Posted on May 22, 2013
In a decision that should not have come as a surprise to anyone, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled late last month, in Conservation Northwest v. Sherman, that the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies implementing the Northwest Forest Plan could not amend the NFP without complying with the procedural requirements of the Federal Land Policy Management Act. The rationale of the decision should apply far more broadly than just the FLPMA, however. It should apply to any action by any agency purporting to amend agency regulations that would otherwise be subject to procedural requirements, such as notice-and-comment rulemaking, without complying with those procedural protections.
The history of the case itself it tortuous and not really relevant here. The short version is that the agency defendants sought to resolve citizen litigation regarding the “Survey and Manage” provisions of the NFP by entering into a consent decree that would amend certain elements of Survey and Manage. It was uncontested that, if the agencies had sought to do so outside the context of litigation, they would have had to follow FLPMA requirements. The agencies – and the District Court which upheld entry of the consent decree – argued that, because approval of a consent decree is a “judicial act”, it is not subject to the FLPMA procedures.
I’ve got to say, that argument just seems like a non sequitur to me. In any case, the 9th Circuit rejected it, concluding that:
"a district court abuses its discretion when it enters a consent decree that permanently and substantially amends an agency rule that would have otherwise been subject to statutory rulemaking procedures."
Posted on May 21, 2013
Climate tort plaintiffs cannot catch a break in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a May 14, 2013, decision, the Fifth Circuit found—once again—that a group of Mississippi Gulf Coast property owners is barred from suing energy companies for tortiously emitting greenhouse gases (“GHGs”).
The case, Ned Comer, et al. v. Murphy Oil USA, et al., has a long and twisting history. At one point the case was widely viewed as in the vanguard of a handful of cases with the potential to radically realign the legal framework under which companies emit GHGs.
Comer was originally filed in the Southern District of Mississippi in 2005. Plaintiff coastal property owners alleged that the defendant companies’ emissions exacerbated climate change, which intensified Hurricane Katrina, which in turn damaged the plaintiffs’ property. Invoking the federal courts’ diversity jurisdiction, the plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages, asserting state law claims of nuisance, trespass, and negligence, among other claims. The district court dismissed the claims on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the matter was not justiciable under the political question doctrine.
In November 2009, a Fifth Circuit panel reversed, in part, the district court’s dismissal of the claims. The Fifth Circuit panel found that plaintiffs had standing to bring the state law claims, which the court found did not present political questions.
The Fifth Circuit panel’s decision came in the wake of the Second Circuit’s precedent-setting September 2009 decision in State of Connecticut, et al. v. American Electric Power Company Inc., et al., in which the Second Circuit recognized the validity of federal common law public nuisance claims challenging the emission of GHGs, found that a number of states and private environmental groups had standing to press such claims, and rejected the argument that the claims are nonjusticiable. Together, these cases were viewed as potentially ushering in a new era in which companies emitting GHGs would need to contend not just with EPA’s regulations but also with common law climate tort claims seeking injunctive relief or money damages.
The new era was not to be. As to Comer, before the panel opinion’s mandate issued, a majority of the Fifth Circuit’s active, unrecused judges voted to rehear the case en banc. Under Fifth Circuit rules at the time, this vacated the panel opinion reversing the district court’s dismissal. Before the Fifth Circuit reheard the case en banc, however, another Fifth Circuit judge was recused, leaving the court with only eight active, unrecused judges. Five of the remaining eight judges then determined that, with the additional recusal, the court lacked a quorum to proceed, and the judges issued in May 2010 an order dismissing the plaintiffs’ appeal from the district court’s decision for lack of a quorum.
Plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking review of the Fifth’s Circuit dismissal of their appeal. The Supreme Court denied the petition in January 2011, at which point one might have expected the case to be over.
However, the same group of property owners proceeded to file a new complaint in May 2011 alleging many of the same nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims against the same energy company defendants. The District Court again dismissed the claims, finding them to be barred by res judicata and the applicable statute of limitations, and also to fail to establish proximate causation and be preempted by the Clean Air Act. In addition, as it had in Comer I, the court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the claims raised nonjusticiable political questions.
The Fifth Circuit’s May 2013 decision in Comer II upholds the district court’s dismissal of the climate tort claims. The Fifth Circuit agreed the case is barred by res judicata, and did not address the district court’s other grounds for dismissal. Despite the procedural quirks of Comer I, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s decision in that case to represent a final judgment, never modified on appeal. In addition, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s final judgment to be on the merits because it adjudicated the jurisdictional issues of standing and justiciability.
Fall of 2009 may turn out to have been an apogee of sorts for climate tort claims. In June 2011, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power, holding that the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of GHG emissions. Climate tort plaintiffs in a third case, Native Village of Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., et al., were also on the losing end of a September 2012 Ninth Circuit panel decision which found the plaintiffs’ claims that climate change would result in erosion and flooding of the island where they live to be a matter that should be left to the legislative and executive branches of government. The Kivalina plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court in February for a writ of certiorari.
As GHG levels in the atmosphere approach their highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years or longer, the prospects for new legislative or executive branch action are uncertain. Although California recently implemented an economy-wide GHG cap and trade scheme, which began imposing compliance obligations earlier this year, that program is being challenged in the courts and there appears to be little appetite for comprehensive federal climate change legislation. EPA proposed in April 2012 a GHG performance standard for new power plants pursuant to its Clean Air Act authority, but the timing for action with respect to existing power plants and other emitting sectors is unclear. In light of the uncertainty on the regulatory and legislative fronts, and given the massive alleged harms involved, it may be too early to say if the climate tort is essentially finished or will in the future be resuscitated in a new and more potent guise.
Posted on May 20, 2013
When the Supreme Court issued its 2009 decision in Burlington N. & Santa Fe RR. Co. v. United States (Burlington Northern), Superfund practitioners were encouraged to think that CERCLA joint and several liability could be avoided by arguing that the harm is divisible and therefore capable of being apportioned. Subsequent decisions in the lower courts have dampened that encouragement. The most recent case in point is the May 1, 2013 decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in United States v. NCR Corp. (NCR Corp.), the latest in a long line of decisions involving the Fox River Superfund Site.. After an eleven day trial, the District Court permanently enjoined NCR and the other defendants to comply with a unilateral administrative order requiring them to clean up PCB-contaminated sediments in the Fox River.
The court had previously issued a preliminary injunction to the same effect, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on interlocutory appeal. The District Court had also held that EPA’s remedy selection was not arbitrary, capricious or otherwise unlawful and that NCR was not entitled to contribution, decisions not yet reviewed by the Court of Appeals, leaving NCR with apportionment as its best argument in the District Court to avoid having to bear the entire burden of the cleanup.
In the latest decision, the District Court rejected attempts by NCR (and the other defendants) to prove that the “harm” in one of the operable units of the Fox River was divisible and could therefore be apportioned. The Seventh Circuit had ruled that “harm,” for this purpose, “was best defined with reference to the contamination, as set forth in the government’s remediation rules.” The District Court began its analysis of apportionment by pointing out that exceptions to joint and several liability will be “rare.” According to the District Court, to demonstrate that the harm is divisible, a defendant bears the burden of proving two things: first, that the harm is theoretically capable of being divided, a question of law, and second, that there is a reasonable basis for an apportionment, a question of fact. Burlington Northern, the District Court observed, involved only the second of these elements (“Yet, even though it is undeniable that Burlington Northern loosened the rules governing how a given harm might be apportioned, it did not address the key issue here, which is whether the harm is theoretically divisible in the first place” [emphasis in original]).
