Still Fighting the Good Fight Using Old Insurance to Cover Investigation and Clean-up Costs

Written By: Steve Henshaw, President and CEO of EnviroForensics

As seen in the March 2015 issue of Cleaner & Launderer

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More often than not, environmental contamination and historical operations of a dry cleaning business go hand in hand.  While this may sound unfair, one could say the same thing about the historical operations of a gas station, a metal plater, even a computer microchip manufacturer.  Particularly true for activities in the 1970’s and 80’s, industries that used chemicals for cleaning and degreasing were not aware that those chemicals when spilled, even accidentally and in small quantities, could and often have lead to soil and groundwater contamination.

Degreasers are often comprised of a hydrogen atom, tightly connected to chlorine atoms and fall under a general organic chemistry category called chlorinated hydrocarbons or chlorinated solvents.  These chemicals are characterized as being heavier than water (so they sink in the groundwater zone), persistent in the environment (meaning they don’t decompose very fast over time), volatile (meaning they prefer being in the gas phase over the liquid phase) and carcinogenic (meaning they have been determined to either cause cancer or may likely cause cancer to people being exposed at certain levels).  No matter which side of the argument you stand on, whether cleaning solvents cause cancer or not, one thing everyone should agree on is that investigating and remediating sites where chlorinated solvents like PCE (PERC) or TCE are present is very expensive.

With respect to responsibility, any person or company that owned or operated a business where chlorinated solvents were used should know that with very few exceptions, they are legally liable for contamination associated with that business and operation.  Worse yet, the law states that an individual or the business is held jointly and severally responsible.

Finally, like taxes, environmental liability is considered a long-tail liability in that it never goes away.

On the face of it, what I’ve presented seems so unfair.  After all, chlorinated solvents were considered to be safe and state of the art and were not explosive or flammable like petroleum based products (e.g. kerosene or Stoddard solvent).  People were handling the solvents in accordance with the laws of the time some 50 years ago and now they are considered an environmental risk subject to legal enforcement.  Businesses that operated with good housekeeping practices and followed the rules are subject to be in the same category as a business that showed blatant disregard for the laws or the environment and operated a filthy business.  A business that operated one year is just as liable for the environmental contamination as a business that operated for 20 years.  Who makes this stuff up?  It most certainly is not fair.

Enough of the doom and gloom, what can a person do to protect themselves from a possible environmental contamination lawsuit?  It’s all about the records and the most valuable documents a person can find and keep are old insurance policies.  Additionally parties that are legally liable for contamination need to be searching for past owners and operators of businesses the may have contributed to the contamination.  The search should also include the past property owners

Old insurance policies; normal, everyday, comprehensive general liability (CGL) insurance policies, which were written years ago for protecting a business from slip and fall accidents, fires, other unexpected risks, can also cover unexpected and unintended spills and releases of solvents.

It is important to know that insurance case law is dynamic and specific issues are being tried and changed continuously in the state and federal courts.  Some states would be considered pro-policyholder and some states pro-insurance depending on fact patterns, circumstances and specific court decisions.  What is commonly accepted in one state may not be true in another state.

For years we have espoused that business owners need to find their old insurance policies and store them in a safe, dry and fireproof place.  CGL policies were purchased by business owners to cover them against liability exposures of a business, unless such liabilities were specifically excluded in the policy.  Generally speaking, prior to the early 1970’s, CGL policies did not contain language that excluded environmental pollution and contamination.  Between ~1972 to ~1985, CGL policies contained language that covered “unexpected and unintended releases”.  Such unexpected and unintended releases mean accidental releases or accidental spills, not intentional releases, which would be better defined as dumping or disposing.  For example, common insurance policy language in the 70’s and 80’s states, “This policy does not apply: To personal injury or property damage arising out of the discharge, dispersal, release or escape of smoke, vapors, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, toxic chemicals, liquids or gases, waste materials or other irritants, contaminants or pollutants into or upon land, the atmosphere or any water course or body of water, but this exclusion does not apply if such discharge, dispersal, release or escape is sudden and accidental.”

