February 17th, 2018
Earlier this week the Trump Administration unveiled its “Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America”. Among the proposals were three amendments to the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) that are designed to incentivize redevelopment of contaminated properties. The proposal can be viewed Here. Since this document is an overview, it does not contain statutory language.
The first proposed change involves National Priorities List (NPL) sites. Currently, these sites are not eligible for Brownfield funding under CERCLA § 104(k) since they are excluded from definition of brownfield site of §101(39) (B) and eligible response site of section §101(41) (C). The proposal would allow non-liable parties to be eligible to receive grants and low-interest revolving loans to conduct assessments, complete cleanups, and implement remedy enhancements to accommodate development and perform long-term stewardship at NPL sites or portions of NPL sites. This proposal would include:
- areas of the NPL site that are not related to the response action;
- areas that can be parceled out from the NPL response action;
- areas where the NPL response action is complete but the site has not been delisted yet; or
- areas where the NPL response action is complete but the facility is still subject to orders or consent decrees under CERCLA
Oddly, the Administration proposes to accomplish this goal by amending CERCLA §101(40) which defines a bona fide prospective purchaser instead of the brownfield site definition at § 101(39) where the NPL exclusion is located. This calls into question of other parties that qualify for other landowner liability protections such as the innocent landowner and contiguous property owner as well as the third-party defense would qualify for this financial assistance.
Another important amendment would be to clarify and expand the current liability exemption State and local governments set forth in CERCLA §101(20) (D). This section excludes from the definition of owner or operator units of state government or local governments that involuntarily acquire contaminated property by virtue of their sovereign function. Local governments have been concerned about eminent domain actions where they obtain title through a negotiated purchase in lieu of condemnation (see City of Wichita v. Aero Holdings, Inc, 177 F. Supp. 2d 1153 (D.Kan. 2000)0 or in the absence of a judicial ruling that the local government lawfully exercised its power of eminent domain. The Administration proposal does not explain how it will amend §101(20)(D) to eliminate this concern. However, it does state that such liability protection would be conditioned upon State and local governments not contributing to the contamination and meeting the obligations imposed on Bona Fide Prospective Purchasers (BFPPs), including exercising appropriate care with respect to releases of hazardous substances at the facility
It should be noted that towards the end of 2017, the House of Representatives passed the Brownfields Enhancement, Economic Redevelopment, and Reauthorization Act of 2017 (H.R. 3017) which appears to encompass some of the changes proposed by the Administration. The bill reauthorizes the federal brownfield program and amends the definition of brownfield site to include sites where there is no viable party and EPA determines it is appropriate that the site be assessed, investigated, or cleaned up by a non-liable party. It also amends §101(20)(D) by deleting reference to “involuntarily” acquiring title. The legislature would allow local governments to be eligible for brownfield funding where if they do not qualify as a the BFPP because they acquired the site prior to January 11, 2002 and did not otherwise contribute or cause the contamination. A Senate bill has similar language regarding the local government exemption
Finally, the Administration proposes to amend CERCLA Section §122(a) to provide EPA with express settlement authority to enter into administrative agreements with BFPPs and other statutorily protected parties to perform remedial action in appropriate circumstances (e.g., partial, early remedial action) would promote and expedite the cleanup and reuse of Superfund sites. Currently, this section provides the President with authority to enter into an agreement with any person to perform a response action when the President determines the action will be done properly. However, when EPA enters into a settlement for a remedial action with a potentially responsible party, the settlement must be approved by the Attorney General and entered the United States District Court as a consent decree. The need to obtain DOJ approval can be time-consuming and often discourages EPA regional offices from considering Prospective Purchaser Agreements or other administrative settlements with BFPPs.