Applying the analysis of Sections 433A and 875 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, both Burlington Northern and the Seventh Circuit concluded that some harms will not be theoretically capable of apportionment. Thus, if one of the causes is “sufficient” in and of itself to bring about the result, the harm will not be divisible and apportionment will not be appropriate. The question is “whether one polluter should be considered such a significant cause of the harm that the harm attributable to that cause is incapable of being divided.” Further, some kinds of harms will simply be unsuitable for divisibility by their very nature, as when a chemical is deemed to be harmful when it “surpasses a certain amount” or when a chemical becomes harmful only when mixed with other chemicals.
It is interesting that the courts continue to follow the Second Restatement even though there is a more recent Third Restatement of Torts (2000). While the courts have not provided any basis for their continued reliance on the Second Restatement, some commentators have opined that the Third Restatement can be read as trending away from joint liability and encouraging apportionment.
The District Court observed that whether a harm is theoretically capable of apportionment, although a question of law, is heavily dependent upon the underlying facts. In this case, after an exhaustive review of the evidence, the District Court concluded that NCR had not met its burden of rebutting the government’s contention that the NCR discharges were a “sufficient cause” of the harm. The District Court defined the “harm” as contamination in the sediments above 1 ppm of PCBs. The Court found that NCR had not meaningfully disputed that the remedy for the sediments would have been the same even if NCR had been the only contributor. In other words, because of NCR’s discharges, the same remedial measures would have been required regardless of whether or not discharges from others had occurred. Since NCR’s discharges would, on their own, “require roughly the same remedial measures that are now being undertaken, [NCR] could be deemed a sufficient cause of the harm.” Under those circumstances, the District Court concluded, the harm could not be deemed divisible and apportionment would be inappropriate.
The District Court then went on to conclude that joint and several liability should attach even if NCR had not been a “sufficient cause” of the harm, “so long as the party is necessary to the harm.” Thus, for example, if one party’s discharge produces a concentration below action levels, such that it is not a “sufficient cause” of the harm, when that discharge is combined with other discharges that cause the concentration to exceed the action level, the first discharge is a “necessary” cause and joint and several liability should attach.
The District Court concluded that the “harm” was not theoretically capable of apportionment, thereby avoiding the necessity of determining how apportionment might be accomplished. This decision suggests that the battleground in the apportionment arena is likely to shift from how apportionment is conducted (the issue addressed by Burlington Northern) to the question of whether apportionment is appropriate in the first place. This decision provides a useful guide for practitioners regarding how courts may evaluate this threshold question, and highlights the importance of how courts define the “harm” at issue.
Posted on May 15, 2013
What lessons can environmental litigators take from the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence on pleadings? As most of the legal community is aware, the Court retired the “no set of facts” standard for a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) and installed a “new” plausibility pleading standard in its 2007 decision, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and 2009 decision, Ashcroft v. Iqbal. Together, these cases are often affectionately called “Twiqbal” and have caused both the courts and plaintiffs a great deal of angst over the years since their pronouncement. Yet, in the midst of the confusion, the greater question remains whether these decisions, as a practical matter, actually represent a game changer for pleading.
According to the latest Report to the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Civil Rules, there has been no increase in the rate of courts granting motions to dismiss following Twiqbal. However, a recent study from the University of California Hastings College of Law disputes this conclusion and finds that dismissal rates of all claims have, in fact, increased since Twiqbal. More importantly, the Hastings study finds a greater likelihood that a claim will be dismissed for factual insufficiency following the Supreme Court’s decisions.
Such studies raise the question of what impact, if any, Twiqbal has today on pleading environmental claims. Thus far, although several courts have addressed environmental claims under the Twiqbal plausibility standard, the results have not been consistent. Like the antitrust and civil rights claims addressed in Twombly and Iqbal, courts have often elevated the pleading standard for environmental claims due to their complexity, which often requires expensive discovery to flesh out the facts after filing the complaint. An early dismissal in such circumstances stands to avoid substantial litigation costs. Thus, if a court believes Twiqbal indeed represents a heightened pleading requirement, it is likely to require more specific facts to support the relevant environmental claims.
Accordingly, the environmental plaintiff should hedge its bets and take care in crafting its complaint if it is filing in federal court. Specifically, the plaintiff may want to take more time to investigate prior to filing to better describe the defendant, it’s link to the site, the types of hazardous substances released, and how specifically the defendant’s actions caused the release and the damages incurred. Depending on the circumstances, the plaintiff may want to avoid federal court altogether and rely on state claims as most states have yet to adopt the Twiqbal plausibility pleading standard. On the other side of the field, the environmental defendant should more carefully consider the value of filing a motion to dismiss for factual insufficiency and attack any gaps between the facts alleged and the formulaic recitations of the elements of the claim.
Posted on May 14, 2013
Cheap gas prices driven by a boom in new shale gas development, coupled with more stringent emissions controls for coal fired plants, are causing a shift from coal to natural gas as the primary source of electric power in the United States. In the short term, most welcome this shift because natural gas produces significantly fewer greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions. But it appears increasingly certain that in the long run, this shift will result in decreased energy grid reliability and significantly higher electricity costs due to natural gas price volatility.
A recent Duke University study concludes that the cost of compliance with new emissions standards could make almost two-thirds of existing coal fired plants “as expensive as natural gas even if natural gas prices rise.” This combination of low gas prices and the high cost of coal emissions compliance already has resulted in replacement of many coal plants instead of retro-fitting them with expensive environmental controls. Add to that the uncertainty of potential future GHG emissions standards, and construction of new coal fired power plants is at a near standstill.
The Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute (“RMCMI”) estimates that these factors will combine to force closure of up to 100 gigawatts of coal plant capacity, or approximately one third of the coal-fired fleet, resulting in a net increase of 32 gigawatts of gas capacity in the next three years. By 2020, RMCMI estimates that gas generating capacity will exceed that of coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric combined. The RMCMI further projects that the shift to natural gas generation will cause the demand for natural gas to exceed even the most rosy new shale gas production predictions, causing volatile natural gas price swings.
Grid reliability problems and gas price volatility were highlighted by Gordon van Welie, the head of New England’s power grid, during recent testimony before Congress. He observed that more than half of New England's electricity is generated from natural gas, which has displaced a more diversified mix of oil, coal, gas and nuclear power over the past ten years.
He testified that even though natural gas generally is plentiful, New England’s inadequate gas pipeline capacity limits supplies during peak usage. For example, during a recent extreme cold snap in New England, “natural gas prices in late January spiked to $34/MMBtu, in contrast to prices below $4/MMBtu across most of the country.” The high gas prices caused wholesale electricity price spikes of more than 100% in January and 300% in February 2013 compared with 2012. There also were “multiple instances where generators could not get fuel to run,” including one instance when more than 6,000 MW were offline due to fuel shortages. Testimony at 7. To avoid even worse problems in the future, he urges increased construction of pipeline infrastructure, but construction of gas pipelines will take time. In the short and intermediate term, he predicts continued price volatility and grid reliability problems during peak usage.
In addition to pressures from increased usage of natural gas in the United States, there also is increasing support within the Obama Administration to side with those seeking to export liquefied natural gas because prices in foreign markets are much higher. If the export of natural gas becomes a reality, then domestic gas prices likely will increase even more.