After ~1985, most insurance companies added very specific language to CGL policies that contained absolute pollution exclusion.  In other words, they were not covering individuals and businesses for pollution or contamination associated with dry cleaning operations.  A separate environmental policy would be required to cover environmental pollution and contamination

Better still, the courts in some states have ruled that the term “pollution” and therefore “pollution exclusion” is an ambiguous term the way the insurance policies were written, even after the nationwide changes that took place in ~1985.  Consider this logic, gasoline is purchased by a service station.  If an accident happened while you were filling your car at that service station that injured you or someone you were with, you would expect the service station or someone involved with the accident to have insurance that would pay for your injuries.  Yet, if the gasoline drained into the ground and caused contamination to a drinking water body it was not covered by insurance because the gasoline was now considered a contaminant.  I think that logic was in play when courts of some states ruled that the word contamination was ambiguous.

So, going back to the basic point, if you or your business bought CGL insurance before the policies contained absolute pollution exclusion language, you are likely to have insurance coverage that can address environmental contamination, even if that contamination has only been recently discovered.  If you acquired the business, the business before you may have insurance that would cover environmental contamination costs.

You might ask, that’s all great, but what if I can’t find my old policies or the policies that were bought by former owners?  In my experience, more times than not, those old policies (or evidence of insurance) can still be found.  There are companies that have investigators called insurance archeologists that focus on finding old policies or evidence of old policies.  In my experience, more often than not, a good insurance archeologist can find evidence of old insurance.

OK, you have found old insurance, now what?  Insurance is designed to defend and indemnify a policyholder against a claim.  That claim is the demand from the regulatory agency or third party requiring action to mitigate the damage or harm.   In some states a claim or suit could be a letter from the regulatory agency or a neighboring property owner demanding a response to identified environmental contamination.  In other states the courts have determined that the insurers must only defend an actual lawsuit.

In pulling this concept together, a defense would include paying for lawyers dealing with the environmental contamination.  A defense would also include quantifying an individual or business’s exposure and liability.  The only way to quantify environmental liability is to collect environmental samples (e.g. soil, soil gas, indoor vapor, and groundwater).  It would also mean determining how expensive a cleanup would be, which means that aquifer tests, feasibility studies, and remediation technology evaluations, should be covered.

Obviously, the process of using old insurance policies has many parts.  There may be an insurance archeology component, a legal component, and a technical component and they all have to work together.   Understanding all aspects of the process is not your job, that’s what you hire experts for.

If you’re facing an environmental liability of hundreds of thousands of dollars, you should look into how old insurance policies could work for you.  Hundreds of business owners have used historical insurance to help pay for investigations and remediations and it doesn’t stop there.

Depending on the set of facts, known environmental insurance claims can be sold and assigned to other third parties to manage and run.  Small businesses, including their stock, insurance assets and liabilities can be bought and sold.  There are numerous permutations to the business side of managing environmental claims and a whole new industry is in front of us.  It might be encouraging to know that there are those out there still fighting the good fight.

With over 30 years of experience, Mr. Henshaw has built a leading edge environmental engineering company that specializes in finding the funding to pay for environmental liabilities.  Mr. Henshaw holds professional geology registrations in numerous states. And serves as executive manager on hundreds of environmental projects.  He specializes in managing environmental risk and liability and has been involved with complex business transactions that have included shifting environmental liabilities, insurance claim assignment and third party assumption of insurance assets and associated claims.


With 30 years of experience, Mr. Henshaw holds professional geology registrations in numerous states. As President and CEO of EnviroForensics, Mr. Henshaw serves as a client and technical manager on projects associated with site characterization, remedial design, remedial implementation and operation, litigation support and insurance coverage matters. He has acted as Project Manager or Client Manager on several hundred projects, involving dry cleaners, manufacturers, landfills, refineries, foundries, metal plating shops, food processors, wood treating facilities, chemical blenders, and transportation facilities.

Mr. Henshaw has built a leading edge environmental engineering company that specializes in finding the funding to pay for environmental liabilities. By combining responsible party searches with insurance archeology investigations, EnviroForensics has been successful at remediating and closing sites for property owners and small business owners across the country, with minimal capital outlay from clients. 

