A North Carolina appeals court has ruled that a company may be an “operator” of a hazardous waste disposal facility under RCRA Subtitle C based solely on post-closure involvement at the site.
The case, WASCO LLC v. N.C. Dep’t of Env’t & Nat. Res., Div. of Waste Mgmt., No. COA16-414, 2017 BL 125671 (N.C. Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2017), involved a former textile manufacturing facility. The site became contaminated after perchloroethylene (PCE), a dry-cleaning solvent leaked, from underground storage tanks. At the time the leaks occurred the site was owned by a division of Winston Mills, Inc. Five years after the leaks, Winston Mills entered into an agreement with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resource that detailed a plan to close the site, and the site was closed three years later. Defendant-petitioner WASCO LLC first became involved at the site years later, when it acquired a company that co-guaranteed indemnification for environmental liabilities at the site. It subsequently took some action to affirmatively remediate the site and applied for a RCRA Part A permit.
By 2007, however, North Carolina discovered that hazardous waste was migrating offsite and contaminating groundwater. At that time WASCO disclaimed responsibility for further remediation and asserted that all previous involvement had been on a voluntary basis. It could not be an operator, it argued, because it did not become involved with the site until after it was closed and it is impossible to operate a closed site. WASCO asserted that it was not an “operator” under the language of the North Carolina Solid Waste Management Act, which defines the term as “any person, including the owner, who is principally engaged in, and is in charge of, the actual operation, supervision, and maintenance of a solid waste management facility and includes the person in charge of a shift or periods of operation during any part of the day.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-290(a)(21).
The court rejected WASCO’s arguments. It held that WASCO must be an operator despite its late involvement because the site was not designated as a disposal facility until after the site was closed. Accepting WASCO’s interpretation that operators are only entities responsible for pre-closure activities would, at least in this case, mean that the facility would have no operators at all. It also found that the trial court properly looked not only to the definition of operator in the North Carolina statute, but also at the broader definition in CERCLA, in addition to cases and guidance related to CERCLA and RCRA. These sources, it reasoned, are hazardous waste specific, while North Carolina’s more detailed definition applies to all solid waste management facilities.
Although the belated designation of the site as a hazardous waste disposal facility on account of the unintentional release of PCE distinguishes it from typical RCRA Subtitle C landfills, it is far from clear that this distinction was dispositive for the court. More likely it was guided by the principle of broad liability under RCRA, particularly when hazardous waste is involved.