Archive for the ‘CERCLA’ Category

JP Morgan Chase Actually Acquired “Toxic” Assets During the Great Recession

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

During the Great Recessions, the term “toxic assets” became a cliché. It was used to describe loans and other financial instruments that had fallen significantly and for which there is no longer a functioning market. The presence of these so-called toxic assets on their balance sheets caused many banks to fail.

As it turned out, JPMC actually acquired some toxic assets in the more traditional sense when it purchased the acquired the insolvent Washington Mutual Bank (WMB). As a result of this transaction, the bank eventually entered into a series of consent orders with United States and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to resolve the liability of WMB and various predecessors involving the former BKK Sanitary Landfill Site  in West Covina, California. Under the consent order JPMC agreed to pay $27 million to the DTSC for its past response costs and remaining $58 million to the PRP steering committee. In addition, JPMC paid DTSC $1 million for attorney fees and other costs incurred related to the Consent Decree. In the federal consent agreement, JPMC agreed t pay to EPA  $1MM for past response costs.

The story began back in 1959 when Home Savings of America FSB (“Home Savings”) purchased land in West Covina, California. In 1963, Home Savings leased a portion of the landfill to BKK Corp., which developed and operated the a landfill that accepted both solid waste and hazardous wastes. Around 1973, Home Savings transferred title to the BKK Facility to a subsidiary, Oxford Investment Corp. (“Oxford”) which held title until approximately 1977 when BKK Corp. exercised a lease option to acquire title to the facility.

In 1995, Oxford became a direct subsidiary of H.F. Ahmanson & Company, the parent corporation of Home Savings. Oxford was subsequently renamed Ahmanson Developments Inc.  In 1998, H.F. Ahmanson &c Company merged into Washington Mutual Inc (WMI), which was the parent corporation of WMB. As part of that transaction, Home Savings merged into WMB, and Ahmanson Developments Inc., became a direct subsidiary of WMI.

In 2004, NAMCO Securities Corp., a subsidiary of WMB, loaned BKK Corp. money to assist BKK Corp. with maintaining its post-foreclosure financial assurance. However, BKK Corp. notified DTSC later that year that it could no longer perform its post-closure obligations for the closed hazardous waste landfill or operate the Leachate Treatment Plant.

DTSC was forced to retain a contractor to conduct emergency response activities at the BKK Facility. The agency then issued an Imminent and Substantial Endangerment Determination and Order and Remedial Action Order (ISE Order) to BKK Corp. and approximately fifty (50) other parties including WMB.

DTSC subsequently entered into a series of administrative settlement agreements with some of the PRPs named in the ISE Order. WMB was one of the settling respondents. DTSC later filed an action for cost recovery against 25 PRPs including WMB which resulted in a consent order that required the settling defendants to undertake various actions regarding the BKK site and to reimburse DTSC for certain costs it had incurred or would incur in the future related to the Subject Property.

After the Office of Thrift Supervision closed WMB and appointed FDIC as the receiver, WMI and WMI Investment Corp. commenced a chapter 11 petition. DTSC, the PRP steering committee and certain of its members filed proofs of claim in the WMB Receivership alleging that WMB and its subsidiaries or affiliates were liable for response costs and other damages associated with the BKK Facility. These claims were disallowed.

In 2012, the Bankruptcy Court approved a settlement agreement whereby the settling parties agreed, among other things, that JPMC would fund the obligations of the WMI Entities for Response Costs associated with the BKK Facility and act as their agent for certain insurance policies. Interestingly, the settlement agreement provided that the automatic stay would be lifted to the limited extent required to determine WMI’s liability for response costs related to the BKK Facility.

The Schnapf Environmental Journal that was published from 1998 to 2008 and is available from the newsletter page of this website discussed a number of instances where lenders incurred environmental liability as a result of acquisitions. For example, the 2002 September issue discussed Citibank’s liability for the Shattuck Chemical Company. The December 2004  issue covered the listing of a bank branch office to the federal superfund list.

Trump Administration Infrastructure Plan Proposes CERCLA Amendments

Saturday, February 17th, 2018

Earlier this week the Trump Administration unveiled its “Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America”.  Among the proposals were three amendments to the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) that are designed to incentivize redevelopment of contaminated properties. The proposal can be viewed Here.  Since this document is an overview, it does not contain statutory language.

The first proposed change involves National Priorities List (NPL) sites. Currently, these sites are not eligible for Brownfield funding under CERCLA § 104(k) since they are excluded from definition of brownfield site of §101(39) (B) and eligible response site of section §101(41) (C).  The proposal would allow non-liable parties to be eligible to receive grants and low-interest revolving loans to conduct assessments, complete cleanups, and implement remedy enhancements to accommodate development and perform long-term stewardship at NPL sites or portions of NPL sites. This proposal would include:

  • areas of the NPL site that are not related to the response action;
  • areas that can be parceled out from the NPL response action;
  • areas where the NPL response action is complete but the site has not been delisted yet; or
  • areas where the NPL response action is complete but the facility is still subject to orders or consent decrees under CERCLA

Oddly, the Administration proposes to accomplish this goal by amending CERCLA §101(40) which defines a bona fide prospective purchaser instead of the brownfield site definition at § 101(39) where the NPL exclusion is located. This calls into question of other parties that qualify for other landowner liability protections such as the innocent landowner and contiguous property owner as well as the third-party defense would qualify for this financial assistance.

Another important amendment would be to clarify and expand the current liability exemption State and local governments set forth in CERCLA §101(20) (D). This section excludes from the definition of owner or operator units of state government or local governments that  involuntarily acquire contaminated property by virtue of their sovereign function. Local governments have been concerned about eminent domain actions where they obtain title through a negotiated purchase in lieu of condemnation (see City of Wichita v. Aero Holdings, Inc, 177 F. Supp. 2d 1153 (D.Kan. 2000)0 or in the absence of a judicial ruling that the local government lawfully exercised its power of eminent domain.  The Administration proposal does not explain how it will amend §101(20)(D) to eliminate this concern. However, it does state that such liability protection would be conditioned upon State and local governments not contributing to the contamination and meeting the obligations imposed on Bona Fide Prospective Purchasers (BFPPs), including exercising appropriate care with respect to releases of hazardous substances at the facility

It should be noted that towards the end of 2017,  the House of Representatives passed the Brownfields Enhancement, Economic Redevelopment, and Reauthorization Act of 2017 (H.R. 3017) which appears to encompass some of the changes proposed by the Administration. The bill reauthorizes the federal brownfield program and amends the definition of brownfield site to include sites where there is no viable party and EPA determines it is appropriate that the site be assessed, investigated, or cleaned up by a non-liable party. It also amends §101(20)(D) by deleting reference to “involuntarily” acquiring title. The legislature would allow local governments to be eligible for brownfield funding where if they do not qualify as a the BFPP because they acquired the site prior to January 11, 2002 and did not otherwise contribute or cause the contamination. A Senate bill has similar language regarding the local government exemption

Finally, the Administration proposes to amend CERCLA Section §122(a) to provide EPA with express settlement authority to enter into administrative agreements with BFPPs and other statutorily protected parties to perform remedial action in appropriate circumstances (e.g., partial, early remedial action) would promote and expedite the cleanup and reuse of Superfund sites. Currently, this section provides the President with authority to enter into an agreement with any person to perform a response action when the President determines the action will be done properly.  However,  when EPA enters into a settlement for a remedial action with a potentially responsible party, the settlement must be approved by the Attorney General and entered the United States District Court as a consent decree.  The need to obtain DOJ approval can be time-consuming and often discourages EPA regional offices from considering Prospective Purchaser Agreements or other administrative settlements with BFPPs.

