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Displaying items by tag: environmental investigation

What is Site Cleanup Subaccount Program (SCAP)

We have a client who was the operator of a dry cleaner. Before he retired, he had already faced the consequences of being the responsible party for tetrachloroethylene (PCE) release from his operation. He did what was required by the local oversight agency and received a closure letter.

Our client had been retired for some time, living on a fixed income, when he got a letter from the local oversight agency he had dealt with while in business. The letter said that an investigation down the street from his former dry cleaning business found PCE, and they pointed the finger at the retiree. He replied with the truth; “I don’t have the money.”

That didn’t stop the oversight agency. The next letter told our client to apply for a SCAP grant. The regulator was referring to the Site Cleanup Subaccount Program (SCAP) run by the California State Water Resources Control Board (Board). Of course, our client had no idea what SCAP was and called with a host of questions.

What is Site Cleanup Subaccount Program (SCAP)?

SCAP is a funding program established by California Senate Bill (SB) 445, allowing the Board to issue grants for the cleanup of surface water or groundwater contaminated with human-made chemicals that harm, or threaten to harm, human health and the environment (e.g., fish, animals).

Who is a SCAP Grant For?

An applicant must meet three conditions to be eligible for a SCAP grant:

  1. The applicant must have a site with surface water or groundwater contaminated by human-made chemicals.
  2. The contamination harms or threatens to harm human health and the environment.
  3. The site is under regulatory oversight for cleanup.

SCAP grants are awarded to responsible parties (those named by the Board as responsible for a release), public agencies, public utilities, non-profit organizations, tribes, and mutual water companies. The grant applicant(s) must show they lack sufficient financial resources to perform the required work. This means the applicant must provide certain financial records. For example:

  • Individuals – individual income tax returns for the most recent three years.
  • Businesses – business income tax returns for the most recent three years; Secretary of State documentation identifying the business and authorized signatories.
  • Trusts – income tax returns of the trust and trust documents
  • Limited Liability Corporations (LLC) – income tax returns of the LLC and identification of the partners who receive income from the LLC.

In addition to financial information, the Board also asks for a scope of work, cost estimate, and duration of the proposed project. 

The financial information, project budget, and project duration are used to make a preliminary determination of the ability of the applicant to pay for the project. The Board uses The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Penalties and Financial Model to estimate the applicant's available cash flow for the duration of the project.

Aerial view of the levee improvements at the Natomas East Main Drainage Canal, formerly known as Steelhead Creek, which flows into the American River in Sacramento County, California. By 2013, Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) and the state completed 18.3 of the 42 miles of levee improvements required to meet current flood control standards. The Natomas Basin is surrounded by 42 miles of levees that provide protection from the American River, Sacramento River, Natomas Cross Canal and Natomas East Main Drain Canal. Photo taken October 24, 2013.Paul Hames / California Department of Water Resources, FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

What Cleanup Projects are Eligible for a SCAP Grant?

Cleanup projects are eligible when they:

  • Provide cleanup to remove the harm or threat of harm to human health and the environment;
  • Are not eligible for other Division of Financial Assistance funding programs; and
  • Emphasize cleanup.

What are the Factors for Consideration for Awarding a SCAP Grant?

SCAP requires the Board to weigh the following considerations for awarding a grant:

  1. The level of threat to human health, safety, and the environment from surface water or groundwater contamination at the location.
  2. Whether the location is in a small or financially disadvantaged community.
  3. The cost and potential environmental benefit of the investigation or cleanup.
  4. Whether there are other potential sources of funding for the investigation or cleanup. 
  5. Any other information the Board identifies as necessary for consideration.

There is no other guidance provided by the Board regarding how the five considerations are appraised, but there is a list of sites that received a SCAP grant. We took a sample of those sites, reviewed site characteristics as they relate to the five considerations, and summarized our findings as five rules of thumb.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 1

Rule of Thumb 1 - The location of a contaminated site poses an immediate or imminent threat to human health, safety, and the environment (aquatic and terrestrial); or the site has significantly high PCE and TCE concentrations (>100,000 ug/m3) in soil vapor that pose an immediate threat or strong potential threat to human health, safety, and environment.

To get information for the sample sites, we reviewed case files uploaded to GeoTracker, the Board’s database of contaminated sites. Dry cleaners topped the list recently of awarded grants with at least 10 grants from a total thirteen sites awarded SCAP grants. One site was designated as a “Brownfield” site. While SCAP is not exclusively for dry cleaners, the list of awarded grants leans heavily in that direction. For the sites we reviewed, contaminants of concern were mostly long-lasting compounds such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MtBE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and trichloroethylene (TCE).

