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Quaker State Corp. v. U.S. Coast Guard

ELR Citation: 18 ELR 20826
Nos. No. 87-55 Erie, 681 F. Supp. 280/28 ERC 1078/(W.D. Pa., 03/07/1988)

The court rules that the "owner or operator" under §311(f) of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) is determined by the date of the discharge discovery. The court first holds that the government failed to prove that Quaker State owned the site after the discharges were discovered in 1985. The government did not sufficiently prove that Quaker State paid taxes on the specific site. The court nexts holds that the initial discharge did not occur in 1977 or 1978 when Quaker State still occupied the site. Although the evidence indicates that there had been some discharge prior to the Coast Guard's discovery of the oil, there had been a complete lack of complaints by fishermen who frequented the area during the eight years between Quaker State's abandonment of the site and the discovery of the discharge. Moreover, the Forest Service periodically inspects the area, which lies in a national forest. Also, a nearby pipeline company that had inspected for oil discharge several years earlier found nothing. The government's expert testimony does not establish that the initial discharge occurred during 1977 or 1978 because it lacked data on site's hydrology and geology. The court then rules that an "owner or operator" under FWPCA §311(f)(2) is the specific owner or operator at the time of the discovery of discharge. The FWPCA defines owner or operator in the present tense, which advances the immediate response and cleanup by the controlling owner or operator and provides a readily identifiable party for reimbursement of government-funded cleanup. If the owner or operator during the initial discharge will be held liable, the purpose of the FWPCA would be undermined by uncertainties such as the date of discharge, the potential for litigation, and the fact that the past owner or operator may no longer control the site. Finally, the court holds that the United States may bring a third-party suit against Quaker State under §311(g), without first suing the present owner or operator. In this case it would be a waste of resources to require the government to sue the present owner, the Forest Service.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Kenneth Kilbert, Dean Calland
Babst, Calland, Clements & Zomnir
8th Floor, Two Gateway Ctr., Pittsburgh PA 15222
(412) 394-5400

Counsel for Defendant
Robert L. Hines, Ellen M. Mahan
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2000