For business lawyers, the intersection of environmental law and bankruptcy law raises complex legal issues, replete with the fast-paced deadlines and requirements imposed by the bankruptcy process. When settling a case in bankruptcy that involves a substantial number of contaminated properties, there are many issues that must be resolved. This paper will focus on both the bankruptcy process and how that process impacts environmental settlements.
A. Overview of the Bankruptcy Process
1. Commencement of a Bankruptcy Case
A voluntary bankruptcy case commences when a petition is filed by the debtor and a bar date for claims is set. In large cases, the bar date is frequently established as six months or more after the filing of the petition.
Proofs of claim, which are written statements setting forth the nature and amount of the creditor's claim against the debtor, must be filed prior to the bar date established by the court. With respect to environmental claims, proofs of claim can include claims by other potentially responsible parties ("PRPs"), by third parties, and by governmental entities for past and sometimes future costs in connection with the investigation and remediation at a contaminated site. A claim is a right to payment, or an equitable obligation that can be converted into a right to payment, and claims can be contingent and/or unliquidated. Filing a claim before the bar date is critical for a claimant because unless the claim is listed in the debtor's chapter 11 schedule, the effect of an unsecured creditor's failure to file a timely proof of claim is for the claim to be disallowed as untimely.
Recent amendments to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure require specific disclosures regarding environmental issues at the time of the bankruptcy filing. A debtor is required to identify on an exhibit to the voluntary petition, Exhibit C, those properties it owns that pose a threat of imminent harm to public health or safety.2 In addition, there is a requirement that the debtor list on the Statement of Financial Affairs ("SOFA") in response to Question 17 an array of information concerning environmental matters, including every site for which it has received notice by the government that it may have environmental liability, every site for which notice has been given regarding a release and every judicial or administrative proceeding under environmental law to which the debtor is a party.3 While Bankruptcy Rule 1007 requires that the SOFA be filed within 14 days of the filing of the petition, it also permits the bankruptcy court to grant an extension for cause shown. Requests for extensions are frequently filed in connection with the commencement of the chapter 11 case, and typically are granted for an additional 30 to 90 days.
The commencement of the bankruptcy case also triggers the automatic stay imposed by section 362 of the Bankruptcy Code, which provides a respite for the debtor from pending litigation or the commencement of new litigation and from other attempts of creditors to control property of the estate.4 Creditors are generally barred from taking any action to collect on prepetition debts. This is a significant benefit to a debtor attempting to reorganize because it allows the debtor to focus on the rehabilitation of the business and negotiations with creditors. There is, however, an important exception to the automatic stay that permits governmental entities to continue to enforce regulatory requirements against debtors. Section 362(b)(4) of the Bankruptcy Code provides for a police power exception to the automatic stay.5 As a consequence of this exception, most courts have treated the enforcement of environmental orders as being within the government's police or regulatory powers.6 Practically speaking, this means that ongoing environmental remediation work pursuant to a governmental order must continue unabated by the debtor, and this includes compliance with financial assurance requirements.7 However, the police power exception to the automatic stay does not apply when the government is attempting to enforce a "monetary judgment."8
Shortly after the commencement of a chapter 11 case, an official committee of unsecured creditors is formed. Such a committee monitors the debtor's ongoing operations and consults with the debtor on major business decisions, and it may also make recommendations concerning administration of the estate. The debtor is responsible for paying the reasonable fees and expenses of creditor committee advisors, including attorneys and financial advisors. For cases involving complex environmental matters, such advisors may also include environmental consultants.
The debtor likely will seek debtor in possession ("DIP") financing to provide it with sufficient liquidity to continue its operations in the ordinary course of business. Some debtors may determine that they have sufficient cash on their balance sheet to continue to operate without seeking external DIP financing.
In chapter 11, ordinary course of business transactions may continue without court approval. Most environmental remediation activities would fall within this category, including entering into remediation contracts with environmental consultants, maintaining groundwater cleanup programs and undertaking environmental investigations required by governmental orders. Ordinarily, existing management personnel remain in place and run the company, although a debtor may hire a Chief Restructuring Officer, whether at the behest of lenders or of its own volition, to assist with running the company and planning the reorganization strategy.
