Tagged: USEPA

That Mine Is Yours, Not Theirs: Ninth Circuit Holds That WWII Shutdown Order Did Not Make Federal Government the CERCLA “Operator” of California Gold Mine

One perennially vexing issue for federal courts in cases brought under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund law, is what makes someone an “operator” of a facility, and thus strictly (and, in most cases, jointly and severally) liable for cleanup costs. In particular, what degree and nature of control over a facility exercised by the government make it an operator? (We recently blogged on this issue.) In its recent decision in United States v. Sterling Centrecorp Inc., a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit held that a World War II-era federal order that shut down a gold mine in California did not give the government sufficient control over the operations of the mine to make it a CERCLA operator. Upon entering World War II, the United States faced a serious shortage of nonferrous metals, especially copper, and a corresponding shortage of the machinery and materials needed to produce them. Scarce resources needed to be redirected from nonessential operations to essential ones, and gold mines, such as the Lava Cap mine in Nevada County, California, were deemed nonessential. An order of the War Production Board required the mine to cease operations in 1943. While the order was revoked in 1945, operations at the mine never resumed. It was...

Insurer Alleges Pollution Policy Void Because of Policyholder’s Failure to Disclose

AIG Specialty Insurance Co. (“AIG”) recently asserted in a New Jersey Federal District Court Complaint that it owes no coverage to Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. (“Thermo Fisher”) for cleanup costs associated with contaminated groundwater at a facility owned by Thermo Fisher in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. The crux of AIG’s claim is the fact that Thermo Fisher failed to disclose to AIG that the company had been monitoring groundwater pollution at its site for nearly three decades. AIG alleges the existence of two consent orders relating to groundwater contamination at the site and, more specifically, the presence of PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals” detected in a wellfield affected by the site. Both of these consent orders were in existence when Thermo Fisher sought a pollution liability policy with AIG. AIG asserts that Thermo Fisher either knew or should have known about the groundwater pollution conditions at its facility and the claims against the facility by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) prior to seeking the pollution liability policy at issue, facts that should have been disclosed in the application. AIG alleges that Thermo Fisher’s failure to disclose these consent orders and the fact that the Thermo Fisher plant was part of a Superfund site is sufficient to trigger a number of exclusions in the pollution...

USDOJ Legal Memo Clarifies Department’s Policy on Using Federal Judgment Fund to Settle Superfund Cases

A U.S. Department of Justice legal memo, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Bloomberg Law, has clarified and restated the Department’s strict policy against using the federal Judgment Fund to settle Superfund cases in which the federal government is a Potentially Responsible Party (PRP). The memo states that the federal government can settle its liability by payments from the Fund only if the settlement is “final” – that is, there are no contingencies or future payments due. Many Superfund settlements do not meet that standard, since they typically include reopeners, “pay-as-you-go” arrangements, or provisions for additional funding if the remedy proves more expensive than originally estimated. As Gibbons Director David J. Freeman told Bloomberg Law, “It’s not a favorable development for the program, or for making progress on settlements in general, for the government to be taking such a hard line on this.” This policy will likely result in making it more difficult to achieve settlements at sites where the federal government is a PRP.

(State) Settlors Beware, Too: In Reversal, Third Circuit Declares that State Settlement Does Not Protect Against Federal Claims under CERCLA

Previously, the District of New Jersey ruled that a polluting party’s settlement agreement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) provided contribution protection from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) claims based on costs incurred by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) at the same site, even though USEPA was not a party to the settlement. In a prior blog post discussing that decision, we noted that the District Court’s decision was likely to be appealed. It was. On appeal, the Third Circuit considered the inquiry of “[w]hether a polluting party’s settlement with the State of New Jersey protects it from lawsuits seeking contributions toward expenditures made by the Federal Government on the same site,” and determined in a precedential opinion that, “the answer here is no.” CERCLA section 113(f)(2) provides that “[a] person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State in an administrative or judicially approved settlement shall not be liable for claims for contribution regarding matters addressed in the settlement.” The District Court applied the analysis commonly adopted by other federal courts to determine the “matters addressed” of the previous settlement where the scope is not made explicit by the agreement itself. This analysis includes factors such as the location, time frame,...

U.S. Supreme Court Remands Clean Water Act Case to the Fourth Circuit for Further Consideration in Light of “Functional Equivalent” Test from County of Maui

The effects of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund have begun to ripple out. In County of Maui, the Court held that the Clean Water Act requires a permit where there is a “functional equivalent of a direct discharge” from a “point source” into “navigable waters.” The Court acknowledged the “difficulty with this approach” in dealing with the “middle instances,” and provided a non-exhaustive list of seven factors that may be considered in determining whether a “functional equivalent of a direct discharge” exists in a particular circumstance. “Time and distance will be the most important factors in most cases, but not necessarily in every case,” the Court guided. In Kinder Morgan Energy v. Upstate Forever, a Clean Water Act case seeking certiorari of a decision from the Fourth Circuit, the Supreme Court followed County of Maui by issuing an Order granting certiorari, vacating the Fourth Circuit’s decision, and remanding the case to the Court of Appeals for “further consideration in light of County of Maui.” In Kinder Morgan Energy, two environmental groups argued that Kinder Morgan was illegally discharging pollutants into navigable waters without a permit under the Clean Water Act. Similar to the facts of the Maui case, the discharge by Kinder Morgan was alleged to...

