On February 12, 2018, the Trump Administration released its much-anticipated Infrastructure Plan. While the bulk of the more than 50-page document proposes a wide array of funding and reforms for various infrastructure programs, as well as ways to streamline and fast-track permitting for infrastructure projects, it also proposes changes to Brownfield redevelopment programs, including the federal Superfund law (CERLCA).  The plan seeks to incentivize the redevelopment of contaminated properties and address related legal and financial risks.

The proposed changes include allowing National Priorities List sites to be eligible for Brownfield revolving loan fund and grant programs, clarifying and expanding the liability protections for state and local governments that acquire contaminated properties through tax foreclosures and the like, expanding EPA’s authority to enter into administrative agreements with brownfield developers, and eliminating restrictions on funding for infrastructure projects that could be integrated with a remediation.  This would mean even more change at EPA, which has been busy implementing the Superfund Task Force Recommendations released last year.

 

 

New Jersey’s new governor signed an executive order yesterday directing his acting Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, Catherine McCabe, and Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso to begin negotiations with current state members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to re-enter the program.  This order reverses former Governor Chris Christie’s 2011 action to withdraw New Jersey from the program.

RGGI, established almost 10 years ago in 2009, is the first mandatory market-based program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  At Governor Murphy’s direction, New Jersey will rejoin the cooperative effort among fellow northeastern states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont to cap and reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector.

What does that mean?  From the 30,000 foot view, it means fossil-fuel-fired electric power generators with a capacity of 25 megawatts or greater would be required to hold allowances equal to their CO2 emissions over a three-year control period.  The power plants can use allowances issued by any of the participating states, and can buy them at regional auctions or in secondary markets.  The regional cap on total CO2 emissions ratchets down 2.5% each year until 2020, theoretically relying on the regional market to drive prices and efficiencies.  Proceeds from the auctions are used to fund renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

In the weeds, it means the Department of Environmental Protection drafting new regulations (presumably using RGGI’s Model Rules), participation in a complex and well-developed compliance and tracking system as well as the auctions and secondary markets, passing along costs and savings to consumers, periodic reviews and adjustments, entering cooperative memorandums, and more.  It may also mean more opportunities to promote solar, wind, and other renewable projects.

Overall, RGGI has been seen as a success, reportedly reducing power sector carbon emissions as much as 40% since 2005, while member state economies continued to grow.  There are, however, many ways to interpret the different data and forecast future impacts.  Nonetheless, New Jersey is on the path back to RGGI and we will be on the lookout for the implications, costs, and opportunities.  We are also keeping an eye on state legislation directing New Jersey to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, which Governor Murphy is expected to approve if it hits his desk.  The governor may also bypass the legislature and use the executive order route.  The U.S. Climate Alliance doesn’t come along with the same compliance commitments as RGGI, but it is another example of ramped up state- and regional-level actions to address climate change in reaction to the reduction in federal action.  The U.S. Climate Alliance was formed in direct response to President Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.

 

Earlier this week, the New Jersey Supreme Court clarified in NL Industries, Inc. v. State of New Jersey, (A-44-15) (March 27, 2017), that the State of New Jersey retains its sovereign immunity under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act (Spill Act), N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.11 to 23.24, for discharges of hazardous substances that occurred prior to the 1977 enactment of that law.

In a Spill Act contribution claim against the State and several private parties for the costs to remediate parts of the Raritan Bay impacted by contaminated slag used in the early-1970s to construct a seawall, NL Industries alleged that the State was a liable “person” under the Spill Act and subject to a private party contribution claim.  The State had approved the construction of the seawall and the disposal of the contaminated slag in the Raritan Bay.

When the Spill Act was adopted in 1977, it created a Spill Fund to pay for the clean-up of hazardous substances discharged by “any person” after the law was enacted.  The Spill Act defined “person” to include the State.  In 1979, the Legislature amended the Spill Act to allow the State, but not private parties, to use the Spill Fund to remediate discharges that occurred prior to the enactment of the Spill Act.  In 1991, the Spill Act was amended again, imposing strict liability on any responsible “person” for cleanup costs “no matter by whom incurred,” and allowing private party contribution claims to recover costs from any such “person,” including for pre-Spill Act discharges.  NL Industries argued that these amendments worked together to allow private party contribution claims against the State for pre-Spill Act discharges.  NL Industries also agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the State’s sovereign immunity for pre-Spill Act discharges was waived based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Department of Environmental Protection v. Ventron Corp., 94 N.J. 473 (1983), which applied Spill Act liability retroactively for pre-Spill Act discharges.

