Posted on April 29, 2015 by George von Stamwitz
A plaintiff seeking to characterize a business transaction as “disposal” under CERCLA may now feel like a polar bear looking for a patch of thick ice.
On March 20, 2015, a divided panel on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Consolidation Coal Co. v. Ga. Power Co., affirmed a District Court’s ruling holding that transformer sales did not evidence an intent on to dispose of hazardous materials, and therefore did not support a finding of “arranger liability” under “CERCLA” even when words like “scrapping” and “disposal” were used. Looking to the framework of the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Burlington Northern Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. v. United States and the Fourth Circuit’s 1998 ruling in Pneumo Abex Corp. v. High Point, Thomasville & Denton Railroad Co., the 2-1 majority held that while a party who sells a product that contains hazardous substances also “‘intends’ to rid itself of that hazardous substance in some metaphysical sense… [an] intent to sell a product that happens to contain a hazardous substance is not equivalent to intent to dispose of a hazardous substance under CERCLA.” Rather, in the court’s words, “there must be something more.”
Georgia Power, a major Georgia electrical utility that supplies power to most of Georgia, sold used electrical transformers containing PCBs to Ward Transformer Company. Ward repaired and rebuilt used transformers for resale. In the process, Ward’s Raleigh, North Carolina, facility became contaminated with PCBs. After the Ward site was added to the National Priorities list, Consolidated Coal Company and another company bore most of the cleanup costs as PRPs under CERCLA, spending approximately $17 million each in cleanup costs.
Any attorney who has ever tried or been involved with a CERCLA case knows that Georgia Power, given these facts, looks like a prime target to sue for contribution.
In their appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Consolidated Coal argued the District Court improperly considered the low value of the used transformers and Ward’s ability to profit from their resale. This, Consolidated Coal contended, overlooks the possibility that Georgia Power had a “dual intent” to make money from the sales of transformers and thus had an intent to dispose of the hazardous materials as an arranger. Thus, according to Consolidated Coal, Georgia Power’s “secondary motive” for the transformer sales — to dispose of PCBs –- was sufficient to create arranger liability under CERCLA.
The Court concluded that there was no direct or substantial evidence that Georgia Power intended, “even in part,” to arrange for disposal. Furthermore, the use of the words “scrapping” or “disposal” in Georgia Power’s documents had “limited bearing” on their intent to “dispose” of transformers as the word is construed in CERCLA, let alone the PCBs within those transformers. The Court was also not swayed by the fact that the transformers were sold in lots and that some of the transformers were partially disassembled, or that old oil was required to be removed from the transformer as part of the reconditioning process. According to the Court, all Georgia Power did was to sell its transformers to the highest bidder.
While these cases remain fact sensitive, the trend lines suggest CERCLA plaintiffs alleging “disposal” may be on thin ice.