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.

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.  

EPA Takes Action to Recognize ASTM 1527-13 as the "Appropriate" Phase I Standard

On December 30th, the  Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally took action trying to address the confusion it caused when it previously issued a final rule recognizing both ASTM 1527-05 and 1527-13 as appropriate standards for conducting Phase I assessment.  A proper Phase I assessment is a requirement  for establishing the Bona Fide Purchaser Defense under CERCLA.  (See prior post).  

On the second to last day of the year, EPA published a final rule in the Federal Register (78 FR 79319) recognizing the new ASTM E1527-13 phase I standard practice as an approved method for complying with the All Appropriate Inquires (AAI) rule.  EPA also provided new language in the preamble as well as a separate guidance document addressing comments EPA received.

Background on Prior EPA Actions

On August 15, 2013, EPA issued a direct final rule which recognized both E1527-05 and E1527-13 as appropriate standards for conducting environmental due diligence in accordance with the AAI. EPA received negative comments regarding its decision to continue to recognize both standards. Many felt it caused unnecessary confusion.  In response to comments, on October 29, 2013, EPA withdrew the final rule.  

As a result of EPA's action, there was a two month period where the most up-to-date standard, E1527-13, was not recognized by EPA as satisfying AAI.  This caused some attorneys and buyer/sellers of real estate  to request consultants to meet both standards.

With the December 30th action, EPA officially recognizes E1527-13 and also indicates it will soon issue a proposed rule removing AAI's reference to E1527-05.  

Vapor Intrusion Remains the Big Issue

 The biggest differences between E1527-13 and E1527-05 include:

  • Revised definitions of RECs, HRECs CRECs
  • Greater emphasis on reviews of regulatory files
  • Vapor intrusion

(See prior post discussing differences in greater detail)

It is the last bullet point that has caused the greatest confusion and controversy.  Some provided comments to EPA expressing their view that under the prior E1527-05 standard consultants did not have to evaluate vapor intrusion.   Those commentators view E1527-13 as establishing that requirement for the first time.

However, EPA makes clear in the preamble to the December 30th action that the language in E1527-13 pertaining to vapor intrusion is only an enhancement of the requirements under the old standard.  EPA specifically states that E1527-05 "already calls for identification of potential vapor releases or vapor migration."

EPA comments create issues for environmental consultants who did not include evaluation of vapor intrusion as part of Phase I assessments under E1527-05.  Failure to do so could be grounds to assert the consultant committed malpractice.  

In situations where no such evaluation was performed under an old Phase I, and the building later proved to have vapor intrusion issues, consultants face heightened liability exposure.

EPA action should provide greater clarity to the due diligence community.  

 

 

 

Which Phase I Standard Should Consultant's Use Right Now?

Over the weekend, there was a good blog post on Schnapf LLC Blog discussing which Phase I standard lawyers and consultants should use for at least the rest of 2013.  Due to an unanticipated reversal by U.S. EPA, there is a gap right now between the current ASTM standard and EPA's recognized standard for Phase I's for compliance with the "All Appropriate Inquiries" Standard (AAI).

On November 6th, ASTM officially recognized E1527-13 as the new standard for conducting Phase I environmental assessments.  As a practical matter, this means ASTM E1527-13 represents current best practice in the industry.  

However, as discussed in a prior post, U.S. EPA reversed course and withdrew a direct final rule that would have recognized both E1527-13 and E1527-05 as meeting AAI.  As a result, the only standard EPA currently recognizes as satisfying AAI is E1527-05.

The post discussed the quandary caused by the current gap between sanctioned standard and the most up-to-date standard: 

So what is a consultant to do for transactions requiring a phase 1 prior to EPA formally recognizing E1527-13? On the one hand, by publishing E1527-13, ASTM is essentially saying that the new version now represents good commercial practice. Thus, a consultant failing to use the most current version of E1527 could expose a consultant to professional negligence claim if, for example, the consultants fails to identify a REC because it did not do a file review or fails to evaluate the soil gas pathway. This would seem to tip the decision towards using E1527-13.

However, E1527-13 is not yet recognized as an acceptable method of satisfying AAI. Thus, if the purpose of the phase 1 is to comply with AAI, a consultant stating that its phase 1 complies with AAI could be subject to breach of contract or claims of misrepresentation since only E1527-05 is currently recognized in the AAI rule.

The biggest differences between the two standards is the more defined requirements pertaining to file reviews and analysis of the vapor intrusion pathway.  It is pretty clear the E1527-13 requires additional work.  Arguably, a Phase I that meets E1527-13 should also be consistent with E1527-05.

For an attorney, you will want the consultant preparing the Phase I report to state it meets the current EPA recognized standard- E1527-05.  Without such a reference it is possible your client hasn't satisfied AAI.  

A consultant will want to comply with the standard recognized in the industry as the best practice- E1527-13. Otherwise, one may argue the consultant isn't utilizing current best practice.

It may be best to discuss the issue with your consultant and see if they are comfortable stating in the report that the Phase I meets both standards.  That may be the best alternative until EPA officially sanctions E1527-13. 

