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Court Rejects Environmental Consultant’s Third Party Claim Against Prior Owner/Occupants

by Stan Berger, Fogler Rubinoff

On March 22, 2018 the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in MVL Leasing Ltd. v CCI Group Inc. 2018 ONSC 1800 granted Rule 21 motions striking third party claims brought by an environmental consultant who was being sued by a purchaser of property for professional negligence and breach of contract. The lawsuit alleged that the plaintiff was led into closing the sale by the consultant’s Phase 1 and Phase 2 Environmental Site Assessments. The property turned out to be contaminated. The consultant in turn alleged that the contamination was caused by one or more businesses operated by the third parties. The consultant requested contribution indemnity from the third parties on 6 different grounds: nuisance, loss or damage caused by a spill pursuant to s.99 of Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act, the occupier’s duty under the Occupiers’ Liability Act to ensure the safety of persons entering upon the property, negligence, liability under the Negligence Act and unjust enrichment. The consultant argued that if found liable in the main action, it would have incurred pecuniary losses as a direct result of the spill, those damages being the plaintiff’s remediation costs and or the decrease in the property’s value.

Court’s Reasons for Rejecting the Third party Claims

The nuisance claim was rejected on the basis that the consultant did not own, occupy or possess the property, or any adjacent or nearby property impacted by the alleged contamination. The s.99 EPA claim was only available where the damages were directly caused by the spill and that was not the case. The occupier liability claim was rejected because the consultant suffered no damages as a result of entering the property in question. With respect to the negligence claim, the Court refused to impose a new duty of care upon the third parties. There was no proximity in the relationship between the consultant and the third parties. The potential economic harm to the consultant was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the alleged acts or omissions of the previous third party owners/occupiers. The Negligence Act claim was rejected on the basis that the consultant and the third parties did not meet the test under the Act of being concurrent tortfeasors for contribution and indemnity to be available. The plaintiff’s actual or potential causes of action against the consultant and the third parties were entirely different in nature. The damages allegedly caused by the third parties were different and discrete from those caused by the consultant. Finally, the unjust enrichment claim was rejected as the consultant had not pleaded any direct conferral of a benefit upon the third parties and the consultant had not suffered a corresponding detriment. If the consultant had incurred a detriment in the future by the plaintiff succeeding with its action, that detriment only related to the breach of contract and/or negligence of the consultant and the third parties were not parties to that relationship.

What can we take away from this Decision?

In order to sustain a third party claim against historic owners or occupiers of contaminated property, environmental consultants who are sued by a purchaser of contaminated property, will have to show that that the historic owners/occupiers were somehow responsible for or at least connected to the contractual breach or negligence which the purchaser alleges against the consultant.

This article was previously published by Fogler, Rubinoff LLP and can be found on the firm’s website.

About the Author

Stanley Berger is certified by the Law Society of Upper Canada as a specialist in Environmental Law.  He was called to the Ontario Bar in 1981.  He joined the law firm of Fogler Rubinoff in 2013.

 

Key Developments in Environmental Law in Canada from 2017

A book on the developments in environmental law in Canada during 2017 was recently published by Thomson Reuters.  Edited by Stanley D. Berger of Fogler Rubinoff LLP, the book includes a number of interesting chapters related to contaminated sites and the issues raised in the Midwest Properties Ltd. v. Thordarson (“Midwest”) court case.  The Midwest case is part of a possible trend in Canada toward awarding damages based on restoration costs rather than diminution in value.  If nothing, else the Midwest Case has introduced uncertainty to the law of damages in contaminated sites cases.

