Environmental cost recovery actions in New Jersey are typically brought pursuant to the New Jersey Spill Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.llf, but the Spill Act has no provision for awarding attorneys fees to the prevailing party. The New Jersey Environmental Rights Act (“ERA”), N.J.S.A. 2A:35A-10, provides for attorneys’ and experts’ fees, but an ERA action is only permitted where there is either a continuous or intermittent environmental violation and there is a likelihood that the violation will recur in the future. The ERA was the mechanism for interested parties to act as “private attorneys general” in enforcing environmental laws, including inadequate enforcement of environmental laws by the Department of Environmental Protection. Indeed, the purpose of the ERA was to compel compliance by awarding injunctive or equitable relief. Thus, until recently, ERA was not found to provide for monetary compensation for remediation of property due to past conduct.
In Bradley v. Kovelesky, the current property owner sued prior owners after soil and groundwater contamination was discovered. The claims were not originally made pursuant to the ERA and defendants objected to plaintiffs amending the complaint to assert an ERA claim. To decide whether to allow the amended pleading, the court had to decide whether such a claim would be futile. The appellate court concluded that an ERA claim is not futile because the Brownfield and Contaminated Site Remediation Act, N.J.S.A. 58:10B-1.3, requires that a “person in any way responsible for a hazardous substances … shall remediate the discharge.” Thus, plaintiffs argued that because the prior owner has not and currently is not conducting remediation, it is a continuous violation of the Brownfield Act. Further, if the prior owner’s failure to remediate continues into the future, it will remain in violation of the Brownfield Act. Based on this scenario, the court found a continuous or intermittent violation that is likely to “recur in the future” as required by an ERA lawsuit.
Thus, plaintiffs were permitted to amend their complaint to assert an ERA claim.
ERA contains a powerful tool for a cost recovery plaintiff. “In any action under this act the court may in appropriate cases award to the prevailing party reasonable counsel and expert witness fees, but not to exceed a total of $ 50,000 in an action brought against a local agency or the Department of Environmental Protection, where the prevailing party achieved reasonable success on the merits.” Let’s see whether this decision gives new life to the ERA. Certainly the threat of attorneys’ fees and experts’ costs are often the motivation for an amicable resolution to cost recovery litigation.
We will watch this case to see whether it is ultimately tried and fees awarded.