Bestfoods Revisited

Margaret Anne Hill, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

Twenty-two years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bestfoods, a government contractor—PPG Industries, Inc. (“PPG”)—comes face to face with one of the most important tenets of that court’s decision: operator liability under Superfund. Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Bestfoods focused on operator liability in the context of a parent and subsidiary relationship, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in PPG Industries, Inc. v. United States of America et al. relied on the Supreme Court’s analysis of operator liability in determining whether the United States should be held liable under CERCLA as an operator in connection with chromium production during World War II. This case serves as a reminder to private industry: you do not have to be physically operating a plant or facility in order to be liable as an “operator” under Superfund. Rather, you can acquire liability by managing, directing, or conducting activities specifically related to operations involving releases or disposal of hazardous substances, or by engaging in decisions regarding compliance with environmental regulations.

As the Third Circuit explained, chromium production was regulated by the government during both world wars given that chromium chemicals were designated as critical war materials for military use. Chromium distribution was controlled pursuant to orders issued during World War II by the Chemicals Bureau of the War Production Board (“Board”), although chromium production—including the processing of ore and management of waste—were not part of the government’s orders. PPG purchased a facility from a former chromium chemical manufacturer (Natural Products Refining Corporation or “NPRC”) in 1954, and continued to process chromium chemicals until 1963. PPG filed a private cost-recovery claim against the government seeking the recovery of CERCLA response costs that it expended ($367 million, to date), as well as contribution for past and future costs.

PPG’s main contention was that Bestfoods did not apply to its case since that ruling did not involve the government as an operator, and that if Bestfoods was applicable, operator liability should be imposed on those parties having “direction” or “general control” over a facility’s activities. The Third Circuit rejected these arguments and, applying Bestfoods’ definition of “operator” to the wartime operations conducted at the PPG facility, observed that although the government controlled certain aspects of chromium distribution, including pricing and quantities of chromite ore that NPRC could buy and to whom NPRC could sell, as well as what orders had priority, the government did not specifically control operations related to pollution. The Third Circuit considered evidence related to the stockpiling of waste outdoors (which caused the contamination) and rejected the proposition that the government was “directing” PPG to produce more wastes merely because of the government’s knowledge that ramping up chromium production would lead to an increased amount of chromium wastes to be managed. The court also noted that no court has said that the test for determining operator liability depends upon whether a potentially responsible party is a private party or a governmental entity, and cited its 1994 decision in FMC Corp. v. United States Department of Commerce (in which the court found the government liable as an operator based on its active involvement and substantial control of the facility). Further, the court noted that the FMC decision (which PPG argued was a similar case) was distinguishable because the government was directly involved with waste production and regulation at the plant.

The court’s decision and analysis in PPG offers some interesting insights to the concept of operator liability under Superfund and, further, provides instructive guidance to private industry on how to avoid CERCLA liability as an operator. Perhaps the most critical “takeaway” from this case is that operator liability depends on the relationship between the potentially responsible party and the waste-producing facility. “Actual control” of a facility is not necessary; the relevant inquiry will be whether an alleged operator exercises control over “operations having to do with the leakage or disposal of hazardous waste, or decisions about compliance with environmental regulations.” Under this analysis, the relationship between the potentially responsible party and the facility—and not the relationship between the potentially responsible party and the owner of the facility—is the focus of the inquiry. The Third Circuit has just reinforced the Supreme Court’s analysis of CERCLA operator liability as first explained in Bestfoods two decades earlier.

The Supremes Weigh in on Superfund and the Clean Water Act

Margaret Anne Hill, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

Notwithstanding that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (more commonly known as “Superfund”) has been around for 40 years, and the fact that numerous cases have made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court analyzing liability under the Act, debates continue as to who can be a Superfund “potentially responsible party” or a “PRP.” For those who still do not get the scope and reach of Superfund liability, the Supreme Court has, once again, provided a clear response with respect to liability under the Act in an April 20, 2020, decision, Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian et al. In that case, the Court reaffirmed its position set forth in a 2007 case, United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U. S. 128, 136 (2007), that even parties whose property has been contaminated by others, and who are innocent with respect to the contamination, fall within the broad definition of liable parties under Section 107(a) of Superfund (which uses the term “covered persons”), subject to the third-party defense set forth in Section 107 (b).

