In re: Adoption of N.J.A.C. 7:1I Township of Voorhees v. NJDEP

149 N.J. 119, 693 A.2d 97 (1997)
  • Opinion Date: May 15, 1997

MUNICIPALITIES; POLLUTION—A municipality purchased a former sanitary landfill without knowledge of prior illegal dumping. The Court deemed that the Township had never owned or operated the landfill and was eligible for reimbursement from the state funded “Contingency Fund” set up to reimburse claimants for remediation of improperly closed landfills.

In 1997, the Township of Voorhees purchased land on which a sanitary landfill had been operated. The landfill had been closed more than five years prior to the purchase, but when in operation, it had illegally accepted hazardous waste for disposal. In 1982, the state legislature passed the Sanitary Landfill Facility Closure and Contingency Fund Act. The Act imposed joint and several liability on “owners or operators” of sanitary landfills for costs related to the improper operation or closure of those facilities and any damages proximately resulting therefrom. The Act created a Contingency Fund (the “Fund”) for generating revenue from owners or operators of landfills to compensate claims made under the Act for recoupment of remediation expenses. In 1986, the Department of Environmental Protection informed Voorhees that in order for a permit to be issued, the town would have to install monitoring wells around the perimeter to evaluate discharge of contaminants. Although Voorhees knew the site was a former landfill, this was the first notice it had that the landfill might have environmental problems. After Voorhees spent several hundred thousand dollars on remedial measures, it filed a claim with the Fund seeking recoupment of the money it had spent and asserted it had suffered damages because the landfill had been improperly operated and closed. The claim was denied on the grounds that Voorhees was ineligible to recover damages because it was an “owner” of the landfill, and therefore jointly and severally liable for closure costs under the Act. After two separate, conflicting rulings from an Administrative Law Judge, Voorhees appealed to the Appellate Division, which held that Voorhees was not an owner and that its remediation costs should be reimbursed from the Fund. The Court determined that the Fund would then acquire subrogation rights from Voorhees against the former owner of the landfill. The Department of Environmental Protection appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court on the issue of whether the town of Voorhees is liable under the Act as an “owner”, and therefore barred from seeking remediation expenses from the Fund.

The Supreme Court held that since Voorhees never owned or operated the landfill and never took part in any closure activities, it was not liable for cleanup costs and was entitled to reimbursement for the costs from the Fund, including costs of installing and maintaining monitoring wells. Even though Voorhees falls within the literal meaning of “owner”, the Court found the statute to be susceptible of more than one meaning. The Court stated that the legislature intended the Fund to be available to reimburse a current owner or claimant for remediation of improper landfill closure and the Fund would then obtain a claim against the owner or operator of the landfill. The legislature intended liability to rest with those parties that exercised ownership and control over the site while it was a landfill and during its closure.