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.