NJ Appeals Court Rules NJDEP Acted Beyond Their Powers under ISRA and SRRA

A New Jersey state appeals court ruling issued Friday, July 6, 2012 said the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) does not always have the authority to require owners or operators of industrial sites to certify the land is “clean” before it is sold and redeveloped. Since the passage of the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act (ECRA) in 1983, the NJDEP has required property owners to remediate contamination before the land could be sold, transferred or the industrial facility operating at the site could be closed. Many laws have been issued in the past decades to define and revise this cleanup process, including the Industrial Site Remediation Act (ISRA) of 1993 and, most recently, the Site Remediation Reform Act (SRRA) of 2009.

According to the ruling by the three-judge panel of the Superior court of New Jersey, The NJDEP went too far when officials informed Des Champs Laboratories Inc. that in order to sell their Livingston, NJ property, the company had to certify that, to the best of the owners’ knowledge, contamination on the property had fallen below a certain level. The NJDEP was enforcing a provision of NJAC 7:26B 5.9, most recently amended by the NJDEP in May of 2012.

The court’s decision stated that:

¬†“We conclude that the department, despite its important regulatory role and its expertise over environmental matters, acted in the present context beyond its legislatively delegated powers,”

The three-judge appellate panel also said that no action can be taken on the sites for 30 days, giving time for a potential appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The case centered on the NJDEP’s rejection of Des Champs’ request for a ‘de minimis’ quantity exemption from ISRA’s requirement for site investigation. The court ruled that the state cannot require a landowner to investigate soil and groundwater conditions at a property when the landowner has affirmed that only insignificant (‘de minimus’) amounts of hazardous materials were historically used at the site. ¬†However, the court was clear that the ruling was not intended to limit the NJDEP’s authority to enforce other environmental statutes, most notably the Spill Act. The NJDEP has not announced whether or not they intend to appeal the ruling.

REPSG will continue to follow this story and the response of the legal community to this ruling. Look for follow up posts. Please feel free to post your comments and responses here. Any confidential questions regarding ISRA compliance, SRRA or the recent May 2012 amendments or issues on your projects can be directed to blog@repsg.com and one of our qualified professionals will respond quickly.