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Federal Court Addresses Definition of “Owner” in RCRA

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State and federal liability for underground storage tank (UST) spills can be a complicated matter, often arising years after any of the current parties or successors-in-interest had anything to do with the original UST. A federal court recently addressed whether the owner of an old UST that was removed decades ago can still be held liable under federal remediation laws for later contamination. Continue reading to learn about the case and the court’s opinion. Call a certified underground storage tank (UST) remediation and removal professional at Herbert Lutz & Co. if you need assistance with a damaged or contaminated UST in New Jersey or Florida.

Past UST Owners Can be Held Liable for Present Contamination

The case titled Union Pacific Railroad Company v. Hill concerns a railroad’s suit under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”) to recover compensation for cleanup-related costs arising from a former lessee’s UST spill. The plaintiff owns a piece of property in San Jose, California, which it previously leased to companies operated by the defendants. The defendant’s activities included the use of a UST; the plaintiffs allege the defendants improperly used and maintained these tanks.

The San Jose Fire Department identified an unearthed UST on the property that presented an explosion hazard and informed the defendants of their obligation to remove the tank. The tank was removed, although the details of how are unclear, and no soil samples were collected. Ultimately, due to the defendants’ actions, the property was contaminated with a number of pollutants. The plaintiff later sued seeking cost recovery under RCRA. RCRA allows for liability against “all owners and operators of a UST system.” The federal court’s recent opinion addresses the definition of “owner” for the purposes of RCRA, as well as whether voluntary participation in a self-funded state remediation program precludes a defendant from being concurrently sued under the RCRA statute.

The defendants argued that they are not the current “owners or operators” of the property and thus are not “in violation of” the UST requirements, specifically because they removed the UST and abandoned the property in 1984. The court summarily rejected this argument. The defendants were owners of the UST at the times the UST was present and removed, and the defendants have a continuing remediation obligation under the UST regulations in RCRA due to the alleged leak. Regardless of whether they are “currently” owners of the property, they had and have a continued obligation to remediate a leak from the UST spill, and they are in violation of those obligations.

The court also found that the defendant’s voluntary participation in a self-funded remediation program did not preclude RCRA liability. The court found the defendants’ conduct may still constitute an “imminent and substantial endangerment” caused by the UST, even if they are undertaking remediation efforts. While the plaintiff must still prove liability under the statute, the defendants’ remediation efforts are not sufficient to have the case dismissed entirely.

Call the Qualified and Thorough UST Remediation Pros at Lutz for Your Underground Storage Tank Issues

If you discover a UST at your construction worksite or if you have to respond to a UST spill on your property, you need trustworthy help from seasoned advisors with years of underground storage tank experience. For dedicated, thorough assistance dealing with a UST on your property, call Herbert Lutz & Company in Florida at 954-971-5222, or in New Jersey at 908-862-8888.

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