Do states have an independent, fiduciary obligation under the “Public Trust Doctrine” to protect air quality and to do so by regulating greenhouse gases (GHGs)?

Posted on July 30, 2012 by Jeff Civins

Based on a doctrine going back to Roman times – the “Public Trust Doctrine,” a consortium of national and state environmental organizations have brought a series of lawsuits, naming minors as plaintiffs, seeking declarations that federal and state governments have an independent, fiduciary responsibility to protect the quality of air as a public natural resource and to do so by regulating GHGs.  Though generally unsuccessful, they have obtained two recent rulings that have lent some credence to their efforts.  These rulings raise fundamental questions regarding the bases for government regulation to protect the environment.

On July 9, 2012, a Travis County district court judge, in response to the plea to the jurisdiction of the Defendant Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), found that the agency’s “conclusion that the public trust doctrine is exclusively limited to the conservation of water is legally invalid.”  Bonser-Lain v. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Case No. D-1-GN-11-002194 (201st Dist. Ct., Travis County, Tex.).  According to the court, the doctrine includes all the natural resources of the state.  The court, however, also found that the agency’s refusal to exercise its authority, based on current litigation by TCEQ against EPA regarding the ability of EPA to regulate GHGs, was a reasonable exercise of discretion.  The plaintiffs had filed a petition for rulemaking with the agency, which the agency had denied, that would have required, among other things, that GHG emissions from fossil fuels be frozen at 2012 levels and that a plan be developed to implement the corresponding reductions.

On June 29, 2012, a New Mexico district court judge, without much explanation, denied in part that state’s motion to dismiss a similar lawsuit, which sought a declaration that the state had failed to comply with its public trust obligation to protect the atmosphere.  Sanders-Reed v. Martinez, Case No. D-101-CV-2011-01514 (Santa Fe County First Judicial District Court, NM).  The court’s ruling allowed the law suit to go forward.   

This series of suits and the decisions in these two cases raise fundamental questions about the bases for governmental regulation to protect the environment.  First, should the atmosphere be considered a public trust resource?  Although air is included in the definition of a natural resource under Superfund, it is different than other natural resources, e.g., land, fish, wildlife, biota, water, groundwater, and drinking water supplies, in that it is not something that can be captured and conserved or its use managed.  Even assuming air is properly categorized as a public trust resource, should an independent common law duty be imposed on states requiring them to take action to protect it?  As a practical matter, all states do have extensive regulatory schemes to protect air quality.  What additional benefit does the imposition of a common law duty create?  If a duty is to be imposed, should it be translated into specific requirements to compel a specific result, and, if so, based on what guidance.  Are the specifics of air quality protection better left to federal and state legislatures and the agencies that implement their legislation?  Finally, with regard to GHG emissions, in addition to concerns about identifying appropriate requirements, are they better managed on the federal and international level because, unlike traditional air pollutants, their impact is global rather than regional?  These questions all appear to be political ones, better handled in forums other than the courts.

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Quick Takes on Rio + 20

Posted on July 25, 2012 by Leslie Carothers

If the Rio Summit concluded last month met expectations, it’s because they were so low.  The 49 page document summarizing the agreement by the government representatives, The Future We Want, was largely stripped of strong language and substantive commitments.  From my perspective, two failures and one success in the agreement stand out.  First, the diplomats could not muster a firm commitment to the UN Secretary General’s goal of ensuring universal access to energy services and doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources by 2030.   Paragraph 127 on energy sources seems to give equal status to high and low carbon fuels, and earlier language endorsing reduction of environmentally and economically harmful subsidies was dropped. This was not an encouraging result for a summit focused on advancing a “green economy.”

Second, the final document also watered down statements of support for the rights of women to family planning services as well as ownership of various forms of property. Although 105 national science organizations joined many women’s groups in urging a strong stance on moderating population growth by providing reproductive health services wanted by women, objections by the Holy See (aka the Vatican) and backward members of the G-77 developing countries’ coalition caused numerous small changes in wording (e.g. promote vs. ensure) that ended up barely preserving existing UN commitments to rights to reproductive health services.  (See the analysis by Rebecca Lifton at the Center for American Progress) The brightest spot in the final agreement is a comparatively aggressive set of commitments to protect and restore oceans and marine resources.  Professor Ann Powers, oceans expert at Pace Law School, attended the summit and notes that 20 of the 238 paragraphs of the agreement dealt with oceans issues like plastic debris and fisheries management and included most of what ocean advocates sought.