 

U.S. EPA Alters Plan on New ASTM Standard for Due Diligence

As discussed in a prior post, U.S. EPA had issued a direct final rule approving the use of the new ASTM Standard E 1527-13 "Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments:  Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process."  The final rule was set to take effect on November 13, 2013.

If the rule had gone into effect, it would have allowed use of either ASTM Standard E 1527-13 or the old ASTM Standard E 1527-05 to comply with due diligence requirements associated with the "All Appropriate Inquiries Rule," (AAI), a necessary step to establishing certain affirmative defenses to CERCLA liability.  However, just prior to the September 16, 2013 comment deadline, adverse comments were filed by some influential practitioners.  

Concerns were expressed with regard to the practical effect of EPA's proposal to allow either ASTM standard to be followed.  E 1527-13  is believed to be more costly than the old standard because it enhances the requirement for environmental professionals to perform agency file reviews as part of the Phase I process.  It also contains more definitive language requiring evaluation of potential vapor intrusion migration pathways. In addition, each ASTM standard uses different definitions. Adverse comments expressed concern that the use of the different definitions will lead to confusion or inconsistent practices in the due diligence community by allowing two different standards to satisfy AAI.

It is still unclear what U.S. EPA will do in response.   The Agency issued a proposed rule at the same time as the final rule.  The proposed rule contains the same option to utilize either ASTM standard.  It is possible EPA could sunset E1527-05 when it finalizes the proposed rule.  Or it could address the adverse comments in the final preamble to the rule.

Right now there is no clear direction from U.S. EPA with regards to this critical aspect of due diligence. 

UPDATE:  On October 29th, U.S. EPA did officially withdraw the direct final rule.  Currently, E1527-05 remains the only officially sanctioned guidance to meet the "All Appropriate Inquiry Rule."

Are All Phase I's the Same?

The title of this blog post may make many in the environmental consulting and legal business laugh.  "Of course not..." most would certainly reply.  With Phase I's governed by two ASTM guidance documents and the EPA "All Appropriate Inquiries" Rule (AAI), how can there be such variations?

The answer is that a Phase I environmental assessment requires professional judgment.  Not all consultants will look at the same site conditions the same way.  As an example, take a look at the website in which environmental consultants debate various technical issues associated with due diligence. Read the debate over how to handle "dirty floors" or "old dry cleaners" when performing a Phase I. 

In both instances, the consultants couldn't come to total agreement as to whether these particular situations should be identified in the report as "Recognized Environmental Conditions" (RECs).  Of course, the REC determination is critical because it impacts the process for securing liability protection under U.S. EPA's Innocent Landowner or Bona Fide Purchaser Defenses.

Changed Definition of a REC

As discussed in a prior post, U.S. EPA published a rule that allows entities to utilize either ASTM E1527-05 or E1527-13 guidance in performing Phase I consistent with the AAI Rule. My prior post reviewed some of the key difference between the two standards.

In considering how professional judgment impacts Phase I reports, examine the proposed changes to the definition of REC.  The changes were intended to "clarify" the definition and promote greater consistency among environmental professionals in writing Phase I reports.

The old definition (E1527-05) defined REC as:

"The presence or likely presence of any hazardous substances or petroleum products on a property under conditions that indicate an existing release, past release, or a material threat of a release of any hazardous substances or petroleum products into structures on the property or into ground, groundwater, or surface water of the property.  The term includes hazardous substance or petroleum products even under conditions in compliance with laws."

Comments received during preparation of the revised ASTM standard- E1527-13 were that the definition of REC was confusing or ambiguous.  The changes made to the definition were intended to add clarity.  

The revised definition of REC in E1527-13 is as follows:

"The presence or likely presence of any hazardous substances or petroleum products in, on, or at a property 1) due to any release to the environment; 2) under conditions indicative of a release to the environment; or 3) under conditions that pose a material threat of a future release to the environment."

Let's take a closer look at some of the differences between the two definitions:

  • "Into structures on the property" versus "environment"-  I'm sure consultants could debate how these terms should be interpreted.  It appears that by removing the "into the structures" language relative to release means that there must be some indication contamination made it into either the soil, groundwater, surface water or indoor air.
    • For example:  simply having staining on a concrete floor may not be enough to conclude there was a release to the "environment." There should be evidence of drains or cracks that could serve as a conduit for contamination.  Of course, as evidenced by my link above, not everyone may agree. 
  • "Ground, groundwater or surface water" versus "environment"-  Some had debated under the old REC definition whether a Phase I included evaluation of releases to indoor air through vapor intrusion.  Most thought the old definition includes indoor air, the new definition and other changes in E1527-13 make clear the indoor air through vapor intrusion is to be considered.

Keep in mind, lawyers don't write the Phase I report.  They can provide comments or advise their client relative to the conclusions.  It is the consultant who exercises the professional judgment which includes the findings detailed in the Phase I report.

Be Comfortable with the Consultant Selected 

Regardless of changes in E1527-13 which were intended to promote greater consistency, there will still be big differences in how consultants write their Phase I reports.  You simply can't remove professional judgment when such vague terms are utilized.  