In the chapter written by Natalie Mullins, a litigation partner in the Advocacy and Environmental groups in the Toronto office of Gowling WLG, on the evolution and current state of law on damages in contaminated sites, she states that despite being explicit about awarding compensatory damages only under section 99 of the Alberta Environmental Protection Act (“EPA”) and not at common law, the Alberta Court of Appeal may have implied that restoration costs are the default measure of damages in contaminated sites cases.  She also explores some other critical issues that have arisen post-Midwest, such as:

  • Whether diminution in value is still relevant to the measure of damages;
  • What it means to “restore” a real property;
  • How the court can take a proactive role to ensure that awards made to benefit the environment actually meet that objective; and
  • How defence counsel might prevent similar awards in the future, and how plaintiff’s counsel might use the case to obtain significant damages for their clients.

An interesting point raised by Ms. Mullins in her contaminated sites chapter is that in recent court cases, highlighted with Midwest, court decisions may be paving the way for plaintiffs to recover very significant damage awards for the contaminated of their sites that grossly exceed their actual loss and, in certain circumstances, may be completely unwarranted.

Ms. Mullins questions if the Midwest decision has created the potential for litigants to profit off purchasing contaminated sites and for defendants to face double jeopardy following judgment at trial.

The book is available at online for $144 (Cdn.).

 

Top 10 Questions to Consider If Sued under U.S. RCRA’s Citizen Suit Provisions

by Beveridge & Diamond PC

No longer only a tool of public interest groups, an ever-expanding group of plaintiffs – including commercial plaintiffs – are using the citizen suit provision of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 6972, to address alleged regulatory violations, seek cleanup of wastes alleged to be causing an imminent and substantial endangerment, and pursue fee awards. In addition, RCRA citizen suits have moved beyond traditional allegations of subsurface wastes migrating to soil and groundwater, and may include claims such as vapor intrusion. In light of this diversified landscape of plaintiffs and media, defendants should consider the following key questions when sued under RCRA’s citizen suit provisions.

  1. Do deficiencies in plaintiff’s pre-suit notice provide grounds for dismissal?

RCRA requires 60-day notice for suits brought under § 6972(a)(1)(A) (violation of specific RCRA requirement), and 90-day notice for suits brought under § 6972(a)(1)(B) (imminent and substantial endangerment). RCRA provides an exception for the notice period for citizen suits alleging violations of Subtitle C hazardous waste management provisions, which can be filed immediately after providing notice. The notice requirement reflects the preference for the government to take the lead enforcement role (rather than citizens), and serves to provide the defendant with adequate information to understand basis of the citizen suit. Evaluate whether the notice satisfies the statutory requirements of § 6972(b), and if applicable, the regulatory requirements of 40 C.F.R. § 254.3. If not, consider a motion to dismiss. Courts routinely dismiss RCRA citizen suits for failure to meet these requirements. In addition, check the law in your jurisdiction for other notice-based grounds for a motion to dismiss. For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has affirmed dismissal where plaintiff’s notice only identified waste practices, but did not identify the specific contaminants at issue. Dismissal due to lack of notice typically is without prejudice to refile after proper notice is given, but dismissal may provide strategic or procedural advantages.

  1. Has plaintiff alleged an injury sufficient to satisfy constitutional standing requirements?

A plaintiff must meet the standing requirements of Article III of the U.S. Constitution in order to have standing to sue in federal court. An invasion of a concrete and particularized legally protected interest that is actual or imminent is required to establish standing; the injury may not be conjectural, hypothetical, or too temporally remote. In the RCRA context, standing defenses can be asserted, for example, where there are allegations of an injury to property the plaintiff no longer owns, where the claimed injury is based on future, speculative development plans, or a corporation claims its aesthetic interests have been injured. In such situations, an early motion for summary judgment may expose a plaintiff’s inability to show actual harm, although plaintiffs’ claims of standing are often viewed liberally.

  1. Is plaintiff’s claimed injury redressible by RCRA?

An injury must also be redressible for a plaintiff to have constitutional standing. RCRA provides only forward-looking injunctive relief; not monetary compensation for past costs. Accordingly, suits seeking such compensation are not redressible under RCRA, and thus lack standing. Additionally, where a remediation plan is in place and cleanup is ongoing, the plaintiff may lack an injury needing redress because a court cannot order superfluous relief.

