In a decision addressing the unique accrual issues arising in a groundwater contamination action, the Second Circuit affirmed a decision dismissing the Bethpage Water District’s (the “District”) action as untimely. Bethpage Water Dist. v. Northrop Grumman Corp., 884 F.3d 118 (2d Cir. 2018).
The District provides drinking water to the residents of Bethpage and operates eight wells. In 2007 and 2008, groundwater samples showed that a “massive plume” of contamination was approaching two of the wells. Id. at 121-22. In response, the District undertook emergency remedial measures, including the upgrade of its treatment systems.
In November 2013, the District filed suit, asserting negligence, trespass, and nuisance. The action reached the Second Circuit after the District Court held that the District’s claims were barred by New York’s three-year statute of limitations.
On appeal, it was undisputed that the District knew that contamination was in the “vicinity” of its wells before November 2010. “The question [wa]s when an ‘injury’ sufficient to trigger the statute of limitations occurred.” Id. at 125. The District argued that the injury occurred after the contamination entered the wells, whereas Grumman argued that it occurred when the District became aware of the “imminent threat” and undertook remedial actions. Id. at 125.
The Second Circuit held the District’s claims were time-barred. Drawing on its analysis in In re Methyl Tertiary Butyl (“MTBE”) Prod. Liab. Litig., 725 F.3d 65 (2d Cir. 2013), the court stated that in a groundwater contamination action, the statute of limitations is triggered “when the water source was sufficiently contaminated or the threat of contamination was sufficiently significant to justify immediate or specific remediation.” Id. at 127. Applying this standard, the Circuit rejected the District’s argument that the statute of limitations only began to run after it actually detected the contaminant in its wells. Id. at 128. Instead, the Circuit found that the District’s multiple steps to respond to the threat of contamination established, as a matter of law, that it had suffered injury and was aware of that injury before November 2010. Id. at 128.