Why should you care?  The exercise of professional judgment could result in major difference in whether potential liabilities are investigated.  Or, such a difference could result in more expensive due diligence when a consultant is very conservative in how they view a site.  

Prior to engaging a consultant to perform a Phase I, it is advisable to go beyond just written proposals.  It would be prudent to interview the consultant to learn about their philosophy in performing Phase I's.  As the customer, you should be comfortable with that philosophy because it impacts your exposure and bottom line.

When performing such an interview, make sure you talk to the consultant who will actually be performing the Phase I, not just anyone in the company.  There can be wide disparities even among consultants in the same firm.

U.S. EPA Endorses New Phase I Standard

ASTM 1527-05 was the first ASTM standard recognized by U.S. EPA as meeting the requirements of the "All Important Inquiries Rule." (AAI)   AAI sets forth the standards and practices necessary for fulfilling the requirements to obtain liability protection (i.e. bona fide purchaser defense) under CERCLA section 101(35)(B).  Most Phase I proposals reference 1527-05.  

ASTM standards have a five year shelf life and a three year grace period.  After the eight year period, the standard can sunset or be renewed.  In preparation for the eight year period coming to an end on 1527-05, an updated version of the standard has been developed- ASTM 1527-13.  On August 15, 2013, U.S. EPA officially recognized the updated version of the ASTM standard for conducting Phase I environmental assessments as satisfying AAI.   

What are the Major Differences Under the New ASTM Standard?

It is interesting to note that the new ASTM is not being billed as really changing anything, rather it just clarifies requirements that were already part of the old standard  (ASTM 1527-05).  However, in my experience at least two "clarifications" will either change or modify practice among many environmental consultants.  Those two areas include:

  1. Vapor intrusion; and
  2. Agency file reviews

Vapor Intrusion

Some have debated whether consideration of vapor intrusion issues was part of ASTM 1527-05. Many attorneys view the definition of "release" to include vapor of contaminants.  However, some consultants took the view that ASTM 1527-05 classified "indoor air quality" issues as non-scope items. 

In my practice, I have reviewed many Phase I reports and discussed findings with a wide variety of consultants.  Many of the consultants took different views with regard to assessing vapor intrusion.

The new ASTM 1527-13 standard makes very clear that vapor intrusion issues are to be considered as part of Phase I environmental assessments.  First, the definition of "migrate/migration" was amended to specifically reference vapor.

"the movement of hazardous substances or petroleum products in any form, including for example, solid, liquid at the surface or subsurface, and vapor in the subsurface.”

The new standard also specifically states that non-scope indoor air quality issues are "unrelated to releases of hazardous substances or petroleum products into the environment." 

Finally, ASTM E2600-10, the Standard Guide for Vapor Encroachment Screening on Property Involved in Real Estate Transactions, is specifically referenced in the new standard.  It is not a requirement for a consultant to use E2600-10, rather the standard is recognized as an acceptable means of evaluating the potential for vapor intrusion.

There seems to be debate among consultants as to whether they will utilize E2600-10.  Some believe it is too onerous.  Regardless, consultants are going to have to evaluate the potential for vapor intrusion as part of Phase I assessments and include a discussion in their report. This does not mean vapor intrusion sampling is required, just that the consultant needs to consider whether site conditions dictate identifying vapor intrusion as a potential "Recognized Environmental Condition" or REC in the findings section of the Phase I report.

Agency File Reviews

The new standard adds a section on agency file reviews which basically states:

  • If the property or adjacent property is identified in governmental records search, the relevant records in the agency files should be reviewed...at the discretion of the environmental consultant;
  • If the consultant doesn't think the file review is warranted, then it must include its opinion in the final Phase I report;
  • A consultant can review information from other sources (e.g. on-site records, user provided records, local government agency records, etc.)
  • A summary of the information reviewed should be included in the report as well as an opinion as to the sufficiency of those records.

It is not always the case that regulatory files are reviewed.  Inclusion of this new guidance on file reviews will make it more common practice that such reviews take place.  

However, agency records are not always readily accessible.  Often there is a lot of time pressure on completing the Phase I report.  However, if that pressure forces the consultant to include a statement that records were not reviewed and the review was warranted, that could create a huge issue with the Phase I report. 

Conclusion

U.S. EPA still recognizes 1527-05 as consistent with the AAI rule.  However, if the new standard is deemed as simply a clarification, it begs the question as to why any proposal for a Phase I assessment would reference 1527-05 going forward and not 1527-13.  

After recognition of 1527-13 by U.S. EPA this month, vapor intrusion issues will become even a bigger part of due diligence going forward.  In addition, consultants will face increasing pressure to balance finalizing reports to meet client deadlines, with the need for comprehensive reviews of available records. 
 

State Settlements: When Can You Recover Costs from Prior Owners/Operators

If you settle with the State EPA in your jurisdiction and perform a cleanup under State regulatory statutes, can you recover costs from prior a owner and/or operator?  