Although the vast shale gas reserves are fueling a shift to natural gas power generation with a corresponding reduction in GHGs, over-reliance on natural gas will almost certainly have the unintended consequence of causing grid reliability problems and volatile price spikes. This likelihood argues for a more balanced energy portfolio with a broad mix of power from renewable, hydropower, coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas. To insure future stable energy prices and reliable energy production, electric utilities and state and federal regulators should take a long term view when deciding whether to shift to natural gas generation and decommission existing coal and nuclear plants.
Posted on May 13, 2013
On February 11, 2013, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico denied a Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed by the Village of Logan, seeking to compel the Bureau of Reclamation (“BOR”) to perform an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) for the Ute Lake Diversion Project in eastern New Mexico. The BOR issued an environmental assessment (“EA”), which analyzed the impacts from the diversion project based on the withdrawal of only 16,450 acre-feet per year (“af/yr”), despite the fact that the intake structure capacity is 24,000 af/yr. The BOR contended that the intake structure did not have sufficient pumping capacity and other infrastructure to achieve 24,000 af/yr.
At the preliminary injunction hearing, Logan presented evidence that the Interstate Stream Commission of New Mexico (“ISC”), as the putative owner of the water rights within Ute Lake, had contracted to sell 24,000 af/yr and that the engineering analysis demonstrated sufficient existing capacity within the intake structure to accommodate withdrawals of 24,000 af/yr. Consequently, similar to analyses required under other environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Logan argued that the impacts from the proposed project must be analyzed based on the maximum achievable withdrawal capacity of the intake structure.
The difference in the severity of impacts, based on 24,000 acre-feet withdrawals and 16,450 acre-feet withdrawals, was significant. The EA conceded that, at 24,000 acre-feet per year, the minimum fisheries pool in Ute Lake – established to provide a minimum necessary habitat for recreational fishing – would be breached at least 20% of the time over a 30-year period. Allowing the fisheries pool to be breached for at least 6 years over the life of the project created inter-related economic impacts, including significantly decreased property values on the shoreline, decreased tax receipts for the community, lost jobs, and significantly declining revenue for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
The district court ruled that the EA, together with its finding of no significant impact (“FONSI”), was not arbitrary and capricious based on the assumption that the withdrawals would only reach 16,450 af/yr. The Court stated that, “If in the future, more infrastructure is added to facilitate further withdrawals, primary analysis of the environmental impact may be undertaken then.” The Court did not state whether such a “primary analysis” would occur within or outside of NEPA, and who would be responsible for initiating such an analysis. Moreover, assuming that the Court meant an analysis of “direct impacts” by the phrase “primary analysis,” it is unclear how such an analysis would not suffer from predetermination under NEPA. After all, the intake structure would already be built and there could not be any serious consideration of viable alternatives to the project.
The central issue on appeal is whether a federal agency may postpone part of its NEPA analysis to some unspecified time in the future, despite the fact that the capacity of the project, and the ability to withdraw 24,000 af/yr, is likely a “foreseeable” impact as defined in the Council on Environmental Quality regulations.
Posted on May 10, 2013
Proposals to export liquefied natural gas (“LNG”) produced in large part from shale gas recovered by hydraulic fracturing techniques or “fracing” continue the public debate about the desirability of exports of other energy resources. This political, regulatory, environmental and trade debate engages powerful politicians, lobbyists, environmental groups, trade associations, developers, producers, state regulatory authorities, consultants, academics, and landowners, and a broad spectrum of the press and public.
On its face, the notion of substantial exports of LNG to both countries with which the U.S. has free trade agreements (FTA) in place and those it does not, seems highly attractive. Such exports would improve the balance of trade deficits, create new jobs associated with the production; and produce tax revenue. And, from the broad environmental perspective, LNG exports would lower greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in countries with heavy reliance now and in the future on coal or oil for electric generation, or in countries with need for replacement of nuclear facilities.
Query then, what are the factors that engender the impassioned debate on energy resource export policy? Key are: (1) fears of massive development of “frac” gas, freighted with concern over impacts on water, air, and use. Analogous to the Keystone XL battle, another concern is development of the unconventional gas for the benefit of foreign interests, particularly those without an FTA in place with the U.S. (export to those countries with FTA agreements with the U.S. is deemed by law to be in the public interest). (2) A second issue in contention on LNG is the impact on domestic energy prices if significant LNG exports limit availability of natural gas for domestic industrial and other uses. (This issue harkens back to the energy crises of the 1970s when natural gas availability was tight and energy prices sky high.)
So, although not explicitly an environmental-based objection, such opponents of LNG exports find friendly bedfellows with the environmental objectors and the commercial interests concerned about their ability to rely upon and benefit from increased gas supply. Industrial interests argue that stopping exports to non-FTA countries, particularly the insatiable Asian markets, will result in an industrial renaissance with jobs and development growing significantly. And, some opponents of LNG exports to non-FTA countries ironically, (to this blogger at least) express little regard for overall environmental benefit to potential importing countries and thus the globe. Rather, the impact on the United States from development of unconventionally sourced gas supply has been their focus point. Yet, LNG is only part of the energy export debate.
Further complicating this analysis is the parallel potential increase in the export of U.S. coal to energy hungry nations, particularly in Asia. As noted above, there is a broader questioning on the entire topic of U.S. energy resources exports: LNG, oil or refined products and coal. In addition to the Keystone XL pipeline standoff, many environmentally oriented players (e.g., the Sierra Club) and political leaders have expressed reservations about the export of U.S. coal for two primary reasons – the impact on the U.S. of new infrastructure for storage, transportation and increased mining activities, and the increase in GHG emissions worldwide as a result of heavier coal-fired electric generation. And in the past months, several proposed coal export projects have been scrapped. This energy export issue makes for a complicated stew of federal, local and regional politics. What makes the entire public war of words (and the behind the scenes maneuvering) so fascinating is the question of who or what decides where and with what restrictions U.S. energy resources are to be marketed to the world – the federal agencies, the state and local governmental entities, or the market? The next few months may provide guidance on LNG and perhaps the Keystone XL pipeline, however, the national and international implications of these decisions are so important that it is unlikely that peace will settle on these matters for decades.
Posted on May 9, 2013
The world’s biggest carbon permit market was left in disarray after the European Parliament on April 16, 2013 rejected an emergency plan that would have forced companies to pay more for polluting.
Permits are a key part of the EU Bloc’s cap-and-trade plan to tackle global warming. The European Parliament rejected a proposal to reduce the short-term supply of carbon permits as a way of pushing up the price. At the launch of permits in 2005, the cost of a permit was nearly €30 for each ton of carbon emitted. Following the vote on April 16, 2013, the price plummeted to a little over €2.5 a ton.
Making matters worse, following the vote, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee coordinators failed to set a date for a vote on an amended version.
Not only is the collapse of the cornerstone of its climate policy an embarrassment to the EU, but its failure resonates in other areas of the world. Australia has fixed a carbon price of $23 a ton until moving to a floating market price following the EU model in 2015. But, that is being reconsidered. The EU situation, coupled with the U. S. Senate’s rejection on March 22, 2013 of a bill to impose a fee on carbon, means that the Obama Administration will have an uphill battle for any future proposals for a fee or tax on carbon emissions.
