Today, the EPA released the long-anticipated proposed rule to designate PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” under CERCLA. We previously reported as early as the Biden Administrations election campaign on the significance that the Administration placed on promulgating a PFAS CERCLA designation, and we have documented over the past couple of years the progress of the EPA’s work towards the designation. Just this week, we reported on the development that the EPA would have to undertake a detailed cost-benefit analysis to justify whether a PFAS CERCLA designation was the best way to achieve the EPA’s goals. The fact that the EPA has nevertheless pressed forward and released its proposed rule shows that the EPA may already have undertaken the necessary analysis.
The PFAS CERCLA designation will have enormous financial impacts on companies with any sort of legacy or current PFOA and PFOS pollution concerns. Corporations, insurers, investment firms, and private equity alike must pay attention to this change in law when considering risk issues.
PFAS CERCLA Designation To Date
On January 10, 2022, the EPA submitted a plan for a PFAS Superfund designation to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) when it indicated an intent to designate two legacy PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – as “hazardous substances” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law). The EPA previously stated its intent to make the proposed designation by March 2022 when it introduced its PFAS Roadmap in October 2021. Under the Roadmap, the EPA planned to issue its proposed CERCLA designation in the spring of 2022. On August 12, 2022, a CERCLA PFAS designation took a significant step forward when the OMB approved the EPA’s plan for PFOA and PFOS designation. This step opened the door for the EPA to put forth its proposed designation of PFOA and PFOS under CERCLA and engage in the required public comment period.
When OMB initially contemplated approving the EPA’s proposed rule, it designated the rule as “other significant”, which meant that the rule was predicted to have costs or benefits less than $100 million annually. However, the OMB received several pieces of feedback expressing concern that such an estimate fa undervalued the impact that such a designation will have. More specifically, the Chamber of Commerce provided its own estimate that the CERCLA designation would have a cost impact of over $700 million annually. As a result, the OMB changed its designation of the EPA’s propose rule to “economically significant”, which triggered the EPA to have to conduct a RIA prior to proposing the PFAS CERCLA designation. Under the RIA, the EPA will have to provide support for its position that a CERCLA designation is justified to achieve EPA goals and to provide support for the contention that such a designation is the least burdensome and most cost-effective way to achieve the EPA’s goals.
Despite the call for a RIA by the OMB, the EPA nevertheless released its proposed CERCLA designation today, leading many to believe that in the months when the OMB was reviewing the EPA’s proposal, the EPA was working on the necessary RIA analysis so as to not delay release of the proposed rule.
Opposition to CERCLA Designation
Since the EPA’s submission of its intent to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substance to the OMB, the EPA has been met with industry pushback on the proposal. Three industries met with the OMB earlier in 2022 to explain the enormity of regulatory and cleanup costs that the industries would face with a CERCLA designation of PFOA and PFOS – water utilities, waste management companies, and the International Liquid Terminals Association. These industries in particular are concerned about bearing the burden of enormous cleanup costs for pollution that third parties are responsible for. Industries are urging the OMB and EPA to consider other ways to achieve regulatory and remediation goals aside from a CERCLA designation.
During an April 5, 2022 meeting of the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), several states also expressed concerns regarding the impact that a CERCLA designation for PFAS types would have in their states and on their constituent companies. The state environmental leaders discussed with EPA representatives how the EPA would view companies in their states that fall into categories such as waste management and water utilities, who are already facing uphill battles in disposing of waste or sludge that contains PFAS.
Industries are asking the EPA to consider PFAS CERCLA exemptions for certain industries, which would exempt certain industry types from liability under CERCLA. Industries also pushed the EPA and OMB to conduct a robust risk analysis to fully vet the impact that the designation will have on companies financially. We predict that certain industries or industry groups will file lawsuits in response to today’s EPA action in which they will argue that the EPA acted too hastily, acted arbitrarily and capriciously, and did not properly comply with the RIA requirements.
CERCLA PFAS Designation: Impact On Businesses
Once a substance is classified as a “hazardous substance” under CERCLA, the EPA can force parties that it deems to be polluters to either cleanup the polluted site or reimburse the EPA for the full remediation of the contaminated site. Without a PFAS Superfund designation, the EPA can merely attribute blame to parties that it feels contributed to the pollution, but it has no authority to force the parties to remediate or pay costs. The designation also triggers considerable reporting requirements for companies. Currently, those reporting requirements with respect to PFAS do not exist, but they would apply to industries well beyond just PFAS manufacturers.
The downstream effects of a PFOA and PFOS designation would be massive. Companies that utilized PFOA and PFOS in their industrial or manufacturing processes and sent the PFOA/PFOS waste to landfills or otherwise discharged the chemicals into the environment will be at immediate risk for enforcement action by the EPA given the EPA’s stated intent to hold all PFAS polluters of any kind accountable. Waste management companies should be especially concerned given the large swaths of land that are utilized for landfills and the likely PFAS pollution that can be found in most landfills due to the chemicals’ prevalence in consumer goods. These site owners may be the first targeted when the PFOA/PFOS designation is made, which will lead to lawsuits filed against any company that sent waste to the landfills for contribution to the cost of cleanup that the waste management company or its insured will bear.
Also of concern to companies are the re-opener possibilities that a CERCLA designation would result in. Sites that are or were previously designated as Superfund sites will be subject to additional review for PFOA/PFOS concerns. Sites found to have PFOA/PFOS pollution can be re-opened by the EPA for investigation and remediation cost attribution to parties that the EPA finds to be responsible parties for the pollution. Whether through direct enforcement action, re-opener remediation actions, or lawsuits for contribution, the costs for site cleanup could amount to tens of millions of dollars, of course depending on the scope of pollution.
Now more than ever, the EPA is clearly on a path to regulate PFAS contamination in the country’s water, land and air. The EPA has also for the first time publicly stated when they expect such regulations to be enacted. These regulations will require states to act, as well (and some states may still enact stronger regulations than the EPA). Both the federal and the state level regulations will impact businesses and industries of many kinds, even if their contribution to drinking water contamination issues may seem on the surface to be de minimus. In states that already have PFAS drinking water standards enacted, businesses and property owners have already seen local environmental agencies scrutinize possible sources of PFAS pollution much more closely than ever before, which has resulted in unexpected costs. Beyond drinking water, though, the EPA PFAS plan shows the EPA’s desire to take regulatory action well beyond just drinking water, and companies absolutely must begin preparing now for regulatory actions that will have significant financial impacts down the road.