A high priority site will be requested to conduct a comprehensive facility investigation.
The facility will receive a formal letter of request to conduct the investigation. Generally, the MDA project manager will call the facility and may arrange a visit to the site prior to sending the letter of request.
The incident program tries to promote a partnership approach with facility managers, responsible parties, environmental consultants and other involved parties. Our experience indicates sites with a good partnership move faster, cost less and are less stressful for everyone compared to other state regulated cleanup sites. Program staff attempt to focus on outcomes, rather than the process, and are open to innovations which will achieve the desired outcome in a safe manner. The program guidance documents help streamline the process. These documents cover most aspects of the process and were developed using the experience gained on hundreds of prior investigations with the goals of reducing project cost while maintaining an appropriate level of environmental protection.
Most agricultural chemical facilities are not simple sites to investigate. They generally are several acres in size, have multiple potential pesticide contaminants and multiple high risk potential source areas. There generally are no physical indications of contamination such as staining or odor. Although field screening instruments like the nitrate meter and immunoassay kits are helpful in directing a cleanup, they are generally not suitable for the initial assessment which must use expensive laboratory analytical methods. Overland flow can be a significant source of contaminant migration and can result in complex patterns of soil and groundwater contamination. There can be non-point sources of contamination from legal uses of the product. Soil near the ground surface may be clean because of natural degradation and flushing while soil at greater depth, where degradation may not readily occur, may be highly contaminated. Finally, many common pesticides have low health based standards, frequently in the low parts per billion.
Although investigations may be difficult, cleaning up contaminated soil may be relatively inexpensive. Many contaminants are currently registered pesticides which can be legally and safely land applied on fertile soil for natural degradation at a fraction of the cost of most other cleanup options.
The incident program uses a risk based approach to determining cleanup requirements. The investigation assesses the potential contaminant migration pathways (groundwater, surface water, direct soil exposure, etc.) and the potential receptors (people, potable wells, regional aquifers, the environment, etc.) at each site. Cleanup goals are based on the potential threat from contamination at each site. The mere presence of minor contamination, without potential impacts, does not justify a cleanup. Passive degradation of contaminants is an acceptable corrective action at some sites. If contaminants are likely to degrade before they will migrate to potential receptors, passive degradation may be the best corrective action.
The MDA also is actively pursuing pollution prevention activities. Using the information obtained in the incident and other programs, efforts are underway to identify those locations at facilities where new contamination is most likely, and to develop and promote appropriate solutions to prevent it.
The MDA has several options if a responsible party is unwilling or unable to comply with the request for a comprehensive investigation. If the situation warrants it, the MDA may declare an emergency and use MERLA funds and state contractors to conduct any necessary work. For non-emergency situations the MDA will generally order the responsible party to conduct an investigation. An order may include penalties but typically would not if it is complied with. If an order is complied with, a site usually will continue to be eligible for partial reimbursement from ACRRA. There is a formal administrative process to contest and appeal an order.
If an order is not complied with, the MDA may go to court to enforce the order, or may list the site on the state Superfund (MERLA) Permanent List of Priorities (PLP) and use MERLA funds and state contractors to conduct the required work. Work conducted in response to orders or requests made under the sole authority of MERLA is not eligible for ACRRA reimbursement. In addition, the MDA is required to recover money spent under MERLA from the responsible party.
The program is designed to encourage cooperation, and as a result reduce costs, with a carrot and stick approach. Cooperation and compliance is encouraged by reimbursement of costs from the ACRRA. However, if necessary, the MDA may use MERLA authorities which may result in loss of eligibility for the ACRRA and the eventual recovery of MERLA costs from the responsible party. We are pleased to note that the program has seldom needed to use its MERLA authority on comprehensive sites.