Waters of the United States?

Does this picture show a waterbody that should fall under federal protection pursuant to the Clean Water Act?

Do you believe this is a stream that has a "significant nexus" to a navigable waterway (current test established under Rapanos by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy)

Is it reasonable to require a Federal Section 404 and State 401 Water Quality Permit in order to fill this drainage way adjacent to the road?

Well, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) issued a Jurisdictional Determination (JD) finding that this is a federally protected stream.  This is a perfect example of why so much controversy surrounds the extent of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.

Recap of Rapanos

Since Rapanos, Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test has been used to determine jurisdiction for streams and wetlands. 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.

The significant nexus test is really a legal test, not a scientific one.  As such, the test is very subjective.  As a result, litigation has ensued over whether streams and wetlands fall under federal jurisdiction.

ACOE Extends its Reach

The ACOE applies the "significant nexus" test in making a JD.  It is the initial step in the process. However, as previously discussed in a recent post, it is difficult for a landowner to challenge a JD issued by the ACOE.  Their choice if they disagree with the Corps determination is either to proceed with the project and risk fines or acquiesce and initiate the permitting process.  

Perhaps in full recognition that most landowners will not fight a JD issued by the ACOE, certain Districts of the ACOE have been aggressive in their application of the "significant nexus" test.  The picture demonstrates one such example.  

Impact on EPA Rule

In attempt to address the increasing amount of litigation and uncertainty surrounding which water bodies fall under federal regulation, EPA released is proposed rule- "Definition of 'Waters of the United States' Under the Clean Water Act". The rule was released on March 25, 2014.

Many in the business community have commented that EPA's proposed rule provides certainty by purporting to regulate virtually all waterways. The rule proposal contains an entirely new definition of "tributary," which under the proposed rule, would be classified as jurisdictional waters with no further analysis.  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 Agency's proposed rule is controversial due to its open ended language providing discretion to capture almost anything as a federally protected stream.

Take the picture above, it could be argued this ditch has intermittent flow.  It may have a defined bed and bank.  If you traced its connections long enough, you probably could find another waterway to which it contributes flow.  

It is understandable why EPA would want to maintain the flexibility to broadly assert federal jurisdiction. There are many small tributaries that can impact water quality if destroyed.  EPA is worried about leaving such tributaries unprotected and allowing large impacts to those waterways with no oversight.

However, broad language cuts the other way as well.  The roadside ditch in the picture can also be deemed legally protected.  As such, the landowner, municipality or developer is forced to navigate a lengthy and costly permitting process to impact the ditch.  

A Reasonable Compromise?

Perhaps the vagueness of the "significant nexus" test isn't such a bad thing.  It allows those small tributaries to be protected.  At the same time, the test allows for a legal demonstration that a small waterway is not worth protecting because it has no real value.

The issue is the inability of landowners to cost effectively challenge JD issued by the Corps. Perhaps establishing an administrative appeal process that would allow for quick challenges to JD determinations would be a reasonable compromise.

 

Overview of the Ohio EPA Enforcement Process

The Ohio EPA enforcement process can appear to be a mystery, especially to companies that find themselves the subject of an EPA visit for the first time.  This post provides a general overview of the Ohio EPA civil enforcement process.

Step 1:  The Inspection

The enforcement process starts with the inspection.  The inspections can be announced or unannounced.  (A prior post discusses EPA's inspection authority).

Typically, an inspector assigned to one regulatory area will perform the inspection. (i.e. air, surface water, drinking water, hazardous waste or solid waste).  Most time, the inspector will limit their inspection to compliance with their assigned regulatory area.

If you find multiple inspectors at your door (called a "multi-media inspection") then there is probably cause for concern.  Typically, the Agency will not perform multi-media inspections unless they suspect there is an issue at your facility.

Here are some tips regarding handling an EPA inspection:

  • Listen closely to the inspector- Accompany them during the inspection. If they point out concerns that can easily be addressed, fix them. Also, follow up in writing telling the inspector what you have done. EPA appreciates pro-active companies who listen and respond to Agency concerns. This can go a long way toward establishing a good reputation.
  • Debrief with the inspector- Don't be shy about asking for an oral report of the inspector's findings during or after the inspection. Take notes of any concerns or requests for information made by the inspector. Then follow up if possible. Don't wait for the inspector to provide a letter if you can easily address some of the issues. If you are able to provide information not available during the inspection that demonstrates compliance, you may avoid seeing these issues in a formal notice or letter from EPA.

