Jobs Sprawl and Brownfields

 A very interesting article appeared in Crain's Cleveland Business by Jay Miller discussing "jobs sprawl" and the lack of easy access to jobs.  

Brad Whitehead, president of the Fund, points to a study by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies, a Chicago nonprofit that focuses on making cities work better, that found that housing costs in Greater Clevelanders are low, but people here spend more of their money on housing plus transportation — 41% of their income — than people in Boston, 38%, or New York, 39%.

Similarly, a 2015 study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, found that between 2000 and 2012, the number of jobs near the average person in the Cleveland metropolitan area declined by 26.5%, the steepest decline among 96 metropolitan areas. The Akron metro ranked 84th. Part of that loss of job access is the result of an overall decline in jobs in the region, a 2.5% loss between 2002 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census, and part is the movement of jobs, of employers, from the central cities.

And finally, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland in a 2015 study found that low-skilled and low-paying jobs are the hardest to get to. It also found that, "Millennials and baby boomers alike want more accessible communities, whether that means a workplace within reach of transit or downsizing from large suburban homes to areas where amenities important to them are just a walk away."

I found it amazing that the Clevelanders spend more money on housing plus transportation than major cities like Boston or New York.  As long as Ohio can't leverage the lower cost of living in the state as a true strategic advantage, Ohio will never be able to compete with major cities like Boston, New York or Chicago.

The images below have appeared before on this blog, but they dramatically show the issues with urban sprawl as well as jobs sprawl.  The graphic on the left is developed land in Cuyahoga County in 1948 and the graphic on the right is developed land in 2002.  As development spreads out, the ability of the urban population to access jobs becomes more difficult.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The link between avoiding job sprawl and brownfields is unmistakable.  The more we discourage redevelopment of our inner core cities, the more we push jobs out into greenfields which fosters jobs sprawl.  Also, without an growing population and affordable transportation to jobs, large employers face increased challenges finding qualified candidates to fill job vacancies.  If the problem persists, employers look to relocate where they can ensure vacancies will be filled.

While Ohio used to be a leader in promoting brownfield redevelopment, a combination of factors over the last several years has pushed us to the back of the pack, even when compared to neighboring states like Michigan.  The combination of factors, all which have been discussed on this blog, include:

  • Clean Ohio, a national model in brownfield redevelopment incentive programs, sunset approximately 5-6 years ago leaving behind no definitive brownfield redevelopment program.  Between 10-20 major brownfield redevelopment projects were occurring per year over the decade Clean Ohio was in place
  • A lack of tax policy that promotes brownfield redevelopment.  The most significant tax benefit, the VAP 10-year tax abatement, is too cumbersome and too limited in scope.
  • JobsOhio, while the program has some major advantages and is currently has the best incentives for brownfields, the JobsOhio Revitalization Program has steep eligibility requirements and does not focus on specifically targeting brownfields for redevelopment
  • Local brownfield programs have dwindled- For example, Cuyahoga County has basically done away with its brownfield program and forgivable loans, a key incentive to promote brownfield redevelopment
  • VAP- Controversy surrounds the VAP program and whether it still provides the legal liability protection envisioned when the program was launched more than two decades ago
  • Vapor Intrusion-  Greater federal and state scrutiny on vapor intrusion issues has increased liability concerns for property owners and redevelopers looking to reuse brownfields

As we head into an Gubernatorial election year, more voices need to be raised discussing issues like jobs sprawl, brownfields and how to get Ohio's population growing again.  While tax policy, education and economic development are critical to Ohio's future, making sure we are putting new jobs in locations that can easily be accessed needs to be a key strategy in Ohio. 

