Dirty Dirt, Developing State Soil Reuse Regulation

Posted on March 25, 2015 by Gregory H. Smith

            Those who have tried to keep up with the development of environmental law into the second decade of the 21st century will not be surprised, as others may be, by the attention now focused on reuse of soil. Uncounted millions of cubic yards of soil are moved each year in the New England region alone. Until very recently, in the absence of contamination above regulatory remediation standards, the excavation and reuse of soils was not subject to any environmental regulation at all.

            Now with the pace of national economic activity rising, soil reuse is drawing the focused attention of State regulators in the northeast region and across the nation. EBC Nov 6, 2014 program. In particular, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont are all currently considering how to regulate soil reuse. In 2014, Massachusetts adopted a requirement for the development of a soil reuse policy by June 2015 and that effort is well underway.

            While New Hampshire relies on a broad definition of “contamination,” it recognizes it lacks explicit legal authority to develop a full blown regulatory program for reuse of “mildly contaminated” soil. The current definition of contamination reaches, by its terms, any non-naturally occurring, regulated contaminant “that has the potential to adversely affect human health or the environment.” N.H. Env-Or 602.07.  

            In these circumstances, New Hampshire is currently regulating on a case by case basis, limiting receiving sites to soils that do not exceed natural background levels. Solid waste regulation can be avoided by an agency waiver, or reuse can be approved with an acceptable soil management plan and soil testing protocol. The New Hampshire agency is making efforts to respond to approval requests rapidly enough to avoid frustrating market driven transactions. It  recognizes, as other regulators do, that construction projects may otherwise be forced to send lightly contaminated soil to landfills, depriving the region of essential landfill capacity, while increasing construction costs for little, if any, environmental benefit. For example, both New Hampshire and Massachusetts have recognized that unreclaimed gravel pits and quarries present potential hazards and risks of their own. They can be attractive nuisances that claim the lives of those who try to use them unwisely for recreation year after year and they can become repositories for discarded materials including stolen or abandoned vehicles. In short, they can be a locus of a range of community problems, if unattended. Rather than pay to send lightly contaminated soils to landfills, a better and more beneficial use could be found.

            The States considering such new programs recognize that their efforts to impose environmental regulation on such a substantial volume of previously unregulated activity could well have unintended and unnecessary adverse consequences for both small and large scale redevelopment projects just as the economy is gaining strength. It must be undertaken in a manner that will not exacerbate other very significant potential problems. They are coordinating among themselves the planning and development of such regulation and giving serious consideration to designing methods that will likely bear the simplicity and efficiency of general permits. Legislative action will no doubt be necessary to authorize these new programs.

            There is little question that as economic activity continues to increase, the States must establish consistent criteria setting forth the standards to be used in determining where mildly contaminated soils generated at construction projects and other developments can be disposed of at subsurface locations. Municipalities and the regulated community need to be educated about this process and engage with the regulators to ensure that the final standards are well-understood, easily implementable, and adequately ensure the environment is protected.