Pitfalls In Proving CERCLA Divisibility Of Harm

In a stinging decision, the Hon. Lonny R. Suko, a federal district court judge sitting in the Eastern District of Washington, ruled on April 4, 2012, that PRP Teck Cominco Metals, Ltd. failed to prove that contamination at a CERCLA site was divisible and, as a result, will be subject to CERCLA 107 joint and several liability at an upcoming September 2012 bench trial (Pakootas v. Teck Cominco Metals Ltd., E.D. Wash., No. 04-cv-256, 4/4/12).

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the State of Washington as Plaintiff-Intervenor, filed a CERCLA action against Teck, alleging that the company had discharged slag and other hazardous substances into the Upper Columbia River, a Superfund site (the “UCR Site”) from its lead-zinc smelter across the border in British Columbia.

An earlier Ninth Circuit decision in the case discussed how Teck’s smelter had dumped slag waste into the Columbia River, ten miles north of the border, over several decades of operation, which resulted in pollution downstream in the United States. In 2003, the EPA placed the site on the National Priorities List. Thereafter, EPA issued a unilateral administrative cleanup order, which Teck failed to comply with. Initially, a lawsuit seeking enforcement of the order was brought. The State of Washington intervened in the action and amended its initial complaint to seek future CERCLA response costs and declaratory relief seeking natural resource damages.

A settlement between Teck and EPA followed, pursuant to which EPA withdrew the unilateral administrative cleanup order. Because enforcement of the order was then no longer at issue, there were no longer any pending claims by Plaintiffs Pakootas and Michel. Thus, what is at issue in the upcoming trial are the cost recovery and natural resource damages claims of the Tribes and the State.

Against this procedural backdrop, the motions before Judge Suko were the Tribes’ motion to dismiss Teck’s affirmative defense seeking to apportion liability and the State’s motion for partial summary judgment on Teck’s Divisibility Defense. At the outset, the court provided some helpful definitions of the technical CERCLA terms that would be discussed in the Opinion. For example, the judge explained that divisibility/apportionment is not a defense to liability itself. Rather, it is a judicially created defense to joint and several liability. Although “divisibility” and “apportionment” are terms often used interchangeably, what is potentially divisible is the harm, and if the harm is divisible, what it potentially apportions is liability, assuming a reasonable factual basis for apportionment. 

In opposing the motions, Teck argued that, even assuming it was liable under CERCLA, liability should be several, not joint and several, because the harm at issue is divisible. Pursuant to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision inBurlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (“BNSF”) case, liability under CERCLA is generally joint and several unless a defendant meets its burden to prove the harm is divisible and capable of apportionment. Under the Restatement (Second) of Torts §433(A), the universal starting point for divisibility of harm analyses is “when two or more persons acting independently cause a distinct or single harm for which there is a reasonable basis for division according to the contribution of each, each is subject to liability only for the portion of the total harm that he has himself caused.” According to the Eighth Circuit’s decision in U.S. v. Hercules, “evidence supporting divisibility must be concrete and specific.”  

At the outset, it appeared that Teck had some probability of defeating the motions on the strength of an impressive array of expert witnesses. One environmental expert, Mark W. Johns, Ph.D., opined that there was no detectable release of hazardous substances from Teck’s barren slag and no evidence that dissolved metals from liquid effluent releases were located at the site. Using three different methodologies to apportion Teck’s liability for the harm at the UCR Site, Dr. Johns argued persuasively that Teck’s share of liability should be nothing or next to nothing 

Unfortunately for Teck, the court concluded that Teck had failed to present sufficient evidence to support its divisibility argument. Critical to the district court’s decision was its analysis of the term “harm.” Teck argued, based upon its reading of the BNSF decision, that the type of harm subject to apportionment was the alleged contamination from the leaching of metals traceable to the leaching of Teck’s slag and effluent. However, the Court ruled this argument missed the mark. The Ninth Circuit’s definition of harm, relied upon by Teck, was “for the purposes of determining divisibility,” not liability in the first instance, according to the district court. The court held that “the harm is the entirety of the contamination in the UCR site and what the Plaintiffs seek are recovery of costs to investigate and cleanup the entirety of that contamination…” The court continued:

"This contamination is not limited to metals which have been released or which threaten to be released from Teck’s slag and/or liquid effluent deposited in the UCR Site. None of Teck’s apportionment theories address the entirety of the contamination. Instead, they begin with the assumption that the only harm at issue is whatever metals were released from Teck’s slag and/or liquid effluent and the same metals which were released from non-Teck sources. This is a fatal flaw. Because Teck has not addressed the relevant harm in the first instance, it has failed to establish as a matter of law that the relevant harm is a single harm divisible in terms of degree".

In other words, Teck’s fatal flaw was in failing to account for all of the harm at the UCR Site. Because it did not do so, it would not prove that the harm it caused was divisible and thereby capable of apportionment.

For the CERCLA cost recovery practitioner, Pakootas makes for important reading, not only because of its cautionary holding, but because of its detailed analysis of other CERCLA cases, including BNSF, in which cases all of the harm at the respective sites was accounted for in determining that divisibility was possible. In short, Teck failed to consider the full range of environmental consequences at the UCR Site and, subject to post-trial appeal, may pay a steep price .

Can Phase I Reports Hurt Your Client?