Ohio EPA Responds to Concerns Regarding the VAP and the Agency's Response to TCE

[SPECIAL BLOG POST: Ohio EPA asked to publish a guest post on the Ohio Environmental Law Blog regarding recent developments pertaining to the Agency's response to sites with trichloroethene (TCE) and the Voluntary Action Program (VAP).  The Ohio EPA response is posted below in its entirety]

In August 2017, Ohio EPA announced to Certified Professionals (CPs) that letters would be sent to owners of trichloroethene (TCE) contaminated properties. The intent of the agency’s action is to inform property owners that U.S. EPA had lowered the acceptable indoor air levels for TCE, and updated the federal technical guidance on assessing vapor intrusion to indoor air stemming from soil and/or ground water contaminated with solvents such as TCE. In the letter, Ohio EPA requested that owners evaluate the conditions on their property to ensure TCE vapor intrusion was not harming people working or living on their property or that nearby neighbors were not affected. While the intent of the letter is to inform the property owner in order to prevent human health risks, this announcement caused some concern among the Voluntary Action Program (VAP) community, leading some to mistakenly believe that Ohio EPA was undermining the value of a Covenant-Not-to-Sue (CNS) issued through the VAP.

While most acceptable indoor air levels for chemicals are based on a chronic risk, or long-term exposure, the change made by U.S. EPA regarding TCE was based on an acute risk, or short-term exposure, particularly to women with developing fetuses. This change presented a concern to Ohio EPA because fetal heart anomalies were determined to occur with only a few weeks of exposure to breathing TCE above the health standards.  Therefore, prompt attention to this new standard and exposure timeframe required a timely and thorough reevaluation of all known sites that may have TCE contamination. As part of this review, Ohio EPA contacted the property owners, informing them of this change, and asking them to investigate the conditions, and to make sure that people at and near their property were not being harmed. This action is consistent with the responsibility of the Director of Ohio EPA to ensure that the health of Ohio’s citizens is adequately protected.

Ohio EPA’s interest is in public health and not to invalidate property owners’ CNSs as part of this reevaluation. To date, no CNS has been revoked under this reevaluation, nor is Ohio EPA requiring a property with a CNS to update to the new federal standard for TCE.  Ohio EPA is working cooperatively with property owners to ensure that public health is protected. Our request for property owners to look at the information they have, and, if necessary, take samples, is in fact a good and necessary choice for these property owners. Understanding that a property is adequately protective allows an owner to use or redevelop a property with the certainty that it won’t be harmful to users or neighbors.  It protects the value of the property, enables safe and economically feasible redevelopment of contaminated property, and allows reduced remediation without having to “turn a blind eye” on future liability and injury.

The VAP has always acknowledged the Director’s responsibility to address imminent health threats; the reevaluation of potential exposure to unsafe levels of TCE is not a separate, or new legal authority.  Each CNS that is issued by Ohio EPA states, “Nothing in the Covenant limits the authority of the Director to request that a civil action be brought pursuant to the ORC or common law of the State to recover the costs incurred by Ohio EPA for investigating or remediating a release, or threatened release, of hazardous substances or petroleum at, or from the Property, when the Director determines that the release or threatened release poses an imminent and substantial threat to public health or safety or the environment.”  This provision allows Ohio EPA to evaluate for current, or likely imminent, health threats, and recover expended costs when a property owner is uncooperative and an imminent health threat may exist.

Ohio EPA is aware that some members of the public may have mistakenly inferred that a CNS issued after the submission of a No Further Action Letters (NFAs) is no longer worthwhile for property owners to obtain.  That assumption is false. Furthermore, it has been stressed that the Ohio EPA VAP is losing relevance, with the proof offered being the lower number of NFAs that have been submitted to the Ohio EPA in the past year.  That assumption is also false. Ohio EPA’s position is that NFAs submitted for a CNS is not the only measure of the success of the VAP.  The number of NFAs submitted for a CNS fluctuates over time and can be impacted by a variety of factors. One of the factors that has the greatest impact is the implementation of a new rule change. This results in a significant increase in NFA submittals, like the one that occurred in 2014.  Another factor is the change in brownfield funding available in the state. Loss of sources of funding, such as the Clean Ohio Fund, will continue to reduce the number of NFAs submitted to Ohio EPA in the coming years. CPs have indicated that only 10 percent of their VAP work is ever submitted to Ohio EPA for CNS, because volunteers, lenders and insurance companies are comfortable with work done by VAP CPs who follow VAP rules and guidelines. These institutions don’t require a CNS from Ohio EPA for there to be value in the program. Ohio EPA considers the program a success knowing that the use of the program rules and guidelines provide participants that level of comfort. 

