Justia U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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Following two fires at its steel plant, U.S. Steel polluted the air. Because that pollution violated its Clean Air Act permits and regulations, it reported the incidents to the local officials who enforce that Act, the Allegheny County Health Department. The Clean Air Council, an environmental watchdog, sued, arguing that under CERCLA, U.S. Steel should have reported the pollution to the federal government too. CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) exempts from reporting any “federally permitted” emissions, 42 U.S.C. 9603, including emissions “subject to” certain Clean Air Act permits and regulations. The Council argued that “subject to” means “obedient to” so that an emission cannot be “subject to” a permit or regulation that it violates.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. In context, “subject to” means “governed or affected by.” Since U.S. Steel’s emissions were governed by a Clean Air Act permit, that means they were “federally permitted” under CERCLA and exempt from federal reporting. View "Clean Air Council v. United States Steel Corp." on Justia Law

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Brace, a farmer, owns hundreds of acres in Erie County, Pennsylvania. He cleared 30 acres of wetlands, draining it to grow crops. In 1994, the Third Circuit affirmed that Brace had violated the Clean Water Act. In 2012, Brade bought 14 additional acres of wetlands. Again, he engaged in clearing, excavation, and filling without required permits. During a second suit under the Act, Brace’s counsel submitted perfunctory pleadings and failed to cooperate in discovery, repeatedly extending and missing deadlines. Counsel submitted over-length briefs smuggling in extra-record materials. The court repeatedly struck Brace’s materials but generally chose leniency. Eventually, the court struck Brace’s opposition to summary judgment after analyzing the “Poulis factors,” then granted the government summary judgment on liability, holding that Brace had violated the Act. The court ordered Brace to submit a proposed deed restriction and restoration plan.The Third Circuit rejected Brace’s appeal. While “it stretches credulity [to believe that Brace had] no idea how counsel [wa]s conducting this case,” the court gave Brace the benefit of the doubt. Brace’s lawyer’s misconduct forced the government to waste time and money “deciphering incomprehensible pleadings, scouring through noncompliant briefs, and moving again and again for compliance" to no avail. Counsel acted in bad faith; repeated orders to show cause, warnings, and threats of sanctions did not deter counsel’s chronic misbehavior. The sanction “was hardly an abuse of discretion.” View "United States v. Brace" on Justia Law

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In 1948-1981, New Jersey's 65-acre Combe Superfund Site functioned as a municipal landfill. In 1978, Carter purchased the Site. Compaction conducted operations and transported hazardous materials to the Site. In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) added the Site to the National Priorities List. USEPA and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) entered into a cooperative agreement that designates NJDEP as the lead agency to oversee the cleanup. USEPA contributed 90% of the cost of managing and performing the work; NJDEP paid 10%. The agreement expressly “negated and denied” the authority of either party to “attempt to negotiate on behalf of the other.”The United States did not file a claim against Carter in its bankruptcy case. In 1983, USEPA notified Carter and others that they were potentially responsible parties (PRPs) under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9601, for the cleanup costs. In 1991 the Bankruptcy Court approved a settlement between Carter and the NJDEP with respect to the Site. In 1998, the United States and NJDEP sued several PRPs; they entered into a global consent decree with several parties (including Compaction) in 2009 for $62.6 million. Compaction consented to a judgment of $26 million but is not obligated to pay unless its recoveries from CERCLA contribution actions against other PRPs exceeds at least $11 million. Carter was not a party to the Decree or the Judgment.Compaction sought contribution from Carter in 2011. The district court granted Carter summary judgment, reasoning that the NJDEP Settlement protected it from contribution. The Third Circuit reversed. A polluting party’s settlement with a state does not protect it from lawsuits seeking contributions toward expenditures made by the federal government on the same site. View "New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection v. American Thermoplastics Corp" on Justia Law