Remedial Program Reform Proposals for EPA Administrator Pruitt

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Regulatory reform is at the centerpiece of the Trump Administration’s plan to stimulate economic growth. During the presidential campaign, candidate Trump vowed to rollback a variety of Obama Administration Climate Change Initiatives but said little about EPA remedial programs such as the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or superfund). Based on his testimony and follow-up written response to Congress, it appears that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recognizes the value of brownfield programs and the need to remediate contaminated sites. There also seems to be strong bipartisan support for the brownfield program in the House committee responsible for the EPA budget.

As a result, I have shared the following recommendations to Administrator Pruitt for reforming EPA’s remedial programs. These suggestions could improve the efficiency of the remedial programs without weakening environmental protections. Some of the changes could be achieved through legislative amendments but could be administratively implemented if Congress does not have the time to address environmental issues during the current term. The proposals are not in any order of importance

  1. CERCLA Continuing Obligations Guidance– The 2002 amendments to CERCLA added the Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser (BFPP) and Contiguous Property Owner defenses. These defenses (in particular the BFPP defense) were enacted to help incentivize purchasers to acquire and remediate contaminated properties so they can be put back into productive use. While EPA promulgated an all appropriate inquiries (AAI) rule to help define the pre-acquisition obligations necessary to be able to assert these defenses, there is little guidance from EPA on how property owners or operators may satisfy their “appropriate care” or “continuing obligations” so they can maintain their liability protection after taking title or possession of property. The 2003 “Common Elements Guidance” is inadequate. The lack of guidance and recent caselaw have created uncertainty for developers and undermined the value of these defenses. EPA should issue detailed guidance on what constitutes appropriate care. Developers and property owners should not have to rely on ASTM to provide guidance on how to comply with their legal obligations.

2. Revise “Enforcement Discretion Guidance Regarding the Affiliation Language of CERCLA’s Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser and Contiguous Property Owner Liability Protections” – This memo did not sufficiently address concerns raised by the Ashley decision that purchasers of contaminated property could lose their eligibility for the BFPP by agreeing to indemnify sellers. 

3. More Robust Use of PPAs and CPO “Assurance Letters”- With the passage of the 2002 CERCLA amendments, EPA announced in guidance that it would issue PPAs or CPO assurance letters only in rare instances because the landowner liability protections were self-implementing. However, these agreements can be incredibly valuable. EPA should urge its regional offices to issue such documents where they can facilitate redevelopment such as in urban superfund sites (e.g., GowanusCanal, Newtown Creek) and where municipal governments are willing to foreclose on contaminated properties and then convey title to redevelopers. 

4. Clarify Scope of Municipal Liability Protections Under CERCLA to Encourage Taking Title of Vacant Properties and Facilitate Reuse- There is considerable uncertainty among local government community if municipalities can invoke the protections of 42 U.S.C. 9601(20)(D) and (9601(35)(A)(ii) where they take title in lieu of formal tax foreclosure proceeding since this may not be “involuntary”. Local governments might be more willing to take title and assemble vacant properties so they would become more attractive to redevelopment if they could obtain clarity on the scope of this protection. Presumably, a purchaser from a municipality would then be able to assert the BFPP or third party defense. A related problem is that the BFPP defense would not apply to local governments who took title prior to January 11, 2002.

5. Reform EPA Remedial Programs Into a Single Unified Cleanup Program- Our nation’s remedial programs were created as we became aware of new concerns. This has resulted in different cleanup standards and procedures. We have separate staffs for CERCLA, RCRA, TSCA (PCBs), USTs, etc. We now have three decades of experience remediating sites. I think we should strongly consider combining these discrete offices into one streamlined remedial office that will provide consistent regulatory approach and reduce unnecessary staff. 

6. Clarify Lender Obligations Following Foreclosure- The original EPA lender liability rule contained a “bright-line” test for lenders to follow so they can be deemed to have taken commercially reasonable steps to sell property following foreclosure, thereby staying within the safe harbor created by the secured creditor exemption. Unfortunately, when the rule was vacated and the 1996 lender liability amendments were added to CERCLA, the “bright line” test was omitted. So lenders have no guidance on how to proceed during what is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Can they reject an offer that is equal to artificially depressed price? How long can they hold onto property without losing protection? Some states allow for two years while others allow up to five years to sell the property. Greater clarity will help lenders move these properties.If control of Congress changes, this can be legislative proposal.  

7. Encourage States to Adopt Licensed Professional Programs– States are facing severe staffing constraints which are creating backlogs in site remediation.  EPA could use its authority under section 128 of CERCLA (approval of state response programs) as well as its RCRA delegation authority to have states adopt licensed site professional programs like MA, NJ and CT so that states could devote their limited resources to the sites that pose the greatest risk to human health and the environment. EPA could establish a national licensing program for consultants that sets forth minimum professional requirements and states could adopt these programs as part of their remedial programs. One way to accomplish this could be by amending the All Appropriate Inquiries (AAI) Rule to revise the definition of Environmental Professional. This could avoid having to promulgate a new regulation.  

8. Revise NCP- revising the NCP. It was last revised in 1990. Since then we’ve learned a lot about cleanup and have lots of informal guidance to help streamline the process and make it more cost-effective. Doesn’t make sense to continue to follow the RI/FS lockstep process. Why review five alternatives? The NY brownfield program requires applicants tp propose remedy and an unrestricted cleanup alternative, and this approach has been able to generate robust cleanups. The NCP could be revised to incorporate streamlined provisions for brownfield sites that will produce faster and more cost-effective cleanups while preserving right of contribution. Right now, firms are incentivized to follow the lock-step approach to preserve their ability to pursue cost recovery. 

9. Revise CERCLA Disclosure Requirements With Amnesty Program To Incentivize Accelerated Cleanups- Property owners are not currently required to disclose historic contamination. As a result, many sites remain unremediated until the owner is ready to sell the property. To help accelerate cleanups, I think EPA could announce it was going to change its disclosure rules from reportable quantity approach to contaminant concentrations and at the same time provide current property owners a one year amnesty period to voluntarily disclose contamination. Much like the EPA audit policy, owners who disclose the existence of contamination that they are not responsible for would be afforded BFPP status. They would have to exercise “appropriate care” but not full cleanup. The SARA Title III program resulted in substantial reductions in pollution. It seems worth the try to experiment with an amnesty period for contaminated sites. 

