[SPECIAL BLOG POST: Ohio EPA asked to publish a guest post on the Ohio Environmental Law Blog regarding recent developments pertaining to the Agency’s response to sites with trichloroethene (TCE) and the Voluntary Action Program (VAP).  The Ohio EPA response is posted below in its entirety]

In August 2017, Ohio EPA announced to Certified Professionals (CPs) that letters would be sent to owners of trichloroethene (TCE) contaminated properties. The intent of the agency’s action is to inform property owners that U.S. EPA had lowered the acceptable indoor air levels for TCE, and updated the federal technical guidance on assessing vapor intrusion to indoor air stemming from soil and/or ground water contaminated with solvents such as TCE. In the letter, Ohio EPA requested that owners evaluate the conditions on their property to ensure TCE vapor intrusion was not harming people working or living on their property or that nearby neighbors were not affected. While the intent of the letter is to inform the property owner in order to prevent human health risks, this announcement caused some concern among the Voluntary Action Program (VAP) community, leading some to mistakenly believe that Ohio EPA was undermining the value of a Covenant-Not-to-Sue (CNS) issued through the VAP.

While most acceptable indoor air levels for chemicals are based on a chronic risk, or long-term exposure, the change made by U.S. EPA regarding TCE was based on an acute risk, or short-term exposure, particularly to women with developing fetuses. This change presented a concern to Ohio EPA because fetal heart anomalies were determined to occur with only a few weeks of exposure to breathing TCE above the health standards.  Therefore, prompt attention to this new standard and exposure timeframe required a timely and thorough reevaluation of all known sites that may have TCE contamination. As part of this review, Ohio EPA contacted the property owners, informing them of this change, and asking them to investigate the conditions, and to make sure that people at and near their property were not being harmed. This action is consistent with the responsibility of the Director of Ohio EPA to ensure that the health of Ohio’s citizens is adequately protected.

Ohio EPA’s interest is in public health and not to invalidate property owners’ CNSs as part of this reevaluation. To date, no CNS has been revoked under this reevaluation, nor is Ohio EPA requiring a property with a CNS to update to the new federal standard for TCE.  Ohio EPA is working cooperatively with property owners to ensure that public health is protected. Our request for property owners to look at the information they have, and, if necessary, take samples, is in fact a good and necessary choice for these property owners. Understanding that a property is adequately protective allows an owner to use or redevelop a property with the certainty that it won’t be harmful to users or neighbors.  It protects the value of the property, enables safe and economically feasible redevelopment of contaminated property, and allows reduced remediation without having to “turn a blind eye” on future liability and injury.

The VAP has always acknowledged the Director’s responsibility to address imminent health threats; the reevaluation of potential exposure to unsafe levels of TCE is not a separate, or new legal authority.  Each CNS that is issued by Ohio EPA states, “Nothing in the Covenant limits the authority of the Director to request that a civil action be brought pursuant to the ORC or common law of the State to recover the costs incurred by Ohio EPA for investigating or remediating a release, or threatened release, of hazardous substances or petroleum at, or from the Property, when the Director determines that the release or threatened release poses an imminent and substantial threat to public health or safety or the environment.”  This provision allows Ohio EPA to evaluate for current, or likely imminent, health threats, and recover expended costs when a property owner is uncooperative and an imminent health threat may exist.

Ohio EPA is aware that some members of the public may have mistakenly inferred that a CNS issued after the submission of a No Further Action Letters (NFAs) is no longer worthwhile for property owners to obtain.  That assumption is false. Furthermore, it has been stressed that the Ohio EPA VAP is losing relevance, with the proof offered being the lower number of NFAs that have been submitted to the Ohio EPA in the past year.  That assumption is also false. Ohio EPA’s position is that NFAs submitted for a CNS is not the only measure of the success of the VAP.  The number of NFAs submitted for a CNS fluctuates over time and can be impacted by a variety of factors. One of the factors that has the greatest impact is the implementation of a new rule change. This results in a significant increase in NFA submittals, like the one that occurred in 2014.  Another factor is the change in brownfield funding available in the state. Loss of sources of funding, such as the Clean Ohio Fund, will continue to reduce the number of NFAs submitted to Ohio EPA in the coming years. CPs have indicated that only 10 percent of their VAP work is ever submitted to Ohio EPA for CNS, because volunteers, lenders and insurance companies are comfortable with work done by VAP CPs who follow VAP rules and guidelines. These institutions don’t require a CNS from Ohio EPA for there to be value in the program. Ohio EPA considers the program a success knowing that the use of the program rules and guidelines provide participants that level of comfort.

