A CASE OF THE VAPORS: When the Fog Clears, Will the New ASTM Standard for Phase I Environmental Site Inspections Trigger Significant Litigation Over Vapor Intrusion?

Posted on March 12, 2014 by John Manard

Among other changes, the new standard now defines “migration” to include the movement of vapor in the subsurface. That change makes it more clear that the environmental professional conducting a Phase I must, when identifying releases and threatened releases, evaluate the potential for vapors to migrate from contaminated subsurface soils and ground water into the indoor air of buildings on the surface.

While many lawyers and environmental professionals believed the old standard already required an evaluation of the potential for vapor intrusion, there was no consensus, and there are many Phase I reports out there that do not evaluate that potential. Because treatment of vapor intrusion under the old standard was a topic of genuine dispute among practitioners, you might think we could accept this clarification and move on. Not so.

The USEPA rolled a grenade into the tent when, in its preamble to the final rule sanctioning E1527-13, it stated that it “. . . wishes to be clear that, in its view, vapor migration has always been a relevant potential source of release or threatened release that, depending on site-specific conditions, may warrant identification when conducting all appropriate inquires.” (78 Federal Register 79319 (December 30, 2013).

The USEPA’s clarification has prompted some discussion in the blogosphere about potential malpractice claims against environmental professionals who failed to address relevant vapor intrusion issues in past Phase I reports. Closely related is the question of whether landowners currently relying on one of CERCLA’s landowner liability protections may be at risk due to the inadequacy of their consultant’s work. These are legitimate concerns and only time will tell if theoretic liability leads to actual liability and litigation.

However, it does not appear that the sky is falling and there are reasons to suggest that a landside of litigation over this issue is unlikely. While litigation can be expected under the right (very limited) fact pattern, the following factors should alleviate concerns about widespread litigation:

  • While the aggregate Phase I universe is vast, the portion of that universe affected by the vapor intrusion issue is very limited; involving only circumstances where subsurface contamination is known or suspected.
  • Even when genuine vapor intrusion questions exist, a cause of action for malpractice requires damages. Simple receipt of a substandard Phase I report is not enough. The recipient of the report must experience damages related to the failure to address vapor intrusion. I see two such scenarios:
    • A landowner faces liability for remediation of a vapor intrusion problem, and does not qualify for liability protection under CERCLA because the Phase I failed to evaluate the threat of vapor intrusion.
    • A landowner discovers that a vapor intrusion problem reduces the value of its property, after relying on a Phase I that did not evaluate the threat of vapor intrusion.
  • In the former situation, case law demonstrates that courts are reluctant to deny CERCLA liability protection to landowners who reasonably rely on an environmental professional’s Phase I report to satisfy AAI. Reliance on an environmental professional would seem particularly reasonable and appropriate regarding a technical issue such as whether or not an assessment should evaluate the threat of vapor intrusion. If landowner liability is improbable, the specter of derivative Phase I malpractice claims is also diminished. 
  • Concerning the latter (reduced property value) scenario, most Phase I reports are conducted in order to satisfy AAI and qualify for landowner liability protection. While use of the ASTM standard is not limited to that task, the standard directs the environmental professional to assume, absent other direction from the user, that satisfaction of AAI is the user’s purpose. If the user obtains the liability protection it bargained for, can it maintain a malpractice action? The answer to that question will depend upon the facts of each case, but I suspect that the user will face an uphill battle.
  • Only after paring down potential vapor intrusion disputes to those involving actual relevant damages do we reach the substantive malpractice question of whether or not the failure to address vapor intrusion in a Phase I is a breach of a professional standard of care. 

The answer to that breach of standard question is beyond the scope of this note and will require a descent into the bowels of the ASTM standard. I suggest that the USEPA’s proclamation is not dispositive because it addresses compliance with its own AAI requirement, not compliance with the ASTM standard guiding the environmental professional; a distinction that may make a difference.

For transactions in the pipeline when the December 31, 2013 final rule was promulgated, most will not be affected because they do not present the particular facts and circumstances (i.e., subsurface contamination) triggering a vapor intrusion assessment. In those transactions where vapor intrusion is an issue, however, it is key that AAI be completed prior to the acquisition of property. For pending transactions, deficient Phase I assessments should be revised or supplemented to address vapor intrusion potential. If the property has already changed hands, the new owner’s claim to any of the CERCLA landowner liability protections will be at risk. 