If the violations are not corrected after the first inspection, the inspector will more than likely return in the near future to document the ongoing nature of the violations.

Step 2:  Notice of Violation (NOV)

If the inspector believes that the company or facility is not in full compliance with applicable environmental regulations, they will issue a formal letter called a "Notice of Violation' or NOV.  The NOV will specifically identify the regulation(s) that the inspector believes have been violated.  The NOV will also contain the facts observed during the inspection that the inspector believes supports their conclusion a violation has occurred.  

If you or the company receives an NOV, respond in writing. (Note:  This may be the appropriate time to consult with an environmental attorney to help craft an appropriate response)  Failing to respond will more than likely ensure the matter proceeds to Step 3 discussed below.  

When responding, make sure you gather all appropriate information.  Inspectors can be wrong in stating a violation has occurred.  However, you must be prepared to refute their finding(s) with supporting documents or information.  

Relatively minor violations can often be addressed without escalated enforcement.  However, make sure you respond as to how and when the issue will be addressed.  

It is mostly up to the discretion of the inspector to decide when to recommend escalated enforcement (Steps 3 through 5).  If violations are serious, the inspector could recommend further enforcement after only one NOV.  For less serious violations, it may take a few NOVs before an inspector recommends further action.

Step 3:  Enforcement Committee

If the inspector believes the Agency should take more formal action beyond a NOV, he/she will put together an enforcement referral from the District Office to Central Office.  The referral package will include a memorandum summarizing the issues and inspector's recommendations.

The referral package will typically be reviewed by the Central Office Enforcement Committee.  The Committee is made up of enforcement coordinators from the Division as well as an attorney from the Legal Office.  The committee will review and discuss the recommendation and decide whether to: a) proceed to Step 4; b) jump to Step 5 or; c) take no action at the present time.

Step 4:  Director's Final Findings & Orders (DFFOs)

If the Enforcement Committee decides further enforcement is necessary, in most instances they will begin with administrative orders- Director's Final Findings & Orders (DFFOs).  DFFOs contain findings of fact which set forth the basis for the Agency's conclusion that violations have occurred.

The DFFOs also contain an orders section.  The orders includes deadlines for correcting the violation  as well as proposed civil penalties.  Ohio EPA does not have unilateral civil penalty authority, therefore, any civil penalty contained in DFFOs must be agreed upon by the company.  

If the company and Agency cannot agree on terms of DFFOs, including but not limited to a civil penalty, Ohio EPA can refer the matter to the Ohio Attorney General's Office (AGO).  Once a case has been referred to the AGO, it almost never will be sent back to Ohio EPA for resolution.

You should discuss with your attorney an legal advantages to resolving a matter at the DFFO stage versus the Attorney General's Office.  

Step 5:  Referral to the Attorney Generals Office

This is the final step in the escalated enforcement process.  Once a matter is referred to the AGO, an Assistant Attorney General will be assigned to the case.  The attorney will send an initial letter asking whether the person/company would like to try and settle the matter without litigation in court.  This stepped is called an "invitation to negotiate" or ITN.  

If a settlement can be reached it will be in the form of a formal judicial consent order that is filed in court.  In order to file a consent order, a complaint (lawsuit) must be filed which contains the specific violations alleged by the State.

If the parties cannot reach agreement on the terms of a consent order, the AGO will file a complaint and proceed with litigation in court.  The AGO will typically indicate that higher penalties will be requested if the AGO is forced to proceed with litigation.

Conclusion

This meant only as a basic overview of the typical Ohio EPA enforcement process.  The specific facts of a case may result in the Agency taking different action.  

The best defense to Agency enforcement is to be well prepared and have a good team in place (technical and legal advisors).  Gather all the facts and respond strategically.  Keep in mind that no matter how the case is finally resolved, EPA will visit your facility again in the future and the process can start all over again.

