Note 8: Commitments and Contingencies
As summarized by purpose directly above in Note 7, our standby letters of credit totaled $54,530,000 as of March 31, 2019.
As described in Note 2, our nonmineral operating lease liabilities totaled $434,681,000 as of March 31, 2019.
As described in Note 9, our asset retirement obligations totaled $225,186,000 as of March 31, 2019.
LITIGATION AND ENVIRONMENTAL MATTERS
We are subject to occasional governmental proceedings and orders pertaining to occupational safety and health or to protection of the environment, such as proceedings or orders relating to noise abatement, air emissions or water discharges. As part of our continuing program of stewardship in safety, health and environmental matters, we have been able to resolve such proceedings and to comply with such orders without any material adverse effects on our business.
We have received notices from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or similar state or local agencies that we are considered a potentially responsible party (PRP) at a limited number of sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund) or similar state and local environmental laws. Generally, we share the cost of remediation at these sites with other PRPs or alleged PRPs in accordance with negotiated or prescribed allocations. There is inherent uncertainty in determining the potential cost of remediating a given site and in determining any individual party's share in that cost. As a result, estimates can change substantially as additional information becomes available regarding the nature or extent of site contamination, remediation methods, other PRPs and their probable level of involvement, and actions by or against governmental agencies or private parties.
We have reviewed the nature and extent of our involvement at each Superfund site, as well as potential obligations arising under other federal, state and local environmental laws. While ultimate resolution and financial liability is uncertain at a number of the sites, in our opinion based on information currently available, the ultimate resolution of claims and assessments related to these sites will not have a material effect on our consolidated results of operations, financial position or cash flows, although amounts recorded in a given period could be material to our results of operations or cash flows for that period.
We are a defendant in various lawsuits in the ordinary course of business. It is not possible to determine with precision the outcome, or the amount of liability, if any, under these lawsuits, especially where the cases involve possible jury trials with as yet undetermined jury panels.
In addition to these lawsuits in which we are involved in the ordinary course of business, certain other material legal proceedings are more specifically described below:
■ Lower Passaic River Study Area (DISCONTINUED OPERATIONS) — The Lower Passaic River Study Area is part of the Diamond Shamrock Superfund Site in New Jersey. Vulcan and approximately 70 other companies are parties (collectively the Cooperating Parties Group, CPG) to a May 2007 Administrative Order on Consent (AOC) with the EPA to perform a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (draft RI/FS) of the lower 17 miles of the Passaic River (River). The draft RI/FS was submitted recommending a targeted hot spot remedy; however, the EPA issued a record of decision (ROD) in March 2016 that calls for a bank-to-bank dredging remedy for the lower 8 miles of the River. The EPA estimates that the cost of implementing this proposal is $1.38 billion. In September 2016, the EPA entered into an Administrative Settlement Agreement and Order on Consent with Occidental Chemical Corporation (Occidental) in which Occidental agreed to undertake the remedial design for this bank-to-bank dredging remedy, and to reimburse the United States for certain response costs.
In August 2017, the EPA informed certain members of the CPG, including Vulcan, that it planned to use the services of a third-party allocator with the expectation of offering cash-out settlements to some parties in connection with the bank-to-bank remedy. This voluntary allocation process is intended to establish an impartial third-party expert recommendation that may be considered by the government and the participants as the basis of possible settlements. We have begun participating in this voluntary allocation process, which is likely to take several years.
In July 2018, Vulcan, along with more than one hundred other defendants, was sued by Occidental in United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, Newark Vicinage. Occidental is seeking cost recovery and contribution under CERCLA. It is unknown at this time whether the filing of the Occidental lawsuit will impact the EPA allocation process.
In October 2018, the EPA ordered the CPG to prepare a streamlined feasibility study specifically for the upper 9 miles of the River. This directive is focused on dioxin and covers the remaining portion of the River not included in the EPA’s March 2016 ROD.
Efforts to remediate the River have been underway for many years and have involved hundreds of entities that have had operations on or near the River at some point during the past several decades. We formerly owned a chemicals operation near the mouth of the River, which was sold in 1974. The major risk drivers in the River have been identified as dioxins, PCBs, DDx and mercury. We did not manufacture any of these risk drivers and have no evidence that any of these were discharged into the River by Vulcan.
The AOC does not obligate us to fund or perform the remedial action contemplated by either the draft RI/FS or the ROD. Furthermore, the parties who will participate in funding the remediation and their respective allocations have not been determined. We do not agree that a bank-to-bank remedy is warranted, and we are not obligated to fund any of the remedial action at this time; nevertheless, we previously estimated the cost to be incurred by us as a potential participant in a bank-to-bank dredging remedy and recorded an immaterial loss for this matter in 2015.