This is an issue that federal courts are grappling with in the aftermath of the U.S Supreme Court Ruling in Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Aviall Services, Inc.  In Aviall, the Supreme Court limited the rights of a potentially responsible party (PRP) under CERCLA to recover its costs by bringing a contribution claim under Section 113(f) of the Act.  The Court ruled that a PRP could not sue other owners/operators (PRPs) to recover its costs under Section 113(f) unless it had settled its CERCLA liability with the government.  

After this ruling, companies (PRPs) voluntarily performing cleanups were potentially left without any means of seeking contribution unless the government had already sued them or they had reached a settlement. 

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a PRP could still bring an action under Section 107 without having to wait for government enforcement.  See, United States v. Atlantic Research Corp.

However, you are only entitled to bring Section 107 claims as long as you haven't settled with the government.

What about State Settlements?

After Aviall, an issue that was still left open was whether a PRP that reached a settlement with the State EPA under State specific statutory cleanup authorities could seek contribution from other PRPs.  For example, in Ohio, R.C. 3734.20 provides some authority to Ohio EPA to seek cleanup of hazardous waste.  If you settle with Ohio EPA under this authority it can you seek contribution under Section 113 of CERCLA?  

This issue has yet to be decided in the Sixth Circuit.  However, a split has emerged amount the other circuits.

The Second Circuit appears to have answered "no" to this question initially. In two cases, Consolidated Edison Co. of N.Y. Inc. v. UGI Utils. Inc. and W.R. Grace & Co. v. Zotos International Inc.,, the Second Circuit held that Section 113(f) creates a contribution right only after the resolution of claims brought under CERCLA, not a state statute.

Recently, the Third Circuit found the opposite result.  In Trinity Industries v. Chicago Bridge & Iron, the Third Circuit held that Section113(f) of CERCLA allows a PRP to seek contribution from another PRP for cleanup of a contaminated Pennsylvania site even though the PRP seeking contribution resolved its environmental liability with Pennsylvania regulators under a pair of state statutes.

Due to the large cost of environmental cleanup, it makes sense to explore all possible remedies and rights of recovery.  In regards to cleanup of contaminated sites, CERCLA represents the most complicated statute with the broadest authorities and the most litigation.  It has been more than 30 years since passage CERCLA, yet the courts are still deciding what rights parties posses to recover costs or pursue cleanup.  

Tenants Can Now More Easily Qualify for Protection from Liability for Pre-Existing Contamination

Often times businesses only worry about performing due diligence (Phase Is and Phase IIs) when they are purchasing a building, factory or land.  In my experience, many tenants never think about the fact that they could inherit liability for pre-existing contamination just by leasing property.  However, tenants, particularly those that are leasing industrial space, should be concerned and protect themselves accordingly. 

Now, U.S. EPA has created an even larger incentive for performing proper due diligence as a tenant.  On December 5, 2012, US EPA issued new guidance that expands liability protections for tenants that could be held liable for cleanup and remediation costs at leased properties.  

Quick Primer on Tenant Liability under CERLCA

The environmental statute that has the most broad reaching liability for pre-existing contamination  is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)- also known as Superfund.  Under CERCLA, any "owner" or "operator" can be held jointly and severally liable for cleanup costs at a site for even contamination that was present prior to their use or ownership of the property.

Tenants can be deemed an "owner" under CERCLA depending on the structure of the lease.  For example, they could be deemed a de facto owner if they have control over the entire property.

Tenants could also be held liable for pre-existing contamination as an "operator" if they store or generate hazardous substances on the leased property during the term of the lease.  There are varying tests for determining whether a tenant should be deemed an "operator" under CERCLA.  However, any tenant utilizing hazardous substances on a leased property should be aware that they could be deemed potentially liable for pre-existing contamination.

Tenants and the Bona Fide Purchaser Defense (BFPD)

In order to encourage re-use of brownfield properties, in 2002 Congress passed the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act.  As part of the Act, Congress created the "bona fide purchaser defense" (BFPD) which allows purchasers that conduct proper due diligence and follow other requirements  to purchase property with knowledge of hazardous substance contamination without incurring liability as an "owner" or "operator." 

However, when the law was passed in 2002 it did not provide the same opportunities to tenants to qualify for the BFPD.  The only way a tenant could qualify for the protection is if they were deemed an "owner" based upon the lease terms or if the owner already qualified for the BFPD.  Tenants under traditional lease arrangements with an owner that never qualified for the BFPD fell into a gap.  They simply couldn't qualify on their own for BFPD protections. 

Finally, in December 2012, EPA recognized there was a gap in potential liability protection for most tenants and it issued a new guidance allowing all tenants to qualify for the BFPD if they meet certain conditions, including:

  1. Don't dispose of hazardous substances on the property;
  2. Conducts proper due diligence (known as "All Appropriate Inquires");
  3. Makes all legally required notices;
  4. Takes "reasonable steps" regarding releases;
  5. Cooperates with regulators;
  6. Complies with any use restrictions or controls designed to protect against exposure to contamination;
  7. Complies with administrative subpoenas and information requests; and
  8. Is not potentially liable for response costs or affiliated with a person who is liable for response costs at the facility.