In summary, Ohio EPA is not taking this action due to a meaningless bureaucratic function. Ohio EPA is committed to ensuring protectiveness of human health and the environment, particularly when significant questions such as TCE exposure are raised by the best science and research available from US EPA. The VAP has shown over the past 22 years, that the program is able to protect human health without putting a stop to redevelopment, which demonstrates that citizens, owners, workers, and neighbors can be adequately protected without invalidating the VAP program.

As discussed in my prior post, in September Ohio EPA announced that it would be sending “hundreds of letters” to property owners that have trichloroethylene  (TCE) contamination, including property owners that cleaned up their property under the Voluntary Action Program (VAP).  At the September meeting of VAP professionals the Agency announced that it could take legal action against property owners with TCE contamination even if the property owner received a Covenant-Not-to-Sue (CNS) under the VAP (i.e. a legal release).

Since the September meeting many in the environmental community have questioned whether the Agency has undermined a cornerstone of the program- the ability to rely on a legal release through a VAP CNS that no additional cleanup would be required.  The Agency was careful to state it would not be reopening the CNS to apply the more stringent TCE VAP cleanup standard.  The Agency still agrees the VAP CNS locks in the cleanup standards once the CNS is issued (even if standards get more stringent for certain types of contamination based on the more up-to-date science).

The ability to lock in cleanup standards has always been viewed as one of the most significant incentives for submitting a VAP No Further Action (NFA) letter to Ohio EPA to obtain a CNS.   Without the ability to rely on the legal release, the VAP would provide very little incentive to make public information about levels of contamination at your property.

While the Agency said it would not reopen a CNS issued under the VAP to apply the more stringent TCE cleanup standard, the Agency also said it has an obligation to protect public health and the environment.  The Agency indicated it has separate legal authority, outside the VAP program, to take action at properties it believes present a threat to public health and the environment.  The Agency stated it could perform cleanup itself and recover its costs under this separate legal authority if property owners refused to do anything more to address TCE at their sites.

Legal End Around?

While Ohio EPA says it would not reopen VAP covenants to apply more stringent cleanup standards, it said it could use other legal authority to take action to address TCE.  Most property owners won’t care which legal authority the Agency utilizes. Most will be upset that they are being told to perform more investigation or cleanup after they thought they had met all their obligations.

Does this the Agency’s recent announcement weaken the VAP program?  It certainly diminishes the incentive of entering the program.

For years, many outside attorneys and consulting firms have advocated simply cleaning up the property to VAP standards and obtaining an NFA, but electing not to submit the NFA to Ohio EPA to obtain a CNS.  What are the perceived advantages to this approach:

  • Meeting VAP standards provides a technical argument that the property does not present a threat to public health or the environment;
  • While not a legal release, the Ohio EPA or U.S. EPA would have a much more difficult time taking enforcement against a property that is deemed protective of the public health or the environment (as indicated by issuance of the NFA);
  • By not submitting the NFA to Ohio EPA all sampling data can remain confidential.  No information will be accessible by the public regarding the condition of the property; and
  • By not submitting the NFA, the owner avoids the costs associated with Ohio EPA’s review of a CNS

While there are advantages to not submitting an NFA to obtain a CNS, these must be balanced against the limitations of such an approach:

  • The CNS still locks in cleanup standards.  Obtaining only an NFA leaves the property open to application of more stringent cleanup standards;
  • A CNS still provides a much stronger legal defense against EPA enforcement for cleanup
  • A property with a CNS is more easily transferred to a new owner because the property still has a sign-off from the Ohio EPA that the property meets standards;
  • Financing is more easily obtained for a property with a CNS versus an NFA; and
  • While the VAP is self-implementing, it is very common for VAP Certified Professionals and Ohio EPA to disagree over whether the cleanup was sufficient.  Obtaining a VAP CNS provides the assurance the Agency signed off on the cleanup.

