A Case of the Vapors – Does New Jersey’s Newest Vapor Intrusion Technical Guidance Foreshadow a Return to the “Old Days” of Environmental Regulation in New Jersey?

Posted on June 20, 2013 by Kenneth Mack

Enacted in May 2009, New Jersey’s “Site Remediation Reform Act”, N.J.S.A. 58:10C-1, et seq. (“SRRA” or “Act”) was heralded by the State’s Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) as a “new world order” for the State’s site remediation regulation.  Four years later, its imposition remains a “work in progress”.

Belatedly following Massachusetts’ lead, the Act largely privatized site remediation by placing most decisions, including the ultimate provision of final remediation approval, in the hands of state-licensed professionals, called “Licensed Site Remediation Professionals” (“LSRPs”).  It replaced NJDEP’s former “command and control” approval process, which tended toward extreme micro-management of each case.  Instead, LSRPs are supposed to use their professional judgment in effecting remediation.

Interestingly, much of the impetus for the SRRA came chiefly from the Government, compelled by its enormous backlog of unresolved cases: it was not unusual for remedial reports to languish on NJDEP desks, awaiting action, for years.  Moreover, NJDEP had little or no knowledge of many sites on its “known contaminated site list” which numbered anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 (the fact that that number was unclear was itself troublesome).  Indeed, one of the precipitating causes of the Act was a vapor intrusion case in which it was belatedly discovered, in 2006, that a child day care center had been built, and was operating, on a site which formerly housed a thermometer factory.  This site should have been (but was not) cleaned up under the State’s ISRA law when the factory closed in 1994.  The site had been classified as one of “low” concern, so it was not inspected by NJDEP until twelve years after such closure.  The discovery of these circumstances caused public consternation, followed by litigation and, ultimately, legislation. 

Although the environmental consultant community enthusiastically welcomed the new law (almost immediately dubbed the “environmental consultant right to work act”), individual LSRPs continue to have difficulty weaning themselves away from the “security blanket” of prior department approval of their actions.  These fears are understandably heightened by the statutorily enjoined random audit of at least ten percent of LSRPs annually by the LSRP Licensing Board and the Department’s separate ability to audit final remediation approvals, (called “Response Action Outcomes”, or “RAOs”), for up to three years after issuance. 

Partly in response to the LSRPs’ expressed need for some certainty, NJDEP has been steadily adding to the scope and detail of various technical guidance documents, the most recent one of which is its “Vapor Intrusion Technical Guidance (Version 3.1)" issued in March of this year. At 184 pages, with appendices, this guidance (“VI Guidance”) is nearly twice as long as the next-largest NJDEP “guidance document” and far longer than similar VI guidance issued by authorities in neighboring states.  Indeed, its length is nearly that of OSWER’s External “Review Draft” “Final Guidance for Assessing and Mitigating the Vapor Intrusion Pathway from Subsurface Sources to Indoor Air”, whose issuance it preceded by about a month.  Predictably,  the two documents do not exactly mesh seamlessly. 

The prescriptive nature of the VI Guidance is equal to its heft and seemingly contrary to the Act’s proclaimed conferring of discretionary judgment upon LSRPs.  More troublesome is the fact that the various detailed dictates to LSRPs in the VI Guidance have been translated into a welter of forms that must be filed by the LSRP at various points in the VI remedial process.  These new forms –which are apt to change with some frequency – are all “machine readable” and, in light of the draw-down of experienced NJDEP personnel caused by government cutbacks and natural attrition, are increasingly reviewed by machines, rather than experienced personnel, at least in the first instance.  This seems likely to produce an exaltation of form over substance that does little to foster actual remediation.  Moreover, departures from the VI Guidance must be supported by the LSRP’s explanation of rationale under a pre-SRRA regulation entitled “Variance from Technical Requirements”.  Few such “variances” were ever permitted under this regulation in the past.  The fact that such “departures” may be substantively reviewed by NJDEP only after the final RAO is issued and, if denied, would result in the RAO’s invalidation, creates an added “chilling effect” on an LSRP’s consideration of any such deviation, however warranted.  And, while NJDEP personnel continue to be available to LSRPs for consultation and advice, it is unclear what effect, if any, reliance on such advice would have in any subsequent audit of an RAO. 

