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U.S. EPA reaches settlement with Hazardous Waste Facility over Environmental Violations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), Region 10, recently reached a settlement with Emerald Services, Inc., a hazardous waste storage and treatment facility in Tacoma, Washington, over violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and violations of the facility’s RCRA permit. This enforcement action was coordinated with the Washington Department of Ecology. The facility is located within the boundaries of the Puyallup Tribe’s reservation.

Emerald Services manages large volumes of hazardous waste, solvents, and antifreeze and re-refines used oil at the Tacoma facility. Emerald was purchased by Safety-Kleen Systems, Inc. on July 8, 2016, and both Emerald and Safety-Kleen are owned by parent holding company, Clean Harbors, Inc. Ensuring that funds will be available if the company’s operations harm people or damage property is an essential element of the “cradle to grave” RCRA hazardous waste management program.

Emerald Services Inc. Facility, Washington State, U.S.A.

This settlement resolves several RCRA violations at the Tacoma-area facility. Specifically, the company failed to maintain adequate third-party liability insurance coverage of the facility for the past six years.  As part of the settlement, Emerald Services agreed to pay a $125,800 penalty and amended its current insurance policy to comply with its RCRA permit.

“Having adequate insurance coverage for your business, especially one that stores and handles hazardous waste, isn’t an option, it’s the law,” said Ed Kowalski, Director of EPA’s Region 10 Compliance and Enforcement Division in Seattle. “Liability insurance is a key requirement of the hazardous waste permitting system, ensuring that commercial hazardous waste handlers operate in a safe manner to protect people’s health and the environment.”

There is a history of spills and incidents at Emerald’s Tacoma facility. In 2013, a 1,900-gallon spill of a highly dangerous fuel oil/asphalt mixture injured a worker. Emerald’s pattern of spills and releases suggests the facility may have a higher probability of future accidents, underscoring the need to have liability coverage for possible bodily injury, property damage and environmental restoration.

Violating environmental laws puts public health and the environment at risk. EPA protects communities by ensuring compliance with federal environmental laws. By fairly enforcing environmental laws, we level the playing field by deterring violators and denying companies an unfair business advantage over facilities and businesses that follow the rules.

United States: Protect Your Company from Waste Liability

Written by: Viggo C. Fish, McLane Middleton

Question: My company is purchasing real estate, and we are concerned there may be existing environmental contamination on the property. What steps can we take to protect ourselves from liability?

 Answer:  Conducting environmental due diligence correctly is essential to protect purchasers of potentially contaminated commercial properties from possible liability far exceeding the value of the property. Strict hazardous waste regulation exists at the federal, state and, sometimes, even the municipal level.

Under both the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, and corresponding state law, owners of contaminated properties are liable, without regard to fault, for environmental conditions on the property, whether or not the owner was involved in any way in the initial release of the contamination. There are, however, steps prospective purchasers can take to limit this liability.

Hazardous waste laws allow purchasers of potentially contaminated property to conduct the necessary level of investigation, and, if performed correctly, limit their liability.

For example, the Superfund All Appropriate Inquiry (AAI) rule provides for certain limitations on liability of a so-called “innocent purchaser” if such an investigation is completed before the acquisition.

The innocent purchaser provision allows a purchaser who, under certain circumstances, did not know and “had no reason to know” that the property was contaminated to avoid later Superfund liability. Similar rules apply to state hazardous waste liability. Importantly, to avoid that liability, the purchaser must be able to establish it “carried out all appropriate inquiries … into the previous ownership and uses of the facility in accordance with generally accepted good commercial and customary standards and practices.”

Careful compliance with AAI requirements can be used later to support the “innocent landowner” defense to liability of the new owner. The burden of proof is on the purchaser to establish it is entitled to this and other such landowner liability defenses.

The key element of proof is the Environmental Site Assessment (ESA).  Buyers of commercial property typically conduct a Phase I ESA to evaluate the potential for contamination in accordance with ASTM Standard E1527-13.

Following the ASTM Standard demonstrates compliance with the EPA’s AAI rule, that protects prospective purchasers of property from liability under CERCLA.  This area of the law is unusually complicated, and it is therefore usually necessary to have the advice and assistance of qualified environmental consultants and environmental legal counsel to assure that the legal and financial protections against hazardous waste liability will actually be available, if needed in the future.

This article was first published in Know the Law, a bi-weekly column sponsored by McLane Middleton, Professional Association.  Know the Law provides general legal information, not legal advice. We recommend that you consult a lawyer for guidance specific to your particular situation. 

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About the Author

Vigo C. Fish is an Environmental and Energy Associate in the Administrative Law Department where he assists clients with a wide variety of energy and environmental matters.  Viggo received his J.D., cum laude, and Master of Energy Regulation and Law (MERL) degree, magna cum laude, from Vermont Law School (2015), and his B.A. in English from Providence College (2010). While in law school, Viggo worked as a Research Analyst at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment and as a Clinician in the Energy Clinic. In addition, Viggo worked as a Markets and Policy Intern in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center.