In a recent decision, U.S. Masters Residential Property (USA) Fund v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection – Financial Services Element, the New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division held that a claimant could not recover from the Spill Fund where contamination on the claimant’s properties was the result of historic fill and defuse anthropogenic pollution (“DAP”), not oil. The claimant owned several contiguous residential properties in Bayonne not far from Upper New York Bay and the Hudson River. During Hurricane Sandy, the properties and the surrounding area were flooded and inaccessible for days. When the floodwaters receded, claimant found staining from what it believed to be petroleum and/or hazardous substances on the interiors and exteriors of its buildings, and detected a petroleum odor emanating from the properties’ yards. Claimant claimed the floodwaters had carried petroleum or other hazardous substances from an offsite source onto its properties.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) disagreed. Soil samples from the properties revealed contamination from historic fill, not oil. Historic fill is contaminant-bearing material used to fill in low lying areas, usually consisting of coal, wood ash, dirt, and the like. Strictly speaking, contaminants found in historic fill are “hazardous substances” under the Spill Act. Further, the regulatory definition of historic fill describes what the “fill” is, but does not state when the fill must be deposited to qualify as “historic.” NJDEP construed the term “historic fill” to mean fill deposited before the Spill Act, or pre-1977. In accordance with its interpretation, NJDEP denied the claim while reserving its right to deny the claim on any other appropriate basis. The claimant sought arbitration.
At the arbitration hearing, NJDEP’s expert in analytical chemistry testified that the soil samples taken from the properties lacked tell-tale signs of oil contamination, chemicals called “aliphatics.” The soil samples also contained arsenic and lead, chemicals not commonly found in oil. NJDEP’s expert ultimately concluded that the soil sample results were indicative of historic fill and DAP, not oil. DAP consists of air pollution particles that fall onto the ground or water and accumulate over time. NJDEP, whose definition of DAP contains no time component, treated the finding of DAP as a per se sign of a pre-Spill Act discharge.
The claimant’s expert described a “petroleum odor” and “bathtub ring” he found at the properties, but offered no opinion regarding the missing aliphatics. The claimant’s expert also relied on news reports indicating that oil had been discharged in the general area of the properties in the course of the storm. Based on the analytical results, the arbitration judge found that Hurricane Sandy had stirred up DAP in local waterways and deposited the same on the properties. Accordingly, the arbitration judge denied the claim.
The Appellate Division affirmed the arbitration judge’s decision. The burden of proof was on the claimant to prove a post-Spill Act discharge, and the claimant had simply failed to make its case. The missing aliphatics, the inability of claimant’s expert to opine on the soil results, and the claimant’s failure to show that Hurricane Sandy had placed oil, not just in the area of, but specifically on the properties, all persuaded the Appellate Division that the arbitration judge’s denial was proper.
A lesson here is, when bringing a Spill Fund claim, claimants should have a good handle on their analytical results, and be sure that their contamination is from a spill, not fill. This is because, apparently, NJDEP has concluded that historic fill and DAP are per se pre-Spill Act discharges for which the Spill Fund is not liable. This is an intriguing position on several grounds. First, neither the definition of historic fill nor DAP have time components. Thus, the Department is taking an implicit leap that, if historic fill and DAP are found, they must be pre-Spill Act historic fill and DAP. Factually, this could be disputed, as, for example, coal, wood ash, dirt, and the like, could very well have been deposited after 1977. Second, NJDEP’s interpretation appears to be a rule of general applicability and continuing effect, meaning that the interpretation should have been promulgated through New Jersey’s rulemaking process. Finally, estoppel theories may apply as well. On the one hand, persons responsible for conducting the remediation are required to address historic fill, and according to NJDEP, should address DAP at their sites. On the other hand, NJDEP is indicating that the Spill Fund is not liable to pay claims for the very same kind of contamination. This asymmetry of treatment may open NJDEP’s interpretation to challenge. So another lesson is, if claimants must bring a Spill Act claim for historic fill and DAP, their claims may not be barred as a matter of law.