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Ontario Graphite Ltd. Subject to Control Order Issued by Environment Ministry

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) recently issued an Emergency Director’s Order to Ontario Graphite Ltd. (OGL) related to its mining site in Butt Township, Kearney, Ontario.  An Emergency Director’s Order is issued when the MOECC is of the opinion that inaction of a situation can result in one or more of the following: danger to the health or safety of any person; harm or serious risk of harm to the environment; or injury or damage or serious risk of injury or damage to any property.

Under an Emergency Order, immediate actions and environmental actions must be taken to protect the natural environment and to prevent or reduce the discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment from the undertaking or property, or to prevent, decrease or eliminate an adverse effect.

Photo Credit: NorthBayNipissing.com

Kearney is a town and municipality in the Almaguin Highlands region of Parry Sound District of Ontario, Canada.  With a landmass of 531 square kilometres and a year-round population of 882 in the Canada 2016 Census, Kearney claims to be the “Biggest Little Town in Ontario.”  Butt Township was amalgamated with the Town of Kearney in 1979.

Since the issuance of Director’s Order Amendment No. 1 Ontario Graphite Limited (OGL) has reported to the MOECC multiple exceedances of discharge limits specified in the Environmental Compliance Approval (ECA) issued for the Kearney Mine industrial sewage works and Ontario Regulation 561/94 (i.e. including exceedance of limits for acute toxicity to test organisms Rainbow Trout and Daphnia magna, iron, total suspended solids and pH).

As requested by the MOECC, OGL proposed a short term management action plan to address the effluent discharge limit exceedances from the polishing pond until such time that construction can be completed on the industrial sewage works to enhance treatment efficiency once approved by the MOECC through an ECA amendment. OGL further indicated to the MOECC that an application to amend the ECA for necessary modifications to the industrial sewage works is currently being prepared.
Following the MOECC’s review of the short term management action plan and monitoring data submitted by OGL, the MOECC is concerned that measures proposed by OGL will be insufficient in achieving adequate treatment until such time that construction and operation of the proposed modification to the industrial sewage works, subject to the planned application and subsequent approval by the MOECC, if issued, are completed.

Currently, the lime dosing system being used at the Kearney Mine as part of the existing industrial sewage works operation is operated on a batch basis over, typically, an eight hour period during daylight hours.  The enhanced pH monitoring and reporting required by the January 31, 2018 Director’s Order amendment has demonstrated that the pH of the discharge is not consistently meeting the required pH range over a 24 hour period.  Therefore, the MOECC is directing that the operation of the batched system be extended over a daily, 24-hour period to ensure compliance with pH at all times.

In addition to adjusting the lime dosing system the MOECC is ordering a contingency plan be developed to including the use of an approved mobile treatment unit to ensure adequate treatment is achieved if proposed measures are not sufficient in achieving compliance with all discharge water quality limits until such time that modifications, approved through an amendment to the ECA, are implemented.

In summary the Emergency Director’s Order requires OGL to do the following:

  • Conduct an enhanced monitoring program for pH.
  • Ensure that the operation of lime dosing system is supervised by a Qualified Person and that effluent is maintained within a pH range of 6.5 – 8.5 at all times.
  • Retain a Qualified Person to develop and submit a contingency plan to treat the Kearney Mine polishing pond waters.
  • Retain a Qualified Person to submit an amendment to the issued Industrial Sewage Works, Environmental Compliance approval.

The Order was served to the company as well as a number of a company director, the CFO & CAO, and the CEO.

Pulp Mill in British Columbia fined $900K for releasing deleterious effluent

The Mackenzie Pulp Mill Corporation recently pleaded guilty, in the Provincial Court of British Columbia, to depositing a deleterious substance into water frequented by fish, in violation of the pollution-prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act.  The company was ordered to pay a penalty of $900,000, which will be directed to the federal Environmental Damages Fund.  This funding is to be used for the conservation of fish or fish habitat in the Omineca region of British Columbia. The company was also ordered to complete an independent audit of its operations to prevent future incidents of this kind.

The offence relates to incidents in July 2014 and September 2016, when effluent discharging from the Mackenzie Pulp Mill was found to be deleterious to fish. Environment and Climate Change Canada enforcement officers investigated the incidents, and their investigation revealed that the mill’s treatment system had not properly treated the effluent before discharging it, due in part to improper management of the wastewater entering the treatment system. The effluent was deposited into Williston Lake, which is frequented by fish.

As a result of this conviction, the company’s name will be added to the Environmental Offenders Registry.  The Environmental Offenders Registry contains information on convictions of corporations registered for offences committed under certain federal environmental laws.

SJC Clarifies Statute of Limitations for Contaminated Property Damage Claims but Raises Questions of Application

by Marc J. GoldsteinBeveridge & Diamond PC

Plaintiffs with property damage claims under the Massachusetts cleanup law have more time to bring their claim than might be expected under the three-year statute of limitations according to a recent ruling by the top Massachusetts court.  The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the statute of limitations begins running when the plaintiff knows that there is damage to the property that is “permanent” and who is responsible for the damage, pointing to the phases of investigation and remediation in Massachusetts’ regulatory scheme as signposts for when a plaintiff should have that knowledge.  Grand Manor Condominium Assoc. v. City of Lowell, 478 Mass. 682 (2018).  However, the Court left considerable uncertainty about when the statute of limitations might begin for arguably more temporary property damages such as lost rent.

