Recent Third Circuit Decisions Help Define Contours of CERCLA Liability Banner Image

Environmental Law

In a state noted for its strict and pace-setting environmental laws, Riker Danzig’s Environmental Law Group is among...

Recent Third Circuit Decisions Help Define Contours of CERCLA Liability

May 15, 2019

The United
States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently handed down two
noteworthy decisions on environmental liability under the Comprehensive
Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”). One involves
the appropriate methodology for allocation of cleanup costs between two
responsible parties based on equitable factors; the other involves whether a
new owner of contaminated property is responsible for governmental response
costs incurred prior to its purchase of the relevant property. Both set new
precedent that should be of interest to the regulated community.

Equitable Allocation Methodology

In a relatively rare occurrence, the Third Circuit issued an
opinion on allocation of environmental liability between successive landowners
pursuant to CERCLA, and, even more surprising, the Third Circuit rejected the
allocation methodology used by the District Court. Trinity Industries, Inc.
v. Greenlease Holding Co.
, 903 F.3d 333 (3d Cir. 2018). The Third Circuit’s
decision provides important guidance on the proper methodologies for equitable
cost allocation. According to the decision, while precise calculations are not
required, allocation methodology cannot be speculative. Further, the Third
Circuit’s decision disfavors a strict volumetric approach to allocation except
in straightforward cases where, for example, there is only one contaminant
being addressed using one remedial technique.

Trinity Industries, Inc. (“Trinity”) brought a contribution action
against the prior owner and operator of a railcar manufacturing plant,
Greenlease Holding Co. (“Greenlease”), for approximately $9,000,000 in
remediation costs Trinity incurred at the property. Both parties used the
parcel for painting railcars with lead paint and other toxic chemicals. Greenlease
owned and operated the parcel from 1910 until 1986, when Trinity purchased the
parcel. Trinity operated until 2000.

After a bench trial regarding the equitable allocation of
remediation costs, the District Court rejected both parties’ asserted allocations
(Trinity’s expert allocated 99% of the costs to Greenlease and Greenlease’s
expert allocated 88% to Trinity) and conducted its own analysis. The District
Court devised a formula to attribute the remediation costs by multiplying the
percentage of responsibility allocated to each party by either the square
footage or cubic yardage for each remediation activity undertaken at 45
different “impact areas.” The District Court then added the results and divided
by the total square footage or cubic yardage for all remediation activities to
find that Greenlease’s overall cost allocation percentage was 83%. The District
Court then reduced this number relying on three equitable factors: 1) that
Trinity did not account for a subsequent purchaser’s actions, which allegedly
caused contamination; 2) that, in their contract of sale, Trinity and
Greenlease intended to shift some liability to Trinity; and 3) that remediation
increased the value of the property. As a result, the District Court reduced
Greenlease’s liability to 62% of the remediation costs. Both parties appealed.

Finding the District Court’s methodology “arbitrary” and
“speculative,” the Third Circuit found the District Court abused its discretion
in allocating responsibility based upon the quantities of contaminants in each
impact area without regard for the actual costs each party was responsible for
causing. Failing to account for the costs associated with different remedial
activities employed (e.g., placing asphalt caps vs. placing topsoil) or
different contaminants at issue “leads to an allocation that is inequitable
because it is divorced from the record evidence and analytically unsound.”
Compounding the initial error, when determining the quantities of contamination
attributable to each party, the District Court erroneously treated square feet
(units of area) as equivalent to cubic yards (units of volume). Rather, under
the Third Circuit’s guidance an appropriate methodology should use volumetric
and cost data specific to each remediation activity to determine how much of
that activity each party is responsible for. Once a determination is made for
each remediation activity, the respective shares can be added together to
calculate an overall percentage.

While the Third Circuit has not adopted a standard allocation
methodology appropriate for all facts and circumstances, its decision provides
sound considerations and guideposts for parties who will be putting forth
allocation arguments in their own cases.

Owner Liability for Pre-Ownership Response Costs

In a second recent decision, the Third Circuit again overturned
the District Court in determining the costs a current owner is liable for under
CERCLA. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection v. Trainer
Custom Chemical, LLC
, 906 F.3d 85 (3d Cir. 2018). Trainer Custom Chemical,
LLC (“Trainer”) purchased a former chemical manufacturing site at a tax sale
for $20,000. The property, however, had been contaminated and, while the
remedial action was essentially complete at the time Trainer purchased the
property, the prior owner had defaulted on its environmental obligations,
causing the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“PADEP”) to
have spent over $800,000 in remediation costs at the property prior to the tax
sale. After the transfer of the property, Trainer was alleged to have caused
new contamination at the property, again requiring the PADEP to incur costs.
PADEP sued Trainer seeking recovery of all of its pre- and post-acquisition
remediation costs.

The District Court drew a temporal line and ruled that Trainer was
only liable for response costs PADEP incurred after Trainer became the owner of
the property. In reaching its holding, the District Court relied on a Ninth
Circuit decision that found that whether a party is an “owner” under Section
107 of CERCLA is measured at the time of cleanup. The Third Circuit, however,
looked to the statutory language of CERCLA that holds a current property owner
liable for “all costs” incurred to remediate property. Accordingly, the Third
Circuit found that CERCLA does not draw a temporal line and that “all costs”
means “all” costs regardless of the timing of property ownership.

This decision highlights the need for pre-acquisition due
diligence not only to determine the potential responsibility to remediate
contamination caused by prior owners, but also whether the government has
unreimbursed costs for which a new owner may become responsible. Further, while
Trainer did not assert the innocent or bona fide purchaser defense, these
defenses as well as divisibility and apportionment may limit a current owner’s
liability for “all costs” including pre-acquisition response costs. 

For more information, please contact the author Alexa Richman-La Londe at or any attorney in our Environmental Practice Group.

Our Team

Alexa Richman-La Londe

Alexa Richman-La Londe

Get Our Latest Insights