NJ Supreme Court Reins in DEP Strict Liability Claims Against Dischargers, Requiring" Reasonable Link" to Contamination

Posted on October 2, 2012 by David B. Farer

On September 26, 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its decision in NJDEP v Dimant, rejecting an attempt by the state DEP to seek damages from an alleged discharger under the state's strict liability statute, the Spill Compensation and Control Act (typically referred to as the "Spill Act").  The court found that DEP had not established the necessary connection, or nexus, between the alleged discharge and the contamination at the specifically damaged site. 

This was the second New Jersey appellate court decision in the past three months in which DEP's positions on regulatory and statutory authority have been successfully challenged.

In Dimant, DEP had sued to recover costs associated with investigation and remediation of PCE-contaminated groundwater found in residential wells, and was also seeking compensation for natural resource restoration. The defendant was a dry cleaner that had operated near the contaminated wells and had used the common dry-cleaning solvent PCE for 15 months in the late 1980s.  During that period, in the course of a site inspection, DEP noted an external pipe at the dry cleaning facility which the agency found to be dripping PCB-bearing liquid onto the pavement.

The Spill Act provides that “[a]ny person who has discharged a hazardous substance, or is in any way responsible for any hazardous substance, shall be strictly liable, jointly and severally, without regard to fault, for all cleanup and removal costs no matter by whom incurred.”

DEP argued that the discharge was sufficient to connect the dry cleaner to the contaminated groundwater in the nearby wells. The court rejected this argument, finding that DEP had not met its burden of proof. It noted that DEP never presented sufficient proof of a “reasonable, tenable basis” for how drips of fluid observed at the dry cleaner on one occasion resulted in groundwater contamination in the Bound Brook wells. 

The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the prior trial court and Appellate Division decisions in the case, rejecting DEP's claims and holding that in order to obtain the requested relief, a real rather than hypothetical nexus must be shown to exist between the discharge of hazardous substances and the actual contamination at the specifically damaged site. That the substance dripping on the pavement in one location was the same as that found in the groundwater at another location was not a sufficient connection and did not constitute the “reasonable link” required to impose liability on the defendant.

The court further concluded that DEP could not credibly claim, many years after observing the dripping pipe, that the dry cleaner should bear the expense of studying how the drip may have impacted groundwater, and how the groundwater condition must now be addressed.

This was the second appellate court setback for DEP since July.  In an unrelated ruling on July 6, 2012 in Des Champs Laboratories, Inc. v. Robert Martin, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that DEP had overstepped its regulatory authority in narrowing one of the statutory exemptions available under the state's transaction-triggered environmental law, the Industrial Site Recovery Act ("ISRA").

Under ISRA, a wide range of property owners and operators must investigate and if necessary clean up contamination at subject properties upon the occurrence of specific business events such as cessations of operation or sales of properties or businesses, regardless of fault.  However, the legislature built certain exemptions into the law.  One of them, available to those who have used only small – or de minimis – amounts of hazardous substances, is known as a De Minimus Quantity Exemption, or "DQE."

However, in 2009 DEP issued new regulations unilaterally imposing an additional requirement on DQE applicants that they also establish that the subject property is free of contamination.  As the revision to the regulation was unsupported by the ISRA statute, and appeared to circumvent the very purpose of the DQE, Des Champs Laboratories challenged the regulation before the Superior Court, Appellate Division after its own application for a DQE was denied.

On July 6, 2012, the Appellate Division ruled in favor of Des Champs, invalidating the DEP regulatory change.  DEP subsequently issued the De Minimis Quantity exemption to Des Champs.

[Note:  See also William Hyatt's alert posted on September 2, 2011 on the NJ Appellate Court decision on the Dimant case.]

Is Clarification of Superfund “Common Sense” Unnecessary? The EPA doth protest too much, me thinks…

Posted on August 10, 2012 by Charles Efflandt

“Let me be clear: EPA has never designated manure as a hazardous substance nor has the agency ever designated a farm a Superfund site and has no plans to do so.” So says Mathy Stanislaus, EPA Assistant Administrator, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Economy on June 27, 2012. The subject of the hearing was a bill called the “Superfund Common Sense Act” (H.R. 2997), which seeks to clarify that livestock manure is not a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant for purposes of CERCLA response authority and EPCRA emergency reporting.

With such an unequivocal statement of agency intent, is this latest Congressional effort to ensure a “common sense” interpretation of CERCLA and EPCRA with respect to livestock waste simply an attempt by agricultural interests to create an unnecessary and unwarranted regulatory “free pass,” or a prudent effort to provide needed certainty to the regulated community?