It may be that the VI Guidance is sui generis and that its overly doctrinaire approach will not be followed by NJDEP in other areas of remediation.  If not, the “new world order” of the SRRA may morph into something that looks very much like NJDEP’s  “ancien regime”.  Or maybe I just have a case of the vapors.

NJDEP’S WAIVER RULE

Posted on January 16, 2013 by William L. Warren

Introduction

The concept of a “Waiver Rule” to be promulgated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP” or “Department”) created both excitement within the New Jersey regulated community and consternation among environmental groups.  Business and development interests saw a Waiver Rule as a long overdue attempt by NJDEP to bring some flexibility into the State’s environmental regulatory experience.  Environmentalists were convinced the Waiver Rule concept would open the door for polluters and greedy developers to complete an end run around New Jersey’s complex environmental statutory and regulatory scheme.  A coalition of environmental and conservation groups initiated litigation challenging the adoption of the Waiver Rule.  The environmentalists argued their case against the validity of the Waiver Rule before a three-judge appellate panel on January 14.  In response to this argument, representatives of the business community told the court that a common sense approach to environmental regulation in New Jersey, as embodied in the Waiver Rule, is needed to spur economic development.  It is likely this issue will end up before the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The Waiver Rule, N.J.A.C. 7:1B, became reality in response to Governor Chris Christie’s Executive Order No. 2, which attempted to instill “common sense principles” into the governing of New Jersey.  Executive Order No. 2 and the Waiver Rule promised a better environmental regulatory climate to improve the State’s economy. 

Will the Waiver Rule, effective as of August 1, 2012, actually make a difference?  In its first five months, the Waiver Rule does not yet seem worthy of the regulated community’s early enthusiasm or the trepidation of the environmental groups.  To date, NJDEP has still not approved a waiver under the Waiver Rule and, according to NJDEP’s Office of Permit Coordination & Environmental Review, only fourteen waiver applications have been accepted for review by NJDEP since August 1st.

NJDEP’s philosophy on the implementation of the Waiver Rule may well be embodied in N.J.A.C. 7:1B-1.1(b) which states:  “[i]t is not the purpose of this chapter to allow for the routine circumvention of any Department rule.”  The NJDEP guidance makes clear that application of the Waiver Rule will be limited.  Only NJDEP (and not any Licensed Site Remediation Professional) is allowed to grant a waiver under the Waiver Rule.  Will NJDEP ever get to “yes” on a waiver application?  Time will tell.

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NJDEP Site Ranking Letter and Draft Data Forms Will Require Prompt and Careful Attention

Posted on June 7, 2012 by William L. Warren

Significant consequences may result from the upcoming remedial priority ranking of approximately 12,000 contaminated sites by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).  In mid-May NJDEP initiated its formal communications with parties responsible for contaminated sites by sending data forms that identified the information that NJDEP will use to compute the remedial priority rankings of most contaminated sites.  After about a 90 day review and comment period, NJDEP will rank all of the sites on a scale from 1 to 5, with “1” being the “lowest risk potential” and “5” being the “highest risk potential.”  Within about sixty days of receipt of the data form, each recipient will have to register with the NJDEP to preserve its right to submit comments.  Only the Licensed Site Remediation Professional (LSRP) for the site, required to be retained by responsible parties by May 7, 2012, may submit the actual comments on the data form.  NJDEP intends to publish site rankings in the Fall and to update the rankings quarterly commencing in 2014, as more data becomes available for each site during the course of remediation.

NJDEP originally planned to publish draft site rankings and submit the rankings for comment.  However, it decided to issue these draft forms instead, explaining that it wanted to focus its efforts on giving parties the opportunity to make sure that it had up-to-date site remediation information before it calculated the site ranking.
NJDEP’s ranking will be based on:

• risk to the public and the environment;
• length of time the site has been undergoing remediation;
• economic impact; and
• other factors deemed relevant.

I.  Why Is NJDEP Ranking Sites, and How Will Sites Be Affected by the Ranking?

Besides a long overdue statutory obligation to rank contaminated sites, NJDEP wants to insure that the sites with the highest potential risk are being remediated.  Although nothing is certain, NJDEP likely will not take any action, even if a site is highly ranked, so long as:

• the site is undergoing active remediation;
• no enforcement actions have been commenced; and
• an LSRP has been retained.

