Court Highlights the Significance of Other Factors in the Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser Defense
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Anyone who has been involved in a real estate transaction relating to commercial or industrial property has likely dealt with conducting “All Appropriate Inquiry” into the site, which generally includes the preparation of a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment and may include Phase II sampling work. All Appropriate Inquiry (“AAI”) is one necessary component of the “bona fide prospective purchaser” (“BFPP”) defense established under the 2002 Brownfields amendments to Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”). The BFPP defense is intended to protect property owners from liability for contamination that clearly occurred prior to their period of ownership. However, conducting AAI is not the only prerequisite to establishing a BFPP defense. The BFPP requirements beyond AAI are highlighted in Ashley II of Charleston, LLC v. PCS Nitrogen, et al., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104772 (D.S.C. Sep. 30, 2010), one of the first cases to address in detail the BFPP defense.
In this case, Ashley purchased property that had a long history of industrial use. In conjunction with that purchase, Ashley’s environmental consultant performed Phase I and Phase II work. After the purchase, Ashley demolished many of the above-ground improvements on the property. When liability for contamination at the property was addressed, a significant battle between several potentially responsible parties arose. Ashley sought to take advantage of the BFPP defense to avoid liability. The elements of the BFPP defense are, in summary: (a) disposal of hazardous substance occurred prior to acquisition; (b) the purchaser conducted AAI; (c) the purchaser provided all required notices with respect to the discovery or release of any hazardous substance; (d) the purchaser exercises appropriate care with respect to hazardous substances found; (e) the purchaser cooperates with agencies; (f) the purchaser complies with institutional controls; (g) the purchaser complies with information requests or administrative subpoena; (h) the purchaser is not affiliated with a potentially responsible party. In the end, the court closely scrutinized each element of the test and determined that Ashley was not a BFPP.
All Appropriate Inquiry
Significantly, this is one of the first cases to address the proper conduct of AAI. The court found that although there were “inconsistencies” between the Phase I reports and the relevant ASTM standard, those inconsistencies lacked significance. The Court stated that “[w]hat is important is that Ashley acted reasonably; it hired an expert to conduct AAI and relied on that expert to perform its job properly.” Because the Court did not explain what the “inconsistencies” are, it is difficult to determine how strictly a Phase I must comply with ASTM. Interestingly, no federal agencies were involved in this case. EPA has stated that they will insist on very strict compliance with the ASTM standards in order to find that AAI was conducted. This case may (or may not) take some wind out of that sail. While strict compliance with the ASTM standards is still highly recommended, this case provides some potential relief for past transactions where the acquiring party is trying to mount a BFPP defense but the adequacy of its AAI is called into question due to the absence of strict compliance with the ASTM.
The court did find that Ashley failed to prove that it exercised appropriate care with respect to known contamination when it did its demolition work. In doing this work, Ashley did not clean out and fill in known underground sumps and concrete pads, which failure could have exacerbated known releases and contamination. Ashley also failed to prevent debris piles from accumulating, and failed to investigate and remove the debris piles on a timely basis. Ashley also failed to maintain run off controls.