Voluntary Action Program

[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 To date, no CNS has been revoked under this reevaluation, nor is Ohio EPA requiring a property with a CNS to update to the new federal standard for TCE.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.

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.

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

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

The task force was given five goals:

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

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

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

For the task force’s full report click here.

What can we learn from the List of Priority Items?

Vapor Intrusion 

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

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

Slow Moving Sites

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

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

Sites with Redevelopment Potential

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

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

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.

Companies expanding onto brownfield sites need public incentives to make their projects viable.  However, the days when cleanup of contamination by itself could attract public incentives are long over.  Under the new local and State brownfield programs companies must make job commitments and/or improvements to the property to attract government assistance.

When companies work with State and local officials to obtain brownfield incentives they must engage in negotiations regarding what they are willing to commit to as part of the project.  These commitments will often extend 3 or more years out into the future when it becomes more challenging to predict economic and business conditions.

The Dayton Daily News discussed the State of Ohio’s pursuit to recover incentives from companies that failed to meet business expansion or development commitments.  The DDN reported:

State officials reviewed 329 economic development deals that concluded in 2015 and found that all but 50 had substantially complied with the terms, such as hitting job creation and retention numbers, training workers and generating new payroll.

If companies fail to live up to their promises, the state may demand repayment or make other changes to the deal. In the 50 cases where targets weren’t hit, the state is moving to clawback a collective $776,000. Some of the biggest take backs are being launched against well-known, big companies — Proctor & Gamble Co., U.S. Steel Corp., and The Dannon Co. — for failing to create or retain promised jobs

This is very relevant to JobsOhio brownfield grants and loans provided to companies to assist with sampling or cleanup at contaminated properties.  The grant agreements for the JobsOhio Revitalization Program include contractual commitments to increase payroll, add jobs or make capital investments to expand the business.  For example, at minimum, JobsOhio typically requires 20 new jobs over a three year period to compete for brownfield cleanup grant funding under its Revitalization Program.

The grant agreement language is somewhat vague as to what happens if the grant commitments are not met by the company.  The language does allow for companies to assert that changing economic conditions resulted in unmet commitments.  However, the contract language does leave open the possibility JobsOhio could request return of the entire brownfield grant provided.

It is important that companies pursuing brownfield incentives be aware of the consequences of not meeting commitments.  It is also important to avoid putting forward unrealistic job or capital investment commitments just to attract upfront grant money.  Companies that over commit open themselves up to clawback by the State of the funds provided as well as publicly being outed for failing to live up to their commitments.

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?

 

In my four part blog post series- Rethinking Brownfield Redevelopment in Ohio- the final post advocated for a new Ohio liability protection law for buyers of contaminated property.  The new law would provide brownfield redevelopers liability protection faster and at a lower cost than the current Ohio Voluntary Action Program (VAP).

I suggested looking to Michigan’s Baseline Environmental Assessment (BEA) law for guidance on how to set up such a program.  Well Kansas has recently passed a new law that provides a second example.  

On May 9, 2016, the Contaminated Property Redevelopment Act (S.B. 227) was signed into law by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.  Similar to the Michigan BEA, the new law provides buyers of contaminated property liability protection under certain conditions. Those conditions include:

  • The Buyer cannot have caused or contributed to the pre-existing contamination on the property;
  • The Buyer cannot exacerbate pre-existing contamination on the property either through redevelopment or other activities;
  • Buyer must request liability protection from the Kansas Department of Health ("Kansas DHE") and Environment by applying for a Certificate of Environmental Liability Release ("CELR");
  • The Application for a CELR must include a Phase I or Phase I/Phase II assessment report or other reports requested by Kansas DHE that demonstrate the property was adequately assessed; and
  • The Buyer must provide notice to future purchasers of the existence of the CELR and notify Kansas DHE upon transfer of the property.

What is interesting is that the new law does not affirmatively require the Kansas DHE to make a finding that buyer has taken appropriate steps to address immediate environmental threats or public health risks similar to the "reasonable steps" requirement under U.S. EPA’s Bona Fide Purchaser Defense.

A fee is charged by the Kansas DHE to review CELR applications.  Those fees are placed into the Contaminated Property Redevelopment Fund to assist municipalities with brownfield redevelopment.

Kansas provides another example of an enhanced Bona Fide Purchaser Defense at the State level that will likely accelerate brownfield redevelopment. 
 

