Crossroads: The Collision of Bankruptcy's Automatic Stay and Environmental Law’s Injunctive Relief

By: Adam M. Back , Former Staff Member; Note Published in JNREL Vol. 20, No.1

Abstract by: Addison Schreck, Staff Member

The goals and policies of environmental law and bankruptcy law are not concepts generally thought to be of much consequence to one another. However, when a polluting company approaches insolvency, the interaction between the two becomes significantly more apparent. The Bankruptcy Code's automatic stay, as well as its creditor priority provisions, 11 U.S.C. § 362 and 11 U.S.C. § 726 respectively, bring the conflict between the two fields into the limelight.

The automatic stay provisions act to suspend any government enforcement proceedings including environmental ones. This accompanied by the government's status as a low priority creditor under § 726 make the situation a unique one. In general, the policy behind the government's low priority is sound. It is the government's inherent duty to foster economic well-being. Therefore, it makes sense that they would allow their own coffers to go wanting so that private creditors can be paid. However, the public policy argument which is generally applicable is not as appropriate in this case.

Environmental incidents are by their nature worsened by the passage of time. Therefore, the impediments created by the provisions of the Bankruptcy Code oftentimes force governmental agencies to pursue injunctive actions to remedy the situation. Such actions can force the insolvent party even further into debt and also result in sub-sufficient cleanup efforts due to the entity's already depleted resources and lack of expertise. While an environmental exception has been proposed to the automatic stay provisions of the Bankruptcy Act, perhaps the most promising solution proposed is heightening the government's priority during the distribution of a bankrupt entity's assets.

Given the current volatile state of the economy, bankruptcy law promises to be an area that will see developments over the coming years. Whether and to what extent these changes will give deference to environmental concerns is as yet unknown, but it is clear that the current state of affairs does not appropriately address the competing interests at hand.