The Ninth Circuit Reiterates That “Knowingly” Handling Hazardous Waste Without a Permit Is a General Intent Crime Under RCRA

By Richard E. Stultz

Max Spatig was convicted of knowingly storing and disposing of hazardous waste without a permit and sentenced by the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho to 46 months in prison under 42 U.S.C. § 6928(d)(2)(A). See U.S. v Spatig (2017) 2017 WL 4018398.  At trial, Spatig had sought to introduce evidence on his diminished capacity arguing that he did not have the required state of mind for the offense.  The district court, however, granted the government’s motion in limine to exclude all such evidence because § 6928(d)(2)(A) under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) only required general intent and diminished capacity was not a defense to a general intent crime.

For years, Spatig had operated a business which used paint and paint-related materials.  Over time Spatig had accumulated several used containers of this material, some of which ended up on his residential property in Idaho.  In 2005, the county discovered the several containers and reported it to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Working with Spatig, DEQ collected and destroyed most of the containers.  In 2010, Spatig was again found to be storing used containers of paint and paint related materials on another of his properties.  This time the job was too big for local or state authorities so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was notified.  The U.S. EPA determined that the waste was hazardous and that a cleanup was necessary. The U.S. EPA removed approximately 3400 containers and spent $498,562 on the cleanup.  The EPA charged Spatig with violation of § 6928(d)(2)(A) for knowingly storing and disposing of a hazardous waste without a permit from either DEQ or the U.S. EPA.

Paint cans at a property off the Archer-Lyman Highway near Rexburg, Idaho

Spatig appealed his trial conviction and argued on appeal that § 6928(d)(2)(A) required specific intent.  He also took issue with the district court’s enhancement of his base sentence arguing that the cleanup did not result in a “substantial expenditure.”  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, disagreed with Spatig and affirmed the district court.

Under § 6928(d)(2)(A), a person may not “knowingly” treat, store or dispose of a hazardous waste without a permit.  According to the U.S. Supreme Court, “‘knowingly’ merely requires proof of knowledge of the facts that constitute the offense.”  The Ninth Circuit had also held that “knowingly” generally does not require specific intent.  In other words, a defendant’s particular purpose or objective is not required.  The Ninth Circuit previously rejected the argument that § 6928(d)(2)(A) required that a defendant know there was no permit for disposal.  The court held there that “knowingly” only required “that a defendant be aware that he is treating, storing, or disposing of something that he knows is hazardous.”  The court found that RCRA was a public-welfare statute and that “§6928(d)(2)(A) fits within a class of general-intent crimes that protect public health, safety, and welfare.”  Because § 6928(d)(2)(A) only requires general intent, the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s exclusion of evidence at trial of Spatig’s state of mind.

Spatig argued that his sentence enhancement was error because the cleanup did not constitute a “substantial expenditure” required under the federal sentencing guidelines (U.S.S.G. § 2Q1.2(b)(3)).  The Ninth Circuit refused to establish a bright-line rule but noted that sister circuits had found that expenditures under $200,000 were “substantial.”  In upholding the district court, the Ninth Circuit noted that in the instant case the $498,562 underestimated the total cost because it did not include the local agencies’ expenditures.

This holding underscores the long-standing general purpose of environmental laws to protect the public welfare. These statutes do not generally require specific intent—only knowing of the act is required.

This article was first published on the Clark Hill website.

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About the author

Richard E. Stultz brings over eighteen years of experience in the environmental, land development and petroleum industries to bear in his practice of law. In addition to his law degree, he also earned a Bachelor of Science in Petroleum Engineering. Richard’s practice is currently focused on environmental litigation.

Richard is experienced in law and motion filings and hearings. He is practiced in written discovery and legal research. Richard has even co-written a First Amendment argument submitted before the California Court of Appeal. He is familiar with California’s environmental laws and regulations.

While in law school, Richard interned at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office in the Real Property/Environment division. He researched and prepared a key memorandum regarding good will compensation in eminent domain.

Former B.C. Environment Minister Sued for Shutting Contaminated Soil Landfill

As reported in the Vancouver Sun, The owner of a Shawnigan Lake quarry that was used as a landfill for contaminated soil is suing the provincial government and the former minister who ordered it shut down.

Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd. recently filed suit in B.C. Supreme Court against the Province of British Columbia and Mary Polak, who was the B.C. Liberal environment minister and is still the MLA for Langley.

(Image: Shawnigan Lake, Canada. 6 Dec 2015. The containment system currently employed at the
SIA/SIRM Contaminated-Soil dumpsite, designed to prevent contaminants from travelling
into the Shawnigan Lake watershed. c Laura Colpitts)

The company said it is seeking general damages, special damages, aggravated damages, punitive damages, special costs and any other relief as the court “may deem fit to grant.” No amounts were specified other than “to be assessed.”

No statement of defence has been filed, either by Polak or the province.

In February 2017, while still environment minister, Polak cancelled the permit that allowed Cobble Hill Holdings to receive and store contaminated soil at its former rock quarry upstream of Shawnigan Lake.

Polak said the company had failed to meet a government deadline for an irrevocable letter of credit that would serve as a financial security.

In its suit, Cobble Hill Holdings says the government had not specified any form or amount for that credit, and had not approved the plans that would have been the basis of the financial guarantee.

The company’s operating permit, issued in 2013, had been suspended in January when the Environment Ministry asked for the financial security as well as a closure plan, including a cost estimate, and water management review reports.

Cobble Hill Holdings said it submitted updated plans to the ministry for approval on Feb. 20. Three days later, its permit was cancelled.

As a result, the suit says, the land is contaminated and Cobble Hill Holdings has suffered financial damages.

Cobble Hill Holdings had decided to lease the lands to South Island Resource Management and notified the ministry that that company would be the primary operator of the permit, the suit says.

Cancellation of the permit resulted in the termination of the lease, which had required South Island Resource Management to pay Cobble Hill Holdings $50,000 a month.

The permit issued in 2013 allowed Cobble Hill Holdings to receive and store up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year at its quarry.

It was upheld by the Environmental Appeal Board in 2015, but faced multiple court challenges before it was cancelled in February.

Much of the contaminated soil was from construction sites in Greater Victoria.

Shawnigan Lake residents expressed concern about contaminants leaching into their water supply, and packed open houses to voice opposition.

Demonstrators at the landfill were arrested for blocking trucks delivering the soil. They also went to the legislature to complain to the government.

Polak said repeatedly that the issue was a matter between the company, Environment Ministry technicians and the courts.

When the permit was cancelled in February, the government stressed the decision had nothing to do with any pollution detected or any legal issue being contended.

“To be clear, the permit was not cancelled due to pollution occurring, nor was it directly related to anything before the courts,” the Environment Ministry said in a statement.

“The decision was made on the principle of escalating enforcement and repeated failure by the company to meet deadlines and comply with permit requirements.”

Canadian Government will clean up Iqaluit dumpsite

As reported in Nunatsiaq Online, an old Iqaluit dumpsite littered with metal refuse, fuel barrels and other toxic waste overlooking the Sylvia Grinnell River will soon be removed, following a multi-million dollar remediation contract recently issued by the federal government.  Iqaluit is the capital city of the Canadian territory of Nunavut.  It sits on vast Baffin Island in Frobisher Bay, in Canada’s far north.

Transport Canada has confirmed that it awarded over $5.4 million to Kudlik Construction Ltd. for cleanup of the dump,which lies along the mouth of Sylvia Grinnell River—a popular source of fish.

Iqaluit Dump Site (Photo Credit: Steve Decharme)

The contract follows recommendations outlined in a 2016 report by Arcadis Canada Inc., commissioned by Transport Canada, that detected the hazardous debris buried in the area and noted in earlier studies dating to 2001.

“The nature of the debris in the main landfill and scrap metal dump suggest that the [United States Air Force] was likely responsible for depositing a large portion of the wastes currently found on the site,” said the report, which estimated the dump was started around 1963.

That’s when the Frobisher Bay airbase and weather station was sold to Canada by the U.S. military, but not before American personnel bulldozed old cars, appliances, fuel containers and other toxic refuse over a cliff near the river, the report said.

The site was used intermittently until the 1970s, when it was abandoned for another landfill near Apex.