In summary, Ohio EPA is not taking this action due to a meaningless bureaucratic function. Ohio EPA is committed to ensuring protectiveness of human health and the environment, particularly when significant questions such as TCE exposure are raised by the best science and research available from US EPA. The VAP has shown over the past 22 years, that the program is able to protect human health without putting a stop to redevelopment, which demonstrates that citizens, owners, workers, and neighbors can be adequately protected without invalidating the VAP program.

Unwind of WOTUS Gets Us Back to the Beginning

The Trump Administration has promised massive deregulation, in particular reductions in environmental regulations. A major target of the Trump Administration's deregulation agenda is the Obama Administration's Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS) which defines which wetlands and streams are federally regulated.

However, as described in this post, despite the controversy, all of the regulatory activity over the last several years really just leaves us in the status quo.  

CWA Defines Jurisdictional Waters

Section 301(a) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) prohibits discharges of pollutants to "navigable waters" without a permit.  See, 33 U.S.C. Section 1311(a), 1362(a).   The CWA defines "navigable waters" as "waters of the United States..." See, 33 U.S.C. Section 1362(7)

However, what exactly constitutes "waters of the United States" has been controversial since passage of the CWA in 1972.  

Supreme Court Weighs in Three Times

The Supreme Court has addressed the issue of "waters of the U.S." on three separate occasions:

  • Adjacent waters- In the Court's initial decision, it captured the issue of the extent of federal jurisdiction succinctly- "Between open waters and dry land may lie shallows, marshes, mudflats, swamps, bogs--in short, a huge array of areas that are not wholly aquatic but nevertheless fall far short of being dry land.  Where on this continuum to fine the limit of "waters" is far from obvious." The Court said the term "navigable" in the statute is of little import.  The history of the CWA shows Congress intended broad regulations of waters. In this case, the Court concluded the wetlands adjacent to "waters of the U.S." were federally regulated.  See, United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes 474 U.S. 121 (1985)
  • Habitat for Migratory Birds- The Court determined the Army Corps went too far trying to assert federal regulation over intrastate waters on the basis the waters provide habitat for migratory birds. SWANNCC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. .159 (2001)  
  • Scalia and Kennedy Tests-  The third time the Court visited the issue it could not get five justices to agree on the extent of federal jurisdiction under the CWA.  Two tests emerged- Justice Scalia's and Justice Kennedy's.  Justice Scalia limited federal jurisdiction to navigable waters, adjacent wetlands and non-navigable streams that are permanent flow year round or at least seasonally. Justice Kennedy extended jurisdiction further, to any waters with a "significant nexus" to navigable waters.  Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715 (2006)

Post-Rapanos the uncertainty and litigation continued over the extent of federal regulation.

Obama WOTUS Rule

In 2015, the Obama Administration attempted to put an end to the uncertainty by defining "waters of the U.S." by rule (WOTUS).  Under the proposal federally regulated waters included the following:

  • Streams with perennial, intermittent or ephemeral flow
  • Defined bed, bank and an ordinary high water mark
  • Contributes flow, either directly or through another water, to a jurisdictional water
  • Part of a network that drains to a jurisdictional water
  • Excludes man-made ditches

Those opposed to the rule felt any small stream or water could meet the definition triggering federal regulation over even incidental creeks and streams or even drainage ditches.

The rules was immediately subject to over 20 legal challenges.  On October 9, 2015 the Sixth Circuit issued a stay of the effectiveness of the rule while its legality was determined.  

Litigation is before the Supreme Court to determine not the legality of the rule, but the proper venue the rule can be challenged.  Despite those who argue the Trump Administration is rolling back protections of waterways, the WOTUS rule never went into effect.  Instead, we still determine the extent of federal jurisdiction using the Scalia and Kennedy tests from Rapanos.

Trump Executive Order

Despite the fact the WOTUS rule was not in effect, on February 28, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order titled "Restoring the rule of Law, Federalism and Economic Growth by Reviewing the "Waters of the U.S. Rule."

The Executive Order had two goals:

  1. Rescind WOTUS;
  2. Issue an new rule interpreting "Navigable Waters" consistent with Justice Scalia's test in Rapanos.

Step 1- Rescinding WOTUS

July 27, 2017, EPA proposed revocation of WOTUS.  EPA accepted public comments on the proposed rule through September 27th.  