10. Seek Cost Recovery from Responsible Parties When Brownfield Grants Are Awarded – According to a 2004 EPA study, there may be 300,000 contaminated sites in the nation that may cost over $200 billion (not adjusted for inflation) to remediate.  Many brownfield sites were created when corporations closed plants and either relocated elsewhere in the country or exported the jobs overseas yet remains financially viable. EPA has been granting brownfield grants to local governments without considering if there is a responsible party.  Before EPA gives away public money, it should make a determination that there are no responsible parties. If responsible parties are available, RPA should give the responsible party an opportunity to conduct an investigation and remediation of the contaminated property is has left behind. If the responsible party declines to participate int he cleanup, EPA could then award the Brownfield grant and seek cost recovery. In this way, the brownfield funding program would not have to rely entirely on Congressional appropriations.

11. Move Away from Brownfield Grants/Loans and To Tax Credits- The brownfield financial incentives are becoming like public works projects. The funding often takes too long for private development. Rather than giving funds to local government to investigate and reuse planning, EPA could incentivize the private market to do this work by expanding and extending brownfield tax credits. The New York Brownfield tax credit program has resulted in an estimated $7.5B in investment in the state at a cost of $750MM. Tax credits put the upfront risk on the developer instead of the taxpayers. 

12.Adopt National Environmental “WARN” Obligations Under RCRA- to prevent future brownfields, companies closing operations should be required to notify relevant permitting authority at least 90 days in advance of closing to ensure that appropriate closure occurs so that public money does not have to be used to address cleanup or local government seeks brownfield funds.

13. Require States To Use Parceling To Encourage RCRA Brownfields- EPA RCRA Brownfield Reforms urged states to allow owners or operators of TSDF to sell off clean parcels of their facilities (e.g., portions never used for any waste management) while the HWMUs or SWMUs were undergoing corrective action. EPA should more forcefully use its delegation authority to allow this much needed reform.  

14. Clarify RCRA liability for Generator-only sites- There is much confusion if closure obligations for a generator site run with the land. In other words, a site may have been owner or operated by a defunct generator. A prospective purchaser is interested in redevelopment but is concerned it will become subject to closure obligations for the areas where wastes were managed. Presumably, generator sites could be treated as any brownfield site without the need to undergo formal RCRA closure.  

15. Add Landowner Liability Protections to TSCA for PCB Cleanups- Purchasers often take steps to qualify for CERCLA BFPP only to learn after taking title that the property has been impacted with PCBs and they are subject to TSCA cleanup. This might require Congressional action but I do not see any reason why TSCA should not have a BFPP defense. Congress added AAI and BFPP to OPA in 2004 with little controversy.

16. TSCA PCB Reform- The PCB cleanup and disposal rules are a bit RCRA-like, a bit CERCLA-like and not well integrated. The cleanup should also not depend on the original spill concentration but on current concentrations and media. I’d like to see the entire Subpart D to 40 CFR 761 repealed, and disposal of PCB-containing material handled entirely within RCRA via the listed-waste and LDR route. 

17. Adopt Restatement (Third) of Torts Approach to Joint Liability– When CERCLA was enacted, Congress said that liability should be premised on evolving concepts of common law. At the time of its enactment, the Second Restatement was in effect which favored use of joint liability for indivisible harm. However, this was before states began adopting comparative negligence statutes. The Third Restatement states that the law has shifted dramatically from the use of joint liability and that courts should try to find a basis for apportioning liability where there is a reasonable basis. Despite the publication of the Third Restatement in 2000, federal courts continue to cling to the doctrine espoused by the Second Restatement. Recently  an appeals court declined to adopt the suggestion of an amicus brief submitted by The American Tort Reform Association to use the Third Restatement to apportion liability for the Fox River cleanup. My post on this case is at: http://www.environmental-law.net/2012/08/7th-circuit-declines-to-apply-third-restatement-of-torts-in-apportionment-case/ . The Administration might want to have Congress clarify that CERCLA liability should be based on the Third Restatement or  EPA could issue interpretative guidance that it now considers the Third Restatement to be the governing law for CERCLA liability. This  would reflect the Congressional intent to follow the evolving common law and confirm the direction where the law has moved.

Appellate Court Restricts NYSDEC Ability to Spend Superfund Money

Monday, November 14th, 2016

A legal maxim is that  bad facts often make bad law. It appears that complex facts may have confused an Appellate Division court in In the Matter of FMC Corporation vs New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6785 (App. Div.-Third Dept. 10/20/16) where the three judge-panel appeared to rule that the NYSDEC may not spend money from the state superfund until it first provides a hearing to a potentially responsible party.

BACKGROUND

The facts are dense but can be summarized as follows. FMC Corporation (FMC) operated a 103-acre facility located in the Village of Middleport, New York that manufactured a variety of organic and inorganic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and insecticides containing calcium arsenate and lead arsenate since the early 1940s. In 1980, the NYSDEC added the facility to the Registry of Hazardous Waste Disposal Sites which is informally known as the state superfund (SSF) list. In 1986, the agency reclassified the facility as a class 2 site. The facility was  an interim status facility under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

In 1988, NYSDEC completed a RCRA Facility Assessment (RFA) that identified 53 solid waste management units (SWMUs), including eight hazardous waste management units (HWMUs). Contaminants consisting of heavy metals and dozens of other organic compounds were detected in the soil and groundwater at the Facility. Heavy metals were found in the soils at a nearby school and nearby private residences primarily from aerial deposition.

In 1991, FMC, EPA and the NYSDEC entered into an administrative order on consent (AOC)  pursuant to RCRA § 3008(h) and ECL § 71-2727(3). The AOC required FMC to complete an RCRA facility investigation (RFI), implement interim corrective measures (ICMs) and conduct a corrective measures study (CMS) if EPA determined that additional work was necessary to protect human health or the environment.

Under section section XXIX, FMC had the right to invoke the dispute resolution procedures if EPA determined additional work and/or CMS was required or if FMC disagreed with EPA decisions to disapprove or amend submissions. To exercise its right to dispute resolution, the AOC provided that FMC would have to tender a written “Notice of Dispute and Request for Resolution”  containing the basis or the objection within 15 days of receipt of any such disapproval or modification. The AOC also provided that it would be deemed satisfied and the FMC’s obligations would shall terminate upon receipt of a written statement from EPA that FMC has completed to the satisfaction of the terms and conditions of the AOC including any additional investigatory work that EPA may have determined was be necessary. The AOC also contained a reservation of rights for EPA and NYSDEC.

Between 1996 and 2003, FMC implemented a number of ICMS to address soil contamination at the school and several dozen private residences. In 2009, the agencies approved a draft RFI and directed FMC to perform a corrective measure study (CMS) to develop a corrective action plan. One year later, FMC submitted its draft CMS report, which proposed eight corrective measure alternatives (CMAs).

In June 2012, NYSDEC issued a draft statement of basis (SOB) for the remediation of OUs 2 (consisting of 285 residential properties), OU4 (school property) and OU5 (a storm water drain discharging into several creeks). In addition, the agencies rejected FMC’s preferred remedy and proposed a hybrid remediation program, known as CMA 9 that established a more stringent arsenic remedial goal of 20 parts per million (ppm) for soils at all locations and depths.