2. Exclusivity Period-Debtor Determines Strategy/ Formulates A Plan
For the first 120 days after filing the petition, which time may be extended up to 18 months from the filing for cause shown, only the debtor is permitted to file a plan of reorganization.9
During this time, the debtor determines its strategy.
It may formulate a plan of reorganization for a standalone reorganization, it may decide to sell its businesses as a going concern or it may liquidate its ongoing business. A sale of all or a part of the debtor's business is generally conducted pursuant to section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code, which permits a debtor to sell its assets, with approval from the bankruptcy court, outside of the ordinary course of business. Such a sale of assets is "free and clear" of certain liabilities and a buyer obtains clear title to the assets. Other options for the debtor include a liability transfer arrangement where a third party takes on the environmental liability and ownership of some of its properties, or the transfer of sites to a custodial trust, which would receive funding and/or assets to pay for the estimated remediation costs at such properties. A debtor sometimes chooses a combination of these options in formulating its strategy.
The general preference is for a debtor to reorganize rather than liquidate because such a course will rehabilitate the debtor's business, preserve it as a going concern and allow the debtor to maintain employment and commercial relationships.
From an environmental law perspective, this is the time when the debtor evaluates the environmental issues at its contaminated sites, both owned and non-owned.
The debtor addresses claims at multiple categories of sites requiring different approaches (owned, operated, formerly owned, non-owned third-party sites, and sites with existing administrative orders). Depending upon the complexity of the debtor's real estate portfolio, the debtor may be required to complete a tremendous amount of work in a short period of time.
To the extent that the various parties are in agreement on issues such as the validity and amount of the environmental claims, one approach is to initiate informal settlement negotiations with the government to facilitate a global settlement of all environmental claims.
The debtor may decide to consider retaining an environmental consultant early in the process to assist in the estimation of environmental claims to present to the government in negotiations. At the same time, the government may resist attempts to come to a quick global settlement and may want to resolve matters on a separate site-by-site basis. Mediation is also an option and serves as an alternative to litigation or formal estimation proceedings. In the case of Asarco LLC,10 use of formal estimation proceedings was the preferred option due to the large number of unliquidated and/or contingent environmental claims; such a process assisted in defining the claims.
In addition, the debtor will determine the viability of abandoning property. Section 554(a) of the Bankruptcy Code provides that, "[a]fter notice and a hearing, [a debtor] may abandon any property of the estate that is burdensome to the estate or that is of inconsequential value and benefit to the estate."11 Property that is abandoned ceases to be a part of the debtor's bankruptcy estate. However, courts have generally limited the abandonment right in the context of environmentally impaired properties.12
3. Plan of Reorganization/Disclosure Statement
The Plan of Reorganization ("Plan") is a contract among the debtor and its creditors, and it classifies how claims and interests will be treated in the reorganization. The Plan and Disclosure Statement describe the broad outlines of any environmental settlement. A Disclosure Statement is typically filed concurrently with the filing of a Plan. A Disclosure Statement is used to solicit votes from creditors on the Plan, and it must contain "adequate information" regarding the Plan, meaning sufficient information for a reasonable investor typical of holders of claims to make an informed judgment whether to vote in favor or against the Plan. A debtor may not solicit votes on a Plan until the Bankruptcy Court has approved the Disclosure Statement.
Any creditor or equity security holder whose rights are being altered by the Plan has a right to vote to accept or reject the Plan. The court fixes a deadline for voting on the Plan, which must provide parties voting on the Plan with sufficient time to receive and review the Plan, Disclosure Statement and other materials.
In some cases, other parties, including the creditor's committee or an official or ad hoc committee of equity security holders, may circulate a proposed Plan of Reorganization or a term sheet setting forth the elements of a proposed Plan.
Development of a Plan is a dynamic process, and in the case of a debtor with a significant environmental liability portfolio, this may be a lengthy and difficult process, as numerous parties, including governmental agencies at multiple levels, negotiate with the debtor and other creditors regarding their treatment under the Plan.