Ohio EPA Begins Policy to Rotate Inspectors

Ohio EPA has recently announced a new policy of rotating personnel within its districts and divisions. The new policy will apply to inspectors and staff, but will not apply to management.  

The policy is intended to provide Ohio EPA staff with a wider range of experience and technical skill.  

This from Director Butler announcing the staff rotation policy:

"As many of you know, creating professional development opportunities in any area of business is essential to maintaining a well-rounded organization.  Many of you in the private sector offer your employees these opportunities and we are implementing a similar strategy in an effort to streamline our operations and improve the depth and breadth our employee's knowledge."
 

A second letter was sent by the Division of Surface Water announcing how the new policy will impact staff charged with reviewing Permits-to-Install and NPDES permits:

"The Division of Surface Water (DSW) staff assignments will change in the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and permit-to-install programs approximately every five years.  For NPDES permittees, this means the same staff person will likely complete one permit renewal since renewals are required every five years."

Having worked with many Ohio EPA inspectors both while at the Agency and since working in the private sector, it will be interesting to see how the new policy is received.  As expected with every large organization, there is array of expertise, temperament and communication styles among inspectors and staff.  

For facilities and business that like the inspector assigned to them, the new policy will likely not be seen as good news, especially if the newly assigned inspector isn't viewed in a positive light.  For those that have been frustrated by their current inspector or permitting staff, they may welcome the change.

While rotating personnel will certainly provide a wider range of experience to staff.  It will also have the effect of shifting institutional knowledge.  Some sites and facilities are very complicated.  It may take a few years for staff to fully understand all the operations or issues.  

Rotating staff could mean that businesses experience some level of frustration when trying to "get the new person up to speed."  Perhaps, Ohio EPA will try and accommodate these situations by maintaining continuity at these more complex sites.

If I had to predict, the Agency will likely get more calls complaining about the policy then praising it. Most people only call when they are frustrated or don't like a change. 

Challenging Jurisdictional Stream and Wetland Determinations Proves Difficult

Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), you cannot impact a federally protected stream or wetland unless you obtain a 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE).  The key issue- what is a "federally protected stream or wetland?"

As discussed previously on this blog, which streams and wetlands are protected under the CWA has been in a state of flux ever since the Supreme Court issued its decisions in Rapanos and SWANCC. Whether a wetland or stream are protected by the CWA depends on the legal standard known as the "Significant Nexus Test."  

Under the test, a waterway is evaluated to determine whether impacts to it could affect the chemical, physical, and the biological integrity of a navigable water.  If the answer is "yes," then the waterway falls under the federal jurisdiction pursuant to CWA.

Making the determination is not a simple exercise.  It involves a complex evaluation of various factors.  Two experts could come to two different conclusions regarding whether a waterway falls under federal jurisdiction.

Due to the grey area surrounding this regulatory area, many businesses and developers want a preliminary determination as to whether proposed wetland or stream impacts would require a Section 404 permit.  

Under applicable regulations, the ACOE can consult with potential permit applicants prior to processing the permit application.  See, 33 CFR 325.1(b).  The regulations also authorize the ACOE to "issue formal determinations concerning the applicability of the Clean Water Act..."  See, 33 CFR 320.1(a)(6).  These "formal determinations" are called "Jurisdictional Determinations" or "JDs."   

The ACOE currently uses a form to make its Jurisdictional Determinations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What if you disagree with the ACOE's JD?

Due to the complexities involved in determining whether a stream or wetland is federally protected, developers and businesses will seek a JD to determine whether regulators consider the waterway protected by the CWA.  However, what happens if you want to challenge the regulators determination that the waterway meets the Significant Nexus test?

The first step in the process is the ACOE's administrative appeal process. See, 33 CFR 331. However, if you obtain an unfavorable result through the administrative appeal process, it appears you have little recourse in the courts to challenge the JD.

Courts have consistently ruled that JDs are not agency final actions that can be legally challenged. Many had hoped that U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Sackett may have opened up JDs to legal challenge.