Two months later, FMC submitted a written response challenging the selection of CMA 9. EPA and NYSDEC notified FMC in a joint letter dated October 19, 2012 that the CMS report for the three OUs had been accepted and that the AOC was “deemed by the Agencies to be closed.” Although the purpose of the AOC was to compete an RFI and an CMS if required, FMC sent a remarkable letter to EPA and NYSDEC on October 25, 2012 claiming the agencies did not have the right to close the AOC because a final CMA had not been selected by the EPA. However, FMC did not specifically invoke the dispute resolution procedures in the AOC.

On May 28, 2013, NYSDEC issued its final SOB formally selecting CMA 9. FMC and the NYSDEC then entered into a series of tolling agreements extending the time in which to challenge this selection through April 30, 2014. On May 1, 2014, FMC sought to invoke the dispute resolution provisions of the AOC. NYSDEC then sent a letter dated May 7, 2014 to FMC’s counsel because FMC had refused to implement CMA 9, FMC planned to complete the work using the SSF.

In a letter dated May 22,2014,  EPA informed FMC that NYSDEC’s selection of a remedy in its Statement was not subject to the dispute resolution provisions of the AOC because the AOC had been closed. FMC then filed an article 78 proceeding on May  30, 2014 asserting NYSDEC’s unilateral selection of CMA 9 was arbitrary and capricious, that the agencies could not unilaterally modify the AOC and had acted arbitrarily when they declared the AOC closed and that NYSDEC did not have the authority to decision to use the hazardous waste remedial fund to pay for the remediation. FMC also sought a declaratory judgment finding that the Final Statement of Basis should not be used for the selection of a remediation program. In response, the DEC asserted its October 19, 2012 letter was a final determination and moved to dismiss the petition as time-barred.

The Supreme Court ruled that the October 19th was as a final determination for purposes of triggering the statute of limitations because the court said that the letter left “no doubt that there would be no further administrative action” and the agency would not alter its position. In addition, the court said FMC’s October 25th letter did not extend the statute of limitations because a request for reconsideration of an agency decision does not expand the statute of limitations. Since FMC did not file its petition by February 16, 2013, the court dismissed the petition.   Application of FMC Corporation vs NYSDEC, Index No. 2884-14 (Sup. Ct.- Albany, 08/20/15).

On appeal, the appellate division held the court had erred because the October 19th letter made no reference to the selection of a remedy. The court said the actual selection of a remedy did not occur until NYSDEC issued its final statement of basis in May 2013. Since there was no dispute that the parties entered into the tolling agreements in an effort to negotiate a resolution, the court held FMC timely filed its article 78 petition.

Since the trial court had only addressed the statute of limitations question, the appeals court could have stopped there and remanded the matter for further proceedings on the substantive claims. However, the panel then plunged into reviewing the merits of the dispute and this is where the judges went off the rails.

The court acknowledged that NYSDEC was authorized to assert its authority under titles 9 and 13 of Article 27 of the ECL and to issue the SOB. The court also found the SOB was the final corrective measure for OUs 2, 4 and 5 and also served as the Record of Decision (ROD) for purposes of selecting a remedial plan for these OUs under the SSF.

NYSDEC argued it was authorized to select CMA 9 and proceed with the remedial work pursuant to ECL 27-0916 (1) because FMC “unlawfully” dealt with hazardous waste. The court disagreed, saying that FMC at all relevant times was operating lawfully pursuant to its interim status. In so holding, the court confused having interim status and improperly allowing hazardous waste to released into the environment.

Section § 27-0916 is titled “Department authority for cleanups”. § 27-0916(1) provides:

The department shall have authority to clean up or return to its original state any area where hazardous wastes were disposed, possessed or dealt in unlawfully in violation of section 27-0914 of this article.

Section 27-0914(2), in turn, provides “No person shall dispose of hazardous wastes without authorization”.

What the court got wrong, though, was that while FMC was authorized by its interim status to manage waste in compliance with law, it was not authorized to dispose of wastes at the facility.

However, that was not the court’s worst stumble. In the last two paragraphs of the opinion, the court held that the agency was not authorized to implement the remedial work without first giving FMC an opportunity for a hearing to assert its challenge to CM, relying on ECL § 27-1313 [5] [a], [b], [c].  Now it is true that § 27-1313[3][a] provides that when a site poses a significant threat to the environment, the NYSDEC may order an owner (i) to develop an inactive hazardous waste disposal site remedial program, subject to the approval of the agency and (ii) to implement such program within reasonable time limits specified in the order. [emphasis added] Clearly, the use of the word “may” means that NYSDEC has the authority to issue an order but is not required to do so.

ECL § 27-1313[4] then provides that any such order “shall be issued only after notice and the opportunity for a hearing is provided to persons who may be the subject of such order.”

ECL 27-1313[5][a] also provides that when person ordered to eliminate a significant threat fails to do so within the time limits specified in the order, the NYSDEC may develop and implement a remedial program for the site. [emphasis added] Again, note the use of the word “may”.

However, the court ignored two other important provisions of § 27-1313 that give NYSDEC the discretion to unilaterally implement a remedial action. For example, § 27-1313[3](b) authorizes NYSDEC to spend money when the agency commissioner finds:

(i) that hazardous wastes at an inactive hazardous waste disposal site constitutes a significant threat to the environment; and

         (ii) that such threat is causing or presents an imminent danger of causing irreversible or irreparable damage to the environment; and

         (iii) the threat makes it prejudicial to the public interest to delay action until a hearing can be held pursuant to this title, the department may, pursuant to paragraph c of subdivision five of this section and within the funds available to the department…”

The court also ignored § 27-1313[5](d) authorizes NYSDEC to develop and implement a remedial program where the agency determines it is cost-effective. In determining if it is cost-effective to develop and implement a remedial program, the NYSDEC is required to consider the following four factors:

         (i) the ability of the department to determine, through the exercise of its scientific judgment, whether the elimination of the imminent danger of irreversible or irreparable damage to the environment can be achieved through limited actions;

         (ii) the ability of the department to identify the owner of the site and/or any person responsible for the disposal of hazardous wastes at such site with sufficient financial resources to develop and implement an inactive hazardous waste disposal site remedial program at such site;

         (iii) the nature of the danger to human health and the environment which the actions are designed to address; and

         (iv) the extent to which the actions would reduce such danger to human health or the environment or would otherwise benefit human health or the environment.[emphasis ended]

Based on the record in this case, it appears that NYSDEC made these requisite findings. For example, the agency determined that the interim actions that had been taken had been insufficient to eliminate the risks to human health, the contamination still posed a threat that warranted further action, that CMA 9 would eliminate that threat and that while FMC had sufficient financial resources, it had refused to implement the required cleanup.   Likewise, State Finance Law § 97-b(4) provides that NYSDEC does not have to obtain a voluntary agreement with owners or operators of inactive hazardous waste sites or other responsible parties to pay the costs of necessary remedial actions when it has been determined that condition dangerous to life or health exists.