The Court rejected NL Industries’ argument and the trial court’s reliance on Ventron.  The Court began its analysis by affirming that the State’s sovereign immunity can be waived only by a clear and unambiguous expression of legislative intent.  While the Court acknowledged that it may be possible to construe the language of the 1991 amendments to the Spill Act to allow for contribution claims against the State for pre-Spill Act discharges, the Court explained that this was not enough.  Neither the 1991 amendments, nor any other provision of the Spill Act, contained the deliberate, clear and unambiguous expression by the Legislature required to strip the State of its sovereign immunity for pre-Spill Act discharges.  The Court also clarified that the retroactive application of the Spill Act in Ventron applied narrowly to only pre-Spill Act discharges that the State remediated with Spill Fund monies and sought reimbursement for from private parties, leaving the State’s sovereign immunity protection from liability for its own pre-Spill Act discharges in place.

Justice Albin, in his dissent from the Court’s majority opinion, wrote that the Court’s interpretation of the Spill Act “leads to the absurd result” of a private party being held on the hook for the entire cost to clean-up a pre-Spill Act discharge even when the State and the private party are both jointly responsible.  Given that discharges of hazardous substances can occur decades before contamination is discovered and that the State can easily be one of many, if not the primary, “person” responsible for pre-1977 discharges, it is worth watching how the Court’s decision impacts a private party’s remediation at such sites now that the State is immune from contributing to the cleanup of pre-Spill Act discharges.

Last week, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) announced a new Response Action Outcome (RAO) Notice, which allows Licensed Site Remediation Professionals (LSRPs) to issue an RAO for a site with contaminated sediment that migrated from an off-site source.  The new notice, entitled “Sediment Contamination From an Off-Site Source Not Remediated – General,” is the most recent addition to the growing list of RAO notices.

The notice can be used after a Preliminary Assessment and Site Investigation (PA/SI) confirms that the source of the sediment contamination is off-site and not related to the site being evaluated.  The off-site source must be reported to NJDEP and the resultant new incident number included in the Notice.  Furthermore, the LSRP can identify an existing NJDEP case if it is known to be the off-site source and is currently undergoing investigation or remediation.

Given that it is well-established law that you are not responsible for contamination coming from offsite, the primary purpose of this action appears to be to streamline the RAO process.  So, this is another tool in the LSRP toolbox for the often complicated sediment cases, which continue to garner regulator’s attention here in New Jersey and nationwide.

Read more on sediment contamination in these discussions:

JOIN THE CLUB: EPA Sizing Up Hackensack River for Superfund Listing

WE ARE JUST GETTING STARTED: EPA Issues Much Anticipated Cleanup Plan for the Lower 8.3 Miles of the Lower Passaic River

 

The New Jersey Appellate Court recently upheld a spoliation claim against a plaintiff company that sued prior owners for violations of New Jersey’s Spill Compensation and Control Act and common law claims of nuisance and negligence.

In 18-01 Pollit Drive v. Engel, Docket No. A-4833-13T3, the new owner of a former printing facility site discovered contamination during redevelopment activities and filed a contribution suit against several former owners for investigation and remediation costs.  The owner’s expert concluded that contamination under the building came from an acid dilution sump pit and sewer piping under the concrete slab floor.  To demonstrate the timing and source of the discharges of contamination, the owner’s expert relied on photos of the pipe, the sump pit and concrete floor, samples of piping from another location on the site, and data derived from sludge in the sump pit and soil from under the sump, all of which had been excavated and discarded before defendants’ experts could examine them.  Defendants argued that their experts needed to examine the original pipe, sump pit and concrete floor and filed motions to dismiss the action on spoliation grounds.

A “spoliation claim arises when a party in a civil action has hidden, destroyed, or lost relevant evidence and thereby impaired another party’s ability to prosecute or defend the action.”  Plaintiff argued that it was not required to save the pipe because it did not intend to bring suit at the time it was discarded.  The Court disagreed, stating that “the obligation to preserve evidence is not triggered by the spoliator’s intent to bring suit but rather it arises when litigation is probable.”  Noting that plaintiff was a sophisticated investor that knew the site was contaminated, had access to remediation experts and knew about an ongoing cleanup at a nearby Superfund site, the Court held that plaintiff should have anticipated that it could become involved in litigation in some capacity regarding the contamination and therefore had a legal duty to preserve the original pipe.  The Court also affirmed that plaintiff had a duty to preserve the sump and concrete floor materials.

The Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint and remanded the case for consideration of whether a lesser sanction could have cured the prejudice created by the spoliation.

As this decision illustrates, failing to preserve evidence in an environmental case can have serious consequences, including dismissal.