The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. John E. Jones III
THE BACKGROUND OF THIS MEMORANDUM IS AS FOLLOWS:
Pending before the Court is the Appeal of Appellant Douglas A. Thebes ("Debtor") from the October 19, 2011, Order of the United States Bankruptcy Court of the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1). For the reasons fully articulated herein, the Appeal shall be denied.
Jurisdiction over the instant bankruptcy appeal is premised upon 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). "[F]indingsof fact made by the bankruptcy court may be reversed only for clear error." In re NelsonCo., 959 F.2d 1260, 1263 (3d Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). However, legal questions and conclusions are subject to plenary, de novo review. Id.; see also In re O'Brien Envtl. Energy Inc.,188 F.3d 116, 122 (3d Cir. 1999).
On April 10, 2010, the Debtor, Douglas A. Thebes ("Debtor") filed a voluntary Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. That case was docketed at 1:10-bk-03302 and was assigned to the Honorable Mary D. France, Chief United States Bankruptcy Judge. The petition was later converted to Chapter 11, and on January 10, 2011, was converted to Chapter 7.
On February 7, 2011, the Debtor commenced an adversary proceeding against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environment ("DEP" or "Appellee"), docketed at 1:11-ap-00049. The Debtor sought a declaration that a pre-petition cleanup obligation to the DEP is a debt dischargeable in Chapter 7 bankruptcy under the bankruptcy code. The DEP filed a Motion for Summary Judgment and a brief in support thereof, along with supporting documentation and a statement of material facts. The Debtor filed an Answer to the Motion and a brief in opposition; however, the Debtor did not exercise his option to respond to the DEP's statement of material facts and thus the facts as asserted by the DEP were deemed to be admitted pursuant to Local Rule 56.1.
After thorough and considered analysis of the parties' briefs and the record, Judge France entered an Opinion and Order on October 19, 2011, which granted the DEP's Motion and concluded that the Debtor's obligations owed to the DEP "do not fit the standards set for a claim and, therefore, are not dischargeable in bankruptcy under § 727(b)." (M.D. Pa. Bankr. No. 1:11-ap-00049, Doc. 49).
On December 5, 2011, Debtor filed a Notice of Appeal. The parties have fully briefed the Appeal (Docs. 4-5), and it is therefore ripe for our review.
A. The Contamination and DEP Cleanup Order
The Debtor, jointly with Christopher R. Thebes and Frederick D. Thebes, is the owner of a 58-acre parcel of land located in Perry County, Pennsylvania. An adjacent parcel of approximately 93 acres is solely owned by Frederick D. Thebes. Both properties will collectively be referred to as the "Thebes Site." For a period of time prior to 1990, the Thebes family was permitted by the state to use the Thebes Site as a landfill; however, for approximately sixteen years, beginning in April of 1990 and continuing through May of 2006, the Thebes family continued to deposit solid waste on the site, or direct its employees to do so, without the requisite state permits. The family did not undertake appropriate and requisite precautionary measures to protect against contamination of the ground or groundwater supply.
On November 15, 2006 and March 15, 2007, the DEP investigated the Thebes Site to determine whether sixteen years of illegal waste dumping had resulted in contamination and, if so, to what extent. The Environmental Hearing Board ("EHB"), based upon this investigation and the evidence presented to it, found that pollutants and contaminants from the deposited waste pose a significant danger of pollution and that ...