Sackett Decision

In Sackett, a homeowner filled wetlands to build a residence.  U.S. EPA issued a compliance order that contained a finding that the property contained federally protected wetlands.  The order required the homeowner to restore the property or face penalties for noncompliance.  

EPA argued that the homeowner could not challenge the administrative order because it did not constitute a final agency action.  The Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled the order was a final action and could be challenged.

JDs and Sackett

After Sackett, new legal actions were brought in attempt to challenge JDs as final agency actions. However, based upon a recent case,  it appears Sackett did not change the outcome.  In Belle v. United State Army Corps of Engineers, Case No. 13-30262, the Court distinguished the enforcement order at issue in Sackett versus a JD.  

The Court held a JD is not a final action for the following reasons:

  • A JD is a notification that the property contains federally protects wetlands or streams, but it does not prevent the property owner from doing anything to its property.  The order in Sackett required restoration of the property;
  • The administrative order in Sackett imposed coercive consequences for its violation (i.e. penalties for noncompliance).  A JD does not impose any penalties;
  • The compliance order made it more difficult for a homeowner to obtain a 404 permit because there is a policy against after-the-fact permits.  The Court held that the "JD operates oppositely informing the [property owner] of the necessity of a 404 permit to avoid an enforcement action."

While the Court's analysis of the difference between the Sackett administrative enforcement order and a JD is logical, the practical reality is that JDs do have dramatic impacts on the property owner.

The Court suggests that the ability to challenge the JD would "disrupt the regulatory review system already in place."  Namely, the property owner should file for a 404 permit and if denied, it will have legal recourse post-denial.

However, the Court's analysis ignores the fact that a JD places the property owner into the regulatory system.  Once in the regulatory system, negative consequences result.  For example:

  1. The owner must spend significant amounts of money on a 404 permit application;
  2. The owner must wait for the ACOE to rule on the 404 permit application, which could takes months if not a year or more to obtain a determination;  
  3. After exhausting administrative appeal rights and filing a judicial action, it may be years before the owner can get a court to review whether the JD in the 404 permit decision was correct;
  4. The owner's development plans are put on hold while the permitting and legal process unfolds;  
  5. Or, the owner can proceed with the impacts and face a potential enforcement action that includes penalties and the possibility they will never obtain an after-the-fact permit.  

The consequences outlined above seem more than significant enough, from a policy perspective, to allow challenges to JDs.  Unfortunately, the Courts don't see it that way.

 

EPA No Longer Recognizes Old ASTM Standard for Phase Is

U.S. EPA has published in the Federal Register its action that removes the old Phase I standard (1527-05) from the "All Appropriate Inquiries" Rule (AAI).  Until this action, AAI recognized both the old standard and the new standard- ASTM 1527-13.  

The major differences between the old and new ASTM Phase I standard include:

  • Key legal definitions associated with contamination
  • Enhanced requirements for agency file reviews
  • As discussed below, new language highlighting the need to assess the potential for vapor intrusion

EPA delayed the effective date of the rule until October 6, 2015 to allow the continued use of 1527-05 until that date.  Going forward, any Phase I report issued after the effective date of the rule which is based on ASTM 1527-05 will no longer be deemed sufficient for meeting establishing the Bona Fide Purchaser Defense to CERCLA (BFPD).  The BFPD provides new owners and tenants of property a defense to liability under CERCLA if it completes due diligence in accordance with EPA's AAI Rule.

EPA action was not a surprise.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of EPA action is the comment in the preamble related to vapor intrusion:

"The scope of the AAI Rule and the ASTM E1527–05 standard always included the
requirement to identify all indications of releases
and threatened releases of hazardous substances, or ‘‘recognized environmental conditions (RECs),’’ including indications of vapor migration or vapor releases. With the updates included in the 2013 version of the ASTM E1527 standard, ASTM modified the definition of migration to specifically include vapor migration and remove any confusion regarding the need to identify all RECs, or all indications of releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, when conducting an AAI investigation." (emphasis added)

While EPA may believe it has always been known the vapor intrusion needed to be assessed, that certainly was not the case among consultants.  Many prepared Phase I reports that did not mention in anyway vapor intrusion.  I have read such reports in the past.

