SPCC updates ease compliance requirements for farms

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is only one of the many agencies that regulates domestic agricultural facilities, but one of the most pressing compliance issues facing American farmers today is the EPA's Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule. This regulation requires facilities with significant oil storage capacity to proactively mitigate the risk of accidental oil releases through a structured plan with ongoing inspection and record keeping.

In recent years, federal lawmakers have been working with the EPA and industry stakeholders to reduce the burden that SPCC compliance places on the agricultural sector. During 2014, Congress passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which provided relief for many smaller farms by increasing the oil storage capacity thresholds that activate different regulatory compliance requirements.

We'll review some of the key changes prompted by this legislation below. Interested parties can also review a summary of the updated SPCC requirements for farms published by the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Higher thresholds leave more facilities exempt or eligible for self-certification

The EPA places more stringent certification requirements on facilities that have larger oil storage capacity or a "reportable oil discharge history," defined as any discharge of at least 1,000 gallons during the previous three years, or two discharges of 42 gallons or more in a 12-month period during the previous three years.

Any facility with a reportable history must have its SPCC plan certified by a professional engineer. The same requirement applies to all farms with a single aboveground storage tank (AST) that exceeds 10,000 gallons in capacity or an aggregate aboveground storage capacity of at least 20,000 gallons. These thresholds both increased significantly under the EPA's revised rule, allowing more farms to self-certify their SPCC plans.

Facilities with less than 20,000 gallons of oil storage capacity and no reportable oil discharge history are eligible for self-certification. Farms with a capacity of less than 6,000 gallons are exempt from the SPCC rule altogether.

Changes to aggregate capacity calculation provide additional regulatory relief

In addition to raising exemption and self-certification thresholds, the revised SPCC rule also allows facilities to exclude more containers when calculating their aggregate oil storage capacity, which may provide compliance relief to more farms. Previously, facilities had to count any container with a capacity of at least 55 gallons toward the total. Going forward, farms will be allowed to exclude any containers on separate parcels with a capacity of less than 1,000 gallons, as well as containers holding ingredients approved for use in livestock feed.

Mandatory review process could lead to lower exemption levels

In the legislation updating the SPCC's agricultural exemptions, Congress directed the EPA to work with the Department of Agriculture and review the potential long-term impact of the new 6,000-gallon exemption level. Lawmakers gave the agency about three years to complete this study and determine whether the threshold should be adjusted. Under the law, the final exemption level must be set between 6,000 gallons and 2,500 gallons, which means it will remain well above the 1,320-gallon level in place previously.

Uncertainty lingers over long-term policy outlook

Writing for the Ohio State University Agricultural Law Blog, Assistant Professor Peggy Kirk Hall noted that federal lawmakers intervened last year to prevent the EPA from penalizing farms for not complying with the SPCC rule. After a formal extension of the compliance deadline expired in late 2013, several legislators wrote a letter to the EPA administrator requesting that the agency delay any enforcement actions until Congress could pass legislation exempting small farms.

It remains to be seen how aggressive the EPA will be in targeting agricultural facilities for SPCC compliance issues once it has finalized the exemption level and resolved any outstanding congressional concerns. However, farm owners and operators cannot risk being caught unprepared.

The minimum fine for not having an SPCC plan in place at a covered facility, even if there has never been a spill at the site, is $1,500. Record-keeping and training violations can also result in significant fines. In cases where a facility that does not have a compliant SPCC plan experiences a spill, there is no cap on the potential fine. Expenses can amount to tens of thousands of dollars per day while spill-related liabilities are being resolved.

Given the risks facing agricultural facilities as the EPA begins to enforce the updated SPCC rule, many farms may need to work with environmental consultants to maintain compliance while mitigating the cost and operational impact of required safeguards.