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U.S. EPA Sees New Challenges Ahead for Superfund

by  Loren R. Dunn and Eric L. Klein, Beveridge & Diamond PC

The U.S. EPA released a four-year “strategic plan” in mid-February that continues to emphasize the Superfund program as one of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s top priorities.  While it has been clear since last summer’s Superfund Task Force report that the agency’s new leadership wants to accelerate Superfund site cleanups, the agency’s new strategic plan reveals for the first time that the U.S. EPA also sees emerging challenges ahead for Superfund.

“A number of factors may delay cleanup timelines,” the agency wrote in its strategy document.  These factors include the “discovery of new pathways and emerging contaminants” such as vapor intrusion and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and new science such as “new toxicity information or a new analytical method.”

Photo Credit: Michael Paulsen / Houston Chronicle

According to the strategic plan, the emergence of this kind of new information can reopen previously settled remedy determinations – and the Superfund sites that still remain on the National Priorities List (NPL) already tend to be the harder cases, with more difficult patterns of contamination and more complex remedies.  The U.S. EPA flagged in particular its waste management and chemical facility risk programs, where “rapidly changing technology, emerging new waste streams, and aging infrastructure present challenges[.]”

It remains to be seen whether the agency’s cautions in the Superfund section of its strategy document represent a meaningful shift in the agency’s frequently-stated intention to reinvigorate the Superfund program.  Early in his tenure, Mr. Pruitt charged his Superfund Task Force with generating a series of recommendations centered around Mr. Pruitt’s goals for Superfund: faster cleanups, the encouragement of cleanup and remediation investments by PRPs and private investors, and a process centered on stakeholder engagement and community revitalization.  In December 2017, in response to one of the Task Force’s recommendations, the agency released a list of 21 high-priority NPL sites that Mr. Pruitt targeted for “immediate and intense attention,” according to an U.S. EPA press release.  The cautionary notes in this week’s strategic plan are a subtle shift in tone for the U.S. EPA.

At the same time, the document also sets forth a plan for improving the consistency and certainty of EPA’s enforcement activities in the regulated community.  It remains to be seen how U.S. EPA intends to achieve consistency while being responsive to state and tribal interests.

These goals, of course, will depend on the details of implementation, which are not set forth in the strategic plan.  And such details will depend on the agency’s budget, which remains in flux for 2019 and beyond.  For example, U.S. EPA’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 sought a roughly $327 million cut in the Superfund program, but the funds were added back into the budget proposal as part of last-minute budget agreement reached in Congress last week, securing the program’s funding in the short-term.   Last year, the administration proposed a 30% cut in the agency’s funding  but Congress balked and eventually approved a budget that cut roughly 1%.

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About the Authors

Loren R. Dunn represents regional and national companies at locations throughout the country in environmental regulation and litigation issues.  Loren’s environmental projects have involved hazardous waste and large multi-party toxics cleanup sites, including marine and fresh water sediment sites, landfills, and natural resource damages claims. He has also conducted extensive work obtaining permits for key facility operations. He has particularly deep knowledge of the following industries: manufactured gas facilities, regulated utilities, smelters and metals refineries, pesticide sites, and large area contamination sites.

Eric L. Klein is an environmental civil litigator and regulatory counselor in the Washington, D.C. office of Beveridge & Diamond, P.C.  He has handled cases in state and federal courts throughout the United States, litigating a variety of complex civil and commercial matters before juries, trial and appellate courts, arbitrators and administrative tribunals.  Mr. Klein frequently litigates both statutory and common law claims, and specializes in challenging and defending technical experts in the litigation of complex environmental torts.

This article was first published on the Beveridge & Diamond PC website.

Unique oil spill in East China Sea frustrates scientists

As reported by Cally Carswell in Nature, When the Iranian oil tanker Sanchi collided with a cargo ship, caught fire and sank in the East China Sea in mid-January, an entirely new kind of maritime disaster was born. Nearly two weeks later, basic questions remain unanswered about the size of the spill, its chemical makeup and where it could end up. Without that crucial information, researchers are struggling to predict the short- and long-term ecological consequences of the incident.

Sanchi Oil Tanker partially explodes in East China Sea (Photo Credit: CNN)

“This is charting new ground, unfortunately,” says Rick Steiner, a former University of Alaska professor in Anchorage who has studied the environmental impacts of oil spills and consulted with governments worldwide on spill response. “This is probably one of the most unique spills ever.”

The infamous spills of the past — such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, or the Exxon Valdez tanker rupture in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 — involved heavier crude oil. It can remain in the deep ocean for years and has chronic impacts on marine life. The Sanchi carried a little more than 111,300 metric tons of natural gas condensate, a lighter, more volatile petroleum product which doesn’t linger as long in the environment. Condensate has never before been unleashed into the sea in large quantities.

