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Signing a Voluntary Cleanup Agreement for Remediation of Contamination: If it's Voluntary, Why Do I Feel Bullied?

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You got a letter in the mail from an environmental health agency in California, typically a county or city - but it could be a State agency. The letter points out that contamination was found on your property and you are responsible - you are named the “responsible party”. The letter goes on to say that the agency is authorized under the California law to open a cleanup case.

Remedial Action Agreement: What is it?

In most cases, the health agency ends their letter with some kind of language inviting the responsible party to sign a “Remedial Action Agreement”. Typically, they request a signature from you acknowledging your responsibility and accepting their requirement that you reimburse their agency for oversight costs.

The oversight agency is tasked with reviewing cleanup plans and results, ensuring regulatory laws and guidelines are followed, and making decisions regarding case closure. There is a balance to be struck between the need for information to make decisions (agency) and the cost of that information (responsible party). And it’s the oversight agency that’s tasked with striking that balance.

It sounds straightforward, but it is also complicated, painful and frustrating. So where is the bullying?

Where is the Bullying?

Bullying is taking advantage of an imbalance in physical or social power.

In the case of a local environmental health agency, the agency has power over the property owner by virtue of its ability to issue permits, regulate development and building, oversee community planning, and oversee environmental health. And if that’s not enough, the California Health and Safety Code also allows for State agencies to enforce environmental regulations.

meter wellA property owner can ignore the local agency request, and the local health agency may move on to more important cases, but when the property owner wants to do something with their property - like remodel, develop, or sell the property - the local health agency will step in and hold up plans until their requests have been addressed to their satisfaction. Technically, it’s not bullying. The local agency is empowered on behalf of all of us by law - it just seems like bullying when that power is turned on us. The local agency is just a neutral actor enforcing the law (bullies).

But their power to seemingly bully doesn’t stop there.

The local agency can pass you on to another bully - the State. When you question signing the voluntary agreement, the local health agency is quick to point out that if you don’t sign, your case will be referred to the California State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control. How do these State agencies differ from the local health agency? They are regionally based and have powers of enforcement that local agencies are without. These State agencies can levy fines and pursue other legal remedies.

So if you feel bullied - don’t worry -  it’s just the neutral hand of the law. Really, the issue is which bully - I mean agency - you should sign up with.

Which “Bully” do I sign up with?

We recommend that you always start with your local health agency if they have the capability to handle the case. They can make that determination and inform the state agencies of their decision to open a case or refer the case to a state agency.

The local agency can provide guidance and approval, and your relationship with the regulator might feel less onerous because they’re more focused on the local community. And like any good relationship, you can end it at any time and go to a State agency for oversight. 

Why do I feel bullied by environmental health agencies?

Environmental health agencies are not bullies - we need them. It’s easy to see their contributions to our communities in clean air, clean water, and good health. But sometimes -  it feels like they are bullies. Contact us if you feel like you’re bullied and we will help turn the situation into a collaboration. We have years of experience working with local and state agencies on our client’s behalf, with our client’s best interest in mind.  Call us at 831-227-4898 or click the button below for a free consultation.