This laundry list of pro’s and con’s make this a complex decision for the property owner.  The recent announcement regarding notices to property owners holding a CNS with TCE contamination adds another factor to be considered.

The numbers don’t lie, the number of VAP CNS have gone down over the last few years.

VAP CNS Issued by Year
Year

NFA Letters
Requesting a CNS

CNS Issued Review Pending
2014 65 60 2
2015 33 33 0
2016 28 18 7
2017 to date 14 2 12

The cost and complexity of the program results in only a limited number of sites entering the property each year.  As has been discussed in prior blog posts, Ohio need to develop more options to address liability from pre-existing contamination to accelerate reuse of brownfields in Ohio.

This blog has previously detailed some of the ambiguity of the Voluntary Action Program ten year automatic tax abatement provisions set forth in Revised Code 5709.87. (See prior posts here and here). Three primary issues caused significant problems for developers attempting to leverage the VAP automatic tax abatement:
  1. How to value the abatement- The prior law was ambiguous as to how to value the abatement;
  2. Timing- The timing for locking in the tax abatement was difficult to navigate causing some developers to lose out on millions of dollars in tax abatements; and
  3. Exclusion for New Improvements and Structures- Until an Ohio Supreme Court ruling, the law was somewhat unclear as to whether the abatement covered the land and only existing buildings.  The Ohio Supreme Court clarified that new improvements and buildings were not covered by the automatic tax abatement. 

House Bill 463 included language to fix the first two issues. (H.B. 463 changes to R.C. 5709.87)

How to Value the Abatement

The act specifies that the beginning point for measuring the increase in value subject to abatement is the beginning of the year in which environmental remedial activities began.  Under the prior law, the value was based  upon the date of issuance of the tax abatement order by the Tax Commissioner.  At the start of a brownfield project, it wasn’t certain which year would be used as the base value for determining the exemption.

The changes enacted through House Bill 463 specify that the exemption is to measured using the year remedial activities were initiated as the base year.  Each of the ten years during which the property is exempted, any increase in value from the base year is exempted from taxes.

Timing

The other issue with the prior law related to timing.  The date of the exemption and calculation of the value of exemption was not tied to a specific year.  Rather, the exemption was tied to the tax list of the year prior to when the Tax Commissioner issued their abatement order.  The fact the value "floated" with the date the Tax Commissioner issued their order meant it was difficult to secure the full value of abatement. 

For example, assume remediation commenced in 2012 and the property was valued a $1 million. The VAP Covenant-Not-to-Sue (CNS) is issued in 2015.  By 2015, some improvements were completed and the property doubled in value to $2 million.  The Tax Commissioner issues the abatement order in 2016, which means the 2015 tax value (not the 2012 value) would be used to determine the value of the abatement.  This means the developer would lose out the abatement for the increase in taxes associated with property values increasing between 2012 and 2015.

This created challenges for developers who had to time completion of improvements with completion of the VAP CNS and Tax Commissioner Order.  Some developers didn’t plan correctly or were confused by the law and lost out on millions in abatement. 

For instance, once Cincinnati company lost out on a potential tax exemption on a $4 million dollar increase in the value of the property simply because the paperwork was not issued by the government officials in a timely fashion.  see, Hamilton Brownfields Redevelopment LLC v. Zaino, Tax Commissioner of Ohio.

On August 24th, Ohio EPA released new guidance that incorporates an unprecedented approach to vapor intrusion.  Under the new guidance, Recommendations Regarding Response Action Levels and Timeframes for Common Contaminants of Concern at Vapor Intrusion Sites in Ohio, the Agency is for the first time demanding immediate action when contaminant levels exceed certain established "trigger levels."  In the case of one particular contaminant, trichloroethylene (TCE), the Agency expects action within days if the associated trigger levels are exceeded.  The guidance, as outlined below, has major implications for businesses, property owners, consultants and attorneys.

The guidance establishes specific trigger levels for sub-slab and indoor air.  With regard to TCE, it establishes trigger levels for groundwater in addition to sub-slab and indoor air.  Groundwater or sub-slab exceedances will require immediate indoor air sampling.  If indoor air trigger levels are exceeded, immediate action is required in the form of installation of a remedy and/or notifying regulators.  The response times for exceedance of indoor air trigger levels are set forth below.