This is the third post in a series of four assessing the current state of brownfield redevelopment in the State of Ohio.  This third post will evaluate the progress Ohio has made in the last twenty years with regard to addressing brownfields.

Current Options for Addressing Environmental Liability 

As discussed extensively in the prior posts in this series, environmental liability concerns are a major disincentive for brownfield redevelopment versus greenfield development.  Many different federal and state environmental statutes can impose liability on owners of property: RCRA (hazardous waste and petroleum contamination); TSCA (PCBs), Clean Water Act (runoff, sediment, wetlands), and other federal or state statutes.

However, the law that imposes the most far reaching liability for environmental contamination is CERCLA (Superfund) which imposes joint and several liability on buyers of contaminated property. Under CERCLA, a new owner of property can have liability for preexisting contamination regardless of whether they performed activities that created the contamination.  

CERCLA’s broad liability provisions act as a major deterrent to brownfield redevelopment. Ohio utilizes two principal mechanisms to address the risk associated with CERCLA legal liability:

  1. Voluntary Action Program (VAP)-  Adopted in 1996 to provide greater flexibility in cleaning up brownfield properties.  The VAP has been very successful.  No question the program provided greater and more cost effective cleanup options for brownfield properties. As detailed below, the VAP has been utilized to cleanup hundreds of brownfield properties. VAP cleanup standards are regularly referenced during due diligence as a means of evaluating environmental liability.  In fact, some developers or owners perform limited cleanups using VAP standards without seeking Ohio EPA’s concurrence the cleanup was sufficient.   
  2. Bona Fide Purchaser Defense (BFPD) (i.e. "All Appropriate Inquiries" under CERCLA)-   In 2002, Congress created the Bona Fide Purchaser Defense to encourage brownfield redevelopment.  EPA adopted the "All Appropriate Inquiry" rule which established a mandatory level of environmental due diligence a buyer must perform to qualify for the liability defense.  If due diligence identifies ongoing releases or risks to human health, the buyer must take "reasonable" steps to address those issues.  However, a buyer does not need to perform a full cleanup of the property to qualify for the defense.

Issues with VAP 

Twenty years ago the VAP was considered groundbreaking.  The program allowed privatized cleanups where the company/developer’s consultant completed the cleanup and submitted a No Further Action (NFA) after the cleanup was completed.  Ohio EPA reviews the NFA and, if the property meets VAP standards, the Agency will issue a legal release (i.e. Covenant-Not-to-Sue or CNS).

While the VAP provides a lower cost alternative to perform a full investigation and cleanup, the program has been underutilized.  Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Slow Process– Many real estate deals need to be completed in a few months or even shorter.  It can take 90 to 180 days just to complete the VAP investigation of the property (i.e. Phase II assessment).  A full cleanup can take one, two, three or even more years to complete.
  • Costs-  Twenty years ago the program was championed as a lower cost alternative to traditional CERCLA cleanups.  However, the cost to take property through the VAP can still be very high.  It can cost $100,000 to $200,000 for a VAP Phase II alone.  Full cleanup can cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.  These costs act as a strong deterrent to entering the VAP program.
  • Complexity-  The VAP program is highly complex.  There are around ninety guidance documents alone in addition to nearly one hundred pages of rules.  

Issues with BFPD

The Bona Fide Purchaser Defense (BFPD) has been in place for a little over a decade.  The advantages of the BFPD is that is much faster and cheaper than the VAP.  In many transactions, the Phase I assessment by itself is enough to establish the BFPD if no problems are identified (i.e. a "Clean" Phase I). Even if Phase II sampling is needed, sampling can be completed in 30-60 days at a much lower cost than a full VAP Phase II.  However, the BFPD has its own set of issues: 

  • No Sign Off by Regulators-  Some like that sampling and cleanup plans do not need to be reviewed by regulators to qualify for the defense.  However, without review there is no assurance to the buyer that they qualify for the defense.  In fact, a property owner cannot even voluntarily submit sampling and cleanup plans for concurrence.  As a result, property owners only find out if the sampling or cleanup was sufficient if it stands up in court.
  • No Public Disclosure-  Mandatory disclosure laws act as a strong deterrent to completing transactions involving contaminated properties.  However, providing incentives to voluntarily disclose the results of due diligence can create more public information regarding the condition of properties. 