This issue is whether this type of statement from EPA provides grounds for professional negligence claims against environmental consultants who did not perform a vapor intrusion evaluation under an old Phase I which followed ASTM 1527-05.  

The most likely scenario would be someone who purchased a building and learned later that a vapor intrusion/migration issue existed on the property.  They obtained a Phase I environmental assessment prior to purchase, however, the Phase I did not review the potential for vapor intrusion.

As discussed in a prior post, a recent survey indicates that barely half of the Phase I reports being performed using the new ASTM 1527-13 standard analyze for vapor intrusion.   

Science Board Weighs in on EPA's Water Jurisdiction Rule

The Science Advisory Board (SAB) has provided advice and comment on EPA's proposed rule that defines which streams and wetlands are federally regulated.  The SAB's comments are interesting in two ways:

  • Despite comments that EPA's proposal pulls under federal regulation way too many waterways, SAB believes there are too many exceptions in the EPA's proposal; and
  • The SAB seems to be frustrated with the lawyers deciding which streams, wetlands and water bodies should be regulated under the Clean Water Act.  

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 reached different conclusions when applying the “significant nexus” test.

Practical Issues Post Rapanos

Business and developers, for the most part, hate regulatory uncertainty.  The post-Rapanos era has provided very little certainty with regards to which waterways fall under federal regulation and need permits in order to be impacted.

Post-Rapanos, EPA and the Army Corps tend to be expansive in their interpretations of federally protected waterways when applying the "significant nexus" test.  This puts businesses and developers in the difficult position of having to choose between:

  • Even if they believe regulators are overextending their authority, do they just acquiesce and spend a significant amount of time and money to obtain permits for impacts;
  • Proceed with impacting waterways and risk criminal or civil enforcement; or
  • Attempt to litigate whether the Army Corps properly exerted its jurisdiction.

EPA Rule Defines "Waters of the United States"

In attempt to address the increasing amount of litigation and uncertainty surrounding which water bodies fall under federal regulation, EPA released is proposed rule- "Definition of 'Waters of the United States' Under the Clean Water Act".  The rule was released on March 25, 2014.

Many in the business community have commented that EPA's proposed rule provides certainty by purporting to regulate virtually all waterways

The rule proposal contains 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.  Waterways with more tenuous connections to "navigable rivers" 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.

SAB Believes EPA Still Doesn't Go Far Enough

While EPA's proposal has been criticized as expanding the coverage of the Clean Water Act too far, SAB's comment letter criticizes a number even the limited exemptions from jurisdiction proposed by EPA.  For example, SAB comments:

  • Drop OHWM in definition of "tributary"- The Board recommends EPA drop the requirement that a tributary must contain an "ordinary high water mark" which may be absent from many ephemeral streams.  The Board advises EPA to consider changing the wording in the definition of "tributary" to " bed, bank, and other evidence of flow;"
  • Adjacent should be determined based on connection not simply location-  SAB supports EPA's proposal to regulate adjacent waters and wetlands.  However, the Board advises EPA that adjacent waters and wetlands should not be defined solely on the basis of geographical proximity or distance to jurisdictional waters;
  • Whether to regulate "Other Waters" should not be based solely on proximity-  The Board encourages EPA to expand which waters may be regulated on the rule's catchall provision. The Board wants EPA to drop geographical proximity to "jurisdictional waters" as the key factor.  Rather, whether to regulate "other waters" should be made on a case-by-case basis;
  • Include groundwater-  The Board recommends that EPA extend regulatory coverage to groundwater;
  • Artificial Lakes or ponds-  Rather than exclude all such waters from jurisdiction, SAB points out that these bodies of water may be directly connected to jurisdictional waters by groundwater;
  • "Significant Nexus"-  The Board comments that the term "significant nexus" (the test articulated by Justice Kennedy in the Rapanos decision) is not well defined.  The Board recommends that the rule clarify this is purely a legal term, not a scientific term. 

If EPA adopted SABs recommendations most waterways would be federally regulated.  The Army Corps would also be provide wide latitude to regulate virtually any waterway.  