The non-governmental attendees were far more successful in making commitments and connections.   Many members of the business community, for example, continued the tradition, begun in 1992, of active participation in the Rio meeting as an environmental trade fair in ideas, products, and contacts.   In one notable project, a consortium of 24 companies, collaborating with the Corporate EcoForum and the Nature Conservancy, has been working toward the goal of valuing natural resources used and saved by companies.  According to Neil Hawkins, Vice President for Environment, Health, and Sustainability at Dow Chemical, the goal of pricing ecosystem services to mobilize markets in advancing sustainable development was a major focus of events at the Rio summit. The meeting was a catalyst for making specific company commitments to develop and test valuation methodologies as well as an opportunity to educate a broader audience on progress being made.    

Finally, the legal profession sponsored a varied menu of law and governance programs. The World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability convened judges, prosecutors, practitioners, and auditors to debate how to make environmental law more effective and how to increase public access to legal remedies.  (See the Rio + 20 Declaration of the Congress). At a time when multilateral diplomacy cannot produce a binding agenda, lawyers are challenged to find new ways to secure commitments from parties willing to act to advance environmental progress.

National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius: What’s In It for Environmental Law?

Posted on July 23, 2012 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

The Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Act) caused equal parts celebration and outrage by upholding the constitutionality of the individual mandate as a tax.  Environmental lawyers, however, are focusing on other, less prominent aspects of the decision, which could have implications for the constitutionality of environmental laws.  These aspects are: (1) the conclusion of a bare majority of the Court that the Act’s individual mandate was not within Congress’ Commerce Power; (2) the holding -- concurred in by seven justices -- that the withholding of all Medicaid funds from states refusing to expand their coverage as required by the Act exceeded Congress’ power under the Spending Clause and ran afoul of the anti-commandeering principle of the Tenth Amendment. 

The Court’s Commerce Clause ruling addressed the individual mandate’s requirement that those not participating in the health insurance market purchase health insurance unless covered by an exclusion.   In their opinions on this issue, Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito agreed that failure to participate in the health insurance market did not warrant regulation under the Commerce Clause simply because that inactivity had an effect on the premiums charged to others buying health insurance.  As Chief Justice Roberts put it: “The Framers gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it.”  Slip op. at 24 (emphasis in original).  This feature of the Court’s ruling may have no precise analogue in environmental statutes: typically environmental statutes prohibit or restrict activity with an arguable relation to interstate commerce rather than compelling such activity.  But certainly environmental lawyers will be searching for one. 

More generally, the five justices in the majority on this issue made clear their resolve to extend the restrictive view of the Commerce Power announced in cases such as U.S. v. Lopez and U.S. v. Morrison and to cabin decisions suggesting a more generous view of that power, such as Wickard v. Filburn and Gonzales v. Raich.  This resolve could affect future Commerce Clause rulings on the permissible scope of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental statutes: interpretations of the Clean Water Act influenced by restrictive commerce clause decisions have already narrowed its scope. 

The Court’s holding on the Medicaid expansion provision could have more direct implications for environmental statutes, particularly for cooperative federalism arrangements under statutes such as the Clean Air Act that threaten to withhold federal funds if states do not agree to implement prescribed programs.  The expansion provision required states to expand coverage to low income individuals as well as make other changes; states that failed to undertake this expansion were threatened with loss of all federal Medicaid funds.  Seven justices agreed that the choice the Act offered to the states – expand or forfeit all Medicaid funds – was not a choice at all, but coercion and therefore impermissible.  Their views appear in two opinions, one by Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan, and another by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito. 

While coming to the same conclusion on this issue, the two opinions were not entirely aligned on the features of the case that justified this conclusion, and neither drew clear lines for application in future cases.  Both opinions stressed the relative size of the forfeiture – all of Medicaid funds, which equaled nearly 22% of all state expenditures.  Both noted that the penalty upheld in South Dakota v. Dole -- withholding of 5% of federal-aid highway funds from states that failed to raise their drinking age to 21 – amounted to less than half of one percent of South Dakota’s budget.  But neither offered to fix the outermost line: too much is somewhere between 0.5 and 22%.  In a theme not picked up by the others, Justice Roberts’ opinion also argued that the expansion represented a new program, which impermissibly used the funds provided through an existing program (pre-expansion Medicaid) to leverage its acceptance by the states.  How the courts develop these different strains of analysis in future cases and what lines of demarcation emerge will determine the significance of threats to existing or future environmental law provisions that rely on the Spending Power.