Step 2- Propose a New Definition of WOTUS

The next step will be for EPA to propose a definition of the rule that drops the Kennedy "significant nexus" test and limits jurisdiction to the test articulated by Justice Scalia.  However, similar to WOTUS, this rule will almost certainly face numerous legal challenges.

Back to the Beginning?

While the legal challenges work their way through the courts over the next several years, the law will not have changed since Rapanos was decided in 2006.  Both the Kennedy and Scalia tests for jurisdiction will be used by all circuits.  

For over forty years the issue of how far to extend federal jurisdiction over waters has not been conclusively decided.  It appears this issues will not have greater clarity for the foreseeable future.  

 

Has Ohio Undermined Its Voluntary Cleanup Program?

As discussed in my prior post, in September Ohio EPA announced that it would be sending "hundreds of letters" to property owners that have trichloroethylene  (TCE) contamination, including property owners that cleaned up their property under the Voluntary Action Program (VAP).  At the September meeting of VAP professionals the Agency announced that it could take legal action against property owners with TCE contamination even if the property owner received a Covenant-Not-to-Sue (CNS) under the VAP (i.e. a legal release).

Since the September meeting many in the environmental community have questioned whether the Agency has undermined a cornerstone of the program- the ability to rely on a legal release through a VAP CNS that no additional cleanup would be required.  The Agency was careful to state it would not be reopening the CNS to apply the more stringent TCE VAP cleanup standard.  The Agency still agrees the VAP CNS locks in the cleanup standards once the CNS is issued (even if standards get more stringent for certain types of contamination based on the more up-to-date science).

The ability to lock in cleanup standards has always been viewed as one of the most significant incentives for submitting a VAP No Further Action (NFA) letter to Ohio EPA to obtain a CNS.   Without the ability to rely on the legal release, the VAP would provide very little incentive to make public information about levels of contamination at your property.  

While the Agency said it would not reopen a CNS issued under the VAP to apply the more stringent TCE cleanup standard, the Agency also said it has an obligation to protect public health and the environment.  The Agency indicated it has separate legal authority, outside the VAP program, to take action at properties it believes present a threat to public health and the environment.  The Agency stated it could perform cleanup itself and recover its costs under this separate legal authority if property owners refused to do anything more to address TCE at their sites.

Legal End Around?

While Ohio EPA says it would not reopen VAP covenants to apply more stringent cleanup standards, it said it could use other legal authority to take action to address TCE.  Most property owners won't care which legal authority the Agency utilizes. Most will be upset that they are being told to perform more investigation or cleanup after they thought they had met all their obligations.

Does this the Agency's recent announcement weaken the VAP program?  It certainly diminishes the incentive of entering the program.  

For years, many outside attorneys and consulting firms have advocated simply cleaning up the property to VAP standards and obtaining an NFA, but electing not to submit the NFA to Ohio EPA to obtain a CNS.  What are the perceived advantages to this approach:

  • Meeting VAP standards provides a technical argument that the property does not present a threat to public health or the environment;
  • While not a legal release, the Ohio EPA or U.S. EPA would have a much more difficult time taking enforcement against a property that is deemed protective of the public health or the environment (as indicated by issuance of the NFA);
  • By not submitting the NFA to Ohio EPA all sampling data can remain confidential.  No information will be accessible by the public regarding the condition of the property; and
  • By not submitting the NFA, the owner avoids the costs associated with Ohio EPA's review of a CNS

While there are advantages to not submitting an NFA to obtain a CNS, these must be balanced against the limitations of such an approach:

  • The CNS still locks in cleanup standards.  Obtaining only an NFA leaves the property open to application of more stringent cleanup standards;
  • A CNS still provides a much stronger legal defense against EPA enforcement for cleanup
  • A property with a CNS is more easily transferred to a new owner because the property still has a sign-off from the Ohio EPA that the property meets standards;
  • Financing is more easily obtained for a property with a CNS versus an NFA; and
  • While the VAP is self-implementing, it is very common for VAP Certified Professionals and Ohio EPA to disagree over whether the cleanup was sufficient.  Obtaining a VAP CNS provides the assurance the Agency signed off on the cleanup.

This laundry list of pro's and con's make this a complex decision for the property owner.  The recent announcement regarding notices to property owners holding a CNS with TCE contamination adds another factor to be considered.  

