MassDEP’s TCE Closed Site Review: The Legalities

MASSDEP’S TCE CLOSED SITES REVIEW: THE LEGALITIESIn April 2016, the MassDEP initiated an effort to evaluate closed TCE sites. The Department is “screening nearly 1,000 closed sites with known trichloroethylene contamination to determine at which sites TCE has the potential to pose an Imminent Hazard based on the current understanding of health risks, even if a site was previously closed properly under earlier standards.”  Its strategy is to “systematically review past closures and, where necessary, work with site stakeholders to identify and eliminate any ongoing Imminent Hazards.”

It certainly stands to reason that the MassDEP’s duty to protect public health, welfare, and the environment, encompasses the authority to require responsible parties to take necessary and appropriate response actions at sites where newly understood hazards exist, even though former science might have justified regulatory closure.  But how can that basic principle be reconciled with our general understanding that a permanent solution provides a “liability endpoint” for a responsible party?

The 2006 brownfields amendments, codified in Section 5C of chapter 21E, provide a liability endpoint for persons who properly perform MCP response actions to completion.  Specifically, under Section 5C (a) “an eligible person shall be exempt from liability . . . pursuant to this chapter . . . for any release of oil or hazardous material at the site or portion of a site owned or operated by said eligible person, as delineated in a waste site cleanup activity opinion, for which a permanent solution or remedy operation status exists and is maintained or has been achieved and maintained in accordance with such opinion . . .”  Permanent solutions are achieved under Section 3A of the statute by achieving a level of no significant risk at a site. The import of these sections taken together is that a person’s liability ends if his or her site poses “no significant risk” such that a “permanent solution” has been achieved and maintained.

So if an eligible party reaches a condition of no significant risk, achieves such a permanent solution and is statutorily “exempt from liability,” how can the MassDEP require that same person to later take further response actions (absent an audit finding or other violation of the MCP)?  Is there something in the statute or Massachusetts Contingency Plan that provides the MassDEP with a reopener if science reveals that the level of TCE once considered no significant risk, is later determined to pose a significant risk?

The MassDEP’s definition of “no significant risk” appears to support a conclusion that later adopted standards cannot be the justification for MassDEP enforcement against a site owner who properly achieved a permanent solution. “No significant risk” requires that no “identified substance of concern” shall present a “significant risk of damage to health, safety, public welfare, or the environment during any foreseeable period of time.”  Critically, in making such a determination, the MassDEP “shall consider existing public health or environmental standards where applicable or suitably analogous . . .”

Since the definition of “permanent solution” depends upon a determination of whether or not a significant risk exists based upon “existing public health or environmental standards,” it seems quite clear that the legislature intended to provide an exemption from liability under c. 21E to persons if they properly rely upon “existing” standards, and to protect them against reopening of liability based upon new standards that may be adopted by later regulatory changes.

Does the MCP contain a backdoor mechanism whereby closed sites must be reopened by responsible parties who would otherwise be exempt from liability because they properly achieved a permanent solution?  40.0137 of the MCP requires a new release notification for an already closed site (and therefore, reopening of a site) under the following circumstances: (1) changes in activities, uses or exposures at the disposal site; or (2) the presence of such oil and/or hazardous material would negate or change prior risk determinations or statements were that presence taken into account in the preparation of the permanent solution.  Neither of these two provisions for new notification appears to apply based merely upon promulgation of a new standard.  The first only requires notification at a closed site if the exposure scenario changes. Under the second, the promulgation of a later lower risk based standard would not “negate or change the determinations or statements” in the permanent solution because the known concentrations met the existing risk based standard when the permanent solution (or RAO) was filed.  There is no other MCP provision that expressly requires a responsible party to give notice or take response actions merely as a result of a later published risk threshold.

Unfortunately, the MassDEP takes the position that even though notification and compliance with the MCP may not be required for some sites, “under 310 CMR 40.0370 appropriate steps must be taken at these sites to eliminate or mitigate risks, if necessary, though these actions do not usually require notification to or approval by the Department.”  40.0370 provides that “(1) response actions shall be undertaken for releases or threats of release of oil and/or hazardous material that do not require notification under 310 CMR 40.0300 if the releases or threats of release pose a significant risk to health, safety, public welfare, or the environment, as described in 310 CMR 40.0900.” There is no time limit on this provision, i.e. it appears to be what my law professor called a “springing” provision, waiting to spring up when least expected.

Thus, read literally, the MCP is a Möbius loop. Despite the statute’s liability endpoint, under the MCP “once a disposal site, always a disposal site.” Like the tar baby, under the MCP a site owner will never be able to shake off the label and attendant potential exposure.

Let’s review the bidding, at the outset, if notification is required, the responsible party must perform response actions in accordance with the MCP until he or she achieves and properly documents that a condition of no significant risk has been achieved.  To do this, the responsible party would compare site contamination levels to existing standards to demonstrate the level of risk.  By necessity, the responsible party would rely on the standards then in existence.  If the responsible party demonstrates a condition of no significant risk, he or she may close out the site under a permanent solution and becomes exempt from liability under the statute.  At least theoretically, if at a later time there is a change in the relevant standard which the site does not meet, under Section 40.0370 the responsible party would be required to perform a new risk assessment using the newly existing standards, and if the site posed a significant risk, perform additional response actions to eliminate that risk.  Thus, the MCP appears to leave responsible parties permanently exposed to the requirement to take further response actions under 40.0370, and appears to require a continuous reassessment of risk posed by the site conditions, regardless of prior closure.  How the MassDEP would actually enforce such a requirement remains subject to significant question, especially since, under the statute, the responsible party is “exempt from liability.”

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