How great a risk? Time will tell. But it is clear that good faith arguments that vapor intrusion need not be part of new Phase 1 assessments are no longer tenable.

A Case of the Vapors – Does New Jersey’s Newest Vapor Intrusion Technical Guidance Foreshadow a Return to the “Old Days” of Environmental Regulation in New Jersey?

Posted on June 20, 2013 by Kenneth Mack

Enacted in May 2009, New Jersey’s “Site Remediation Reform Act”, N.J.S.A. 58:10C-1, et seq. (“SRRA” or “Act”) was heralded by the State’s Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) as a “new world order” for the State’s site remediation regulation.  Four years later, its imposition remains a “work in progress”.

Belatedly following Massachusetts’ lead, the Act largely privatized site remediation by placing most decisions, including the ultimate provision of final remediation approval, in the hands of state-licensed professionals, called “Licensed Site Remediation Professionals” (“LSRPs”).  It replaced NJDEP’s former “command and control” approval process, which tended toward extreme micro-management of each case.  Instead, LSRPs are supposed to use their professional judgment in effecting remediation.

Interestingly, much of the impetus for the SRRA came chiefly from the Government, compelled by its enormous backlog of unresolved cases: it was not unusual for remedial reports to languish on NJDEP desks, awaiting action, for years.  Moreover, NJDEP had little or no knowledge of many sites on its “known contaminated site list” which numbered anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 (the fact that that number was unclear was itself troublesome).  Indeed, one of the precipitating causes of the Act was a vapor intrusion case in which it was belatedly discovered, in 2006, that a child day care center had been built, and was operating, on a site which formerly housed a thermometer factory.  This site should have been (but was not) cleaned up under the State’s ISRA law when the factory closed in 1994.  The site had been classified as one of “low” concern, so it was not inspected by NJDEP until twelve years after such closure.  The discovery of these circumstances caused public consternation, followed by litigation and, ultimately, legislation. 

Although the environmental consultant community enthusiastically welcomed the new law (almost immediately dubbed the “environmental consultant right to work act”), individual LSRPs continue to have difficulty weaning themselves away from the “security blanket” of prior department approval of their actions.  These fears are understandably heightened by the statutorily enjoined random audit of at least ten percent of LSRPs annually by the LSRP Licensing Board and the Department’s separate ability to audit final remediation approvals, (called “Response Action Outcomes”, or “RAOs”), for up to three years after issuance. 

Partly in response to the LSRPs’ expressed need for some certainty, NJDEP has been steadily adding to the scope and detail of various technical guidance documents, the most recent one of which is its “Vapor Intrusion Technical Guidance (Version 3.1)" issued in March of this year. At 184 pages, with appendices, this guidance (“VI Guidance”) is nearly twice as long as the next-largest NJDEP “guidance document” and far longer than similar VI guidance issued by authorities in neighboring states.  Indeed, its length is nearly that of OSWER’s External “Review Draft” “Final Guidance for Assessing and Mitigating the Vapor Intrusion Pathway from Subsurface Sources to Indoor Air”, whose issuance it preceded by about a month.  Predictably,  the two documents do not exactly mesh seamlessly. 

The prescriptive nature of the VI Guidance is equal to its heft and seemingly contrary to the Act’s proclaimed conferring of discretionary judgment upon LSRPs.  More troublesome is the fact that the various detailed dictates to LSRPs in the VI Guidance have been translated into a welter of forms that must be filed by the LSRP at various points in the VI remedial process.  These new forms –which are apt to change with some frequency – are all “machine readable” and, in light of the draw-down of experienced NJDEP personnel caused by government cutbacks and natural attrition, are increasingly reviewed by machines, rather than experienced personnel, at least in the first instance.  This seems likely to produce an exaltation of form over substance that does little to foster actual remediation.  Moreover, departures from the VI Guidance must be supported by the LSRP’s explanation of rationale under a pre-SRRA regulation entitled “Variance from Technical Requirements”.  Few such “variances” were ever permitted under this regulation in the past.  The fact that such “departures” may be substantively reviewed by NJDEP only after the final RAO is issued and, if denied, would result in the RAO’s invalidation, creates an added “chilling effect” on an LSRP’s consideration of any such deviation, however warranted.  And, while NJDEP personnel continue to be available to LSRPs for consultation and advice, it is unclear what effect, if any, reliance on such advice would have in any subsequent audit of an RAO. 

