Three letters — for a small Texas grocer, it took just three letters to place the grocer on the hook for a costly environmental cleanup. USOR Site PRP Group v. A & M Contractors, Inc., No. 4:14-CV-2441, 2017 WL 3115904 (S.D. Tex. July 21, 2017), which concerned a contaminated former oil recovery and recycling facility, demonstrates how low the bar is to name a party a CERCLA potentially responsible party (“PRP”). The EPA had already named a group of PRPs, and that group was undertaking (i.e., paying for) remedial action at the site.
While perusing documents from the facility, the PRP group came across a single reference to “grease from a generator named ‘DNR.’” The PRP group located a grocery store named “DNR Turkish Grill” a short distance from the site and sued it for contribution. The grocer argued that there were dozens of other companies in the area who might be the “DNR” named in the document, and thus the PRP group’s evidence was insufficient to identify DNR Turkish Grill as the generator. Nevertheless, the Southern District of Texas found that those three letters were sufficient to add the grocery store as a PRP, making the grocery store responsible for the cleanup, along with the rest of the PRP group.
The decision reemphasizes two aspects of EPA-ordered CERCLA clean-ups. First, and good news for those already determined to be responsible for environmental contamination, minimal evidence is sometimes sufficient to add other private parties as PRPs. Second, and bad news for everyone else, even the slightest and most circumstantial evidence of involvement with another company that is being held responsible for a cleanup might mean that your business will be on the financial hook for the cleanup as well.