Superfund: After Nearly Forty Years, Still a Work in Progress

Posted on October 19, 2017 by William Hyatt

Since its enactment, the Comprehensive Environmental, Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as the Superfund statute, has probably received more diagnostic attention than any other environmental law.  That is not surprising, considering EPA has devoted more resources to the Superfund program than to any other program the agency administers.  Matters were not helped by the program’s rocky start, with allegations of impropriety swirling around the agency and the head of the Superfund program winding up in jail. Meanwhile, the liability regime designed to fund the Superfund program spawned an avalanche of litigation, resulting in crushing transaction costs.  Over the years, the Superfund program has been consistently controversial and has undergone a steady stream of “reforms,” reports to Congress and GAO studies. The statute itself has also been repeatedly criticized, including by the Supreme Court, for its lack of clarity.

As two recently released reports attest, the diagnostic process continues.  Both reports should be required reading for Superfund practitioners, but the question remains whether the underlying structural problems of the statute have been, or even can be addressed.

The first report is a paper commissioned by the American Council of Engineering Companies, entitled Superfund 2017, Cleanup Accomplishments and the Challenges Ahead.  The author, Katherine Probst, is a longtime, thoughtful commentator on Superfund matters and was a key member of the Resources for the Future team that issued a 2001 Report to Congress, entitled Superfund’s Future: What Will It Cost? A Report to Congress.  Her latest effort is largely a report card on the Superfund remedial program, lamenting the lack of sufficient information to conduct a thorough diagnosis. She makes a number of recommendations that the missing information be gathered, following which a new diagnosis would presumably be undertaken. In the meantime, the Probst report makes a number of interesting, but telling observations. For example, right from the start, EPA has struggled to measure the success of the cleanup program, but Probst points out that even though a significant percentage (24%) of non-federal sites have been deleted from the National Priorities List (NPL), and another 48% have been deemed “construction complete,” seven percent of sites on the NPL are still characterized as “human exposure not under control” and another 10% lack sufficient data to make a protectiveness determination.  Federal funding for Superfund continues to decline; states also face shrinking resources.  Not surprisingly, cleanup progress has slowed, not just for lack of funds, but also because the sites in the cleanup program today tend to be far more complex (and expensive) than the NPL sites of the past. EPA finds itself continuing to implement a prescriptive cleanup program that was not designed for many of the more complex sites on the 2017 NPL (e.g., mining and contaminated sediment sites).

The second document, entitled Superfund Task Force Recommendations, was issued by EPA in June, 2017. The Task Force was charged by the Administrator “to provide recommendations on an expedited timeframe on how the agency can restructure the cleanup process, realign incentives of all involved parties to promote expeditious remediation, reduce the burden on cooperating parties, incentivize parties to remediate sites, encourage private investment in cleanups and sites and promote the revitalization of properties across the country.”   These familiar themes led the Task Force to identify five basic goals, forty-two recommendations and various strategies for improving the Superfund program.  All the goals and recommendations are directed at speeding up the process of cleanup.  For example, one strategy advocates the use of “adaptive management” to expedite cleanup through use of early actions, interim records of decision and removal actions. Another advocates more centralized management of complex sites to assure consistency and aggressive oversight.

Even if all the recommendations contained in these two latest reports were to be accepted and implemented, the Superfund program would likely still be highly controversial with many of the challenges identified in the early days of the program still remaining to be solved.  Among those challenges are the following:

·         Is the National Contingency Plan (NCP) still the best “cookbook” for cleanup?  If not, what changes should be considered to achieve cleanup faster and better? Is the Superfund program too “process heavy?”  Is amendment of the NCP even politically feasible?

·         How can cleanups be accomplished with less study?  Particularly at complex mega-sites, NCP-compliant studies can take far too long.  Is the NCP process too prescriptive and too inflexible? 

·         How to measure success?  Should the key measurement be “construction complete,” or deletion from the NPL, or reduction of risk, or something else?  Should there be intermediate metrics of success?

·         Should there be greater centralized management of the Superfund program, as the report of the Superfund Task Force appears to advocate?  How should that be accomplished?  What is the appropriate role for CSTAG and NRRB?

·         How clean is clean?  Should the Superfund program chase every last molecule of hazardous substances, or reduce risk as quickly as possible?  Should there be greater use of the removal program?  As the saying goes, is “perfect the enemy of good?”

·         What should “cost effectiveness” mean in context of the Superfund program? Should proposed remedies be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis?

·         What is the proper role of EPA “guidance” in implementing the Superfund program?  Should guidance be binding on EPA?  Could that happen without notice and comment rulemaking?

·         Are the remedies implemented thus far in the Superfund program really effective?  For example, many groundwater cleanup programs were projected to have cleaned up contaminated groundwater by now.  Has that happened?  Can the pumps be turned off?

·         Should federal funds be used to leverage private party investment in cleanups?  Does EPA’s orphan share policy strike the right balance?

·         Does the statute strike the right balance between the federal and state interests in cleanup?  Should EPA and the states be true “partners”?

·         Should the lapsed Superfund tax be reinstated?  If so, in what form?

·         Finally, is there a role for fairness in Superfund?  Is the ban on pre-enforcement review too harsh a standard?

As this list of challenges demonstrates, Superfund will almost certainly remain a key subject for continued diagnosis in the future.

EPA Beginning Anew at Portland Harbor Superfund Site?

Posted on October 18, 2017 by Rick Glick

Although no official pronouncement has been issued, it appears that EPA Headquarters is looking at resetting the scoreboard for the Portland Harbor Superfund site.  EPA had already signaled that it would be reviewing significant, long-unresolved Superfund sites with an eye toward streamlining the process.  However, the latest action on Portland Harbor may have the opposite effect, since EPA has not yet involved major stakeholders, including the State of Oregon, City of Portland, Port of Portland, or the tribes.

Portland Harbor is an 11-mile stretch of the Willamette River in industrial Portland.  After a 17-year, PRP-led remedial investigation process, at a cost exceeding $110 million, EPA Region 10 issued a Record of Decision (ROD) in the closing hours of the Obama Administration.  The ROD itself recognized that the baseline data upon which Region 10 relied in selecting its preferred remedy had grown stale, and called for another site-wide round of sampling prior to any Remedial Design for specific facilities. 

EPA now is negotiating with certain, undisclosed private responsible parties on an Administrative Order on Consent (AOC) and a new sampling plan.  A review of the current draft drew a sharp response from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Whitman.  In a letter dated October 5, 2017 to Acting Regional Administrator Michelle Pirzadeh, Whitman invoked a 2001 Memorandum of Understanding between EPA, the state and tribes on the process for investigation and cleanup of Portland Harbor.  The letter criticizes EPA for keeping the state in the dark and demands the opportunity to fully participate in and comment on the new planning work.  Similar objections were raised by Governor Kate Brown, the City of Portland and the Yakama Nation.

Director Whitman also voiced substantive concerns with new directions in the draft AOC.  These include revisiting assumed fish consumption rates, a “reset of achievable remedy targets/actions,” and a focus on downstream sites with “data gaps” within Portland Harbor itself.

There is much to be critical of in Region 10’s handling of the Portland Harbor site, and revisiting the Region’s conclusions is appropriate.  The assumptions driving the cleanup approach, emphasizing removal over natural riverine processes, could cost well over $1.5 billion for questionable environmental benefit.  Indeed, had EPA not added Portland Harbor to the National Priority List, Oregon DEQ would likely have implemented a cleanup plan incorporating routine Army Corps of Engineers maintenance dredging of the Willamette River at far less cost.  The resulting economic hit to the region will be enormous.

