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United States v. Sensient Colors

August 12, 2008

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SENSIENT COLORS, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rodriguez, Senior District Judge

FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

This matter comes before the Court on the United States of America's ("the Government") motion to strike Defendant Sensient Colors' ("Sensient") affirmative defenses in this action brought under § 107(a) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Cleanup, and Liability Act ("CERCLA"). Oral argument was heard on July 17, 2008. For the following reasons, as well as those placed on the record at oral argument, the Court grants in part and denies in part the Government's motion.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

According to the Complaint, from approximately 1922 to 1988, in Camden, New Jersey, Sensient owned a six acre site (the "Site") on which it operated a facility which manufactured inorganic and organic pigments and dyes. (Compl. ¶¶ 6, 8.) During those years, Sensient allegedly disposed on the Site hazardous substances, as defined by § 101(14) of CERCLA, 42 U.S.C. § 9601(14). (Id. ¶ 9.)

Beginning in March 1988, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (the "EPA") initiated investigations at the Site. (Id. ¶ 11.) The investigations revealed thousands of tanks, vats, drums, cylinders, and other containers. (Id.) Inside and around these containers, the EPA found numerous hazardous substances, including benzene, diethylamine, sodium perchlorate, xylene, toluene, mercury, aniline, and hydrolic acid. (Id.) Many of these hazardous substances were acutely toxic, chronically toxic, poisonous, corrosive, flammable, shock-sensitive, and ignitable. (Id.)

During the EPA's initial investigations, the Site was unsecured, and trespassed upon by children and adults. (Id. ¶ 15.) Children from the nearby Pleasant Gardens housing development utilized the Site as a playground and were observed playing in contaminated areas and making contact with contaminated materials. (Id.)

From approximately April 1998 to July 1998, the EPA conducted removal activities, including securing the Site, and detonating or removing highly reactive and shock-sensitive hazardous substances. (Id. ¶ 12.) From approximately September 1998 to December 1999, the EPA conducted further removal activities, including securing the Site, stabilizing, removing, and disposing of (off-Site) thousands of drums, bags, and small containers of hazardous substances. (Id. ¶ 13.) It also sampled dust containing lead, chromium, and cadmium from the floors of the buildings at the Site, and decontaminated Site buildings during this period. (Id.)

In October 1998 and August 1999, the EPA conducted investigations at the Site, including detailed screening of surface soils there, and found elevated levels of lead and other hazardous substances. (Id. ¶ 14.) In March 2000, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a health consult for the Site. (Id. ¶ 16.) The health consult concluded that because the existence of lead in the soil at the Site exposed children and adults to unacceptable levels of lead, the cleanup level adopted by the EPA was protective of public health. (Id.)

In approximately November and December of 2001, the EPA excavated the upper one foot of soil from areas of known surface soil contamination at the Site. (Id. ¶ 17.) The excavation uncovered dye and pigment waste, stained soil, and burned hydrocarbon sludge and coal tar. (Id.) Post-excavation sampling and screening indicated that the extent of hazardous substances in soils at the Site was greater than previously known, and included lead, chromium, cadmium, mercury, benzo(a)pyrene, and other polynuclear (a/k/a polycyclic) aromatic hydrocarbons. (Id.) The Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure analysis revealed that lead was leaching at concentrations exceeding the regulatory limit for hazardous waste. (Id.)

This leachable lead was threatening the contamination of groundwater in an aquifer used as a source of drinking water for local New Jersey communities. (Id.) Groundwater from the Site flows into the Potomac-Raritan Magothy aquifer, which is designated a sole-source aquifer. (Id. ¶ 18.) If this aquifer was contaminated, it could have created a significant hazard to public health because it is the sole drinking water source for the area. (Id.)