  1. Is there government action that bars the suit?

Certain RCRA citizen suits are barred where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) or the state is “diligently prosecuting” a RCRA or Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”) action. Plaintiffs have the burden of proving that prosecution is not diligent. This burden is heavy as a presumption of diligence attaches to government prosecution of actions; complaints about the government’s prosecution schedule or strategy generally will not suffice in themselves. Some courts have found that consent decrees and their enforcement amount to diligent prosecution.

  1. Is there an action under CERCLA that bars the suit?

Certain CERCLA removal and remedial actions will bar a RCRA citizen suit. These CERCLA actions include: (i) state or federal government engagement in a CERCLA § 104 removal action; (ii) federal or state government incurrence of costs to initiate a CERCLA § 104 remedial investigation/feasibility study (“RI/FS”) combined with diligent remedial action; and (iii) a court order (including a consent decree) or an administrative order under CERCLA § 106 or RCRA § 7003, pursuant to which a responsible party is “diligently” conducting a removal action, RI/FS, or a remedial action. RCRA suits are also precluded if they “challenge” a removal or remedial action selected under CERCLA § 104. Courts generally find any actions consistent with initial investigations, monitoring, initial clean up, or negotiation or entry of a consent decree will constitute a CERCLA removal action sufficient to preclude a RCRA claim. Remedial actions barring RCRA claims generally consists of those actions consistent with the permanent remedy.

  1. Is the plaintiff alleging entirely past regulatory violations, or violations of superseded federal regulations?

Many RCRA citizen suits concern activities that occurred several decades ago. If a suit alleges regulatory violations based on claims of entirely past conduct (i.e., the violations are not ongoing), such claims should be dismissed. Courts have also ruled that a plaintiff may not bring suit to enforce federal RCRA regulations where they have been superseded by an authorized state program. (However, suits seeking enforcement of state regulations issued pursuant to a state program

authorized under RCRA are typically allowed to proceed in federal court). All claims of regulatory violations should be scrutinized in light of these simple arguments, which can be applied to quickly narrow the claims in a RCRA citizen suit.

  1. Do primary jurisdiction or abstention doctrines provide grounds for a stay, or dismissal?

The doctrines of primary jurisdiction and abstention have seen success as defenses to RCRA citizen suits in some jurisdictions. Abstention doctrines arise out of concern for the proper jurisdictional balance between state and federal courts, and can provide a basis for dismissal of a federal court complaint. Defendants in RCRA citizen suits most frequently invoke the doctrine known as Burford abstention, which applies in situations where a federal suit will interfere with a state administrative agency’s resolution of difficult and consequential questions of state law or policy doctrine. While some courts have rejected the application of Burford abstention to RCRA citizen suits, the argument has seen more consistent success in suits challenging agency permitting, licensing or siting decisions under state law.

Under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, a federal court may stay proceedings where a claim involves issues within the special competence of an administrative body. Primary jurisdiction has been found applicable where: a consent order with the state completely overlapped with the relief sought by plaintiff’s RCRA claims; where EPA investigation and remediation had been diligent and ongoing for many years, and injunctive relief ordered by court could be conflicting; and where a state agency had extensive involvement in addressing alleged contamination and federal court intervention could result in delay of state agency response or substantial duplication of effort. Courts have been willing to apply primary jurisdiction to stay (or even dismiss) RCRA suits to allow these types of administrative activities to run their course.