Unlike heavy crude, condensate doesn’t accumulate in shimmering slicks on the water’s surface, which makes it difficult to monitor and contain. Neither does it sink to the ocean floor, as do some of the heavier constituents in crude over time. Rather, it burns off, evaporates or dissolves into the surface water, where some of its chemical components can linger for weeks or months.

“Most oil spills have a chronic toxicological effect due to heavy residuals remaining and sinking over time,” says Ralph Portier, a marine microbiologist and toxicologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “This may be one of the first spills where short-term toxicity is of most concern.”

Missing science

A significant, but unknown, portion of the Sanchi’s condensate probably fuelled the fires that followed the collision. In the waters immediately surrounding the tanker, Portier says, the conflagration and gaseous fumes would have killed off or injured phytoplankton, along with birds, marine mammals and fish that were caught in the vicinity when the tanker ignited.

Moving beyond the fire, the impact of the accident becomes harder to discern. That’s because the exact chemical composition of the condensate has not yet been made public, Steiner says, and because no one knows how much of the condensate dissolved into the water.

“The part I’m most worried about is the dissolved fraction,” Steiner says. Toxic chemicals in the condensate could harm plankton, fish larvae and invertebrate larvae at fairly low concentrations at the sea surface, he says. Fish could suffer reproductive impairments so long as chemicals persist in the water, and birds and marine mammals might experience acute chemical exposure. “In a turbulent, offshore environment, it dilutes fairly quickly,” he says. “But it’s still toxic.”

Because this type of spill is new, Portier says, researchers don’t yet understand the ultimate consequences of acute exposure to condensate in the sea, where it’s breaking down and dispersing. “That’s really where the science is missing,” he says.

Destination unknown

Researchers are also scrambling to assess where pollutants from the Sanchi could travel. Groups in both China and the United Kingdom have run ocean-circulation models to predict the oil’s journey, and the models agree that much of the pollution is likely to end up in a powerful current known as the Kuroshio, which flows past southeastern Japan and out to the North Pacific. The European models suggest that chemicals from the Sanchi could reach the coast of Japan within a month. But the Chinese models indicate that they are unlikely to intrude on Japanese shores at all.

Katya Popova, a modeller with the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK, isn’t sure why the models disagree. But she says that the discrepancy points to the importance of forging international collaborations to increase confidence in model projections during emergencies. “This is something that the oil industry should organize and fund to improve preparedness,” she says.

Fangli Qiao with China’s State Oceanic Administration in Qingdao says his group’s models indicate that the pollution’s probable path overlaps with Japanese sardine and anchovy fisheries. But Popova cautions that the models are not necessarily good indicators of potential harm to fisheries or coastlines.

“All we’re saying is, if something is spilled here at this time, we can give you the most probable distribution,” she says. “We don’t know what type of oil or how much.” Those are crucial details because condensate components could degrade or evaporate before reaching important fisheries or shores. “A monitoring programme is the most pressing need right now,” Popova says, “to see where it goes and in what concentration.”

Yet Steiner says that comprehensive environmental monitoring doesn’t seem to have started. Official Chinese-government statements have included results from water-quality monitoring at the wreckage site, but none from the downstream currents that could be dispersing the pollution. “Time is of the essence, particularly with a volatile substance like condensate,” Steiner says. “They needed to immediately be doing plankton monitoring, and monitoring of fish, sea birds. I’ve seen no reports of any attempt to do that.”

Nature 554, 17-18 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00976-9

U.S. EPA Targets Superfund Sites for Immediate Clean-up

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) recently released a list of Superfund Sites targeted for immediate, intense action, as of December 8th 2017. The list is a response to July’s Superfund Task Force Recommendations. The U.S. EPA considers the sites listed to benefit from Administrator Scott Pruitt’s direct engagement, requiring timely resolve of specific issues to streamline cleanup and redevelopment and protect human health and the environment.

3D Image of NAPL contamination at the B.F. GOODRICH facility in Calvert City, KY

The list, spanning all ten EPA regions across the United States, with accompanying plans, issues, and categorizations associated with each site, can be found here.

As reported in the Washington Post, the push is part of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s promise to prioritize the decades-old cleanup program, even as the Trump administration shrinks the size and reach of the EPA. The 21 sites highlighted by the agency span the country, from a former tannery site in New Hampshire to a contaminated landfill from the World War II-era Manhattan Project in St. Louis to an abandoned copper mine in Nevada.

“By elevating these sites, we are sending a message that EPA is, in fact, restoring its Superfund program to its rightful place at the center of the agency’s mission,” Pruitt said in a statement. “Getting toxic land sites cleaned up and revitalized is of the utmost importance to the communities across the country that are affected by these sites.”