Still, I am reminded of Sen. John McCain’s famous thumbs down vote on bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.  Apart from substantive elements of the bills, Sen. McCain decried the absence of “regular order” in enactment of major legislation.  That is, the congressional leadership bypassed the usual committee and collaborative review that identifies and fixes problems with the bill and lends legitimacy to the outcome. 

Region 10 has responded well to the criticism.  Acting Administrator Michelle Pirzeda, sent a reply letter offering assurances that the state, city and tribes will be involved going forward.  The letter sets a deadline of October 24 to submit comments on the draft plan.

While unnecessary confrontation over who may participate in the process is averted for now, the substance of the Portland Harbor reset is likely to be contentious.  Watch this space for developments.

EPA Proposes to Defund Superfund Litigation

Posted on October 12, 2017 by David Uhlmann

The Trump administration has unleashed a withering assault on environmental protection efforts that seeks to roll back decades of bi-partisan efforts to provide clean air and water in the United States.  Environmental groups and state attorneys general are challenging the EPA in court over its proposals to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Clean Water Rule, and dozens of lesser-known regulatory programs.  While those lawsuits have achieved some initial success, based on EPA’s failure to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act, there is justifiable concern about the fate of EPA’s regulatory programs.

But less attention has been paid to a rollback buried in the EPA’s FY 2018 budget, which also might have devastating impacts:  the proposal to end EPA funding of Superfund litigation by the Justice Department.  Since 1987, the EPA has reimbursed the Justice Department for the cost of bringing Superfund cost recovery cases, with as much as a third of the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) budget devoted to Superfund work.  (This year, ENRD was expecting about 20 percent of its funding to come from the EPA.)  The cost-sharing arrangement is enormously beneficial to the Superfund program, which receives hundreds of millions of dollars of cost recovery every year in cases litigated by ENRD.

EPA's effort to defund cost recovery litigation could lead to layoffs at ENRD, cripple the Superfund program, and undermine criminal and civil enforcement of the environmental laws.  The proposal has all of the features of another Trump administration executive fiat that could fly under our collective radar.  It deserves condemnation from everyone who cares about public health and the environment, as I explain in an October 4th New York Times op-ed entitled Undermining the Rule of Law at the EPA.

The Government’s “Bare Legal Title” CERCLA Defense Wears Thin

Posted on August 29, 2017 by Theodore Garrett

The United States has encouraged economic activities such as mining on federal lands.  Such activities have resulted in contamination and subsequent CERCLA cleanup orders.  Companies undertaking such cleanups have sought contribution from responsible parties including the United States.  Two recent decision reject the government’s argument that its “bare legal title” should not give rise to CERCLA owner liability.  A logical result and also poetic justice, since the United States has consistently urged that CERCLA be construed broadly and liberally as a remedial statute.  Turnabout is fair play.  

In Chevron Mining Inc. v. United States, the 10th Circuit on July 19, 2017 held that the United States was liable as an owner under CERCLA 107(a) because it owned national forest lands in New Mexico.  The lands were mined over several generations by Chevron Mining.  Chevron began remediation expected to cost more than $1 billion pursuant to three EPA administrative orders.  Chevron then filed suit against the United States seeking contribution.  The 10th Circuit held that owner liability attaches to the United States as the owner of portions of the site, and plaintiff need not show that the defendant caused the release of hazardous wastes that required cleanup.  The court rejected the government’s argument that “bare legal title” is insufficient to trigger owner liability, noting that CERCLA contains neither an express nor an implied exception for owners of “bare legal title.”  The court’s opinion also notes that Chevron received loans from the United States, under the Defense Production Act, to fund its exploration activities and received authorization from the Forest Service for pipelines to dispose of mine tailings.  The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings to determine the government’s equitable share. 

Similarly, in El Paso Natural Gas Company v. United States, the District of Arizona ruled on August 15, 2017 that the United States is liable under CERCLA as an owner of 19 uranium mines.  The mines are located on the Navajo Reservation and are being remediated by El Paso.  The court cited longstanding law that the United States owns fee title to reservation land.  The fact that the Navajo Nation has significant rights in reservation land is not inconsistent with the power of the United States over reservation land.  The court cited the Chevron Mining case above with approval, and also noted dicta from the 9th Circuit that the passive title owner of real property is liable.  Given CERCLA’s broad remedial purposes, the district court held that the United States, as a fee title holder with plenary and supervisory powers over reservation land, is an owner for purposes of CERCLA.  The court’s decision does not address the extent of the government’s liability, to be addressed in the equitable allocation phase of the case. 

These and other decisions will support efforts by companies responsible for remediation at CERCLA sites on federal land to have the government contribute an appropriate share of the cleanup costs.  Also, mindful of its potential liability, perhaps the government will more carefully consider risks and costs when making remedy decisions, which would be welcomed at all sites, whether or not on federal lands.

The Yanomami Model for Superfund

Posted on June 16, 2017 by Rick Glick

In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal celebrates the new priorities being set by Scott Pruitt’s EPA.  Mr. Pruitt, in the Journal’s opinion, is properly elevating the “more immediate” problem of Superfund sites over the “religion” of climate change.  Sadly, it seems, the misguided and naïve Obama Administration preferred “symbolic” climate measures over the more prosaic but urgent cleanup of Superfund sites. 

This of course is a false choice, since the country—and planet—must confront a wide array of pressing environmental problems.  Implementation of the Clean Power Plan doesn’t have much bearing on Superfund administration; both climate change and environmental cleanups need attention.  But aside from the Journal’s gratuitous trolling of climate policy, they are correct that Superfund is a program in need of reform.

One of the examples cited in the editorial is the Portland Harbor Superfund site, comprised of about 10 miles of contaminated river sediment.  Prior to listing, Oregon DEQ’s approach was to control potential ongoing contributions from upland sites, coordinate with the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the most serious pockets of contamination in the course of routine maintenance dredging, and then let natural riverine processes bury the rest.  There is a lot of science to support the notion that this approach would be plenty protective of human health and the environment.

Alas, EPA Region 10 added Portland Harbor to the National Priority List in 2000.  Seventeen years and over $100 million later, Region 10 issued its Record of Decision, but then hit the pause button because much of the data supporting the ROD had become stale.  A new round of sampling is soon to begin.  In the meantime, scores of PRPs are locked into the process with no way out until costs are fixed.  EPA currently pegs the cost at $1.05 billion, a figure no one but Region 10 believes to be close to the actual cost.

EPA’s selected remedy relies much more heavily on contaminant removal and capping, and less on natural processes, than the remedy proposed by the PRPs.  Unfortunately, EPA’s remedy does not reflect the enormous body of data that indicate such an aggressive approach is not necessary to protect people or the environment.  A prime driver for EPA is that it assumes a much higher rate of resident fish consumption by humans than do the PRPs’ scientists.  The region’s iconic salmon species migrate through the Portland Harbor without bioaccumulating toxins in the sediments.  Never has so much money been deployed to produce so little environmental benefit.

In his book In Trouble Again, the English gonzo explorer Redmond O’Hanlon describes his adventures trekking the Amazon rainforest and his encounter with the Yanomami people.  O’Hanlon witnessed the Yanomami blowing a hallucinogen called yoppo up each other’s noses and decided to give it a try.  What could possibly go wrong?  It turned out that the drug induced excruciating pain and that the only high he realized was relief when the effects wore off. 