  1. If plaintiff has alleged an endangerment to health or the environment, is it imminent?

To prevail on the merits of a RCRA citizen suit, a plaintiff must establish that an endangerment to human health or the environment is “imminent.” The Supreme Court has ruled that “[a]n endangerment can only be ‘imminent’ if it ‘threatens to occur immediately,’ and the reference to waste which ‘may present’ imminent harm quite clearly excludes waste that no longer presents such a danger.” Imminence may be absent where the endangerment is premised on speculative development plans or contingencies, where there is no exposure pathway (e.g., a claim of endangerment to human health based on alleged groundwater contamination, where groundwater is not used for drinking), or remediation has occurred, and to the extent waste remains, it no longer poses a risk. Imminence can be found lacking in these types of fact patterns, notwithstanding the presence of contamination.

will not likely be met. Risk assessments may also be very useful in showing the absence of a substantial risk, and defendants should evaluate the relative risks and benefits of performing such an assessment. For example, in a recent case alleging vapor intrusion, a risk assessment showed that the alleged vapor levels were many magnitudes below risk thresholds, and even below the risk presented by the same contaminants present in ambient (outdoor) air.

  1. If plaintiff has alleged an endangerment, is it substantial?

If a plaintiff cannot show that an alleged endangerment is imminent, it follows that it that RCRA’s substantiality requirement will not likely be met. Risk assessments may also be very useful in showing the absence of a substantial risk, and defendants should evaluate the relative risks and benefits of performing such an assessment. For example, in a recent case alleging vapor intrusion, a risk assessment showed that the alleged vapor levels were many magnitudes below risk thresholds, and even below the risk presented by the same contaminants present in ambient (outdoor) air.

  1. Can you recover your attorneys’ fees?

Although the majority of fee awards under RCRA are for plaintiffs, fee awards have been granted to defendants, especially where the suit was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or where the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so. Don’t overlook other bases for fees as well. If there is a contractual relationship with the plaintiff (for example, as is common between successive property owners), all contracts should be reviewed for any applicable fee shifting provisions.

In conclusion, if sued under RCRA’s citizen suit provision, consider whether these common defenses or fact patterns apply. Defenses based on notice, standing, or governmental action can provide an early and cost-effective dismissal of the case. Facts showing, for example, speculative alleged endangerment or lack of an exposure pathway should be explored fully in discovery, as they can provide effective defenses on the merits.

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Beveridge & Diamond holds a United States nationwide Tier 1 ranking for Environmental Litigation in U.S. News/Best Lawyers. The Firm’s litigators perform trial and appellate work in enforcement defense (civil and criminal), citizen suit defense, rulemaking challenges and defenses, and private litigation under all major federal and state environmental laws.  For more information about our experience defending RCRA citizen suits, please contact Harold L. Segall (+1.202.789.6038, hsegall@bdlaw.com) or Bina R. Reddy (+1.512.391.8045, breddy@bdlaw.com).

This update is not intended as, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. You should consult with legal counsel for advice specific to your circumstances. This communication may be considered lawyer advertising.

This article was first published on the Beveridge & Diamond website.

Class Action suit filed against CN Rail for derailment

As reported in the Sudbury Star, a Timmins law firm has sent a letter out to Gogama area residents and cottagers advising that a class-action lawsuit has been filed against CN Rail in connection with the derailment of an oil tanker train and subsequent oil spill that occurred on March 7, 2015.

The letter, signed by James Wallbridge of Wallbridge, Wallbridge Trial Lawyers of Timmins, was to advise residents to sign retainer agreements or to indicate whether or not they wish the law firm to proceed on their behalf.

The derailment and oil spill occurred in the area of the Makami River bridge, on the CN mainline near the village of Gogama, a town in Northeastern Ontario located between Timmins and Sudbury.  An eastbound CN Rail train hauling 94 tank cars had a derailment after riding over a broken rail. In all, 39 tank cars left the track.  Some of the cars fell into the river next to be bridge, exploded and burst into flame. Several of the cars were breached releasing many hundreds of thousands of litres of synthetic crude oil into the river and the surrounding environment.

Gogama train derailment

Wallbridge’s letter said the claim against CN Rail was filed back in July and that there are indications that the clean-up of the oil spill in the area is not properly done yet.

“We are advised by Fred Stanley of Walters Forensic Engineering that the cleanup continues notwithstanding CN and the Ministry of the Environment’s view the oil spill cleanup is complete,” said the letter.

Wallbridge went on to suggest that more environmental testing would be needed early next year.

