New Ohio EPA Public Records Procedures Impact Phase Is

More than one environmental consultant has reported that Ohio EPA has changed its public records review procedures.  Ohio EPA has centralized its document review process.  It has developed a new public records request form that it asks any consultant requesting records to fill out (click here for the form).

After files are compiled in response to the request, Ohio EPA will typically not release the records until the Legal Office completes a review.  The purpose of the review is to ensure attorney-client or other privileged documents are not released.  That is understandable.  However, the practical effect, as reported by more than one consultant, is that records are not being released or files made available for review as quickly.

Many times it can take more than three weeks before files will be made available.  This causes practical issues for consultants performing Phase I Environmental Assessments.

Under the new ASTM 1527-13, the consultant performing a Phase I is required to review records from pertinent regulatory files. The consultant must review files that are deemed "reasonably ascertainable."  With regard to records, the new ASTM standard defines reasonably ascertainable as a file review or copies made available within twenty days of making the request.  

More and more Phase Is will note that file requests were issued, but no response was made when the report was finalized.  While proper documentation in the Phase I does not render the report inconsistent with ASTM, it does create practical ramifications for the user of the report.

State EPA files are more often than not the best source for identifying environmental issues with properties.  Those issues could include information about prior releases of contamination, enforcement actions, permitting issues, etc.  

The more time it takes Ohio EPA to produce files, the more likely these critical reviews will not be completed before the Phase I report is finalized.  This leaves the purchaser or tenant who ordered the Phase I with significant risk that problems exist with the property that will not be identified until after the transaction closes.

Users of Phase Is are left with the choice of delaying their transaction while they wait for the files to be reviewed or moving forward without potentially critical information regarding the property.

Federal Vacant and Brownfield Properties Present Opportunities and Challenges

The federal government is the nation's largest property owner.  It holds over 900,000 buildings and structures totaling three billion square feet.  

In 2010, the federal government spent more than 1.5 billion dollars to maintain approximately 77,000 underutilized and vacant properties.  Another 14,000 properties are no longer used by the federal government and could be transferred to new owners.

With large federal deficits it is easy to see the sale of these vacant properties as an opportunity to save money.  The government can reduce maintenance costs as well as recover funds through the sale of these properties to the private sector.  According to a Republican report, $1 billion could be saved just by reducing vacant courthouse space.

Back in 2011, President Obama targeted the issue of underutilized and vacant federal properties as part of his budget.  This quote from President which appeared in an article in the Washington Post:

"Now, some of the savings will come through less waste and more efficiency," he said. "To take just one example, by getting rid of 14,000 office buildings, lots and government-owned properties we no longer need, we can save taxpayers billions of dollars." 

However, three years later little progress has been made in addressing the issue.  This despite the President's executive action and legislation to try kick-start the process.

Red Tape- The Biggest Impediment to Addressing the Issue

According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service Report, the single biggest impediment to efficient sale of these properties remains the federally mandated process.  As an initial step. a federal agency that no longer needs a property must go through extensive reviews just to declare the property as "excess" and move it to the GSA for processing.  Between 2010-2013 only 565 of the 11,600 underutilized properties transferred to the GSA.

One of those impediments is the extensive environmental reviews necessary to transfer properties.  With very little incentive to spend the manpower to navigate the complex environmental statutes, many agencies simply don't initiate the process to declare property as "excess."

If a property is declared "excess," it then moves to the GSA for final sale.  However, before the GSA can sell the property, it must be offered first to other federal agencies, then to homeless providers and other public entities, including state and local governments. Only after all of these stakeholders evaluate taking the property and decline can it finally be offered for sale.  This process can take up to three years for a single property.

Congressional Roundtable 

I have been asked by Congressman John Mica (R-Fla) to participate in a roundtable discussion on underutilized and vacant federal properties on July 24th.  Congressman Mica has assembled various experts to offer their opinions on how to streamline the process for selling such properties.

My comments will focus on leveraging the expertise of the private sector to evaluate environmental issues and mitigate their risks. The private sector can efficiently evaluate whether properties present environmental risks. If such risk are identified, multiple strategies exist that can be implemented to address or mitigate risks.  

I look forward to participating in the roundtable.  Addressing this issue presents a tremendous opportunity to save federal funds.  It also presents an opportunity to place these properties back into productive use.  

 

Why the Latest Supreme Court Climate Change Ruling is a Big Deal

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the next major climate change decision in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (UARG).  In reading commentary across the web it appears most think the Court's decision isn't really a big deal.  After all, the Court upheld EPA's permitting authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) from stationary sources.  This from the Guardian:

"The US Supreme Court largely upheld Barack Obama's plans to cut carbon pollution from power plants on Monday, delivering critical support for his climate action plan."

The Court's ruling did limit EPA authority, but most commentators note that the difference in covered emissions is only 83% of the sources instead of 86% of the sources.  So, really what is the big deal?

The Court's ruling is, in fact, a very big deal for two principle reasons:

  1. The Court held EPA has discretionary authority to regulate GHGs under major source permitting authority, not a mandate as EPA claimed; and
  2. The Court took EPA off its frightening path of ever increasing regulation of smaller and smaller sources of GHGs.

The news media have largely focused on the 83% versus 86% figure in concluding EPA got most of what it wanted.  However, the impact of the decision is more complicated then this simple figure. A review of how EPA got before the Supreme Court is important in order to understand the significance of its ruling. 

Massachusetts v. EPA

The Supreme Court already determined that EPA had authority under the existing terms of the Clean Air Act to regulate GHGs.  At issue in the Court's landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA
was the language in Section 202(a)(1) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) which requires the Administrator of EPA to set emission standards for "any air pollutant" from motor vehicles "which in his judgment cause(s), or contribute(s) to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare."

Back in 2003, the Bush Administration was trying to delay or avoid regulating GHGs under the Clean Air Act.  One action it took was to deny a petition from twelve states and several cities to regulate GHGs under Section 202(a)(1).  EPA took the position that it did not have the authority to regulate GHGs under the CAA and EPA should be more deliberate before embarking on such a massive regulatory expansion.