As administered, Superfund is much like taking yoppo.  The process is so time consuming, expensive and uncertain that its chief benefit is to induce PRPs to enter state voluntary cleanup programs to avoid a federal Superfund listing.  Many more sites have been remediated, and I would bet at much lower cost, through such state programs than ever will through the formal Superfund process.

Superfund Reform, Part 2: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

Posted on May 30, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, I offered less than fulsome praise of EPA Administrator Pruitt’s announcement that he was taking control of remedial decisions for big Superfund sites.  Now, he’s followed up with a memorandum announcing establishment of a task force to look at ways to reform Superfund implementation.  While he’s still plainly wrong in putting Superfund “at the center of the agency’s core mission,” I have to confess that I think he otherwise has pretty much hit a home run with the latest memorandum.

Let’s start with the basics.  Superfund is a mess.  It’s one of the most poorly written statutes in Congressional history, and Superfund cleanups take way too long, are way too expensive, and fail to deliver bang for the buck in either risk reduction or productive reuse.

In a perfect world, Superfund would be amended to privatize cleanups and put cost-effective risk-based cleanups at the center of the program.  However, Scott Pruitt cannot unilaterally amend Superfund.  Heck, he may not realize it, but even Donald Trump cannot unilaterally amend Superfund.

Given this reality, Pruitt’s memorandum identifies all of the appropriate goals for meaningful administrative reform.  They include:

  • a focus on identifying best practices within regional Superfund programs, reducing the amount of time between identification of contamination at a site and determination that a site is ready for reuse

  • overhaul and streamline the process used to develop, issue or enter into prospective purchaser agreements, bona fide prospective purchaser status, comfort letters, ready-for-reuse determinations

  • Streamline and improve the remedy development and selection process, particularly at sites with contaminated sediment, including to ensure that risk-management principles are considered in the selection of remedies

  • Reduce the administrative and overhead costs and burdens borne by parties remediating contaminated sites, including a reexamination of the level of agency oversight necessary.

The last is my personal favorite.

I somehow expect I’m not going to be praising this administration on a regular basis, but I can still acknowledge when they get something right.  Let’s just hope that the task force is for real and comes up with a set of meaningful administrative improvements.

Fingers crossed.

Can We Really Expect An Administrator Not To Administrate?

Posted on May 19, 2017 by Jeffrey Porter

This month EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that he will personally pass judgment on any Superfund remedy estimated to cost more than $50 million.  Revisions to CERCLA Delegations of Authority 14-2 Responses and 14-21A Consultations, Determinations, Reviews and Selection of Remedial Actions at Federal Facilities, May 9, 2017.

Administrator Pruitt’s announcement begins with his unequivocal assurances that the “Superfund program is a vital function” of EPA, and that he is taking this action “to facilitate the more-rapid remediation and revitalization of contaminated sites and to promote accountability and consistency in remedy selection.”

Skeptics fear that Administrator Pruitt has some other secret objective.   But no one can seriously argue that this isn’t Administrator Pruitt’s decision to make.  The Superfund statute unequivocally says “[t]he President shall select appropriate remedial actions determined to be necessary” in accordance with the statute and the implementing regulations, and “which provide for cost-effective response.”  42 U.S.C. §9621(a).  The implementing regulations unequivocally delegate that responsibility to Administrator Pruitt  (well, to be precise, it is theoretically possible that another federal agency or a state can be a “lead agency” under the regulations but, in that unlikely case, the Administrator’s May 9th decision presumably wouldn’t apply).  

After all, it was a perceived need for prompt federal action to clean up the most complex contaminated sites in our country that drove the enactment of the Superfund statute over thirty-five years ago.  Because Congress perceived that need, the statute limits the ability of anyone, including state and local governments, to interfere with the selection and implementation of a Superfund remedy.

Over the decades, the contaminated sites posing the most immediate concern have been addressed, sites that would never have been prospects for Superfund listing thirty years ago have found their way into the program, and the Superfund statute has been interpreted, and reinterpreted, in regulations, countless judicial decisions, and EPA guidance documents.   If those regulations, judicial decisions and guidance documents have one thing in common, it is that they vest in EPA the maximum decision-making discretion permitted by the statute.

Because the sites posing the most immediate concern have been addressed, and what was once new is now the subject of thousands of pages of regulations, judicial decisions and guidance documents, anyone familiar with the Superfund program has to agree that regional program staff have, over the decades, been increasingly left mostly alone to make remedial decisions costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

And, as someone who has practiced in this area of environmental law for almost thirty years, I think it is equally clear that regional decision-making has attempted to soften the effect of Congress’s unambiguous statement of its intention that no one, including state and local governments, stands in the way of Superfund remedies by local consensus building, and that what Administrator Pruitt calls “consistency” has suffered as a result.

As a life-long Democrat, I have plenty of concerns about the Trump Administration’s environmental agenda.  But Administrator Pruitt has been anything but obtuse about his support of aspects of that agenda that concern me so I’m going to take him at his word regarding his intentions for the Superfund program, including because increased accountability and consistency in the Superfund program would be a very good thing.

Scott Pruitt Just Solved All of the Problems with Superfund. Not.

Posted on May 17, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA Administrator Pruitt issued a memorandum requiring that all Superfund remedies estimated to cost at least $50 million be approved by the Administrator.  I’m not optimistic that this will cure, or even ameliorate, what ails CERCLA.  

First, the memorandum gets off on precisely the wrong foot.  Administrator Pruitt states that:

 The Superfund program is a vital function of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and under my administration, Superfund and the EPA’s land and water cleanup efforts will be restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.

What’s the problem with this statement?  When EPA has actually looked at the top risks addressed by its programs, risks from Superfund sites never even make the list.  Except for a limited set of circumstances, Superfund has been a colossal waste of money, resources, and focus for EPA.  If Administrator Pruitt wants to reform Superfund, he shouldn’t be “placing it at the center of the agency’s core mission.”  He should be further deemphasizing it.

Even if one assumes that this is just puffery, the new approach is flawed on the merits, for at least two reasons.

First, the problem with Superfund is that it’s the last bastion of command and control regulation.  I understand that Pruitt may want to take the reins precisely to reduce the number of ukases issuing from the regional offices.  However, the underlying problem will remain; he just thinks he’ll be providing kinder, gentler, command and control.  Wouldn’t it be better to support fundamental reform of CERCLA, to create a privatized program, such as in Massachusetts and other states?

Finally, while PRPs might just wish Superfund went away, in the real world, PRPs just want certainty and timely decisions.  Aside from a few cases where Pruitt might put the kibosh on expensive remedies that don’t eliminate real risks, I fear that in the majority of cases, all that will happen will be that cleanup decisions will be delayed; PRPs will pay more as a result of such delays.

This administration continues to give regulatory reform a bad name.

Applying EPA Guidance to Improve Sediment Site Cleanups

Posted on March 9, 2017 by Mark W. Schneider

After years of struggling to implement prompt and cost-effective cleanups of sediment sites under the Superfund program, EPA has adopted a new set of tools.  This would be a good time for EPA to conduct an unbiased evaluation of whether recent Records of Decision (“ROD”) issued for sediment sites comply with the Office of the Land and Emergency Management (“OLEM”) Directive 9200.1-130 (Jan. 9, 2017), and direct the regions to revise RODs where necessary. 

For example, Region 10 recently issued its ROD for the Portland Harbor, a complex, multi-party sediment site, which seems out of sync with the new guidance.  In particular, Region 10’s use of unachievable cleanup levels for several contaminants of concern, unwarranted assumptions about current and future land uses in certain areas of the site, and failure to properly assess background levels in some instances conflict with the Directive’s recommendations.