In an article titled, “How Phase I Reports Can Hurt Your Clients,” (ALI-ABA Practical Real Estate Lawyer, Vol. 27, No. 6, November 2011), environmental guru Larry Schnapf cautions purchasers of property that an ill-conceived Phase I report may result in their losing CERCLA ability protection or expose them to misrepresentation claims.  The article’s primary concern is that a Phase I report may not necessarily assist a purchaser in establishing a CERCLA:  1) third-party defense; 2) innocent landowner defense; or 3) bona fide prospective purchaser defense, the requirements for each of which are set forth in the statute.

To qualify for CERCLA liability protection, a property owner or operator must, among other things, demonstrate that it investigated the past use and ownership of the property consistent with the requirement of the EPA “All Appropriate Inquiries” (“AAI”) rule and exercised appropriate care with respect to contamination at the property.  In an earlier article, “The New ‘All Appropriate Inquiries’ Rule,” (ALI-ABA Practical Real Estate Lawyer, January 2007), Schnapf observes that ASTM’s standard practice for environmental site assessments (ASTM E1527-00) may be inconsistent with the statutory criteria set forth in Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act of 2002 (the “2002 Brownfields Amendments”) and spurred EPA to develop the AAI rule.  Thereafter, ASTM worked with EPA to revise E1527-00 to ensure that a revised standard would satisfy the requirements of the AAI rule. When EPA issued the final AAI rule, which became effective November 1, 2006, the agency announced that E1527-05 was now consistent with the final rule so that environmental site assessments consistent with the ASTM standard could be considered compliant with the rule.  Do pitfalls remain?

Schnapf cautions that the absence of a “recognized environmental condition” (“REC”) in a Phase I may not guarantee that there is no “business environmental risk” (“BER”).  For example, over the years, some Phase I reports have come to include environmental issues (e.g., asbestos, lead-based paints, radon mold) that do not fall within the definition of an REC because they do not involve releases of hazardous substances, although they could still be of concern to a property owner, tenant or lender. If you’re into fishing, this bass hound 10.2 from Shoppok might interest you, offering a great opportunity to enjoy your favorite pastime on the water.

  In Bank of New York Mellon Trust Company et al. v. Morgan Stanley Mortgage Capital Inc. (MSMCI), 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69168 (S.D.N.Y. June 27, 2011), a New York federal district court denied a motion to dismiss filed by a mortgage originator who was alleged to have failed to adequately disclose environmental conditions at a shopping center.  In that case, a mortgage loan purchase agreement was entered into in connection with a shopping center that had been constructed on a former landfill.  The landlord at the shopping center was required to monitor methane gas and had been subject to a number of violations.  Just before the loan closed, the largest tenant of the shopping center issued a Notice of Default accusing the owner of failing to properly manage the methane gas and alleging that methane gas levels had reached dangerous levels.  Although the landlord’s Phase I discussed the methane issue, the court declined to grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss finding that the purpose of the report was to identify RECs, that the report had not identified any RECs.  The court held that an “item of environmental concern” was not necessarily congruent with an REC.  Accordingly, the court found there was a legitimate dispute as to whether the Phase I had adequately disclosed the existence of a material environmental threat, which resulted in the loss of the primary tenant.

In addition to providing a caution to due diligence counsel concerning the scope of the Phase I, Larry also raises a concern about the practice of some environmental consultants in providing recommendations for further investigation or remediation in the Phase I report.  If such recommendations are made, and the purchaser fails for any reason to promptly implement them, the purchaser’s bona fide prospective purchaser defense arguably may be jeopardized.  Accordingly, the article recommends that any recommendations for further investigation or remediation be provided by the consultant in a separate letter to counsel and not be transmitted to the client directly.

Does Niagara Mohawk Lower The Bar For CERCLA Plaintiffs?

On February 24, 2010, the Second Circuit issued an important CERCLA contribution decision in Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. v. Chevron USA, Inc., 2010 WL 626064. Over the last 100 years, the site at the heart of the decision, the Water Street Site in Troy, New York has, according to the Court, “played host to various industrial activities including a coke plant, a steel manufacturing facility, a manufactured gas plant and a petroleum distribution facility,” all of which uses “led to the release or disposal of toxic substances, many subject to liability under CERCLA.” In its holding, the Second Circuit ruled that a contribution plaintiff need not establish the precise amount of hazardous material discharged or prove with certainty that a PRP defendant discharged the hazardous material to get their CERCLA claims past the summary judgment stage. Has the Second Circuit significantly raised the bar for defendants seeking summary judgment in private cost recovery cases? That is the thesis of Steven G. Jones in an article titled, “Second Circuit Makes Summary Judgment More Difficult to Obtain for Defendants in CERCLA Contribution Actions,” dated March 5, 2010. Jones contends that some CERCLA defendants, faced with a long and complex trial, may be more inclined to resolve their cases in mediation if it is less likely that a CERCLA defendant will be able to obtain dismissal through summary judgment prior to trial. In reversing the federal district court in the North District of New York, the Second Circuit relied on its prior precedent in United States v. Alcan Aluminum Corp., 990 F.2d 711, 721 (2d. Cir. 1993), which decision represented what the court described as a purposeful lowering of the liability to be a PRP and a relaxed CERCLA liability standard. It also cited the Tenth Circuit’s holding in Tosco Corp. v. Koch Indus., Inc., 216 F.3d 886, 892 for the proposition that “CERCLA liability may be inferred from the totality of the circumstances as opposed to direct evidence.” Thus, in my view, Niagara Mohawk is less an expansion of existing CERCLA case law in the Second Circuit as much as it is a rebuke to the trial judge, who arguably did not apply the correct standard in the first instance.