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.



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