The U.S. EPA said that it developed the list using sites “where opportunities exist to act quickly and comprehensively.” Notably, the agency also acknowledged that “there is no commitment of additional funding associated with a site’s inclusion on the list.”

Victoria Harbour, B.C. cleanup contract awarded to Milestone Environmental Contracting Inc.

Cleanup work to remove hazardous substances from Victoria Harbour in British Columbia is scheduled to begin shortly with the announcement early this month by Transport Canada that a clean-up contract had been awarded to Milestone Environmental Contracting Limited.  Under the $5,344,000 contract, Milestone will remove hazardous chemicals in sediments from Victoria’s Middle Harbour sea bed.

Victoria, B.C. is located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island off Canada’s Pacific coast.  The city has a population of 86,000.  The harbour serves as a cruise ship and ferry destination for tourists and visitors to the city and Vancouver Island.

Map of Sediment Clean-up Area of Victoria Harbour, British Columbia

Once the contaminated sediments are removed, it is anticipated that the environmental health of the harbour will be restored.  Studies by Transport Canada found that presence of persistent contaminants in the sediments that don’t break down and remain in the environment.  The contaminants threaten the marine food web.

The cleanup work will begin in November 2017 and is expected to be completed by January 2018.  This involves dredging of contaminated sediment, and transporting the sediment by barge to an approved facility for treatment and disposal.  It is estimated that the dredging work will remove 1,200 cubic metres (4,200 cubic feet) of contaminated sediment from the sea bed.  The harbour bed will be backfilled with clean material.

The project will be closely monitored by Transport Canada to ensure the safety of workers and the community.  Sediment and water quality will be monitored throughout the project to ensure that cleanup objectives are met and that the dredging activities do not have a negative impact on the surrounding environment.  For the public’s safety, sections of the lower David Foster Pathway at Laurel Point Park may be closed, but the upper pathway will remain open for the duration of the project.

The Victoria Middle Harbour Remediation Project is funded through the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan, which is coordinated by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, and provides funding to assess and remediate federal contaminated sites.

The source of the contamination in the harbour is from a paint factory that occupied Laurel Point from 1906 until the mid-1970’s.  Factory operations caused damage to the sediments surrounding Laurel Point Park.

Laurel Point, Victoria Harbour, British Columbia

Long Lake Gold Mine remediation project hits stumbling block

As reported by the CBC, the Long Lake Gold Mine Remediation Project near Sudbury, Ontario will not be getting started until 2019.

The Province on Ontario first announced its commitment to remediate the abandoned gold mine back in 2013.  The lake, located near a popular recreation area, had high levels of arsenic.

Long Lake Gold mine operated intermittently from 1908 to 1937 and produced approximately 200,000 tonnes of tailings.  The tailings were discharged directly to the environment without containment.  The tailings have since eroded into Luke Creek and Long Lake.  The tailings are acid generating and leach acidic water that is high in metal contamination, specifically arsenic.  The Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNMD) sampling in the south end of Long Lake identified arsenic contamination above the Ontario Drinking Water Standard.

Long Lake (Photo Credit: Markus Schwabe/CBC)

The MNDM initiated a review of remediation alternatives to clean up the tailings area and has selected a preferred method of relocating all fugitive tailings to a new containment facility that will be constructed on site.  The objective of remediation efforts is to reduce the arsenic concentration in Long Lake below the provincial drinking water limit, such that water quality in the south bay of Long Lake will recover to background conditions.

The latest delay in the remediation project is the result of the MNDM addressing some concerns of nearby residents who are concerned that the clean-up will result in increased truck traffic on the existing road to the lake.

The chair of the Long Lake Stewardship group says residents are aware of the notion “short term pain for long term gain” when it comes to the completion of the remediation project.

“But I think the concern I heard was the number of trucks that would be travelling on the road, day-in and day-out through the restoration phase,” Scott Darling said.

“Primarily what I heard in terms of the concerns were the traffic, the increased traffic that’s going to occur over the two-year period on Long Lake Road and Tilton Lake Road and South End Road — the wavy trail.”

Roads in the area will see 50 to 60 trucks a day hauling out contaminated material and bringing in clean fill.

The remediation project is expected to run between two and three years.

Darling says it could be closer to 2019 before the project gets started.

More information on the proposed clean-up of the Long Lake can be found in the MNMD environmental assessment document.

 

New spill rules tag transport companies with response, recovery costs in B.C.

As reported by Dirk Meissner of the Canadian Press, the Government of British Columbia has introduced pollution prevention regulations to hold transport companies moving petroleum products across the province responsible for the costs of responding to and cleaning up spills.

