What Should You Do When You Find Out Or Suspect Your Business Property Is Contaminated?

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Today, federal, state and even local agencies in New York enforce environmental laws and regulations designed to help keep the environment clean.  Companies find it makes good business sense to have sound environmental practices.  There is a culture of environmental awareness and recognition that we should be protective of the environment.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, that this wasn’t the case: many businesses didn’t see the value in being good stewards of the environment and engaged in less environmentally-sensitive practices.  As a result, in New York, with its legacy of industrial activity, many business properties are contaminated.  Often times, the contamination is decades old and the current landowner has no idea that the contamination exists.

There are many trigger events that lead to the discovery of contamination, or suspected contamination, on a property.  Some common ones are:

  • a prospective sale of a property
  • new development or renovation of a property
  • an environmental audit of the property
  • getting a mortgage on the property
  • the discovery of contamination on adjacent property.

In each of these instances, some event causes either an inspection of the property, such as the need for an environmental site assessment, or some physical activity on the property, such as construction, demolition or sampling.

So what should you do if you discover you might have contamination on your property?  Like many things in life, the answer is it depends.  If you discover an active, ongoing source of contamination, you almost certainly have a fairly immediate reporting obligation, either under a statute/regulation or an environmental permit.   If you uncover what looks like it could be historic contamination but are unsure, your response can be more measured.

If you discover or suspect you have discovered contamination on your property, here are some actions you should consider taking:

  • Contact your legal counsel to discuss your options. How you respond to the discovery of contamination or suspected contamination can lead to a major headache with significant expenses, if not done correctly.  You may spend some money on getting sound legal advice, but you could end up paying out more if go at it alone.
  • Find out your reporting obligations right away. Different situations can call for different reporting requirements.  Some reporting requirements require almost immediate reporting and the failure to report could result in a substantial civil penalty or even criminal charges.  Experienced counsel can help you understand what these obligations are.
  • Take a look at your insurance coverage. Environmental contamination often is excluded from coverage, but not always.  You should review your coverage, with your insurance broker or counsel if necessary, to determine whether your business may have coverage that can help pay for a clean-up.
  • Understand what your property documents say. If your business purchased the property, look at the purchase documents to see what they say about contamination.  Often times, especially in a more sophisticated transaction, risk of contamination is allocated in the transaction documents.  If your business leases the property, see what the lease says.  There may be a provision that discusses what happens if contamination is found.
  • Consider hiring an environmental consultant. For many reasons, you may want to know what you can about any contamination or suspected contamination you find.  For example, if you suspect the contamination came from a neighboring property, you probably want to determine its source so you can determine who may be responsible for remediation.  Be aware that you may have to act on issues your consultant uncovers.
  • Look into whether you can recover or demand cleanup costs from a responsible party. Often times, more than one party is responsible for contamination at a property.  Considering the fact that cleanups of these properties can be very expensive, even if your business shares some responsibility for a cleanup, you should consider whether other responsible parties should share these costs.  Talk with your counsel about your options if you suspect another party or other parties might be responsible for any contamination.

No business wants to find it has or may have contamination on its property.  If it happens, however, your goal should be to consider taking these steps to help minimize your risks.

What to Do When an Agency Visits for an Inspection

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You’re working in your office when suddenly one of your employees is at your door: there are a couple of agents from the NYS Department of Conservation at your facility, here to conduct an inspection because the agency received a complaint about your business.  What should you do?  What can you do?  If you manage the visit correctly, then maybe it’s just a minor disruption.  If you don’t, you can be looking at a major headache.

Here are some big picture items to keep in mind.

Understand who is there and why they’re there.  The example used here is the DEC, but the agency at your door could be OSHA, or EPA or a host of other regulatory or investigative agencies.  Find out who they are and why they’re there.  Certain personnel—security guards, a foreman—will be the first to interact with the inspectors.  They should request credentials and ask about the purpose of the visit and find out if they have a search warrant.  They should contact management with this information.  Most importantly, they should be professional and courteous—this is a serious event with potentially significant consequences—and direct any questions to management.

Determine who you want present.  Depending on the nature of the inspection, you may want counsel present, or at least available by phone if that’s at all possible.  In any event, you want only the right people present with the inspectors.  While you want to cooperate with reasonable requests, there’s no need to have more people than you need present to answer any questions.  Answers can have far reaching consequences, which you may not know at the time.  A speculative answer volunteered by an employee trying to be helpful could end up hurting, not helping, your cause.  Limit your company’s presence to those with knowledge or a need to be present.

Document the event.  Arguably, nothing is more important than documenting the inspectors’ visit.  Know who was present and when they were present.  As soon as it is practicable, document the questions the inspectors asked, the answers they were given, and the parts of the facility they visited.  Keep notes and photograph anything an inspector photographs.  If an inspector requests or takes records, document what was requested or taken.  If the inspector takes samples, see if you can get split samples.  Document as much as you can, even if it seems unimportant at the time.

You may not have to turn it over, but then again maybe you do.  Even with a search warrant, inspectors do not have carte blanche to inspect anything and everything at a facility or to take anything they wish.  Search warrants are powerful investigative tools, but they are typically limited in time and space and must set forth the particular items to be seized.  A search warrant for company records normally doesn’t give investigators the right to seize an employee’s private iPad kept at his desk.  That said, some federal (e.g., Clean Air Act) and state (e.g., Oil Spill Act) environmental laws require facilities to keep records showing their regulatory compliance.  The inspectors don’t need a warrant to review those records.

Read it carefully.  Sometimes an inspector will ask someone to sign a document after the inspection is completed.  Think about this request carefully because it can have serious legal implications.  Whatever the document is, read it closely before signing.  If you feel you cannot sign it, you probably should not.

Have a plan in place.  Finally, if you are a regulated industry or a workplace, you know that an investigative agency can pay you a visit.  Be prepared for it.  Have protocols in place for dealing with an inspection.  Have your employees know what they should do, how they should act and who they should contact if an inspector shows up at your facility.  Make sure management knows what it should do, including who should document the visit and who it might contact about any inspection.  Better to be prepared and not be inspected than to have an inspection and not be prepared.

The long and short of it is that being the subject of an agency investigation can be a nerve-wracking experience, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.  It is all about preparation and sticking to protocols.  If you have a question about how your facility should prepare for an agency inspection, or if you’ve already been subject to one, feel free to contact Tim Lambrecht, Esq. or Kevin Murphy, Esq. at the Wladis Law Firm.