Despite its limitations, most commercial and industrial property transactions rely on the Bona Fide Purchaser Defense (BFPD) to CERCLA as the principal means of protecting new owners from environmental liability. While EPA has adopted the “All Appropriate Inquiry” (AAI Rule) to provide some clarity to the steps necessary to qualify for the defense, there is still aspects of the AAI Rule that are open to interpretation. Therefore, court rulings on applicability of the BFPD can be very instructive to practitioners, developers and property owners.
There have been very few court rulings interpreting application of the BFPD to CERCLA liability. The most notable prior ruling, PCS Nitrogen Inc. v. Ashley II of Charleston, limited the BFPD based on the defendant’s failure to establish certain required elements of the defense.
In a decision issued last month, Von Duprin LLC v. Moran Elec. Serv., Inc., No. 116CV01942TWPDML, 2019 WL 535752 (S.D. Ind. Feb. 11, 2019), the Indiana Federal District Court granted the BFPD even though the party asserting the defense did not obtain a Phase I prior to purchasing the property. The Court’s ruling is notable in that EPA’s AAI Rule is mostly focused on the required elements of a Phase I environmental assessment to qualify for the BFPD. The AAI rule also discusses “reasonable steps” that are needed if the Phase I identifies the possibility of any contamination on the property, which include:
- Stop any continuing release;
- Prevent any threatened future release; and
- Prevent or limit any human, environmental, or natural resource exposure to any previously released hazardous substance
Plaintiff’s argued Defendants should not qualify for the BFPD because the Defendants failed to perform a Phase I in accordance with AAI prior to acquiring the property. Plaintiff also contended that the Defendants failed to perform necessary “reasonable steps” post-acquisition to address the contamination and, therefore, should not qualify for the BFPD. The Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument regarding the adequacy of Defendants “reasonable steps” stating that Plaintiff’s contention was not “well developed.” The Court also held that the Defendants’ performance of a Phase II was sufficient to establish the defense even without a Phase I stating:
CERCLA makes it clear that performing a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment is sufficient to satisfy the all appropriate inquiries prong of the BFPP defense. 42 U.S.C. § 9601(35)(B)(iv)(II). But the law leaves open to interpretation whether a Phase I assessment is the only way to satisfy that prong, saying that a Phase I assessment “shall satisfy the requirements” of the all appropriate inquiries prong. At least one court has determined that a Phase I assessment is not the exclusive means by which a purchaser of land can make all appropriate inquiries. R.E. Goodson Const. Co., Inc. v. International Paper Co., No. 4:02-4184-RBH, 2006 WL 1677136, at *6 (D.S.C. June 14, 2006). The Goodson court determined that the Senate Report on the amendment adding the “shall satisfy” language to CERCLA read that a Phase I assessment “can satisfy” the “all appropriate inquiries” requirement. Id. That court also noted that “Congress could have provided that a Phase I site assessment was required or was the exclusive procedure to satisfy the ‘all appropriate inquiries’ standard; however, Congress made no such mandate…This Court is inclined to agree with Goodson that Congress did not intend to make a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment the exclusive means by which a purchaser could satisfy the BFPP defense’s all appropriate inquiries standard.
Defendants Phase II assessment included collection of seven soil samples and three groundwater samples. The sampling showed some exceedances of cleanup standards. The Phase II report recommended removal of an underground storage tank (UST) and the associated contaminated soil in accordance with Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) regulations. Defendants did perform the removal and the UST and excavation of the contaminated soil as recommended in the Phase II report. After excavation, the Defendants backfilled the excavation with clean soil.
What is interesting is that with no Phase I performed how could the Court determine that the Phase II scope was adequate? What was the basis of the determination that the UST was the only potential source of contamination on site that warranted sampling? It is possible there was testimony on this issue, but it was not discussed in the opinion.
The ruling is a hopeful sign for the thousands of transactions that rely on the BFPD to address potential liability that the BFPD will be recognized by Courts. However, despite the ruling, it is still strongly recommended that parties wishing to establish the BFPD do not skip the Phase I assessment process as set forth in the EPA AAI Rule. Doing so leaves a new owner open to many different avenues of challenging its assertion of the BFPD. Furthermore, the cost of a Phase I is somewhere between $2,500 to $4,500- a relatively small price to pay for environmental liability protection.