It is worth noting that this is only enforcement discretion guidance and not statutory liability protection.  This means that EPA could still file a suit against a tenant if it felt the circumstances justified such an action.

Tenants Should Consider the BFPD and Contract Provisions to Protect Themselves

Due to the large liability exposure associated with leasing property that may have had some history of use of hazardous substances, tenants should take steps to protect themselves.  First, perform due diligence prior to signing the lease.  Second, insist on contractual provisions that release and protect them from liability associated with pre-existing contamination. However, contract provisions still don't prevent regulators from suing you.  Therefore, as a third step tenants should evaluate are the benefits of the BFPD as another means of mitigating risk.

 

The Threat of Personal Liability for Environmental Violations of Small Businesses

Owners of small business form corporations, in part, to insulate themselves from personal liability. A recent trend in Ohio is that the State has become far more aggressive in pursuing owners of small businesses personally in environmental enforcement actions.

A business owner could still be pursued even if the corporate formalities were followed.  More and more the State is pursuing any president or owner of a small business who has an active role in managing his company day-to-day.

Due to the high costs associated with environmental compliance, this is a trend that owners of small businesses should be aware of and take prudent steps to try and protect themselves. 

"Piercing the Corporate Veil"

A fundamental rule of corporate law is that, normally, shareholders, officers, and directors are not liable for the debts of the corporation. There are exceptions to this rule  Courts have found that the “veil” of the corporation can be “pierced” and individual shareholders held liable for corporate misdeeds when it would be unjust to allow the shareholders to hide behind the fiction of the corporate entity.  This is commonly referred to as "piercing the corporate veil."

The test in Ohio for disregarding the corporate form is whether:

  1. Control over the corporation by those to be held liable was so complete that the corporation has no separate mind, will or existence of its own;
  2. Control over the corporation by those to be held liable was exercised in such a manner as to commit fraud or an illegal act against the person seeking to disregard the corporate entity; and 
  3. Injury or unjust loss resulted to the plaintiff from such control and wrong.

[See, Belvedere Condominium Unit Owners' Assn. v. R.E. Roark Cos. (1993), 67 Ohio St.3d 274, 287, 617 N.E.2d 1075]

It had been a rare instance when the AGO would try to "pierce the corporate veil" and pursue shareholders, owners or officers of a corporate personally for environmental violations.  That has changed since the State won a victory in 2006 in case of State of Ohio v. Mercomp.  In that case, the State successfully pierced the corporate veil attaching personal liability to Manny Rock, a shareholder of a landfill.

What Actions Gave Rise to Liability?

 Here are some of the facts that the Court gave rise to personal liability:

  • Mr. Rock was the sole shareholder of the corporation;
  • The name of the corporation was based upon his initials;
  • Regulatory violations by a corporation, absent affirmative wrongful conduct by the shareholder, is sufficient; and
  • The failure of the Corporation to correct the environmental violations threatened public health and the environment.

It is important to note that the Court found liability even though it did not find under-capitalization, failure to observe corporate formalities, insolvency, or diversion of corporate funds for personal use.

Since 2006 State Seeks Individual Liability Frequently

Since the Mercomp decision in 2006, the State of Ohio has frequently sought (and obtained) personal liability of owners of small businesses.  Individuals are not only required to perform clean up, they are also subject to civil penalties if they don't perform on a timely basis. 

For small businesses that have a sole or large majority shareholder, the Mercomp case increases the liability risks for individuals.  If a company has environmental violations that have gone unaddressed, the State may argue for personal liability.

Owners of small businesses must be aware of these risks and take steps to try and protect themselves. .

Indoor Air is in the EPA Spotlight for 2012

With regard to industrial properties and brownfields clean ups, perhaps no issue clean up standard has garnered more attention and increased scrutiny than indoor air.  It looks like 2012 could be the year when EPA finally updates its decade old draft guidance. 

EPA never finalized its 2002 draft guidance on assessing indoor air risks ("OSWER Draft Guidance for Evaluating the Vapor Intrusion to Indoor Air Pathway from Groundwater and Soils"). The lack of official guidance has left a regulatory void regarding clean up standards.  In 2009, the Inspector General sharply criticized EPA for failing to develop final guidance (IG Report).   EPA responded to the IG report by promising to finalize new vapor intrusion guidance by the fall of 2012.

What is vapor intrusion?

Chemicals in soil and groundwater can volatilize into the air and come up through basements and slabs into buildings.  For well over a decade, EPA has required clean up plans to include an assessment and evaluation of the risks posed by vapor intrusion into buildings.

The typical process for evaluating risk had been to plug soil and groundwater sampling data into a model ("Johnson & Ettinger Model") to predict indoor concentrations within existing and future structures at a site. If concentrations were too high in an existing building, EPA would require either additional clean up or a mitigation system (similar to a radon mitigation system) to reduce concentrations.  If concentrations were too high in soil and groundwater even where no current building existed, EPA could force deed restrictions to prevent future construction in those areas of the site.