Current Ohio Brownfield Incentives

Paying for sampling and cleanup of brownfield properties is expensive.  As discussed in prior posts, these costs push companies to consider greenfields over brownfields.  To offset these costs and attract companies and developer to brownfield properties, Ohio has a variety of incentives available. Those programs include:

Brownfield Grants and Loans Tax Incentives

Former Clean Ohio Program

  • No Longer Active
  • Up to $300,000 Phase II grant
  • Up to $3 million cleanup grants
Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit

JobsOhio Revitalization Program

  • Up to $200,000 Phase II grant
  • Up to $1 million 
New Market Tax Credit
County and Municipal Grant & Loan Programs VAP Automatic Tax Credit (R.C. 5709.87)

 Issues with Grant/Loans/Tax Incentives

  • JobsOhio Revitalization Program targets a limited number of projects.  Certain brownfield redevelopment projects cannot even qualify for funding, such as retail or residential.  This narrows the range of possible projects on brownfield sites that can offset investigation and cleanup costs
  • Insufficient Funding-  Cleanup grant funding at both the state and local level is capped at around $1 million.  While this amount of grant funding may be adequate for a number of projects, more contaminated properties will not attract sufficient funding to offset cleanup costs.
  • VAP Automatic Tax Abatement-  While this is the primary brownfield tax incentive, issues with its scope and implementation are well documented in prior blog posts.  One of the biggest issues is that it doesn’t cover new structures.  It also assumes property valuations already account for contamination.

Ohio’s Scorecard on Brownfield Redevelopment

Let’s review the number of VAP projects completed and incentives utilized to leverage brownfield redevelopment.

VAP Cleanups Completed 1995-2015

659 NFA’s submitted to Ohio EPA 

132 withdrawn, denied, revoked or pending

527 VAP Covenants-Not-to-Sue have been issued

 

Clean Ohio (2001-2012)

Clean Ohio was the primary brownfield grant program in Ohio for over a decade.  More data is available to evaluate the success of the program.  According to Greater Ohio, approximately 160 Clean Ohio Revitalization Projects were completed.  In reviewing VAP projects completed by year, clearly Clean Ohio accelerated brownfield redevelopment in Ohio.

1995-2001 (Pre-Clean Ohio) approximately 17 VAP covenants were issued per year

2001-2015 (During Clean Ohio) approximately 35 VAP covenants were issues per year

Based upon a study performed by Greater Ohio, an average grant incentive per Clean Ohio project was $1.97 million.  It is worth noting that this study showed each Clean Ohio dollar spent generated $4.67 in new economic activity.

Scorecard on Brownfield Redevelopment in Ohio
Total Sites to Address under the VAP Years to Address under VAP Total Cost in Incentives
527 covenants in 20 years since VAP implemented Assuming full restoration of Clean Ohio funding Assuming Clean Ohio available
estimated 10,000 brownfield sites* 35 VAP projects per year $1.97 million on average per project
9,437 brownfield sites left to be addressed 270 Years to address all brownfields under the VAP $18.5 billion in incentives to address all brownfields under the VAP

There are a number of assumptions built in to the scorecard that anyone could challenge. Including:

  • There is no reliable inventory of brownfield sites in Ohio.  The number 10,000 was taken from a U.S. EPA estimate discussed in a prior post.
  • Not all brownfield sites are addressed by the VAP.  However, when it was adopted most thought the vast majority of brownfield cleanups would go through the program.
  • Clean Ohio no longer exists and a brownfield program of that size and scope is not currently contemplated.

While the assumptions underlying the scorecard are fair game, it still demonstrates how long and how much it would cost to address a significant number of brownfield properties under the VAP. The scorecard also suggests there may be better strategies available to accelerate brownfield redevelopment in Ohio.  

The final post in the series will include a discussion of new strategies to try an accelerate brownfield redevelopment in Ohio.

Attorney General Mike DeWine should be commended for putting together a comprehensive manual regarding legal issues, resources and incentives available to assist with economic development. The manual is called the 2015 Ohio Economic Development Manual.  

The Attorney General collaborated with a number of state agencies and local economic development organizations in putting together the manual.  These collaborators helped summarize a number of highly complex issues and programs.  

To my knowledge, no other state official has attempted to compile such a manual.  For those like myself who are engaged in economic redevelopment projects, in particular brownfield redevelopment, it can take a significant amount of time to stay up on the latest issues, programs and incentives.  