In this Google image, the Grand Manor condominium complex is visible at the center-right.

In this case, the City of Lowell owned property that it used first as a quarry and then as a landfill in the 1940s and 50s before selling the property in the 1980s to a developer.  The developer constructed a condominium project on the site and created a condominium association soon thereafter. As part of work to install a new drainage system in 2008, the contractor discovered discolored soil and debris in the ground.  Subsequent sampling indicated that the soil was contaminated and that a release of hazardous materials had occurred.  The condo association  investigated in early 2009, and MassDEP issued notices of responsibility to both the condo association as well as the city in May 2009.  The city assumed responsibility for the cleanup and worked the site through the state regulatory process known as the Massachusetts Contingency Plan (MCP).  In the city’s MCP Phase II and III reports in June 2012, it concluded that the contamination was from the city’s landfill operations, that it would not be feasible to clean up the contamination, and proposed a pavement cap and a deed restriction.

The condo association and many of its members filed suit in October 2012 for response costs under Chapter 21E, § 4 and damage to their property under G.L. c. 21E, § 5(a)(iii).  At trial, the jury awarded the plaintiffs response costs under Section 4 but found that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that their property damage claim was brought within the three-year statute of limitations for such claims under G.L. c. 21E, § 11A.  The Supreme Judicial Court took the case on direct appellate review.

Section 11A provides that an action to recover damage to real property “be commenced within three years after the date that the person seeking recovery first suffers the damage or within three years after the date the person seeking recovery of such damage discovers or reasonably should have discovered that the person against whom the action is being brought is a person liable…”  Quoting Taygeta Corp. v. Varian Assocs., Inc., 436 Mass. 217, 226 (2002), the Court summarized this as a requirement that the claim must be brought within three years of when plaintiff “discovers or reasonably should have discovered [1] the damage, and [2] the cause of the damage.”

The Court quickly agreed that “the damage” referred to in Section 11A was, for these purposes, the property damages of Section 5 and moved on to the plaintiffs’ contention that the limitations period should not run until they discovered or reasonably should have discovered that the damage was “permanent” or, in other words, not reasonably curable.  Until that time, they argued, they could not know if they had a property damage claim because the site could be fully remediated.

The Court examined the application of the statute of limitations in the context of the statutory scheme for investigating and remediating sites in Massachusetts.  The Court found that the primary purpose of Chapter 21E is to clean up environmental contamination and to ensure responsible parties pay for the costs of that cleanup.  As a result, the statute prioritizes “performance and financing of cleanup efforts, and then considers the calculation of property damage that cannot be cured by remediation and remediation cost recovery.”

In interpreting the statute of limitations, the Court crystalized the question as “whether the word ‘damage’ in § 11A(4) refers specifically to damage under § 5, that is, damage that cannot be cured and compensated by the cleanup and cleanup cost recovery processes defined by the MCP and §§ 4 and 4A, such that the limitations period does not begin to run until the plaintiff knows there is residual damage not subject to remediation and compensation.”  In order to have knowledge that a plaintiff has suffered damage that is not curable by the MCP remediation process, the MCP process must have run sufficiently to know that § 5 damages exist – that there is contamination that will not be addressed through remediation leaving the property at a diminished value.  Since the liable party is required to determine the extent of the damage in Phase II and evaluate available remedies in Phase III of the MCP, as the Court noted, “[i]t would make little sense to require the plaintiff to independently determine whether residual property damage exists prior to the completion of these reports.” As a result, the Court concluded that the statute of limitations did not start to run until the plaintiff became aware that the site would not be fully remediated in the Phase II and III reports in June 2012 months before they filed their lawsuit.  Exactly what constitutes full remediation remains to explored in further cases, as the range of outcomes from achieving background conditions, implementing deed restrictions, reaching temporary solutions, or even leaving just a few molecules of contamination left behind could impact this analysis.

The Court contended that this interpretation of the statute of limitations provides a “prescribed and predictable period of time” within which claims would be time barred, given that there are timetables associated with the production and submission of MCP Phase II and III reports.  Under normal circumstances, the Court expected that a plaintiff will know it has a claim within five years of notifying MassDEP of contamination.

Despite the Court’s pronouncement that it had provided predictability for these types of claims, the statute of limitations for non-permanent property damages, such as lost rental value, or for sites where there is a long-term temporary solution in place, remain uncertain.  Lawyers and clients evaluating how and when to bring claims for temporary and permanent damages will need to carefully evaluate a range of potential options in pursuing a preferred single case for property damage without unacceptable risk that an uncertain statute of limitation may have run.

The article was first published at the Beveridge & Diamond website.

Beveridge & Diamond’s Massachusetts office assists parties at all phases of contaminated sites, guiding clients through the MCP investigation and remediation process and prosecuting and defending claims in court for cost recovery and property damage.  For more information about this practice, contact Marc Goldstein or Jeanine Grachuk.

About the Author

Marc Goldstein helps clients resolve environmental and land use disputes and to develop residential, commercial, and industrial projects. He serves as the Managing Principal of Beveridge & Diamond’s Wellesley, Massachusetts office and the Chair of the firm’s Technology Committee.

Marc provides practical, cost-effective advice to clients with environmental contamination issues, whether those clients are cleaning up hazardous materials and seeking contribution from previous owners or adjacent landowners or facing claims under Chapter 21E or Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) for their alleged role in contamination.

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.

_____________________________

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.