In prior posts, I advocated for actions that could help the agency, potentially responsible parties, and the public achieve success in sediment cleanups.  In one post, I recommended that Congress eliminate CERCLA’s bar on pre-enforcement review.  In another, I advocated for revision of the dispute resolution provisions in the model Administrative Settlement Agreement and Order on Consent (“ASAOC”) to require the selection of a neutral third party to resolve disputes between EPA and ASAOC respondents. The rationale for these earlier recommendations applies equally to this recommendation; each of them is intended to require EPA compliance with its own guidance and sound legal and scientific principles.  

In its directive, OLEM identified 11 recommendations “based on current best practices for characterizing sediment sites, evaluating remedial alternatives, and selecting and implementing appropriate response actions.”  In particular, OLEM directed the regions to “develop risk reduction expectations that are achievable by the remedial action.”  Most sediment RODs fail to comply with this “best practice.”  For example, EPA has repeatedly issued RODs that establish action levels that cannot be met using any current or reasonably foreseeable remedial technology, leading to remedies that are unrealistic and unnecessarily costly.  This causes potentially responsible parties to resist, resulting in litigation or delays that perhaps could have been avoided. 

EPA should apply its directive.  It should systematically review each sediment ROD issued in the last several years, determine whether and to what extent the ROD deviates from the OLEM directive, and instruct regional personnel to revise RODs to comply with the directive.  This would require a second look at the RODs at, among other sites, the Lower Duwamish Waterway, Portland Harbor, and the lower 8 miles of the Passaic River.  Review of these and other RODs might lead to more realistic cleanup decisions, reductions of risks, where necessary, and implementation of feasible remedies.

The Enforcement of CERCLA Section 106 Orders; the Seventh Circuit Suggests a New Twist

Posted on November 2, 2016 by William Hyatt

Superfund practitioners have long known that unilateral orders issued by EPA under Section 106(a) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”), commonly known as the Superfund statute, can be very potent enforcement tools.  Recipients of such orders who “willfully” choose to defy them, “without sufficient cause,” face the prospect of potentially ruinous civil penalties under Section 106(b) and treble damages under Section 107(c)(3).  The term “sufficient cause” is not defined in CERCLA and has been subjected to very limited judicial interpretation.  Making matters worse, by virtue of Section 113(h), Section 106 order recipients cannot obtain pre-enforcement review of such orders.  Instead, they must wait until EPA brings an enforcement action, or one of the other triggers listed in Section 113(h) occurs (while the penalties and treble damages continue to accumulate, for a period which could last for years), before they can obtain a judicial determination of whether or not their defiance was “without sufficient cause.”  This enforcement scheme has thus far withstood due process challenges on the ground that no penalties or treble damages can be imposed until there is a court hearing.  Waiting for that court hearing can produce extreme apprehension on the part of defiant order recipients.

In United States v. Glatfelter, one of the prodigious number of reported decisions relating to the Lower Fox River Superfund Site, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, after concluding that permanent injunctions will not be available to enforce Section 106 unilateral orders, suggested how that apprehension might be relieved:

“Nothing we have said prevents the government from seeking declaratory relief to establish that a PRP lacks sufficient cause for noncompliance, such as the arbitrariness of the selected remedy or a defense to liability.” 

This suggestion may trigger a whole new round of litigation regarding Section 106 orders.  For instance, does a private litigant enjoy the same right to seek declaratory relief?

Flatulence Isn’t Super fun(d)

Posted on September 2, 2016 by Peter Hsiao

Do air emissions of pollutants constitute a “disposal” under the federal hazardous waste laws?  The Ninth Circuit said “no” in Pakootas, et al. v. Teck Cominco Metals, Ltd. based upon its reading of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund).  The decision both sets important precedent and showcases the judicial process to discern legislative intent when a statute’s plain language is stressed by an unusual fact pattern.  If air pollutants can create CERCLA disposals, then emissions from any stationary or mobile source, including animal emissions of methane (which is considered a pollutant subject to CERCLA by EPA), may be the basis of cleanup liability.

The decision involves a smelter located just north of the border with British Columbia.  An earlier decision in that case held that a foreign-based facility can be liable under CERCLA for slag discharges into a river running to the United States.  Plaintiffs then alleged the facility arranged for disposal by emitting hazardous air contaminants which were carried by the wind and deposited in Washington State.  The district court denied a motion to dismiss and certified the matter for immediate appellate review.

Reading the plain language of CERCLA, the Ninth Circuit found that “a reasonable enough construction” of the law would be that the facility “arranged for disposal” of its air pollutants.  No legislative history or EPA rules shed light on this subject.  However, the Court concluded it was not writing on a blank slate.  Noting that CERCLA incorporates the definition of “disposal” from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Court cited its prior decision in Ctr. for Cmty. Action and Envtl. Justice v. BNSF Rwy. Co., which held that diesel particulate emissions “transported by wind and air currents onto the land and water” did not constitute “disposal” of waste within the meaning of RCRA.  To be a disposal, the solid or hazardous waste must first be placed into or on any land or water and thereafter be emitted into the air.  The Court also cited its en banc decision in Carson Harbor Vill., Ltd. v. Unocal Corp., holding that passive migration was not a disposal under CERCLA. 

The Court thereby found that arranging for “disposal” did not include arranging for air “emissions.”  This interpretation of “disposal” was largely consistent with CERCLA’s overall statutory scheme.  The Court expressed concern that plaintiffs’ more expansive reading would stretch CERCLA liability beyond the bounds of reason.  “[I]f ‘aerial depositions’ are accepted as ‘disposals,’” the Court said, “‘disposal’ would be a never-ending process, essentially eliminating the innocent landowner defense.” 

The Court did not discuss in detail the statutory interplay with the Clean Air Act, which regulates air emissions under a complex regulatory and permit scheme.  Under CERCLA, federally permitted releases are excluded from liability.  But because air permits often specify the control equipment parameters rather than an emission limit, a CERCLA plaintiff may allege that the mere existence of a permit does not provide a blanket immunity from liability and the facility would remain liable for any releases that were not expressly permitted, exceeded the limitations of the permit, or occurred at a time when there was no permit.  The Court in passing did note its skepticism that the federally permitted “release” exception evidenced any Congressional intent regarding the meaning of “disposal.”

The Ninth Circuit is the highest court to exclude air emissions from the reach of CERCLA and RCRA.  The Court’s citation to Carson Harbor does not provide an exact analogy since a passive landowner has not “arranged” for the initial release of hazardous substances, as compared to the smelter operations which result in air emissions.  But the Court’s unwillingness to create potentially unlimited CERCLA liability for air emissions is compelling.  Under CERCLA, liability is strict, joint and several and retroactive.  Air emissions are widely transported and dispersed in relatively small concentrations by large numbers of potential sources, making CERCLA liability findings and allocations difficult if not impossible. 

The Court thereby divined Congress’ intent to make CERCLA’s scheme workable, apart from a literal reading of its text.  For judges to “repair” statutory language in this way is controversial.  The decision is reminiscent of the U.S. Supreme Court holding that the Obama health care plan provides tax credits to millions of people who purchase insurance from a federal marketplace, even though the statute only provides credits for those who purchase from marketplaces “established by the state.”  According to Justice Roberts, that was the only way the law would work, and despite the plain wording in the statute, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.”  CERCLA also is not a model of clarity, and the Ninth Circuit similarly incorporated practicality as a factor in discerning Congress’ intent to avoid overreaching in assigning liability for the cleanup of toxic chemical releases.