In a 5-4 climate decision, the Court ruled against the Bush Administration in Massachusetts v. EPA. The Court pointed to the extremely broad definition of "air pollutant" under the CAA and held that EPA was required to evaluate whether GHGs endanger public health and welfare (i.e the so called "Endangerment Finding")

Following the ruling, the Obama Administration attempted to pass comprehensive climate change legislation (cap and trade).  One argument the Administration used to support the proposed legislation was  the threat that without such legislation it would have no choice but to move forward with promulgating rules under the existing CAA.  Even then the Obama Administration commented that the CAA was ill-suited to regulate GHGs.

While legislation was close to passing, health care was the priority, and cap-and-trade died in the Senate.  The Administration soon moved forward with its Endangerment Finding and regulation of GHGs from motor vehicles.

Point of No Return?

EPA has asserted that once the rulemaking process under the Clean Air Act was initiated, there was no turning back.  EPA argued that once it issued its Endangerment Finding and GHGs became a "regulated pollutant" under the CAA, other regulatory provisions under the Act pertaining to stationary sources were automatically triggered.  

Of grave concern was the stationary major source permitting provisions (PSD and Title V programs) which were triggered anytime a source emitted 250 tons or, in case of Title V, 100 tons of a pollutant.  While these thresholds only captured truly large sources when applied to emissions of traditional pollutants, this would not be the case with GHGs.

EPA warned that applying the 100/250 ton threshold to GHGs would result in an unprecedented expansion of regulatory authority over even small sources.  In fact, thousands of previously unregulated sources would be captured and EPA would be overwhelmed with the new permits.  

When EPA was questioned as to why it would embark on regulating GHGs under the PSD and Title V programs when it would cause such dramatic results, EPA said it had no choice.  The Agency claimed the plain language of the Act as well as the decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, legally compelled the Agency to regulate GHGs under the PSD and Title V programs.

In an effort to mitigate the impact of such regulations, EPA published the Tailoring Rule.  EPA said the rule was necessary due to the fact application of the 100/250 tons threshold to GHGs would produce "absurd results."  Therefore, due to these absurd results, EPA claimed it had authority to tailor the thresholds to more practical thresholds.  

EPA's Tailoring Rule set the GHG trigger at 100,000 tons per year of GHGs and 75,000 tons for existing sources making major modifications.  However, EPA clearly stated that its authority to rewrite the CAA in this manner was only temporary and over time it would be forced to apply the 100/250 tons threshold to GHGs.  In other words, EPA would eventually regulate thousands of new small sources of carbon emissions.

Supreme Court Finds EPA has Discretion But Cannot Rewrite the Clean Air Act

On June 23, 2014, in another 5-4 climate change ruling, the Supreme Court found EPA (as well as the D.C. Circuit Court) were incorrect when it asserted regulation of GHGs from motor vehicles mandated regulation of GHG emissions from major sources under the PSD and Title V programs. The Court held EPA had a choice whether to regulate GHGs under the PSD and Title V program.

The Court also ruled that EPA could not rewrite the CAA through its Tailoring Rule raising the 100/250 trigger thresholds to 100,000 tons.  The Court ruled that the absurd results that would come from application of the 100/250 ton threshold to GHGs really meant the PSD and Title V requirements were not meant to apply to sources solely on basis of their GHG emissions.  Rather, new pollution controls to address GHGs would only be required if the source emitted a previously regulated pollutant over the 100/250 ton threshold (so called "Anyway Sources").

Why the Ruling is So Significant

First, the Court has invalidated EPA's Tailoring Rule.  The Court said the history behind the 100/250 ton threshold established by Congress showed the legislature's intent that they not apply to pollutants such as GHGs.  As a result, regulations will not be slowly ratcheted down to cover thousands of previously unregulated sources.  

Second, the Court clearly held that EPA has discretion whether to include regulation of GHGs under the PSD and Title V programs.  It is much easier to justify a large regulatory expansion when you can argue it is mandated under the law.  The Court's decision eliminates that justification.  This means the Agency actions to regulate GHGs under the PSD and Title V programs could be undone by a future Administration.  

 

Practical Issues with Ohio's Brownfield Tax Abatement Law

I have written before regarding the flaws in Ohio's automatic ten year tax abatement for brownfield cleanups.  In my prior post, I discussed both timing issues and exclusion of new buildings/improvements from coverage under the tax abatement.

Over the years, ass I have dealt with this law in practice for clients, another reality has come to light. Even if you do everything right in terms of timing, the law is really hard to take advantage of due to the bias against reducing property values in Ohio based on pre-existing contamination.

The Law

The applicable statutory provision is set forth in  Revised Code Section 5709.87 "Exempting increase in assessed value of realty cleaned of contamination." The key language is as follows:

(C)(1)(a) Upon receipt by the tax commissioner of a certification for property under division (B) of this section [i.e. a VAP Covenant-Not-to-Sue from Ohio EPA], the commissioner shall issue an order granting an exemption from real property taxation of the increase in the assessed value of land constituting property that is described in the certification, and of the increase in the assessed value of improvements, buildings, fixtures, and structures situated on that land at the time the order is issued as indicated on the current tax lists.

The way the law is supposed to work is as follows:

  1. Pre-cleanup, contaminated property has a reduced value due to costs to remediate and potential liability of the owner;
  2. Buyer expends the costs to take the property through the Ohio Voluntary Action Program (i.e. VAP- Ohio's brownfield cleanup program);
  3. Ohio EPA confirms the property meets VAP cleanup standards by issuing a covenant-not-to-sue;
  4. Ohio EPA sends certification to Tax Commissioner that the property has been cleaned up under the VAP;
  5. Tax Commissioner issues a order granting an exemption from the increase in value of the property post VAP cleanup.  The exemption (i.e. "freeze") is good for ten years.

The Real World Issue with the Ten Year Freeze 

The law assumes that the land and buildings have a reduced value due to the presence of contamination.  Once clean, the law assumes the values of both the land and buildings will likely increase significantly.  As an incentive to address costly brownfield properties, the law attempts to provide the Buyer an exemption from additional taxes attributable to the increase in value due to the cleanup.