There were a few sites where petroleum hydrocarbons (gasoline and diesel) were the contaminants of concern, and while the impact did not cause immediate threat (ongoing exposure to contamination), it did leave the sites with an imminent threat (strong potential for exposure) to human health and the environment. In one case involving petroleum hydrocarbons, the location of the impact threatened surface water and levy construction that if left undone would have caused an immediate threat to human health, safety, and the environment due to flooding.

In the case of MtBE, contaminant levels in groundwater were moderate, but the Board suspected that MtBE-impacted groundwater infiltrated an unused water supply well that connected upper water zones to deeper water zones. MtBE-contaminated water moving from shallow to deeper zones was considered an imminent threat to human health and safety. 

For most of the sites we reviewed, groundwater was impacted by PCE and TCE, but it was the concentrations in soil vapor that created a threat  to human health. In these cases, PCE concentrations in soil vapor easily exceeded 100,000 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). For perspective, the Tier 2 commercial environmental screening level (ESL) published by the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Board for PCE in subsurface vapor is 67 ug/m3. In some cases there was vapor intrusion into occupied spaces (immediate threat), and in other cases there was imminent threat of vapor intrusion. In all the solvent cases reviewed there was either an immediate or imminent threat based on exceedingly high PCE and TCE concentrations in soil vapor beneath occupied buildings.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 2

Rule of Thumb 2 - The location is disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution and with population characteristics that make them more sensitive to pollution.

Over half the sites reviewed were categorized as disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged, a term used for water management and other public agency planning. The designation stems from digital map screening tools that help identify communities unequally challenged by multiple sources of pollution and with population characteristics that make them more sensitive to pollution. This information is available for sites on GeoTracker and is found under the” Community Involvement” tab on a site’s index page.

For sites that were not listed as disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged, it was unclear how this consideration was factored into the decision to award a SCAP grant; however, that does not mean the sites were not in a small or financially disadvantaged community.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 3

Rule of Thumb 3 - The scope of work, duration, and cost of investigation and/or cleanup is reasonable and necessary to fix an immediate or imminent threat to human health, safety, and the environment.

This factor was difficult to discern from the available information. For all the sites reviewed, there was a lack of funds available to meet the regulatory directive and applicants had provided financial information, project scope of work, project duration, and project cost.

While the financial and project information were not available for our review, it was clear for most of the sites that contamination level or the location posed an immediate or imminent threat to human health (e.g, vapor intrusion), safety (e.g, risk of flooding), and the environment (e.g., poison fish). Since the environmental threat was immediate or imminent, action was necessary. SInce removing the immediate or imminent threat is beneficial and the cost is approved by the Board, the cost is reasonable.

Sites reviewed with SCAP grants had a scope of work, duration, and cost estimate that were necessary and reasonable to fix immediate or imminent threat to public health.

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 4

Rule of Thumb 4 - Applicants must show there is no other funding available to meet regulatory directives by providing financial information along with the project scope, duration, and cost estimate for investigation and/or cleanup. 

SCAP applicants were awarded grants because they showed there were no other sources of funding, including their own resources, to meet a regulatory agency directive. They showed there were no other sources of funding by providing financial information along with the project scope, duration, and cost estimate for investigation and/or cleanup. There is no broad consideration for this factor. A financial model is used by the Board as part of the assessment process. 

Awarding a SCAP Grant: Rule of Thumb 5

Rule of Thumb 5 - Applicants should engage in routine communication with SCAP and respond quickly and accurately to information requests.

Obviously, it’s hard to know on a site-by-site basis what other information the Board might consider in its deliberations. In some cases regulators make recommendations for a grant based on data not previously considered by the Board. The Board recommends routine communication and responding quickly and accurately to information requests.

Am I Eligible for a SCAP Grant

We looked at who a SCAP grant is for, what projects are eligible for a grant, and the five considerations weighed for awarding a grant. We have the experience to be your partner in the SCAP process. If you are interested in SCAP, contact us for a free consultation.

Protecting Your Well from Contamination: Essential Tips and Strategies

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What to do if your well is near a site where contamination was recently discovered

“I just received an alarming letter from my county environmental health department that our property well is near a site where contamination was recently discovered. Our well is our primary source for drinking water. What do we do? Should we be worried?”