From March 2002 until December 2006, the EPA performed soil removal activities at the Site, including mitigating the public's direct and contact exposure with hazardous substances in the soil, and mitigating the threat of contamination of New Jersey drinking water. (Id. ¶ 19.) During this time, the EPA conducted subsurface investigations at the Site, which revealed a greater than realized extent of soil contamination. (Id.) Accordingly, the EPA expanded its removal activities at the Site. Those removal activities included: consolidation of contaminated soil from previous excavations; clearing and grubbing; demolition of various structures, including a garage, sheds, concrete pads, slabs and foundations, paved surfaces, timber pilings, and above-ground and below-ground tanks and vaults; removal and replacement of sewer pipe; installation of dewatering trenches and sumps; excavation of contaminated surface and subsurface soil; study and selection of on-site treatment technologies; stockpiling and on-site treatment of excavated soil; transportation and off-site disposal of treated soil; pre and post-excavation investigations, including sampling and screening; additional excavation necessary to meet cleanup criteria; backfilling with imported clean soil; installation of high density polyethylene liners between areas of clean backfill and contaminated soils; decontamination of paved surfaces and a building; revegitation, and reconstruction of wetlands, including installation of a drainage structure, grading, soil preparation, planting, and seeding. (Id. ¶ 20.)

The EPA removed approximately 125,094 tons of contaminated soil from the Site. (Id. ¶ 21.) In cleaning up the Site, the Government incurred over sixteen million dollars in response costs, within the meaning of § 101(25) of CERCLA, 42 U.S.C. § 9601(25). (Id.) In June 2004, the Government sent Sensient a notice of potential liability and demand for reimbursement of response costs in connection with the Site. (Id. ¶ 23.) As of March 16, 2007, the Government had not received any reimbursement from Sensient. (Id. ¶ 24.)

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On March 16, 2007, pursuant to § 107(a) of CERCLA, 42 U.S.C. § 9607(a), the Government filed a Complaint against Sensient in this Court. It seeks 1) reimbursement for all response costs associated with the Site, plus interest, and 2) declaratory judgment on Sensient's liability for future response costs, plus interest. After unsuccessfully moving to dismiss the Complaint under Federal Rule 12(b)(6), Sensient filed its Answer on November 26, 2007. Therein, Sensient primarily denied the allegations in the Government's Complaint. It also asserted twelve affirmative defenses and a general reservation of future defenses. On December 17, 2007, the Government filed its motion to strike to strike these affirmative defenses and the general reservation.*fn1

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard on a Motion to Strike

Federal Rule 12(f) permits a court to "strike from a pleading an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter." FED. R. CIV. P. 12(f). "'All well-pleaded facts are taken as admitted on a motion to strike but conclusions of law or of fact do not have to be treated in that fashion. Matter outside the pleadings normally is not considered on a Rule 12(f) motion.'" United States v. Kramer, 757 F. Supp. 397, 409 (D.N.J. 1991) (quoting 5A CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE: CIVIL 2D § 1380, 655-56 (1990)).

Generally, motions to strike are disfavored because of their dilatory character. Id. Additionally, courts are reluctant to grant such motions out of a concern that they often involve a premature evaluation of a defense's merits, before the necessary factual background is developed. See id. at 410. Nonetheless, a motion to strike will be granted "where the insufficiency of the defense is clearly apparent." United States v. Rohm & Haas (Rohm & Haas II), 939 F. Supp. 1142, 1151 (D.N.J. 1996). Under such circumstances, motions to strike "serve a useful purpose by eliminating insufficient defenses and saving the time and expense which would otherwise be spent in litigating issues which would not affect the outcome of the case." United States v. Marisol, Inc., 725 F. Supp. 833, 836 (M.D. Pa. 1989).

B. CERCLA Statutory Overview

"Congress enacted CERCLA in December 1980 '[t]o provide for liability, compensation, cleanup, and emergency response for hazardous substances released into the environment and the cleanup of inactive hazardous waste disposal sites.'" Kelley v. Thomas Solvent Co., 714 F. Supp. 1439, 1445 (W.D. Mich. 1989) (quoting Pub. L. No. 96-510, Stat. 2767 (1980)). The statute creates three possible courses of action for the EPA to follow if a response action is needed at a given hazardous waste site:

First, it may issue an administrative order directing the responsible party or parties to implement removal or remedial action. Second, it may apply to the district court for an injunction to compel the responsible party or parties to abate an actual or threatened release of hazardous substances from a facility. Third, the EPA may undertake the removal or remedial action on its own and then sue the responsible party or parties for reimbursement.

