Superfund: 20+20 = 40

Posted on January 14, 2020 by John Barkett

It seems hard to believe that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—affectionately known as the Superfund law—will be forty-years old in December 2020.

I first became involved with CERCLA in 1981, a few months after the law’s adoption. The State of Florida’s environmental regulatory agency was concerned about a transformer salvaging operation. It feared that mineral oil containing polychlorinated biphenyls that had been spilled on the ground would be carried throughout the surrounding area if a hurricane hit Miami and caused severe flooding. So it called on the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a removal action – an emergency response – under CERCLA. That led to a lawsuit to gain access.  I represented a utility that had sold transformers to the salvager. A federal district court judge set a hearing on EPA’s motion for a preliminary injunction to gain access and allowed two weeks for discovery.  The judge also ordered the utility to intervene in the action.  We were taking depositions around the clock until the judge called us into chambers just before the hearing was scheduled to begin. We left chambers and headed not to the courtroom but to a hotel where we were ordered to engage in settlement discussions and not to return until a settlement had been reached.  The settlement was reached.  No hurricane hit.  The site was eventually remediated.  And acronyms like RI/FS, RD/RA, PRP, and NPL became a part of my daily vocabulary.

This case, however, was not the norm.  Once Chem-Dyne came down establishing the principle that in a government cost recovery action, the Superfund law created joint and several liability, and other cases affirmed EPA’s position that liability was also strict and retroactive, the litigation floodgates opened.  To conserve enforcement resources, EPA (the United States) sued “deep pocket” parties. Those parties then sued other PRPs who sued other PRPs—waves of multi-party actions.  The calls to members of Congress became louder as pizza parlors were spending more money on lawyers for the hazardous substances in the ink on their pizza boxes than they could make on a calzone.

Reforms eventually followed in the next two decades of Superfund.  The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) in 1986 plugged some holes in the statute and expressly provided for contribution actions.  The “innocent landowner” defense was added and literally created an industry – environmental assessment firms sprung up over night offering their services to anyone buying land or lending money for a real estate acquisition. 

Other amendments followed.  Section 107 of CERCLA initially ended in subparagraph (m).  Now there is a subparagraph (n) to protect fiduciaries, (o) to protect “de micromis” parties, (p) to create a municipal solid waste exception, (q) to address contiguous properties, and (r) to address prospective purchasers.   The Superfund Recycling Equity Act was passed in 1999 to reverse decisions of courts which found that a person recycling certain products was an arranger for disposal liable under Section 107(a)(3) of CERCLA.

Landfills, used oil recyclers, and solvent recyclers received most of the attention in the first three decades of Superfund—and in many cases are still receiving attention.    In the fourth decade of Superfund, river sediment sites have been the most prominent sites on the National Priorities List.  Their remedial investigation/feasibility study and remedial design/remedial action costs dwarf those of landfills on the NPL.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on the Superfund law on a few occasions. Key Tronic wounded the private Superfund enforcement business when the Court in 1994 determined that a private Superfund plaintiff could not recover litigation attorneys’ fees under CERCLA. Aviall (2004), Atlantic Research (2007), and Burlington Northern (2009) followed in a string of decisions that shook up the Superfund jurisprudence in the arena of contribution actions, cost recovery actions, and the evidence required to establish when someone has arranged for disposal or treatment of a hazardous substance. Burlington Northern also weighed in on how to prove a reasonable basis for apportionment in a cost recovery action.

A lot of money has been spent on Superfund sites these past 39 years.  Whether the risk reduction bought with those dollars was the best use of these funds can be debated.  But there is no debate that toxicology has risen in prominence because of Superfund and lawyers have had to become familiar with notations or phrases like 1 x 106, slope factor, and reference dose, to make sense of the difference between carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic risks in human health risk assessments.

All Superfund lawyers know Section 113(f)(1) of CERCLA, the statutory standard applicable in a contribution action: the court is to allocate response costs according to “such equitable factors as the court determines are appropriate.”  That text has resulted in the “Gore factors,” the “Torres factors,” and a host of arguments – sometimes supported by facts and oftentimes supported by inferences or even educated guesswork – as judges and allocators attempt to satisfy the statutory standard.

As we embark on a fifth decade of Superfund, we have another Superfund Task Force and a new set of recommendations focused on trying to speed up cleanups, accelerate remedial design, encourage private investment resulting in reuse of Superfund sites, promote redevelopment of sites to revitalize communities, and promote transparency and engagement with Superfund stakeholders. Actions always speak louder than words, so we can all just watch and hope that the noble goals of this latest Superfund Task Force can be met.

So, here’s to a “Happy 40th” to the Superfund law in 2020.  I was there for your birth and am glad to still be around to declare: you have definitely aged, but you still seem to be going strong!