Who’s in Charge Here?: Third Circuit Holds That Government Was Not an “Operator” of Jersey City Chromium Facility for Purposes of Superfund Liability

Federal courts have long struggled to determine the shape and boundaries of the wide liability net cast by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund law. In its recent decision in PPG Industries Inc. v. United States, the Third Circuit applied circuit and Supreme Court precedent to hold that the government’s influence over a chromite ore processing plant in Jersey City during World War I and World War II was not pervasive or intrusive enough to make the government a past “operator” of the plant and thus liable for cleanup costs. Prior to PPG’s 1954 acquisition of the plant (which it continued to operate until 1963), Natural Products Refining Corporation (NPRC) operated the plant, which processed chromite ore into various chromium chemicals, including sodium bichromate. During both World War I and World War II (when it designated the plant’s output as critical war materials, i.e., products manufactured for direct military use), the government regulated the production of chromium chemicals. Through a variety of price, labor, and production controls, the government sought to encourage increased production of these key chemicals. Those efforts, however, did not extend to direct control over day-to-day operations or to the use of government employees to run the facility. Moreover, while the government was aware...

SCOTUS Creates “Functional Equivalent” Test to Determine Whether Point Source Dischargers Are Subject to the Clean Water Act

The U.S. Supreme Court recently handed down a decision in the most prominent Clean Water Act (CWA) case since its 2006 plurality decision in Rapanos v. United States. In County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the Court interpreted the landmark statute to require a permit where there is a “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge from a “point source” into “navigable waters.” The likely impact of this holding for the parties is to subject the County of Maui to the statute’s permitting requirements for its discharges of treated wastewater through wells to groundwater that eventually reach the ocean. Beyond the parties, environmental groups are likely to cheer this decision while the regulated community, and lower courts, will likely be wary of the Court’s multifactor test. The CWA prohibits the “addition” of any pollutant from a “point source” to “navigable waters” without a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The County of Maui came before the Court as the operator of a wastewater reclamation facility in Maui, Hawaii. That facility collects sewage, partially treats it, then pumps that water into four underground wells. The effluent then travels about a half mile through groundwater to the Pacific Ocean. For nearly five decades the facility operated in this manner with the knowledge of the EPA, and...

“Cooperative Federalism” or “Paternalistic Central Planning”?: U.S. Supreme Court Agrees That State Courts Can Hear Claims Over Adequacy of CERCLA Cleanups Under Certain Circumstances, But Limits Plaintiffs’ Options

The federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund law, prescribes a careful process for making decisions on how to remediate contaminated sites. To avoid delay, the statute also divests federal courts of jurisdiction to hear most challenges to the selected remedy. In its recent opinion in Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that CERCLA does not bar state courts from hearing claims grounded in state law that go beyond claims for money damages and seek a cleanup that goes beyond what EPA requires. The case arose in Montana, where the Anaconda Copper Smelter operated for over a century and contaminated an area of over 300 square miles with arsenic and lead. Atlantic Richfield Company acquired the financially troubled smelter in the 1970s but could not reverse its decline, and closed it by 1980. Three years later, EPA named it one of its first official Superfund sites, and since then Atlantic Richfield has spent over $450 million on a cleanup that is expected to continue until 2025. The Superfund site that Atlantic Richfield has been remediating includes numerous residential properties. The owners of 98 of those properties sued Atlantic Richfield in Montana state court in 2008, asserting state common law claims. In addition to traditional...

U.S. EPA and New York ESD Provide Updated Guidance Regarding Environmental Work Permitted for During COVID-19 Pandemic

Within the past several days, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York Empire State Development Corporation (ESD) have provided updated guidance clarifying the standards for deciding what types of work may proceed at hazardous waste sites during the COVID-19 pandemic. EPA Interim Guidance on Site Field Work Due to Impacts of COVID-19 EPA’s April 10, 2020 interim guidance supplements the previously-issued March 19, 2020 guidance from the Office of Land and Emergency Management. It applies to response actions at cleanup and emergency response sites where EPA is the lead agency or has direct oversight or responsibility for the work, including response action work that may be conducted by states, tribes, other federal agencies, and potentially responsible parties (PRPs). At these sites, EPA will continue to make decisions on a case-by-case basis regarding ongoing site activities, with top priority given to protecting the health and safety of the public and maintaining the health and safety of EPA personnel and other on-site cleanup partners. The guidance also directs Regions to consider other important priorities, such as whether local officials have made specific requests to suspend work, whether on-site workers have tested positive or shown symptoms of COVID-19, and whether social distancing at specific sites is possible. In making decisions to reduce or suspend...

NJ District Court Leaves Plaintiff Without Course of Relief Under CERCLA

In Stahl v. Bauer Auto, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey handed down a decision that may be troubling for parties seeking to recover environmental cleanup costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Responsive Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). By way of background, CERCLA generally provides a private cause of action to plaintiffs in two circumstances. The first falls under section 107(a), which allows a plaintiff to seek recovery of response costs that it has incurred from other potentially responsible parties. The second falls under section 113(f), which allows a plaintiff that is or was the defendant of a cost recovery claim, or that has resolved its liability with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under a judicially approved settlement, to seek contribution from other potentially responsible parties. Generally, a party that has incurred or will incur costs under CERCLA falls under one or both of these two categories. However, the N.J. District Court in Stahl held that there is at least one scenario where a plaintiff does not fall into either of these two categories and therefore has no claim under CERCLA. The factual history in the Stahl matter is long and complex. In short, the underlying environmental cleanup was at a property in Chatham, New Jersey. The plaintiffs owned a company...