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MIDLANTIC NATIONAL BANK v. NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

decided*fn*: January 27, 1986.

MIDLANTIC NATIONAL BANK
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT.

Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., joined. Rehnquist, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Burger, C. J., and White and O'connor, JJ., joined, post, p. 507.

Author: Powell

[ 474 U.S. Page 496]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

These petitions for certiorari, arising out of the same bankruptcy proceeding, present the question whether § 554(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, 11 U. S. C. § 554(a),*fn1 authorizes a trustee in bankruptcy to abandon property in contravention of state laws or regulations that are reasonably designed to protect the public's health or safety.

I

Quanta Resources Corporation (Quanta) processed waste oil at two facilities, one in Long Island City, New York, and

[ 474 U.S. Page 497]

     the other in Edgewater, New Jersey. At the Edgewater facility, Quanta handled the oil pursuant to a temporary operating permit issued by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), respondent in No. 84-801. In June 1981, Midlantic National Bank, petitioner in No. 84-801, provided Quanta with a $600,000 loan secured by Quanta's inventory, accounts receivable, and certain equipment. The same month, NJDEP discovered that Quanta had violated a specific prohibition in its operating permit by accepting more than 400,000 gallons of oil contaminated with PCB, a highly toxic carcinogen. NJDEP ordered Quanta to cease operations at Edgewater, and the two began negotiations concerning the cleanup of the Edgewater site. But on October 6, 1981, before the conclusion of negotiations, Quanta filed a petition for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. The next day, NJDEP issued an administrative order requiring Quanta to clean up the site. Quanta's financial condition remained perilous, however, and the following month, it converted the action to a liquidation proceeding under Chapter 7. Thomas J. O'Neill, petitioner in No. 84-805, was appointed trustee in bankruptcy, and subsequently oversaw abandonment of both facilities.

After Quanta filed for bankruptcy, an investigation of the Long Island City facility revealed that Quanta had accepted and stored there over 70,000 gallons of toxic, PCB-contaminated oil in deteriorating and leaking containers. Since the mortgages on that facility's real property exceeded the property's value, the estimated cost of disposing of the waste oil plainly rendered the property a net burden to the estate. After trying without success to sell the Long Island City property for the benefit of Quanta's creditors, the trustee notified the creditors and the Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey that he intended to abandon the property pursuant to § 554(a). No party to the bankruptcy proceeding disputed the trustee's allegation that the site was "burdensome" and of "inconsequential value to the estate" within the meaning of § 554.

[ 474 U.S. Page 498]

     The City and the State of New York (collectively New York), respondents in No. 84-805, nevertheless objected, contending that abandonment would threaten the public's health and safety, and would violate state and federal environmental law. New York rested its objection on "public policy" considerations reflected in applicable local laws, and on the requirement of 28 U. S. C. § 959(b) that a trustee "manage and operate" the property of the estate "according to the requirements of the valid laws of the State in which such property is situated." New York asked the Bankruptcy Court to order that the assets of the estate be used to bring the facility into compliance with applicable law. After briefing and argument, the court approved the abandonment, noting that "[the] City and State are in a better position in every respect than either the Trustee or debtor's creditors to do what needs to be done to protect the public against the dangers posed by the PCB-contaminated facility." The District Court for the District of New Jersey affirmed, and New York appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Upon abandonment, the trustee removed the 24-hour guard service and shut down the fire-suppression system. It became necessary for New York to decontaminate the facility, with the exception of the polluted subsoil, at a cost of about $2.5 million.*fn2

On April 23, 1983, shortly after the District Court had approved abandonment of the New York site, the trustee gave notice of his intention to abandon the personal property at the Edgewater site, consisting principally of the contaminated oil. The Bankruptcy Court approved the abandonment on May 20, over NJDEP's objection that the estate had

[ 474 U.S. Page 499]

     sufficient funds to protect the public from the dangers posed by the hazardous waste.*fn3

Because the abandonments of the New Jersey and New York facilities presented identical issues, the parties in the New Jersey litigation consented to NJDEP's taking a direct appeal from the Bankruptcy Court to the Court of Appeals pursuant to § 405(c)(1)(B) of the Bankruptcy Act of 1978.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed. In re Quanta Resources Corp., 739 F.2d 912 (1984); In re Quanta Resources Corp., 739 F.2d 927 (1984). Although the court found little guidance in the legislative history of § 554, it concluded that Congress had intended to codify the judge-made abandonment practice developed under the previous Bankruptcy Act. Under that law, where state law or general equitable principles protected certain public interests, those interests were not overridden by the judge-made abandonment power. The court also found evidence in other provisions of the Bankruptcy Code that Congress did not intend to pre-empt all state regulation, but only that grounded on policies outweighed by the relevant federal interests.

[ 474 U.S. Page 500]

     Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the Bankruptcy Court erred in permitting abandonment, and remanded both cases for further proceedings.*fn4

We granted certiorari and consolidated these cases to determine whether the Court of Appeals properly construed § 554, 469 U.S. 1207 (1985). We now affirm.

II

Before the 1978 revisions of the Bankruptcy Code, the trustee's abandonment power had been limited by a judicially developed doctrine intended to protect legitimate state or federal interests. This was made clear by the few relevant cases. In Ottenheimer v. Whitaker, 198 F.2d 289 (CA4 1952), the Court of Appeals concluded that a bankruptcy trustee, in liquidating the estate of a barge company, could not abandon several barges when the abandonment would have obstructed a navigable passage in violation of federal law. The court stated:

"The judge-made [abandonment] rule must give way when it comes into conflict with a statute enacted in order to ensure the safety of navigation; for we are not dealing with a burden imposed upon the bankrupt or his property by contract, but a duty and a burden imposed upon an owner of vessels by an Act of Congress in the public interest." Id., at 290.

In In re Chicago Rapid Transit Co., 129 F.2d 1 (CA7), cert. denied sub nom. Chicago Junction R. Co. v. Sprague, 317 U.S. 683 (1942), the Court of Appeals held that the trustee of a ...


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