Midlantic National Bank v. New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection

474 U.S. 494, 106 S. Ct. 755 (1986)



If Congress intends for legislation to change the interpretation of a judicially created concept, it makes that intent specific.


Quanta Resources Corp. (Quanta) processed waste oil at facilities located in New York and New Jersey. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) discovered that Quanta had violated a provision of the operating permit for the New Jersey facility by accepting oil contaminated with a toxic carcinogen. During negotiations with NJDEP for the cleanup of the New Jersey site, Quanta filed a petition for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, and after NJDEP had issued an order requiring cleanup, Quanta converted the action to a liquidation proceeding under Chapter 7. An investigation of the New York facility then revealed that Quanta had also accepted similarly contaminated oil at that site. The trustee notified the creditors and the Bankruptcy Court that he intended to abandon the property under § 554(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, which authorizes a trustee to "abandon any property of the estate that is burdensome to the estate or that is of inconsequential value to the estate." The City and the State of New York objected, contending that abandonment would threaten the public's health and safety, and would violate state and federal environmental law. The Bankruptcy Court approved the abandonment, and, after the District Court affirmed, an appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Meanwhile, the Bankruptcy Court also approved the trustee's proposed abandonment of the New Jersey facility over NJDEP's objection, and NJDEP took a direct appeal to the Court of Appeals. In separate judgments, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Bankruptcy Court erred in permitting abandonment.


May a trustee in bankruptcy abandon the property in consideration of § 554(a) of the Bankruptcy Code?




In the light of the Bankruptcy trustee's restricted pre-1978 abandonment power and the limited scope of other Bankruptcy Code provisions, the court here concluded that Congress did not intend for § 554(a) to pre-empt all state and local laws. The Bankruptcy Court does not have the power to authorize an abandonment without formulating conditions that will adequately protect the public's health and safety. Accordingly, without reaching the question whether certain state laws imposing conditions on abandonment may be so onerous as to interfere with the bankruptcy adjudication itself, the court holds that a trustee 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.  Accordingly, we affirm the judgments of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

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