Photo: Ohio Non-Point Source Management Plan

Retirement of Coal Power Plants Accelerates

According to a new Government Accounting Office (GAO) report released in September, actual and planned retirements of coal-fired power plants has accelerated due to new U.S. EPA rules and regulations and other market forces. 

Back in 2012, GAO performed an analysis of projected closure of coal plants due to four new EPA rules:

  • Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR)
  • Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS)
  • Cooling Water Intake Structures Regulation (316(b))
  • Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities (CCR)

Noticeably absent from this list are the new climate change regulations announced by the Obama Administration in June of 2014.  The new regulations seek overall reductions in CO2 emissions of 30% by 2030.

Other factors have contributed greatly to the large number of coal plant retirements.  Those include cheap natural gas resulting from the Utica and Marcellus discoveries in the Midwest.  As well as lower demand in electricity overall. 

Based upon the combination of regulations and market changes, in 2012, GAO forecasted that between 2 to 12 percent of coal-fueled generating capacity could retire.  GAO's new report indicates that the rate of retirements have actually exceeded the top end of the range predicted just two years ago. 

GAO now predicts that 13 percent of coal-fueled generating capacity - 42,192 megawatts (MW)- has either been retired since 2012 or is planned for retirement by 2025.  See, chart below  

NOTE:  Three-quarters of the plant closures will occur by the end of 2015 which corresponds to the initial MATS compliance deadline

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ohio Impacts

The majority of plant closures will occur in the Midwest with Ohio having the largest percentage of retired generating capacity- 14%

It is difficult to predict what this significant disruption in the electricity generation portfolio will have in terms of capacity and prices.  It will be critical to see new natural gas generating capacity come on line before the end of 2015 to replace a large portion of the lost capacity.  

Such impacts were inevitable due to the fact that Ohio relied almost exclusively on coal power prior to the natural gas revolution.  

 

U.S. EPA Proposes to Designate Additional Ohio Counties as Non-Attainment with New Fine Particle Standard

Back on December 14, 2012, EPA strengthened the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for fine particle pollution.  The standard was strengthened from 15.0 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) to 12.0 ug/m3.  

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA first asks States to propose which counties should be deemed as not meeting the standard (i.e. "Nonattainment") based upon air quality monitoring data it complied over the last three years.  

On December 13, 2013, Ohio EPA proposed five counties- Cuyahoga, Stark, Hamilton, Clermont and Butler be designated nonattainment.  On August 19, 2014, U.S. EPA issued its response indicating that it intended to increase the number of counties designated nonattainment to 8 full counties and 5 partial counties. 

Ohio Recommended Nonattainment Areas and U.S. EPA's Intended Designated Nonattainment Areas for the 2012 annual PM 2.5 NAAQS
Area Ohio's Recommendations

U.S. EPA Intended Designated Nonattainment Areas

Canton-Massillon Stark Stark, Summit, Wayne (Partial)
Cleveland Cuyahoga Cuyahoga, Lake and Lorain
Cincinnati-Hamilton, OH-KY Butler, Clermont and Hamilton

OH: Butler, Clermont, Hamilton, Warren (partial)

KY: Boone (partial), Campbell (partial) and Kenton (partial)

What implications do these designations have on Ohio?

Ohio will have to develop a State Implementation Plan (SIP) which demonstrates how the State will bring these counties into attainment with the new PM 2.5 standard.  The SIP will contain new air pollution control regulations.  This means increased air pollution regulations in these areas for existing business.

In addition, once the nonattainment classifications are finalized (likely in December 2014), air permitting will become more challenging in these nonattainment areas.  New Source Review requirements will require larger sources to offset any pollution increases before a permit can be issued.  Offset means either finding other businesses willing to reduce emissions or take emission credits for facilities that recently shut down.

The new requirements could slow down permitting for larger factories in these areas.  Also, the net result can be to make nonattainment areas less competitive in attracting new manufacturing jobs.

Key Update on JobsOhio Revitalization Brownfield Program

Last week, we hosted a very successful seminar covering commercial and industrial property redevelopment.  I participated on a panel that included JobsOhio, the City of Cleveland and TeamNEO discussing brownfield redevelopment, in particular, incentives.  A major focus of the discussions was the relatively new JobsOhio Revitalization Program.  