First, try not to panic. We realize this can be concerning news, especially when the letter does not provide helpful information, or the language is overly technical and hard to understand. In most cases, private, domestic wells that serve a residential property are often installed to depths much deeper than the source of contamination and draw from a different underground water source (aquifer). To better understand this concept, which can feel abstract since we can’t see underground, let’s look at the graphic below which illustrates what this scenario might look like.

well depthsAn aquitard is a layer of bedrock or other impermeable material that separates different aquifer zones. In most cases, an aquitard will prevent mixing between shallow and deeper aquifers. If the contamination affects the shallow aquifer, and a nearby well is drawing from a deeper aquifer, it’s not likely the same contamination will be found in the deeper aquifer because it’s separated by the barrier of the aquitard.

This graphic is only a generalized view, but it can put into perspective what might be the case for your well. To understand the situation more fully and what it means for your water source, you’ll want to review the installation records for your well. Once you have that information, you can compare your well with the depth of the contamination that was discovered. If you don’t have information on your well and don’t know the depth, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) may have a record of your well in their database. It is state law that geologic logs and pertinent information on all wells drilled in California be provided to DWR.

Next Steps if Your Well is Contaminated

Here are Your Next Steps:

  1. Find your well information and review the design specifics.
  2. Prepare a list of questions - here are some suggestions:
    • Should we stop drinking our water until it can be tested?
    • How did you determine this contamination is a threat to our water source?
    • Who will pay for testing?
    • Who is the consultant hired to mitigate the contaminated property?
    • How can I get records and status updates on the cleanup?
  3. Call the person at the environmental health department who sent the letter for more information.
  4. Call an environmental cleanup agency or consultant for an independent assessment of the situation.

What if the site has been identified as a source of contamination

When a site has been identified as a source of contamination, one of the first requirements from the oversight agency handling the case is to conduct a well survey, which is a tool to identify all the wells within a given radius from the source (usually ½ mile). The caseworker will analyze the survey and identify which wells could be affected by the contamination based on their construction and the distance from the source. The next step is usually obtaining permission from the well owners who could be affected to test the water from their well. 

Right now we are consulting for a property owner who had a small farm in the family. Underground storage tanks (USTs) were used at the farm for fueling equipment and vehicles. Although the USTs were removed in the 1980s, they leaked, and fuel was released into the surrounding soil and groundwater. A neighbor who lives in a house next door draws water from a private well on their property and is within proximity to the source of contamination. Although their well is constructed to draw water from a deep zone at 300 feet, their well has a screen that extends through the shallower aquifer where contaminants have been discovered in groundwater samples. We’ve tested samples from the well at least twice per year since 2007, and none of those samples showed traces of contaminants. It is the responsibility of the land owner or responsible person of the contaminated site to provide for testing, and relay the results to the well owner.

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It can be daunting to receive a letter with such alarming news, but arming yourself with information and asking the right questions will go a long way toward helping you feel safe about the integrity of your water. We have over 40 years of experience dealing with government agencies and cleaning up environmental messes - we can help you. Give us a call at (831) 475-8141 or click the link below for a free consultation.

Understanding Phase I ESAs for Real Estate Buyers

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"You know what a lemon car is, right? Nobody wants one. Nobody wants contaminated property either."

Why do Real Estate Buyers need a Phase I ESA?

In the simplest terms, the point of a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) is to protect a prospective property buyer from getting a lemon of a property. You know what a lemon car is, right? Nobody wants one. Nobody wants contaminated property either. A Phase I ESA is designed to inform the buyer of what they’re getting into while providing liability protection.

How do Phase I ESAs Protect Real Estate Buyers?

The Valley of the Drums is a 23-acre (9.3 hectare) toxic waste site near Brooks in northern Bullitt County, Kentucky, near Louisville, named after the waste-containing drums strewn across the area.

It starts with Superfund. The word Superfund probably brings up images of pretty meadows filled with garbage and pipes dumping fluorescent green sludge from a nearby factory into a pristine river. You wouldn’t be far off the mark, unfortunately. Take a look at the Valley of the Drums, a Superfund site in Brooks, Kentucky that has been undergoing cleanup since the 1970s.

Superfund was formed when people started taking issue with the environment getting trashed with contamination nobody wanted to take responsibility for. In response, the EPA formed the Superfund in 1980, which is basically a “super” pool of “funds” the EPA uses to clean up abandoned toxic waste dumps. The money comes from taxes levied on the folks who make these nasty chemicals, including the petroleum industry. Soon after the Superfund was formed, the EPA gave it a fancier name: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), officially enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980.