However, the reality is that the tax value of the majority of brownfield properties do not accurately reflect their true value in the market place.  This is due to the fact that local governments have no ability to account for the contamination when assigning a tax value to properties.  As a result, the taxes assessed to land and existing buildings on brownfields, in reality, presume both are free of contamination.

What good is a "freeze" in the value if it simply freezes an over inflated valuation of the property?

To overcome this situation, any owner attempting to take advantage of the 10 year brownfield tax abatement, must first, successfully challenge the current tax valuation of the land and existing buildings so as to properly account for the presence of contamination.  While the Board of Revision process under Revised Code Chapter 5715 is seen as the opportunity for a owner to make such a challenge, the history of Board of Tax Appeal decisions (i.e. the most common administrative appeal tribunal) demonstrate the difficulty in making such a challenge.

Board of Tax Appeals Case Law Regarding Valuation of Contaminated Property

Dollar for Dollar Deduction is Not Appropriate

The easiest way to allow an owner of contaminated property to determine its value is to take the current fair market value and deduct the cleanup costs.  This method allows for the variation in levels of contamination.  The higher the cleanup costs, the bigger deduction, which seems appropriate.

Using this method, in some cases, the value of a property may be zero because the cleanup costs are higher than the current market value.  However, this is reality in the market place.  I have negotiated a number of deals in which a property transferred for one dollar in recognition of the costs and liability associated with contamination.

While the dollar for dollar deduction is the simplest method for determining value of contaminated property, unfortunately this methodology has been rejected in Ohio.  Multiple cases have held that introduction of evidence regarding the cost of cleanup and a request to reduce the value by that cost is inappropriate in Ohio. Chem-Masters Corp. v. Geauga Cty. Bd. of Revision (Dec. 21, 1990) BTA Case No. 88-J-994, unreported; Society National Bank v. Carroll County Board of Revision, BTA Case No. 94-M-454 (April 19, 1996); Hufford v. Montgomery County Board of Revision, BTA Case No. 95-M-855 (May 2, 1997); McDonald Local School District Board of Education v. Trumbull County Board of Revision, Case No. 94-A-757 (1996).

The dollar for dollar deduction methodology has even been rejected when an appraiser has endorsed the methodology as the best means of determining value of the property.  In Vogelgesang v. CECOS International, Inc., 85 Ohio App. 3d 339 (1993), CECOS challenged the property tax valuation. At the hearing, CECOS provided an appraisal report in which the appraiser deducted current and future environmental cleanup costs from the valuation. The Court upheld the BTA’s decision to reject this approach. The Court said deduction of the cleanup costs may reflect the effect these costs had on the company’s profitability, “but it fails to demonstrate their effect on the facility’s property value…” Therefore, the Court case rejected the approach of simply deducting cleanup costs from a valuation even in the context of an appraisal report.

Other Options for Determining Current Tax Value of Contaminated Property

The Board of Tax Appeals seems to favor the introduction of an appraisal which considers the impact of the contamination on the value of the property. For example, in Company at 34 v. Lake Cty. Bd of Revision (Mar. 25, 1994), 92-T-763, the BTA held that evidence must be submitted on the “diminutive effect the contamination has upon the value of the property.”   It appears the BTA wants to hear testimony from a property valuation expert.  Testimony from a consultant or someone familiar with the property will more than likely not be sufficient.

Based on the case law, the appraiser must utilize a different method for determining value other than dollar for dollar reduction based on cleanup costs.  But what other method is viable?

For example, a review of comparable sales of contaminated properties may be very difficult.  Each property is different and levels of contamination can very widely.  How an appraiser accounts for these variables in performing a market analysis would appear to be very daunting.  

Conclusions

The law in Ohio supports reduction in value of property based upon the presence of contamination. However, in reviewing the case law surrounding valuing property with environmental contamination, none of the cases discussed above provide examples in which the BTA or a Court validated a specific approach to reducing value based on contamination.

Courts and the BTA appear to endorse the use of an appraiser in determining the fair market value of contaminated property.  However, it appears no appraisal methodology has been specifically endorsed in Ohio.  

This leaves owners of contaminated property with no clear path toward reducing current tax values to reflect existing contamination.  Without successfully reducing current values to reflect pre-existing contamination, owners and developers of brownfield properties face a real challenge in capturing the value intended by the State's ten year tax abatement for cleanup of contaminated properties.

Due to the challenges facing redevelopment of brownfields, particularly in Ohio where such underutilized properties are abundant, incentives are critical to overcoming such impediments to redevelopment.  The ten year tax abatement was seen a major incentive, but in reality, it is has limited applicability and its difficult to fully take advantage of.

The ten year tax abatement in R.C. 5709.87 has been on the books for twenty years.  Perhaps its time to revisit the law to make it better conform to reality.

 

EPA's Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards

 On June 2, 2014, U.S. EPA released its Clean Power Plan Proposal to address carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing power plants.  EPA continues to move forward with climate change initiatives as gridlock in Congress persists over the issue.  EPA's strategy has been to target transportation and the power sector, the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Clean Power Plan is an interesting mix of federal regulation while attempting to provide maximum flexibility to the states to achieve emission reductions.  EPA would require a 30% reduction in CO2 emission from existing power plants from 2005 levels by 2030.  

However, rather than establishing specific emission limits for each plant, the regulation would establish "goals" for each state to achieve by 2030.  The goals were established by examining each state's current carbon output and the potential to reduce those emissions.

Formula for Arriving at Goals

EPA has authority under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) to regulate and set emission standards (42 U.S.C. Section 7411(d)).  Under Section 111(d), EPA must determine the "best system of emission reduction" (BSER) for existing sources.  EPA then must apply the system to determine the level of emission reductions required (referred to as "emission guidelines").

State's are then tasked with developing their own plans to meet the emission guidelines.  This is where the flexibility comes in.  Rather than specifying each plant must meet a specific emission limit, EPA is allowing the state's to choose from a variety of options on how to achieve their emission guidelines (i.e. "goals").

