December 07, 2009

Natural Resource Damages – Why Not a Cooperative Restoration Approach?

Posted on December 7, 2009 by Susan Cooke

There’s lots of talk among environmental lawyers these days about how to litigate Natural Resource Damage (NRD) claims, but relatively little discussion of  how those claims can be settled through restoration projects. The latter approach deserves more attention.

Last year the Department of Interior (DOI) issued amendments to its NRD assessment regulations to focus on resource restoration through the use of cost/benefit methodologies.  Those methodologies compare losses from resource injury to the gains expected from restoration actions. Under the amended regulations they have been expanded to include habitat and resource equivalency analyses for measuring resource losses used in determining the value of project benefits, which value is in turn needed to compensate for the damaged resource. See 73 Fed. Reg. 57259-57268 (Oct.2, 2008). 

A project restoration approach can be very attractive from a monetary standpoint. Past experience has shown that the benefits to be achieved from restoration projects can be significantly greater than their cost, with the cost/benefit ratio often being 1:5 and sometimes even greater. 

A good example of this favorable cost/benefit ratio is the NRD settlement reached with some of the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) at the Hylebos Waterway portion of the Commencement Bay Superfund site in Tacoma, Washington. As noted in an article appearing in the Summer 2009 issue of the ABA’s Natural Resources & Environment publication authored by Suzanne Lacampagne and Jeffrey Miller, the NRD trustees determined that those PRPs could settle their NRD liability for a cash payment of $13.5 million. Alternatively, they could underwrite restoration projects that provide an equivalent monetary benefit. The PRPs chose the latter route, expending about one sixth of the amount required for a cash settlement.

Of course, before the restoration projects were completed, the Hylebos PRPs faced the prospect of potential cost overruns. If concern about additional expenditures in the future is of paramount importance, or if there is a need to close out all liabilities in the near term, then an NRD credit strategy may make the most sense. Such an approach involves the purchase, or a commitment to purchase, NRD credits equivalent to the value of the damaged resource once the NRD trustees have certified the validity and transferability of those credits.

This approach is being implemented at the Duwamish River Superfund site in Seattle, Washington, where the city is leasing out parcels of its property along the river that are in need of restoration to a company that will carry out the restoration work and sell NRD credits to PRPs interested in settling their NRD liability. The Seattle mayor’s announcement of the restoration project and credit approach can be found here.  

A link to the protocol entered into by the NRD trustees and the company carrying out the restoration projects can be found here as well.

One interesting feature of the Duwamish River restoration effort is the willingness of NRD trustees to consider settlement of a PRP’s NRD liability prior to completion of the remediation effort. See, e.g., discussion at p. 7 of the inventory of properties for the Lower Duwamish River Habitat Restoration Plan prepared by the Port of Seattle.  

A related feature of that willingness to consider settlement is that restoration activities will begin earlier in the process, while cleanup is still underway. This in turn can lead to more cost effective cleanup and restoration activities, as both categories of actions can be formulated and coordinated contemporaneously for maximum benefit.

Another example of a comprehensive settlement approach encompassing both remediation and restoration activities is set forth in the consent decree for the West Site/Hows Corner Superfund site in Plymouth, Maine. As memorialized in Appendix H of that decree, the settling PRPs have addressed their NRD liability through a restoration project, i.e., acquisition of property to be held and maintained by the state government as wildlife habitat. The consent decree with its appendices and the November 19, 2009 Federal Register notice of the settlement at pp. 59991-59992 can be found here.

In addition to the cost/benefit and related timing issues just mentioned, two other favorable aspects of the restoration project approach are the positive publicity that can be generated in the local community upon implementation of such a project and the cost savings associated with earlier resolution of NRD liability. With all these attributes in its favor, and with increasing experience in using the new equivalency methodologies and implementing projects based on their numbers, the restoration project approach may yet achieve the attention it deserves.

Tags: Natural Resource Damages

Natural Resource Damages

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