The numbers don't lie, the number of VAP CNS have gone down over the last few years. 

VAP CNS Issued by Year
Year

NFA Letters

Requesting a CNS

CNS Issued Review Pending
2014 65 60 2
2015 33 33 0
2016 28 18 7
2017 to date 14 2 12

 

The cost and complexity of the program results in only a limited number of sites entering the property each year.  As has been discussed in prior blog posts, Ohio need to develop more options to address liability from pre-existing contamination to accelerate reuse of brownfields in Ohio. 

 

State EPA Federal Permitting and Preemption by FERC

According to a Forbes article in 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved almost 40 major pipeline projects across the country, covering 1,200 miles, over 14 Bcf/d of new capacity (total national consumption is around 75 Bcf/d), and over $10 billion in new investment.  Most of these new pipelines are being built in the eastern third of the U.S.  There are three major pipelines currently being constructed or will soon start construction in Ohio.

With all this new construction, a key issue is the interplay between regulation under the Natural Gas Act (NGA) administered by the FERC and State EPA environmental permitting.  In order to expedite construction and avoid duplication in regulation, the NGA preempts much of the State regulatory oversight.  

On August 18th the Federal Court in the 2nd Circuit issued a significant decision regarding state environmental permitting authority and preemption.  The case relates to the State of New York’s permitting authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

In Constitution Pipeline Company v. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) denied a stream/wetland permit requested by Constitution Pipeline to construct a pipeline that crossed through New York.  The dispute involved whether less water quality impacts were feasible by avoiding open cuts through streams and wetlands in favor of horizontal directional drilling which goes underneath these resources.  

During the FERC review, NYSDEC submitted comments requesting more HDDs and Constitution Pipeline submitted comments in response favoring the current plans.  FERC agreed with Constitution Pipeline and issued a certificate for the project pursuant to the NGA.  NYSDEC ended up denying the CWA 401 permit on the grounds more HDDs would result in less state water quality impacts.  Constitution Pipeline challenged the denial of the 401 in federal court arguing the NGA preempted the State since the FERC had already determined as part of its review the more HDDs were not feasible. 

The Court noted that the NGA has specific carve outs from preemption for the Clean Water Act.  The Court held that states retain their authority under the CWA and NYSDEC was within its right to deny the 401 permit.   Constitution Pipeline is looking to appeal arguing this gives the State’s veto authority over FERCs decision to approve pipeline routes.

Ohio EPA to Issue Letters Regarding TCE to Property Owners

At a recent meeting of brownfield cleanup professionals, Ohio EPA announced plans to issue letters to owners of property contaminated with TCE.  Ohio EPA says it reviewed thousands of sites and will be issuing letters to "hundreds" of sites where it has information in its files that TCE is present. Based on this review, the Agency intends to send letters in instances where TCE levels may be above recently lowered health risk standards.

While a draft of the letter was not provided, Ohio EPA indicated that the letter would "inform the property owner that TCE may be a health concern at their property."  The letters will request the following:

  • Ask the owner to evaluate the health risks (both on and off their property)
  • Ask that the owner notify the Ohio EPA of their plans of action and results

The letters will trigger a flurry of activity across the state as owners try and figure out the practical and liability implications of receiving notice the Agency believes their property may present a health risk.

Do Standards Move under the VAP?

The Agency said it even will reopen some sites that have completed an acceptable cleanup under Ohio EPA's Voluntary Action Program (VAP). Site owners will receive a letter if the Agency has information in its files that suggests TCE could be present at levels above the new more stringent standard for TCE (even if the property received a legal release based upon the old TCE standard).

At the meeting concern was expressed by brownfield professionals that the Agency was applying the new standard at closed VAP sites.  A core principal of the VAP program was that standards would not change after a volunteer completed a VAP cleanup. It was noted that standards used at the time of cleanup are directly tied to the legal release the property owner receives from Ohio EPA after completing the VAP cleanup (i.e. Covenant-Not-to-Sue or CNS).

With regard to properties covered by a CNS, Ohio EPA stated they hoped the property owner would "do the right thing" even in instances when the cleanup standards applicable at the time the CNS was issued are still not being exceeded.  However, Ohio EPA noted that it retains separate legal authority outside the VAP program to take action and recover its costs at any property the Agency believes may present an "imminent and substantial threat to public health and safety."