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Sierra Club sought review of the EPA’s approval of new Pennsylvania National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to govern pollution output at coal-burning power plants, as required by the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. 7408(a). Sierra Club argued that the standards wrongly claim to reduce pollution output at Pennsylvania’s most advanced plants while simply rubber-stamping an average of current pollution output as its supposed new gold standard and criticized the proposal’s minimum temperature threshold—a measure that allows plants to nearly quintuple their pollution output when operating below 600 degrees Fahrenheit—as unsupported and unsupportable given the technical record before the agency. Sierra Club claims that the approved standards lack enforceable reporting regulations.The Third Circuit remanded to the EPA, finding that “the regulatory regime which springs forth from these three defining characteristics is neither supported by adequate facts nor by reasoning found in the administrative record.” Given the EPA’s concession that technological advances may allow for a more environmentally friendly standard than the one approved, reliance on a study that is more than 25 years old is neither a persuasive nor reasonable basis for adopting the standard it approved. The EPA is able neither to offer a reasonable justification for failing to require a stricter standard nor to justify the standard it endorsed. View "Sierra Club v. United States Environmental Protection Agency" on Justia Law

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The Baptistes filed suit on behalf of a class of homeowner-occupants and renters (about 8,400 households) claiming interference with the use and enjoyment of their homes and loss in property value caused by noxious odors and other air contaminants emanating from the 224-acre Bethlehem Landfill. The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal of the suit. While everyone in the community—including visitors, commuters, and residents—may suffer from having to breathe polluted air in public spaces, the Baptistes have identified cumulative harms that are unique to residents, such as the inability to use and enjoy their outdoor spaces. These injuries are above and beyond any injury to the public; the Baptistes sufficiently alleged a “particular damage” to sustain a private claim for public nuisance. They also stated a claim for private nuisance. Pennsylvania law does not reject a private nuisance claim on the ground that the property affected was too far from the source of the alleged nuisance. Nor does Pennsylvania law condition an individual’s right to recover private property damages on a nuisance theory on the size of the nuisance or the number of persons harmed, as opposed to the nature of the rights affected or the degree of the harm suffered. The question remains whether the Baptistes have sufficiently pleaded a cognizable injury to state an independent negligence claim. View "Baptiste v. Bethlehem Landfill Co." on Justia Law

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Wayne challenged the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC)’s authority to regulate its proposed fracking activities. Riverkeeper, an environmental group, was permitted to intervene under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24. Three Pennsylvania State Senators also sought to intervene, on the side of Wayne, in their official capacities. The Senators asserted that the “DRBC is nullifying the General Assembly’s lawmaking power by effectively countermanding the directives of duly enacted laws that permit” fracking-related activities. They did not specify the relief they sought. Riverkeeper contended that the Senators lacked standing to intervene. The district court denied the Senators’ motion without discussing standing, holding that the Senators had failed to establish the conditions necessary for Rule 24(a) intervention of right. The court later granted DRBC’s motion to dismiss. On remand from the Third Circuit, the Senators again sought to intervene, requesting that the court “invalidate the de facto moratorium and enjoin its further enforcement,” as exceeding the DRBC’s scope of authority, or, alternatively, that the DRBC “provide just compensation." The district court denied the motion because the Senators had not shown a “significantly protectable interest in th[e] litigation.”The Third Circuit vacated and remanded, reasoning that the Senators appear to be seeking relief different from that sought by the plaintiff. The district court erred in ruling on the merits of the Rule 24 motion before considering whether the Senators need to establish Article III standing for either of their proposed claims. View "Wayne Land and Mineral Group LLC v. Delaware River Basin Commission" on Justia Law

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Beginning around 1915, NPRC operated a Jersey City chemical plant, turning chromite ore into chromium chemicals for dyeing cloth and tanning leather. The process generated hazardous chemical waste that eventually seeped into the soil and groundwater. During both World Wars, the production of chromium chemicals was regulated. During World War II, the government designated chromium chemicals as “critical” war materials and implemented controls concerning labor conditions, supplies, subsidies, and pricing. In 1944, the Chemicals Bureau officially recommended that producers switch to a quicker, more wasteful process. Government orders did not direct how the ores were to be processed, how the chemicals were to be made, or how waste should be handled. PPG purchased the site in 1954 and processed chromium chemicals there until 1963, using essentially the same processes as NPRC, including stockpiling the waste outdoors. PPG has spent $367 million to remediate the site and other contaminated areas.PPG sued under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9607, seeking recovery and contribution for costs associated with cleanup. After four years of discovery, the district court granted the government summary judgment. The Third Circuit affirmed. Governmental involvement with the plant during the wars did not make it an “operator” liable for the cleanup costs associated with the waste. Governmental actions in relation to the plant were consistent with general wartime influence over the industry and did not extend to control over pollution-related activities. View "PPG Industries Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law