Posted on May 7, 2013
The confluence of aggressive new EPA regulations targeted at coal-fired power plants and low natural gas prices has made the decommissioning of older coal-fired plants substantially more likely in the coming years. Decommissioning a plant does not occur within a specific regulatory framework. In many cases, unless there is a suspected public health threat, potential environmental conditions at the plant do not have to be reported to government agencies. For that reason environmental remediation of a plant site is often addressed in the property sale and redevelopment process.
But the shut down and decommissioning of power plants nonetheless has significant regulatory implications, and the reality is that analysis of regulatory obligations and advance planning, including a proactive strategy for interacting with agencies and other stakeholders, is essential. Understanding obligations requires review of existing permits and the underlying regulatory landscape. And that landscape may shift under your feet – for example, new regulations for coal combustion residuals on the horizon may implicate the closure of certain waste management units.
The regulatory landscape may also provide opportunities to maximize value. There are a wide variety of emission credit programs that vary by jurisdiction. Identifying and capturing emission credits brings value to the table. Similarly, water rights, to the extent they are marketable in a particular jurisdiction, could be a source of revenue.
On the practical front, laying out a smooth decommissioning path through careful planning may help avoid stoking the fire of agency, local or public ire. The agency may have a formal role to play depending on the permit conditions or applicable regulations, but there may also be extensive agency oversight exercised through pursuit of enforcement actions. Particularly where community interest is high, local, state or federal agencies may have a heightened interest and enforcement provides them an avenue for involvement in the site that might not otherwise exist. So it is important to recognize the key stakeholders early and to understand how their interest may translate to pressure on an agency to leverage any violations.
If the site is one with good redevelopment potential, finding and working with a credible and savvy purchaser may keep the focus on the end game and allow for appropriate risk-based standards to be deployed against a more concrete vision for the future of the site. Once there is a well-developed understanding of the regulatory obligations associated with the particular plant and the overall objective for the site after decommissioning, it may be the moment to reach out to the state and federal agencies, and perhaps key stakeholders, with early, accurate and contextualized information.
Because there is not a standard regulatory framework to apply, experience over the coming years as plants come offline will be telling – it is that experience that will provide useful frameworks for up front, comprehensive analysis and strategic outreach for a smooth path through decommissioning.
Posted on May 3, 2013
After being taken to task by states and its own Inspector General for lack of final guidance on Vapor Intrusion, EPA has just released draft guidance documents for hazardous substances and petroleum products for comment. The guidance documents are already generating discussion on the blogosphere, with comments due to EPA by May 24th. Below are some of the issues EPA will have to address for its guidance for hazardous substances, and those of us addressing vapor intrusion for our clients.
Will the guidance collapse under its own weight? EPA’s recommended framework relies upon collecting and evaluating multiple lines of evidence to support risk management decisions, detailed investigation of vapor intrusion including rigorous data quality objectives and recognition of seasonal/temporal variability in levels, consideration of options for building mitigation and subsurface remediation, decisions on how institutional controls can be crafted and monitored, and how the public will be involved. The practical question is how much evidence and process is enough for a rational decision, and how costly and time-consuming an evaluation effort is justified? Rarely are actions taken quickly in the CERCLA or RCRA world, but if there are risks, then they should be acted upon, and applying the guidance in other contexts will be challenging. There already appears to be a consensus that EPA’s approach will be costly, and give vapor intrusion a life of its own in remedial decision-making. EPA will have to address this issue, or find its guidance bypassed or ignored, given the need for timely decisions.
Should we all buy stock in fan manufacturers and makers of synthetic vapor barriers? EPA offers (only on page 125 of 143) the question of weighing relative costs of characterization vs. engineered exposure controls. If EPA guidance is followed, the cost of implementing the guidance will at times greatly exceed the cost of engineering controls. Clients want the deal “done” and are not likely to wait for a lengthy deliberative process.
What role will EPA acknowledge for OSHA standards? EPA proposes guidance for residential and non-residential buildings, but as a practical daily matter, there are separate standards and approaches for workplace and non-workplace scenarios. EPA doesn’t directly address that issue in the 2013 guidance, even though the Agency had helpful statements in its 2002 proposal. The issue gets even more complicated given the unsurprising obligation to consider potential future land uses. If the default scenario is residential use, will the workplace vs. non-workplace distinction disappear?
Déjà vu all over again? Yogi Berra may have been commenting on repeats of the Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris back-to-back home runs, but it is pretty clear we will be reopening sites that may have had vapor intrusion issues, and assessing old sites at which the issue was never raised, or addressed following different procedures. EPA settled the question in November 2012 for CERCLA five-year reviews by declaring vapor intrusion a mandatory topic, and plans to adopt final Hazard Ranking System amendments for vapor intrusion. The guidance document applies to RCRA sites as well, but EPA knows that the guidance will surely find application at many types of sites where volatile chemicals may have been present. Although the document is limited to CERCLA/RCRA guidance, its general purpose is to be helpful, and EPA should probably re-emphasize that not only are all sites different, the recommended framework may not even be practical when applied through other state programs. At risk of over-generalizing, practitioners have learned to recognize the advantages of not following CERCLA and RCRA approaches.
EPA will receive many comments, and there is some cleanup work to be done on the guidance documents, but look for the final documents to be completed in months, not years.
Thanks to Jeff Carnahan, LPG, EnviroForensics, for sharing with me his expertise on vapor intrusion. However, the thoughts expressed here are solely mine.
Posted on May 1, 2013
On April 23, a panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously held in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA that the Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to withdraw permits previously granted under section 404 of the Act. The case emerged from EPA’s determination that the discharge of mining waste from the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia into certain streams and tributaries would have an unacceptable adverse effect on environmental resources. Based on this determination, EPA withdrew the Army Corps of Engineers’ prior specification of these streams and tributaries as disposal sites for the waste from mountaintop removal.
Several features of the case are striking. First, the decision has obvious – and obviously important – implications for the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal and its irredeemable environmental impacts. No longer can the argument be made that a permit, once issued, gives the permittee the power, in perpetuity, to blast the tops off of mountains and dump them into streams.
Second, the decision rested, for the most part, on a single word: “whenever.” The Clean Water Act states that the Administrator of the EPA may withdraw the specification of a disposal site for dredge-and-fill material “whenever” she determines that it will have an “unacceptable adverse impact” on certain environmental resources. The court took Congress, literally, at its word, and held that “whenever” means whenever – that is, even if EPA finds unacceptable adverse impacts after a permit has issued, the agency has the authority to pull the permit.
Third, as if to make certain its own holding is unambiguous, too, the court five times stated that the Clean Water Act unambiguously authorizes EPA to withdraw permits after they are issued. EPA’s current interpretation of the Act is thus not changeable by a future administration.
Should permittees fear that “whenever” will become wherever? It is worth remembering that EPA’s decision on the Spruce No. 1 mine was the first time EPA had – ever! – withdrawn a previously issued permit, in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act. Whether EPA will be emboldened by this decision, or will continue to mostly allow existing permits to stand, remains to be seen.
Posted on April 30, 2013
On January 3, 2013, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that EPA lacks the statutory authority to set a Clean Water Act (“CWA”) total maximum daily load (“TMDL”) for “stormwater flow rates” as a surrogate for sediment deposition. Virginia Dep’t of Transportation et al v EPA et al. EPA has decided not to appeal. The case has received national attention because of its implications for other TMDLs that use surrogates. This article will discuss the decision and its significance for the TMDL and water quality regulatory regime.