Virtually all industrial and brownfield properties have the potential to present vapor intrusion risks including current and former manufacturing and chemical processing plants, warehouses, landfills, dry cleaners, and gas stations.

Why is new guidance on vapor intrusion such a big deal? 

When EPA guidance is updated, it will likely lead to more conservative assumptions.  More than likely, EPA will require more data gathering beyond just simple modeling.  For example, EPA already has moved toward requiring more subslab sampling to evaluate concentrations of chemicals directly beneath buildings.

Updated guidance could possibly lead EPA to re-open sites that had previously had their clean ups blessed by state or federal regulators. for example, Superfund (CERCLA) requires EPA to review site clean ups every five years.  Would updated guidance require re-evaluation of these sites?

New guidance could also lead to more toxic tort litigation if plaintiffs claim prior investigations were not adequate or assumptions become more conservative.  Or, it could impact development plans or financing. 

EPA Release First New Guidance

In February 2012, U.S. EPA's Superfund division released a new document titled Superfund Vapor Intrusion FAQs.  The new document isn't the final guidance EPA promised in response to the IG report.  However, it does provide some insights into what the new guidance will look like once its released.

Using the answers to questions in the new FAQ, one can gain insights into the direction EPA likely to head with new final guidance on evaluating vapor intrusion, including the following:

  • Evidence from sites since 2002 show that concentrations of pollutants in indoor air are difficult to predict by extrapolating from samples to modeling;
  • EPA recommends modeling only as a way to potentially screen out a site and will be more appropriate for evaluating future buildings on-site;
  • EPA will move to requiring more soil gas sampling and sub-slab sampling to determine vapor intrusion concentrations;
  • More conservative assumptions are going to be built into the model which will make it much more likely a site will fail screening values (for example, EPA will incorporate an assumption that it is about 10 times more likely vapors will move into buildings from deep soil-gas;
  • New screening values will be developed; and
  • At CERCLA and other regulatory sites, EPA is more likely to require community involvement in sites where vapor intrusion is being studied.

 

New Ohio EPA Guidance Spotlights Challenges in Brownfield Redevelopment

In Ohio, the clean up program of choice for brownfields and industrial sites currently used is the Voluntary Action Program (VAP).  The program is designed to give a tremendous amount of flexibility to property owners and companies in terms of the nature and extent of clean up performed on their property. 

Instead of the traditional "dig and haul" method of cleaning up soil contamination or "pump and treat" contaminated groundwater, the VAP allows the use of both engineering controls and use restrictions.  Both can dramatically lower clean up costs. 

Engineering controls are barriers that prevent exposure to humans or the environment such as parking lots or buildings.  Use restrictions are deed restrictions (i.e. Environmental Covenants) that may prevent development in areas of high soil contamination, prohibit use of groundwater or restrict development to industrial/commercial use.

As long as the owner demonstrates the property meets VAP standards, Ohio EPA will issue a legal release ("covenant not to sue") which states no further clean up is needed. This legal release benefits both the current owner and is transferable to future owners of the property.

Clean Up for Anticipated Future Development

In planning a clean up, it is critical to understand up-front program requirements to obtain you legal release.  Under the VAP, a critical requirement is that the owner must implement some form of remedy for all exposure pathways which exceed VAP standards.  An "exposure pathway" can be any way a human may be exposed to unacceptable levels of contamination. 

Example of Exposure Pathway (Vapor Intrusion)- The most problematic exposure pathway is often vapor intrusion into buildings.  Vapors from soil or groundwater contamination can pass through building floors and expose the inhabitants to, what is deemed, unacceptable human health risks. 

Under the VAP rules, current and "reasonably anticipated" exposure pathways must be addressed through a remedy.  The remedy can be clean up of soil contamination, groundwater treatment, engineering controls or use restrictions. 

While the VAP program has been in existence for nearly 17 years, Ohio EPA continues to struggle with how to address anticipated development under the program.  The VAP requires the future use of the property must continue to be in compliance with VAP standards. 

How do you make that demonstration with regards to future development?

VAP calls future development "reasonably anticipated pathways."  Such a pathway would exist if a developer knows a building will be constructed on the site in the future in an area of the property that has contamination. 

The VAP rules requires that property owners to demonstrate inhabitants of that future building would not be exposed to unacceptable levels of contaminants.  If the area of construction will result in potential exposure above VAP standards, the owner must implement some type of remedy to address that exposure.

Ohio EPA released this week a VAP guidance document designed to assist in evaluating potential exposure pathways- "Reasonably Anticipated Complete Exposure Pathways"

Included in the guidance document is the following statement:

Because development plans are not always known in detail, the identification of a reasonably anticipated exposure pathway for potential development is not always easily done.

That is a gross understatement...even following the EPA guidance.  The VAP rules force the developer or property owner to make judgment regarding the potential size, location and configuration of future buildings.  These crucial development decisions can have dramatic implications for the amount of clean up needed at the site.

What Happens if Development Plans are Uncertain?

