The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 makes it harder to take tax deductions for some payments to governmental entities.  The change may impact settlements between private entities and federal, state and local environmental agencies.  In most cases, it will not affect environmental settlements between private parties.

Section 162(f) of the Tax Code has long prohibited deductions for fines and penalties paid to the government.  The new law makes the tests for deduction of certain payments to a governmental agency more stringent.  The amended Section 162(f) substantially limits the tax deduction available for (1) any settlement or other payments, (2) made to or incurred at the direction of a governmental entity, (3) related to a violation of any law or governmental investigation or inquiry into the potential violation of any law.

There is an exception to this rule, which allows a deduction for the following payments: (1) restitution, including remediation of property; or (2) an amount paid to come into compliance with a violated law or involved in an investigation or inquiry.  To be deductible, the payment has to be expressly identified under a court order or settlement agreement as a restitution or compliance payment.  This exception does not apply to amounts paid “as reimbursement to the government for the costs of any investigation or litigation.”

Under the statute, the limitation applies only to payments made to, or at the direction of, a governmental entity.  A deduction, therefore, remains available for remediation expenses paid to private parties without governmental direction.

Finally, a new provision under Sec. 6050X requires government agencies involved in settlements to report to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) the portions of the settlement payment that are and are not deductible under Section 162(f).

Our tax and environmental groups can advise on the implications of the new law, including factoring into negotiations the potentially higher tax cost of government settlements and ensuring that the settlements reached are well-drafted and as tax-efficient as possible.

The Hackensack River may be joining the likes of the Passaic River, the Hudson River, Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek, Fox River, the Eighteen Mile Creek, and other waterways that have been placed on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of extensive contamination resulting from decades of industrial operations along their banks and tributaries.  EPA recently announced that it will begin sampling the Hackensack River’s sediment in 2016 to determine if it is also polluted enough to be placed on the NPL.

In February of this year, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, a non-profit advocacy and conservation group, petitioned the EPA to study the river for inclusion on the NPL.  In an uncharacteristically quick response, EPA agreed to and then commenced a Preliminary Assessment (PA) of the Lower Hackensack River, which is the 17-mile stretch of the river between the Oradell Dam and the mouth of the river in Newark Bay.  This section runs through Bergen and Hudson counties in New Jersey and has several tributaries.

The PA was released earlier this fall.  It comes as no surprise that contaminants including cadmium, lead, mercury, dioxin, benzo(a)pyrene, dibenzo(a,h)anthracene,  PCBs and dieldrin were identified at unacceptable concentrations.  Furthermore, because the tidal influence on the sediments causes both upstream and downstream migration of contaminants, it also comes as no surprise that EPA identified hundreds of facilities and sites as possible sources of the contamination, many of which could become potentially responsible parties (PRPs) as the investigation of the river unfolds.  Most significantly though, EPA assigned a preliminary Hazard Ranking System score of 50, well above the minimum score of 28.5 needed to get on the NPL.  EPA plans to sample the sediment next year as a next step in the process of determining whether to list the river on the NPL.

Given the long history of industrial activities on and near the Hackensack River, it is fully expected that the sediment sampling results will warrant listing on the NPL.  And, given EPA’s increasing attention on surface water and sediments, it is fully expected that EPA will move forward with the listing.  This would be just the start of years of studying the river to identify the most contaminated sections, develop remediation plans and, of course, identify the likely sources of the contamination and pursue claims against them as PRPs.

The Supreme Court on Monday dealt a setback to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation limiting mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants – the “mercury rule.” In Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency, the Court held that EPA acted unreasonably by making its initial decision to regulate plant emissions without considering the cost of regulation. Although the ruling interrupted the Court’s much-publicized string of “liberal” rulings, in the end the decision may have more impact on the way EPA makes regulations than on whether EPA ultimately regulates emission of mercury and other pollutants from power plants.

The Clean Air Act directs EPA to study and decide whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate power plant emissions. In 2000, EPA concluded that mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants pose a danger to human health and the environment and that regulation of power plants was therefore “appropriate and necessary.” In 2012, after years of further study, rule-making, and litigation, EPA issued its mercury rule. EPA considered costs of compliance in developing the regulations but not in deciding whether to regulate in the first place.

The Supreme Court disagreed with this process. In a 5-to-4 decision, Justice Scalia’s opinion for the majority interpreted the statutory term “appropriate” to require EPA to consider all pertinent factors, including the cost of regulation, in deciding whether to regulate at all. In the Court’s view, EPA’s consideration of cost in fashioning the regulations came too late in the process. The Court therefore held that the power plant regulations were improperly issued.

Justice Kagan’s opinion for the four dissenters agreed with the majority that EPA had to consider cost of any proposed regulations at some time in its rule-making process. But she disagreed that EPA had to do so in deciding whether to regulate power plant emissions in the first place. She argued that EPA reasonably determined that regulation was appropriate based on the finding that exposure to airborne mercury causes extensive health concerns and that EPA could properly consider costs in determining how to regulate, rather than whether to regulate.