The area is still used today as a “rogue dumping site” by local residents, the study said, and that could be another source of contaminants. Along with the remains of vintage army vehicles and cars, appliances and modern waste, like car batteries.

Surveyors identified toxic petroleum hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, pesticides, and other hazardous materials at four zones within the dumpsite, extending from higher ground to within a few metres of the river.

Work will begin at the site in the coming weeks and will continue until October, Transport Canada said. The remaining non-toxic waste will be sealed into a new landfill and monitored closely until 2020.

“It’s great news that the Sylvia Grinnell area is being remediated,” Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern told Nunatsiaq News July 25. But she said other old dump sites grounds surrounding the city remain unaddressed despite concerning signs of contamination.

The question is: who is responsible for cleaning them up?

Since many of the contaminated sites predate Iqaluit’s incorporation as a municipality, the responsibility for their remediation—such as the old metal dump—can be hotly contested.

Transport Canada said its responsibilities to remediate land in Iqaluit extend to areas like the Sylvia Grinnell dump, as part of an agreement to cleanup lands around the airfield that were transferred to the Government of Nunavut in the 1990s.

But in submissions to the Nunavut Planning Commission for its upcoming draft Nunavut Land Use Plan, the City of Iqaluit identified eight contaminated sites in and around the municipality that don’t fall under the airfield agreement.

Those include areas that have yet to be remediated in West 40, Federal Road, Apex, Upper Base and Lower Base.

Redfern said various reports on contamination around Iqaluit often never find their way to the right departments, leading to confusion or inaction between municipal, territorial and federal governments on the implementation of their recommendations.

And costs associated with remediation fall well outside the financial abilities of Nunavut municipalities.

“The local level governments have never had the money to effectively be able to handle environmental remediation within their communities,” Redfern said, adding that in her two terms as mayor she’s approached federal and territorial governments about “half a dozen times” on the issue.

“Many of the residents have wondered how these sites get prioritized and the city and the residents would greatly appreciate seeing all these historical sites remediated.”

A report commissioned in 1995 at the site of the old Apex dump found elevated—but below hazardous—levels of lead, copper, zinc and PCBs in nearby soil and marine sediment on the nearby shoreline.

Redfern said the possibility of leaking contaminants from the dump could effect the quality of clams in the bay, but governments not addressed the issue.

“What is the status of the Apex dump, is it still leaching, was remediation ever done?” she asked. “If it is leaching toxins then notices should be put up around the area.”

And the city’s closed North 40 metal dump—northwest of downtown Iqaluit—also dates to the era of the U.S. air base, and shows signs the site may be leaking.

Another study by researchers from the University of Saskatchewan published in 2010 noted elevated levels of hydrocarbons in Iqaluit’s Lower Base area, but concluded the levels are too low to be of risk to human health.

Lower Base used to be a dumping ground for spent fuel canisters, dating back to the earliest period of the U.S. air base in the 1940s.

Redfern added that a study estimated costs to remediate toxins discovered in the last of of the old Butler buildings in Lower Base, one of the oldest structures in Iqaluit, at more than $1 million.

Modern Iqaluit, or Frobisher Bay, was founded when the U.S. military constructed the Iqaluit airfield during World War II, as a rest point for planes flying to Europe on the Crimson Route.

During the Cold War, Frobisher Bay became a central relay point for construction of DEW line stations across Canada’s North, which were built to detect bombers from the Soviet Union crossing into North America through the Arctic.

After the DEW line was replaced by the North Warning System, starting in the late 1980s, many of those stations were abandoned in the early 1990s, leaving behind heaps of toxic waste and contaminants.

In 1996, the Department of National Defence began remediation of 21 DEW line sites across the Arctic at a cost estimated at over $575 million in 2014.

Despite being surrounded by many of the same hydrocarbon and PCB contamination garbage leftover from military uses, only a few hazardous sites near Iqaluit—like Upper Base and Resolution Island—were marked for cleanup as part of that project.

“While remediation [of Resolution Island] provided benefits to the community of Iqaluit, primarily through contracts and employment, the community of Iqaluit has not received the same level of special designation or status for remediation clean up,” the City of Iqaluit said in its submissions to the Draft Nunavut Land Use Plan.

“Despite the fact the Americans set up [Iqaluit] and used key areas within the community for military purposes.”