EPA provide four general approach to achieving the reductions and refers to those approaches as "building blocks."  These include:

  1. Reducing the carbon intensity at individual power plants through heat rate improvements;
  2. Reducing emissions from the plants that produce the most CO2 emissions by using those sources less frequently;
  3. Replacing high carbon intensity plants (i.e. coal) with low or zero-carbon generation (which means renewable sources or natural gas);
  4. Implementing demand-side energy efficiency programs that reduce the amount of generation needed in the state.

In its proposal, EPA takes the four building blocks and applies them to each individual state through a seven step process.  This formula generates a state-specific CO2 emission performance goal which is measured in average pounds of CO2 per net megawatt hour from all sources in the state.  

(To see the CO2 emission-rate goals for each state click here)

State Flexibility

After determining the amount of reductions needed in each state, EPA then defers to each state to develop its plan for achieving the emission reduction goals.  States can use any component of EPA's four building blocks or even develop an entirely different methodology for achieving its state goal.

States are also given the option to utilizing either a rate-based or mass-based emission reduction goal.  Under a rate-based approach, emission reductions are determined by comparing the rate of CO2 emission per unit of electricity output (expressed in emissions per megawatt hour).  To establish a rate-based emission limit in the power sector, EPA has traditionally looked at the difference between coal-fired units and natural gas units.  

Under a mass-based approach, the emission reduction is based upon a quantity of reduction from an established baseline.  For example, 30% reduction of the state's total power plant C02 emissions from 2005 baseline.

States have argued that rate-based method forces states to shut down coal plants and switch to natural gas.  A mass-based approach provides states more flexibility to choose from a menu of options to achieve reductions.  (See, Kentucky's Comment Letter to EPA on Greenhouse Gas Reduction Policy)

After Congress failed to pass national cap-and-trade legislation in President Obama's first term, the option is back on the table. State's can develop an in-state only program or join with other states, such as has already been done by the Western States and Eastern States (RGGI).  Cap-and-trade, while criticized, has proven to be the most cost effective means of achieving emission reductions. 

State's even have flexibility when it comes to compliance deadlines.  While initially states will be required by 2016 to create a plan that will include some emission reductions, states can qualify for extensions of 1 or 2 years.  

No matter when plans are submitted, states will have to achieve interim goals for reductions between 2020-2029, then meet the state final goal no later than 2030.  By providing for this flexibility, the states can choose when to accelerate their emission reductions.  

In commenting on the flexibility provided states under the rule, the New York Times reported:

“I’ve never seen anything like this, where states get this much flexibility. It’s astounding,” said Dallas Burtraw, an expert on electricity markets with Resources for the Future, a Washington research group. “The E.P.A. is signaling maximal deference to the states.”

Criticism of the Proposal

Too Strong

 Those criticizing the proposal, concentrated on the costs of achieving the proposed reductions.  Business groups, utilities and Midwest states were harshly critical of the proposal.  Opposition is probably best summed up by Indiana Governor Pence who was quoted in the New York Times as stating:

“These proposed regulations will be devastating for Hoosier workers and families,” Mr. Pence said. “They will cost us in higher electricity rates, in lost jobs, and in lost business growth due to a lack of affordable, reliable electricity. Indiana will oppose these regulations using every means available.”

Too Weak

EPA had been criticized for utilizing 2005 as a baseline.  As noted in Bloomberg, half of the emission reductions required have already been met without even a single new regulation being adopted. 

Criticism also is directed at the overall emission reductions required under the proposal.  Some think the cost of compliance has dropped dramatically in recent years.  As noted Harvard Business Review- the cost of renewable have come way down; states have already implemented regional cap-and-trade programs; and natural gas has displaced coal as the fuel of choice.

Comment Period

EPA will accept comments for 120 days after the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.  Due to the sweeping nature of the proposal,  EPA will, no doubt, be inundated with comments.  

[Photo courtesy www.TheEnvironmentalBlog.org]

Ohio EPA Proposed Voluntary Action Program (VAP) Rule Changes

Ohio EPA is moving forward with substantial changes to the rules for the Voluntary Action Program (VAP) which governs the procedures and standards for voluntary cleanup of industrial sites and brownfields.  The Agency provided an overview of the changes and its response to public comments last week at the Ohio Brownfields Conference in Columbus.

The Agency describes the changes as mostly providing greater clarity or trying to streamline the processes.  However, many of the changes are significant.  Some of the more significant changes are discussed in this post.

Note:  A detailed overview by Ohio EPA of the proposed rule changes can be accessed here.

Process Changes- Faster Turnaround but Greater Risk of Surprises

Under the current VAP process, when the volunteer is ready to seek concurrence that the property meets VAP standards, they request their consultant submit a No Further Action Letter (NFA).  Under current process, the consultant must submit the NFA along with all of the supporting documentation.  This includes the Phase I property assessment, Phase II property assessment as well as any risk assessment work.  The supporting documentation can be hundreds, if not thousands of pages.

Under the proposed change, a volunteer would submit just the NFA letter (the executive summary of the Phase I and Phase II, operation & maintenance documentation and draft environmental covenant). After the covenant-not-sue (CNS) is issued, the Volunteer would be required to file the supporting documentation.  

While the supporting documentation must be submitted, the Agency would not review it immediately.  Rather, the documentation would be maintained in Ohio EPA's public files.  

Through this process change, the Agency is trying to speed up their review process by reducing the amount of paperwork that must be reviewed prior to issuance of a CNS.   Less review means faster turnaround.  This is good news for developers whose projects or transactions were slowed waiting for the CNS to be issued.  

However, as with everything, there are trade offs.  Ohio EPA is also going to revise its audit protocols.  A VAP audit is similar to a tax audit.  Under a VAP audit, the project is thoroughly reviewed by Ohio EPA, including the NFA and all supporting documentation.  The probability of an audit is highest after the first year the CNS is issued, but can occur anytime.  Under the process change, Ohio EPA proposes to increases the frequency of its audits.

