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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.

Canada: BC Court Of Appeal Rules That Contaminated Property Must Be Assessed Using Highest and Best Use

Article by Luke Dineley and Jacob Jerome Gehlen

Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

In a highly anticipated decision for the valuation of contaminated property in British Columbia, the BC Court of Appeal overturned a decision of the BC Supreme Court and set out how contaminated property should be assessed for tax purposes.

The case involved a Brownfield – a contaminated commercial property with potential for economic redevelopment. The property in question had been operated as a retail gas station, automobile dealership, and repair shop. The soil on the property was contaminated, and the contamination had spread to neighbouring properties. The owner of the property was in considerable financial distress. In addition to tax arrears, legal bills, and accounting bills, she was defending a claim from the owner of a neighbouring property. She therefore arranged to sell the property to this owner through a share purchase agreement for $42,363.24, which was sufficient to cover her debts. She also obtained a full indemnity from any legal liabilities she might have in the future regarding the contamination. The existing structure on the property was renovated and converted into income-producing multi-tenant commercial retail units.

Abbotsford, British Columbia

In 2013, the property was assessed for taxation purposes.

The assessor had valued the land and improvements at $975,000. The property owner, Victory Motors (Abbotsford) Ltd. (“Victory Motors”), appealed, and the Property Assessment Review Panel reduced that assessment to $500,000. Victory Motors appealed to the Property Assessment Appeal Board (“Board”), claiming the property had no value. The Board reinstated the original assessment. The owner appealed again, to the Supreme Court of British Columbia. That court found that the Board had erred in law, and remitted the matter to the Board for reconsideration. The Assessor appealed that decision.

The Court of Appeal allowed the Assessor’s appeal and restored the Board’s decision.

The issue before the Court was this: how does one properly assess the value of contaminated land for taxation purposes? The assessor determined that because renovation into a two-storey structure would require remediation, the best use of the property was as it currently stood: a one-storey commercial structure. The assessor’s estimate did not otherwise take into account the presence of contamination. Their approach is known as the “income approach,” whereby a property’s value is determined according to the subject property’s highest possible annual net income. The Board agreed with the assessor’s method and ultimate evaluation.

The Supreme Court, however, held that the Board had erred in law. The chambers judge found that the assessor had ignored the property’s brownfield status, which any potential buyer would have in mind as a risk. The chambers judge further held that the land should be valued not according to value for the present owner, but according to the market in accordance with the BCCA’s decision in Southam Inc. (Pacific Newspaper Group Inc,) v. British Columbia (Assessor of Area No 14 – Surrey/White Rock), 2004 BCCA 245 [Southam]. Because there was no evidence a competitive market for the property existed, the Board’s decision was therefore unreasonable.

However, after the BCSC decision was released, a five-judge division of the BCCA overturned Southam in Assessor of Area #01 – Capital v. Nav Canada, 2016 BCCA 71, leave to appeal refused [Nav Canada]. Nav Canada supports the Board’s income-based approach.

Applying Nav Canada, the Court of Appeal allowed the assessor’s appeal and restored the Board’s decision. The Court applied the “highest and best use” principle of assessment, and found that a multi-tenant retail building was the “best use” for the purposes of assessment. The Court held: “that property has value to its current owner can be a sufficient basis on which to determine its value.” In Nav Canada, the BCCA had held that even where there was no other potential purchaser, “one must regard the owner as one of the possible purchasers.” The Court in this case agreed, and held that “when, for whatever reason, there is no market for a property that has value to its owner, that owner can serve as a proxy for a competitive market.”

Going forward, property owners should be aware that even though there are no purchasers lining up to bid for a brownfield, that property may still be assessed at a high value for taxation purposes.

About BLG

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

About the Authors

Luke Dineley is a partner in both our Insurance and Tort Liability Group and Environmental Law Group in Borden Ladner Gervais LLP‘s Vancouver office. Luke focuses his practice on civil litigation, with an emphasis on insurance and tort law, and environmental law.  In the area of environmental law, Luke’s experience includes representing and advising clients on a wide variety of contaminated site issues relating to both commercial and residential properties — including cost-recovery actions on behalf of plaintiffs and defendants. In addition, Luke has represented and advised major companies on environmental regulatory compliance, emergency spill responses, and environmental prosecutions. Luke is also an executive board member of the British Columbia Environmental Industry Association and frequently publishes and speaks in the area of environmental law.

 

Jacob Jerome Gehlen is an articling student at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP‘s Vancouver office. He has a Juris Doctor law degree from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University.