Implications for Property Owners and the VAP

The Ohio EPA announcement signifies a further escalation of its efforts to apply the new TCE risk standard to properties that either are not currently undergoing voluntary cleanup as well as those that actually completed such cleanups. The concern among the private sector and property owners is that the new TCE risk standards are very conservative.  Publicly calling out potential health risks both on and off property based on a conservative risk standard raises the liability exposure for property owners across the state.  

There is also concern that the Agency's actions on TCE may have the unintended consequence of dissuading property owners and developers from entering the VAP program.  With a few limited exceptions, Ohio law does not require property owners to make public sampling data obtained through due diligence as part of private transactions.  Therefore, unless a property owner believes the value of the VAP CNS outweighs the liability risks disclosure brings, owners will not be inclined to enter the VAP and make information about their site public.

With hundreds of property owners receiving letters it will be important to get advice from environmental consultants and attorneys regarding the implications for their particular site.

Major Federal Court Decision Shows Climate Change Still In Play

The D.C. Circuit Court of appeals issued a major rebuke to those who believe climate change is no longer relevant in environmental reviews.  In Sierra Club v. FERC, No. 16-1329 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 22, 2017), the Court agreed with environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to adequately analyze greenhouse gas emissions as part of a $3.5 billion dollar natural gas pipeline project.  The project involves construction of a 500 mile long pipeline through Florida.   

FERC Review Authority

The Natural Gas Act (NGA) provides FERC the authority to review and approve interstate pipeline projects, including the environmental impacts associated with the project.  Section 7 of the NGA requires the pipeline owner to obtain a "certificate of public convenience and necessity" from FERC (i.e. Section 7 Certificate).  One component of the Section 7 review is compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which includes FERC's preparation of an "Environmental Impact Statement" (EIS).  

The Sierra Club argued that the FERC, in performing it EIS, failed to adequately consider the impacts of emission of greenhouse gases associated with the project.  Specifically, the pipeline would supply natural gas to power plants in Florida which would generate additional greenhouse gas emissions by burning natural gas.  

The Court said NEPA required FERC to consider both direct and potentially indirect impacts from those emissions.  

  • Direct Impacts- quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse
    emissions that will result from burning the gas transported by the pipeline or explain in detail why such a estimate cannot be provided;
  • Indirect Impacts- the court did not specify what indirect impacts, which leaves open the question of whether the EIS must analysis whether greenhouse gas emissions will result in more severe storms, agricultural impacts, etc.

Impact of the Decision

First, the decision demonstrates greenhouse gas issues are still alive and well.  FERC must take steps to analyze greenhouse gas emissions as part of its EIS review.  

Second, the decision doesn't mean the Court took a negative view of natural gas pipelines.  In fact, the Court specifically stated there can be both negative and positive impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions from these project.  For example, burning natural gas made available via the pipeline may allow higher emitting coal fired power plants to shut down thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions overall.

Third, perhaps the biggest impact will be seen on challenges to other projects that must get FERC approval.  The requirement to include evaluation of impacts of projects on greenhouse gas emissions could result in other projects being successfully challenged in Court and may also delay some projects in order to allow required analysis to be included as part of the EIS.

Superfund Reform- What Can We Expect?

While the Trump Administrations primary environmental agenda has been focused on deregulation, one area EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has prioritized is Superfund (i.e. CERCLA).  Superfund is meant to investigate and cleanup the dirtiest sites in the country.  However, its long and complicated investigation, remedy selection and cleanup implementation processes have slowed cleanups to a crawl.  It is certainly a program much in need of an overhaul.

Administrator Pruitt created a task force to provide recommendations for improvement of the Superfund program.  The Administrator stated his goal was to "restore the Superfund program to its rightful place at the center of the agency's core mission."  

The task force was given five goals:

  • Expedite cleanup and remediation;
  • Reinvigorate cleanup and reuse efforts by PRPs;
  • Encourage private investment to facilitate cleanup and reuse;
  • Promoting redevelopment and community revitalization; and
  • Engage with partners and stakeholders.