If through the audit, Ohio EPA identifies issues with the investigation or cleanup, a notice is sent to the volunteer.  If those issues are not addressed, the volunteer could lose their CNS.

One outcome of this process change may be more surprises for property owners after they thought a project was finished.  For example, two years after the CNS is issued, Ohio EPA could audit the project, find deficiencies and require more investigation and/or cleanup.  This may come as a major surprise to a new owner who bought the property after the CNS was issued.

Revised Generic Cleanup Standards

The VAP rule change also proposes a major overhaul to the methodology for calculating VAP generic cleanup standards.  Ohio EPA is moving toward use of U.S. EPA Regional Screening Levels.  

In some cases the standards get more stringent and in other cases more lax.  At the Brownfield Conference, Ohio EPA stated the only dramatic change is to the cleanup value for trichloroethylene (TCE).  At the conference, the Ohio EPA stated it notified all sites it was aware were currently performing a VAP cleanup where TCE was a constituent of concern of the proposed change.

In order to have the current generic cleanup standards apply to your VAP cleanup, then the volunteer must submit a NFA to the Agency before the rules are finalized.

Urban Setting Designations- Expanded Use 

Urban Setting Designations (USDs) are an important tool under the VAP.  Cleanup of contaminated groundwater can often be the most costly portion of the cleanup.  Ohio EPA recognized that there may be little benefit to requiring cleanup of contaminated groundwater in urban areas where the population was served by public drinking water systems.  

Requiring cleanup of groundwater in those situations may result in avoidance of brownfield properties.  With a USD designation, a volunteer can avoid a costly cleanup of contaminated groundwater.

Under the proposed VAP rule changes, Ohio EPA is proposing to expand the eligibility of areas for USDs.  For example, a village that meets certain geographic requirements can request a USD.

Off-Property Cleanup Requirements

An area of uncertainty under the VAP program had been what cleanup requirements apply to contamination that may have already left the volunteer's property.  Under the proposed rule, Ohio EPA states it is clarifying the obligations to address off-property releases.

Ohio EPA states a volunteer is required, even under current VAP rules, to cleanup off-property releases of contamination that exceed VAP standards.  Under the proposed rule change, this requirement is being made explicit.  This may be viewed by some as a major program change.

The proposal does include new provisions to provide some flexibility in addressing off-property releases.  A volunteer can attempt to make a demonstration to Ohio EPA that it "used best efforts" to address the release, but something made it impossible or impractical.  Examples:

If a neighboring property owner uses a drinking water well and refuses access to his property to address the contamination, this may be grounds for an exemption from Ohio EPA.

 

 

A release from the property contaminates sediment in adjacent river that exceeds applicable standards.  The volunteer would need to address the sediment unless it can demonstrate it is contaminated from multiple sources.

 

 

However, it is important to note, if an exemption to address a off-property pathway is granted, the CNS (legal release) will not extend to that pathway (i.e. the volunteer could be required to clean it up in the future if circumstances change).

When a Property Must Meet VAP Standards

The proposed rule changes intend to clarify that a volunteer only has to construct the remedy prior to issuance of the CNS, so long as he/she demonstrates the property will meet VAP standards within five years (or some other time agreed to by Ohio EPA).  This allows flexibility where remedy involves ongoing treatment. 

Post CNS Changes to Remedy

The proposal also establishes a process for modification of a remedy post-CNS.  

  • For example, if institutional controls (ex: fence or protective barrier) is used to demonstrate the property meets standards, the Volunteer can remove those controls without the property losing its CNS status during implementation of the new remedy.

Sufficient Evidence- VAP Eligibility Post-Enforcement

A volunteer is eligible for the VAP until it receives notice of enforcement from Ohio EPA.  If a volunteer had initiated a VAP cleanup prior to receiving notice of enforcement, the volunteer can continue if it makes a so-called "sufficient evidence demonstration."  

The proposed rule changes clarify what must be demonstrated and how quickly the cleanup must be completed in order to avoid enforcement.  Under the rules, the volunteer must demonstrate initially that they

  • Completed a Phase I assessment;
  • Retained a VAP certified professional;
  • Developed a schedule of activities for completing the VAP

If the volunteer is deemed to have satisfied sufficient evidence, it must adhere to the schedule and complete the VAP cleanup within three years under the proposed changes.

Schedule

Ohio EPA indicated the final rules would be filed with JCARR on April 15th.  JCARR jurisdiction would end on June 16th, with the final effective date being no sooner than July 1st.  

However, this assumes that significant objections are not raised during the JCARR process.  If such objections are made, the Agency could be forced to pull the rules resulting in delays. 

EPA and Corps Release Proposed Rule Defining "Waters of the U.S."

When does placing fill in a wetland or disturbing a stream for construction require a federal permit? Seems like this should evoke a pretty straightforward answer.  However, for more than a decade the extent of federal permitting regulations has been unclear.  Now EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) are attempting, once again, to try and provide a clear answer.

Background on Supreme Court Clean Water Act Decisions

Federal regulations clearly define "waters of the United States" in 40 CFR 122.2 to include "navigable waters" (i.e. those waterways used for commerce) as well as interstate waters.  What has not been clear is the scope of "other waters" that fall within federal jurisdiction.

The extent of federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands has been unclear ever since the Supreme Court  issued its decisions in Solid Waste Authority of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001) and Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  Since Rapanos, Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test has been used to determine jurisdiction for streams and wetlands that fall into the "other water" regulatory classification.  Under the test, a waterway is evaluated to determine whether it impacts the chemical, physical, and the biological integrity of a navigable water. If it does impact a navigable water in that manner, then it falls under federal jurisdiction. 

Since the Rapanos decision, both the ACOE and EPA have struggled to provide clear guidance as to which waterways meet the "significant nexus" test.  Far too frequently, the determination has been left to case-by-case determinations that are litigated.  Making matters worse, different federal courts have reach different conclusions when applying the “significant nexus” test. 

The ACOE and EPA have attempted to clarify through guidance federal jurisdictional waters, but those guidance documents have been vacated by the Courts (see prior post).  The courts made clear a formal rule was necessary for EPA and ACOE's scientific interpretations to have legal force.