I have worked with JobsOhio on brownfield projects and have experience with how the new program operates.  It is very different then the old Clean Ohio program which operated for over a decade.

Here are some of the key pieces of information that I learned either at the seminar or through my experience working with the program over the last year.

Available Grant and Loan Brownfield Incentives

  1. Phase II Assessment
    • Up to $200,000 in grant funds for Phase II sampling
    • Phase I must be completed prior to application
    • JobsOhio said a project "needs a high likelihood of job retention or creation, not certainty at this stage"
  2. Revitalization Loan Fund
    • Low interest loans up to $5 million, covering 20-75% of project costs
    • End user and job creation/retention
    • Industrial, commercial or mixed use w/office
    • Principal & interest free during construction (i.e. until certificate of occupancy)
  3. Revitalization Grant Fund
    • Up to $1 million in grant funds for cleanup and other eligible costs
    • Typically coupled with a loan where grant acts to fill funding gaps

Who and What is Eligible

The JobsOhio program has wider eligibility than Clean Ohio.  Businesses, developers and non-profits can all apply for incentives without going through a local governmental entity.  However, the entity cannot have been directly responsible for the environmental contamination (with some limited exceptions based on the structure of the deal).

Eligible Use of Funds

A wider array of costs are eligible for reimbursement under the JobsOhio program.  In fact, it was noted during the program that 50% of the projects JobsOhio has funded did not involve contamination.

Eligible costs include any of the following:

  • Phase II environmental assessments
  • Demolition and disposal
  • Environmental remediation
  • Building renovation
  • Site preparation
  • Infrastructure
  • Environmental testing & lab fees

Criteria for Evaluating Projects

JobsOhio utilizes three basic criteria when evaluating projects:

  1. Jobs (private sector)
    • Retained
    • Created
    • Wage rate 
  2. Investment 
    • Private v. public & JobsOhio investment
    • Capital investment in addition to site preparation
    • Priority for JobsOhio targeted industry projects
  3. Certainty of Completion
    • End user commitment
    • Completeness of redevelopment plans
    • Adequacy of project funding

Key Differences between JobsOhio and Clean Ohio

Having worked on multiple projects under both programs, it is fair to say there are very significant differences between the two programs.  Here is a list of key differences:

  1. No VAP Covenant-Not-Sue Required under JobsOhio- As discussed above, 50% of the projects don't even involve contamination.  All brownfield Clean Ohio projects involved contamination.  Even with sites that have contamination, JobsOhio says they will not require you to complete Ohio EPA's Voluntary Action Program in all cases.
  2. Application Costs and Timing-  The JobsOhio application process is significantly faster than Clean Ohio.  All applications can be filed on a rolling basis.  The amount of information required to find out whether you will receive an award is vastly different.  Under JobsOhio you can find out whether you will qualify for funding very inexpensively.  Under Clean Ohio it could cost $20k-$50k to find out whether you would be funded.  Also, funding under Clean Ohio was more of a political process that was largely determined by which projects were most favored locally.
  3. Flexibility-  JobsOhio provides greater flexibility in terms of the projects that can qualify.  Also, a wider array of costs are eligible for reimbursement under JobsOhio.  There is also greater flexibility to structure the incentives under JobsOhio to fit your project.  No rigid match requirements or artificial caps on certain costs.
  4. Confidentiality-  The Clean Ohio process was entirely public.  All applications and reports were public records.  Under JobsOhio, a company can keep deals confidential until a public announcement is made regarding the award.  There is even the opportunity to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement with JobsOhio.  
  5. Funding- Unfortunately, JobsOhio does not provide the same level of grant funding as Clean Ohio.  For smaller, less contaminated sites this is not an issue.  For sites involving very significant contamination or complex cleanups, the $1 million in available grant funding may not be sufficient.
  6. Jobs Requirement-  All JobsOhio projects must involve either job retention or creation.  Under Clean Ohio, there was the opportunity to cleanup sites without firm job commitments in order to attract development to strategic areas.  
  7. Criteria for Award-  Clean Ohio had a published scoring system that could provide potential applicants some sense of whether they would qualify for money.  JobsOhio has the three criteria discussed above (jobs, investment and certainty of completion), but there are no hard and fast rules of when they will fund a project.