“We are of the view that next spring may be an appropriate time to review the work that has been done and undertake independent testing. We have spoken to the Ministry of Environment’s legal counsel about testing and have indicated that we anticipate their cooperation in reviewing the overall cleanup.”

Wallbridge also advised that his firm has indicated that the timetable for the class action should be “held in abeyance” pending a review of the cleanup in May and June of 2018.

He said his firm elected to proceed by class action to preserve the limitation period of two years from the date of the occurrence. The class action serves to suspend the limitation period during the certification process, the letter said.

The Gogama-Makami River derailment was the second CN oil train derailment in that area in the winter of 2015. Both occurred along the section of the CN mainline known as the Ruel Subdivision. Another train hauling tank cars had derailed three weeks previous, on Feb. 14, 2015, in a remote bush and wetlands area, about 35 kilometres north of Gogama.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board filed a report in August saying that a broken section of rail was the cause of the derailment at the Makami River bridge.

When Is a Discharge to Groundwater Subject to the U.S. Clean Water Act? Can You Say “Significant Nexus”?

By Seth Jaffe, Foley Hoag LLP

Whether the United States Clean Water Act regulates discharges to groundwater has been a topic of significant debate.  At this point, there seems to be something of a trend in the cases towards concluding it does, but it remains true that all of the courts of appeal that have addressed the issue have concluded that it does not.  As I have noted, the problem with the “yes” answer is that pretty much all groundwater eventually discharges to surface water, making all such discharges subject to the CWA.  How can that be, given that groundwater is not considered to be “waters of the United States?”

Chief Judge Waverly Crenshaw recently addressed the issue in Tennessee Clean Water Network v. TVA.  Judge Crenshaw’s solution was creative – meaning he pretty much made up out of whole cloth.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong, however.

The case involves coal ash management at the TVA’s Gallatin plant.  Some of the – unlined – ponds directly abut the Cumberland River.  The plaintiff citizen groups brought claims under the CWA, alleging that TVA was discharging pollutants to the River – via groundwater – without an NPDES permit.  They requested an injunction requiring that the TVA remove the coal ash from the ponds, at a cost of $2 billion.

Gallatin power plant, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority in mid-Tennessee on the north bank of the Cumberland River. Location of the main coal-burning facility is indicated by the icon and label.

Judge Crenshaw was clearly frustrated by an absolutist position on either side.  Clearly, he does not think that any link between groundwater and surface water, no matter how attenuated, can be enough for jurisdiction to attach.  On the other hand, he was also trying to reckon with the specific case in front of him.  As he saw it, the Gallatin ash ponds were a complete environmental mess.  They immediately abut the Cumberland River, clearly a water of the United States.  Can the outcome really be different if the ponds discharge directly to the River than if they discharge to groundwater 10 feet from the River, where that groundwater then discharges to the river?

His solution?

the Court concludes that a cause of action based on an unauthorized point source discharge may be brought under the CWA based on discharges through groundwater, if the hydrologic connection between the source of the pollutants and navigable waters is direct, immediate, and can generally be traced.

I confess I like this solution, because it is practical and will generally yield reasonable results.  It avoids either effectively regulating all groundwater under the CWA or having to conclude that the CWA can’t reach situations such as the Gallatin ash ponds.

The problem?

There’s no textual support for this solution in the CWA.  To me, this test sounds a lot like Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus in Rapanos.  There too, his position received a lot of support at a practical level, while many commentators noticed that the CWA says nothing about a “significant nexus.”

We all know how well that’s worked out.

This article was first published in Law and the Environment, a blog from Foley Hoag LLP.

