Posted on September 23, 2014 by Charles Efflandt
Financial responsibility is a familiar environmental law concept. Many of us have negotiated financial assurance provisions in site consent agreements. RCRA’s closure and post-closure financial responsibility requirements at treatment, storage and disposal (TSD) facilities are well-established. Financial responsibility obligations are also a component of many other federal and state environmental programs.
I suspect, however, that few practitioners are aware of a CERCLA financial responsibility provision that has been in existence since the Act’s inception. CERCLA Section 108(b) mandates that the President identify classes of facilities that will be required to demonstrate a financial ability to cleanup releases of hazardous substances. These facilities will be obligated to provide evidence of financial responsibility that is consistent with the degree and duration of the risks associated with their production, handling, treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous substances. The requirements of Section 108(b) are intended to assure availability of funds should the businesses go bankrupt or otherwise become financially unable to conduct future environmental response actions.
Section 108(b) generally imposes two regulatory tasks on EPA: Identify the classes of facilities for which financial responsibility requirements will be developed and promulgate regulations establishing those requirements. For twenty-eight years, EPA deferred breathing regulatory life into Section 108(b). EPA’s inattention to Section 108(b) ceased to be an option in 2008. Litigation commenced by the Sierra Club and others resulted in a federal court order requiring EPA to identify industries that would be first in line for Section 108(b) rulemaking. EPA determined in 2009 that the hard rock mining industry would be its first priority. In early 2010, EPA published advance notice of its intent to regulate additional classes of Section 108(b) facilities: chemical manufacturing, petroleum and coal products manufacturing and the electric power generation, transmission and distribution industry.
Although deadlines have come and gone, to date no financial responsibility rules have been proposed. Nevertheless, the lifeless form of Section 108(b) has finally begun to stir. EPA advised Senate lawmakers in June of this year that financial responsibility requirements for the hard rock mining industry would be issued by 2016. In the meantime, the NGOs remain ever vigilant. Armed with data indicating that, particularly during the recent recession, taxpayers and disadvantaged communities suffered the adverse consequences of EPA’s inaction, environmental advocacy groups filed a Petition for Writ of Mandamus demanding that the agency promptly comply with Section 108(b)’s rulemaking requirements. In contrast, many industry groups contended that the Section 108(b) rulemaking being developed is based on a flawed analysis of potential risk and ignores the impact of existing state and federal financial responsibility laws and regulations that have achieved most of the objectives of Section 108(b). Legislation introduced in the House of Representatives in 2013, generally supported by the affected industries, included significant amendments to CERCLA Sections 108(b) and 114(d).
Whether you believe that Section 108(b) is outdated and unnecessary, or that immediate and comprehensive implementation of its mandates is of paramount importance, I would submit that EPA’s seemingly cautious approach to Section 108(b) rulemaking is justifiable. Considering the financial consequences, the identification of target industries must be based on a careful and comprehensive evaluation of the actual risks associated with a particular industry’s handling of hazardous substances and the historic “track-record” of that industry’s ability to financially respond to releases. The extent to which existing federal and state financial assurance programs address the identified risks must also be carefully scrutinized to avoid unnecessary cost and duplication. EPA’s selection of acceptable financial assurance mechanisms is also of critical importance. Elimination of the so-called “financial test” method, for example, may impact the capacity of financial and credit markets to provide the necessary financial assurance and adversely affect global competitiveness.
Future rulemaking that is based on a thorough and defensible analysis of actual risk and is limited to filling in any gaps in existing financial assurance programs will best serve the public, the environment and the regulated community.