 

 

Only About 1/2 of Phase I Assessments Analyze for Vapor Migration Risks

Phase I Environmental Assessments (Phase I ESA) are the first step in the environmental due diligence process.  A Phase I ESA is a review of available information regarding a property to determine the possibility contamination may be present.  The assessment includes a review of environmental databases, file reviews, interviews with regulators/property owners and a site walkover by an environmental consultant.

To encourage more reuse of brownfields, Congress amended CERCLA to provide a liability defense to prospective purchasers of property who perform adequate due diligence pre-acquisition (i.e. the "Bona Fide Purchaser Defense" or BFPD).  In 2012, U.S. EPA made the BFPD potentially available to tenants who perform adequate environmental due diligence before signing a lease.  

U.S. EPA enacted the "All Appropriate Inquiries" (AAI) rule to specify the requisite level of due diligence necessary to establish the BFPD.  Under AAI, a purchaser/tenant must obtain an Phase I ESA prior to taking ownership or signing the lease.  The Phase I ESA must meet the standards set forth by ASTM 1527.  

There have been several versions of ASTM 1527.  Under ASTM 1527-05, consultant stated it was unclear whether the assessment must include the evaluation for potential vapor migration risk into buildings.  In order to make it clear, ASTM updated the standard, releasing 1527-13 in November of 2013.  

One of the most significant changes was the addition of specific language requiring the Phase I ESA to assess vapor migration risk.  In December 2013, U.S. EPA incorporated ASTM 1527-13 into AAI. Since December of last year virtually all Phase Is purport to satisfy ASTM 1527-13.

What is Vapor Intrusion?

Vapor migration occurs when soil and groundwater contamination can volatilize and migrate up through soil into buildings over or near the contamination.  Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Semi-VOCs are the most likely to cause vapor migration issues.  

Common sources of contamination that can cause vapor migration issues are gas stations, dry cleaners or other industrial sites (especially those that utilized solvents).  

Prospective purchasers or tenants of buildings with vapor migration risk can face issues regarding exposure of occupants to air deemed unsafe.  

ASTM revised the Phase I ESA to mandate an assessment of vapor migration risks due to the increased knowledge regarding the risk presented.

Survey Indicates a Large Portion of Phase Is Still Don't Evaluate Vapor Intrusion Risks

Environmental Data Resource, Inc. (EDR) surveyed over 100 environmental consultants who regularly perform Phase I ESAs.  Of those surveyed, only 55% indicated that they began to review vapor intrusion risks as part of their Phase I ESA when ASTM 1527-13 was finalized in November 2013.  

EDR stated that the survey results show the review of vapor migration risk has become "industry practice."  The number of consultants reviewing vapor migration risks had dramatically increased since it was adopted in November 2013.  However, nearly 1/2 of all Phase I ESA don't evaluate the risk.

With the amendment of AAI to reference ASTM 1527-13, every Phase I ESA should be reviewed to make sure vapor migration risk was evaluated by the consultant.

What is the Appropriate Methodology for Evaluating Vapor Migration?

With the dramatic risk in the number of consultants evaluating vapor migration risk, the issue has pivoted from whether to perform the analysis to the proper methodology for evaluating the risk.  In 2010, ASTM 2600 was published which provided a screening method for vapor migration risk. However, many deem ASTM 2600 too rigorous.

The EDR survey found that only 27% of respondents screened for vapor migration using ASTM E2600- the only industry recognized standard for screening brownfield sites for potential vapor migration.  Of those responding, 44% said they just review the data compiled by the Phase I to determine if further research is needed.

From a legal perspective, it is important to remember that the BFPD is a defense.  Meaning, a party who asserts the defense must demonstrate they met the requirements of the AAI.  Properly documenting what was done to evaluate vapor intrusion could be a critical issue in establishing the BFPD.  Therefore, Phase I ESA should be reviewed carefully to determine whether there is adequate documentation included in the report.