The relevant statutory framework is CWA Section 303, under which each state establishes water quality standards for waters within its boundaries. These consist of a designated use (trout fishing, contact recreation, etc.) and numerical or narrative “water quality criteria” necessary to support that use. For “impaired waters” where the criteria are not being met, the state must set a TMDL (think “pollution budget”) for each pollutant for which the criteria are exceeded, and implement a “planning process” leading to achievement. Where the state fails to act, or sets a TMDL which EPA regards as insufficient, CWA Section 303(d)(2) directs EPA to set the TMDL.
Accotink Creek is a 25 mile tributary to the Potomac River in Virginia, in which the benthic organisms were impaired, primarily because of sediment deposited by stormwater running off impervious urban and suburban areas. In April 2011, after Virginia failed to set a TMDL, EPA set one which limited the flow rate of stormwater into Accotink Creek to 681.8 cu ft/ acre-day. The court said that the parties agreed that “sediment is a pollutant, and that stormwater is not” (Slip op. 3). While EPA’s brief contains a fallback argument that stormwater can be viewed as a “pollutant”, it did not dispute that stormwater flow was being used as a surrogate for sediment. Thus the question addressed by the court was whether EPA has the statutory authority to set a TMDL for a “surrogate” which is not itself a “pollutant”.
EPA has used surrogates in a number of circumstances where, in its view, the surrogate would provide appropriate reduction of pollutants, and would be either easier to measure or provide other benefits (such as, in this case, reduction of stream bank scouring caused by heavy stormwater discharges), or both. The court rejected EPA’s argument that since the CWA does not expressly address the use of surrogates, EPA’s use of them should be upheld as reasonable “gap-filling”, consistent with the broad remedial objectives of the CWA, and entitled to substantial Chevron step 2 deference. The court held instead that because the CWA instructed EPA to set TMDLs for “pollutants”, not “surrogates”, the statute was clear. The court distinguished EPA’s use of surrogates in this case from other instances in which surrogates have been used under other CWA provisions (notably Sections 301, 304 and 402) where EPA appears to have greater latitude.
EPA and states have used stormwater surrogates in TMDLs in Connecticut, Missouri and North Carolina. They have also used other types of surrogates, such as impervious surface area limits and secchi disc readings. Some of those have been challenged, and this decision will no doubt provide ammunition for those who oppose their use. Nationally, however, this amounts to a very small percentage of the TMDLs that are in place, even if one focuses only on sediment (for which, the court noted, EPA has issued approximately 3700 TMDLs).
In addition, this ruling will have no effect whatever on EPA’s permitting of industrial and municipal stormwater discharges, including municipal separate storm sewer systems (“MS4s”), or its ongoing development of stormwater regulations, because these activities are expressly authorized under CWA Section 402(p). This is especially important, because EPA and many states now recognize stormwater as a major source of contamination and water quality impairment. For a thoughtful article on this subject and emerging approaches, see Dave Owen, Urbanization, Water Quality, and the Regulated Landscape, 82 U. of Colo. L. Rev. 431 (April 2011).
Posted on April 29, 2013
On September 14, 2011, I posted a blog piece that was entitled “A Tug of War: How Can the State Satisfy Its Burden of Proof?” This posting discussed the diametrically opposed decisions of an Ohio trial court and an appeals court on the important issue of the kind of evidence necessary to prove a violation of an air emission limitation in an operating permit. This closely watched case in Ohio eventually reached the Ohio Supreme Court, which finally announced its decision on December 6, 2012.
In State ex rel. Ohio Attorney General v. Shelly Holding Co. the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the appellate court and ruled that the civil penalty calculation started on the date of the violation, as demonstrated by the failure of a stack test, and continued until the permitted source demonstrated compliance with the emission limitations. Over the objections of Shelly and several industry amicus filings, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that the state enforcement agency need not prove that the facility was operating out of compliance for each intervening day; such noncompliance can be presumed.
The issue arose, in part, because Shelly failed stack tests that were conducted under unrealistic, maximum-possible conditions when in fact day-to-day operations were likely to generate lower emissions. The state argued that Shelly should have discontinued operations until a subsequent stack test successfully demonstrated adherence to the permit’s emission limitations. Alternatively, the air pollution source could apply for and receive a new permit with different limits, or it could make intervening facility modifications that would enable it to pass the stack test. Shelly felt that it was improper to presume that the facility would exceed its emission limits unless the state makes a prima facie showing that the violation is likely to be ongoing or continuing.
After concluding that the burden is on the violator to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that there were intervening days on which no violation occurred or that the violation was not continuing in nature, the Ohio Supreme Court found no constitutional problem with extending the penalty to those subsequent days after the failed stack test. Thus, in Ohio, the beginning date for calculating a civil penalty for an air pollution control violation is the first date of demonstrated non-compliance (the failed stack test) and continues, even at lower operating rates, until the facility demonstrates a return to compliance.
While this decision arose in the context of an air permit, the State of Ohio is likely to cite it in other programs, such as NPDES permits.
Posted on April 25, 2013
After decades of sparring over nutrient loading in the Illinois River, and following several short term extensions of a previous truce, Arkansas and Oklahoma recently executed an agreement, the “Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions”, that establishes a procedural framework for attempting to resolve their long running trans-boundary water quality dispute.
The Illinois River heads up in a rapidly developing section of Northwest Arkansas and flows west into a comparatively undeveloped portion of Northeast Oklahoma, where the river is designated by state statute as a scenic river. For more than two decades Oklahoma has worked to reduce the amount of nutrients, and particularly phosphorus, discharged into the Illinois River watershed. In 2002 Oklahoma adopted a numeric water quality criterion for Total Phosphorus that many considered impossible to attain in a developed watershed. In an effort to avoid litigation over the validity of the numeric criterion, Arkansas and Oklahoma entered into an agreement in 2003 known as the Statement of Joint Principles and Actions. This agreement provided, among other things, that: (i) Oklahoma would postpone for 10 years the date on which the numeric criterion would be fully effective; (ii) Arkansas sources would take a number of steps to reduce phosphorus discharges; and (iii) Oklahoma would review the existing numeric criterion, with an opportunity for Arkansas representatives to participate, before the end of the ten year period to determine whether the numeric criterion should be changed.
The ten year truce created by the Statement of Joint Principles and Actions was originally scheduled to expire in July 2012. During the ten year period Arkansas sources made significant progress in reducing the amount of phosphorus they discharged in the watershed. As a result, phosphorus levels in the Illinois River began to decline and most observers agreed that conditions in the river were significantly improved. Towards the end of the ten year period Oklahoma undertook a review, with full participation by representatives of Arkansas, EPA, and the Cherokee Nation. The review ended in a sharply divided report, with Oklahoma representatives stating that no change in the numeric phosphorus criterion was warranted and Arkansas representative stating that significant change was necessary.
As the end of the ten year truce approached, officials from Arkansas and Oklahoma began negotiations once again on how to avoid litigation. Focus on the potential for costly litigation was sharpened by the fact that EPA had publicly commenced work on a Phosphorus TMDL for the entire Illinois River watershed. After several agreements on short term extensions of the July 2012 deadline, Arkansas and Oklahoma reached agreement in February 2013 on a Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions. This new agreement provides, among other things, that Arkansas and Oklahoma will fund a joint three year water quality study using EPA protocols to determine the threshold Total Phosphorus levels at which shifts in algal species or biomass production occur that result in undesirable aesthetic or water quality conditions. Oklahoma and Arkansas agree in the Second Statement to be bound by the findings of the joint study, and Oklahoma agrees to adopt a new numeric criterion for Total Phosphorus in the Illinois River if the results of the joint study are significantly different from the existing criterion (i.e., more than -0.010 mg/l or +0.010 mg/l than the existing .037 mg/l criterion). During the term of the Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions, both states agree not to initiate or maintain litigation contrary to the terms of the agreement, and the statute of limitations on all claims is extended. Oklahoma agrees that it will postpone for the duration of the new agreement the date on which its existing, hotly disputed numeric criterion is to be fully effective.