4. Confirmation of Plan and Effective Date
The court must conduct a hearing to consider confirmation of the Plan. Any party in interest may appear and object to confirmation of the Plan. Once confirmed, all parties are bound to the terms of the Plan regardless of how they voted. On the Effective Date of the Plan, the debtor emerges from bankruptcy. At that time, custodial trusts are established, claims are discharged and environmental settlement agreements generally become effective.
C. Key Terms in Environmental Settlement
In the bankruptcy context, the environmental settlement agreement is the document in which a company settles its environmental liability with the governmental entities. As to the structure of the environmental settlement agreement, some settlements are global where the agreement includes all sites and some settlements involve many separate agreements, each concerning a limited number of sites. The advantage of one global, multi-site settlement agreement is simplicity in its structure, but the difficulty is that many more parties need to be brought on board and the document can therefore be very cumbersome to negotiate. In the Tronox case,13 there was one global settlement agreement that incorporated the settlement for all sites.
One reason for this is that part of the settlement included a share of the potential recovery from Tronox's fraudulent conveyance litigation against Kerr-McGee and Anadarko; by providing for allocation of those proceeds in one document the settlement process was simplified.
1. Environmental Settlements Generally Pursuant to Section 122 of CERCLA, EPA is authorized to negotiate settlement agreements with those parties potentially liable under section 107 of CERCLA.14 EPA has discretion to enter into a settlement agreement with any party to perform a response action at a Superfund site, provided that the agreement is in the public interest and is consistent with the National Contingency Plan. Section 122 provides that the settlement agreement must be entered in the appropriate United States district court as a consent decree.
2. Covenant not to sue
To encourage settlement in the bankruptcy context, EPA may provide a covenant not to sue to the debtor that covers a variety of sites. From the debtor's perspective, in some respects, this is the most critical protection in the settlement agreement because it allows its business to go forward without risk of being held further accountable for past environmental liabilities.
In the Tronox example, covenant not to sue protection was provided for the owned sites located in each state, and the United States and many of the states provided a covenant not to sue for certain nonowned sites specifically identified by Tronox in the Settlement Agreement.15
When negotiating a covenant not to sue, it is important to consider the breadth of the protection. There are several specific components that will determine how broad coverage will reach: (i) Statutory coverage: while CERCLA, for example, is almost always covered, parties may also seek protection against claims under RCRA, the Clean Water Act,16 other federal statutes and state equivalents; (ii) Entity coverage: Though the debtor will receive coverage, it may have to negotiate to ensure that reorganized debtors, affiliates, subsidiaries, parents, successors, and assigns, and in some cases even officers, directors, shareholders, employees, agents, and consultants may also receive coverage; and (iii) Scope: while owned sites receiving funds pursuant to the settlement agreement will generally receive coverage, debtors may have to negotiate and give additional funds to obtain protection for all owned sites, non-owned sites, and sometimes even sites that have not yet been identified for which debtor could be held liable in the future.
3. Contribution Protection
Section 113(f)(2) of CERCLA states that, "a person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State in an administrative or judicially approved settlement shall not be liable for claims for contribution regarding matters addressed in the settlement."17 This provision has been used to protect parties who have settled their liability with the federal government from suit by other parties. However, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has now left open the question of whether a party may bring a cost recovery action under Section 107 of CERCLA against a party who has settled its liability under Section 113.18 This area of law continues to evolve. The issue of which provisions of CERCLA, Section 107 and/or Section 113, are available for PRPs to use to recover funds from other PRPs is important because the contribution protection afforded by the government specifically protects only against PRP claims under Section 113(f), but not under Section 107.
4. Comment Period/Notices
The federal government and certain states cannot enter into an environmental settlement agreement without first complying with public notice and comment requirements. In addition, in some instances, public meetings may also be held. It is important to be aware of these requirements in each state that will be covered by a settlement agreement because if the requirements are not met, a party may be able to work around the contribution protection provided in the agreement.
