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.



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