Transactions Involving Contaminated Property

Property owners who suffer damages as a result of contamination must be aware of time limitations to recover damages.   A New Jersey appellate court recently upheld the rule that, unlike recovery of cleanup costs in contribution actions under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act, recovery of other damages under tort theories, such as lost sales, lost rental values and the like, remain subject to the six-year statute of limitations.  In 320 Assocs., LLC v. New Jersey Natural Gas Co., (A-1831-16T2) (June 29, 2018), the Appellate Division, upheld a lower court’s decision dismissing Plaintiff’s claims for money damages as untimely.

The owner of commercial property located near a New Jersey Natural Gas property sued the gas company for damages resulting from coal tar that had migrated onto the owner’s property.  The owner asserted common law claims against the gas company for negligence, per se negligence, strict liability, nuisance and trespass.  It sought damages for a lost sale and lost rental value as well as an order mandating the gas company to cleanup up both properties.

The Appellate Division determined that, since Plaintiff discovered the contamination in 2008, the six year statute of limitations barred all but one claim.  Only the nuisance survived for further fact finding because nuisance is considered ongoing so long as the nuisance can be abated.

The case is a reminder that property owners with common law claims need to be aware that, while environmental statutes permit claims for cleanup and cleanup costs without time limitations, other damages are not recoverable if they are asserted after the statutory limitations periods.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 makes it harder to take tax deductions for some payments to governmental entities.  The change may impact settlements between private entities and federal, state and local environmental agencies.  In most cases, it will not affect environmental settlements between private parties.

Section 162(f) of the Tax Code has long prohibited deductions for fines and penalties paid to the government.  The new law makes the tests for deduction of certain payments to a governmental agency more stringent.  The amended Section 162(f) substantially limits the tax deduction available for (1) any settlement or other payments, (2) made to or incurred at the direction of a governmental entity, (3) related to a violation of any law or governmental investigation or inquiry into the potential violation of any law.

There is an exception to this rule, which allows a deduction for the following payments: (1) restitution, including remediation of property; or (2) an amount paid to come into compliance with a violated law or involved in an investigation or inquiry.  To be deductible, the payment has to be expressly identified under a court order or settlement agreement as a restitution or compliance payment.  This exception does not apply to amounts paid “as reimbursement to the government for the costs of any investigation or litigation.”

Under the statute, the limitation applies only to payments made to, or at the direction of, a governmental entity.  A deduction, therefore, remains available for remediation expenses paid to private parties without governmental direction.

Finally, a new provision under Sec. 6050X requires government agencies involved in settlements to report to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) the portions of the settlement payment that are and are not deductible under Section 162(f).

Our tax and environmental groups can advise on the implications of the new law, including factoring into negotiations the potentially higher tax cost of government settlements and ensuring that the settlements reached are well-drafted and as tax-efficient as possible.

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.

 

 

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.