2020 Predictions for the Environmental Industry

Author: Alistaire Clary, PE Published: January 7, 2020

It’s hard to believe we’ve entered the year 2020. Although we still can’t teleport or fly our cars to work, there’s no doubt that advancement is all around us (hello, face-scanning phones!). It’s Maul Foster & Alongi’s practice to stay ahead of the latest trends and regulatory updates so we can effectively serve our clients while they keep their businesses running.

As we head into a new year, we’ve asked a few of our colleagues to look back at what happened in the world of chemical safety regulations, brownfield-cleanup funding, and the Portland Harbor Superfund Site in 2019. Using their expert knowledge, they predict what we might expect in the year 2020.

Chemical Safety Regulations by Bill Beadie, CIH, Principal Industrial Hygienist

What happened in 2019: As expected, the regulatory landscape continued to be uncertain for companies that use large quantities of highly hazardous chemicals. The Risk Management Plan rule was updated in the waning days of the Obama administration, and the Trump administration fought to roll back the changes. While the courts prevented the Trump administration from indefinitely delaying the new rule, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) expressed intent to propose a newer version that eliminates most of the new requirements. On November 20, 2019, EPA signed the new rule that largely rolled back the Obama-era changes.

2020 predictions: Simultaneously, the USEPA has been engaged in a National Compliance Initiative (NCI) designed to help reduce accidental releases at industrial and chemical facilities. They recently announced that they intend to continue the NCI in fiscal years 2020 through 2023. The NCI is focused on facilities that fall under the Risk Management Plan rules as well as smaller facilities regulated under the Clean Air Act General Duty Clause. The USEPA started a pilot program in the northeastern portion of the United States focused on General Duty Clause compliance for smaller ammonia refrigeration facilities. Time will tell if the pilot program will expand to the rest of the country and/or if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—who could enforce the requirements of the Process Safety Management rules and the OSHA General Duty Clause—will make similar efforts.

Brownfield Cleanup Funding by Seth Otto, AICP, LEED AP, Senior Planner

What happened in 2019: The Washington State Model Toxics Control Act program was created through allocated renewed funding for the popular Integrated Planning Grant program. More than ever, there was a focus on using brownfield cleanup to provide much needed available land for affordable housing in communities around the state.

In Oregon, the focus was on infrastructure and addressing gaps in service to make brownfield properties attractive for redevelopment. Business Oregon’s Infrastructure Summit in October highlighted this longstanding challenge and spurred new conversations around comprehensive and integrated approaches.

2020 predictions: Attendees of the biannual National Brownfields Conference in Los Angeles heard a good deal about leveraging multiple funding sources into “capital stacks” that address increasingly expensive remediation and redevelopment challenges. The Opportunity Zone provision of the 2017 tax reform also continues to be an important destination for individual and institutional investors looking to take advantage of tax relief through direct investment in the state-designated census tracts. Funding agencies will continue to prioritize investments in Opportunity Zones through qualified Opportunity Funds. With this new investment, we should see increased interest in brownfield redevelopment.

Portland Harbor Superfund Site by Phil Wiescher, PhD, Senior Environmental Scientist

What happened in 2019: For the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, 2019 was a dynamic year with several key developments. An industry group (the Pre-Remedial Design [Pre-RD] group) completed the eagerly anticipated “re-baselining” of the Willamette River. The new data showed significant natural recovery in the river and reduced risks, according to the Pre-RD group. The USEPA acknowledged the data were “acceptable” but disagreed with the data interpretation and indicated there would be no changes to the Record of Decision.

Meanwhile, the USEPA and potentially responsible parties (PRPs) continued discussions with an eye towards USEPA’s proclaimed goal to have PRPs under Agreed Orders to do “100% of design in 100% of the site” by the end of 2019. The USEPA also issued several key documents providing remedial design guidelines to PRPs for in-water and riverbank work, and several PRPs continued to push forward with early action cleanups in coordination with the USEPA.

2020 predictions: As 2018 drew to a close, the USEPA issued a revised plan called the Explanation of Significant Differences (ESD) for managing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination in the river. The ESD would see some reduction in PAH cleanup, based on new science demonstrating reduced toxicity. Some community groups opposed the ESD, but it was anticipated to be adopted in 2019. Finalization of the ESD is now expected sometime in 2020.

Other anticipated developments include continued discussions about the Pre-RD group data and their application to the Portland Harbor, efforts by the USEPA and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to finalize roles and procedures for riverbank source control efforts, and continued activities to support the confidential cost-allocation effort. Negotiations between PRPs and the USEPA for Agreed Orders to do “100% of design in 100% of the site” should also heat up, since negotiations extended past the USEPA goal of end of 2019. If progress stalls, 2020 could mark a year in which USEPA considers unilateral enforcement Orders. PRPs already underway at early action sites are expected to continue the push towards final remedial designs for cleanups.

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Alistaire Clary, PE

Managing Director/Principal Engineer

(360) 433-0219