However, if the remediation is not proceeding in compliance with these criteria, a high ranking may cause NJDEP to place the site under its “Direct Oversight,” and “Direct Oversight” is not a place that most responsible parties want to be. (See Section III. below)  It is also true that a highly ranked site, even if not placed under NJDEP “Direct Oversight,” is more likely to receive public scrutiny and potential adverse publicity than is a lower ranked site.  NJDEP, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and legislators constantly receive requests from environmental groups and others to take remedial action or investigate the progress of a remediation.  Undoubtedly, a site with a high ranking is a target for future attention, especially because NJDEP will be posting the rankings on its website.

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A Swing of the Pendulum?

Posted on March 30, 2012 by John A. McKinney Jr

It’s long been posited that as courts become more familiar with environmental remediation cases, they will be less likely to defer to a regulator’s overstated claims of environmental harm or assertions of environmental liability.  Instead, courts will require proof rather than conclusory evidence masquerading as a fact.  A recent case in New Jersey, where the state law akin to CERCLA is the Spill Compensation and Control Act (“Spill Act”), may be the harbinger of similar decisions elsewhere.

In New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection v. Dimant, 418 N.J.Super. 530, 14 A.3d 780 (App.Div. 2011), the intermediate appellate court reviewed a trial court decision on liability for remediation of a 365 acre site contaminated predominantly with perchloroethylene (PCE), a cleaning solvent and degreaser.  The site included residences, dry cleaners, and a former gas station site, with two federal Superfund sites nearby.  The NJDEP had observed a pipe dripping PCE years earlier at a defendant’s property, and it contended that the defendant was strictly liable for the cost of remediating the 365 acres even if the hazardous substance discharge was de minimis.  Instead, the trial court ruled that it is not enough to show a discharge, and that damages from the discharge must also be shown.  In other words, there must be a “nexus” between the contamination being remedied and the actual discharge.  The appellate court agreed, opining that a plaintiff seeking to prevail must “demonstrate that the defendant had some connection to the damages caused by the PCE contamination, or had added to any contamination already caused by past operation.”

Both this decision and that below are examples of a court going back to basics.  Causation cannot be presumed.  Discharges must be tied to damages.  The failure to prove a nexus to the damages sought will not be ignored in a rush to judgment or under the guise of facilitating cleanups.  Prove the case or watch out!  But the New Jersey Supreme Court has granted certification on the strict liability issue, and so we will soon see how far that pendulum has swung.

Is the Era of “Enforceable Guidance” Coming to an End?

Posted on February 24, 2012 by William Hyatt

Typically, EPA guidance contains a “disclaimer” that it does not impose legally binding requirements and that the agency retains the discretion, on a case-by-case basis, to adopt different approaches.  In practice, however, EPA tends to require strict adherence to its guidance as though the guidance had been adopted as a binding regulation.  State regulatory agencies have followed the same or similar patterns.  The practice avoids the notice and comment protections of the Administrative Procedure Act and its state counterparts, denies access to the courts to challenge unlawful guidance, and creates uncertainty in the regulated community. Recently, however, New Jersey has signaled what may be the beginnings of a departure from that approach. 

In January, 2012, after years of advocacy by the regulated community, the New Jersey Legislature adopted Assembly Bill No. 2464, which prohibits the use of guidance documents that have not been adopted as rules, unless the guidance is posted on the agency’s website.  On January 17, 2012, Governor Christie signed A. 2464 into law.  P.L.2011, c.215 (N.J.S.A. 52:14B-3a).  Under the bill, even published guidance cannot impose new or additional requirements not spelled out in state or federal law or rules that the guidance is intended to clarify.  Most importantly, guidance not promulgated as a rule cannot be used as a substitute for state or federal law or rules for enforcement purposes.

This issue came to a head when the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection adopted rules implementing the recently enacted Site Remediation Reform Act, N.J.S.A. 58:10C-1 et seq. (SRRA), best known for creating a licensed site remediation professional program. The rules explicitly made NJDEP guidance enforceable.  That guidance, which contained a number of provisions the regulated community thought were extreme, had not undergone the notice and comment process required by the state APA. 

Now, NJDEP finds itself in an awkward position, having adopted rules which run counter to the newly adopted statute and having relied on the enforceability of its guidance to implement the SRRA.  As of this writing, the agency has not publicly disclosed how it intends to cope with this awkwardness.  It will be interesting to see whether Congress and the legislatures in other states follow the lead of A. 2464.