He is a regular contributing writer for several dry cleaning trade publications on environmental and regulatory issues and remains active with dry cleaning associations by providing insight on changes in law and policy.
For more information, contact Steve Henshaw at: shenshaw@enviroforensics.com

 

DERF Goes Broke (Again): Historical Insurance Remains Source of Funding

For the second time in 5 years, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (WDNR) Dry Cleaner Environmental Response Fund (DERF) has run out of funds necessary to keep pace with claims from dry cleaners dealing with perc cleanups. In the meantime, the WDNR has expressed no intention to slow down its enforcement activities.

The language from WDNR Hydrogeologist Theresa Evanson, P.H.’s letter to drycleaners specifically states, “Despite the projected DERF revenue shortfall and anticipated delays in reimbursements to eligible drycleaners, state law still requires that those responsible for contamination or who own contaminated property undertake investigation and cleanup of those properties.” This is an alarming statement to many drycleaners already involved in the DERF and uncertain when they’ll receive DERF aid. It’s even more disturbing if you’re a dry cleaner who’s trying to refinance or sell his business and who was counting on the DERF to be there if due diligence detected any contamination.

Continue reading “DERF Goes Broke (Again): Historical Insurance Remains Source of Funding”

Good Housekeeping Includes Good Record Keeping

Written by Steve Henshaw, President and CEO of EnviroForensics and PolicyFind
As seen in the December 2009 issue of Western Cleaner & Launderer

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You can tell a lot about a drycleaner’s operation by the way that he conducts housekeeping. That is to say that if a drycleaner keeps a clean store, he probably handles chemicals in a manner that minimizes environmental releases. However, good housekeeping alone may not keep you out of hot water with the regulatory agencies.

There are some simple, effective and inexpensive ways to protect your business and your assets from liability by keeping good records. If you’ve ever watched one of the procedural crime dramas, the plot usually turns around “the evidence.” Creating, organizing and maintaining records can be the evidence that keeps you out of trouble. Hazardous waste manifests, perc purchase/disposal records, transporter license numbers and treatment facility identification numbers are all examples of things you should (or, in some cases, must) keep records of. However, those records aren’t just in case of a major problem. They can help you identify a minor problem before it gets serious. Continue reading “Good Housekeeping Includes Good Record Keeping”

How Insurance Archeology Can Assist Dry Cleaners When Environmental Contamination Claims Threaten Their Business

By Steve Henshaw, P.G., President and CEO of EnviroForensics & PolicyFind, in collaboration with David O’Neill, Director of Investigations, PolicyFind
As seen in the October 2009 issue of Western Cleaner & Launderer.

PDF Version

The dry cleaner had gone to the attic in search of his old business package policies. He explained that he had no idea before visiting an attorney that these old expired insurance policies could be of any use to him. Since they were package policies, they contained more than one line of insurance. Parts of the policy provided coverage against damage to his building, against break-ins, storm damage and even workers compensation coverage. As far as he knew, all of this coverage had long ago expired. Why would he still have copies of these old policies? There was no reason, he thought, that he would have kept them. They would have to be in a box or two that he had neglected to put in the dumpster. Continue reading “How Insurance Archeology Can Assist Dry Cleaners When Environmental Contamination Claims Threaten Their Business”

Using Old Insurance to Cover Investigation and Clean-Up Costs

Written by Steve Henshaw, P.G., President & CEO, EnviroForensics
As seen in the September 2009 issue of Cleaner & Launderer

PDF Version

I heard from some readers that my last few articles were a little too technical and in addressing those comments, I’ve decided to go back to basics. That is to say, what are basic concerns that dry cleaners have? Since this is the Environmental Corner and staying with that topic, it is my experience that one of those basic concerns that dry cleaners might have deals with the questions,“How am I going to pay for an environmental investigation and clean-up?” Old insurance policies may be an answer.

For years I’ve espoused that business owners need to find their old comprehensive general liability (CGL) policies and store them in a safe, dry and fireproof place. CGL policies were purchased by business owners to cover them against all liability exposures of a business unless specifically excluded. Coverage includes products, completed operations, premises and operations, elevators, independent contractors, to name a few. Note the key words, “unless specifically excluded.” These words are very important in determining whether an individual or businesses old insurance policies can be used to pay for environmental investigations and clean-ups.

Continue reading “Using Old Insurance to Cover Investigation and Clean-Up Costs”