In so ruling, the court ignored the legislative history of the SSF. The Legislature gave the NYSDEC Commissioner “[b]road powers … to respond to situations which significantly threaten public health or environmental degradation” with State funds (1982 Legis. Ann, at 273). The idea that the NYSDEC would first have to hold a hearing and have the responsible party refuse to implement a remedy before spending money to protect human health is simply contrary to the purpose of the statute. The decision also flies in the face of Allied Princess Bay Co. #2 v. Atochem N. Am., 855 F. Supp. 595 (E.D.N.Y. 1993) where the court ruled that NYSDEC could act to clean up the site itself under ECL § 27-1313(5)(d) if the NYSDC determines it is cost-effective.

Under this decision, NYSDEC might not have been able to respond to the Hoosick Falls crisis earlier this year. Unlike EPA which can issue unilateral administrative orders (UAOs) under section 106 of CERCLA and section 7003 of RCRA, NYSDEC lacks the authority under the SSF to issue UAOs. The principal tool DEC has to respond to human health emergencies involving hazardous wastes is the SSF. The last three paragraphs of the decision are written almost like an afterthought but they have the potential to cripple NYSDEC’s ability to spend money under the SSF.  With rumors leaking from the Trump transition team that the incoming administration is consider eliminating the federal Superfund program, it is more important than ever for the NYSDEC to have the right to use the SSF to respond to hazardous wastes that pose a risk to human health.

NY Court of Appeals Finds PRP Letter Triggers Contractual Indemnification

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

The New York State Court of Appeals held that a PRP letter issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) was sufficient to trigger an indemnity obligation under a purchase and sale agreement. While lower courts have found PRP letters to constitute “suits” within the meaning of  a Comprehensive General Liability policy so as to trigger a duty to defend, this is the first time the a PRP letter has been interpreted within the context of a private indemnity agreement.

In Remet Corp. v. Estate of Pyne, 26 N.Y.3d 58 (N.Y. 2015), James R. Pyne sold all of his stock in Remet Corporation (Remet) and real property to Burmah Castro Holding (BCH) for approximately roughly $28 million. During pre-acquisition due diligence, BCH learned that a leased facility in Utica was located adjacent to the Old Erie Canal site, a parcel that was listed on the New York State List of Inactive Hazardous Waste Sites. BCH became concerned that Remet could become responsible for the remediating the Old Erie Canal site which BCH’s consultant estimated could cost as much as $29MM.  After BCH proposed excluding the site from the transaction, Pyne agreed to provide a ten-year indemnity to BCH for losses related to pre-existing environmental conditions provided that the losses resulted from actions that the purchaser was “required to take under or in connection with any Environmental Law.” The indemnity also contained a “muzzle” clause that provided that such required actions could not be a result of  communication by BCH with NYSDEC.  A $2.7 million environmental escrow account was established.

In October 2002, the NYSDEC sent Remet and four other parties a notice letter identifying them as a generator PRPs for the Old Erie Canal site.  The notice letter provided in part that if the PRPs did not enter into a signed Consent Order within 30 days, NYSDEC would terminate discussions and implement a remedy using the state superfund. The letter warned that NYSDEC would seek cost recovery for its costs and that the letter constituted a demand for payment of all monies the NYSDEC might expend for the investigation and remediation of this site, plus any and all interest.

Remet tendered an indemnification claim to Pyne in accordance with the indemnification procedures under the purchase and sale agreement (PSA). Pyne declined to assume control of the defense but cooperated with Remet in implementing the company’s initial response to the PRP letter. Remet, three other PRPs, and Mr. Pyne investigated the Old Erie Canal site and prepared a report with Pyne and Remet splitting 25% of the costs. In discussions with NYSDEC, Remet and Pyne argued that Remet should not be considered a PRP because Remet did not generate any waste stream from its processes and the chemicals it used did not match the contaminants identified at the Old Eric Canal site. The NYSDEC negotiations were unsuccessful. Pyne died in March 2003. Later that year, Remet’s management team acquired all of Remet’s stock and the Pyne estate agreed to assume the Pyne’s indemnification obligations under the PSA.

NYSDEC subsequently issued a letter indicating that since none of the PRPs had agreed to perform any work, the agency would use state funds to complete the investigation and implement the remedy.  Eventually, NYSDEC selected a remedy estimated to cost $12.5MM

With its indemnification claim still pending, Remet filed a claim against the Pyne estate in the Surrogate Court seeking to bar distributions from the estate until the indemnification claim was resolved. The Pyne estate objected to any release of funds from the escrow account to cover the approximately $550K demanded by NYSDEC for a portion of the work and instructed Remet that any unilateral contact with the NYSDEC would constitute a waiver of any right to indemnification under the PSA.

Remet then commenced an action against the Pyne estate to enforce the estate’s indemnification obligations of $550K as well as a declaration that it was entitled to reimbursement for all future costs. The trial court granted summary judgment to Remet, holding that Remet would have to expend money since it would either have to respond to the PRP letter or defend a NYSDEC cost recovery action. The court also noted that Pyne’s cooperation following the PRP Letter was inconsistent with the estate’s position that the PRP letter did not “require” action. The estate appealed and the appellate court reversed, ruling that the DEC did not “require” any action but merely informed Remet of its potential liability and sought voluntary action.

Before the Court of Appeals, Remet relied heavily on a line of insurance cases holding involving that PRP letters were “suits” within the meaning of Comprehensive General Liability policies that triggered an insurer’s duty to defend. Remet analogized that if a PRP letter was coercive and adversarial enough to constitute a “suit,” it is coercive and adversarial enough to “require” responsive action. Moreover, Remet argued that if the appellate decision was affirmed, “every business insured under a liability policy that provides coverage for defense of environmental claims will have an incentive to resist cooperating with DEC upon receipt of a PRP letter, until there has been a final determination of liability.”

The estate argued that the NYSDEC letter simply indicated that Remet was a PRP and that it had no indemnification obligation under the PSA until a court actually held that Remet was found to actually be a  responsible party. The estate pointed out that the NYSDEC never categorized or ever asserted that Remet was anything other than a PRP. Indeed, the estate emphasized that NYSDEC had not taken any enforcement action against Remet or any other of the PRPs.

The Court of Appeals rejected this creative but strained interpretation, holding that the PRP letter was sufficiently coercive and adversarial as to “require” action ” under Environmental Law as provided under the PSA. The court noted that the PRP letter, which was labeled “Urgent Legal Matter,” demanded either a consent order or payment. It further indicated that a prompt reply was “necessary” and set forth imminent legal and financial consequences that would occur if Remet refused to act. Thus, even though Remet was labeled a “potentially responsible party,” it responses to the letter were coerced and  not voluntary. The court also found persuasive the circumstances surrounding the execution of the indemnification clause and the funding of the environmental escrow account as evidence that the parties were aware of the potential for substantial expenses relating to the Erie Canal Site, and that Pyne’s cooperation after receipt of the PRP letter was evidence that Pyne thought action was required action.