Dispute Resolution for CERCLA Sediment Investigations

Posted on February 22, 2016 by Mark W. Schneider

In my last blog entry, I advocated for the amendment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to eliminate the bar on pre-enforcement review as one step toward improving the investigation and cleanup of sediment sites.  In this entry, I propose that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and potentially responsible parties (PRPs) significantly revise the dispute resolution process for EPA Administrative Settlement Agreements and Orders on Consent (“ASAOCs”) to require the resolution of disputes by neutral third parties unaffiliated with EPA or an affected PRP. 

The goal of sediment remediation is to protect public health and the environment through prompt and cost-effective remedial action.  Unfortunately, this goal has not been met at many sediment sites.  At some sites, neither the public nor the PRPs have been served by investigations that have unnecessarily taken decades and wastefed hundreds of millions of dollars to undertake.  EPA’s selection of remedies at many sites has been delayed and has not resulted in the selection of protective and cost-effective remedies.

Most sediment cleanups are performed in accordance with consent decrees, which appropriately vest dispute resolution authority in federal district court judges.  In contrast, most sediment investigations are conducted under ASAOCs, which vest dispute resolution authority in EPA personnel.  While many at EPA with responsibility for dispute resolution have the best of intentions and seek to be objective, the fact that they work for EPA, often supervise the EPA staff who made the decision leading to the dispute, and are often steeped in EPA practices renders most of them unable to serve in a truly independent role.  To ensure fairer dispute resolution, ASAOCs should instead vest dispute resolution authority in neutral third parties with no affiliation with either EPA or the PRPs subject to the ASAOC.  This would require the amendment of existing ASAOCs and the insertion of new dispute resolution language, which differs from EPA’s model language, in ASAOCs that have not yet been signed. 

Additionally, while the dispute resolution official should be deferential to EPA, he or she should not rubber-stamp agency decisions, as currently is often the case.  Where investigations have been mired in years of inaction, an independent dispute resolver with a fresh perspective may determine that EPA has sufficient data to make informed cleanup decisions and could compel agency action.  At other sites where EPA is requiring PRPs to prepare feasibility studies advocating for remedies that almost certainly will fail, it is essential that a neutral decision-maker act independently to ensure that feasible remedies are selected.

EPA will resist any effort to revise its approach to dispute resolution, and it may require the intervention of elected officials or others to compel such a change. The public, EPA, and affected PRPs would all benefit from it. 

Revisiting CERCLA Pre-Enforcement Review

Posted on February 22, 2016 by Mark W. Schneider

As a private practitioner and former trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, I have advocated for timely and cost-effective cleanups that protect public health and the environment.  Unfortunately, only a minority of cleanups under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) have met these criteria.  Of the many impediments to the thorough, prompt and cost-effective remediation of contaminated sites, and sediment sites in particular, one of the most significant is CERCLA’s bar on pre-enforcement review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) remedial decisions.  To promote more effective and timely cleanups of sediment sites, I suggest that CERCLA be amended to eliminate the current bar on pre-enforcement review.  By allowing potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to seek and obtain judicial review of EPA decisions or failures to make decisions, more progress would likely be made on more sites.

CERCLA Section 113(h) states that, with limited exceptions, “No Federal court shall have jurisdiction … to review any challenges to removal or remedial action selected under section 9604 of this title, or to review any order issued under section 9606(a) of this title ….”  42 U.S.C. § 9613(h).  Despite many challenges, courts have generally upheld the validity of this provision.  As a result, PRPs typically cannot challenge EPA's decisions unless EPA has sought to compel performance under an enforcement order or if EPA is acting under a consent decree.  As the “opportunity” for challenge may not come until years after EPA has made its cleanup decision, most PRPs are not willing to face the risk of losing a remedy challenge and the potential imposition of treble damages.  

CERCLA should be amended to allow parties to challenge agency action or inaction at other times in the process, such as during the preparation of remedial investigations and feasibility studies.  At many sediment sites, EPA has delayed remediation and required parties to incur hundreds of millions of dollars during investigations.  If PRPs had the opportunity to obtain judicial review of agency action and inaction earlier in the process, they could seek to compel the agency to act in a way that is consistent with CERCLA’s requirements.

Having worked at the Department of Justice when CERCLA Section 113(h) was drafted, I recall my colleagues stating at the time that a bar on pre-enforcement review was necessary to avoid the challenges of having a non-expert federal judge address complex scientific questions and to prevent PRPs from tying up EPA in litigation.  I offer three suggestions in response to these concerns.  First, if a federal judge were confronted with a particularly complex issue, the court could appoint a special master to handle the proceedings.  Second, to encourage PRPs to seek prompt resolutions, a CERCLA amendment could require PRPs to fully comply with an agency’s directives pending resolution of the judicial dispute and impose a penalty on those parties whose challenge of agency action was unsuccessful.  Third, agencies could seek an expedited hearing of disputed issues.

While it is very unlikely that Congress would consider a CERCLA amendment to address only this issue, PRPs should raise this issue the next time amendments are being considered.  It will succeed only through the concerted efforts of advocates who seek more and better cleanups and those who seek prompt and reasonable government decision-making.   

EPA To Rename OSWER: How About “The Office That Should Be Eliminated As Soon As Possible”?

Posted on November 2, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

According to the Daily Environment Report (subscription required), EPA is going to change the name of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to the Office of Land and Emergency Management.  What a grand name; surely it is an improvement.

I don’t think that this quite rises to the level of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic (though I certainly have clients who would not object if OSWER sank without a trace), but one does get the sense of a bureaucracy beginning the long, hard, slog of trying to figure out how to perpetuate its existence as Superfund – mercifully – begins to fade away.

It’s probably a vain hope, but mightn’t EPA determine instead how to reallocate those functions of OSWER that need to continue, but actually try to figure out a way to shrink this element of the bureaucracy, instead of repurposing it?

titanic

My Brief Career as an Environmental Tax Lawyer

Posted on April 28, 2015 by Michael McCauley

On April 15 of this year, I thought about the following quote:

 

"Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."

--Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice

 

And then I reminisced a bit.

My career as a federal tax lawyer was very brief. About 25-30 years ago, I represented a client which thought it was paying too much in "Superfund" taxes.  These taxes are levied on companies which manufacture and produce chemicals. The money is then used by U.S. EPA and others to fund hazardous waste disposal site clean-ups.

I certainly was not a tax lawyer. But one of our senior partners who was in charge of managing work for a chemical company client needed help. He was an excellent tax lawyer, but he said he knew nothing about Superfund taxation. Since I was doing a lot of Superfund clean-up work at the time, I drew the short straw for arguing the merits of this matter before the IRS.

I can't remember now whether the company had a good legal basis for contesting the tax. It might have had something to do with the fact that the client company recycled some amount of used chemicals into making new product. Thus, the Company believed, some of the same chemicals were taxed twice -- once when they were originally manufactured and then again when they were recycled into new product. I do remember that the client's top management thought that the Superfund tax on chemical production in general was very "unfair." [The client never got to the point of considering the "fairness" of the strict, retroactive, joint and several liability regime for generators under the Superfund Law.]

The Company President and I went out to Washington to discuss the merits of our case with officials of the IRS and the Treasury Department. We got out of our cab in front of the Internal Revenue Service Building on Constitution Avenue one bright sunny morning in April. I looked up at the imposing building. Emblazoned in granite across the top of the building was the above quote from Justice Holmes.

I turned to my client and asked him to look up and read the quote. Then I said, "Jon, this is why we are not probably going to win our case here today." And we didn't.