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About the Authors

Seth D. Jaffe

A partner at Foley Hoag, Seth Jaffe is recognized by Chambers USA, The Best Lawyers in America and Massachusetts SuperLawyers as a leading… MORE

Kathleen Brill

Kathleen Brill is an Associate practicing in the Administrative Department of Foley Hoag’s Boston office. Before joining Foley Hoag, Kathleen had considerable experience…MORE

 

Heiltsuk First Nation to sue Kirby Corporation over 2016 diesel spill

As reported in Coast Mountain News, this month marks the one-year anniversary of the October 13 oil spill in Bella Bella, British Columbia. With the community’s recovery efforts undermined by government and Kirby Corporation’s refusal to take responsibility for the spill and to cooperate in its aftermath, the nation says it has no option but to turn to the courts.

“The oil spill continues to be a catastrophic injury to our food sources, culture, and economy,” says Heiltsuk Tribal Council Chief Councillor, Marilyn Slett. “Thanks to Kirby Corporation and the governments of British Columbia and Canada, our community’s road to recovery keeps getting longer and longer.”

The Nathan E. Stewart articulated tug/barge was southbound from Alaska when it ran aground at Edge Reef near Athlone Island on Oct. 13, 2016. (Photo Credit: Western Canada Marine Response Corporation)

Kirby Corporation and government have kept information secret about what occurred on October 13, 2016 when the Nathan E. Stewart grounded, sank and spilled oil into Gale Pass. The Heiltsuk Tribal Council made numerous separate requests for information to the polluter (Kirby Corporation) and various government agencies, including Transport Canada, the Transportation Safety Board, and the Canadian Coast Guard. Those requests were largely denied or ignored.

The Nation claims this secrecy and lack of collaboration has continued throughout the post-spill recovery.

“Recently, we learned the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Kirby have been secretly negotiating an agreement on the post-spill environmental impact assessment since early this year,” says Chief Councillor Slett. “Since this nightmare began, the polluter and provincial and federal governments have ignored our questions and environmental concerns, our collaboration attempts, and our rights as indigenous people. We have no choice but to turn to the courts.”

The nation is preparing to take legal action, aiming to recover damages suffered by its members as well as to examine the actual state of Canada’s “world class” oil spill response system.

The case will seek compensation for loss of commercial harvesting of marine resources and infringement of Aboriginal rights relating to food, social and ceremonial importance of marine resources — factors that the current oil spill liability framework does not account for.

“When I’m not harvesting Gale Pass to feed my family, I am working there as a commercial fisherman, earning an income to support them – and I’m one of many,” says harvester and volunteer oil spill responder, Robert Johnson. “Despite our reliance on Gale Pass, the governments of British Columbia and Canada and Kirby the polluter have little interest in understanding the impacts of this oil spill on the health of my community, this environment, or our economy.”

The existing oil spill response framework excuses the polluter and government from full responsibility for oil spill impacts on Aboriginal rights otherwise protected by the Constitution.

As such, the government of British Columbia and Kirby are not required by law to do comprehensive impact assessments of the oil spill. To date, they have rejected multiple Heiltsuk requests to participate in a study of the current and long-term impacts of the oil spill on the health of the ecosystem and marine resources and the social and economic consequences associated with the loss of harvest and use of the impacted area.

Instead, Kirby Corporation and the BC Ministry of Environment are proposing a limited environmental assessment covering a minority of the area and species affected.

Heiltsuk Nation will be asking the courts to assess whether this existing regime of liability for oil spills can really be considered constitutional.

“We’re learning the hard way that indigenous people and coastal communities can’t count on polluters, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, or the governments of B.C. and Canada in a crisis situation,” says Kelly Brown, Director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. “For our sake, and the sake of our neighbours, we are consulting with a range of experts to assess damages, recovery times, and, ultimately, determine how we can prevent a similar disaster in the future.”

The Nathan E. Stewart sinking off Bella Bella, British Columbia

Analyses of the oil spill response have revealed massive safety and planning oversights by the polluter and federal and provincial government regulations. They include: a lack of spill response materials; ineffective booms and delays in employing them; a lack of safety instructions and gear for Heiltsuk first responders exposed to diesel and dangerous marine conditions; and confusion over who was in charge in the early hours of the oil spill.