The decision in Michigan v. EPA was a loss for environmental advocacy groups that supported the regulation, but it is a narrow ruling, hinging on the meaning of “appropriate.” EPA will have to re-review its decision to regulate emissions from plants and take costs into account, but the Court’s decision does not suggest that cost considerations will ultimately scuttle the mercury rule itself. In fact, industry had already begun to plan operations and investments based on the mercury rule. It remains to be seen how industry and the courts will treat the mercury rule while EPA’s re-review is pending – and what impact, if any, the ruling may have on the Obama EPA’s climate change agenda and other initiatives.

Back in 2009, we reported here that the United States EPA was imposing significant penalties on parties for violating the Clean Water Act’s stormwater permitting requirements for construction projects.  The enforcement of these violations continues with a new penalty settlement announced by EPA against Toll Brothers, Inc. on June 20, 2012.

In the settlement, Toll Brothers agreed to pay a penalty of $741,000 stemming from alleged stormwater violations at 370 sites in 23 states, including New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Florida and Texas.  In additional to paying the civil penalty, Toll Brothers is required to implement a comprehensive compliance plan to ensure it meets its obligations under the stormwater permitting requirements for construction activities.

It is easy for stormwater compliance issues to get pushed-aside amidst all of the other issues facing developers.  However, this EPA settlement is another reminder that there can be serious consequences for not paying close attention to those stormwater requirements.  As we’ve stated before, developers must ensure that their professional team, including engineers, construction managers and attorneys, are paying close attention to compliance with stormwater permitting requirements to avoid such costly mistakes.

On February 17, 2009, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the Stimulus Bill. Among the numerous programs encompassed within the Stimulus Bill are significant proposed expenditures for environmental and energy projects. There are many opportunities for businesses to capitalize on the federal funding and tax incentives provided by the Stimulus Bill. But those businesses need to move swiftly to make sure they do not miss out on these opportunities.

Energy Programs

The Stimulus Bill includes approximately $30 billion for projects relating to the generation, transmission and distribution of renewable energy and approximately $5 billion for energy efficiency projects, including projects to weatherize certain properties. There are many opportunities for companies involved with the various aspects of renewable energy and energy efficiency to capitalize on the available funding within the Stimulus Bill. There may also be funds available for commercial or industrial property owners to help fund investments in energy efficiency technologies which have the potential to significantly reduce the future property operating costs. 

  • Renewable Energy. Allocations in the Stimulus Bill include (a) $6 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy generation and transmission projects, (b) $11 billion for research, development and pilot programs relating to the so-called “Smart Grid,” which will enable greater development and use of renewable power sources, and (c) $2.5 billion for research related to renewable energy and energy efficiency. Also included in the Stimulus Bill are tax cuts for businesses investing in renewable energy technologies.  Here is the link to the US Department of Energy discussion of the Stimulus Bill: http://www.energy.gov/recovery/index.htm
     
  • Energy Efficiency. The Stimulus Bill also includes (a) $5.25 billion to make lower income housing more energy efficient, (b) $6.3 billion in grants for state and local government energy efficiency investments and (c) $300 million for consumer rebates for purchasers of energy efficient “Energy Star” appliances. The Stimulus Bill also includes tax cuts for individuals investing in residential energy efficiency improvements.

Environmental Programs

In total, the Stimulus Bill includes approximately $18.8 billion dollars in federal spending for environmental projects relating to site remediation, water infrastructure and flood control and mitigation projects. There may be opportunities to include funding for water infrastructure projects into on-going or planned development or redevelopment projects. Additionally, increased funding to the federal brownfields program may provide sufficient stimulus to continue planned redevelopments.

  • Property Remediation. $600 million is allocated to the United States Environmental Protection Agency to fund the cleanup of hazardous waste sites listed on the National Priorities List, which is the USEPA’s list of some of the most contaminated sites in the nation. With this increased spending to cleanup Superfund sites, we expect there to be a potential rise in federal cost recovery litigation as the USEPA attempts to recoup those cleanup costs from the responsible parties. An additional $200 million is allocated to cleaning up properties with leaking underground storage tanks, and $100 million is allocated for grants providing for the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields sites. Here is the link to the USEPA brownfields program: http://www.epa.gov/brownfields/
     
  • Clean Water State Revolving Fund.  $4 billion is allocated to the states to fund loans administered under the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. This fund is designed to upgrade wastewater treatment systems and address stormwater management, nonpoint source pollution, and watershed and estuary management projects nationwide.   Here is the link to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund: http://www.epa.gov/owm/cwfinance/cwsrf/index.htm
     
  • Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. $2 billion is allocated to the states to fund loans administered under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. This Fund provides loans to support infrastructure investments for both publicly and privately owned community water systems. Here is the link to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund: http://www.epa.gov/safewater/dwsrf/index.html#facts
     
  • Other Water Infrastructure. $4.6 billion is allocated to the US Army Corps of Engineers for projects such as environmental restoration, flood protection and dam projects. An additional $340 million is allocated to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an entity within the US Department of Agriculture, for watershed improvement projects, including flood protection projects and water quality protection programs. Here is the link to the Natural Resources Conservation Service: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/