Environment Minister George Heyman said recently that the new regulations will take affect at the end of October and apply to pipeline, railway and truck company owners and transporters moving more than 10,000 litres of liquid petroleum products.

The rules increase responsibility, transparency and accountability for operators who transport potentially dangerous products through B.C., he said.

“I would hope that business doesn’t believe that individual members of the public through their tax dollars should be responsible for cleaning up spills they incur in the course of doing business and making a profit.”

The aim of the new rules is to prevent spill sites from being left contaminated for months and sometimes years, Heyman said, noting companies will be required to submit spill response and recovery plans ahead of moving their products.

“Most people subscribe to the polluter pay principle,” he said. “These regulations also require that spill contingency plans be put into place and that recovery plans and reporting plans be implemented in the case of a spill. That’s just reasonable.”

CN Rail said in a statement that it continues to work with the B.C. government and its industry partners on emergency response and preparation plans. The railway transports oil and numerous other products, including grain, across B.C.

“Emergency and spill response preparation and training is an important part of our business,” the statement said. “CN has in place emergency response plans and conducts spill and emergency response training with stakeholders across our network.”

The B.C. Trucking Association said in a statement that it supports the province’s new rules.

“We have been actively engaged in working with the government on the development of these regulations because the safety of our drivers, the public and the environment is our number one priority,” the statement said.

New pollution prevention regulations will hold transport companies and pipeline operators moving petroleum products across British Columbia responsible for spill response and recovery costs. A pipeline at the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, with an oil tanker in dock on Burrard Inlet.

Last spring, the previous Liberal government amended the Environmental Management Act to include some of the new regulations, but Heyman said he further tweaked the polluter pay regulations to ensure annual public reporting by the government.

He said he also shortened the deadline for operators to put their spill contingency plans in place to one year for trucking companies and six months for railways and pipelines.

The new rules do not apply to marine vessels carrying petroleum products along the B.C. coastline.

“Marine spills are regulated by the federal government but there is some jurisdiction for the province if a marine spill ends up washing onto the shoreline of B.C.’s jurisdiction or the seabed,” Heyman said.

The province is developing a strengthened marine response and recovery program that complements federal spill regulations, he added.

The new regulations come on the one-year anniversary of a fuel spill off B.C.’s central coast, where a tug sank, spilling more than 100,000 litres of diesel into waters near the Great Bear Rainforest.

Marilyn Slett, chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation, said the sinking of the tug, Nathan E. Stewart, has had devastating social and economic impacts on her community.

A valuable fishing area remains closed a year after the spill and many Heiltsuk face the prospect of a second year without revenue from the area’s valuable shellfish species, she said.

by Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

U.S. EPA Evaluates Hurricane Harvey impact on U.S. Superfund Sites in Texas

In a September 8th update, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) and the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) stated that the two agencies continue to get updates about the status of specific Superfund sites from the parties responsible for ongoing cleanup of the sites.  The TCEQ has completed the assessment of all 17 state Superfund sites in the area affected by Hurricane Harvey.  The two agencies reported that there were no major issues noted.  The TCEQ will continue to monitor sites to ensure no further action is needed in regards to the storm.

The U.S. EPA completed site assessments at all 43 Superfund sites affected by the storm.  Of these sites, two (San Jacinto and U.S. Oil Recovery) require additional assessment efforts.  Assessments of these sites will take several more days to complete.

Harris County, Texas Superfund Sites Map

 

The San Jacinto Waste Pits site has a temporary armored cap designed to prevent migration of hazardous material.  The U.S. EPA remedial manager is onsite and overseeing the assessment.  Crews continue to survey portions of the cap that are submerged.  There are some areas where rock has been displaced and the liner is exposed.  The potential responsible party has mobilized heavy equipment and is placing rock on different places on the armored cap to repair the defensive surface. The liner is in place and functional so we don’t have any indication that the underlying waste materials have been exposed. If we find a breach in the exposed liner, we direct the responsible party to collect samples to determine if any materials have been released. Also, the EPA has dive teams to survey the cap underwater if needed.

Work to improve conditions after the storm has continued at the U.S. Oil Recovery site to address flood water from the storm.  Nine vacuum truckloads of approximately 45,000 gallons of storm water were removed and shipped offsite for disposal.  No sheen or odor was observed in the overflowing water, and an additional tank is being used to maintain freeboard to keep water on-site.  The U.S. EPA has directed potential responsible parties or has independently started collecting samples at the 43 Superfund sites to further confirm any impacts from the storm.  The total number of Superfund sites increased from 41 to 43 with the addition of Rapides Parish, Louisiana and Waller County, Texas as disaster declared areas.  Sampling efforts of all 43 sites is expected to be completed early next week with sample results will be available soon.