Time to Clean Up: Alberta’s Revamped Remediation Regulation
As previously reported, in 2018 the Government of Alberta overhauled the Remediation Certificate Regulation, made under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (“EPEA”). Effective January 1, 2019, the newly titled “Remediation Regulation” came into force.
The new Alberta regime for contaminated sites under the Remediation Regulation has two main parts:
1. Deadlines for completing remediation and submitting reports; and
2. Obtaining remediation certificates.
Deadlines for Remediating Contamination and Submitting Reports
One of the fundamental changes to the regulatory regime for contaminated sites is the imposition of a timeline for completing remediation, or submitting a remedial action plan that includes a deadline for clean-up. The obligations for remediation under the revamped regulation are grounded in the general clean-up provisions of EPEA section 112, which impose the duty to remediate a release that “may cause, is causing or has caused an adverse effect”. The Remediation Regulation at section 2.2 adds detail to that general obligation, by requiring a person responsible for a contaminated site to remediate this site “as soon as possible”. Alternatively, if remediation cannot be completed within two years, the person responsible shall “as soon as possible” submit a remedial action plan to the director of Alberta Environment and Parks (“AEP”) for approval. The remedial action plan shall include specified information such as the remedial methods to be used and the deadline for completion. In essence, this provision of the Remediation Regulation requires immediate clean-up, but if that is not feasible within the two-year period (i.e. two remediation seasons), then the obligation becomes a requirement to submit a remedial action plan for AEP’s approval.
The structure of this new regime is intended to provide the person responsible for a contaminated site the opportunity to clean-up the site within a two-year period and then submit all reports, such as a Phase II Environmental Site Assessment and remediation closure report, to AEP once the clean-up work is complete. That is seen to be a more streamlined process where AEP’s involvement is generally limited until the final review.
Alternatively, if the site “cannot be remediated to the satisfaction of the director within a two-year period” (section 2.2 (2)), then the person responsible must follow a different path that involves more oversight by AEP through the process. The first requirement is that the person responsible must submit a Phase II Environmental Site Assessment “as soon as possible” (section 2.2 (1)). The other requirement is that the person responsible must “immediately” submit a remedial action plan that specifies the completion time for the remediation (section 2.2 (2)). Essentially, if the remediation cannot be completed within two field seasons, AEP becomes involved earlier on in the process and has greater oversight over steps such as delineation work and planning of the remediation.
Although there is logic in this general approach – that AEP has more involvement on more complex sites – there is some uncertainty as to how this regime will actually be implemented. For example, it is not clear how the requirement to submit Phase II Environmental Site Assessment “as soon as possible” under section 2.2 (1) will be applied. Likewise, it is not clear how it will be determined that a site “cannot” be remediated within a two-year period, as provided for under section 2.2(2). Further, the remedial obligations are subject to discretion of the AEP director as to how those obligations will be enforced, for example, what information will be required, and timelines for completing a variety of steps. It is understandable and appropriate for a director to have discretion in contaminated site matters, as each site is different and will present its own unique circumstances. However, these obligations are very new and there are no precedents for their application, resulting in a lack of guidance which in turn generates uncertainty for those who may be responsible for a contaminated property.
Another significant provision with respect to the remedial obligations is the grandfathering clause found in section 2.2(7). Essentially, the Remediation Regulation will only apply to sites reported to AEP on or after January 1, 2019. Sites that were previously reported, will not be subject to the new regime as it is presumed that they would already be engaged in a previous process for dealing with the site. However, as with other aspects of this new regime, the grandfathering clause is also subject to the discretion of the director. In other words, the new requirements for clean-up within two years, or submission of other reports and plans for completing the remediation work, may nevertheless be required by the director for a previously reported site. Again, while it may be appropriate for the director to impose those requirements for certain sites, it is unclear at this time on what basis the director will or should exercise discretion in this regard.
Remediation Certificates and Tier 2 Compliance Letter
The second main part of the refurbished Remediation Regulation relates to the revamping of the regime for issuing remediation certificates, and a newly created Tier 2 compliance letter. Under the new regime, there are two types of remediation certificates available: (1) a “site-based” remediation certificate, and (2) a “limited” remediation certificate (section 4). The general concept of a remediation certificate is that it closes regulatory liability for the party that has obtained it. This means a party that obtains a remediation certificate will not be subject to future regulatory requirements from AEP in relation to the substances or areas covered under the remediation certificate. However, additional contamination discovered at a later date that is not covered under the remediation certificate will not enjoy this same protection and could be subject to further regulatory action.
The site-based remediation certificate provides the highest degree of regulatory protection. This type of certificate applies to the entire area that has been impacted by the activity. Specific requirements for obtaining a remediation certificate are set out in section 4 of the Remediation Regulation. Essentially, a site-based remediation certificate can only be issued where all of the contamination has been identified and cleaned up on the site and on other affected surrounding lands. There is an exception where a site-based remediation certificate could be issued for the specified parcel of land and where contamination remains off-site, provided that the remaining off-site impacts are subject to a risk management plan that has been approved by the director. It is important to recognize that the off-site areas under a risk management plan would not be captured under the remediation certificate, and therefore would not enjoy the regulatory closure that those certificates provide pursuant to section 117 of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.