“Government representatives travel the province, country, and the world preaching reconciliation and nation-to-nation relationships with first people. Meanwhile, back home, they are avoiding our calls and emails, excluding us from meetings, and ignoring our rights,” says first responder and Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt. “If the courts have to explain that this is not what nation-to-nation relationships and reconciliation look like, so be it.”

The Heiltsuk Tribal Council expects the results of the various impact assessments, legal analyses, and evaluations to materialize in the coming weeks.

CERCLA Trumps As-Is Sales

By Steven L. Hoch, Attorney, Clark Hill

A federal court in Alaska assessed responsibility against the City of Fairbanks (City) for remediation costs found necessary to clean up property it previously owned.  The court concluded that the City should have mitigated the problem or at least warned the purchaser about the contamination, even though the property was sold “As-Is”.  Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) liability is assessed without reference to cause.  Further, the court said that numerous courts have held that CERCLA liability cannot be defeated by contract, unless specifically and clearly addressed in the contract language.

In Gavora, Inc. v. City of Fairbanks , Case No. 4:15–cv-00015-SLG, BL 256894 (D. Alaska July 25, 2017), the City owned two parcels of land and Gavora held leasehold on one of the parcels. For a considerable length of time, a dry cleaning business operated in the shopping center located on their parcel.  Eventually, the contamination drew the attention of the State of Alaska, who told the City about the contamination and that they suspected the contamination migrated from that parcel to the other.  While the State did not verify the findings, the district court found it clear that the City knew or should have known that the first parcel was also contaminated.

Fairbanks Mall – Satellite Image showing borehole and monitoring well locations as well as PCE contamination levels

The City sold the first parcel to Gavora on an “As-Is, Where-Is” basis.  This sale occurred 10 years after the City first learned of the contamination on the second parcel.  When the purchase took place, Gavora did not perform its own environmental assessment.  Five years later, contamination was discovered on the first parcel owned by Gavora.  Lacking options, Gavora remediated the parcel and sued the City of Fairbanks for contribution.

Even though the sale was “As-Is”, the court nevertheless held the seller liable. Further, the court allocated 55% of the costs to the City and 45% of the costs to the current owner. The court rationalized that this allocation was appropriate because (1) the city knew or should have known of the contamination, yet failed to inform the purchaser; (2) the current owner made substantial corrective action efforts upon learning of the problem whereas the City took no action, and (3) it would be inequitable to hold the current owner responsible for contamination occurring prior to its master lease, but the court could not “effectively apportion the contamination”, but (4) the current owner would obtain a greater benefit than the prior owner from the remediation.

In the final analysis this case affirms that “As-Is” does not exculpate a seller from CERCLA liability, and that not disclosing contamination even when it did not make any representation to the contrary. As this was a district court opinion, it does not have significant legal value, but should not be dismissed out of hand when confronting similar issues.

 

This article was first published on the Clark Hill website.

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About the author

Steven Hoch has over 40 years of experience with both federal and state environmental laws and regulations in the context of permitting, regulatory proceedings, litigation, enforcement actions, water supply, public policy formation, and advice.  His work includes contamination of land and ground and surface water.  Steven has critical experience in the areas of environmental law and the federal and state Safe Drinking Water Acts, Title 23, water supply, and the mechanics of water distribution.  His experience also extends to groundwater modeling and water quality testing.  He also has significant experience in hazardous substances and waste handling practices, remediation, soil erosion, and claims of toxic exposures

Steven has in-depth experience working with numerous public water systems throughout the state.  He has also established a sterling reputation for his work with the Regional Water Quality Control Boards, the Department of Toxic Substance Control, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency both in the administrative and litigation.  His clients range from the country’s largest municipal water agency to individuals selling or buying contaminated sites.

Steven often takes primary roles in many environmental trials, and has served as liaison counsel for groups or parties at the request of fellow counsel.  He has been involved in several landmark cases, including acting as PG&E’s counsel in the case made famous by the movie Erin Brockovich.

 

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.”