Lender that Sold Contaminated Property Agrees to $1.4MM Settlement

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

We have previously reported on instances where banks have incurred cleanup costs in connection with properties they have sold.  For some examples, click here, here, here, here and here

The latest installment of this saga involves Bank of America (BOA) which agreed to pay $1.4MM as part of a settlement involving a dry cleaner property that a BOA predecessor owned decades ago. A federal district court approved the settlement in Whitehurst v. Heinl, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49147 (N.D.Ca. 4/14/15).

In this case, Charlotte A. Heinl (“Heinl”) operated a Norge Cleaners in Oakland, California from approximately 1965 to 1987. Bank of America, National Trust & Savings Association (“NTSA”) owned the property from approximately 1969 to 1987 and had leased it to Heinl. Bank of America became the successor to NT&SA when BankAmerica Corp. merged with NationsBank in 1998. As part of that merger, Bank of America, NTSA, was renamed Bank of America, NA (BOA).

NTSA sold the property to Richard and Lorraine Whitehurst (“Plaintiffs”) in 1987 for $265,000 pursuant to an “as is” agreement. The Plaintiffs had also been provided with a opportunity to investigate the property prior to the closing and had obtained a 120-day extension. The Property had been part of a larger parcel of real property that NTSA subdivided shortly before it sold the property to the Plaintiffs. The remainder of the parcel is still owned by Bank of America, NA and is potentially impacted by the former dry cleaner.

Sampling conducted September 2007 revealed elevated levels of PCE and its breakdown products in the groundwater. After the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, San Francisco Bay Region (“RWQCB”) sent an information request to the Plaintiffs, they filed a complaint against the Heinl and BOA asserting the defendants were liable under RCRA 7002,  CERCLA and various state common laws claims. The plaintiffs sought an order compelling the defendants to remediate the contamination and sought damages because they had been unable to lease or sell the property due to the presence of the contamination. The bank subsequently filed claims against both Whitehurst and Heinl alleging they were responsible for the contamination.

After several court-sponsored mediations failed to achieve a settlement, the parties reached an agreement on the eve of trial. Under the settlement, the parties agreed to establish a $2MM remediation fund. BOA agreed to contribute $1.4K with $200,000 of that amount representing a contribution from the Plaintiffs Whitehurst in the form of an interest free loan. The plaintiffs will be required to repay the loan within 6 months of receipt of a NFA letter from the RWQCB.  The Fireman’s Fund agreed to tender $600K on behalf of Heinl who passed away during the course of the litigation.

The plaintiffs and BOA entered into Fixed Price Remediation Agreement  with a consultant to implement remedial actions required by the RWQCB. BOA is required under the agreement to designate a Project Manager to supervise the cleanup and handle various administrative tasks associated with the cleanup.

A copy of the order approving the settlement is available from Google Scholar here 

 

Do Clients Have To Complete Consultant Questionnaires To Comply With AAI?

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

The short answer is no.

Environmental consultants routinely submit environmental questionnaires to property owners and their clients as part of the phase 1 process. Some consultants tell their clients that they are obligated to complete the questionnaire to be able to comply with EPA’s All Appropriate Inquires (“AAI”) rule. A few go as far as saying they cannot issue a phase 1 report unless the client completes the questionnaire.  However, this is flat out wrong.

EPA’s AAI rule does not require users  to complete the questionnaire. Indeed, the AAI Rule does not even require purchasers, brownfield grantee or lender (collectively the “user”) to provide the results of their “additional inquiries” to the environmental professional much less complete a questionnaire to satisfy with AAI. All the user needs to do is demonstrate that it performed those “additional inquiries” We will now break down the user obligations.

The AAI rule identified what elements of the investigation were the responsibility of the environmental professional and which criteria were the responsibility of the prospective purchaser or brownfield grantee. The information that has to be obtained by the user are known as “additional inquiries” and set forth in 40 C.F.R. 312.22. The “additional inquiries” include: specialized knowledge or experience of the prospective landowner (or grantee); the relationship of the purchase price to the fair market value of the property, if the property was not contaminated; and commonly known or reasonably ascertainable information.

In the preamble summarizing the changes from the proposed rule to the final rule that was published in the November 1, 2005 federal register, EPA stated at page 66076:

“The final rule does not require the prospective landowner (or grantee) to provide the information collected as part of the “additional inquiries” to the environmental professional. Although we expect that most prospective landowners and grantees will furnish available information or knowledge about a property to an environmental professional he or she hired when such information could assist the environmental professional in ascertaining the environmental conditions at a property, we affirm that compliance with the statutory criteria does not require that such information be disclosed. [emphasis added]. 

 Since it ultimately is up to the owner or operator of a property to defend his or herself against any claims to liability, we agree with commenters that asserted that the regulations should not require that prospective landowners (or grantees) provide information collected to comply with the “additional inquiries” provisions to the environmental professional. Should the required information not be provided to the environmental professional, the environmental professional should assess the impact that the lack of such information may have on his or her ability to render an opinion with regard to conditions indicative of releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances on, at, in or to the property. If the lack of information does impact the ability of the environmental professional to render an opinion with regard to the environmental conditions of the property, the environmental professional should note the missing information as a data gap in the written report.” [Emphasis added]

 Beginning on page 66082 of the preamble to the AAI rule in the discussion captioned “H. Who Is Responsible for Conducting the All Appropriate Inquiries?” EPA stated as follows [note we have broken out large block paragraph into smaller paragraphs for ease of reading]:

 “Several commenters asserted that the mandatory nature of the proposed provision requiring the prospective landowner to provide information regarding the four criteria listed above to the environmental professional is problematic. Particularly with regard to the requirement to provide “specialized knowledge or experience of the defendant,” commenters pointed out difficulties in a prospective landowner being able to document such knowledge and experience sufficiently. Also, with regard to the information related to the “relationship of the purchase price to the fair market value of the property, if the property was not contaminated,” many commenters pointed out that prospective landowners may not want to divulge information regarding the price paid for a property. Commenters pointed out that the requirement to consider “commonly known or reasonably ascertainable information” about a property is implicit to all aspects of the all appropriate inquiries requirements. In addition, commenters stated that CERCLA liability lies solely with the owners and operators of a vessel or property. A decision on the part of a prospective landowner to not furnish an environmental professional with certain information related to any of the statutory criteria can only affect the property owner’s ability to claim a liability protection provided under the statute. In addition, the statute does not mandate that information deemed to be the responsibility of the prospective landowner and not part of the “inquiry of the environment professional” be provided to the environmental professional or even be part of the inquiry of the environmental professional. Some of the statutory criteria are inherently the responsibility of the prospective landowner.

We agree with the commenters who asserted that the results and  information related to the criteria identified as being the responsibility of the prospective landowner should not, as a matter of law, have to be provided to the environmental professional. The statute does not mandate that a prospective landowner provide all information to an environmental professional. Given that the burden of potential CERCLA liability ultimately falls upon the property owner or operator, a prospective landowner’s decision not to provide the results of an inquiry or related information to an environmental professional he or she hired to undertake other aspects of the all appropriate inquiries investigation can only affect the liability of the property owner.