EPA was not a party to the negotiation of the new agreement and it has not announced any formal position on its effect. It is not clear what impact the new agreement will have on EPA’s work to develop a TMDL for Phosphorus in the Illinois River watershed or on the various NPDES permits for POTWs on the Illinois River that are currently pending review in EPA Region 6.
Posted on April 22, 2013
I get it that environmental groups place strict compliance with regulatory controls at a premium. After all, the standards are designed to be protective of the resource, and they are The Law, which must be obeyed.
But I sometimes find it dismaying when people conflate immediate, measured, and guaranteed compliance with ecological outcomes. They are not the same. I have been in settlement discussions in which I propose that we first come to agreement on what’s best for the resource, and then figure out how to make that fit into the regulatory framework, but have had few takers. The number is the number is the number.
A recent example arises in the context of water quality trading. EPA policy promotes alternative means of achieving regulatory compliance that promise environmental results at least as good as conventional, engineered approaches, and at lower cost. For example, if discharge water temperatures are the problem, riparian shade tree planting could substitute for mechanical chillers. Of course, measureable cooling would be deferred by many years while the trees grow, but the ancillary benefits of watershed restoration to habitat and ecosystem function are intuitive and compelling. This approach is supported by academia, government, and many in the NGO community. Some though are skeptical.
The City of Medford, Oregon, is embarking on a riparian vegetation approach to reduce temperatures at its wastewater treatment outfall, in full cooperation with Oregon DEQ. A regional NGO, Northwest Environmental Advocates, however, has raised objections. In a letter dated March 15, 2013, NEA asks EPA to examine DEQ’s implementation of the water quality trading policy with reference to Medford. NEA questions allowance of “credits” for watershed restoration work that upstream nonpoint sources would have to do anyway, and asserts that no credits should be allowed until the new trees actually yield shade.
The problem is that the upstream nonpoint sources are not obligated by law to restore riparian vegetation; they just need to adopt best management practices to avoid further degradation. More to the point, restoration of the watershed will simply not occur without the funding provided by a point source with a regulatory problem to solve, such as Medford. By denying the City credits, the incentive to use a watershed approach disappears. Similarly, if no credits are awarded until the trees are grown, funds that could go toward watershed restoration will be diverted to engineered controls on temperature. As DEQ Director Dick Pedersen so aptly puts it, “[i]f we ever build a chiller at the expense of ecosystems, we’ve failed.”
Posted on April 18, 2013
You may know that Washington State Governor Jay Inslee is a climate champion, first as a long-serving member of Congress and now as Governor. But you may not know that he just finished leading a bipartisan effort that succeeded in passing climate change legislation.
His climate action bill passed the State House March 25th on a bipartisan 61 to 32 vote. The bill earlier passed the Republican-controlled State Senate on a 37 to 12 vote. And a few days ago it headed to Governor Inslee’s desk for a well-earned signature.
The bill commissions an independent evaluation of climate pollution reduction programs in other states and Canadian provinces, and of opportunities for new job-producing investments in Washington relating to cleaner energy and greater energy efficiency. Then it requires the Governor and legislative leaders to use that survey data to plot out together what set of policies will get the State to hit its climate pollution limits established by earlier legislation, including a greenhouse gas emission reduction to 1990 levels by the year 2020.
“The Governor’s climate action bill keeps our state in the game – requiring leaders to map out a strategy to grow our clean energy economy and reduce climate pollution,” said Joan Crooks, executive director of Washington Environmental Council.
And here — in sharp contrast to the other Washington — Republicans and conservative Democrats agreed.
Posted on April 12, 2013
The August 21, 2012 decision of the D.C. Circuit Court in EME Homer City Generation LP v. EPA, Case No. 11-1302, not only vacated the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), it also provided a detailed framework (including the math) for how future plans should be developed by States to implement national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) through the “good neighbor” provisions of the Clean Air Act. This case has already been the subject of various posts to this Blog. This article will provide an update of activities that have occurred in recent weeks as state and federal agencies, NGOs and the regulated community respond to the decision and its implications for implementing the various NAAQS (past, present and future).
Let me begin by noting that on March 29, 2013, EPA and various environmental organizations filed for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. Even as EPA was filing for such a writ, EPA has scheduled two meetings this month with states to obtain input on technical and policy decisions. In these meetings, EPA is offering its interpretation of the court decision and its views about various options that exist for conducting the required analyses through the shared responsibility of EPA and the states.
Finally, the Midwest Ozone Group (MOG), a coalition of electric power generation interests, has developed a position statement on how the court opinion might be implemented including the identification of the following seven rules taken from the court opinion.
1. Basic rule - An upwind State’s obligation is limited to its own significant contribution and it cannot be directed to reduce emissions to account for any other factors impacting a downwind State’s nonattainment.
2. Proportionality of Downwind States - A downwind State is responsible for above-NAAQS amounts that are not attributable to significant contributions from upwind States.
3. Proportionality of Upwind States - The ratio of an individual upwind State contribution to the total contribution of all upwind States should be used as scalar to determine how the total upwind contribution is allocated among upwind States.
4. The Role of Costs - EPA may reduce some or all of the obligations of upwind States to avoid the imposition of unreasonable costs.
5. Insignificance - Once contributions are determined, a State is not required to address more than that contribution amount minus the significance threshold.
6. NAAQS Attainment - Once an area meets the NAAQS, no additional upwind emission reductions are required.
7. Over-Control - When multiple downwind areas are concerned, reductions associated with one downwind area should be reviewed in other areas to ensure unnecessary over control is not achieved
The full position statement can be found here.
The MOG position statement is accompanied by a presentation prepared by Alpine Geophysics which applies an example set of modeling data to these rules to illustrate how the rules might be applied as well as the significant technical and policy questions that remain. The Alpine Geophysics presentation can be found here.
Posted on April 11, 2013
Climate Change and the deficit are at the top of the legislative and policy agenda for the country. Some economists love the “carbon tax.” Senators Sanders and Boxer recently proposed the Climate Protection Act of 2013 -- to impose a tax on fossil fuels and high carbon intensity products sold in the US. Many in the popular press are now advocating for a carbon tax, to reduce the deficit and to provide for reductions in carbon emissions.
Rather than believe that a tax can create just the right mix of incentives and funds to promote de-carbonization measures, I would argue that the ability to offset ought to be included in any such measure. Carbon offset credits are based on one of the most significant legislative changes in the 1977 Clean Air Amendments --the requirement to get Emission Reduction Credits. While ERCs were limited to requirements for a new or modified major emitting facility in a “non-attainment area,” the principles of ERC of ERCs can be found in the documentation now known as “carbon offsets.” Scores of methodologies or protocols are now recognized as scientifically valid for activities which are not required by law and which do not represent business as usual. The proof required to earn a valid carbon offset credits is considerable, at least as exacting than even what EPA requires for ERCs. Because it is the regulated industry which chooses whether to use an offset or not, offset credits have another level of proof -- that of the end user - to satisfy. And Innovation and entrepreneurs are characteristic of carbon offset credits.