It may be that the VI Guidance is sui generis and that its overly doctrinaire approach will not be followed by NJDEP in other areas of remediation.  If not, the “new world order” of the SRRA may morph into something that looks very much like NJDEP’s  “ancien regime”.  Or maybe I just have a case of the vapors.

Vapor Intrusion -- EPA Offers Guidance for Comment, but Now More Issues than Ever

Posted on May 3, 2013 by Kenneth Gray

After being taken to task by states and its own Inspector General for lack of final guidance on Vapor Intrusion, EPA has just released draft guidance documents for hazardous substances and petroleum products for comment.  The guidance documents are already generating discussion on the blogosphere, with comments due to EPA by May 24th.  Below are some of the issues EPA will have to address for its guidance for hazardous substances, and those of us addressing vapor intrusion for our clients.

Will the guidance collapse under its own weight?  EPA’s recommended framework relies upon collecting and evaluating multiple lines of evidence to support risk management decisions, detailed investigation of vapor intrusion including rigorous data quality objectives and recognition of seasonal/temporal variability in levels, consideration of options for building mitigation and subsurface remediation, decisions on how institutional controls can be crafted and monitored, and how the public will be involved.  The practical question is how much evidence and process is enough for a rational decision, and how costly and time-consuming an evaluation effort is justified?  Rarely are actions taken quickly in the CERCLA or RCRA world, but if there are risks, then they should be acted upon, and applying the guidance in other contexts will be challenging.  There already appears to be a consensus that EPA’s approach will be costly, and give vapor intrusion a life of its own in remedial decision-making.  EPA will have to address this issue, or find its guidance bypassed or ignored, given the need for timely decisions.

Should we all buy stock in fan manufacturers and makers of synthetic vapor barriers?  EPA offers (only on page 125 of 143) the question of weighing relative costs of characterization vs. engineered exposure controls.  If EPA guidance is followed, the cost of implementing the guidance will at times greatly exceed the cost of engineering controls.  Clients want the deal “done” and are not likely to wait for a lengthy deliberative process.

What role will EPA acknowledge for OSHA standards?  EPA proposes guidance for residential and non-residential buildings, but as a practical daily matter, there are separate standards and approaches for workplace and non-workplace scenarios.  EPA doesn’t directly address that issue in the 2013 guidance, even though the Agency had helpful statements in its 2002 proposal.  The issue gets even more complicated given the unsurprising obligation to consider potential future land uses.  If the default scenario is residential use, will the workplace vs. non-workplace distinction disappear?    

Déjà vu all over again?  Yogi Berra may have been commenting on repeats of the Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris back-to-back home runs, but it is pretty clear we will be reopening sites that may have had vapor intrusion issues, and assessing old sites at which the issue was never raised, or addressed following different procedures.  EPA settled the question in November 2012 for CERCLA five-year reviews by declaring vapor intrusion a mandatory topic, and plans to adopt final Hazard Ranking System amendments for vapor intrusion.  The guidance document applies to RCRA sites as well, but EPA knows that the guidance will surely find application at many types of sites where volatile chemicals may have been present.  Although the document is limited to CERCLA/RCRA guidance, its general purpose is to be helpful, and EPA should probably re-emphasize that not only are all sites different, the recommended framework may not even be practical when applied through other state programs.  At risk of over-generalizing, practitioners have learned to recognize the advantages of not following CERCLA and RCRA approaches. 

EPA will receive many comments, and there is some cleanup work to be done on the guidance documents, but look for the final documents to be completed in months, not years. 

Thanks to Jeff Carnahan, LPG, EnviroForensics, for sharing with me his expertise on vapor intrusion.  However, the thoughts expressed here are solely mine.

Vapor Intrusion Regulation

Posted on December 12, 2012 by Richard Sherman

The regulation of vapor intrusion is becoming more prevalent on both the federal and state level. In addition, although not strictly required as part of a Phase I ESA under ASTM 05 and AAI, many consultants take the position that this issue must be addressed at this first level of environmental due diligence.

One of the troubling issues at the state level is whether background concentrations should be taken into account in the establishment of indoor air quality standards. Many household products and building materials contain or release VOCs. However, not all states take background concentrations into account in the regulation of vapor intrusion.

EPA is expected to release its own vapor intrusion guidelines shortly. EPA appears to acknowledge the importance of background data in the process of formulating its guidelines. It remains to be seen whether such guidelines will impose stricter standards than those on the state level.