticism that the federally permitted “release” exception evidenced any Congressional intent regarding the meaning of “disposal.”
The Ninth Circuit is the highest court to exclude air emissions from the reach of CERCLA and RCRA. The Court’s citation to Carson Harbor does not provide an exact analogy since a passive landowner has not “arranged” for the initial release of hazardous substances, as compared to the smelter operations which result in air emissions. But the Court’s unwillingness to create potentially unlimited CERCLA liability for air emissions is compelling. Under CERCLA, liability is strict, joint and several and retroactive. Air emissions are widely transported and dispersed in relatively small concentrations by large numbers of potential sources, making CERCLA liability findings and allocations difficult if not impossible.
The Court thereby divined Congress’ intent to make CERCLA’s scheme workable, apart from a literal reading of its text. For judges to “repair” statutory language in this way is controversial. The decision is reminiscent of the U.S. Supreme Court holding that the Obama health care plan provides tax credits to millions of people who purchase insurance from a federal marketplace, even though the statute only provides credits for those who purchase from marketplaces “established by the state.” According to Justice Roberts, that was the only way the law would work, and despite the plain wording in the statute, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.” CERCLA also is not a model of clarity, and the Ninth Circuit similarly incorporated practicality as a factor in discerning Congress’ intent to avoid overreaching in assigning liability for the cleanup of toxic chemical releases.