On March 25, 2014, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers jointly released their proposed rule defining the terms “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.  Under the proposal, the federal agencies attempt to move away from the case-by-case application of the “significant nexus” test by simply defining certain waters as under federal jurisdiction.

 Proposal Maintains Jurisdiction over Navigable Waters

Under the proposed rule, the following waters are jurisdictional by rule, with no further analysis needed:

  • Navigable waters
  • Territorial seas
  • Interstate waters
  • Tributaries of navigable or interstate waters
  • Adjacent waters and wetlands

The EPA and ACOE state they are not expanding the definition of these categories in the proposed rule.  Rather, these categories represent those waterways that have been consistently recognized as subject to federal jurisdiction in prior rule making.

Expansive Proposed Definition of Tributary

The rule proposal does contain an entirely new definition of "tributary," which under the proposed rule, would be classified as jurisdictional waters with no further analysis.  If the rule were finalized, it would eliminate most case-by-case decision making on federal jurisdiction.  Under the proposal, a “tributary” is any waterway that meets the following characteristics:

·       Can have perennial, intermittent or ephemeral flow

·       Has a defined bed, bank and ordinary high water mark (a term defined under existing regulations)

·       Contributes flow, either directly or through another water, to as jurisdictional water

·       Or, is part of a network that drains to a jurisdictional water

The portion of the definition which states any waterway that contributes flow “directly or through another water” to a jurisdictional water, is very expansive.  It is these waterways with more tenuous connections to "navigable rivers" that have been the subject of litigation.  The proposed rule would eliminate any doubt for the vast majority of such streams and wetlands-  they would be under federal jurisdiction.  

The tributary definition includes wetlands, lakes, ponds that contribute flow to a navigable or interstate water.  It also includes ditches, except in upland areas that don’t contribute flow to a jurisdictional water. 

The rule proposal states the connectivity demonstration can be made using aerial photos and/or USGS maps or other evidence.  However, only the connection must be demonstrated.  There does not need to be any individualized demonstration that the waterway in question impacts the chemical, physical, and the biological integrity of a navigable water. EPA argues its review of the science demonstrates the vast majority of tributaries have such impacts.

While it difficult to come up with a stream or wetland that would likely not fit the definition of tributary, the rule still proposes to a catchall provision which states jurisdiction may still be asserted over any waterway on a case-by-case basis.  The catchall provides EPA and ACOE for regulate streams and wetlands that may not meet the expansive definition of tributary.

EPA Argues Proposal Rule Supported by Science

EPA states that the proposal to expansively define tributary to automatically include most waterways without a case-by-case demonstration is supported by scientific literature.  EPA conducted a review of published peer-reviewed scientific literature- “Connectivity and Effects of Streams and Wetlands on Downstream Waters:  A Review and Synthesis of Scientific Evidence.”   In it's review EPA concludes most waterways are interconnected and can impact water quality of larger streams and rivers.

In the proposed rule, EPA argues that its expansive definition of tributary is supported not only by science but by case law as well.  EPA discusses the various cases that have tried to address the "significant nexus" test.

Public Comment Period

A 90-day public comment period will begin once the proposal is published in the Federal Register.  The EPA states is seeks comments to its proposal as well as other ways to define which waters should be considered jurisdictional.  However, the proposal makes very clear that EPA believes its proposal is on solid ground.  

 Creative Commons photo by putneypics via Flickr

As a Buyer Can I or Should I Rely on an Old Phase I?

In real estate transactions it is not uncommon for the seller to provide the buyer a copy of prior a Phase I environmental assessment.  The seller either ordered a Phase I in anticipation of the transaction or one may exist from a prior transaction involving the same property.  Should the buyer be satisfied with this prior Phase I?

Purpose of the Phase I from the Seller's Perspective

In terms of records and site review, a Phase I environmental assessment essentially involves the following steps:

  • A review of environmental databases- records of known or potentially contaminated sites in the vicinity of the property, landfills, and other disposal sites, and underground storage tank records (for both leaking and registered USTs) 
  • A review of local regulatory files-  these could include the state EPA, local fire department or health department.
  • Aerial photos and sanborn maps- to review the history of the use of the property
  • Interviews- with a site contact or  someone with knowledge of the property
  • Site walkover by the consultant-  the consultant is looking for signs of potential releases of contamination (ex: distressed vegetation or oil stains)
  • No sampling- A phase I will not involve any actual soil or groundwater sampling even if issues are identified

If the seller has a Phase I, they may have ordered a Phase I to determine whether there are any environmental concerns that can be quickly ascertained.  However, keep in mind the seller and buyer's goals are not exactly in line with regard to environmental due diligence.

First, seller is not concerned with establishing any liability defenses because they aren't entitled to them if they perform a Phase I after already owning the property.  Second, if the Phase I identifies a potential issue, many sellers will stop their inquiry- they aren't interested in taking on the costs of addressing any issues that may be identified.

Buyer's Perspective- Establish the Bona Fide Purchaser Defense

CERCLA liability applies to "owners" and "operators."  Therefore, as the buyer, once you take ownership of the property you can be liable for any historical contamination that may exist, even if you had nothing to do with that contamination.  

In 2002, Congress passed the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act (known as the "Brownfields Act").  The Act amended CERCLA to provide greater incentives for buyers to purchases and re-utilize brownfield properties.  The amendments established the Bona Fide Purchaser Defense (BFPD).  

Under the BFPD, a Buyer can establish a defense to liability under CERCLA if it performs due diligence prior to purchase in accordance with EPA standards.  A property does not need to be abandoned or vacant to be eligible for the BFPD, facilities still operating can qualify.

This post is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the requirements for establishing the BFPD. However, three key points to keep in mind from the buyers perspective with regard to prior Phase I reports:

  1. The Phase I must be performed within 180 days of purchase.  If a Phase I was performed within the last year, then a Phase I update can be performed. A Phase I more than one year old cannot be used to establish the BFPD;
  2. The buyer must be able to "rely" on the Phase I.  This means if the buyer wants to utilize the Seller's Phase I it must obtain either be identified in the Phase I update as a party that can rely on the Phase I or it must obtain a reliance letter from the consultant who performed the Phase I; and
  3. The buyer must make sure that the Phase I meets all the required elements set forth under EPA recognized standard for Phase Is- ASTM 1527-13 and EPA's "All Appropriate Inquiries" Rule (AAI).  (See discussion in prior post on the new ASTM standard).