United States v. Rohm & Haas (Rohm & Haas I), 669 F. Supp. 672, 674 (D.N.J. 1987) (citations omitted). In the present case, the EPA chose the last option.

Section 104 of CERCLA authorizes the EPA to take responsive action when there is a release or threatened release of hazardous substances into the environment. 42 U.S.C. § 9604. These response actions can involve the removal of the hazardous substances and/or remediation at the site. Either way, responsive measures are guided by the principles set forth in the National Contingency Plan ("NCP"), 40 C.F.R. §§ 300.1-300.1105. Among other things, the NCP describes methods of investigating the environmental and health problems associated with a release of hazardous substances, and provides criteria for determining the appropriate responsive measures.

EPA response actions conducted pursuant to § 104 of CERCLA are initially financed with federal Superfund*fn2 monies. The Government may recover its costs, however, in an action brought under § 107(a) of the statute.

To recover response costs under § 107(a), a plaintiff must establish four elements:

1) the defendant falls within one of four statutory categories of responsible parties,*fn3 2) the hazardous substances are disposed at a "facility,"*fn4 3) there was a "release,"*fn5 or threatened release of hazardous substances from the facility, and 4) the release causes the incurrence of "response" costs.*fn6 E.g., United States v. Alcan Aluminum Corp., 964 F.2d 252, 258-59 (3d Cir. 1992). Parties liable under § 107(a) must pay "all costs of removal or remedial action incurred by the United States Government . . . not inconsistent with the national contingency plan . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 9607(a)(4)(A). Importantly, consistency with the NCP is presumed in actions brought by the Government under § 107(a). United States v. E. I. Dupont De Nemours & Co., Inc., 432 F.3d 161, 178 (3d Cir. 2005). The responsible party has the burden of rebutting this presumption by demonstrating that the Government's response action giving rise to its costs was inconsistent with the NCP. Id.

Central to CERCLA's liability scheme is the imposition of strict liability on responsible parties. 42 U.S.C. § 9601(32); Alcan Aluminum, 964 F.2d at 259. Additionally, subject to a limited exception discussed in part III.C.3.,infra, liability under CERCLA is joint and several. Kramer, 757 F. Supp. at 422. Moreover, § 107(a) imposes liability "notwithstanding any other provision or rule of law, and subject only to the defenses set forth in [§ 107(b)]." 42 U.S.C. § 9607(a). In turn, § 107(b) exempts from liability only those who can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the release or threat of release of a hazardous substance and the damages resulting therefrom were caused solely by

(1) an act of God;

(2) an act of war;

(3) an act or omission of a third party other than an employee or agent of the defendant, or than one whose act or omission occurs in connection with a contractual relationship, existing directly or indirectly, with the defendant . . . , if the defendant establishes by a preponderance of the evidence that (a) he exercised due care with respect to the hazardous substance concerned, taking into consideration the characteristics of such hazardous substance, in light of all relevant facts and circumstances, and (b) he took precautions against foreseeable acts or omissions of any such third party and the consequences that could foreseeably result from such acts or omissions; or

(4) any combination of the foregoing paragraphs.

42 U.S.C. § 9607(b). Significantly, § 107(b) provides the only substantive affirmative defenses to liability in a § 107(a) cost recovery action. See Rohm & Haas II, 939 F. Supp. 1142, (D.N.J. 1996) ("[T]his circuit has made it clear in its jurisprudence that non-§ 107(b) defenses are not available to defeat CERCLA liability."); Kramer, 757 F. Supp. at 410 ("'[T]he only substantive ...


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