Not a Good Start for Challenges to EPA NAAQS Revisions: The District of Columbia Court of Appeals Affirms EPA's New NOx NAAQS

Posted on July 18, 2012 by Seth Jaffe

Yesterday, in American Petroleum Institute v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed EPA’s revisions to the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for NOx. The revisions adopted, for the first time, an hourly NAAQS for NOx, in addition to the annual standard.

API made a number of assertions that EPA had been arbitrary and capricious in its review of the scientific evidence concerning potential short-term impacts. The most important were EPA’s reliance, in part, on a study which had not been the subject of peer review, and EPA's alleged failure to consider a study suggesting that short-term impacts had not been demonstrated.

The Court rejected both complaints. With respect to the first, API asserted that EPA violated its own requirements when it relied on an internal analysis that had not been peer-reviewed. The Court’s response was short, but certainly not sweet:

Perhaps the API should have had its brief peer-reviewed. In quoting the EPA’s Review Plan, the API omits the first and most relevant word of the following sentence: “Generally, only information that has undergone scientific peer review … will be considered.” Of course, “generally” here indicates the practice in question will not invariably be followed. A bad start for the petitioners.

To which I can only say, ouch.  Significantly, the Court noted that EPA did have its internal analysis reviewed by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and it stated that review by CASAC qualifies as peer review.

Regarding the second claim, the Court concluded that EPA had considered the skeptical study.  Moreover, EPA gave reasons why it rejected the conclusions of the study.  This was enough for the Court.

I have previously pointed out that the Court’s review of EPA’s NAAQS in recent years has pretty much made the CASAC the final arbiter of the validity of EPA NAAQS promulgations. If EPA’s decision is supported by CASAC’s review – as it was here – EPA’s NAAQS will be affirmed. If, on the other hand, as was the case with EPA’s PM2.5 NAAQS, EPA promulgates an NAAQS that ignores CASAC advice, EPA’s standard is not likely to survive judicial review.

Yesterday’s decision only confirms this analysis. CASAC did not merely review the one paper that API had challenged; it proposed a short-term standard that was similar to and certainly consistent with the standard that EPA ultimately adopted. I’m not sure that Congress meant to delegate to CASAC the determination whether NAAQS adopted by EPA are arbitrary and capricious, but I think that that is where we are today.

To which API can only say, ouch.

Taking vs. Tort: Supreme Court's Upcoming Review of Arkansas Flooding Case

Posted on July 13, 2012 by Stephen Bruckner

The United States Supreme Court recently granted certiorari to the first environmental case it will review during the 2012-2013 term.  The case, Arkansas Game & Fish Commission v. United States, raises the question of whether flooding caused by the Army Corps of Engineers temporary increase in releases from an upstream dam constitutes a taking under the Fifth Amendment or is a potential common law tort.  The Court will examine whether physical intrusions onto private property must be permanent in order to be a taking and whether the government's intent plays a role in the analysis under the Takings Clause.

The case arises from damage to oak trees in a wildlife refuge that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission alleges occurred due to the Corps of Engineers temporary deviations from the Clearwater Dam's 1953 water management plan.  These deviations took place between 1993 and 2000.  The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission alleged that the deviations caused increased flooding which damaged the root systems of the oak trees and killed many of them.

The United States Court of Federal Claims found that the government had engaged in an unconstitutional taking and awarded $5 million in damages to the Game and Fish Commission. 

In a split decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the decision of the Court of Claims.  The Federal Circuit ruled that the Corps of Engineers' increase in upstream releases could not constitute a taking because the deviation policy was only temporary.  The court reasoned that in order to be considered a taking, flooding would have to be the result of a permanent change in the Corps of Engineers' water management plan.  The court found that, at most, the flooding created possible tort liability. In dissent, Judge Newman observed that the flooding led to permanent damage to the timber and the property in the wildlife refuge and reasoned that such permanent loss constitutes a taking under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's petition for certiorari was granted by the Supreme Court in April of this year, and the case is set to be argued in the Court's 2012-2013 term. 
 

SNURs + Articles = Commercial Confusion

Posted on July 11, 2012 by Lynn L. Bergeson

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulates chemicals.  It also regulates chemicals in articles, a little known fact that gives rise to big headaches.

TSCA defines an article as a manufactured item that is formed to a specific shape or design.  Articles include an enormous array of items, ranging from car bumpers to electronic devices.  While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has used its TSCA authority to regulate articles, it has done so sparingly.

