Say It Loud, Say It Clear; The Inside of a Building Is NOT the Environment

In a recent decision, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that neither CERCLA nor RCRA provide convenient ways for the buyer of a building containing asbestos to finance the abatement of that asbestos. In Sycamore Industrial Park Associates v. Ericsson, the seller of the building replaced the old heating equipment shortly prior to sale, but left the old system, including piping, in place. The buyer sought to make the seller pay for the asbestos abatement on the ground that the seller has disposed of the old equipment by abandoning it in place when it installed the new system. The 7th Circuit didn’t buy it.

The Court acknowledged that there might be a close question as to whether the asbestos constituted a solid or hazardous waste or RCRA and CERCLA. However, the Court concluded that it need not answer the question, because the seller had not “disposed” of the material. The Court concluded that, where all of the asbestos was either inside the building or inside a pipe chase, there “is no real threat that asbestos ‘or any constituent thereof may enter the environment or be emitted into the air or discharged into any waters….”

The Court did indicate that the intent of the seller may be relevant; it gave the example that a person looking to avoid liability for a toxic retaining pond, could not sell the entire property, including the pond, as a means of avoiding such liability. It described this situation as the “malicious motive case.” Absent such a malicious motive, however, sale of property including toxic or hazardous material does not put a person into the category of potentially responsible parties.

Similar to its analysis of the “disposal” question, the Court also concluded that there was no release or threat of release that would subject a person to CERCLA liability. “We reaffirm that when there is no emission into the outside environment,… there is no release or threatened release, and thus there can be no liability under CERCLA.

The Court reached the same conclusion under RCRA. First, utilizing the same analysis as under CERCLA, it found that there had been no disposal by the seller. It also rejected the allegation that the seller had handled or stored the asbestos, concluding that “RCRA requires active involvement in handling or storing of materials for liability.”

In short, if the asbestos isn’t walking out the door, it may be a problem inside a building, but CERCLA and RCRA won’t help the building owner pay to fix that problem.

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