In a 5-2 decision issued on December 15, 2011, New York’s highest court upheld Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) regulations authorizing the cleanup of state Superfund sites to “pre-disposal conditions, to the extent feasible.” The ruling also affirms that DEC can and will consider technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness, as well as the intended use of a subject property, when setting cleanup requirements at approximately 950 contaminated sites in New York State.
The New York State Superfund Coalition (the “Coalition”), a group consisting of owners of inactive hazardous waste disposal sites, challenged DEC’s regulations as exceeding the authority derived from the state Superfund law, which calls for the “complete cleanup” of sites through the elimination of the “significant threat” posed by hazardous wastes. The Coalition argued that the regulations’ reference to “pre-disposal conditions” went beyond this statutory authority, and allowed DEC to order the removal of “every last molecule” of contamination and to return sites to “pre-Columbian” conditions.
The Court of Appeals rejected this claim, stressing that the stated goal of a “complete cleanup” is “aspirational” because that goal “can be constrained by technological feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and procedural due process, among other things.”
Before initiating a remedial investigation at a state Superfund Site, DEC must first determine that site presents a “significant threat” to public health or the environment. In his dissent from the Court of Appeals’ decision, Judge Eugene Pigott wrote: “[I]t is clear from the statutory language that the Legislature intended to limit the reach of the remedial program to the ‘elimination of the significant threat’ … [and that] DEC’s interpretation of [this provision] goes beyond what any competent Legislature would permit.”
Both the majority opinion and the dissent, however, emphasize that DEC cannot make arbitrary or draconian remedial decisions without such decisions being subject to challenge under the rules. DEC has recognized in practice and in its regulations that it may not be feasible to return industrial sites to a state of nature given the complexity of issues presented by such sites, and that technical and economic feasibility are, therefore, appropriate considerations under the Superfund scheme. The Court of Appeals found that the challenged regulations were consistent with DEC’s current practice of making remedial decisions that involve less than complete removal, provided that the remedial action protects public health and the environment.