JENNIFER WALKER ELROD, Circuit Judge:
This appeal presents us with a question of statutory interpretation. Specifically, we must determine whether the district court was correct in its summary judgment determination that Nature's Way, as the owner of a tugboat, was also "operating" an oil barge that the tugboat was moving at the time of a collision, as the term is
The relevant facts of this appeal are not in dispute. In January 2013, a tugboat owned by Nature's Way was moving two oil-carrying barges owned by Third Coast Towing down the Mississippi River. The barges were "dumb" barges lacking the ability for self-propulsion or navigation, and as such were reliant on the propulsion and navigation provided by the tugboat. The barges collided with a bridge, resulting in one of the barges discharging over 7,000 gallons of oil into the Mississippi River. Nature's Way and its insurer (collectively "Nature's Way"), as well as Third Coast Towing and its insurer (collectively "Third Coast") were all designated by the Coast Guard as "responsible parties" under the Oil Pollution Act. Nature's Way subsequently spent over $2.99 million on the clean-up, and various governmental entities spent over an additional $792,000.
Third Coast and Nature's Way settled a lawsuit between them in late 2014. In May 2015, Nature's Way submitted a claim to the National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC) seeking reimbursement of over $2.13 million on the grounds that its liability should be limited by the tonnage of the tugboat and not the tonnage of the barges.
The government moved for partial summary judgment on the sole question of whether the NPFC violated the APA by declaring Nature's Way an "operator" of the barge and denying reimbursement of the $2.13 million-plus.
A federal court will overturn an agency's ruling under the APA "only if it is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, or unsupported by substantial evidence on the record[.]" Buffalo Marine Servs. Inc. v. United States, 663 F.3d 750, 753 (5th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). Federal courts generally review an agency's legal conclusions de novo, unless precedent obligates that we follow one of several deference regimes. Id. at 753-54. Summary judgment is appropriate when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Finally, this court reviews a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Buffalo Marine, 663 F.3d at 753.
Both parties dedicate considerable portions of their briefs disputing whether the NPFC's determination that Nature's Way was an "operator" should be entitled to Chevron deference.
Because this is a question of statutory interpretation, we begin with the text of the statute. See Matter of Glenn, 900 F.3d 187, 190 (5th Cir.2018) ("We begin with the text of [the relevant statute]."). 33 U.S.C. § 2702(a) establishes that each "responsible party" shall be liable for the removal costs and damages when oil is discharged into navigable waters or onto adjoining shorelines. Section 2701(32)(A) defines a "responsible party" as "[i]n the case of a vessel, any person owning, operating, or demise chartering the vessel." The statute does not define "operating," offering instead only the circular definition that an "owner or operator" is "in the case of a vessel, any person owning, operating, or chartering by demise, the vessel." Id. § 2701(26)(A)(i). It therefore falls to the court to give the term its "ordinary or natural meaning." United States v. Bestfoods, 524 U.S. 51, 66, 118 S.Ct. 1876, 141 L.Ed.2d 43 (1998) (citation omitted).
Defining the term "operating" in the context of an oil discharge is not terra nova for the courts. Indeed, the Supreme Court has already grappled with the term as it is used in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA),
Bestfoods, 524 U.S. at 66, 118 S.Ct. 1876.
It follows from that analysis that the ordinary and natural meaning of an "operator" of a vessel under the OPA would
Nonetheless, Nature's Way argues that the Bestfoods definition of "operator" should be understood differently. Nature's Way emphasizes language in another section of the Bestfoods opinion which states: "when [Congress] used the verb `to operate,' we recognize that the statute obviously meant something more than mere mechanical activation of pumps and valves, and must be read to contemplate `operation' as including the exercise of direction over the facility's activities." Id. at 71, 118 S.Ct. 1876. According to Nature's Way, its conduct in moving the barge was more akin to the "mere mechanical activation of pumps," and it cannot be deemed to have been "operating" the barge because it was merely moving the barge as per Third Coast's directions, and it did not exercise control over its environmental affairs or inspections. In support of its argument, Nature's Way points to an order from the District of Kansas, where that court held that a vice-president with only general management responsibilities over a facility was not an "operator" of the facility under CERCLA because there was no showing that he actively managed or directed any of the facility's environmental operations. See Harris v. Oil Reclaiming Co., 94 F.Supp.2d 1210, 1213 (D. Kan. 2000).
However, navigating a barge through a river entails a degree of discretion and judgment significantly different than that required for the "mere mechanical activation of pumps." Moreover, even if the District of Kansas case were applicable to the case at hand, it would appear to cut the other way. In that case, the vice-president was held not to be an "operator" of a facility because there was no showing that he personally engaged in the activities which caused the pollution; in this case, Nature's Way directed precisely the activity that caused the pollution — it literally was the party that crashed the barge into the bridge. To hold that Nature's Way was not "operating" the barge at the time of the collision would be to strain beyond the ordinary and natural meaning of the word.
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We therefore AFFIRM the district court's grant of partial summary judgment for the government.
As alleged in this case, the NPFC considered the findings of a Marine Casualty Investigation Report in adjudicating the claim made by Nature's Way and determining Nature's Way to be an "operator" of the barges. However, 46 U.S.C. § 6308(a) clearly states that no part of a Marine Casualty Investigation Report, including its findings of facts, shall be admissible as evidence in "any civil or administrative proceedings."
The U.S. Coast Guard, which is both the parent agency of the NPFC and the entity that conducts Marine Casualty Investigations, has interpreted 46 U.S.C. § 6308(a) as inapplicable to the NPFC claims at issue here on the bases that such claims are an "internal, informal agency process" and that its prior interpretation of the statute — which it had read to exclude using Marine Casualty Investigation Reports as evidence in NPFC claims — was resulting in delays and duplicative efforts. See 71 Fed. Reg. 60,553 (Oct. 13, 2006); 72 Fed. Reg. 17,574-02 (Apr. 9, 2007).
The Coast Guard's interpretation of 46 U.S.C. § 6308(a) as inapplicable to the administrative proceeding of an NPFC claim is puzzling to say the least. The most natural reading of a statute that states no part of a Marine Casualty Investigation Report shall be admissible as evidence in "any civil or administrative proceedings" would be that such reports cannot be used as evidence in any civil or administrative proceedings — not that such reports cannot be used in any civil or administrative proceedings except for NPFC claims.
In an appropriate case, further examination is warranted on the question of whether the plain language of 46 U.S.C. § 6308(a) permits the Coast Guard's interpretation that the statute is inapplicable to NPFC claims, and, if that is not a permissible interpretation, whether the consideration of such reports in an NPFC claim would be a procedural defect precluding Chevron deference. However, this case is not the appropriate one to reach that issue because, without any deference whatsoever, we conclude that the NPFC's interpretation of the word "operating" is correct under the ordinary and natural meaning of the term.