Liability Under State Law After BNSF

Posted on February 23, 2011 by William Hyatt

As we all know by now, in Burlington Northern and Sante Fe Railway Co. v. United States, decided in May, 2009 (BNSF I), the Supreme Court surprised us yet again by interpreting CERCLA differently than the lower courts and Superfund practitioners had come to understand the statute to mean. The Court held (a) that “arranger” liability under Section 107(a)(3) of CERCLA is triggered only if there is an intent to dispose of hazardous substances, and (b) that joint and several liability under CERCLA may be avoided if there is a reasonable basis for apportioning harm among the “covered persons,” affirming divisibility on facts that most practitioners would not have expected to prevent joint and several liability. Since then, the lower courts have been wrestling with the application of these rulings under CERCLA. Meanwhile, however, the state courts have begun to address these issues under state law counterparts to CERCLA. Recently, the Supreme Court of Montana did just that. State of Montana v. BNSF Railway Co. (BNSF II)


Montana, like many other states, has its own version of CERCLA, called the Comprehensive Environmental Cleanup and Responsibility Act (“CECRA”). CECRA has its own categories of liable parties, including a broad class of “arrangers,” but unlike CERCLA, explicitly provides for joint and several liability. These differences result in greater potential exposure for defendants in hazardous waste cases.
 

BNSF II involved three adjoining properties north of Kalispell, MT, all of which had been listed as state Superfund sites. One of the sites, called the Reliance site, was a former crude oil refinery. BNSF transported petroleum products into and out of the Reliance site, using railroad cars that sometimes leaked badly. The trial court found that “[r]efinery workers occasionally ‘got a soaking’ when unloading crude oil” from BNSF railcars and that “when shipments of crude oil arrived and the holding tanks were full, the crude oil was dumped onto the ground in pools on BNSF property in the area.” The trial court found that BNSF “had been involved in dumping petroleum products onto the surface of the earth.”


The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) sued seven parties, six of whom settled, with the result that a Final Unified Abatement Order was entered, holding BNSF jointly and severally liable for the Reliance site, as an “arranger” under CECRA, even though the trial court made no finding that BNSF intended to release a hazardous substance at the site.


Arranger Liability


Like CERCLA, CECRA contains no definition of an “arranger.” Instead, Section 75-10-715(1)(c) of CECRA includes among the list of liable parties “a person who generated, possessed, or was otherwise responsible for a hazardous or deleterious substance and who, by contract, agreement, or otherwise, arranged for disposal or treatment of the substance or arranged with a transporter for transport of the substance for disposal or treatment,” language that differs somewhat from Section 107(a)(3) of CERCLA.


The trial court held BNSF liable as an “arranger” under CECRA because of its “involvement” with Reliance in the dumping of petroleum on the Reliance site. The trial court relied on the Ninth Circuit decision in BNSF I, adopting a broad form of “arranger” liability, and refused to reconsider its ruling when the Ninth Circuit was reversed by the Supreme Court.


The Montana Supreme Court began its review of the trial court decision by noting that Section 114(a) of CERCLA provides that nothing prevents a State from imposing additional liability beyond those imposed by CERCLA. The Court then held that “an entity need not specifically ‘intend’ to dispose of a hazardous substance for imposition of ‘arranger’ liability ” It was enough that BNSF “possessed or was otherwise responsible for the materials it shipped” and that “[a] necessary and foreseeable consequence of shipping the material was unloading the material.” Since BNSF employees moved full tank cars of crude oil to the Reliance site so Reliance employees could dump the crude oil on the ground, “BNSF participated in the unloading process which resulted in the release of the materials it possessed.” In holding that the trial court did not err in holding BNSF liable as an “arranger,” the Court set a low bar for “arranger” liability under CECRA.


Apportionment


Unlike CERCLA, which is silent as to whether or not “covered persons” are jointly and severally liable under the statute, CECRA provides, in relevant part, that “notwithstanding any other provision of law,*** the following persons are jointly and severally liable for a release or threatened release of a hazardous or deleterious substance***” .


Notwithstanding this statutory language, the trial court entered a pretrial order that once the state proved that BNSF is a liable party, “BNSF must come forward with evidence to show it was only responsible for a portion of the contamination at the site to avoid the possibility of joint and several liability for all the surface contamination.” When BNSF failed to make such a showing, the trial court held BNSF jointly and severally liable. Because BNSF had failed to prove the factual basis for apportionment, the Supreme Court declined to rule on whether apportionment would ever be possible under the statutory language. Thus, BNSF II leaves unanswered the question of whether liability can ever be apportioned under a statute that explicitly provides for joint and several liability, no matter how distinct the harms may have been.


Conclusion


As the United States Supreme Court continues to read CERCLA narrowly, state statutes, like CECRA, may become more important in the development of hazardous waste law. BNSF II may very well represent the beginning of a trend.



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