Response Times for Common Indoor Air Contaminants

Exceeds Indoor Air Risk Standard
Chronic Response Resample or install remedy within 3-90 days
Accelerated Response Coordinate with appropriate state, local and health authorities on response action

 

* Common contaminants include: vinyl chloride, tetrachloroethylene, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride and naphthalene

 

Response Times Specific for TCE

Exceeds Indoor Air Risk Standard
Accelerated Early and interim response actions evaluated within weeks
Urgent Response actions evaluated within days. Consider relocation of residents/occupants
Imminent Immediately contact state, local and public health officials.  Relocate residents/occupants

The Agency made the following public statement following release of the new guidance:

The Division of Environmental Response and Revitalization (DERR) has developed a memorandum on action levels and response timeframes for sites that are being investigated for vapor intrusion of trichloroethylene (TCE) and other associated chemicals. These actions levels and time frames are based primarily upon the short term exposures to TCE and the potential for cardiac malformations in developing fetuses. DERR developed this guidance in consultation with USEPA and use these risk levels and response times when conducting Ohio EPA lead investigations for the CERCLA and RCRA programs. This guidance does not have the force of law, but Ohio EPA recommends its use to outside stake holders, including the Voluntary Action Program (VAP), in evaluating the concentrations of volatile compounds in ground water, soil gas or indoor air in residences and commercial buildings.(emphasis added)

What is unprecedented about this new guidance is the requirement to take immediate action, within days in some cases, based upon risk based screening values.  Historically, vapor intrusion risks were vetted through sampling and analysis, a process that could take a year or more before cleanup was implemented.

Guidance on TCE

TCE is a very common metal degreaser.  As set forth above, the response timeframes for exceedances of TCE trigger levels are particularly aggressive.  Ohio EPA bases its urgent call to respond upon a specific evaluation of the risks of TCE exposure:

“In September, 2011, [U.S. EPA] updated the toxicity assessment for TCE which concluded, in part, that women in the first trimester of pregnancy are one of the most sensitive populations to TCE inhalation exposure due to the potential for fetal cardiac malformations. Because the key steps for cardiac development occur within the first 8 to 10 weeks of pregnancy, exposure to TCE during early pregnancy is of concern.”

To give some perspective as to the number of sites in Ohio that may have some level of TCE contamination, earlier this year, Massachusetts recently announced a TCE initiative in which it reviewed 1,000 closed cleanup sites across the State.  Ohio, a much larger and more industrial state, likely could have more TCE impacted sites. 

Implications of New Vapor Intrusion Guidance

The guidance has major implications for businesses/property owners, consultants and attorneys:

  • Property owners have increased liability risk, in particular if they are aware that trigger levels may be exceeded.
  • Through guidance and training sessions, Ohio EPA has pressured consultants to come forward with data even in instances when their clients may not want the information to be public;
  • It will be critical for attorneys to ensure adequate evaluation of vapor intrusion is included in Phase Is.  While it is a requirement to evaluate vapor intrusion risks under the current Phase I standard (ASTM 1527-13), inconsistencies persist among consultants in evaluation of vapor intrusion in their Phase I reports.
  • Where Ohio EPA has data and wants further evaluation of vapor intrusion risks, the Agency is notifying property owners they must take action or the Agency will proceed with sampling.
  • In early summer, Ohio EPA revoked portions of its prior vapor intrusion guidance that relied upon use of the Johnson & Ettinger model (a less conservative model than U.S. EPA Vapor Intrusion Screening Level (VISL) Calculator).  Ohio EPA still hasn’t been clear as to whether it will reopen previously closed cleanup sites that relied upon the Johnson & Ettinger model.
  • While the guidance states it does not have the force of law, EPA is taking action based upon the new guidance.  

 

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.

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?

 

This is the final post discussing the current state of brownfield redevelopment in Ohio.  It provides suggested changes to the regulations and incentives in Ohio to accelerate brownfield redevelopment. The prior posts in this series discussed the following:

  1. The Issues Presented by Brownfields- In particular the impact to Urban Centers
  2. The Current State of Brownfield Redevelopment in Ohio-  Including the issues of urban sprawl and the number of brownfield sites in Ohio.
  3. Progress made in Addressing Brownfields in the Twenty Years Since Ohio’s Voluntary Action Program was Adopted

As discussed in these prior posts, Ohio needs to accelerate brownfield redevelopment in Ohio.  So how does that occur?  

