Ohio EPA to Issue Letters Regarding TCE to Property Owners

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

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

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

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

Do Standards Move under the VAP?

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

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

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

Implications for Property Owners and the VAP

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

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

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

Like Ohio, TCE Gets Attention in Massachusetts

Ohio is not the only state that is reviewing all sites that have trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination. Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) recently announced that is was going to review 1,000 closed sites with TCE contamination.  MassDEP will evaluate the sites "based on the current understanding of health risks, even if the site was previously closed properly under earlier standards."  

Unlike Ohio, MassDEP issued a public statement in April 2016 that it discussing its review of TCE Sites. Ohio EPA has not made a public announcement similar to Mass DEP.  Rather, Ohio EPA has discussed its review in meetings with environmental consultants and through issuance of letters and requests for information to sites with TCE contamination.

TCE was widely used as a degreaser for industrial metal parts and as an extraction solvent for organic oils. As a result of its use, TCE contamination related to use of solvents is very common at manufacturing sites.  

A discussed in the MassDEP announcement, the heightened scrutiny of sites with TCE contamination was based, in part, on a 2011 review to the U.S. EPA toxicity information.  The review included assessment of the potential for fetal developmental effects following even short-term exposure to TCE contamination.  As a result, the standards related to TCE have become significantly more stringent.

MassDEP provided a comparison of the levels of concern from 2011 to 2016 which shows the TCE standards:

Changes in TCE Risk-Based Levels in Massachusetts
Pathway 2011 Level of Concern 2016 Level of Concern
Indoor Air (Residential) 85 ug/m3 6 ug/m3
Groundwater (near residences)

300 ug/l pre-2006

50 ug/l post-2006

5 ug/l
Health Effect of Concern Long-term cancer risk Short-term development effect

 The primary pathway of concern in both Massachusetts and Ohio is vapor intrusion (volatilization of contaminants into the indoor air of a building).  Ohio's current indoor air standards are relatively comparable to MassDEP.

Ohio TCE Indoor Air Standards
Pathway Standard
Residential 2.1 ug/m3
Commercial Industrial 8.8 ug/m3

Continued developments with regard to TCE are surely forthcoming.  As the new significantly more stringent standards get implemented property owners and site developers that have TCE contamination will need to proceed cautiously.  This includes sites that previously completed investigations or cleanup activities.

Ohio EPA Takes Hard Look at Vapor Intrusion Risks

Vapor intrusion is the process where contamination in soil and groundwater volatilizes and enters indoor air in buildings.  Understanding and evaluating the risks to occupants of buildings with vapor intrusion issues has received dramatic new focus nationally in recent years.

In Ohio, scrutiny of vapor intrusion issues is at an all time high.  This post details some of the recent significant initiatives and actions taken by Ohio EPA to address vapor intrusion.

Ohio EPA Revokes 2010 Vapor Intrusion Guidance

On May 27, 2016, Ohio EPA announced that it was revoking prior guidance in place since 2010 on analyzing the risks associated with vapor intrusion.  Ohio EPA revoked two entire chapters of its 2010 vapor intrusion guidance document.  It also indicated that environmental consultants should utilize U.S. EPA’s guidance document titled, “Technical Guide for Assessing and Mitigating the Vapor Intrusion Pathway from Subsurface Vapor Sources to Indoor Air (June 2015)” and U.S. EPA’s Vapor Intrusion Screening Level (VISL) calculator.

The VISL calculator is a new tool utilized by U.S. EPA to quickly determine whether a site presents a potentially unacceptable health risks due to vapor intrusion.  Using the VISL, soil gas, soil and groundwater sample results are plugged into the calculator to determine if risk presented by the detected contaminant levels exceed screening levels.  If screening levels are exceeded, the Agency can require either more investigation or cleanup.

The VISL replaces prior modeling techniques that have been utilized for years to evaluate contaminated properties.  Ohio EPA's 2010 Vapor Intrusion Guidance document relied heavily on the Johnson & Ettinger (J&E) model to analyze risk.  J&E was used to evaluate vapor intrusion at hundreds of site in Ohio.

Some consultants tell me that the VISL is approximately 50 times more conservative than the J&E model.  As a result, site contamination issues previously thought to present no issues under J&E are now viewed as significant problems under VISL.