The Company was not interested in pursuing a judicial appeal. So ended my career as a tax lawyer.

Burlington Northern Continues to PERColate

Posted on January 26, 2015 by Robert M Olian

The Fifth Circuit has just weighed in with a significant interpretation of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. United States, 556 U.S. 599 (2009). In a case involving “arranger” liability under CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act), the Fifth Circuit on January 14 overturned a district court judgment that had held BorgWarner liable for leaks of perchloroethylene (PERC) from equipment sold by an affiliate of BorgWarner’s corporate predecessor. Vine Street LLC v. Borg Warner Corp., No. 07-40440 (Jan. 14, 2015)

The Fifth Circuit held there was no “intent” to dispose of PERC even though the dry cleaning equipment was designed with the knowledge that some PERC would inevitably be mixed in with the water that the system was designed to discharge. Because PERC was a useful product and the intent was to reclaim it rather than dispose of it, the Fifth Circuit strictly applied Burlington Northern’s holding that arranger liability requires an intent to dispose and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to enter judgment in favor of BorgWarner.

Vine Street usurps the Fifth Circuit’s earlier “nexus” test (the test in effect when the District Court issued its ruling), which was based on a totality of the circumstances, and gives further ammunition to those defending against CERCLA liability for releases incidental to the sale of a useful product. 

JERSEY PRAGMATISM

Posted on December 11, 2014 by Dennis Krumholz

A thought occurred to me recently, and not for the first time, about the decisions of the New Jersey state judiciary, including our Supreme Court, in the area of environmental law generally and site remediation particularly.  My realization was that those decisions are driven as much by a desire to facilitate the remediation of contaminated sites as they are by principled interpretation of statutes, regulations, canons of construction and the like.

Such an approach, of course, is understandable on one level, as New Jersey environmental statutes are ameliorative in nature, a cleaner environment is in the interest of everyone, and our fair state has suffered environmentally from its industrial legacy more than most jurisdictions.  But on a deeper level, courts are supposed to decide cases in accordance with law, and deciding cases with a particular goal in mind may result in an injustice to the litigants.  Moreover, fuzzy reasoning could provide inaccurate guidance to the bar and public.

In one recent case, for example, the Supreme Court of New Jersey was called upon to determine the degree of causation that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) needed to establish in order to impose liability on a discharger of hazardous materials.  Rather than simply requiring proximate cause, the court hemmed and hawed its way along, formulating the appropriate standard at various points as a “real, not hypothetical” connection, and as a “reasonable nexus or connection” between the alleged discharger and the discharge. 

The Court ultimately held that the standard of causation needed to establish liability varies with the form of relief requested.  Unfortunately, the Court provided no support for this approach, which conflates the proof needed to establish liability with what is necessary to impose damages.  This leads to the conclusion that the Court was reluctant to impose a difficult burden of proof on the state and, presumably, private litigants which could result in judgments for defendants and hence, in the Court’s view, deter remediation of contaminated sites.

In another recent case, the Supreme Court had to determine the interplay between the jurisdiction of a state agency and state trial courts in adjudicating liability for site remediation.  The Court reversed the trial and appellate courts and held that a litigant could seek relief in court before the contours of the remediation had been firmly established. 

Undergirding the Court’s reasoning was pragmatism – the earlier we allow a contribution plaintiff to pursue other responsible parties, the more the defendants will be encouraged to participate in the remediation process, thereby facilitating more and faster cleanups.  While the result was correct as a matter of existing law, the reasoning was weighted far too heavily with an eye towards the result.

Finally, in a case that recently was argued and awaits adjudication, the Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a statute of limitations exists under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act, our state’s CERCLA analog, and, if so, how long it is and when it begins to run.  Implicit in many of the questions the Court asked the advocates was which resolution would facilitate the faster remediation of more sites – no statute of limitations at all, which would allow remedial claims to be brought at any time and not foreclose an action, or a limitations period which would incentivize the plaintiff and defendants to move forward more quickly to clean up sites.

Remediating the environment, and making sure responsible parties are held to their obligations, are plainly laudable goals.  But a little less focus on the ultimate environmental outcome and greater adherence to the principles of adjudication, statutory interpretation and the like would improve the quality of justice without sacrificing environmental protection.

Superfund Rant For a New Congress

Posted on November 13, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

So the new Congress will be controlled by the GOP.  The House and Senate will consider various bills to rein in EPA authority.  Here’s one relatively modest suggestion for congressional consideration:  amend CERCLA to limit EPA’s authority to recover oversight costs.

How many of us in the private sector have been in meetings with EPA where EPA had more technical people in attendance than the PRPs who were performing the remedy?  How many of us have had clients receive oversight cost bills where the total amount of the oversight costs approached the amount spent on actually performing the remedy?  How many us have had oversight requests that have turned response actions into research projects?  All of this for a program that EPA’s own analyses always show to be at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to actual risks to the public.

Here’s the proposal.  I’m not suggesting that EPA have no authority to recover oversight costs.  Just limit it to 10% of the response costs incurred to actually design and implement the remedy.  Make it 15% if you want to be generous.

Mitch McConnell, are you listening? 

Imposing Repose: The Supreme Court Limits CERCLA § 309

Posted on June 19, 2014 by Michael Wall

On June 9th, the Supreme Court ruled, in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, that § 309 of CERCLA does not preempt state statutes of repose. Section 309 requires state statutes of limitations for injuries from hazardous substances releases to run from the date the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury caused by the release. But in CTS, the Court held that state statutes of repose are not statutes of limitations, and are not governed by section 309.

That conclusion was hardly self-evident. While section 309 explicitly applies to statutes of limitation, and does not specifically mention statutes of repose, the later have often been understood as a species of the former. When section 309 was enacted, Black’s Law Dictionary explained that “Statutes of limitations are statutes of repose.” Congress itself often referred to statutes of repose as “statutes of limitation.” And the very year after Congress enacted section 309, the Supreme Court itself described application of a two-year state statute of limitations as “wholly consistent with . . . the general purposes of statutes of repose.” The meaning of these terms has diverged in more recent years, but that divergence was not well-established when Congress enacted section 309.

The Court’s conclusion that Congress recognized a clear distinction between statutes of limitation and statutes of repose thus required the Court to assume that Congress used these terms with more precision in section 309 than Congress had done on other occasions, with more precision than (and in conflict with) the then-current edition of Black’s, and with more precision then the Supreme Court itself used the terms a year later. It is not often that this Court holds Congress’s legal acumen in such high regard.

The Court’s lead argument for why Congress did understand this distinction was that page 256 of the Section 301(e) Study Group Report—an expert report submitted to Congress and referenced in the Conference Committee Report—distinguished between these terms. This is surprising analysis. The CTS majority includes avowed skeptics of relying on traditional legislative history. Those justices might previously have been expected to be even more skeptical of attempts to discern congressional intent from statements buried in expert reports referenced by traditional legislative history. Not so, it seems—or at least, not so for this one opinion.

But does the Study Group Report even make the same distinction as the Court? The report recommends that:

"states . . . remove unreasonable procedural and other barriers to recovery in court action for personal injuries resulting from exposure to hazardous waste, including rules relating to the time of accrual of actions."

The Report then recommends that “all states that have not already done so, clearly adopt the rule that an action accrues when the plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the injury or disease and its cause.” That is what Congress effectively did—albeit for the states—in section 309. The Report then states: “This Recommendation is intended also to cover the repeal of statutes of repose which, in a number of states have the same effect as some statutes of limitation.”