EPA’s position appears to be that the proposed codification of Superfund “common sense” is an uncalled-for response to the concerns being voiced. Beyond his broad statement of agency interpretation and intent, Mr. Stanislaus argues that EPA’s 2008 final rule exempting animal waste at certain farms from air emissions reporting under CERCLA section 103 and EPCRA Section 304 further demonstrates that the agency is already exercising common sense in its regulation of livestock waste.

Notwithstanding these assurances, however, Mr. Stanislaus admits that this final rule is currently under EPA review to address various issues being raised by a range of stakeholders. He also references EPA’s ongoing efforts to develop emissions estimating methodologies to better quantify air releases at livestock operations, presumably for future regulatory purposes.

Needless to say, such statements offer little comfort to the bill’s sponsors and regulated community, which are similarly discomforted by other statements of Mr. Stanislaus.  For example, Mr. Stanislaus testified that the Act would prevent EPA from responding under its CERCLA authority to “damaging” releases of hazardous substances associated with manure. Also, Mr. Stanislaus voiced the agency’s concern that the bill’s “common sense” provisions would prevent EPA from using CERCLA to issue abatement orders in response to releases presenting a substantial danger to health or the environment.

Proponents of the bill state that the Act is not about whether manure should be regulated, as animal feeding and other farm operations are already adequately regulated under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and state-specific authorities. Rather, the issue is whether CERCLA’s environmental response provisions and requirements were intended to or should apply to manure management. Although recognizing that CERCLA has specifically exempted only the “normal application of fertilizer” from its definition of “release,” proponents argue that such definitional language is not dispositive of congressional intent with respect to the general characterization of manure as a CERCLA hazardous substance. They also point out that EPA has never issued guidance on what constitutes “normal application of fertilizer,” leaving that exemption and broader CERCLA issues to be resolved by the courts and agency.

Opponents argue that because constituents of manure, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, are hazardous substances, there is no legal or scientific basis to totally exempt manure from the regulatory scheme of CERCLA and EPCRA. They also challenge the notion that CERCLA authority is unnecessary or duplicative by identifying gaps in the reach of other federal environmental laws, including authority to deal with natural resource damages and the recovery of response costs.

Whatever side of the fence you may be on, it does seem inevitable that, if the legal and scientific issues being debated are not addressed by Congress, they will almost certainly be considered and resolved in some fashion by EPA, state agencies and the courts. In light of this -- and notwithstanding EPA’s protests that codification of Superfund “common sense” is unnecessary because agency common sense already prevails -- is a legislative approach to clarifying these important issues preferable to the uncertainties of future agency rule making and the inconsistencies inherent in judicial rulings?

A Swing of the Pendulum?

Posted on March 30, 2012 by John A. McKinney Jr

It’s long been posited that as courts become more familiar with environmental remediation cases, they will be less likely to defer to a regulator’s overstated claims of environmental harm or assertions of environmental liability.  Instead, courts will require proof rather than conclusory evidence masquerading as a fact.  A recent case in New Jersey, where the state law akin to CERCLA is the Spill Compensation and Control Act (“Spill Act”), may be the harbinger of similar decisions elsewhere.

In New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection v. Dimant, 418 N.J.Super. 530, 14 A.3d 780 (App.Div. 2011), the intermediate appellate court reviewed a trial court decision on liability for remediation of a 365 acre site contaminated predominantly with perchloroethylene (PCE), a cleaning solvent and degreaser.  The site included residences, dry cleaners, and a former gas station site, with two federal Superfund sites nearby.  The NJDEP had observed a pipe dripping PCE years earlier at a defendant’s property, and it contended that the defendant was strictly liable for the cost of remediating the 365 acres even if the hazardous substance discharge was de minimis.  Instead, the trial court ruled that it is not enough to show a discharge, and that damages from the discharge must also be shown.  In other words, there must be a “nexus” between the contamination being remedied and the actual discharge.  The appellate court agreed, opining that a plaintiff seeking to prevail must “demonstrate that the defendant had some connection to the damages caused by the PCE contamination, or had added to any contamination already caused by past operation.”

Both this decision and that below are examples of a court going back to basics.  Causation cannot be presumed.  Discharges must be tied to damages.  The failure to prove a nexus to the damages sought will not be ignored in a rush to judgment or under the guise of facilitating cleanups.  Prove the case or watch out!  But the New Jersey Supreme Court has granted certification on the strict liability issue, and so we will soon see how far that pendulum has swung.