Ohio EPA's revocation of portions of its 2010 vapor intrusion guidance includes the chapters regarding the J&E model.  Ohio EPA's announcement included a statement that all sites currently being evaluated will no longer consider J&E data valid and will require use of the VISL.

Ohio EPA Reviews TCE Site Inventory

Ohio EPA has also decided to heavily scrutinize any site with trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination (typically associated with a solvent used to clean metal parts).  A new study determined that the risk presented by exposure to TCE contamination to woman of child bearing years and pregnant women are greater than previously thought.  Those risks are also thought to be acute risks (i.e. short term) versus the long term risk based upon 30 years of exposure used to develop many cleanup standards.  

Beginning in the later part of 2015 and continuing through today, Ohio EPA has been internally evaluating any site where it has data showing TCE contamination.  Those sites are being analyzed using the new TCE cleanup standards and the VISL calculator.  Due to the fact both the cleanup standard and VISL are more conservative, sites are much more likely to be deemed to present potential health issues.  

Ohio EPA has sent letters to owners of sites with TCE contamination requesting additional investigation or cleanup.  In some cases, Ohio EPA has demanded additional testing and if the property owner refused, Ohio EPA performed its own sampling.

In February 2012, at an Ohio EPA brownfield training course, environmental consultants were told of Ohio EPA's position regarding vapor intrusion and TCE.  Here are some of the key points discussed:

  • Ohio EPA will not "sit on data" if it believes an issue exists it will move quickly to seek or take additional action;
  • In terms of sampling techniques to evaluate vapor intrusion, Ohio EPA wants to see sub-slab paired with indoor air samples to analyze the risk;
  • In analyzing vapor intrusion, Ohio EPA will want multiple sample locations and multiple sampling events (to address seasonal variation in contaminant levels);
  • If off-property vapor intrusion needs to be analyzed, the Agency's expectation is the owner/developer will do it.  In not, the Agency will collect the data it needs;
  • Agency is not going to have long technical debates whether a health issue may exist.  If the Agency thinks there may be an issue it wants to act quickly;
  • On Voluntary Action Program (VAP) cleanups, if a consultant is aware of data that indicates a potential health issue, the Agency expects the consultant to come forward with the information even if the property owner or developer doesn't want the information released to the Agency;
  • Due to TCE's short term risks to sensitive populations, the Agency expects quick action and evaluation of data at sites where TCE is at issue.

At the Spring 2016 Ohio Brownfield Conference many of these points were reiterated by Agency representatives.  In particular, participants were told the Agency will act quickly and aggressively when it believes contamination has the potential to present a public health issue.  

Ramifications to Property Owners and Developers

The changes relative to analysis of vapor intrusion in general as well as the specific initiative on sites with TCE, has major ramifications for property owners and developers.  Here are some the issues or considerations for owners/developers:

  • Consultants are under increasing pressure to disclose any data to Ohio EPA that suggests a public health issue may exist;
  • Expectation is that properties with potential vapor intrusion issues on or off site will be evaluated very quickly;
  • The standards and models use to analyze vapor intrusion risk have become significantly more conservative.  Sites are much more likely to be deemed to present potential issues than even a year ago; 
  • All ASTM compliant Phase I reports are supposed to evaluate the potential for vapor intrusion.  In light of the increased focus on vapor intrusion, it is critically important to conduct high quality due diligence prior to acquisition that includes a robust evaluation of the potential for vapor intrusion; 
  • Liability risks have increased dramatically in recent years for owners and/or developers of property that may have vapor intrusion issues; and
  • Due to increased stringency of modeling and cleanup standards, what will the Agency do regarding sites that were previously deemed sufficiently cleaned up under outdated guidance and cleanup standards?

 

Rethinking Brownfield Redevelopment in Ohio - Part 1 of 4

Two weeks ago I participated in the Ohio Brownfields Conference in Columbus, Ohio.  2016 marks the twentieth (20th) anniversary of Ohio's Voluntary Action Program (VAP) which is implemented by Ohio EPA and is the primary regulatory program for cleanup of brownfields.  