Site conditions at brownfields and other industrial properties can vary dramatically.  At some sites the issues of contamination remaining on-site in conjunction with future development can be  balanced.  At other sites, developers can be forced to make decisions regarding the extent of clean up prematurely.

In its second guidance document EPA tries to provide an administrative remedy to balancing the need for completing the VAP and avoiding expensive clean up before development plans are certain.  Ohio EPA suggests carefully crafted environmental covenants can be utilized to satisfy VAP rules, obtain your legal release and provide flexibility for future development.

The guidance is titled "Conducting Remedies in the VAP for Complete and Reasonably Anticipated to be Complete Pathways."

Conclusion

Both guidance documents are highly complex.  While the documents provide some level of flexibility to balance development with clean up, it is clearly a complex balancing act that developers must evaluate early in the process.

 

The Benefits of Clear Environmental Provisions in Sale or Lease Agreements for Industrial Property

The contractual language appearing in purchase or lease agreements for industrial property is critical.  I have seen a number of contracts that were fraught with vague terms or even silent on liability allocation.  Those contracts now define the company's liability exposure.   Protections the company thought they may have are either non-existent or in question.  

That is why it is so important to pay very careful attention to the environmental provisions in the contract for sale or lease of property.  Particularly important are the representations, indemnity and release provisions.  On an industrial property with a legacy of environmental issues, these provisions can often be the most difficult to negotiate because they shape liability risks for years to come. 

A recent federal court ruling provides further proof of the importance of paying careful attention to contract provisions allocating environmental liability.   The Court in United States v. ARG Corporation, Case No. 10-3111 (N.D. Ind. 2011) dismissed a complaint filed by the seller which sought to recover $841,000 in response costs incurred by U.S. EPA in performing clean up activities at the former industrial site.  In dismissing the complaint, the Court found that the purchase contract contained a clear allocation of environmental liability.  In essence, the purchaser avoided nearly $1 million in clean up costs based on the contractual provisions it negotiated prior to purchase.

The contract language at issue stated as follows:

The Seller shall remain solely financially responsible for the Remediation Activities arising from the Seller’s ownership, use or operation of the property prior to the Closing Date, provided however, that the Purchaser covenants not to execute against the Seller’s assets to satisfy the Seller’s financial responsibilities for remediation of pre-closing environmental damage except for the proceeds of recoveries under the general liability policies issued to the seller prior to closing.

The Purchaser shall be solely financially responsible for the Remediation Activities arising from the Purchaser’s ownership, use or operation of the property after the Closing Date.

"Remediation Activities" shall mean investigation and remediation activities, including but not limited to installing, operating, and maintaining all monitoring wells; collecting soil and/or groundwater samples; measuring groundwater levels in measuring wells; soil removal; groundwater treatment; and performing other related assessment activities, necessary to investigate and remediate environmental damage caused by the release of hazardous substances in accordance with any environmental laws.

The Court held that

"this language unambiguously states that ARG is solely responsible for remediating hazardous substances on the property arising from ARG’s ownership, use, or operation prior to the closing...South Bend is solely responsible for remediating hazardous substances on the property arising from South Bend's ownership, use, or operation after the closing date.

The Court also held that if South Bend believes ARG is responsible for cleaning up pre-closing hazardous substances, it will only seek recovery from ARG's insurance policies.  The court found the contract did not indicate South Bend would indemnify ARG if ARG was forced to pay the Government for remediating hazardous substances.

This case is a good example of the benefits of clear contractual language when allocating environmental liabilities.  Due to the high costs involved with clean up, there is a strong incentive for the party on the losing end to put forth creative interpretations of the language in an attempt to pass on or mitigate their liability.   Clear and unambiguous terms can be your best defense in such an instance.

When Do I have to Report a Chemical/Oil Spill or Other Release

There are a myriad of federal statutes that require your company to report a spill to any of the following:

  • National Response Center
  • State Emergency Response Center (SERC)
  • Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC)
  • Local Fire Department

Failure to report a spill can lead to an enforcement action as well as civil penalties.  Also, failure to respond appropriately following a spill can lead to serious ramifications for your company in terms of exposure to greater clean up costs, property damages, or environmental harm. 

Due to the liability exposure associated with managing and reporting spills appropriately, its wise for all corporations to have prepared an internal corporate policy for spill response.  The policy would not only cover when you have a legal obligation to report a spill to regulators, but also how to communicate about a spill internally within the company.

Depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the spill event, you are not always under a legal obligation to report a spill to the authorities.  Its wise to know your regulatory obligations before making the decision to report.  Otherwise, you may be inviting teams of regulators to your facility unnecessarily. (Click here for U.S. EPA's Website on Spill Reporting)

The facts of each event are different.  Therefore, each must be analyzed independently to determine your regulatory obligations.  However, its wise to get familiar with the triggers for mandatory reporting.

Attached is a series of power point slides which contains information regarding the most commonly applied federal regulations that may trigger mandatory reporting to federal or state regulators.  The spreadsheet shows the event, regulation, trigger level and reporting requirement. 

