Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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Appellee EQT Production Company (“EQT”) brought this declaratory action when it became exposed to the civil penalties under the Clean Streams Law in 2012 on account of leaks from an impoundment used to contain impaired water flowing back from hydraulic fracture gas wells. According to the complaint, much of the penalty exposure asserted by the regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP” or the “Department”), was premised on a “continuing violation” theory predicated on passive migration of contaminants from soil into water. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was tasked with determining the scope of those civil penalties. The Court determined that the mere presence of a contaminant in a water of the Commonwealth or a part thereof does not establish a violation of Section 301, 307, or 401 of the Clean Streams Law, since movement of a contaminant into water is a predicate to violations. This statement pertaining to the governing legal standard is distinct from whether and to what extent presence may serve as evidence of movement. The Department’s water-to-water theory of serial violations was rejected, and the Court emphasized nothing in this opinion should be read to approve or discount the Department’s soil-to-water theory. View "EQT Production Co v. Dept. of Env. Prot." on Justia Law

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In this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court examined the contours of the 1971 Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution in light of a declaratory judgment action brought by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (“Foundation”) challenging, inter alia, the constitutionality of statutory enactments relating to funds generated from the leasing of state forest and park lands for oil and gas exploration and extraction. Because state parks and forests, including the oil and gas minerals therein, were part of the corpus of Pennsylvania’s environmental public trust, the Supreme Court held that the Commonwealth, as trustee, had to manage them according to the plain language of Section 27, which imposed fiduciary duties consistent with Pennsylvania trust law. The Court further found that the constitutional language controlled how the Commonwealth may dispose of any proceeds generated from the sale of its public natural resources. View "PA Env. Defense Fdn. v. Wolf" on Justia Law

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Through Pennsylvania’s Land Recycling and Environmental Remediation Standards Act, ("Act 2"), the General Assembly created a scheme for establishing “cleanup standards” applicable to voluntary efforts to remediate environmental contamination for which a person or entity may bear legal responsibility. Appellant EQT Production Company (“EPC”), owned and operated natural gas wells in the Commonwealth. In May 2012, the company notified Appellee, the Department of Environmental Protection (the “Department” or “DEP”), that it had discovered leaks in one of its subsurface impoundments containing water that had been contaminated during hydraulic fracturing operations. Subsequently, EPC cleared the site of impaired water and sludge and commenced a formal cleanup process pursuant to Act 2. In May 2014, the agency tendered to EPC a proposed “Consent Assessment of Civil Penalty,” seeking to settle the penalty question via a payment demand of $1,270,871, subsuming approximately $900,000 attending asserted ongoing violations. EPC disputed the Department’s assessment, maintaining that: penalties could not exceed those accruing during the time period in which contaminants actually were discharged from the company’s impoundment; all such actual discharges ended in June 2012; and the Act 2 regime controlled the extent of the essential remediation efforts. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review centered on whether ECT had the right to immediately seek a judicial declaration that the DEP's interpretation of the Act was erroneous. The Court held that the impact of the Department’s threat of multi-million dollar assessments against EPC was sufficiently direct, immediate, and substantial to create a case or controversy justifying pre-enforcement judicial review via a declaratory judgment proceeding, and that exhaustion of administrative remedies relative to the issues of statutory interpretation that the company has presented was unnecessary. View "EQT Production Co. v. DEP" on Justia Law

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Appellees were 34 individuals who owned or resided on properties adjacent to a 220-acre farm in York County, owned since 1986 by appellant George Phillips. Phillips operated his own farm, Hilltop Farms, and leased part of the land to appellant Steve Troyer, who raised various crops. Appellants Synagro Central, LLC and Synagro Mid-Atlantic are corporate entities engaged in the business of recycling biosolids for public agencies for land application; they contracted with municipalities to recycle and transport biosolids, which were then used as fertilizer. Over approximately 54 days between March 2006 and April 2009, approximately 11,635 wet tons of biosolids were applied to 14 fields at the farm. The biosolids were spread over the fields’ surface and not immediately tilled or plowed into the soil. Appellees contended that as soon as the biosolids were applied, extremely offensive odors emanated. In July 2008, appellees filed two similar three-count complaints, which were consolidated; they also filed an amended complaint in 2010. In Count I, appellees alleged appellants’ biosolids activities created a private nuisance. Count II alleged negligence by appellants in their duty to properly handle and dispose of the biosolids. Count III alleged appellants’ biosolids activities constituted a trespass on appellees’ land. Appellees sought injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs. In October 2009, after receiving the third notice of violation from the PaDEP, Synagro suspended the use of biosolids at Hilltop Farms, rendering appellees’ request for injunctive relief moot. The last application of biosolids at the farm occurred in April 2009. Appellants moved for summary judgment on the basis that appellees’ nuisance claims were barred by the one-year statute of repose in section 954(a) of the Right To Farm Act (RTFA). The issue this appeal presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether a trial court or a jury should have determined the applicability of section 954(a), and whether the trial court properly concluded the land application of biosolids as fertilizer is a “normal agricultural operation,” rendering section 954(a) applicable. The Court held that section 954(a) was a statute of repose; its applicability, as determined by statutory interpretation, was a question of law for courts to decide. Further, the trial court properly held biosolids application fell within the RTFA’s definition of “normal agricultural operation,” which barred appellees’ nuisance claims. Accordingly, the Court reversed the portion of the Superior Court’s order that reversed the grant of summary judgment for appellants on the nuisance claims; the remainder of the order was affirmed. View "Gilbert v. Synagro Central" on Justia Law