Environment & Energy Report

Priority List Could Survive End of EPA Superfund Task Force (2)

Aug. 6, 2019, 2:50 PMUpdated: Aug. 6, 2019, 8:23 PM

The EPA will focus on promoting redevelopment of Superfund sites and community relations after the end of its reform-focused task force.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund task force wrapped up its two years of work at the end of July. Steven Cook, the EPA official who headed it, is seeking ways to make the task force’s changes to the Superfund program stick while continuing to build on them.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is interested in continuing the agency’s priority list of Superfund sites, which started as a result of the task force’s recommendations. Having the list, containing about 20 Superfund sites that Wheeler receives regular updates on, has helped the agency learn why sites were getting stuck in the cleanup process, Cook said Aug. 2 at the Texas Environmental Superconference in Austin.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt started the task force in May 2017. Made up of dozens of internal staff members, the group released 42 recommendations in July 2017 that wouldn’t require new regulations or budget changes to the Superfund program. The recommendations focused on accelerating cleanup, pushing potentially responsible parties to pay for cleanup, and promoting redevelopment.

The agency expects to release a final task force report Sept. 19, Cook said.

Guidance Released

Through its task force efforts, the agency issued guidance July 29 to clarify liability protections for a range of landowners who may be interested in redeveloping Superfund or brownfield sites.

The guidance mostly pulls together topics that were addressed separately, said Charlie Howland, former EPA senior assistant counsel for the agency’s mid-Atlantic region, who is now partner and head of the environmental group at Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP in New York.

But, he said, EPA’s willingness to further define some concepts, such as what counts as disposal, could influence how courts view individual liability cases involving private parties.

The Common Elements guidance could affect parties who are interested in purchasing formerly contaminated sites, who own land adjacent to contamination sources, or who acquire a property after contamination, but are unable to detect it despite thoroughly assessing the property.

The EPA released the guidance to inform its own staff as it considers enforcement measures and provides general information to people who may want to reuse or redevelop those sites.

The agency hopes that clarifying the liability protections will encourage redevelopment by providing purchasers with greater certainty, according to the guidance.

“Having a level of confidence in the evaluation and management of risk is the key to success for third party developers,” Colleen Kokas, executive vice president at Environmental Liability Transfer Inc., said in an email.

The EPA also plans to continue training agency staff on site redevelopment to emphasize the importance of considering its future use while working on cleanup, Cook said.

Risk Communication

The agency also intends to take a closer look at the way it communicates risks to communities at Superfund sites during fiscal 2020, according to Cook.

The EPA does a good job of telling communities technically accurate information, but it is unclear if people understand. Words like “exposure” can be misleading to a community, Cook said.

Under the Superfund program, the agency will create criteria for prioritizing risk communication efforts, starting with sites that have completed remediation construction but still have monitoring or maintenance efforts underway.

The EPA expects to develop ways to measure improvement in its risk communication efforts in fiscal 2021.

—With assistance from Stephen Lee.

(Adds comment from Colleen Kokas in 12th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Jean Fogarty at jfogarty@bloombergenvironment.com

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