In addition, we believe that the environmental professional may be able to develop an opinion with regard to conditions indicative of releases or threatened releases on, at, in, or to a property based upon the results of the criteria identified to be part of the “inquiry of an environmental professional.” Any information not furnished to the environmental professional by the prospective landowner that may affect the environmental professional’s ability to render such an opinion may be identified by the environmental professional as a “data gap.”

The provisions of the final rule (as did the proposed rule) then require that the environmental professional comment on the significance of the data gap or missing information on his or her ability to render such an opinion, in light of all other information collected and all other data sources consulted.

As a result of our consideration of the issues raised by commenters, today’s final rule modifies the requirements of Sec. 312.22 “additional inquiries” by stating (in paragraph (a)) that “persons * * * may provide the information associated with such inquiries [i.e., the information for which the prospective landowner or brownfields grantee is responsible] to the environmental professional * * *.” The proposed rule provided that such information “must be provided” to the environmental professional.” [Emphasis Added]

AAI is a performance-based regulation. Failure to provide the information in 40 CFR 312.22 does not cause a prospective purchaser or party seeking the landowner liability protection to automatically lose its liability protection. The user may lose its ability to claim the protections IF the absence of that information prevents the EP from reaching a conclusion about the presence or absence of RECs or a release.  At the end of the day, the EP has to decide if the failure to respond certain information is a significant data gap that prevents the EP from rendering a conclusion if there is a release (or REC).  

The questionnaire is just the starting point for the due diligence since the environmental consultant will perform its own site inspection and historical records review. It will be a rare occasion when a purchaser or lender will have material information about the property that the consultant will not be able to obtain or that will result in a data gap that will prevent the consultant from determining if there is a recognized environmental condition (REC) on the property. The absence of an uncompleted questionnaire will not be significant in the overwhelming number of transactions where the client is a purchaser or lender. If the consultant still feels obligated to identify failure to prepare the questionnaire as data gap in such a situation, the consultant should be required to indicate that the data gap is not significant and does not alter the conclusions of the report.

Does A Phase 1 Have To Be Issued To The Person Seeking To Comply With AAI?

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

Purchasers who want to be able to assert the CERCLA Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser (BFPP), Innocent Landowner (ILO) or Continuous Property Owner (CPO) landowner liability protections (LLPs) need to conduct a pre-acquisition investigation that complies with EPA’s All Appropriate Inquires (AAI) rule. A question that is surfacing with surprising frequency is if the phase 1 report needs to be issued or assigned to the person seeking to comply with AAI. The short answer is no.

This issue often arises when a local government or local redevelopment agencies conducts a phase 1 using federal or state brownfield funds on property that will be AAIs for a site will be developed by  a private developer. Another example may where a state government agency conducts a phase 1 either for another agency or local government where the local government that does not have access to appropriate staff or capital resources to do the work.

This scenario also occurs in private transactions where an entity that ordered the report is unable to proceed with the transaction. There are many ways this situation can unfold but the more common scenario usually involves the party that originally ordered the phase 1 assigns its rights under a purchase agreement to a related entity (i.e. common principal) who eventually purchases the transaction but failed to ask the consultant to re-issue the report to the purchaser prior to the closing. it failed to obtain a reliance letter from the consultant that prepared the report and is not named in the reliance section of the Phase I report purchaser wants to argue that it satisfied AAI since one of its principals obtained a Phase I pre-purchase, completed the User Questionnaire pre-purchase, and conducted all of the “user” or additional inquires” required by AAI before the purchaser acquired the site. Sometimes the seller ordered the phase 1 to pre-position the property, the deal falls through and the seller provides the phase to a new purchaser. Other times, this situation also occurs because truncated diligence periods or auction sales where purchasers have to rely on materials provided sellers.

Based on the preamble that appeared in the federal register when EPA published the AAI rule, a purchaser may indeed use a report that was not expressly issued to it and does not have a reliance letter from the consultant for purposes of complying with AAI PROVIDED the underlying report satisfies AAI AND the purchaser otherwise complies with the user “additional inquiries”.  We will pull apart these various elements.

In the preamble to the AAI rule, EPA said EPA that:

” all appropriate inquiries investigations may be conducted by or for one party and used by another party. In all cases, the all appropriate inquiries investigation must be updated to include commonly known and reasonably ascertainable information and any relevant specialized knowledge held by the prospective landowner and environmental professional. In addition, the evaluation of the relationship between the purchase price and the fair market value of the property must reflect the current sale of the property. In all other aspects of the investigation, the all appropriate inquiries must be in compliance with the provisions of the final regulation. ” [70 FR 66085 (November 1, 2005)]

The underlying report must also have been complete its environmental site assessment within 180 days prior to the date of acquisition of the property. If the report is older than six months, it must be updated to ensure that the report accurately reflects the current environmental conditions at a property:

  • Interviews with past and present owners, operators, and occupants; 
  • Searches for recorded environmental cleanup liens;
  • Reviews of federal, tribal, state, and local government records; 
  • Visual inspections of the facility and of adjoining properties;  and 
  • The declaration by the environmental professional within one year of taking title to the property.

Finally, EPA cautioned in the preamble that the prospective owner or grantee desiring to use the report prepared for another party cannot wholly adopt the previously conducted AAI but must comply with the following “additional inquiries” that are the responsibility of the user. (70 FR  66084)

  • commonly known and reasonably ascertainable information,
  • relevant specialized knowledge held by the prospective landowner and the environmental professional, and
  • the relationship of the purchase price to the value of the property

To maximize the chances of establish that it complied with AI, the purchaser should document that it complied with the “additional inquiries” in its property file. One way to do this is to complete a questionnaire answering these questions.

Note that the ability to use a report issued for another party for purposes of complying with AAI is a separate and distinct question of whether the party has contractual right to RELY on the report for purposes of breach of contract or malpractice claims.

In general, a contract may be enforced by the parties to the agreement and third parties who are an intended beneficiary of the contract. However, there are often critical non-contracting parties to a transaction such as lenders or landlords who may insist on reviewing the reports. Because most real transactions are financed and the loans are often syndicated or securitized, lenders will often require consultants to extend reliance to broad categories of investors or purchasers of the loans. Those so-called reliance parties would then have standing to bring a breach of contract action subject to the terms and conditions of the underlying agreement. The consultant should identify the parties who may rely on the reports and also place limits on how long those parties may use the information in the reports.

In a professional malpractice action, the question is framed in terms who the consultant owed a duty to and did it breach that duty. This question frequently arises when the consultant is retained by the lender and the borrower/purchaser later wants to file a lawsuit against the consultant for failing to identify contamination. Courts will typically look to contract reliance language in determining who was owed a duty or if it would have been foreseeable to the consultant that such a person who have relied on the phase 1 report.