These charts were based upon a more limited spreadsheet prepared by Region VII of U.S. EPA called the Fact Sheet on Emergency Release Reporting Requirements.  They are meant for reference only and cannot substitute for analysis of each regulation and the facts surrounding your particular event.  However, I hope they are useful to you in getting familiar with the mandatory reporting obligations that exist.

Land Banks Offer Unique Strategy to Address Brownfields and Abandoned Residential Properties

There has been much discussion regarding the use of Land Banks to assist in addressing the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis.  Here is an excerpt from the Cleveland Plain Dealer discussing the County's recently launched non-profit corporate land bank:

Formally launched by the county in April, the new, nonprofit land bank is the first of its kind in Ohio.It could soon turn Cleveland into the nation's biggest urban laboratory on how a declining industrial city with a comatose real estate market can downsize gracefully -- and prepare to rebound in the future. The impact on the city as a whole could be far greater than individual projects such as the proposed medical mart and revamped convention center downtown.

Ohio recently passed Senate Bill 353 which allows a two year trial period for Counties to create a separate county land reutilization corporation for purposes of acquiring abandoned and tax delinquent properties.  By allowing creation of a separate corporation, the law addresses the issue of liability- a major short-coming of Ohio's existing land banking law set forth in Ohio Revised Code 5722.  The law also allows for an expedited foreclosure process. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland released an good analysis of the new legislation titled "Understanding Ohio's Land Bank Legislation."

Why create a land bank?  Obviously, thousands of abandoned properties bring down property values across the board and create blight.  Abandoned properties also present other risks. Here is a quote from a University of Michigan study of its Land Bank program:

The U.S. Fire Administration reports that over 12,000 vacant structure fires are reported each year in the U.S., which results in $73 million in property damage annually.  In addition, abandoned properties tend to attract crime. A 1993 study of 59 abandoned properties in Austin, Texas, found that 34 percent were used for illegal activities and of the 41 percent that were unsecured, 83 percent were used for illegal activities.

While the focus of the recently enacted Land Bank Legislation has been as a tool for addressing abandoned residential properties, its utility should also be examined for application to brownfields. Land Banks can serve has effective means of addressing the complex legal and environmental issues that face brownfield properties. 

As an example, the Franklin County Land Bank was used successfully to address tax liens on the former Bedford Landfill which overcame a significant barrier to redevelopment.  The Bedford Landfill became a successful Clean Ohio project receiving a $3 million grant from the State of Ohio.

Today, I attended a presentation by members of the City of Cleveland's Economic Development Department on the City's Industrial Land Bank Program.  Nate Hoelzel and David Ebersole provided an interesting overview of this unique effort by the City to address large brownfield's for redevelopment.

The City of Cleveland's Industrial/Commercial Land Bank was launched in 2005.  The creation of the Cleveland Industrial Land Bank was preceded by an academic study by Cleveland State University.  The purpose of the bank is to try an assemble large tracks of abandoned property in areas identified by the City for priority commercial/industrial development.  Criteria include looking for properties of at least 20 acres in size and near key infrastructure.

In a relatively short time period (less than 4 years), the Land Bank has acquired 100 acres of brownfield property.  Thirty-seven (37) acres are currently on the market for industrial or commercial redevelopment.  The adjacent picture is from Economic Development Department's web page shows the location of 3 tracks currently held by the Land Bank.

The industrial/commercial land bank is designed to overcome the unique aspects of  contaminated urban property that prevents major development.  Representatives for the City of Cleveland estimated it cost approximately $300,000 per acre to address urban brownfield property.  Such a staggering costs often drives development to greenfields and promotes urban sprawl.  The factors that drive such staggering costs include:

  • liability for contamination
  • assessment costs for investigating the extent of contamination
  • demolition costs for vacant buildings
  • property title issues including tax liens

Land Bank's can overcome many of these barriers by providing public funds for costly environmental assessment, removing title issues and even potentially addressing liability through clean up of the property.  A property returned to the market may be free of tax liens and have received a full release from the State of Ohio for environmental contamination.

While successful for its relatively short existence, Cleveland's Industrial Land Bank could be improved if provided additional flexibility.  The Land Bank relies upon the traditional legal framework for its activities.  The legal authority for municipalities to purchase underutilized land exists at the State level in Ohio Revised Code 5722 and at authority for the Industrial Land Bank is located in Section 183.021 of the City of Cleveland Code. Under these authorities, no separate corporation can be created which means the City can face significant liability exposure under federal Superfund laws (CERCLA) for owning contaminated property. 

During the presentation, the presenters mentioned the City's effort to amend federal law during the effort in 2006 to reauthorize U.S. EPA's brownfield program.  While amendment of federal law to allow municipalities or counties to acquire property without fear of CERCLA liability makes sense, it may be an uphill climb.  It may be more practical to allow for expansion of Ohio's new Land Banking Legislation to specifically allow for political subdivisions to acquire brownfield properties through a separate corporation.  This would provide City's a layer of liability protection for being active in purchasing these complex properties.