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Cranbury Development bought a long-abandoned weapons-manufacturing facility that the U.S. military and others contaminated. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) ordered the parties responsible for the contamination (Cranbury, Maxxam, and the U.S. Navy) to memorialize their commitment to perform remediation. The Navy refused to take part. In 2005, Cranbury and Maxxam entered into a Consent Order with NJDEP, agreeing to clean up the site; NJDEP agreed not to sue them if they complied. That settlement let Cranbury and Maxxam seek contribution 10 from other polluters (like the Navy) while immunizing them from such claims. In 2006, Brick Yard bought the site, planning to redevelop it into commercial warehouses, and sought to assume Cranbury Development’s cleanup obligations. Brick Yard agreed to join the existing agreement, substituting for Cranbury Development. During the cleanup, problems arose. Brick Yard claims to have spent $50 million in the process. In 2015, Brick Yard sued the federal government, seeking cost recovery and contribution under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9607(a), 9613(f)(1). The Third Circuit affirmed the rejection of the claims. The settlement with the state gave Brick Yard immunity from contribution claims, which extinguished its cost-recovery claim. The contribution claim against the federal government is untimely because Brick Yard sued nine years after joining the settlement. View "Cranbury Brick Yard, LLC v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 2007, the Site, in Trainer Borough, was owned by SCT, and used for making corrosion inhibitors, fuel additives, and oil additives. SCT kept flammable, corrosive, and combustible chemicals. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) determined that “there is a release or threat of release of hazardous substances or contaminants, which presents a substantial danger to human health or the environment. The federal EPA initiated removal actions. SCT could not afford the cleanup expenses, including electricity to power pollution control and security equipment, The power company was going to shut off the Site's electricity, so PADEP assumed responsibility for the bills. Delaware County forced a tax sale. Buyers purchased the Site for $20,000; the purchase agreement stated that the Site had ongoing environmental issues and remediation. Trainer Custom Chemical took title in October 2012. The EPA and PADEP completed their removal actions in December 2012. PADEP had incurred more than $818,000 in costs. The buyers had demolished many of the Site’s structures; reclaimed salvageable materials were sold for $875,000. In 2014, PADEP received reports indicating that hazards still existed at the Site; its buildings had asbestos-containing materials. PADEP sued under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9601-28, and Pennsylvania’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (HSCA), to recover cleanup costs. The Third Circuit held that the Buyer is liable for environmental cleanup costs incurred at the Site both before and after the Buyer acquired it. View "Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection v. Trainer Custom Chemical LLC" on Justia Law

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From 1910 until 1986, Greenlease Holding Co. (“Greenlease”), a subsidiary of the Ampco-Pittsburgh Corporation (“Ampco”), owned a contaminated manufacturing site in Greenville, Pennsylvania. Trinity Industries, Inc. and its wholly-owned subsidiary, Trinity Industries Railcar Co. (collectively, “Trinity”), acquired the site from Greenlease in 1986 and continued to manufacture railcars there until 2000. An investigation by Pennsylvania into Trinity’s waste disposal activities resulted in a criminal prosecution and eventual plea-bargained consent decree which required, in relevant part, that Trinity remediate the contaminated land. That effort cost Trinity nearly $9 million. This appeal arose out of the district court’s determination that, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”), and Pennsylvania’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (“HSCA”), Trinity was entitled to contribution from Greenlease for remediation costs. The parties filed cross-appeals challenging a number of the district court’s rulings, including its ultimate allocation of cleanup costs. The Third Circuit ultimately affirmed the district court on several pre-trial rulings on dispositive motions, vacated the cost allocation determination and remanded for further proceedings. View "Trinity Industries Inc v. Greenlease Holding Co." on Justia Law