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.