Superfund Reform- What Can We Expect?

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

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

The task force was given five goals:

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

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

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

For the task force's full report click here.

What can we learn from the List of Priority Items?

Vapor Intrusion 

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

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

Slow Moving Sites

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

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

Sites with Redevelopment Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Slow Pace of Appointments and Restrictions on Decision Making at EPA

The Trump Administration has been slow to announce appointments to key positions within U.S. EPA. Administrator Scott Pruitt is in many ways  is operating on a island within the Agency. As reported in the New York Times, the Administration has not nominated any of the dozen key EPA senior positions:

At the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, the administrator, was confirmed by the Senate last month, and he has hired a chief of staff and a few others. But the White House has yet to nominate anyone to fill another dozen key jobs requiring Senate confirmation, like the assistant administrators who oversee clean air and water regulation

At the same time Administrator Pruitt is restricting decision making authority throughout the ten Regional Offices.  As first noted on the blog Law and the Environment, the following memorandum was recently sent to Regional Offices:

Because the Presidentially-appointed Assistant Administrators and Regional Administrators have yet to assume their duties, for the next 30 days, the Administrator wishes to retain approval authority for Agency actions having significant regulatory and enforcement effect. The Administrator will rely on the Acting RA’s and AA’s to identify and send upward any proposed decisions or final agency actions for the Administrator’s review which, in the judgement of the Acting RA’s and AA’s would limit the flexibility of the States, limit energy resource use, impose significant costs on industry or commerce, or otherwise likely result in significant public attention on the proposed decisions or final agency actions (emphasis added)

The underlined language provides a broad description of the types of actions the Administrator expects to be sent for his review and approval.  This will certainly cause a slow down on decision making at the Agency.

These developments could have both good and bad implications for businesses.  It is likely the rulemaking and enforcement will be slowed.  However, for businesses working through permitting, compliance issues and settlement of enforcement actions, these developments could have the negative effective of slowing the pace of reaching a final resolution or obtaining a necessary permit.