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Northern International Remail and Express Co. v. Robbins

A-4652-08T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

SPILL ACT — The fact that occupants of a property were registered as generators of hazardous waste, by itself, is insufficient to show that there had been “discharge” that would subject a prior property owner to liability under the Spill Act.

A property owner sued a prior owner for damages for the cleanup costs to remediate environmental contamination at the property. The owner claimed that, under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act, N.J.S.A. 58-10:23.11 to - 23.24 (Spill Act) and based on the common law governing strict liability, nuisance, and negligence, the prior owner was liable for the owner’s remediation costs and damages. The lower court dismissed the owner’s common law claims because the owner knew, or should have known about, the potential environmental claims ten years earlier when it purchased the property. The six-year statute of limitations for asserting those claims expired. The lower court also dismissed the owner’s suit under the Spill Act on the grounds that there was no evidence that a “discharge” occurred during the prior owner’s ownership of the property. The owner appealed and the Appellate Division affirmed.

The Court found that under the Spill Act, the prior owner was not responsible for the owner’s cleanup costs because there was no evidence that a discharge of hazardous materials occurred during its ownership of the property. The Court held that the Spill Act imposes liability on any person who has “discharged,” or is in any way responsible for the discharge of, any hazardous substance. Further, under the Spill Act, there is no liability unless there is evidence that a discharge took place during the ownership. In this case, the Court found that while there was a discharge by a prior tenant, the evidence showed that the discharge occurred before the prior owner took title to the property. The tenant in question, who had used the property to store and distribute solvents, moved to another property well before the prior owner took title to the property. Therefore, it could not be argued that the tenant discharged any hazardous substances during the prior owner’s ownership of the property.

The Court also rejected the owner’s claim that there must have been a discharge by later tenants who were listed with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as generators of hazardous waste. The Court noted that during the prior owner’s ownership, the property was subleased to a construction company which was registered with the EPA as a “large quantity generator” of hazardous waste, and that a subsequent tenant was registered with EPA as a “small quantity generator” of hazardous waste. However, it found that without evidence that the waste generated by these tenants contained the contaminants found in the property, there was no basis for inferring that either one discharged the hazardous waste that contaminated the property. The fact that the tenants were registered as generators of hazardous waste, by itself, was insufficient to show that there was a “discharge” that would subject the prior owner to liability under the Spill Act. Further, under the Spill Act, the prior owner was not liable if its only link to the discharge was through the passive migration of pre-existing contamination.


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