Ideas were evaluated in each of these areas.  The Administrator notes that some of the 42 strategies recommended will take time, including rule changes.  However, he identified strategies that he has directed the task force to immediately implement, including::

  1. Take immediate action at sites where the risk to human health are not fully controlled;
  2. Use interim or removal actions more frequently to address immediate risks;
  3. Prioritize sites for Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Studies (RI/FS) that require immediate action;
  4. Identify contaminated sediment or complex groundwater sites where adaptive management can be implemented;
  5. Evaluate redevelopment potential for NPL sites;
  6. Track remedy selection in real time with Superfund Enterprise Management Systems;
  7. Focus resources on NPL sites with most reuse potential;
  8. Identify sites for PRP-lead cleanup to spur redevelopment;
  9. Submit the total indirect costs charged to PRPs for 2016 and 2017
  10. Encourage PRPs to work with end users to voluntarily perform assessment and cleanup to spur redevelopment;
  11. Use purchase agreements for potential Bona Fide Prospective Purchasers outlining their actions necessary to preserve their BFPP status;
  12. Use unilateral orders against recalcitrant PRPs to discourage proactive negotiations of response actions; and
  13. Maximize deletions and partial deletions of sites that have been cleaned up.

For the task force's full report click here.

What can we learn from the List of Priority Items?

Vapor Intrusion 

The most immediate take away is that sites that present vapor intrusion risks to on-site or adjacent property owners will be a priority.  In the last five years, vapor intrusion has become a major focus of both U.S. EPA and State EPA's.  

The vapor intrusion pathway is often seen as the most immediate and direct public health threat presented by sites.  Therefore, it is logical to assume that and Superfund sites that present vapor intrusion risks will be prioritized.  Based on the strategies outlined above, it is very likely that we will see an increase in the use of unilateral enforcement by the EPA Region's to address vapor intrusion risks.  

Slow Moving Sites

The task force has targeted sites that have taken "far too long to remediate."  The task force will establish a "Administrator's Top Ten List" that will get weekly attention.  Sites that have been on the NPL for five years or longer without "significant movement" will be reviewed.  

Unfortunately, without a major overhaul to the National Contingency Program (NCP) which governs Superfund, the report and recommendations are highly unlikely to result in significant acceleration of cleanups.

Sites with Redevelopment Potential

Several of the Administrator's recommendations focus on targeting sites with redevelopment potential.  For these sites it is possible that the Agency will be more flexible to voluntary cleanup programs that could put land back into productive use more quickly.  Following the traditional long and drawn out investigation, remedy selection and implementation will not put property back into productive use quickly.

EPA has shown greater flexibility toward accepting state brownfield voluntary cleanup programs.  The focus on redevelopment by the task force provides an opening to PRPs and developers to, perhaps, leverage greater acceptance of these state voluntary brownfield cleanup programs. In reality, leveraging state voluntary cleanup programs may be best opportunity to accelerate cleanup at Superfund sites.

Budget Bill Fix to VAP Automatic Tax Exemption

This blog has previously detailed some of the ambiguity of the Voluntary Action Program ten year automatic tax abatement provisions set forth in Revised Code 5709.87. (See prior posts here and here). Three primary issues caused significant problems for developers attempting to leverage the VAP automatic tax abatement:
  1. How to value the abatement- The prior law was ambiguous as to how to value the abatement;
  2. Timing- The timing for locking in the tax abatement was difficult to navigate causing some developers to lose out on millions of dollars in tax abatements; and
  3. Exclusion for New Improvements and Structures- Until an Ohio Supreme Court ruling, the law was somewhat unclear as to whether the abatement covered the land and only existing buildings.  The Ohio Supreme Court clarified that new improvements and buildings were not covered by the automatic tax abatement. 

House Bill 463 included language to fix the first two issues. (H.B. 463 changes to R.C. 5709.87)

How to Value the Abatement

The act specifies that the beginning point for measuring the increase in value subject to abatement is the beginning of the year in which environmental remedial activities began.  Under the prior law, the value was based  upon the date of issuance of the tax abatement order by the Tax Commissioner.  At the start of a brownfield project, it wasn't certain which year would be used as the base value for determining the exemption.

The changes enacted through House Bill 463 specify that the exemption is to measured using the year remedial activities were initiated as the base year.  Each of the ten years during which the property is exempted, any increase in value from the base year is exempted from taxes.

