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Waste Site Cleanup & Reuse in New England

Comfort Letter Guidance

What Are Comfort Letters?
"Comfort letters" are letters written by EPA New England that clarify for a site owner, lending institution, or other interested party, the likelihood of EPA listing a particular CERCLIS site on the National Priorities List (NPL). The need for a comfort letter usually arises when CERCLIS site owners attempt to sell or refinance their property. The fact that the site is listed in CERCLIS and the potential liability implied by that listing can become an obstacle to such transactions.

It is hoped that EPA comfort letters will assist in combating the "stigma" of a CERCLIS listing (the fear of a potential NPL listing and CERCLA liability can impede voluntary cleanups at CERCLIS sites). By clarifying EPA New England's intentions with regard to a particular CERCLIS site, comfort letters emphasize the lead role of the state Agency in site investigation and remediation, and help eliminate duplication of effort between the state and federal programs. Most importantly, timely environmental gains are realized through the cleanup, including redevelopment and beneficial reuse of any CERCLIS properties that are not strong candidates for the NPL and subsequent Superfund program remediation.

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What Type of Site Typically Needs a Comfort Letter?
Comfort letters would be issued for sites that are ineligible for a NFRAP (No Further Remedial Action Planned) decision and have been assigned a low priority for further work under the EPA Superfund program. Comfort letters clarify for the owner that no further steps will be taken to list the site on the NPL. Comfort letters are not a release from possible CERCLA liability, but are an attempt to clearly and realistically describe EPA's intentions with regard to the property in question.

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What Role Do States Play in Making the Determination?
The states must play a central role in setting site priorities and determining whether a particular site warrants a comfort letter. EPA New England will not issue a comfort letter for any site without first receiving a letter of request from the state. Site owners or other interested parties requesting a comfort letter from EPA New England will be referred to the appropriate state agency.

If the state agrees that a comfort letter is appropriate for a particular site, the state should make a written recommendation to EPA affirming (as a minimum) that:

  1. In the state's opinion, the site is not an appropriate candidate for listing and no further steps should be taken to list the site on the NPL.
  2. Based upon the state's knowledge of the historical and current conditions of the site, it is not thought to pose a substantial threat to human health or the environment. In other words, the state has assigned the site a low priority for further work.
    OR
    Based upon the state's knowledge of the historical and current conditions of the site, it has been assigned a high priority for further work under the state program. In other words, the state has already invested significant resources/oversight at the site, or anticipates doing so in the future.
  3. Any remedial actions which may be necessary at this site will be performed in accordance with the requirements of the state waste site cleanup program.

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How Does EPA Assess the Degree of "Comfort"?
The degree of "comfort" offered in the letters depends upon the specific circumstances of each site. EPA can respond more quickly and with stronger assurances if the request letter from the state addresses each of the following issues:

  • Actual/potential threats posed by the site to public health through releases to groundwater, surface waters, air and direct contact with wastes.
  • Actual/potential threats posed by the site to the environment through releases to groundwater, surface waters, air and soils.
  • Current status of site in state waste site cleanup program.
  • Actual/proposed mitigation efforts.
  • Community expression of support for the remedial efforts planned or being conducted under the state program.

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