Atlantic Richfield involved a group of 98 property owners who filed claims against Atlantic Richfield in Montana state court in connection with the Anaconda Copper Smelter Superfund Site in Butte, Montana, a 300-square-mile site contaminated with arsenic and lead. The property owners’ claims included trespass, nuisance, and strict liability claims under state common law. The landowners sought restoration damages, among other forms of relief, which was the issue before the Court since Atlantic Richfield conceded that Superfund preserves claims for other types of compensatory damages under state law, including loss of use and enjoyment of property, diminution of value, incidental and consequential damages, and annoyance and discomfort. The property owners sought to implement a remedial restoration plan that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) selected remedial actions. The question regarding their PRP status was before the Court in the context of determining if they were prohibited from taking further remedial action without EPA’s approval under Section 122(e)(6). Continue reading “The Supremes Weigh in on Superfund and the Clean Water Act”

Third Circuit Holds New Property Owner on the Hook for Old Cleanup Costs

David J. Oberly

Is a purchaser of contaminated property on the hook for environmental cleanup costs that take place prior to the time the property was acquired? In Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection v. Trainer Custom Chemical, LLC, No. 1702607 (3d Cir. Oct. 5, 2018), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered this issue—and answered the question in the affirmative, holding that a current owner of real property is liable under both the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”) and Pennsylvania’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (“HSCA”) for all response costs in an environmental cleanup, including those costs incurred prior to the landowner’s purchase of the contaminated property. The Third Circuit’s decision is a noteworthy one—and one that undoubtedly has a significant impact on entities considering the purchase of property where hazardous substances have been released, as such purchasers run the significant risk of being on the hook for the entirety of the cost to remediate the contaminated property, including even those costs that were incurred prior to the time the buyer assumed ownership of the property. Continue reading “Third Circuit Holds New Property Owner on the Hook for Old Cleanup Costs”

Appellate Division Finds Coverage for EPA Claim through Company’s Historic Mergers and Acquisitions, Even Though the Bill of Sale Did Not Specifically Reference the Transfer of Insurance Rights

Kevin R. Doherty

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Appellate Division upheld a decision allowing Cooper Industries LLC (“Cooper”) access to insurance policies received through a series of mergers and acquisitions (“M&As”), even though the transfer of assets language in the relevant bill of sale did not specifically reference the transfer of insurance rights. Cooper was thus afforded liability coverage for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) action seeking substantial cleanup costs.

Cooper’s predecessor, McGraw-Edison Co. (“McGraw”), previously obtained a variety of liability insurance policies from various insurers throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. At issue in the case was whether McGraw’s right to these policies was properly transferred, through a series of corporate transactions, such that Cooper could now access them for the EPA claim. The lower court found the relevant bill of sale language to be ambiguous and relied on deposition testimony from employees to find, among other things, that all assets and liabilities were meant to be transferred, including insurance rights. Insurers appealed. Continue reading “Appellate Division Finds Coverage for EPA Claim through Company’s Historic Mergers and Acquisitions, Even Though the Bill of Sale Did Not Specifically Reference the Transfer of Insurance Rights”

Appellate Division Clears Way for Business Entities to Receive Brownfield Innocent Party Grants When Property Is Transferred among Family Members

Kevin R. Doherty

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently lessened the rigidity by which an innocent purchaser may be eligible for a so-called “Innocent Party Grant” to cover costs associated with the remediation of contaminated property. On September 20, 2017, the Court in Cedar Knolls 2006, LLC v. New Jersey Dep’t of Envtl. Prot.[1] reversed the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (“NJDEP”) attempt to limit Innocent Party Grants to natural persons, and found that an LLC may qualify as a “person” under the Brownfield and Contaminated Site Remediation Act, N.J.S.A. 58:10B-1, et seq. (“Brownfield Act”). Continue reading “Appellate Division Clears Way for Business Entities to Receive Brownfield Innocent Party Grants When Property Is Transferred among Family Members”