■ TEXAS BRINE MATTER (DISCONTINUED OPERATIONS) — During the operation of its former Chemicals Division, Vulcan secured the right to mine salt out of an underground salt dome formation in Assumption Parish, Louisiana from 1976 - 2005. Throughout that period and for all times thereafter, the Texas Brine Company (Texas Brine) was the operator contracted by Vulcan (and later Occidental) to mine and deliver the salt. We sold our Chemicals Division in 2005 and transferred our rights and interests related to the salt and mining operations to the purchaser, a subsidiary of Occidental, and we have had no association with the leased premises or Texas Brine since that time. In August 2012, a sinkhole developed in the vicinity of the Texas Brine mining operations, and numerous lawsuits were filed in state court in Assumption Parish, Louisiana. Other lawsuits, including class action litigation, were also filed in federal court before the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans.
There are numerous defendants, including Texas Brine and Occidental, to the litigation in state and federal court. Vulcan was first brought into the litigation as a third-party defendant in August 2013 by Texas Brine. We have since been added as a direct and third-party defendant by other parties, including a direct claim by the state of Louisiana. Damage categories encompassed within the litigation include individual plaintiffs’ claims for property damage, a claim by the state of Louisiana for response costs and civil penalties, claims by Texas Brine for response costs and lost profits, claims for physical damages to nearby oil and gas pipelines and storage facilities (pipelines), and business interruption claims.
In addition to the plaintiffs’ claims, we were also sued for contractual indemnity and comparative fault by both Texas Brine and Occidental. It is alleged that the sinkhole was caused, in whole or in part, by our negligent actions or failure to act. It is also alleged that we breached the salt lease with Occidental, as well as an operating agreement and related contracts with Texas Brine; that we are strictly liable for certain property damages in our capacity as a former lessee of the salt lease; and that we violated certain covenants and conditions in the agreement under which we sold our Chemicals Division to Occidental. We likewise made claims for contractual indemnity and on a basis of comparative fault against Texas Brine and Occidental. Vulcan and Occidental have since dismissed all of their claims against one another. Texas Brine has claims that remain pending against Vulcan and against Occidental.
A bench trial (judge only) began in September 2017 and ended in October 2017 in the pipeline cases. The trial was limited in scope to the allocation of comparative fault or liability for causing the sinkhole, with a damages phase of the trial to be held at a later date. In December 2017, the judge issued a ruling on the allocation of fault among the three defendants as follows: Occidental 50%, Texas Brine 35% and Vulcan 15%. This ruling has been appealed by the parties.
We have settled all but two outstanding cases and our insurers have funded these settlements in excess of our self-insured retention amount. The remaining cases involve Texas Brine and the state of Louisiana. Discovery remains ongoing and we cannot reasonably estimate a range of liability pertaining to these open cases at this time.
■ NEW YORK WATER DISTRICT CASES (DISCONTINUED OPERATIONS) — During the operation of our former Chemicals Division, which was divested to Occidental in 2005, Vulcan manufactured a chlorinated solvent known as 1,1,1-trichloroethane. We are a defendant in 14 cases allegedly involving 1,1,1-trichloroethane. All of the cases are filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. According to the various complaints, the plaintiffs are public drinking water providers who serve customers in Nassau County and Suffolk County, New York. It is alleged that our 1,1,1-trichloroethane was stabilized with 1,4-dioxane and that various water wells of the plaintiffs are contaminated with 1,4-dioxane. The cases, against us and other defendants, have been filed by the following plaintiffs: Albertson Water District, Bethpage Water District, Carle Place Water District, Garden City Park Water District, Jericho Water District, Manhasset-Lakeview Water District, Oyster Bay Water District, Plainview Water District, Port Washington Water District, Roslyn Water District, South Farmingdale Water District, Suffolk County Water Authority, Water Authority of Great Neck North, and the West Hempstead Water District (collectively, the Cases). The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. We will vigorously defend the Cases. At this time we cannot determine the likelihood or reasonably estimate a range of loss, if any, pertaining to the Cases.
