« Environment - Illinois AG Lisa Madigan "Wins One for ... the Carp?" | Main | Law - "Kentucky lawmakers ask for gun ban in Capitol"; what about Indiana? »

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Environment - More on: Superfund used to justify $28,000 bill to fight fire at couple's home [Updated]

Updating this ILB entry from Feb. 19, 2010, 6News Indy, which broke the story, had an update this evening:

LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A federal court ruling could keep a company from charging fees some consider outrageous for fire services and car accidents.

A federal judge in northern Indiana ruled against Emergency Services Billing Corp. less than a month after a 6News investigation called its practices into question in a different case.

The case in northern Indiana that led to the ruling pertained to car crashes and the company's contention that it and fire departments could recover thousands of dollars for environmental cleanup that it claimed was necessary.

The judge ruled that cars should be considered consumer products in consumer use and that ESB can't charge people involved in crashes federal environmental cleanup fees.

The court ruled that ESB's case has no merit and the company cannot recover response costs under federal law.

ESB claimed that under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, it could get fees to cover the response to environmental hazards.

In February, 6News' Joanna Massee talked to a New Castle family who was sent a bill for nearly $28,000 after a fire at their home.

ESB cited CERCLA in that case, too, claiming the scene of the fire was a hazardous waste site.

6News sought comment from ESB's owner on Monday, but calls were not returned.

Here is an earlier 6News story, from Feb. 20th:
NEW CASTLE, Ind. -- The chief of a volunteer fire department at the center of controversy over a $28,000 bill sent to a family who lost their home to a fire spoke out about the practice Friday, saying collecting fees is vital to the department's survival, but that the family shouldn't have been billed.

Brian and Darline Fairchild received an itemized bill after a fire last year that included charges for water firefighters drank at the scene and refilling firefighters’ oxygen tanks, along with the billing company’s 22 percent fee, 6News’ Joanna Massee reported.

“What we’re trying to do is get money in the department for the community,” said Cadiz/Harrison Volunteer Fire Chief Mark Stults.

Asked if he thought the bill was fair to the Fairchild family, Stults replied, “I don’t think that, at one shot, is necessarily correct.”

Brownsburg-based Emergency Services Billing Corp. works with Cadiz/Harrison and other volunteer and professional fire departments to collect from insurance agencies.

Stults said the company is not collecting from individuals and that the Fairchilds should not have been billed. The family is outraged.

“I mean, your insurance will go up if we have to pay for it, so it is affecting us,” Darline Fairchild said.

“I always thought that volunteer fire department was just that -- volunteer -- and taxes helped pay for that,” Brian Fairchild said.

Stults said money collected will go toward maintaining equipment that is in dire need of repair and upgrade. He admitted the fire did not cost the fire department $28,000 to battle.

“Because of the vehicles, you’re talking about maintenance. You’re talking about maintenance to the gear,” he said. “You’re talking about upkeep on everything.”

Asked why the family should be billed $28,000 if the fire didn’t cost that much to fight, Stultz replied, “That, I really can’t tell you.”

Stults said his department is speaking with Emergency Services Billing about the situation, but said his department will continue to seek payment for the cost of maintaining and replacing old equipment.

“The pancake suppers, the breakfasts that everyone puts out, that’s not enough money to keep the departments open,” he said.

Attorney Robert Blackford, who runs Emergency Services Billing, said federal environmental law allows him to charge unlimited fees for house fires and car crashes.

Rep. Dan Burton said Thursday that he will try to change the law if the practice can’t be stopped any other way.

[Updated 3/24/10] Here is the March 19, 2010, 20-page ruling of federal Judge Rudy Lozano in the case of Emergency Services v. Allstate. The opinion deals with a Westville volunteer fire department, which responded to various motor vehicle accidents and:
which presented the potential of a fire and the release, or potential release, of hazardous materials into the air. Westville provided traffic control, assessed the potential release of hazardous materials into the air, and incurred expenses for responding to the accidents. On behalf of Westville, ESBC prepared invoices for payment of Westville’s removal services and sent them to the insurer * * *

No reason has been provided for why the Court should ignore the EPA’s guidance on this issue, whose interpretation of the consumer products exception also alines with the plain meaning of CERCLA. * * * As initiated by the EPA in 1983, the Court finds that “consumer product in consumer use” refers to its ordinary meaning, which includes the private passenger motor vehicles specifically at issue in this case being used for personal purposes.

Take a look at the website of ESBC ("billing solutions for your budget"). ESBC appears to be located in Lebanon, IN and according to this website (for which the ILB certainly cannot vouch) "Current estimates show this company has an annual revenue of $43,000 and employs a staff of approximately 1." This site shows it located in Brownssburg, IN.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on March 23, 2010 06:53 PM
Posted to Environment | Ind Fed D.Ct. Decisions | Indiana Government