  • Need to be Faster- The ability to address the environmental, public health and liability risks presented by brownfield properties needs to occur much faster.  A cleanup under Ohio’s Voluntary Action Program (VAP) can take anywhere from 1, 2, 3 or even more years to complete.  
  • Need Lower Costs to Redevelop Brownfields-  According to the Cleveland Department of Economic Development the per acre are significant.  These costs push businesses to consider greenfield sites
    • On average it can cost $13,000 per acre to perform sampling to determine how contaminated a brownfield site may be
    • It can cost on average $66,000 per acre to remediate a brownfield site
    • Brownfield redevelopment projects currently require a minimum of 32 -35% in public subsidies 
  • Effectively Address Liability-  VAP can be effective but takes too long and costs too much. The Bona Fide Purchaser Defense under CERCLA provides no regulatory sign-off that due diligence and cleanup were adequate.
  • Broad Based Incentives-  Current incentive programs require creation of jobs or specific types of redevelopment such as manufacturing.  More value needs to be placed on simply returning idle property to productive use.
  • Cleanup Grants should Target Public Health or Catalyst Projects–  Some portion of brownfield funding should be used to address highly contaminated sites that present public health risks to local communities or catalyst projects that may attract more development.

Rethinking Ohio’s Incentive Programs

The first major hurdle to a brownfield redevelopment project is the unknown cost of cleanup.  Therefore, a large portion of incentives need to fund assessment activities.  

Ohio should drop the complicated VAP automatic tax abatement.  There are too many implementation issues (discussed in the prior posts) and the abatement does not cover new structures.  In its place, Ohio should adopt a brownfield based tax credit program that allows developers to take assessment and cleanup costs as a tax credit.  Such a credit would start to even the playing field between brownfield and greenfield sites.

Rethinking Ohio’s Tools to Address Environmental Liability

The VAP should remain in place with an effort to reduce the current complexity of Ohio’s primary brownfield cleanup program.  The VAP is a very good program for full assessment and cleanup of a property.  However, full assessment and cleanup isn’t always necessary to put property back into productive use.  

U.S. EPA’s Bona Fide Purchaser Defense under CERCLA does not require a complete Phase II assessment or full remediation.  Under the program, a buyer must take "reasonable steps" to address any threats to public health or the environment.  Reasonable steps is far less than full remediation of soil and ground water.  It typically means preventing ongoing release and eliminating complete pathways for human health exposures.  Such flexibility dramatically lowers to the cost of redevelopment.

The major issue with the BPFD is that it is a legal defense with no regulatory review or sign-off.  Some purchasers are comfortable with no oversight.  However, many would prefer the comfort of knowing their assessment and cleanup strategies received regulatory sign-off.

Ohio should adopt a State version of the BFPD that includes some level of regulatory oversight.  A similar program was adopted in Michigan- Baseline Environmental Assessments (BEAs).  While Michigan’s program could be improved, it has greatly accelerated brownfield redevelopment. 

According to figures provided by Joe Berlin, BLDI Environmental Engineering, here is a comparison between the Michigan BEA and Ohio VAP Programs:

  • Michigan BEA
    • 1995-2015 there has been 20,634 BEAs completed
    • Average of 1,032 per year
  • Ohio VAP Covenant-Not-to-Sue (CNS)
    • 1995-2015 there has been 527 CNS issued
    • Average of 26 per year

The proof is in the numbers.  Maybe its time Ohio look to its neighbor up north for new ideas to accelerate brownfield redevelopment.

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

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

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

Available Grant and Loan Brownfield Incentives

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

Who and What is Eligible

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

Eligible Use of Funds

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

Eligible costs include any of the following:

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

Criteria for Evaluating Projects

JobsOhio utilizes three basic criteria when evaluating projects:

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

Key Differences between JobsOhio and Clean Ohio

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

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

 

 

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. 

Ohio EPA has established its own voluntary cleanup program for addressing hazardous substances and obtaining a legal release from liability- the Voluntary Action Program (VAP).  The VAP program has been on the books since 1995. 

