Posted on May 1, 2012 by William Session
One of the more recent and interesting decisions in the world of CERCLA litigation practice was rendered just a few days ago by a federal district court in Pakootas v. Teck Cominco Metals Ltd. The judge in that case articulated the legal underpinnings of the often confused notions of CERCLA-based divisibility of harm and apportionment of liability determinations.
The judge explained that divisibility of harm does not defeat CERCLA liability itself but, instead, is a defense to joint and several liability citing with approval language from U.S. v. Monsanto Co. to the effect that “ . . . While it appears “divisibility” and “apportionment” are terms used interchangeably, what is potentially divisible is the harm, and if the harm is divisible, what is potentially apportioned is liability, assuming there is a reasonable factual basis for apportionment.”
Against this legal backdrop, the facts in Pakootas brought into sharp focus a commonly encountered situation for CERCLA litigants where multiple parties find themselves attempting to apportion response cost liability for different contaminants, released from different facilities that have become commingled, and are encompassed within what the EPA or state regulatory agency has deemed to be a single “site”.
In addressing an apportionment claim Judge Suko, sitting in the Eastern District of Washington, articulated the importance of the distinction between apportionment of liability in such situations and divisibility of harm. Judge Suko stated that the first inquiry in the apportionment battle must always be to fix responsibility for the harm for which a party might seek to apportion liability. The court appropriately held that a CERCLA liability determination is based upon the liability- imposing language of the statute itself:
. . . [L]iability attaches when three conditions are satisfied: (1) the site at which there is an actual or threatened release of hazardous substances is a “facility” under 42 U.S.C. Section 9601(9); (2) a “release” or “threatened release” of a hazardous substance from the facility has occurred, 42 U.S.C. Section 9607(a)(4); and (3) the party is within one of the four classes of persons subject to liability under §9607(a). Pakootas I, 452 F.3d at 1073-74.
In Pakootas the party seeking apportionment (Teck) was clearly a liable person under CERCLA and was undeniably associated with the release of contaminants that could be traced only to the facility it operated. Teck argued as an affirmative defense to a liability claim that the “harm” at the site should be “apportioned” since the contaminants released by Teck could be discretely indentified even though they had become “commingled” with those released by many others. Teck reasoned that it could defend itself against a joint and several liability claim by way of such “apportionment”. In so many words, Teck sought to apportion liability based upon divisibility of the contaminants associated with its releases.
Judge Suko observed that:
The fact for liability purposes the . . . Plaintiffs need to, and intend to, establish that Teck’s slag and/or liquid effluent released or threatens to release hazardous substances (certain metals) from the UCR Site does not, however, limit the scope of the releases or threatened releases from the Site for which Teck can be held liable and, in turn, does not limit the scope of the relevant harm for divisibility/apportionment purposes.
After a thorough examination of many of the more recent contribution/apportionment appellate decisions from around the country, Judge Suko ultimately determined that Teck failed to prove that contamination at the site involved was divisible and, as a result, would be subject to CERCLA 107 joint and several liability with other potentially responsible parties at the site.
If you find yourself representing a party in an apportionment dispute, this case seems to stand for the proposition that if you cannot determine everything that everyone may have done to create a contaminated site; you may be in trouble in pursuing an apportionment or contribution action. Additionally, and it is just my personal opinion, the decision represents one of the better anthologies of apportionment/divisibility jurisprudence I have seen in recent cases (and that includes some of the work of the Supreme Court).
Nevertheless, the high burden of technical or scientific proof Judge Suko would impose upon a party seeking apportionment/contribution could well hearken back to the days before post-BNSF days of “reason based” rules for apportioned liability. (See, e.g. J. Barkett, The Burlington Northern Decision, American College of Environmental Lawyers Blog (May 19, 2009).