The Australian Sawmilling Co Pty Ltd (in liq) v Environment Protection Authority  VSCA 294
The Victorian Court of Appeal’s decision in The Australian Sawmilling Co Pty Ltd (in liq) v Environment Protection Authority  VSCA 294 casts significant doubt on liquidators’ capacity to rely upon section 568 of the Corporations Act to disclaim environmental liabilities, despite the absence of any involvement of the liquidator in the creation of those liabilities.
This is a particularly important decision for liquidators of companies operating within industries that are heavily governed by environmental regulations, such as agribusinesses, mineral and resources extraction, forestry management and waste management industries.
The Victorian Court of Appeal found that a liquidator will be unable to disclaim environmental liabilities where the prejudice to the State and taxpayers will outweigh prejudice suffered by the company’s creditors if the disclaimer was not upheld.
The current law as confirmed in Australian Sawmilling is that a decisive factor in preventing liquidators from avoiding personal liability for environmental clean-up costs is the existence of a full indemnity for the liquidators’ benefit in respect of those liabilities and the consequent absence of prejudice to the liquidator and creditors compared with the corresponding detriment suffered by the State if such a disclaimer is upheld.
The company to which the liquidators were appointed was a sawmilling company (TASCO) which was the registered proprietor of land which was leased to C&D Recycling, a materials recycling business. The land (which was TASCO’s sole asset upon the liquidators’ appointment) was unusable and unsaleable, as it contained large piles of industrial waste and other contaminants following C&D Recycling’s entry into liquidation and cessation of occupation of the land. Shortly after commencement of the liquidation, the Victorian EPA exercised its statutory powers to take possession of the land to undertake works for remediation of the contamination. The EPA then sought to recover the costs of those works as a statutory debt due and payable by the “occupier” of the land under section 4 of the Environmental Protection Act 1970 (Vic) (the EP Act). The liquidators sought to disclaim TASCO’s interest in the land under s 568 of the Corporations Act on the basis that the contamination made the land unsaleable and realisation costs would significantly exceed any sale proceeds.
The EPA and the State of Victoria sought to set aside the disclaimer in order to preserve the liquidators’ ongoing liabilities relating to the land, including in relation to the EPA’s environmental clean-up costs.
At first instance, and on appeal, the Court found in favour of the EPA and the State. Those findings included the following:
The following matters were of particular importance to the Court’s deliberations:
The availability of the indemnity, combined with the effect of both the EPA’s undertaking and the operation of section 545 of the Corporations Act, meant that neither creditors nor the liquidators would be materially prejudiced if the disclaimer were set aside. Conversely, if the disclaimer were to stand, the EPA and the State would have suffered significant prejudice by reason of becoming solely responsible for meeting remediation costs.
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