Voluntary cleanup and the Voluntary Party Liability Exemption (VPLE)
Certain individuals, businesses or units of government that conduct an environmental investigation and cleanup of a contaminated property, while following specific state requirements with the oversight of the DNR, can receive an exemption from future environmental liability for historical contamination.
Guidance: Voluntary Party Liability Exemption (RR-0141) offers an overview of the benefits of the VPLE program, how VPLE cleanup differs from traditional cleanups, steps of the VPLE process, frequently asked questions, and additional detailed information.
The voluntary party liability exemption (VPLE) program is implemented by the DNR and described in § 292.15, Wis. Stat.[PDF exit DNR].
- VPLE Basics
The cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated properties has become a critical land use issue for public and private entities across the country. Brownfields – abandoned or underused properties where redevelopment is hindered by real or perceived contamination – are often the key to a successful community redevelopment project.
In 1994, the Wisconsin State Legislature created the voluntary party liability exemption by enacting § 292.15, Wis. Stat. The VPLE program is a process by which a person – as defined in § 292.01(13), Wis. Stat. – can voluntarily conduct an environmental investigation and cleanup of a property and then receive limits on their liability for historical contamination on that property.
Many developers, lenders and prospective purchasers of brownfields choose this route because the voluntary party liability exemption provides certain liability assurances helpful to investors and future property owners.
Properties cleaned up through the VPLE program must complete a comprehensive environmental investigation of the entire property and then implement response actions to the extent practicable. Upon completion of the cleanup, the RR program issues one of five types of certificates of completion enumerated in § 292.15, Wis. Stat. For more information on response actions in Wisconsin see the Cleanup Overview web page and the Cleanup Rules and Laws web page.
The VPLE is an elective environmental cleanup program. Interested persons who meet the definition of "voluntary party" are eligible to apply. A voluntary party is any person who submits an application and pays all the necessary fees. The voluntary party can be the company that owned and operated a facility or it can be a new purchaser.
Most properties that have had a discharge of a hazardous substance are eligible for VPLE. Some properties are excluded from the VPLE process, as described in § 292.15(7), Wis. Stat. Specifically, properties with the following are NOT eligible:
- a property that is listed or proposed to be listed on the Superfund National Priorities List;
- a solid waste facility or site that is an approved facility as defined in § 289.01(3), Wis. Stat. (these are typically larger landfills);
- a hazardous waste treatment, storage or disposal facility that first began operation after the voluntary party acquired the property;
- a licensed hazardous waste treatment, storage or disposal facility operated on the property before the date on which the voluntary party acquired the property and that is operated after the date on which the voluntary party acquired the property; and
- any hazardous waste disposal facility that has been issued a license under § 144.441(2), Wis. Stat., or § 289.41(1m), Wis. Stat., or rules promulgated under those sections, for a period of long-term care following closure of the facility.
- List of "approved facilities" that are NOT eligible for VPLE [PDF]
- To check if your site is an ineligible hazardous waste site, please visit the Solid and Hazardous Waste Information System (SHWIMS).
In addition, some sites may not be eligible to participate or to complete the VPLE process due to technical issues associated with the environmental cleanup at the site. Properties with waste sites (e.g., a landfill) must be able to obtain a ch. NR 726, Wis. Admin. Code, site closure without the reliance on any active remedial system to ensure compliance with environmental and public health standards, such as active treatment or collection systems relating to groundwater, leachate or gas, to receive the VPLE protections.
- Application & Fees
To participate in the Voluntary Party Liability Exemption process, you must submit a completed application form (Form 4400-178) [PDF]. Enclose a $250 application fee, payable to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and all required attachments with your application. See RR-690, Guidance for Submitting Documents, for information on submitting documents to the DNR.
Within 30 days of receiving your letter of eligibility, you must send the DNR an advanced deposit of $2,000 for properties less than one acre and $4,000 for properties one acre or larger. If the cost of the hourly oversight fees is less than the advance deposit, you will receive a refund from the DNR. These fees are used to cover DNR oversight costs. If oversight fees are greater than the deposit, the voluntary party will be billed quarterly.
Please submit a separate application for each property. A property is the area of real property included in a VPLE application, made up of a legally identifiable parcel or legally identifiable contiguous parcels created in compliance with applicable laws.
For state Fiscal Year 2022 (July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022), VPLE oversight and technical review is billed at a rate of $110 an hour.
- Certificates of Completion
Types of Certificates of Completion
Voluntary parties who choose to enter the VPLE program may pursue one of five available COCs based on property-specific conditions. The DNR has statutory discretion in deciding which type of COC to issue under Wis. Stat. § 292.15(2). The five types of COCs are:
- Wis. Stat. § 292.15(2)(a) General – This COC provides liability protection where the voluntary party has completed, and the DNR has approved, a comprehensive investigation of the entire property, including sampling for all likely hazardous substance discharges, and the voluntary party has cleaned up the property to the extent practicable. For the general exemption to apply, natural attenuation may not be selected as a remedy to groundwater contamination.
- Wis. Stat. § 292.15(2)(ae) Natural Attenuation – This COC provides liability protection for cleanups where groundwater contamination will remain at the property, the concentration of the hazardous substance(s) is above an enforcement standard, and natural attenuation is selected as the remedy. The DNR requires the voluntary party to obtain insurance to cover the costs of future investigation and cleanup should natural attenuation fail as the selected remedy.
- Wis. Stat. § 292.15(2)(af) Contaminated Sediment – This COC applies to sites with contaminated sediment and provides liability protection when the voluntary party cleans up the contaminated sediment to the extent practicable.
- Wis. Stat. § 292.15(2)(ag) Property Affected by Off-site Discharge – This COC provides liability protection for cleanups where the voluntary party has cleaned up the property and there is also contamination on the property that originated from another property.
- Wis. Stat. § 292.15(2)(am) Partial Cleanup – This COC provides liability protection for partial cleanups. Liability protection may extend only to the hazardous substances that were sampled for during the investigation. This type of COC may state that “not all of the property has been satisfactorily restored or that not all of the harmful effects from a discharge of a hazardous substance have been minimized.” This COC may also provide liability protection for cleanups that only address specific areas of a property.
The DNR may grant a COC only after the voluntary party has demonstrated completion of all applicable requirements set forth in Wis. Admin. Code chs. NR 700-799 and Wis. Stat. § 292.15(2) for the voluntary party's desired COC.
VPLE insurance for natural attenuation
Parties seeking the VPLE for sites using natural attenuation must take part in the DNR's insurance program.
Current VPLE sites
- List of properties currently in the VPLE process [PDF] (updated 7/8/21)
Completed VPLE sites
- List of properties that have received COCs [PDF] (updated 7/8/21)
- Additional Resources
- Guidance: Voluntary Party Liability Exemption (RR-0141)
- Obtaining DNR Approval Prior to Use of Imported Soil and Other Fill Materials on Voluntary Party Liability Exemption Sites, Wis. Stats. § 292.15 (RR-041) [PDF]
For site-specific questions