Item 3 is of particular importance to the buyer.  I have reviewed plenty of Phase I reports that did not contain the required elements of the ASTM or AAI rule.  An inadequate Phase I will not allow the buyer to establish the BFPD.  

Therefore, it is of critical importance the buyer review any prior Phase I reports to ensure they are up-to-date, can be relied on and meet the required elements.  

Buyer May Want a Closer Look

If the seller's Phase I is "clean"- does not identified any "Recognized Environmental Conditions" (i.e. no indications of a release of contamination), then seller will be reluctant to allow any greater scrutiny of the property.  However, buyer should make sure the Phase I was adequate and no red flags are contained in the report.  

If the Phase I report does identify RECs, did the seller perform any additional investigation?  While AAI technically does not require sampling, it may be very difficult, if not impossible, to establish the BFPD without sampling to determine if a release did occur.  

If contamination is identified, then the buyer still can establish the BFPD if it takes "reasonable steps" to stop releases and prevent exposure to that contamination.  Under the BFPD, the buyer is not expected to perform the same level of cleanup as a liable party under CERCLA.

Beyond liability defenses, as the potential owner of the property, it is generally prudent to avoid taking on major headaches.  Therefore, buyers want to make sure sufficient due diligence was performed.  It is definitely in the buyer's interest to ensure they have a thorough understanding of the condition of the property.

For example, the BFPD is only a liability defense to CERCLA.  If other environmental regulatory obligations exist, such as underground storage tanks, the BFPD will not provide liability protection to those requirements.

Sellers may resist any questioning of the adequacy of a prior Phase I.  If the prior Phase I identified issues, seller may also be reluctant to allow further investigation.  However, as the buyer, you face liability exposure under CERCLA and potentially other environmental laws once you take ownership.

In conclusion, if a prior Phase I report exists, it it very important the buyer thoroughly review the report and take the necessary steps to protect themselves.  

Hazardous Waste (RCRA) and Retailers

When most people think of businesses that handle hazardous waste, they think of manufacturing and other industrial companies.  The classic image is the storage of 55 gallon drums marked with placards indicating the contents are hazardous. 

In the last two years and unlikely sector has found themselves the focus hazardous waste enforcement and regulatory development- retails stores.  National awareness occurred in 2013 when Walmart announced a settlement with EPA to resolve violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and the Clean Water Act (CWA) .  The violations were related to the handling of returned, unsold, and off-specification products. Walmart agreed to pay $7.628 million in civil penalties and pled guilty and agreed to pay $81.6 million in three federal criminal cases. Walmart entered into a Consent Agreement and Final Order (CAFO) with EPA, under which Walmart agreed to implement various measures to ensure future compliance. 

While the Walmart settlement was the largest, EPA and State EPA's have been very active in taking enforcement against retailers.  Actions include:

  • Walgreen Co., $16.6 Million (2012)
  • Costco Warehouse, $3.6 Million (2012);
  • CVS Pharmacy, $800,000 (CT, 2013) and $13.75 Million (CA, 2012
    settlement);
  • Target Corp., $22.5 Million (2011);
  • Home Depot, $425,000 (2006) and $10 Million (2007).

When Does RCRA Become an Issue for Retailers?

Products are not regulated as a hazardous waste.  However, if a product is returned by a customer or the store takes the product off the shelf due to damage or for some other reason, the product can become a hazardous waste if it meets certain characteristics.

At issue for retailers are paints, aerosol cans, bleach, polishes, and other chemical products that could be considered reactive, ignitable, corrosive or toxic.  When those products are returned by customers or if they are removed from the store, the retailer must evaluate whether the product has become a hazardous waste and should be managed as such.  

Waste can be generated at the retail store level through customer returns, household hazardous waste events, product recalls, damaged product containers or packaging, off specification product, unauthorized dumping, customer spills, and change out of inventory by the store. 

Large retailers also use reverse logistics systems to consolidate products that may be returned or removed from retail stores.   These products are sent to consolidation centers where decisions can be made regarding whether the product can still be sold, returned to the vendor, donated, recycled or discarded.  

Is a removed/returned product a "waste" when it leaves the retail store or when the decision is made it is to be discarded at the consolidation center?  That is one of many critical open issues facing retailers.

If a product is a hazardous waste, then it must be stored, managed, transported and disposed properly.  In addition, RCRA's "cradle to grave" regulatory scheme requires maintenance of required paperwork to verify any hazardous waste was managed properly.

EPA Collects Information Regarding Hazardous Waste Requirements for Retailers

On February 14, 2014, EPA released a Notice of Data Availability (NODA) in order to "collect information towards improving hazardous waste requirements for the retail sector."  In the NODA EPA sums up the challenge facing retailers- "Retailers are required to make numerous hazardous waste determinations at thousands of sites, generally by store employees with limited experience with the RCRA hazardous waste regulations."

Some national retailers (Walmart and Home Depot) already submitted comments to EPA.  Some of the issues/concerns raised by these retailers include:

  1.  Waste characterization at the retail store level by employees with little training or understanding of the regulations;
  2. Generation of waste at the store level that can force stores to fluctuate between Conditionally Exempts Small Quantity Generator to Large Quantity Generator status under RCRA (different regulations apply depending on the store's classification);
  3. The lack of applicability of the Household Hazardous Waste Exemption which allows customers to dispose of the same products in the trash as EPA requires retailers to manage as a hazardous waste;
  4. Argue for the application of Universal Waste classification which would make it much easier for retailers to manage products; and
  5. Application of RCRA regulations to central processing centers utilized by retailers;
  6. Regulation of empty prescription bottles;
  7. Ambiguous regulations of electronic waste.

