Cold Storage Facility Sued for Hazardous Chemical Release

On Friday, the United States government brought suit in the District of New Jersey claiming that the present and former owners of a self-storage company, Vineland Ice and Storage, violated the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) by failing to maintain refrigeration systems at a 25,000 square foot storage facility, resulting in the plaintiff being required, as mandated by CERCLA, to pay for clean-up of illegal chemical releases of anhydrous ammonia. The government sought a court order mandating the payout of a lien against the defendants’ facility in the amount equivalent to the costs incurred while removing the illegal chemicals.

CERCLA allows the federal government to develop a contingency plan, subject to the approval of the President, that gives the government the ability to take action against a private actor when the private actor has released or will release a hazardous substance, contaminant, or pollutant, “which may present an imminent and substantial danger to the public health or welfare.” Following any government action, the U.S. government may place a lien upon the private actor’s property to recover the cost of clean-up and then file a civil suit to mandate the lien be paid or the property be sold.

 The government alleged that the defendants’ negligence with regards to the maintenance of the refrigeration systems at the storage site all but guaranteed the release of anhydrous ammonia. The plaintiff proffered that the ammonia was a “flammable gas” that was “highly toxic” and, when released, resulted in “immediate and severe damage to eyes, lungs, and mucus membranes of the oral cavity and nasopharyngeal tract.”

The government situated the defendants’ negligence in the fact that, upon Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspection, the inspectors returned evidence that the refrigeration system had “severely corroded inoperable pressure process control and relief safety valves, uninspected piping and vessels, dangerous ice buildup on refrigeration coils…and serious ice buildup and stress on building integrity.” Following the inspection in 2016, the EPA approved 24-hour monitoring of the facility for any release of anhydrous ammonia and “installed an aqueous scrubber to contain potential discharges from the facility’s refrigeration system’s high-pressure emergency relief vents.”

During 2016, the EPA removed 9,700 pounds of anhydrous ammonia from the facility’s refrigeration system. In 2020, the government filed a lien against the site in the amount of $970,604.10, the amount the plaintiff averred was the cost of the clean-up. Due to the alleged negligence, the plaintiff asked the court to sell the facility and make “the proceeds from such sale be paid to the United States in reimbursement of response costs covered by the CERCLA lien.”