Not only are carbon offsets a recognized cost containment tool in many GHG control programs, it allows different approaches to carbon reduction to compete against each other. The most efficient and most effective will have the lower price; and hence be more attractive than other ways of reducing. And it will bring in sectors with GHG emissions which would not be reduced otherwise. From livestock wastewater operations to improved forestry management, from rice cultivation practices to coal mine methane, emission reductions will occur which would not otherwise. A more detailed discussion of this topic can be found at www.Dentons.com.
Posted on April 10, 2013
According to the recent U.S. Drought Monitor, approximately 65% of the contiguous United States is currently experiencing “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions. In my part of the country, a recent projection indicates that a reservoir supplying a significant portion of our municipal water supply could dry up within 3-4 years if severe drought conditions persist. Although an “Aquifer Storage and Recovery” program was previously developed to enhance the available supply of groundwater, it is only designed to replenish the drinking water aquifer from excess river flow during flood conditions—a rare occurrence during a severe drought.
I am not capable of allocating percentages of fault for this persistent drought between anthropic climate change and extreme climatic occurrences that are “normal” in the context of geologic time. However, I am persuaded by the argument that “climate change,” by whatever definition you choose to give it, is a problem not only of causation and prevention, but also of adaptation. A previous posting on the need to prioritize adaptation to climate change states the argument well. Is it time we give more thought to groundwater replenishment as an adaptation tool?
My practice includes representing clients at various hazardous substance release sites, under both state and federal law. The default remedy for contaminated groundwater at many of these sites remains extraction and treatment (commonly using air stripping technology) to both contain and clean up the extracted groundwater to “unrestricted use” quality. At most of these sites, however, treated groundwater is discharged to a ditch, creek or similar conveyance where the value of the groundwater as a critical natural resource is largely lost.
An environmental consultant at one such site recently calculated that, over the period of two years, the pump and treat system had removed and discharged to a nearby ditch approximately 110 million gallons of treated groundwater. During a period of severe drought, the system was depleting a drinking water aquifer by over two feet annually. In addition, it was estimated that the quantity of groundwater being treated, and largely wasted, was equivalent to the water used by 1,850 residents (27% of the population) of the city in which the site is located.
Beneficial reuse of “contaminated” water resources is obviously not a new concept, particularly the reuse of nonpotable water. Examples include the reuse of treated nonpotable water for industrial, municipal and agricultural purposes. Potable water reuse is less common for reasons related to water quality requirements, technical issues, cost and community and regulatory acceptance.
Notwithstanding the obstacles and additional costs, it may now be time for environmental professionals, regulators and attorneys to more systematically and creatively consider potable reuse options at contaminated groundwater sites. This would include an evaluation of discharging treated groundwater through infiltration basins, infiltration galleries and injection wells to replenish the drinking water aquifer from which it was extracted. Consideration should be given to partnering site regulators and responsible parties with nearby municipalities to revitalize drinking water aquifers or supplement other potable water resources. Another issue worthy of discussion is community acceptance, which may be more likely when treated contaminated groundwater is beneficially reused indirectly through aquifer replenishment, rather directly through discharge into water supply pipes.
I submit that all too often we accept without much thought the default option of permitted surface discharge of groundwater that has been treated to “non-detect”. Potable reuse through groundwater recharge and restoration involves significant cost and technical issues. But in our effort to add weapons to the climate change adaptation arsenal, all interested parties should more carefully consider such options notwithstanding the challenges.
Posted on April 9, 2013
Late last year, the United States Supreme Court used a mathematical hypothesis to solve a takings question involving environmental damage. Remember the transitive property of equality?
A=C, B=C, so A=B [and =C]
The Court summarized its opinion by noting:
a government-induced flooding can constitute a [compensable] taking (A=C);
a temporary act can be a compensable taking (B=C); so
a government-induced flooding even as a temporary act (A=B) may be a compensable taking [=C].
In takings analysis, flooding cases hold no special exempt footing. Floodings need not be permanent or inevitable to result in a constitutional taking. Seasonal, recurring flooding (similar to a repetitive flight overhead that interrupts a property’s intended use) can be a taking based on the facts and circumstances, like time and degree of interference, character of the land, reasonable investment-backed expectations and foreseeability. See Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. United States.
Posted on April 8, 2013
Courts in Alaska issued two decisions upholding agency practice in carrying out antidegradation review under the Clean Water Act. The federal court concluded that adoption of water quality standards does not, itself, require antidegradation review. In the second case, a state court concluded that guidance may be developed to implement antidegradation regulations and need not be promulgated as a regulation provided it does not contain substantive criteria.
In Native Village of Point Hope v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alaska native and environmental organizations challenged EPA's approval of the State of Alaska's adoption of a site-specific water quality criterion ("SSC") for total dissolved solids ("TDS"). The SSC was challenged on a number of grounds, including on the basis that neither the State of Alaska nor EPA analyzed the SSC under the relevant antidegradation policy. The issue before the U.S. District Court for Alaska was whether antidegradation review applied to the adoption of water quality standards ("WQS") or, conversely, only when WQS are translated into permits through effluent limitations. In a case of first impression in the federal courts, the court ruled for EPA, holding that agencies are not required to undertake antidegradation review for the adoption of WQS; the obligation is only triggered when a WQS is incorporated into a permit through effluent limitations.
In Alaska Center for the Environment v. State of Alaska, environmental organizations challenged the State of Alaska's adoption of antidegradation implementation procedures through guidance, arguing that the procedures should have been promulgated as regulations. As background, several NPDES permits in Alaska were withdrawn by EPA in the face of arguments from environmental organizations that the State of Alaska lacked antidegradation implementation procedures. To address this alleged deficiency, the State of Alaska developed a guidance document which EPA found was consistent with EPA's own antidegradation regulation. The primary issue in the litigation was whether the State of Alaska was required to promulgate the guidance in the form of a regulation or whether it was permissible rely upon guidance to implement its regulations. In a decision that turned largely on the State of Alaska's Administration Procedures Act, the court held that it was appropriate for the State to develop the guidance to implement its regulatory program, reasoning that the guidance did not add substantive requirements to existing regulations.
Posted on April 5, 2013
In the wake of salmonella, e-coli, and listeria outbreaks in the nation’s food supply, and driven by fears concerning contaminants like melanine and lead being imported in foods from developing countries like China, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (“FDA’s”) food safety assurance programs have fallen under much criticism in recent years. In a rare instance of bipartisan consensus in this day and age, in 2010, Congress overwhelmingly passed and, on January 4, 2011, President Obama signed, Public Law 111-353, the Food Safety Modernization Act (“FSMA”). FSMA, in turn, required FDA to provide the first comprehensive update to its food safety programs in decades.
On January 16, 2013, almost a year behind the schedule set by Congress, FDA published two significant draft rules and accompanying preambles to implement FSMA’s upgraded food safety system requirements (78 Fed. Reg. 3504 ; 78 Fed. Reg. 3646). In these two significant rulemakings, FDA essentially proposes to: (1) add to an updated set of its longstanding “good manufacturing practices (“GMP”) requirements (found in 21 C.F.R. Part 110), a mandate that all food processors implement hazard analysis and critical point of control (“HACCP”) programs, and (2) to require growers of food commodities that will not be subject to extensive processing to implement programs of good agricultural practices (“GAPs”).
