Bankruptcy Courts Rules Bank May Not Seek Cost Recovery for Contaminated Site Purchased in Auction Sale

Pete Seeger’s popular song from the 1960s “Where have all the Flowers Gone?” has the haunting recurring lyrics “When will they ever learn”. This song came to mind when we came across another case of a bank taking title to contaminated property without doing any environmental due diligence.

In this case, Suburban Bank and Trust SBT-BB, LLC (SBT”) extended a $4MM loan Boston Blackies Properties IV, LLC (“Boston Blackies”) in October 2006 that was secured by a mortgage on the property located on East Grand Avenue in the Streeterville section of Chicago. Unfortunately, the gourmet hamburger chain embarked on an aggressive expansion plan that was derailed by the Great Recession and had to file for bankruptcy in 2009. (The owners of the chain apparently also had some ethical issues.

SBT foreclosed on the Property in March 2011. SBT did not perform a new phase 1 before taking title and included the October 2006 phase 1 in the Bidder’s Information Package when the property was put up for auction in April 2011. Standard Bank (Standard), the successful bidder also did not conduct a phase 1 report before submitting its bid.

Standard planned to demolish the existing building and construct a new branch office. However, when Standard applied for a building permit, it learned that the property was within the Lindsay Light Streeterville Thorium Monitoring Area (a/k/a as the Moratorium Area) because of the presence of radioactive fill material associated with the former Lindsay Light Chemical Company (“Lindsay Light). Applicants planning to excavate or disturb soils for properties within the Moratorium Area are required to perform soil testing, conduct certain radioactive monitoring and comply with other work practices. Applications for permits which involve work in the Moratorium Area will be held in the City Permit System until the applicant meets with the Department of Public Health (CDPH) and agrees to implement the health and safety work plan that has been established for the Moratorium Area.   Standard performed the required screening and learned the site was contaminated with thorium contamination.

During the early 1900s, Lindsay Light manufactured gas mantles containing radioactive thorium at three locations in an area in downtown Chicago including a location across the street from the restaurant location that Standard purchased. The process of gas mantle manufacturing involves dipping gauze mantle bags into solutions containing thorium nitrate and small amounts of cerium, beryllium and magnesium nitrates. The mesh bags were then placed inside the glass globe of a light fixture.  When heated by the gas flame, the fabric would burn off and the metal mesh would glow.

The thorium processing refining process produced a sand-like waste known as thorium mill tailings, which were used for fill for development projects in the low-lying areas including in utility installations in City-owned street and sidewalk rights-of-way throughout the  Streeterville AreaIn the 1990’s, EPA excavated approximately 40,000 tons of radioactive thorium-contaminated soils that were discovered during property development and utilities installation and maintenance. In 2000, EPA created the Moratorium Area as a form of institutional control in and around Streeterville to impose restrictions and conditions on excavation to limit exposure to the thorium problems created by Lindsay Light plants. 

Six months after learning of the thorium-contaminated soil, Standard retained a law firm to preparing a claim against Tronox, the successor to Lindsay Light. Tronox had itself filed for bankruptcy and a plan for reorganization had that was confirmed in February 2011. The confirmation order established the Tronox Incorporated Tort Claims Trust Agreement (the “Tort Claims Trust”) that assumed the liabilities for all tort claims of Tronox and was to pay holders of allowed tort claims. Because the bar date for filing proofs of claim in the Tronox bankruptcy had been August 12, 2009, Standard filed a motion for leave to file a late claim of approximately $1.5MM. Standard hoped it could be reimbursed by the Tort Claims Trust.

Standard Bank asserted that its failure to file a timely claim was the result of “excusable neglect” because it had no notice from Tronox and acted within a reasonable time. However, in In re: Tronox Incorporated, 2014 Bankr. LEXIS 4678 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 11/7/14), the bankruptcy court found that Standard Bank has not introduced admissible evidence as to the notice provided to Boston Blackies or, equally important, that Boston Blackies was aware of the contamination or Tronox’s chapter 11 case. Moreover, the court said there was nothing in the record that suggested that Tronox knew or should have known that Boston Blackies was a potential creditor based on Tronox’s own records.

In denying the motion to file a late claim, the court said that allowing a purchaser of property after the Bar Date would make finality impossible in any bankruptcy case. Instead, the court said a subsequent purchaser of property can protect itself by obtaining representations and warranties from its predecessor and “may also, of course, obtain an environmental report.”

Standard has also filed a complaint against the firm that prepared the October 2006 phase 1 alleging malpractice and breach of contract. Standard Bank and Trust v The English Company, 2014-L-005825 (Cook Cty Circuit Ct. 6/2/14) . This lawsuit appears to be dead on arrival.

First, the phase 1 contained the following passage discussing the review of the CERCLIS database:

“The Lindsay Light Company, 161 E. Grand Avenue, south adjacent property. This building was one of the former gas mantle manufacturing locations for the Lindsay Light Chemical Company, which refined thorium containing ores and made incandescent gas mantels for home and street lighting. This site is listed as a removal only site with no site assessment work needed, but no further information on the status of this site is provided. Based on the close proximity of this site to the subject property, there is the potential that soils have been impacted.”

Had Standard retain an environmental consultant to perform a phase 1, a transaction screen or even review the October 2006 report prior to submitting its bid, Standard would have learned that the property was likely in the Moratorium Area and that its construction plans might be complicated by the presence of thorium-contaminated soil.

In addition, the report was issued to SBT. By the express terms of the phase 1 report, Standard was not entitled to rely on the report. The complaint does not allege that the consultant knew its report would be included in the Bidder’s Information Package or that the consultant consented to allow bidders rely on its five-year old report.