There are many types of cleanup occurring across the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic under a range of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authorities, including, but not limited to, the Superfund program, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act corrective action, Toxic Substances Control Act polychlorinated biphenyl cleanup provisions, the Oil Pollution Act, and the Underground Storage Tank program. Your company may be involved in one or several of these sites requiring cleanup actions. And you may be asking: due to COVID-19, must I continue, or should I reduce or suspend my efforts at the site(s) requiring clean up action?

On Friday, EPA issued interim guidance that offered some factors to consider for response actions related to cleanup and emergency response sites where EPA is the lead agency or has direct oversight of or responsibility for the work being performed. Note that this guidance does not apply to the entire range of possible EPA actions and companies should carefully review the policy to see what it says (or doesn’t say) with regard to actions at their particular sites. The guidance follows earlier EPA guidance notifying the public that it may temporarily suspend some compliance obligations for entities affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

While standing by its previous statement that response action site work is considered “essential,” EPA states that decisions to be made on continuing, reducing, or suspending field and non-field work are to be made on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with other EPA offices, as appropriate, taking into account the importance of the cleanup effort. For example, regulators should weigh up COVID-19 factors alongside other considerations, such as whether failing to continue response actions “would likely pose an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment, and whether it is practical to continue such actions.”

The EPA guidance states that work can be reduced or suspended at sites if:

  • State, tribal, or local health officials have requested a stoppage
  • Any workers have tested positive for or exhibited symptoms of COVID-19
  • Workers may closely interact with high-risk groups or those under quarantine
  • Contractors are not able to work due to state, tribal, or local travel restrictions or medical quarantine
  • Workers cannot maintain proper social distancing

EPA emphasized, however, that decisions to reduce or suspend such actions are evolving in nature and can be changed or rescinded at any time, explaining that “continued vigilance and communication are vital. If a decision is made to temporarily reduce or suspend response action work, Regions should continue to monitor site conditions and plan the logistics for resuming field work when appropriate.”