Posted on October 22, 2013 by Linda Benfield
In 2009, CERCLA practitioners were thrilled to finally have a new Supreme Court case to work and play with. Even better, Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. United States, 129 S. Ct. 1870 waded into the murky area of “arranger” liability. However, two recent cases addressing the potential arranger liability of NCR for the same business practices but at two separate sites, and both relying on Burlington Northern, illustrate that in this area the Supreme Court has just given us more language to argue about.
Both cases addressed the same business arrangements: NCR’s sale of a PCB emulsion to paper coaters, their sale of coated paper back to NCR, and the resulting contamination when recyclers deinked the paper and released PCBs into major water bodies from 1954 to 1971. The cases even relied upon the same language from Burlington Northern – that “an entity may qualify as an arranger … when it takes intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance.”
However, with respect to the PCB cleanup of the Fox River, the federal district court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin held that NCR had “knowledge alone” and was not liable as an arranger. The court found that even though NCR knew that remnants – “broke” – contained the emulsion and released PCBs when recycled, “there was no evidence that NCR had any purpose in selling its emulsion to [a coater] other than to produce a commercially viable product. Broke was simply not part of the equation.” This court viewed the arrangements as the sale of a useful product. Appleton Papers Inc. and NCR Corporation v. George A. Whiting Paper Co. Across Lake Michigan and 15 months later, the federal district court for the Western District of Michigan held the opposite – that NCR was liable as an arranger for the PCB cleanup of the Kalamazoo River. The court focused on NCR’s efforts to encourage recycling of the broke, and found that “not later than 1969, NCR understood the … broke .. was no longer anything but waste and was no longer useful to any paper recycler who understood the true facts as NCR did.” Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products LP, et al, v. NCR Corporation, et al. Given the size of the cleanup bills in both rivers, keep an eye out for the appellate decisions.