To mark the anniversary, Ohio EPA encouraged presenters to reflect on the success of the VAP and other brownfield programs in Ohio.  Presenters were also encouraged to discuss ways to accelerate brownfield redevelopment in Ohio.  

Despite twenty years of the VAP as well as some of the best incentive programs in the country, Ohio has failed to get ahead of its brownfield problem.  I believe it is time to rethink some of the tools used to greatly accelerate brownfield redevelopment.  This three part series will cover the following:

  1. Review the Brownfield Problem-  Without looking at the issues created by brownfields it is impossible to properly design policies to address them.
  2. An Inventory of Ohio Brownfields-  The second post will discuss public information regarding the number of brownfields in Ohio.  
  3. Review Ohio's Progress in Tackling its Brownfield Problem-  The second post will provide an overview of Ohio's progress using tools like the VAP, Clean Ohio, JobsOhio Revitalization Program and brownfield tax incentives.
  4. New Strategy to Accelerate Brownfield Redevelopment-  The final post will provide recommendations for ways to better utilize incentives, streamline regulatory cleanup and better address public health issues.

OHIO'S BROWNFIELD PROBLEM

What causes brownfields to occur?

Two primary forces create brownfields- market forces and fear of environmental liability.  

MARKET FORCES

  • Expansion of business-  businesses looking to expand in urban areas often find the cost of expansion significantly higher to expand in onto neighboring property versus moving to a greenfield.  One study in Ohio found the cost of developing on a brownfield property four times higher then the cost of building on a greenfield. 
  • Closure/Relocation/Consolidation of Businesses-  Businesses close for a variety of reasons. One of the hardest hit sectors has been manufacturing.  When these businesses close they often can leave behind contaminated sites.  
  • Lower Tax Rates or Incentives-  Businesses can also be lured away by either lower tax rates or incentive packages.
  • Moving to a "Better Area"- Some businesses also move because of the decay of the urban areas where they are located.  

 ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS

  • Liability-  Expansive liability provisions in environmental laws also act as a strong impediment to businesses choosing to expand on a brownfield. The law with the broadest liability provisions is CERCLA (Superfund) which contains provisions that make any "owner" liable for pre-existing contamination regardless if they created the contamination.  Many other environmental laws can also create liability concerns as well (RCRA, underground storage tanks, TSCA, etc.)
  • Financing Considerations-  Banks understandably are concerned with the risk to their borrowers should they seek to redevelop a brownfield.  These concerns can translate into extensive due diligence requirements, more complicated financing or even refusal to finance certain projects.
  • Timing/Delays-  Navigating the complex environmental liability issues and addressing contamination under regulatory cleanup programs takes significant time.  Many businesses simply don't have the time to address the issues presented by a contaminated sites.

What social issues and environmental issues do brownfields create?

SOCIAL ISSUES

  • Vacant Buildings-  Invite abuse, including stripping of parts, materials vandalism, arson and "midnight dumping." 
  • Unemployment-  Higher unemployment occurs when businesses leave areas and those areas become blighted
  • Urban Blight- Discourage investment and contribute to pervasive sense of poverty and hopelessness.
  • Infrastructure-  Investment shifts from urban core to suburbs.  As a result of urban sprawl, more infrastructure is needed to be maintained. 
  • Taxes- Revenue sources for cities to pay for services are reduced as jobs migrate away from urban core.

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

  • Contaminated Sites-  Brownfields present public health risks from exposure to contaminants. Contamination can also migrate onto neighboring properties, discharge to surface water or create vapor intrusion issues.
  • Urban Sprawl-  Expanded development away from our urban cores results in more impacts to wetlands and streams.  Also, urban sprawl results in greater air pollution due to more vehicle miles traveled and less use of public transportation.

 

Ohio EPA Proposed Voluntary Action Program (VAP) Rule Changes

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

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

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

Process Changes- Faster Turnaround but Greater Risk of Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revised Generic Cleanup Standards

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

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

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

Urban Setting Designations- Expanded Use 

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

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

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

Off-Property Cleanup Requirements

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

When a Property Must Meet VAP Standards

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

Post CNS Changes to Remedy

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

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

Sufficient Evidence- VAP Eligibility Post-Enforcement

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

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

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

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

Schedule

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

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

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.