Retailers identify legitimate issues with application of RCRA to their stores.  In reality, RCRA was designed to regulate generate hazardous waste from industrial operations, not consumer stores.  

How EPA decides to move forward to develop sensible regulations will be very interesting to watch. However, in the meantime, retail stores must be aware there is not "timeout" while EPA figures this out.  No better evidences exists than the multi-million dollar enforcement cases against large retailers.

(Photo: courtesy Flickr Catawba County)

Supreme Court Hears Arguments Regarding "Absurd Results" and Permitting for Greenhouse Gases

On February 24th, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA- the case which challenges EPA's attempt to phase in permitting requirements for sources of greenhouse gases (GHGs).  In the end, the case may be much to do about nothing...except another example of how congressional gridlock prevents logical resolutions to complex issues.

 

 

Challenge to EPA's Tailoring Rule

In Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court upheld the ability of EPA to regulate GHGs from motor vehicles (the so called "Tailpipe Rule").  In that decision the Court determined that the term "any air pollutant" included GHGs so long as EPA determined GHGs were a threat to public health and environment.

EPA determined GHGs were a threat to public health and the environment in its "Endangerment Finding."  The Supreme Court declined to hear the case challenging EPA's finding. Following EPA's determination, GHGs officially became a regulated air pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Following EPA's Endangerment Finding, EPA concluded that complex federal permitting requirements (PSD and Title V) would also be triggered for sources of GHG because the term "any air pollutant" was used in that portion of the Clean Air Act as well.  Pursuant to that section of the Act, any facility that emits more the 100/250 tons per year of a pollutant regulated under the Act must go through EPA's New Source Review (NSR) program. As part of NSR, new sources or existing sources that are modified must demonstrate they have installed Best Available Control Technology (BACT) to reduce emissions of each regulated air permit.

Because GHGs are emitted in much greater quantities than typical Clean Air Act pollutants, EPA was concerned that application of the 100/250 ton per year threshold to GHGs would trigger thousands of permits. EPA indicated the Agency and States did not have the capacity to process that number of permits.

To address the situation, EPA promulgated the Tailoring Rule to temporarily raise the permitting thresholds. Under the first stage of the Tailoring Rule, new facilities that emit 100,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide-equivalent and existing facilities that increase their emissions by 75,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide-equivalent will trigger NSR,

Petitioners challenged EPA's Tailoring Rule by arguing EPA did not have the authority to simply re-write the statute.  They also pointed to language in the PSD portion of the Clean Air Act which suggests PSD was meant to apply to pollutants with local impacts, not global impacts.  Industry challengers were concerned that allowing 90 different state and local permitting authorities to decide what constituted BACT for GHGs would be chaos.

Justices Highlight the "Absurdity" of EPA's Proposal

EPA justified its Tailoring Rule based on the legal theory that it would temporarily adjust the 250/100 trigger thresholds because applying those thresholds immediately to GHGs would lead to "absurd results."  

Justice Kagan noted that the purpose of the 250/100 trigger thresholds were to differentiate between large and small sources.  Justices Breyer and Alito followed that point by noting EPA's position was illogical in that EPA said the trigger thresholds led to absurd results, yet EPA would eventually work toward utilizing those thresholds for GHGs.

Clearly, the Justices were highlighting a core issue with EPA's Tailoring Rule.  Perhaps it would have been better to simply pick a more logical threshold for GHGs that would have differentiated between large and small sources of GHGs.  

EPA's attorney basically acknowledged that may have been a better approach, but EPA was concerned simply coming up with an entirely new threshold went beyond its authority.  EPA argued, rather than totally eliminating the 250/100 thresholds for GHGs, EPA would re-interpret other policy positions to try capture only larger sources.  For example, EPA could look at a source's actual emissions versus their potential-to-emit (assumed operation 24/7) when determining if the 250/100 ton threshold was exceeded for GHGs.

EPA's argument seems pretty weak.  It is not simply the administrative burden of regulating thousands and thousands of sources of GHGs.  Rather, it is the fact such approach clearly goes against the intent of the Clean Air Act PSD regulations to regulate only large sources.  The Court seemed troubled by EPA's attempt to temporarily raise permitting thresholds.

Challenge to EPA's Tailoring Rule Becomes "Much to do About Nothing"

While the Court seemed troubled by EPA's approach, even if it vacates the Tailoring Rule, the Court's decision will likely have very little impact on EPA's overall effort to regulate GHGs.

Challengers conceded in their briefs that EPA has the authority to regulate GHGs from sources of other pollutants subject to National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for which geographic area is in attainment (referred to as "anyway sources").  As noted by Chief Justice Roberts, this construction would allow EPA to regulate 83% of GHG stationary source emissions versus 86% under EPA's more expansive reading.

When Justices pressed why they should care about a fight over 3% of the emissions, EPA's attorney argued such an interpretation would be inconsistent with EPA's prior interpretations. However, Justice Breyer noted that such an interpretation "does less violence" to the Clean Air Act than EPA's proposed ratcheting up of the 250/100 trigger thresholds.  

Based on questioning from the Justices, the most likely outcome of the case is that only 3% of emissions will be impacted either way.  

Supreme Court Argument Highlights the Problem with an Ineffectual Congress

Virtually everyone, including EPA, concedes the 250/100 tons thresholds don't make sense when applied to GHGs.  EPA has previously admitted that the Clean Air Act, as currently constructed, is ill suited for regulation of GHGs.  However, with Congress unable to compromise, the country is left with the false choice of doing nothing to combat climate change or utilize an Act that was last amended nearly 25 years ago.

The stakes on climate change are simply too high to be left with this result.  The "do nothing" approach on climate change is a non-starter.  However, the uncertainty and "absurdity" that results from using the current Clean Air Act construct to regulate GHGs has unreasonable implications for industry.  

Climate change regulation has greater implications for the county than, perhaps, even the original issues that shaped the Clean Air Act.  Yet, the inability of Congress to reach middle ground will result in the institution of imperfect and impractical climate change regulations. 

[Photo courtesy www.TheEnvironmentalBlog.org]