The other type of remediation certificate is called a “limited” remediation certificate. These certificates do not apply to the entire area impacted by the activity, as with a site-based remediation certificate, but rather apply to the limited area that has been remediated to the satisfaction of the AEP director. These limited remediation certificates appear to be more suitable for a discrete type of event such as a known release on a known part of the site. To obtain a limited remediation certificate, the area of impact would need to be assessed and fully remediated to the satisfaction of the director. The certificate would apply only to that limited area, and the contaminants of concern that were identified and remediated. This is a less rigorous process than for the site-based remediation certificate and therefore provides a more restricted degree of regulatory protection. Site-based remediation certificates provide regulatory closure for an entire parcel of land, however, they require full assessment of any impacts on that site and then complete remediation. A limited remediation certificate, on the other hand, would not require a full assessment of the entire site, but rather only of the specific area for which the certificate is sought, and likewise would only provide regulatory closure for that specific area that has been assessed and remediated.
The third type of document provide for under the new Remediation Regulation is called a Tier 2 compliance letter. This document is intended to provide some level of assurance or comfort to parties that were not able to obtain either a site-based or limited remediation certificate. In order to obtain any form of remediation certificate, some remediation must have actually been completed. If no remediation is conducted, a remediation certificate cannot be issued. The Tier 2 compliance letter was developed to account for situations where the remediation guidelines can be adjusted based on site specific conditions under Alberta’s Tier 2 process, with the effect that human health and the environment are still protected, but no remediation would actually be required.
While the Tier 2 compliance letter may appear to be a solution where a remediation certificate is not available, its practical value appears to be limited as it does not provide regulatory closure like a remediation certificate would. The Tier 2 compliance letter is solely a creation of the Remediation Regulation, and is not grounded in section 117 of the enabling statute, EPEA, which provides certain statutory guarantees. The effect of this distinction is that an area or site for which a remediation certificate has been issued is not subject to further regulatory action by AEP, for example, requiring further remediation if the guidelines change. Conversely, an area that is the subject of a Tier 2 compliance letter does enjoy the same protections and further regulatory action could be required at a later date, for example, further remediation if the guidelines do change. It is uncertain what the practical benefit of a Tier 2 compliance letter is given the apparently limited degree of protection that it affords.
Conclusions and Further Thoughts
The Remediation Regulation that came into force on January 1, 2019 sets out a revised regulatory regime that will be applied to contaminated sites in Alberta going forward. The new regime imposes additional requirements for assessment and reporting to AEP, as well as new timelines for doing so. However, given the significant discretion afforded to directors at AEP and the lack of precedents for how decisions will be made under this new regime, there is significant uncertainty as to how the Remediation Regulation will be applied, and how the directors’ discretion will be exercised over a variety of matters. Further, it appears that some of these new requirements will involve an enhanced degree of interaction with AEP in terms of reviewing site assessments, remedial action plans, risk assessments, risk management plans and other documents. It is unclear how AEP will handle this potential increased workload so as to ensure the new regime operates in an efficient and effective manner, rather than creating backlogs and other unintended consequences.
The new site-based remediation certificate provides more comprehensive regulatory closure as compared to the limited remediation certificate. However, the higher degree of protection for the site-based certificate comes with greater assessment and remedial obligations. Depending on the unique circumstances of each site and intended purpose for obtaining a remediation certificate, consideration should be given as to what degree of regulatory closure is reasonably required balanced against the amount of work and cost associated with each type. Further, consideration should be given to the amount of time that may be required for processing of a remediation certificate application. Often, remediation certificates are sought to limit liability and facilitate some type of commercial transaction, such as the sale of land. However, the current timeline for obtaining a remediation certificate could be in excess of three years, which could wipe out any practical benefit depending on the commercial conditions of the transaction. In order to have an effective remediation certificate regime, the process will need to be reasonably responsive and operate on timelines that correspond to commercial realities.
While the concept of a Tier 2 compliance letter appears to be sound and may be appropriate in certain circumstances, its practical utility is questionable given that the regulator could still come back at a future date and require a further action. To obtain the protections afforded by a remediation certificate, a proponent may consider conducting at least some remediation in order to be eligible for remediation certificate. However, the degree of remediation required in order to qualify for the remediation certificate program is an another currently open question.
Overall, the Remediation Regulation sets out a new regime for managing contaminated sites in Alberta, building upon the existing remedial obligations embodied in section 112 of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. Given the newness of this regime and the significant discretion afforded to AEP decision-makers, there is uncertainty as to how the regulation will actually be implemented.