CERCLA lives up to its name in that it is very comprehensive and, let’s be honest, is a very long code of legalese nobody reads unless they absolutely must. With that said, there are some powerful protections under CERCLA for buyers and developers of commercial real estate people. These laws are known as “landowner liability protections” or LLPs. Without boring you with what this means as defined under CERCLA, the easiest way to understand it is, if you, the buyer, get a Phase I ESA that is done properly, you won’t be on the hook for any environmental issues that might be discovered after you purchase the property. 

What is a Proper Phase ESA and Why is it Important to Do it Properly?

I’m betting your next question is, what do you mean by “done properly”?

After CERCLA established these protections for landowners, they had to come up with a standardized set of rules that every person who is seeking this protection must follow. This set of rules, as you’ve probably guessed, is what we call the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment.

To standardize the steps of a Phase I ESA, CERCLA people met with people from The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), one of the world’s most respected standards development organizations, to create a set of standards in conducting a Phase I ESA. ASTM develops standards for more than 150 global industries, from the quality of building materials supporting a skyscraper to the standards in the production of the ceramic mug you drink your coffee from. 

ASTM developed the Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process ASTM E1527-21. It’s a 60-page document outlining the steps to complete a Phase I ESA and the rules that must be followed to ensure the process is done to the standards, and thus, be a legally binding document recognized by CERCLA. The Standard is updated every five years or so. If you’re willing to part with $85 to take a closer look at the Standard, it can be purchased on ASTM’s website: https://www.astm.org/e1527-21.html.

*Note that purchasing the Standard isn’t a requirement for prospective buyers; it’s mostly used by the environmental professional who is preparing a Phase I ESA for a client.

Why Hire Us for Your Phase I ESA?

If you hire us to do a Phase I ESA, rest assured we follow ASTM E1527-21 to the letter. We’ve carefully read every line of this Standard and we have over 40 combined years of experience in conducting these investigations. Don’t buy a lemon. Get a Phase I ESA and feel confident in your choice to protect your future investment. 

Do you have more questions about a Phase I ESA? Check out our Phase I Reading Guide here. Or sign up for a free consultation by clicking this link:

Understanding Low-Threat Solvent Case Closure for PCE Contamination in California

What is Low-Threat Closure & PCE Solvent Closure in California

For many of those managing investigation and cleanup of property contaminated with tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and other solvents in California, low-threat solvent case closure is the best but least understood option. This lack of clarity leads to frustration and mistrust. Let’s get familiar with low-threat solvent case closure and develop some general criteria beginning with the cleanup goal.

PCE Case Closure and Cleanup Goals: Reasonable Timeframe and Criteria

California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) policy does not require that contamination is completely gone at the time of case closure; it specifies compliance with cleanup goals and objectives within a reasonable timeframe. This means that case closure can occur with contamination left in place as long as cleanup goals, such as relevant environmental screening levels (ESLs) or maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), are met in a reasonable timeframe. What defines a reasonable timeframe is ultimately decided by the regulatory oversight agency, but the decision considers the pace of natural cleanup mechanisms such as biodegradation. SWRCB closure orders for low-threat petroleum hydrocarbon sites state a reasonable time frame for plumes of a limited extent is multiple decades or longer, but expect more restrictions because PCE is less susceptible to natural cleanup mechanisms and has much lower ESLs. The general criteria for achieving cleanup goals are:

Criteria: Establish that natural mechanisms can reduce levels to cleanup goals and that contamination levels are at a point where natural mechanisms can reduce levels within a reasonable time frame.

Environmental Investigation Requirements: How Much Is Needed?

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“It seems like the regulator has the power to keep asking for more and more with no end in sight. I’m frustrated! Where does this all end?”

I could see my client was ready to blow up. The oversight regulator had just looked up from a figure she was contemplating and said, “Maybe we need some more samples in this area,” pointing to a small patch of the map that already had two sample locations. “There may be contamination extending beyond those sample locations.”

It was true that there may be more contamination beyond the boundary set by the sample locations, but we argued there was enough data to draw a boundary around most of the contamination and adequately characterize the extent of the contamination.

“Well I’m not sure,” said the regulator, “I’ll have to check with my supervisor.”

As we entered the elevator for a trip down to the lobby, my client let out a giant sigh, “Are you kidding me - when’s enough enough?”

“Last time she said we should be able to wrap up the investigation with the latest data - now this,” my client bemoaned. “I know you told me, but what exactly are they looking for?”

“Let’s go for a cup of coffee and I’ll try to explain.”

Guiding Policy: Understanding California Regulatory Policy for Environmental Investigation and Cleanup

We took some time to flavor our coffee and regroup from the meeting in silence. I began, “I am really sorry about this situation and I totally understand your frustration.”

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