Insurance is a crucial source of funding for most environmental cleanups. For the past 30 years, comprehensive general liability insurance policies have uniformly included an “absolute pollution exclusion” in some form or another. The earliest such exclusions appeared in the 1950’s, but they became ubiquitous boilerplate in the mid-1980s. As a result, most applicable environmental coverage is found in policies pre-1985, and many policyholders incorrectly assume that their post-1985 policies provide no such coverage. This assumption stems from a string of court decisions finding that absolute pollution exclusions eliminate coverage for traditional industrial pollution under Oregon law. Martin v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 146 Or. App. 270, 275-80, 932 P.2d 1207 (1997);Ind. Lumbermens Mut. Ins. Co. v. W. Or. Wood Prod., Inc., 268 F.3d 639 (9th Cir. 2001). While absolute pollution exclusions are broad, and often do exclude pollution from traditional sources, they do not eliminate all coverage for environmental claims, and policyholders should thoroughly review each of their policies to determine whether coverage exists.

Most absolute pollution exclusions are incorporated into standardized forms and use language originally written by the Insurance Services Office (the “ISO”). The ISO’s pollution exclusion, which is widely referred to as the “absolute pollution exclusion,” actually expressly creates coverage in certain circumstances. For example, the ISO’s exclusion does not apply if contamination results from a “hostile fire” or from a failure of equipment used to heat, cool, or dehumidify a building. While the factual scenarios in which express coverage is created are limited, a policyholder should determine whether any such scenarios apply. Even if only part of the environmental claim falls within the scope of express coverage, the insurer may be required to provide a full defense under Oregon law. While the scenarios where coverage is expressly not excluded are few, it is important to review each such scenario at the outset to ensure that no coverage is missed.

Another important analysis is whether the environmental claim involves a pollutant as defined by the policy. If the contamination does not result from the release of a “pollutant,” the exclusion typically will not bar coverage. The ISO exclusion includes a very broad definition of what constitutes a pollutant. While many courts have given the term “pollutant” a very broad interpretation, other courts have interpreted “pollutant” to include only traditional or inherently dangerous contaminants. MacKinnon v. Truck Ins. Exch., 31 Cal. 4th 635, 73 P.3d 1205, 3 Cal Rptr. 3d 228 (2003); In re Hub Recycling, Inc., 106 B.R. 372 (D.N.J. 1989). Determining whether a released substance is a pollutant often requires a review of how the substance was used and how it has impacted the property. While many courts have addressed whether commonly applied products, such as pesticides, can be considered pollutants, many of these questions remain unanswered under Oregon law. If contamination has resulted from something other than the accidental release of a regulated substance, a policyholder may have coverage despite the inclusion of an absolute pollution exclusion by showing that the substance is not a “pollutant.”

Policyholders also need to be on the lookout for policies that include purported absolute pollution exclusions that do not utilize standardized ISO language. While most policies include standardized ISO exclusions, some insurers have used individualized exclusions that apply less broadly. For example, some of the early insurer-specific absolute pollution exclusions apply only to releases into waterbodies or to claims brought by government authorities. In these cases, coverage remains in place for releases onto land or claims brought by corporations. Insurer-specific absolute pollution exclusions are most commonly found in policies from the 1980s, but a policyholder may run into them at any time.

While absolute pollution exclusions often leave an insured without coverage, they are not as ironclad as their name suggests. The policyholder facing an environmental claim should retain coverage experts as soon as possible to determine which policies create coverage, including those policies that include purported absolute pollution exclusions.