McDonald’s Labor Case May Have Environmental Law Implications

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Labor rulings have in the past served as precedent for eroding traditional corporate law doctrines and expanding liability of corporations. For example, the doctrine known as either Continuity of Enterprise or Substantial Continuity was used in the 1990s to impose successor liability for environmental contamination originated with a line of labor law cases dating back to the early 1970s (see, e.g.,  William J. Burns International Detective Agency, Inc. v. NLRB, 441 F.2d 911 (2nd Cir. 1971) where a security firm outbid the existing firm providing security services and was required to honor the collective bargaining agreement entered into by the prior firm after hiring most of the former firm’s employees).

Indeed, those of us who were practicing environmental law in the 1980s can recall how the larger corporate law firms initially viewed environmental law as a niche area that was primarily the domain of “tree huggers and critter lovers”-as one cynical corporate once told me. The corporate firms were confident that well-entrenched doctrines of corporate law would shield their clients from significant environmental liability. After the Substantial Continuity test was used override state corporate law and  impose environmental liability on purchasers  of corporate assets, the “white shoe” law firms suddenly  realized they needed environmental lawyers to protect their institutional clients and started scrambling to hire environmental lawyers.

We have taken this path down memory land because of labor ruling earlier this week that may profoundly change corporate relationships. This past Tuesday, the National Relations Labor Board (NRLB) Office of General Counsel issued a decision finding that franchisor McDonalds USA could be liable as a “joint employer” of its approximately 13,000 franchised restaurants in the United States for alleged workplace violations. The employees had asserted that McDonald’s was a “joint employer” with the franchise restaurants  on the grounds that McDonalds required its franchisees to strictly follow its rules on food, cleanliness and employment practices and that McDonald’s often owned the restaurants that franchisees use.

The ruling will now be heard by the five-member NRLB. If the NRLB upholds decision is affirmed and the ruling survives appellate review, it could impact large swaths of the national economy including manufacturers, real estate management firms, hotels, health care, automotive services, and cleaning companies that use temp agencies or subcontractors. It could also possibly impact the environmental consulting firms that heavily relying on independent contractors (“1099s”) to perform phase 1 reports since those individuals might be deemed to be employees that are entitled to benefits.

It should be noted that in the early 1980s, the NLRB ruled that a company could be considered a “joint employer” where two or more employers exerted “significant control” over the same employees. After that ruling was affirmed by an appeals court, though, the NLRB adopted a narrower standard, holding that a company could only be deemed to be a “joint employer” when it directly controlled, for instance, a franchisee’s or a temp agency’s employment practices. The McDonald’s decision suggests that the NLRB may be returning the earlier “significant control” standard.

What are the implications for environmental law? Well, since the inception of state and federal underground storage tank (UST) programs, purchasers of former gas stations and residents with homes impacted by leaking gas station USTs have sought to impose operator liability on Big Oil franchisors because of the control allegedly exercised over their franchisees. The indicia of control frequently asserted by these plaintiffs included that franchisors required the station operators to maintain the premises in a certain manner, keep specific minimum hours and purchase minimum amounts of their products.   Except for a couple of outlier cases where courts found the fuel distributors or “jobbers” essentially acted as agents of the franchisors, these cases have been unsuccessful. The allegations in the McDonald’s case focused on the level of control exerted by the franchisor. It is not a big step from arguing that a company that is liable as a “joint employer” because of the control is exercised over its franchise operations should be liable as an “operator” under state or federal environmental laws.

Likewise, plaintiffs have pursued dry cleaner franchisors and equipment manufacturers under “operator” and arranger” theories. The plaintiffs have asserted that because the manufacturers/franchisors had control over the design of the dry cleaning machines including installing the equipment, chose the locations of the floor drains, physically connecting the discharge piping to the building, inspected the connections to ensure that the waste water was disposed into the sewer system and provided instructions  recommending that the dry cleaners be connected to the sewer system, the manufacturers/franchisors  amounted to either control or actual involvement in decisions about disposal of waste (for example compare Berg v. Popham, 412 F.3d 1122 (9th Cir. 2005) and Vine Street LLC v. Keeling, 361 F. Supp. 2d 600 (E.D. Tex. 2005) with California Department of Toxic Substances Control v. Payless Cleaners, 368 F. Supp. 2d 1069 (E.D. Cal. 2005), Team Enters., LLC v. W. Inv. Real Estate Trust, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79912 (9th Cir. 09/09/2010)). One could envision the reasoning in the McDonald’s case being extended to the dry cleaner franchisor/equipment manufacturer cases at least on the “operator” theory of liability.  

The McDonald’s case may not be the first joint employer case to reach the federal appellate courts, though. The NLRB is currently reviewing a request by the Teamsters union to declare Browning-Ferris, Inc (BFI) as a joint employer along with the staffing agency it uses to supply workers at a recycling plant in California because of how closely BFI directs the use of the staffing agency’s workers. 

It is true that following the US Supreme Court decision in United States v. Bestfoods, 524 U.S. 51, 141 L. Ed. 2d 43, 118 S. Ct. 1876 (1998) where the Court ruled that CERCLA did not replace settled rules of state corporation law that several federal appellate courts over the past decade have ruled that the Substantial Continuity test was only applicable to labor law and should not be used to extend liability under CERCLA ( see New York v. Nat’l Servs. Indus., 352 F.3d 682 (2nd Cir. 2005) ruling that the fact that the substantial continuity test is well-established in the context of federal labor law does not indicate that it is extendable to other areas of federal common law, it was  not a part of general federal common law and should not be used to determine whether a corporation takes on CERCLA liability) .  Thus, it is possible that federal courts may decline to apply the reasoning of the “joint employer” cases to CERCLA operator liability. However, the doctrine may be a useful tool for  creative lawyers who will likely be presenting their cases before federal judges appointed over the last eight years-at least on the district court level-  and therefore be more receptive to these arguments.

OER Grants Available for Petroleum Assessments But Need to Move Quickly

Friday, July 18th, 2014

The NYC Office of Environmental Remediation just announced that it has a little over $100K to award for petroleum assessments this summer. The source  of the grant money is the brownfield revolving loan fund that was awarded by EPA to OER under section 104(k) of CERCLA. The federally-funded grant may be used for phase 1 or phase 2 investigations. There is no requirement that  the applicant enroll in the OER voluntary cleanup program (VCP) to receive  the federally funded assessment.

OER hopes the money will be used to fund assessments at former gas station sites or other sites impacted by petroleum USTs that will be redeveloped for affordable housing. However, the funding is no  specifically limited  to affordable housing projects.

Because the petroleum assessments will be  federally-funded, there are fairly stringent  eligibility requirements. First, the current owner of the property and immediate prior owner of parcel cannot have caused or be responsible for the petroleum contamination. However, if the immediate prior owner was responsible for the spill, the applicant could be still apply for the grant if the applicant can show that the immediate prior owner is insolvent at the time of the application. In addition, the property could not have been previously owned by the City.

Second, the applicant will also have to have performed an all appropriate inquiry at the eligible site.

Third, the  work (phase I or Phase II) must be performed by one of OER’s retainer contractors and not by a site owner’s or a developer’s environmental consultant.  

Finally, the work itself must be completed by Sept 30. What this means, given the time required for EPA approval of a Phase II workplan and QAAP, the work needs to be done very fast to have field work and lab analysis completed by Sept 30.