As part of its Enhanced Chemical Management Program, EPA recently proposed Significant New Use Rules (SNUR) for five groups of chemicals (certain PBDEs, HBCD, benzidine-based chemical substances, a type of SCCPs, and DnPP).  Three of the proposed SNURs would regulate the chemical substances and articles containing them.

Why is this big news?  Well, when EPA issues a SNUR, it is designating a use of a chemical not already in commerce as “new” and subjecting that use to premarket EPA review.  This means a manufacturer (including importers) wishing to make a product containing the SNUR substance must submit to EPA a significant new use notice (SNUN) at least 90 days before any commercial use.  The uncertain outcome of any SNUN review is the bane of a company’s quest for commercial predictability.  Reviews can take considerably longer than 90 days, and EPA’s TSCA authority can be expressed in the imposition of commercial restrictions or operating conditions, some of which may need to be communicated to downstream customers of the SNUN submitter.

There is also concern with the legal and policy implications of these proposals.  The proposed rules would regulate SNUR chemicals in articles independent of whether any such article actually poses a risk.  EPA notes its concern that if PBDEs contained in articles were exempt, there would be in increase in the amount of PBDEs in commerce in the United States without EPA review as to the implications.  This observation, while accurate, falls short of describing any nexus between the presence of PBDEs in articles and risk.

EPA also places an enormous (and some would argue disproportionate) legal burden on commenters to explain existing uses, and to define terms and use applications with sufficient granularity to avoid being considered “new.”  Given the complexity of imported articles, EPA’s “one size fits all” approach begs the question whether a more refined subset of articles, products that might actually pose risks, is a more fitting candidate for SNUR regulation.

Important threshold questions of whether EPA should even use its SNUR authority in this way, and the practical implications of doing so, are not framed in the proposals.  Whether TSCA’s SNUR authority is the best or only way to address chemical risks, and whether all articles as defined in the proposals present risks worth regulating deserves greater stakeholder discussion.  Comments on Federal Register notices that assume the legitimacy of EPA’s legal and policy approach are a poor surrogate for vigorous public debate.

More Changes Coming In Stormwater Regulation

Posted on July 10, 2012 by Charles F. Becker

"And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain."
 Creedence Clearwater Revival
 
As environmental issues go, stormwater regulation is not a high priority for many environmental practitioners. Maybe it should be, because EPA seems to be obsessed by it. In the last year, among other things, EPA has:

•    Issued a new construction general permit to regulate stormwater discharges (and got involved in litigation that forced it to withdraw the regulations regarding a numeric effluent limit);
•    Developed a template designed to help builders write their stormwater control plans;
•    Filed a Notice of Intent to revise the stormwater regulations to exempt discharges from logging roads; and
•    Created an action plan to address stormwater runoff in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (over some objection).

On the litigation front, cases involving  stormwater compliance have been popular. Of the five environmental cases from the Ninth Circuit that sought (and have been granted) review by the U.S. Supreme Court for the next term, three of them relate to stormwater regulation.

For residential and commercial developers, stormwater regulations have been expensive to address, but 20 years of practice have allowed many of them to adapt to the existing requirements. EPA's attempt to introduce numeric effluent limits in the new permit caused a few moments of panic until EPA was forced to withdraw them.

However, a change was made in the permit that has gone unnoticed and has the potential to impact the cost of construction.  The new requirements for stormwater discharges at construction sites can be found at 40 C.F.R. Part 450. At Section 450.21, there are requirements relating to “effluent limitations reflecting the best available practicable technology available.” Buried in this section is a fairly innocuous provision that simply requires the developer and builder to, “unless infeasible, preserve topsoil.”

The reason to preserve topsoil at construction sites is two-fold. First, it has more organic material than denser soils so it allows faster growth of vegetation which, in turn, works to slow down the runoff of stormwater from a site. Second, it acts like a sponge to soak up the rain before it is allowed to run into a gully or ditch and, eventually, to a stream or river. For development of a construction site, however, topsoil has a serious drawback – it's in the way. Topsoil does not provide a solid enough base for roads or buildings and, therefore, the developer frequently finds it necessary to scrape the property of all topsoil before installing any streets, driveways or permanent structures.

While I cannot speak to the rest of the country, in the Midwest, this typically means that the topsoil is removed and is often not replaced, but is used for berms around the site. Respreading it is too costly and would usually affect the final grade of the development.  Rather, when it comes time to put vegetative cover on the open areas, sod (with its own layer of topsoil) is used.  The new permit requirement will change that practice.  The definitional problem that will need to be addressed by every state is the meaning of "preserve" as used in the permit.