5. Selection of Trustees
If the settlement agreement involves the use of custodial trusts to hold property owned by the debtor, a custodial trustee is usually appointed to manage the trusts. The governmental agencies which are parties to the settlement agreement usually have the greatest influence in the selection of the trustee. The selection process often involves the identification of several potential trustees, a request that each prepare an application or presentation demonstrating its qualifications to serve as custodial trustee, and then an evaluation and decision as to which of the potential trustees is the best candidate. Some custodial trustees are "career" trustees, who serve as custodial trustees in several different matters as the focus of a professional career; others are environmental consulting and engineering firms with technical knowledge of particular properties and where a related entity will be conducting the remediation work at those properties. In either case, it can be helpful to select the trustees prior to the execution of the settlement agreement to enable the trustees to provide input into the agreement. However, this can also provide additional complications because it will involve a new party in the settlement negotiations and such a party may not yet be formally authorized or funded because funding and authorization of custodial trustees usually occur after the settlement agreement has been executed.
6. Other Provisions
Other provisions to consider when negotiating settlement agreements in the bankruptcy context include document sharing provisions, both regarding electronic information and paper files, transfer of environmental permits, treatment of natural resource damage claims, and transfer of existing orders if custodial trusts are involved.
Though environmental bankruptcy cases may appear daunting at first, a lawyer's familiarity with both the bankruptcy process and environmental laws is key to reaching favorable outcomes for clients with environmental liabilities in bankruptcy.
1. Jeanne T. Cohn-Connor is a Partner in the Environmental Transactions Group within Kirkland & Ellis' Washington D.C. Office. The author acknowledges the assistance of Stefanie Gitler, an Associate with Kirkland & Ellis LLP, in the preparation of this article. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Kirkland & Ellis LLP or any of its affiliates.
2. Fed. R. Bankr. P., Official Form 1, Exhibit C.
3. See Fed. R. Bankr. P. 1007(a)(1) and (c).
4. See 11. U.S.C. § 362(a).
5. See 11. U.S.C. § 362(b)(4).
6. See Penn Terra Ltd. v. Department of Environmental Resources, Com. of Pa., 733 F.2d 267 (3rd Cir. 1984); US v. Nicolet, Inc, 857 F.2d 202 (3rd Cir. 1988).
7. See Safety-Kleen, Inc. (Pinewood) v. Wyche, 274 F.3d 846 (4th Cir. 2001). In Safety-Kleen, the Fourth Circuit held that, in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case, a state administrative order requiring compliance with RCRA financial assurance requirements remains in effect, even though the debtor had filed a Chapter 11 petition, because the primary purpose of financial assurance requirements is to deter environmental misconduct. EPA has cited to Safety-Kleen to justify seeking enforcement actions against bankrupt entities that are not in compliance with financial assurance requirements.
8. See supra at 6.
9. See 11 U.S.C. § 1121. In rare circumstances, such as fraud or gross mismanagement, the debtor's exclusive period in which to fi le a plan of reorganization may be terminated by the court upon motion by a party in interest.
10. In re Asarco LLC, Case No. 05-21207.
11. 11 U.S.C. § 554(a).
12. In In re Midlantic Nat'l Bank v. NJ Dept. of Envtl. Prot., 474 U.S. 494, 502 (1986), the Supreme Court ruled that a debtor "may not abandon property in contravention of a state statute or regulation that is reasonably designed to protect the public health or safety from identified hazards." This case has been read to bar a debtor from abandoning any environmentally contaminated property. Other courts, however, have taken a narrower view of the Midlantic decision, and have prohibited abandonment of property only in instances where the existing environmental violations threaten an "imminent harm" to the public. See In re L.F. Jennings Oil Co., 4 F.3d 887 (10th Cir. 1993) (if there is no immediate and identifiable danger to the public health or safety, property may be abandoned); In re Smith-Douglass, Inc., 856 F.2d 12 (4th Cir. 1988) (same).
13. In re Tronox Inc., Case No. 09-10156.
14. See 42 U.S.C. 9622 (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act).
15. See In re Tronox Inc.
16. 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et. seq.
17. 42 U.S.C. § 9613(f)(2).
18. United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U.S. 128 (2007). For more on this case, please see Gitler, Stefanie. Note. Settling the tradeoffs between voluntary cleanup of contaminated sites and cooperation with the government under CERCLA. (United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 127 S. Ct. 2331, 2007); 35 Ecology L.Q. 337-361 (2008).