Is the Superfund Taskforce an EPA Superhero or Just a Bunch of Smoke and Mirrors?

Posted on August 15, 2018 by Heidi Friedman

Is the Pruitt/Wheeler Superfund Taskforce the Clark Kent of Environmental Law, hidden cape and all, producing more effective and efficient cleanups and conquering the nasty villains of TCE and Vinyl Chloride to protect the human race?  Pruitt made his initial request to his superhero squad to prioritize Superfund on March 22, 2017, and the Task Force recommendations came out a few months later identifying 21 priority sites (which by the way were priorities well before that list came out because they were on the NPL) along with many other objectives.  On the Taskforce recommendations' first anniversary, EPA recently gave itself the traditional 1-year anniversary gift of paper by publishing an almost 100-page report detailing all of its Superfund accomplishments and identifying what the environmental villains of the world can expect in Year 2.   Although there is not enough space here to dissect the so-called “accomplishments,” the list feels a lot like that “To Do” list I sometimes generate for tasks I am about to complete, just so I can have the pleasure of drawing a line through it to say I finished something. 

Although many of those officials implementing the task force goals for EPA are superheroes in many ways, the main problem is that the Superfund process is much less than “super,” especially since the reach of the program is expanding not contracting.  For example, we are constantly dealing with new and emerging contaminants.  Closed sites are being reopened to look for 1,4-Dioxane, PFOS-PFOAs and other new or emerging contaminants, many of which are ubiquitous.  Then we have vapor intrusion to further complicate the investigation and pathway exposure evaluation process, even more so now that VI contributes to the hazard ranking system used by  EPA to score a site for listing on the NPL.  So as we make the scoring, listing, investigation and remediation processes broader and more complex, can we really argue that there is now more success in cleaning up these sites, converting them to beneficial use and delisting them?

I don’t think so, at least not yet.  To really move things along, industry and EPA should be focusing on identifying and testing more efficient technologies so that all media can be remediated in reasonable time frames.  How about working toward collaboration among stakeholders to develop reasonable, risk-based cleanup levels based on realistic exposures at sites rather than blindly insisting that MCLs apply for restoration even if no one has or will ever drink the groundwater?  And let’s talk about promoting voluntary actions instead of negotiating orders for every piece of work.  Ramming down model order language and picking insanely expensive remedies overnight to just check the boxes does not generate results or build relationships between industry and EPA to support the program.

Instead, these actions may lead to more PRPs contesting EPA’s decisions as arbitrary and capricious, resulting in further delay and inefficiency.  In fact, we are already seeing erosion of the historical deference that has been given to EPA’s decision making process.  See, e.g., Genuine Parts Co. v. EPA.   Industry and EPA need to form a partnership that focuses on real risk to human health and the environment if there is really going to be a change in the Superfund program that will benefit our communities.  If not, we will remain in the same less than super program, attempting to clean up the same sites for the next several decades.   Or maybe Wonder Woman will swoop in and save the day??? Fingers crossed!

Musings on Starting a New Superfund Case – Hope springs eternal?

Posted on January 25, 2018 by David Rosenblatt

As lawyers, many of us enjoy the “rush” of starting a new case.  A new matter can be a welcome fresh tablet, providing us with the opportunity to use our skills and experience in creative and interesting ways to further our client’s interests.

But -- for those of us who have fought for clients on the front lines of EPA’s Superfund program over the years -- maybe not so much.  As Superfund practioners, we must deal with a cumbersome, almost 40-year-old law and an agency whose approach is dictated by a raft of standard operating procedures within an entrenched bureaucracy, decades-old guidance documents and forms, and a seemingly endless review and comment process.

To add to the challenge, clients have changed over the past 40 years, even if the Superfund law and its implementation have not. Today’s clients demand quicker, more practical, and cost-effective solutions in resolving their legal problems, without years of negotiations and endless administrative boxes to check off along the way in assessing and cleaning up sites.

There are other paradigms.  Many states have operated as laboratories of innovation in site cleanup through privatization and reduction of bureaucratic obstacles. In July 2017, EPA issued a Superfund Task Force report recommending numerous reforms to streamline the Superfund process and expedite cleanup.

Yet despite these advances on the state level -- and a supposedly business-friendly administration now in Washington and at EPA -- Superfund, well, remains Superfund. 

So here I embark on yet another Superfund Special Notice negotiation in early 2018.  I am armed with fresh ideas to bring to the table and an EPA Task Force report in my pocket, just hoping I will discover that a few of these new approaches will somehow have resonance with my EPA counterparts and that Superfund 2018 is somehow different from Superfund 1998.

Anyone want to take any bets on what I will find?