This sentence, the Court concludes, shows that Congress must have known that a law that preempts state statutes of limitation would not also preempt state statutes of repose. But is it not at least as likely that any Member of Congress who actually read page 256 of the Study Group Report would have thought that adopting the discovery rule for all states would “also … cover the repeal of statutes of repose”?

Justice Scalia once wrote that “Congress can enact foolish statutes as well as wise ones, and it is not for the courts to decide which is which and rewrite the former.” Reading CTS Corp., one cannot escape the notion that the Court was willing to stretch its usual interpretive rules in order to apply what it considered a wise result to an arguably ambiguous statute. It did so in the apparent service of the policy of repose. But the holding will bring little peace in a state with a statute of repose to individuals who learn, years too late, that they or their children have been sickened by contaminants that a government agency or business released long ago.

I Thought Redeveloping Brownfields Was a Good Idea: Apparently the Boston Globe Hasn’t Gotten the Message

Posted on February 25, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

In an article earlier this week, the Boston Globe reported on concerns that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is planning to weaken cleanup standards for hazardous waste sites in Massachusetts, seemingly in response to pressure from developers. The article is so wrong and the concerns are so misplaced that some response is necessary.

First, we expect MassDEP to regulate in the face of uncertainty. That means that MassDEP must set cleanup standards without perfect knowledge. As a result, most people – and certainly the environmentalists complaining about the regulatory changes – would expect MassDEP to err on the side of conservatism, making the cleanup standards more stringent than may be necessary.

At the same time, science evolves and we’d expect MassDEP to alter cleanup standards periodically in response to changed science. Moreover, if MassDEP originally erred on the side of being overly conservative, one would expect that, as science improves, many standards could be relaxed – and that that would be a good thing.

What’s most troubling about the article and the NGO position here is the idea that environmental protection is still a black hat / white hat arena and that if something is good for economic development, then it must be bad for the environment. I thought we’d gotten past that in Massachusetts. Indeed, brownfields redevelopment is the prototypical example given of environmental protection being used to advance economic goals. That’s why it’s both stunning and deeply depressing to see lines such as this in the article:

"Critics worry the rules will spur developers to build on contaminated land, known as brownfields."

Better instead that we should plow under the greenfields and leave the brownfields vacant and without any cleanup, I suppose. I thought we already tried that strategy and concluded it didn’t work.

Silly me.

Embraceable You – Throwing your Arms Around the New ASTM Phase I Standard, Approved by USEPA

Posted on January 23, 2014 by Kenneth Gray

As 2013 drew to a close, USEPA amended its All Appropriate Inquiries Rule (AAI Rule) and anticipates that purchasers and environmental professionals will “embrace” the recently published ASTM International E1527–13 "Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process," commonly referred to as the “ASTM Phase I Standard.”  Although the Agency had initially indicated the old flame of the ASTM E1527-05 standard was just as attractive, the final AAI Rule makes clear that USEPA considers the 2013 standard to have many new charms and recommends its use.  Further, the Agency has indicated that the old standard is absolutely replaceable -- and plans a rulemaking to remove the 2005 standard, perhaps as early as this spring.

USEPA warns that the regulated community should not be naughty.  The Agency will keep an eye on the new relationship and threatens that if the regulated community doesn’t get sweet on the new standard (if it is not being “widely adopted”), then USEPA may further modify the AAI rule to explicitly require activities under the updated standard.  

The Agency believes the ASTM E1527–13 improves upon the E1527–05 standard and reflects evolving best practices and the level of rigor that will afford prospective property owners necessary information when making property transaction decisions and meeting continuing obligations under the CERCLA liability protections.  In particular, the new ASTM E1527–13 standard enhances the previous standard with regard to the delineation of historical releases or recognized environmental conditions at a property.  It also makes important revisions to the standard practice to clarify that all appropriate inquires and Phase I environmental site assessments must include, within the scope of the investigation, an assessment of the real or potential occurrence of vapor migration and vapor releases on, at, in or to the subject property.

USEPA, perhaps inadvertently, couldn’t let go without complimenting “the ex” – and may have created some litigation issues.  The Agency went out of its way to opine that the prior standard already called for identification of vapor release issues and vapor migration issues.  There has been some legitimate debate on whether the ASTM E1527-05 standard was clear on that point.  Some attorneys anticipate additional malpractice litigation against environmental professionals where vapor issues weren’t adequately addressed in Phase I assessments issued between 2005 and 2014 that claimed to comply with the standard. 

Apologies to the Gershwins and Nat King Cole, but I expect the ASTM E1527-13 is entirely embraceable – to the extent that environmental professionals are able to follow detailed consensus standards written by a team of engineers and lawyers.  Many environmental lawyers have concluded that even in late 2013, most ASTM Phase I Standard site assessments that purported to meet the ASTM standards failed to measure up. 

Has the Standard for Performing a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Changed? Yes and No

Posted on December 17, 2013 by Jeff Civins

Purchasers and lessees of commercial or industrial properties know to obtain Phase I environmental site assessments to identify the presence of contamination - so-called recognized environmental conditions (RECs) - because of the very substantial liabilities these conditions may create. And their lenders generally require them. The industry standard for Phase I’s is based on EPA regulations that flesh out Superfund’s “all appropriate inquiry (AAI)” standard. In those regulations, EPA expressly approved use of a standard developed by ASTM, i.e., E1527-05. ASTM recently issued a new standard, E1527-13, that EPA initially approved in a final rule in August, but, as a result of unfavorable comment, withdrew in October. Pending the agency’s promulgation of that rule’s companion proposal, expected by the end of this year, the question is which standard purchasers and lessees should use - and which standard should their lenders require - in the meantime.

In addition to providing information pertinent to managing environmental risks associated with contamination, the performance of a Phase I that satisfies AAI also may help establish a defense for the purchaser/lessee under Superfund should contamination be found. Superfund provides three transaction-related defenses that each require AAI, the most pertinent of which is the so-called bona fide prospective purchaser defense. Congress required that EPA promulgate standards establishing AAI and it is those regulations - and the approved ASTM standard - that have become the industry standard for Phase I’s.

As EPA notes, the new ASTM standard includes a number of differences from the prior version, which arguably only makes the standard more rigorous. Among other things, the new standard distinguishes between historical RECS that have been regulatorily resolved or that allow for unrestricted residential use, which are no longer RECs, and those that though regulatorily resolved, require either institutional or engineering controls because contaminants remain in place and that are now referred to as “controlled” RECs. It also clarifies that vapor intrusion - the potential for vapors from contaminants in soils and groundwater to migrate into buildings where they may concentrate at levels that pose threats to human health - is to be considered a REC, like groundwater migration, and not excluded from consideration because it may affect indoor air quality, which itself is generally not within the scope of AAI. The fact the two standards are different creates some regulatory uncertainty.

The response to this temporary dilemma is that purchasers, lessees and lenders should be able to have their cake and eat it too by having environmental professionals indicate that they have satisfied both standards. Environmental professionals that perform Phase I’s and satisfy ASTM E1527-13 presumably will be satisfying ASTM E1527-05 as well. EPA informally has suggested that environmental professionals use the new standard and, in their reports, conclude that they have satisfied both. Presumably, the environmental professional’s certification should reference both as well.

EPA’s Draft Groundwater Remedy Completion Strategy: Focusing on the Procedures or the Problems?