■ HEWITT LANDFILL MATTER (SUPERFUND SITE) — In September 2015, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) issued a Cleanup and Abatement Order (CAO) directing Vulcan to assess, monitor, cleanup and abate wastes that have been discharged to soil, soil vapor, and/or groundwater at the former Hewitt Landfill in Los Angeles. The CAO follows a 2014 Investigative Order from the RWQCB that sought data and a technical evaluation regarding the Hewitt Landfill, and a subsequent amendment to the Investigative Order requiring us to provide groundwater monitoring results to the RWQCB and to create and implement a work plan for further investigation of the Hewitt Landfill. In April 2016, we submitted an interim remedial action plan (IRAP) to the RWQCB, proposing an on-site pilot test of a pump and treat system; testing and implementation of a leachate recovery system; and storm water capture and conveyance improvements.
Operation of the on-site pilot-scale treatment system began in January 2017, and was completed in April 2017. With completion of the pilot testing and other investigative work, we submitted an amendment to the IRAP (AIRAP) to RWQCB in August 2017 proposing the use of a pump, treat and reinjection system. In December 2017, we submitted an addendum to the AIRAP, incorporating new data acquired since the prior submission. In February 2018, the AIRAP was approved by RWQCB. As a result of this approval, we have begun to implement the on-site source control activities described in the AIRAP. In 2018, we accrued a total of $19,032,000 (Q3 - $8,640,000 and Q4 - $10,392,000) for the on-site remedy, bringing the life-to-date total to $34,271,000.
We are also engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the EPA, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and other stakeholders regarding the potential contribution of the Hewitt Landfill to groundwater contamination in the North Hollywood Operable Unit (NHOU) of the San Fernando Valley Superfund Site. We are gathering and analyzing data and developing technical information to determine the extent of possible contribution by the Hewitt Landfill to the groundwater contamination in the area. This work is also intended to assist in identification of other PRPs that may have contributed to groundwater contamination in the area.
The EPA and Vulcan entered into an AOC and Statement of Work having an effective date of September 2017 for the design of two extraction wells south of the Hewitt Site to protect the North Hollywood West (NHW) well field. In November 2017, we submitted a Pre-Design Investigation (PDI) Work Plan to the EPA, which sets forth the activities and schedule for our evaluation of the need for a two-well remedy. These activities were completed between the first and third quarters of 2018, and in December 2018 we submitted a PDI Evaluation Report to the EPA. The PDI Evaluation Report summarizes data collection activities conducted pursuant to the PDI Work Plan, and provides model updates and evaluation of remediation alternatives to protect the NHW and Rinaldi-Toluca well fields from 1,4-dioxane from the Hewitt Site. Vulcan has not yet received comments or feedback from the EPA or the Regional Board on the report. Until the EPA’s review of the PDI Evaluation Report is complete and an effective remedy can be agreed upon, we cannot identify an appropriate remedial action. Given the various stakeholders involved and the uncertainties relating to issues such as testing, monitoring, and remediation alternatives, we cannot reasonably estimate a loss pertaining to this matter.
■ NAFTA ARBITRATION — In September 2018, our subsidiary Legacy Vulcan, LLC (Legacy Vulcan), on its own behalf, and on behalf of our Mexican subsidiary Calizas Industriales del Carmen, S.A. de C.V. (Calica), served the United Mexican States (Mexico) a Notice of Intent to Submit a Claim to Arbitration under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Our NAFTA claim relates to the treatment of a portion of our quarrying operations in the State of Quintana Roo, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, arising from, among other measures, Mexico’s failure to comply with a legally binding zoning agreement and relates to other unfair, arbitrary and capricious actions by Mexico’s environmental enforcement agency. We assert that these actions are in breach of Mexico’s international obligations under NAFTA and international law.
As required by Article 1118 of NAFTA, we sought to settle this dispute with Mexico through consultations. Notwithstanding our good faith efforts to resolve the dispute amicably, we were unable to do so and filed a Request for Arbitration, which we filed with the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in December 2018. In January 2019, ICSID registered our Request for Arbitration.
We expect that the NAFTA arbitration will take at least two years to be concluded. At this time, there can be no assurance whether we will be successful in our NAFTA claim, and we cannot quantify the amount we may recover, if any, under this arbitration proceeding if we were successful.
It is not possible to predict with certainty the ultimate outcome of these and other legal proceedings in which we are involved and a number of factors, including developments in ongoing discovery or adverse rulings, or the verdict of a particular jury, could cause actual losses to differ materially from accrued costs. No liability was recorded for claims and litigation for which a loss was determined to be only reasonably possible or for which a loss could not be reasonably estimated. Legal costs incurred in defense of lawsuits are expensed as incurred. In addition, losses on certain claims and litigation described above may be subject to limitations on a per occurrence basis by excess insurance, as described in our most recent Annual Report on Form 10-K.