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Port of Anacortes v. Frontier Industries, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

August 19, 2019

PORT OF ANACORTES, a Washington municipal corporation, Respondent,
FRONTIER INDUSTRIES, INC. a Washington, corporation; EINO "MIKE" JOHNSON and LORIE A. JOHNSON, a married couple; ITOCHU INTERNATIONAL, INC., a foreign corporation; Petitioners, INDEMNITY INSURANCE COMPANY OF NORTH AMERICA, a Pennsylvania corporation; INSURANCE COMPANY OF NORTH AMERICA, a Pennsylvania corporation; ACE USA INSURANCE a Pennsylvania corporation; THE CHUBB CORPORATION, a Pennsylvania corporation. Defendants.

          Chun, J.

         The Port of Anacortes filed suit against defendants[1] under the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA), which imposes strict liability on any owner or operator of a facility "at the time of disposal or release of. . . hazardous substances." RCW 70.105D.040(1){b). Defendants' activities at the Port's log handling facility resulted in the accumulation of significant amounts of wood debris in the marine environment. Decomposition of such debris in the marine environment releases hazardous substances such as ammonia, benzoic acid, and phenols. Moreover, such hazardous substances existed in the water at the cessation of defendants' activities at the Port. This indicates that a release of hazardous substances occurred during defendants' tenure as operators of the facility. Therefore, we affirm the trial court's denial of defendants' joint motion for summary judgment.



         The Port serves as a Washington port district and owns upland and aquatic property on Guemes Channel in Anacortes, Washington. The Port purchased the site in 1965. The property includes Pier 2, a deep-water marine terminal, and a "round log" handling facility. Round logs have had their leaves and branches removed but maintain their bark. The round log handling facility consists of the upland "log yard" and the "log pocket" in a small embayment in the water. Log handling occurred at this site for approximately four decades, from the mid-1960s to 2004.

         From 1994 to 1997, defendant Frontier Industries, owned by Mike Johnson, leased the log yard and log pocket for log handling. Defendant Itochu International, Inc., a Japanese trading firm, also used the log handling facility to export logs to Japan. In 1997, log handling ceased for a time due to a downturn in the round log export business. Exports resumed later that year, and Johnson entered an agreement with the Port for Itochu to serve as the exclusive round log user of the Port's facility. The Port closed the log handling facility in 2004.

         Defendants handled tens of millions of board feet of round logs at the Port facility. A tugboat would pull large rafts, composed of many bundles of logs, into the log pocket. The tugboat would then deposit the logs in a north-south position within the log pocket. During low tide, the logs typically rested on the bottom of the log pocket. Removal of the logs required east-west positioning. A small gasoline-powered boat called a "log bronc" moved the rafts around inside the log pockets to reorient them. When the logs were properly situated, a large machine called a "Wagner" would go to the log pocket and retrieve bundles of logs with its hydraulic claws.

         During this process, the logs shed bark while in the log pocket. Shedding occurred because the logs soaked in the salt water and rubbed and crashed against each other and the machinery. The shed bark deposited on the bottom of the log pocket.

         Studies dating back to 1984 show that sediment with 20 percent wood waste by volume can cause a negative impact on the marine environment.[2] "Wood waste leaches and/or degrades into some compounds that can be toxic to aquatic life, such as phenols and methylated phenols, benzoic acid and benzyl alcohol, terpenes, and tropolones."[3] Wood debris decomposes into byproducts "such as sulfides, ammonia, and phenols, which can cause or contribute to toxicity."[4] Additionally, "TVS [total volatile solids] and sulfides are known byproducts of wood waste decomposition in the marine environment that are toxic to aquatic life."[5]

         After the facility's closure, the Port assessed the environmental impacts of the log handling activities. Surface sediment samples contained contaminants such as benzene derivatives. The investigation also included the digging of eight test pits in the marine sediment to two feet below the mudline. All eight pits confirmed the presence of wood debris, with four of the test pits exceeding 50 percent wood waste by weight. The layer of deposited wood debris ranged in thickness from 11 inches to two feet. Two of the pits showed approximately 75 percent wood waste through two feet of sample sediment.

         In 2008, the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) required the Port to conduct chemical and biological toxicity testing to determine if the log pocket's wood waste posed an environmental risk. The testing found that the log pocket sediment samples contained higher concentrations of total sulfides than typically found in the Puget Sound. Additionally, the sediment samples failed to meet Ecology's criteria for benthic[6] abundance. Subsequent investigations provided additional evidence of adverse environmental effects from wood debris. In addition to wood waste, sediment samples contained metals, benzoic acid, dioxins, and furans in amounts exceeding required cleanup levels.

         In April 2014, Ecology issued a Potentially Liable Person (PLP) Determination letter to the Port as owner of the log handling site. In response, the Port entered into an Agreed Order with Ecology promising to conduct a remedial investigation of the extent of the hazardous substances and a feasibility study on the options for cleanup, as well as draft a cleanup plan. As of June 2018, the remedial investigation and feasibility studies for cleanup of the log handling facility reached their final stages. The Port has paid, and has agreed to continue to pay, for remedial action at the site.

         The remediation report lists wood waste as the first contaminant of concern. In addition, substances such as metals, LPAHs, [7] HPAHs, [8] cPAHs, [9]benzoic acid, phenols, dioxins, and furans contaminate the wood debris area and commingle within the wood waste. While many of these contaminants stem from the use of machinery during the log handling operations, hazardous substances such as benzoic acid and phenols also result from the decomposition and degradation of the wood debris in the marine environment. Site testing in the log pocket demonstrated the presence of these contaminants as well as other known by-products of wood debris including ammonia and sulfides.

         In July 2016, the Port filed a complaint seeking contribution from defendants under MTCA. The Port requested proportionate recovery of the costs of remediation for the site from these former operators.[10] The Port also sought declaratory judgment on two issues. First, the Port requested declaratory relief "that the Operator Defendants, as former owners and/or operators under RCW 70.105D.040(2), are strictly liable, jointly and severally, for all remedial actions costs resulting from releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances at the Site, a facility under RCW 70.105D.020(8)." Second, the Port claimed entitlement to declaratory judgment that defendants' insurance carrier is obligated to defend and/or indemnify the Port with respect to the environmental liability. Finally, the Port raised a breach of contract claim against the insurance company for failure to indemnify it for costs and liability incurred due to the damage caused by the hazardous substances.

         Defendants jointly moved for summary judgment, requesting dismissal of all claims. Specifically, defendants sought to avoid liability on the ground that wood debris does not constitute a hazardous substance.[11] The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment.

         The trial court also denied defendants' motion for reconsideration, but certified the decision for review by this court under RAP 2.3(b)(4). A commissioner of this court accepted discretionary review to ...

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