Timing

The other issue with the prior law related to timing.  The date of the exemption and calculation of the value of exemption was not tied to a specific year.  Rather, the exemption was tied to the tax list of the year prior to when the Tax Commissioner issued their abatement order.  The fact the value "floated" with the date the Tax Commissioner issued their order meant it was difficult to secure the full value of abatement. 

For example, assume remediation commenced in 2012 and the property was valued a $1 million. The VAP Covenant-Not-to-Sue (CNS) is issued in 2015.  By 2015, some improvements were completed and the property doubled in value to $2 million.  The Tax Commissioner issues the abatement order in 2016, which means the 2015 tax value (not the 2012 value) would be used to determine the value of the abatement.  This means the developer would lose out the abatement for the increase in taxes associated with property values increasing between 2012 and 2015.

This created challenges for developers who had to time completion of improvements with completion of the VAP CNS and Tax Commissioner Order.  Some developers didn't plan correctly or were confused by the law and lost out on millions in abatement. 

For instance, once Cincinnati company lost out on a potential tax exemption on a $4 million dollar increase in the value of the property simply because the paperwork was not issued by the government officials in a timely fashion.  see, Hamilton Brownfields Redevelopment LLC v. Zaino, Tax Commissioner of Ohio.

U.S. EPA Delays Ozone Designations and Demonstrates Change In Priorities

On June 6, 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt notified states that U.S. EPA was extending by one year the deadline for designating those areas in non-compliance with the 2015 ozone standard.  The 2015 ozone standard is 70 parts per billion (ppb), which is lower than the prior ozone standard of 75 ppb established in 2008.

Once U.S. EPA  adopts a new ozone standard it must go through the formal process of designating areas in non-compliance with the standard based upon monitoring data maintained by the states (i.e. "Non-Attainment Areas").  Once Non-Attainment Areas are designated, those areas of the country face tougher permitting requirements and additional regulations to reduce emissions.  

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA had two years to finalize the designations.  Administrator Pruitt's action moved the deadline for designations from October 1, 2017 to October 1, 2018.  

While a one year extension may not seem long, it has dramatic ramifications for states.  As previously discussed on this blog, there are a host of federal regulations targeting power plant and vehicle emissions that are phased in over time.  The more time states are given before designations take effect, the more states can take advantage of the existing federal regulations with are phased in over time.

Meanwhile, Murray Energy Corp v. EPA, Case No. 15-1385, the litigation challenging the 2015 ozone standard, is still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  The standard was challenged by some companies and states.  

After the change in Administrations, Administrator Pruitt filed a request to stay the litigation while it reviewed the 2015 ozone standard.  On April 11, 2017, the Court granted EPA's request. It is unclear whether EPA's decision to delay the implementation of the standard means it is not actually reconsidering the standard, but from the public comments released by EPA it appears likely it will revoke the 75 ppb standard.

EPA did not provide any clear guidance in its press release announcing its decision to delay implementation of the rule.  However, the public statements in the press release and Administrator Pruitt's letter were interesting as they show a dramatic shift in how EPA views air quality standards since the Administration change.  Here ares some examples of the statements that show the change in priorities:

  • Areas designated as being in “nonattainment” of the standard face consequences, including: increased regulatory burdens, restrictions on infrastructure investment, and increased costs to businesses (It is unusual to see EPA discussing the burden on business rather than the public health benefits from lowering the standard)
  • EPA is giving states more time to develop air quality plans and EPA is looking at providing greater flexibility to states as they develop their plans. 
  • Since 1980, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants have dropped by 63 percent and ozone levels have declined by 33 percent. Despite the continued improvement of air quality, costs associated with compliance of the ozone NAAQS have significantly increased.(Another unusual statement to be found in an EPA press release related to ozone.  Historically, EPA discusses the improvements in air quality, associated health benefits while the U.S. economy has continued to grow)

Based on the statements communicated in the press release and in EPA Administrator's letter to the states it seems very likely EPA will take the controversial step of moving the ozone standard from 70 ppb to 75 ppb which was put in place in 2008.  It is clear the Administration is focused on increased compliance costs to business rather than citing to the public health benefits attributable to a lower standard.