While the manual is an excellent resource, there is no way it can provide anything other than a basic level of understanding regarding complex issues such as brownfield redevelopment.  The purpose of this post is to raise awareness of the various layers of complexities related to brownfield redevelopment that are not discussed or oversimplified in the manual.

Overview of Brownfield Section of the Manual

The manual provides an overview of the stages of brownfield redevelopment as well as a quick summary of possible incentives.

Stages of Brownfield Redevelopment

The manual states the following as the stages for brownfield redevelopment:

  • Identify Site
  • Develop remediation Plan
    • Due Diligence
      • Phase I (paperwork, database review and site visit)
      • Phase II (sampling)
    • Cleanup- Under Ohio EPA’s Voluntary Action Program (VAP). Once cleanup complete a Covenant-Not-to-Sue (CNS) will be issued by the State

The manual provides an overly simplistic view of brownfield redevelopment.  Here are just some of the issues with this summary:

  1. Review of Phase I and Phase II Reports-  As discussed numerous times on this blog, it is very important to closely review any Phase I report received on a property to make sure it was done correctly (ASTM or VAP standards).  Also, it is not uncommon for different consultants to reach different conclusions as to whether something constitutes an issue to be identified in a Phase I report.  Finally, formulating the purpose and scope of Phase II testing is a critical component to the due diligence process. Phase II costs can range from $10,000 to $300,000 depending on the site and risk mitigation strategy to be employed.
  2. Alternatives to Full Cleanup-  There are alternatives available to property owners to mitigate environmental risk other than full cleanup of the property.  A very common approach discussed at length in prior blog posts is the Bona Fide Purchaser Defense (BFPD) under CERCLA. Depending on the Client’s risk tolerance and the issues presented at the site, BFPD can be a much faster and less expensive option to the VAP to mitigate risk and address the more serious threats a property may present.
  3. Eligibility Issues in the VAP-  There are different types of contamination and sites that are not eligible for remediation under the VAP.  These include, but are not limited to: underground storage tanks (USTs), hazardous waste management units (RCRA closure), PCBs, (TSCA) and sites under federal or state enforcement.
  4. Environmental Insurance-  No where does the manual discuss the possibility of environmental insurance to address risks presented by a site.  Such insurance is commonly used in business transactions as well as brownfield redevelopment projects.
  5. Cleanup Design-  The manual suggests that a party can consult with Ohio EPA’s VAP Technical Assistance program in developing its cleanup plan for a project.  While Ohio EPA’s Technical Assistance program is an extremely useful tool, the manual does not indicate that a private party has a great deal of control over designing a cleanup to meet applicable standards.  Since the cleanup is the most expensive component, it is critical to evaluate the options available to meet standards (i.e. engineering controls, institutional controls and addressing exposure pathways).

Incentives Available

The manual discusses the following incentives available to assist with brownfield redevelopment:

  • Ohio EPA Targeted Brownfield Assessment- Ohio EPA program to pay for Phase I assessments and potentially Phase II activities using its Site Investigation Field Unit (SIFU).
  • EPA VAP Technical Assistance- Ohio EPA provides technical assistance on how to complete a VAP cleanup on the property.
  • Ohio Brownfield Fund- Loans up to $500,000 for Phase II activities and $5 million for cleanup
  • JobsOhio Revitalization Loan and Grant Fund-  Up to $200,000 for Phase II, $1 million in grant funds and $5 million in loan funds for cleanup activities.
  • Abandoned Service Station Fund Program-  Class C underground storage tank (USTs) cleanup fund for abandoned tanks.  Up to $100,000 for assessment and $500,000 for cleanup activities.

This list of available incentives provided in the manual is a good basic overview of the major state programs in Ohio.  However, the manual does not mention the fact there are a number of local brownfield incentive programs that will provide grant funds for Phase Is, Phase IIs and cleanup activities. In many instances, these local programs can be a better fit for a particular project.

Furthermore, each of the programs listed above have important eligibility criteria, limits on reimbursable costs as well as development or job creation requirements in order to secure funding.  It is critical for a party to understand these commitments prior to accepting grant or loan funding.

Conclusion

This post is not meant as a criticism of the Attorney General’s efforts in putting together the manual.  The manual is a good place to start to get a basic understanding of various issues and programs that can impact economic development.  However, with complex issues like brownfield redevelopment, the redevelopment process is more of an art than exact science.  An over simplified view can result in failed projects or unnecessary costs.