When the VAP was created its purpose was to allow the private sector to address historical contamination at industrial or commercial properties.  The key word in the program’s title "Voluntary" means that Ohio EPA does not order companies to complete the VAP.  Rather, the program offers an opportunity to either:

  • Address historical contamination at brownfield sites that may otherwise limit or prohibit redevelopment; or
  • Allow an operating company to address its potential liability for historical contamination at a property it is still utilizing.

In the nearly twenty years of the VAP, approximately 360 properties have completed the cleanup process and obtained an legal release. (You can visit a map of VAP properties here)   In reality, 360 VAP cleanups is not that many considering there are thousands of properties in Ohio with historical contamination.  

Process

A complex set of rules and guidance documents govern VAP cleanups.  Those documents are accessible through Ohio EPA’s website.  Here is a very brief overview of the process:

  1. Hire a Certified Professional (CP)-  In order to perform a VAP cleanup and receive a legal release from the State you must retain a CP.  A CP is an environmental consultant that has been certified by Ohio EPA has being technically capable of completing a VAP cleanup.
  2. "No Further Action" (NFA) Letter–  Unlike other regulatory cleanup programs, VAP is intended to allow a CP to complete a cleanup without Ohio EPA review of sampling and cleanup plans prior to initiating work.  The CP can develop a NFA without oversight by the Agency.  However, if a company wants a legal release from the State, the NFA must be submitted to Ohio EPA. The components of an NFA would likely include: the Phase I/Phase II assessment, a Risk Management Plan, an Operation & Maintenance (O&M) Plan, an O&M agreement and an Environmental Covenant.
  3. "Covenant Not to Sue" (CNS)–  If the company decides it wants a legal release from the State upon completing a VAP cleanup, it must have its CP submit the NFA for review.  If the Ohio EPA agrees that the NFA meets VAP cleanup regulations and the property meets VAP standards, it will issue the CNS. 

Issues/Considerations with VAP Cleanups

While the VAP has been a success, there are complex issues that must be evaluated prior to initiating a cleanup under the program.  Some of those considerations include:

  • Benefits–  Companies looking to address potential liability exposure, the VAP is worth considering. Performing a VAP to address contamination will make property more marketable as most major banks are familiar with the program in Ohio.  Furthermore, the VAP is a key tool for brownfield redevelopment in order to attract new tenants or users of the property who may otherwise be concerned with environmental liability or exposures associated with old industrial or commercial properties.
  • Limits on CNS-  The CNS does not release you from liability from third party property damage or injury lawsuits, including toxic tort claims related to exposure to releases of contamination.  Furthermore, the State takes the view that the CNS is also limited to the property itself, not contamination that has left the property. Finally, the CNS does not include a release from U.S. EPA (although you can obtain certain comfort that U.S. EPA won’t pursue separate action once the VAP cleanup is complete).
  • Eligibility Issues–  Certain regulatory requirements must be addressed before a property can be deemed eligible to participate in the VAP.  Properties subject to State environmental enforcement may not be eligible.  Portions of the property required to be cleaned up under hazardous waste regulations (RCRA) are ineligible until cleanup is completed.  The presence of underground storage tank (USTs) can complicate VAP eligibility. 
  • Complex Cleanup Issues–  Each site cleanup is different.  However, it doesn’t take much for a site to present complex cleanup challenges.  Existing buildings and structures may present vapor intrusion issues.  Off-property migration of contaminated groundwater may also need to be addressed.  Impacts to surface water or other ecological features may need to be evaluated.
  • Costs-  Again, each site cleanup is different.  However, the cost of cleanup can be expensive.  State and local brownfield grant programs can help mitigate those costs.  Even the costs of preparing and submitting the documents to Ohio EPA can be costly.  Due to such cost considerations, some businesses have decided to utilize the VAP standards to address historical contamination without submitting the NFA to the Agency for review. 

Options to Address Environmental Liability in Ohio

The VAP has been a very useful tool for addressing historical contamination.  However, the costs and complexities involved in completing such cleanups make it less attractive, particular for smaller sites with very limited contamination.

As discussed in prior posts, Ohio currently does not have a less formal means of addressing historical contamination, such as Michigan’s Baseline Environmental Assessment Program.   This leaves may buyers or tenants with choosing between costly VAP cleanups or performing due diligence to try and establish the federal "Bona Fide Purchaser Defense."