On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at: 291 N.J. Super. 183 (1996).
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Stein and Coleman join in Justice GARIBALDI's opinion. Justice O'hern filed a separate Dissenting opinion in which Justice Pollock joins. Justice Handler did not participate.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
In the Matter of the Adoption of N.J.A.C. 7:1I (A-108-96)
Argued February 19, 1997 -- Decided May 15, 1997
GARIBALDI, J., writing for a majority of the Court.
The issue in this appeal is whether the Township of Voorhees is liable under the Sanitary Landfill Facility Closure and Contingency Fund Act (the Closure Act) as an "owner" and, therefore, barred from seeking remediation expenses from that Act's Contingency Fund (the Fund).
During the 1960's and early 1970's, Millard Eply, president of Buzby Brothers Material Corporation (Buzby), operated a sanitary landfill on a lot owned by Buzby, known as the Buzby Brothers Landfill. During its years of operation, Voorhees sent waste to the landfill.
In December 1977, Voorhees purchased one of the lots from Buzby for $1.00 with the expectation of building a public park. Buzby had closed the landfill at least five years earlier. However, unbeknownst to Voorhees, during its years of operation the landfill had accepted hazardous waste for disposal on the lot, in spite of the fact that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had permitted the landfill to accept only municipal, bulky, and non-chemical industrial wastes.
In 1982, ten years after the landfill had been closed by Buzby and five years after Voorhees purchased it, the Legislature passed the Closure Act, which imposed liability on "owners or operators" of sanitary landfills for costs related to the improper operation or closure of those facilities. The Closure Act also created the Contingency Fund to provide recoupment of remediation expenses by eligible parties.
In October 1986, the DEP issued a draft New Jersey Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NJPDES) permit to Voorhees for the lot. The DEP advised Voorhees that, if the permit were finalized, the Township would be required to install monitoring wells around the perimeter of the lot to evaluate potential discharge of contaminants from the former landfill. This was the first notice Voorhees had that the landfill might have environmental problems.
Thereafter, Voorhees entered into an Administrative Consent Order with the DEP and spent several hundred thousand dollars on remedial measures. It then filed a claim with the Fund seeking recoupment of the money spent on remediation, asserting that it had suffered damages because the landfill had been improperly operated and closed. The Environmental Claims Administration (ECA) denied the claim, reasoning that Voorhees was ineligible to recover damages because it was an "owner" of a sanitary landfill and, therefore, itself jointly and severally liable for closure costs under the Act.
Voorhees appealed the ECA's ruling to the Office of Administrative Law. Despite the DEP's motion for summary Disposition, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Voorhees did not fall within the literal meaning of "owner or operator" under the Closure Act. Furthermore, the ALJ found that, even if the language of the Act were debatable, the Supreme Court's reasoning in prior case law had excluded purchasers of closed landfills from the definition of "owner."
Thereafter, in 1994, the DEP adopted amended rules for the processing of Fund claims, which, in effect, excluded Voorhees's claim for reimbursement. Voorhees appealed the validity of the 1994 regulations, but its request to stay the appeal until the Conclusion of the administrative hearing was denied.
Following the adoption of the new regulations, the DEP renewed its motion to the ALJ for summary Disposition of Voorhees's claim. The ALJ granted the motion, finding the new regulations applicable. Voorhees then filed exceptions with the Commissioner, who modified the ALJ's decision, finding that, even absent the new regulations, Voorhees was an "owner" under the Closure Act. Voorhees appealed not only from the Commissioner's final decision, but also from the DEP's adoption of the new regulations. The Appellate Division consolidated both matters.
The Appellate Division found that Voorhees was not an owner within the intendment of the Closure Act and that its remediation costs should be recouped from the Fund. In turn, the Fund would acquire subrogation rights from the current property owner against the former owner or operator of the landfill.
The Supreme Court granted the DEP's petition for certification, which was limited to the issue of whether Voorhees was entitled to recover the cost of remediation under the Closure Act.
HELD: Because Voorhees never owned or operated the landfill and never took part in any closure activities, it is not liable for cleanup costs and is entitled to reimbursement for such costs from the Contingency Fund.
1. When the Legislature passed the Closure Act, it emphasized the Act's broad parameters in its legislative findings and declarations. (pp. 8-9)
2. Because the Fund is liable for damages resulting from the operation or closure of a sanitary landfill, the Closure Act contains mechanisms for generating revenue from the owners or operators from which the Fund compensates claimants harmed by improper closure or operation. (pp. 9-10)
3. The Closure Act provides protection for post-enactment purchasers of property that has been used as a landfill by requiring that a contract for sale of such property specifically state the fact and period of time during which the property was used as a landfill. (pp. 10-11)
4. In construing a statute, the primary task is to effectuate the legislative intent in light of the language used and the objectives sought to be achieved. (pp. 11-12)
5. The Closure Act is a cost-spreading mechanism designed to impose cleanup costs on the landfill industry. Thus, the Legislature intended the Fund to be available to reimburse the current owner or claimant for remediation of improper landfill closure and to then obtain a claim against the owner or operator of the landfill. Such an interpretation encourages owners to take prompt and appropriate actions to remedy environmental problems that threaten the public welfare. (pp. 12-16)
6. The purpose of the provision of the Act requiring that a potential purchaser of land be specifically advised that the land was formerly used as a landfill is to ensure that purchasers knowingly assume responsibility for potential liability. (pp. 16-17)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
Justice O'HERN filed a separate Dissenting opinion in which JUSTICE POLLOCK joins. Justice O'Hern considered the majority's decision to transform a fund created to compensate the innocent victims of past unsafe landfill practices into a windfall for dump owners at the expense of the taxpayers. He further believed that the Court's opinion would force a circularity of actions.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES STEIN and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE GARIBALDI's opinion. JUSTICE O'HERN filed a separate Dissenting opinion in which JUSTICE POLLOCK joins. JUSTICE HANDLER did not participate.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by
This appeal involves the Township of Voorhees's suit to recover environmental remediation expenses under the Sanitary Landfill Facility Closure and Contingency Fund Act (the Closure Act), N.J.S.A. 13:1E-100 to -116. The primary issue is whether Voorhees is liable under the Closure Act as an "owner" and, therefore, barred from seeking remediation expenses from that Act's Contingency Fund (the Fund). The Appellate Division held that Voorhees was not an owner within the intendment of the Closure Act and, therefore, not barred from applying for statutory damages. Matter of Adoption of N.J.A.C. 7:1 I, 291 N.J. Super. 183 (App. Div. 1996).
During the 1940's, Buzby Brothers Materials Corporation (Buzby) owned and operated a sandmining operation in Voorhees, located on adjacent tracts of land designated as Lot 4 (37 acres) and Lot 33 (19 acres). In March 1959, Buzby initiated a landfilling project on portions of Lot 4 that had been sandmined. The general idea was for the landfilling to follow the sandmining.
In the 1960's and early 1970's, the president of Buzby, Millard Eply, operated a sanitary landfill on Lot 4, which became known as the "Buzby Brothers Landfill." During its years of operation, Voorhees sent waste to the landfill. In 1966, Lot 33 was purchased from Buzby by the RCA Corporation (RCA). A few years later, pursuant to ...