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Crofton Ventures Ltd. Partnership v. G&H Partnership

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20841
Nos. 00-1517, 258 F.3d 292/(4th Cir., 07/24/2001)

The court holds that a district court improperly relieved previous owners of property contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) of any liability under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) for the property's cleanup. After purchasing the property, the current owner discovered a waste dump on the site with 55-gallon drums, most of which contained a mixture of asphalt and TCE. The individual reported his findings to the state environmental agency and, under their supervision, cleaned up the site. The district court found the previous owners not liable for any of the response costs because the current owner failed to establish that the previous owners had placed the TCE on the property. The court first holds that the district court incorrectly interpreted CERCLA's requirements by holding that liability could not attach under CERCLA §107(a) unless the current owner showed that the previous owners placed or dumped TCE on the site, and unless there was evidence linking the TCE used by the previous owners and the TCE buried in drums at the site. These legal assumptions overlooked the strict liability imposed by CERCLA for any owner or operator of land at which hazardous waste is in fact leaking into the environment. The uncontroverted evidence showed that TCE was routinely used at the site beginning in 1979, that a waste mixture of asphalt and TCE was placed in 55-gallon drums at the site, and that TCE was found in the soil and groundwater at the site, thereby easily supporting the liability of the previous owners. Because the district court did not reach other elements of liability and did not address the defendants' affirmative defenses, the court vacates the district court's ruling and remands the case for further proceedings.

A dissenting judge would affirm the district court's judgment in favor of the previous owners.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Holly D. Butler
Piper, Marbury, Rudnick & Wolfe
6225 Smith Ave., Baltimore MD 21209
(410) 580-3000

Counsel for Defendants
Thomas M. Downs
Swidler, Berlin, Shereff & Friedman
3000 K St. NW, Ste. 300, Washington DC 20007
(202) 424-7500

Niemeyer, J. Before Michael, J., dissenting in part and concurring in part, and King, J.