Kudos to the FDA for proposing such a sensible approach to addressing Congress’s goal of ensuring enhanced food safety in America. Rather than making requirements more prescriptive, FDA instead has essentially proposed to require food processors not already subject to HACCP requirements to conduct these disciplined analysis of food safety hazards “reasonably likely to occur” and then have the results of that risk-based analysis drive the processors to further identify, implement, and track the additional compliance measures necessary to address the potentially significant hazard presented. In the GAP context, FDA has taken the additional step of itself analyzing the food safety hazards that are “reasonably likely to occur” in fresh produce and concluded (subject to public comment) that microbiological risks are the hazards at the farm level warranting the imposition of GAP requirements under the law for the first time (rather than merely as recommendations as has been the case until now).
Politicians, regulators, and environmental lawyers and activists too often dismiss or merely give lip service to risk-based analysis and regulation, but, at least here, FDA proposes to meaningfully embrace and apply the approach so as to allow food safety management and control resources to be best allocated to protecting the public’s health and safety. Hat’s off to the FDA!!!
Posted on April 4, 2013
As E. E. Cummings reminds us, “in Just-spring . . . the world is mud-luscious . . . and . . . puddle-wonderful. . . . and the goat-footed balloonMan whistles far and wee.” Inspired by the whimsy of Mr. Cummings’ poetry and the wit of April Jester’s blog posting earlier this week, I offer ACOEL members two bits of verse. When you read them, I hope you hear the balloonMan’s whistle and smile.
First, a sonnet. You may remember from English courses in high school and college that a sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. A typical rhyming scheme for a sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg. Shakespeare’s sonnets were inspired by love, death, and nature. My sonnet (below) was inspired by the propensity of a certain regulatory agency to charge full steam ahead in doing what it believes is right, regardless of statutory or other obstacles in its path.
How grand to be so certain that you know
Exactly what is wrong and what to do;
To reach your goals straight out – no quid pro quo –
Undaunted there might be another view.
When certain, you can march on undeterr’d
By precedent or by the facts or laws.
No countervailing views need e’er be heard,
Nor far-fetched deadlines ever give you pause.
Just sit and write your rules from iv’ry towers
And justify them based upon the creed
That doing what you “know” is right gives powers
To let yourself go where your hunches lead.
Jump to the finish line, no in-betweens:
The end – to save the world – is worth the means.
And now a limerick or, actually, a string of three limericks. Recall that a limerick is five lines long, it is written in anapestic meter, and it has a strict rhyme scheme: aabba. A true limerick must be humorous and profane, and it should violate some taboo, for example the taboo against actively lobbying for recognition by those who want to be wooed but don’t want to be seen as encouraging such wooing. And just to be clear here, I am indeed using this verse to lobby such a group: the people serving on the august panel that will be determining which ACOEL blog entries from the past year deserve an award. In a blatant attempt to sway that panel and its chair, His Excellency Seth Jaffe, I offer the following.
A Limerick that Blatantly Seeks to Curry Favor
with Those Determining the Best ACOEL Blogs of the Year
This one blogger just wants a top prize,
So she knows she must catch Seth J’s eyes.
He must find that her blog
Has all members agog
With its content, both witty and wise.
The best title award, she can’t win,
For she knows that this year, going in,
Braddock’s blog, “What the Cluck?!”
Has that won. (What the ____?!)
Way to go! You earn’d it, Tricia Finn.
So if winning on merit won’t pay,
She will come up with some other way.
She’ll devote ev’ry breath
To the service of Seth.
Watcha say? Do I win, Mister J?
Posted on April 3, 2013
Two items hit my inbox on the same day:
(1) The U.S. is predicted to become the world's largest oil producer and North America to become a net petroleum-exporting region according to the International Energy Agency, and
(2) The Obama Administration is renewing its commitment to wean U.S. cars off of petroleum.
Some might argue that it makes sense to wean cars off petroleum even if we have a lot of it because of the threat of global climate change, but instead the stated justification was “to create jobs and help lower energy costs for middle class families.”
Then came the news that the operating unit of China's largest solar panel company, Suntech Power, recently filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration proposes the creation of a $2 billion Energy Security Trust, funded by revenues from offshore oil leases matching those provided by the Chinese, to subsidize investments in this supposedly vital emerging field.
The disparity between such news and the government actions being taken started me questioning whether it is possible for governments to manage a field as dynamic and ever changing as future energy supplies. "Regulatory lag" has long been a familiar concept in utility rate regulation: by the time regulators get around to approving new rates, the situation has changed. And human beings are justly famous for "winning the last war": by the time that we understand something well enough to develop a broadly-shared consensus, the situation has changed.
This is nothing personal against the Obama Administration or support for renewable energy. I have been teaching a course at the Yale Law School this semester on the history of energy policy in the U.S. since World War II. A theme that runs throughout the course is how policies designed to manage energy supply, regardless of political outlook, lag as much as a decade or two behind the times. For example, Nixon's 1971 oil price freeze lasted until 1981; Eisenhower's 1959 oil import quotas lasted until 1973. In both instances, government policy did a lot of unnecessary harm because the energy supply situation changed much faster than government policies do.
I often wonder why environmental law and energy law are so different. One difference is that environmental problems tend to stand still (or get worse) long enough for us to mobilize the slow processes of government to solve them. We studied and debated acid rain for over a decade before the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which mandated a 50% reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions over the following decade. Energy markets change within months as new sources of supply and technologies come on line. It makes one wonder whether government policy will inevitably be a day late and a dollar short when it tries to manage future energy sources.
Posted on April 1, 2013
A group of Harvard law students has come up with a novel strategy to achieve more stringent regulation of firearms in the United States, namely environmental citizen suits.
Frustrated by the slow pace of Congressional efforts to strengthen regulation of firearms, this group of students has filed citizen suit notice letters against dozens of hunt clubs and firing ranges in the South and Midwest. The notice letters allege that the hunt clubs and their members:
• Violate the Clean Water Act by discharging pollutants from point sources over navigable waters without a permit
• Violate the Clean Air Act by emitting hazardous air pollutants without a permit
• Dispose of hazardous wastes, including lead and other heavy metals, without a RCRA disposal permit or compliance with the RCRA uniform waste manifest requirements
• Own and operate facilities where CERCLA hazardous substances are released into the environment; and
• Cause or contribute to the unpermitted disposal of solid waste.
This group of students, the Harvard Environmental Law & Litigation Society, is only recently organized, but they are clearly ambitious. One of the students, Angel Del Norte, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “We hope our efforts will blow some of those gun crazy deep South Bubbas out of the water.”
One of the targeted organizations, the Poteau Piscine Club in south Alabama, is working to organize a unified response to the citizen suit notices. The club’s President, Robert E. Lee (“Bobby”) Rhebop, stated in a press release that all of the organizations targeted in Alabama had agreed to contribute to a joint legal defense fund. Rhebop added, “If those pointy headed snot noses in Boston think they know something about guns, I can’t wait ‘til they see the business end of my .357. I’ll teach ‘em what a discharge from a real point source can do.”
Reaction has also spread rapidly in Texas. One of the targeted hunt clubs has persuaded their local legislator to introduce a bill in the state senate that would authorize Texas residents who attend Harvard to carry concealed weapons on the Harvard campus. As one proponent of the bill said “If we pass this sucker, I bet every Texan in Harvard will start getting straight A’s.”
To date no one from EPA has commented on the notice letters.