Posted on December 9, 2013 by Charles Efflandt

EPA is seeking stakeholder input on its draft Groundwater Remedy Completion Strategy.   Released on October 29, 2013, the strategy is advertised as a guide for evaluating remedy performance and improving decision-making to more effectively and expeditiously move groundwater sites to completion. Having experienced the problems associated with the “set it and forget it” approach to groundwater remedial action, my interest was piqued by the prospect of a new EPA strategy incorporating more flexibility in evaluating remedial action objectives, remedy performance and systematic risk assessment.

The potential impact of EPA’s remedy completion strategy is arguably diminished, however, by a lack of clarity as to its scope and purpose. The stated objective of documenting a uniform approach to efficiently completing groundwater remedial actions is qualified by an ambiguous disclaimer that the strategy does not change other guidance or policy, is not intended to alter the way the agency develops remedial objectives and cleanup goals and is not intended to interfere with the federal or state site decision-making process. So, what exactly does EPA hope to accomplish in proposing this new strategy?

The elements of the strategy consist of understanding site conditions, designing a site-specific remedy evaluation process, developing performance metrics, conducting remedy evaluations and making appropriate site management decisions. The focus of EPA’s strategy as presented is largely procedural. The strategy does not address common site impediments to achieving an effective and expeditious groundwater exit strategy. To that extent, it is primarily a restatement of a remedy evaluation process that has been the subject of numerous articles and that, in fact, has historically been implemented at many sites.

But perhaps my initial reading is too narrow. The strategy hints at more substantive remedy completion issues, such as addressing site remedial action objectives that become impracticable and unnecessary for the protection of health and the environment, as well as the need to more consistently evaluate remedy change at mature groundwater sites.

From the perspective of focusing on site groundwater scenarios that often delay remedy completion, I suggest that the draft strategy falls short of the goal line. Rather than simply allude to the remedy completion obstacles that presumably inspired the agency’s effort, EPA might better achieve its stated purpose if it revises its strategy to include more discussion of how the strategy may apply to common groundwater completion impediments. For example, it would be useful for the strategy to address the cost and inefficiencies of continuing to operate and maintain asymptotic pump and treat systems at low-threat sites, how to better incorporate plume stability trend information in the evaluation of remedy change, changes in exposure pathway risks and the impact of natural attenuation mechanisms, institutional controls and land use on remedy modification and remedy completion decision-making.

What I had hoped to see in the draft strategy was EPA’s blessing of a more flexible and common sense approach to specific groundwater remedy completion obstacles. My first reading of the draft strategy suggested to me that it was essentially a redundant procedural roadmap for remedy evaluation.  But upon reflection, I think it could be more.  Indeed, it could also be – and I hope, after consideration of stakeholder comments, will be – a tool for encouraging more consistent regulatory acceptance of remedy change and evolving risk assessments to overcome the inertia of inflexible remedial action objectives and remedy selection impacting many groundwater sites.

Arsenic and Apple Juice: Are We Now Safe?

Posted on July 30, 2013 by Michael Rodburg

Earlier this month the FDA proposed an “action level” of 10 ppb for inorganic arsenic in apple juice (down from 23 ppb), bringing it to the same level as EPA’s drinking water MCL. One may view this action as the culmination of a campaign of sorts initiated by a 2011 Consumer Reports article whose cause was taken up by Dr. Oz. Yet, the FDA has been monitoring arsenic levels for many years and has never viewed the data as any cause for concern.  Should we now believe that the FDA has made us completely safe by adopting a drinking water standard for juice?  In a practical sense, yes, but in EPA-Superfund speak, not really; and that is the point of this post.

The poisonous propensities of arsenic have been the stuff of history and literature for centuries; the Poison of Kings and the King of Poisons. Remember elderberry wine from Arsenic and Old Lace? But, arsenic is, after all, not only naturally occurring but rather ubiquitous.  The human race has managed to live with some level of arsenic for a few millennia now without evident consequence.  Indeed, because of naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater in the western United States, the MCL is actually set “considering cost, benefits and the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.” If, in contrast, one turns to the gold-standard of “safe,” the one in a million excess cancer risk level, the drinking water standard required is .02 ppb;  that’s right folks, 500 times lower than the current MCL and FDA’s proposed new juice level.


What does it mean?  I think it points out that the ultra-conservatism of the “10 to the minus six” environmental risk standard leads to absurd results and hugely unnecessary costs.  I still recall with a smile a quite notorious Superfund site (which shall remain nameless to protect a client) that had literally dozens and dozens of polysyllabic chemicals at high levels in soils, groundwater and waste disposal units throughout several hundred acres.  In the baseline risk assessment, the only risk to exceed the 10-6 level was that from naturally occurring arsenic in the soil!

The more we know about the genetic basis and causes of cancer, the more we realize how poorly both our animal models and in vitro experiments perform in predicting cancerous effects.  (See E. Topol, The Creative Destruction of Medicine (Basic Books 2011) for a good discussion of the limitations and frustrations of our current methods and models for finding cancer fighting drugs.)  While we are a long way from tossing EPA’s current approach to carcinogenic risk, we should perhaps take into account far more than we do now the inherent limits of our understanding and incorporate more the practical necessity for “cost, benefits and the ability” to “remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.” And yes, my grandchildren will continue to drink their apple juice.

Fourth Circuit Rules CERCLA Preempts State Statute of Repose

Posted on July 22, 2013 by Daniel Riesel

On July 10, 2013, a divided Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act’s (“CERCLA’s”) federally-mandated commencement date preempts not only state statutes of limitations but also statutes of repose, an issue that has split federal courts and left considerable uncertainty about the timeliness of claims arising under CERCLA and environmental common law.

One of the unique aspects of CERCLA is that it imposes a universal statute of limitations on toxic torts and other state law claims for damages “caused or contributed to by exposure to any hazardous substance or pollutant or contaminant.”  42 U.S.C. § 9658(b)(4).  This statute of limitations runs from the time the plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, the cause of the injury or damages.  CERCLA expressly preempts state statutes of limitations that set an earlier commencement date, such as the date of the tortious conduct or the date of the injury.       

CERCLA’s “federally required commencement date” has generated considerable commentary and confusion, with federal courts split over the scope of CERCLA’s preemptive effect.  One particularly divisive issue involves whether CERCLA preempts state statutes of repose, which are separate from statutes of limitations.  Statutes of repose generally provide a longer period in which to file a claim, but they cannot be tolled and often begin to run earlier as well.  Noting that the federally required commencement date under CERCLA refers only to “statutes of limitations,” the Fifth Circuit has held “the plain language of [CERCLA] does not extend to statutes of repose.”  Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Poole Chem. Co., 419 F.3d 355, 362 (5th Cir. 2005).

In Waldburger v. CTS Corporation, 2013 WL 3455775 (4th Cir. July 10, 2013), the Fourth Circuit adopted the contrary position, finding the relevant text of CERCLA to be ambiguous and interpreting it to preempt a North Carolina statute of repose.  Reversing the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit held that courts and lawmakers have often used the terms “statute of repose” and “statute of limitations” interchangeably, and that the application of CERCLA’s federal discovery rule was more consistent with the statute’s remedial purpose.  It therefore held a state repose period that required real property claims to be filed within 10 years of the tortious action did not apply to a nuisance claim alleging the discovery of groundwater contamination several years after the final alleged discharge.  In dissent, Judge Stephanie Thacker argued that, “the plain and unambiguous language of § 9658 indicates only statutes of limitations were intended to be preempted.” 

The Waldburger ruling will benefit plaintiffs harmed by the latent effects of environmental contamination, who may not become aware of their injuries until after a state statute of repose has run.  Such plaintiffs must exercise reasonable diligence, however, to establish they did not have reason to know of the harm at an earlier date.