Perhaps the term means that areas of a development that are not going to have a structure or street should not have the topsoil removed. As a practical matter, that would be impossible. Virtually every development site of any size requires grading to even the slopes and to account for drainage. The term might mean that whatever topsoil was in existence prior to the disturbance of the site, would need to be returned to the site. As a practical matter, this would be difficult to do. Some areas of a site might have a few inches of topsoil, while other areas might have several feet. Grading in anticipation of replacing the topsoil with what was preexisting would, at least arguably, be infeasible.

As the NPDES Permit for each state comes up for renewal, the issue of how to comply with this requirement will need to be addressed. The permits could simply incorporate the language into the terms of the revised permit, but this would provide virtually no guidance to developers or, more importantly, to the MS4 cities that will be called upon to enforce the requirement.

In Iowa, the General Permit for Construction Sites will need to be updated on October 1, 2012. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has spent considerable time pondering this problem and has come up with a solution. The IDNR has decided to create, in essence, a safe harbor for compliance. The proposed rule provides that disturbed areas that will not have streets, driveways or structures located on them will require a minimum of four inches of topsoil (which can include the topsoil found in the sod). This amount of topsoil fits well with other building requirements and is a significant sponge for purposes of soaking up rainwater. There is an exception to the four inch requirement for those sites which did not have four inches of topsoil prior to disturbance. If a developer believes that the site has less than four inches of topsoil, he/she can complete a soil survey prior to disturbing any soils and, if the topsoil is less than four inches at any given location, the developer is only required to return that amount of topsoil at the conclusion of the development.

The Iowa solution is far from ideal. While it has the advantage of providing certainty, it does so at what may be a very steep cost. Estimates have not yet been made on the additional cost of returning topsoil to each lot, but there will certainly be added expenses that will add to home ownership costs at a time that the industry needs to be finding ways to reduce costs. On the other hand, it is preferable to an undefined requirement that a developer “preserve topsoil unless infeasible,” which simply invites litigation.

Over the course of the next twenty-four to thirty-six months, virtually every state will need to address this issue. If EPA chooses to make stormwater compliance a priority, and there is every indication that it will, the new permits will result in a significant change in the way developments are built and priced. Adding these costs to help reduce what amounts to less than 1% of the surface water contamination problem is questionable, but it's here. Since we're not going to stop the rain, or the EPA, I would suggest that we need to help our state regulatory agencies come up with a reasonable, and workable, solution.

Water Quality Trends in the Northwest (Fish Consumption Rates)

Posted on July 9, 2012 by Kevin Beaton

The criterion to protect human health found in state water quality standards under the Clean Water Act are getting more stringent in the Northwest.  This is occurring because people in the Northwest supposedly eat more fish from Northwest waters than other parts of the country.  The esoteric standard setting process to protect people from toxic pollutants in surface waters is premised upon numerous risk based assumptions which include the amount of surface water an average person consumes combined with the amount of fish consumed from such waters.  The more water and fish people consume the more stringent the criteria becomes.  EPA establishes national defaults for states to use in their human health standard setting process for both water ingestion and fish consumption rates (“FCR”).  The national recommended FCR is 17.5 g/day.  A detailed description of the standard setting process can be found in EPA’s Methodology for Deriving Ambient Water Quality Criteria for the Protection of Human Health (2000).

Until recently, use of the EPA default FCR was acceptable in the Northwest.  However the state of Oregon recently adopted (and EPA approved in 2011) a FCR ten times higher than the national default.  The principal driver behind Oregon’s change was a FCR study funded by EPA in the 1990’s that evaluated the FCR of members of a number of Northwest Tribes in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.  See A Fish Consumption Survey of the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakima, and Warm Springs Tribes of the Columbia River Basin (CRITFC 1994). The CRITFC study showed that Tribal members consumed much higher rates of fish.

In May 2012, EPA disapproved Idaho’s human health criteria in Idaho’s water quality standards which were based on EPA’s national recommended default FCR.  EPA disapproved Idaho’s standard because the state did not “consider” the CRITFC study.  (Idaho believes it did consider the CRITFC study.)  EPA also questioned whether Idaho’s standards were protective of Oregon’s downstream standards.  Idaho now has 90 days to respond to EPA’s disapproval.  Meanwhile the state of Washington is in the process of reevaluating its human health standards and FCRs. Whether this trend moves into other states or other EPA regions remains to be seen.

One might legitimately ask whether this issue is nothing more than an academic exercise amongst toxicologists and risk assessors.  Ultimately the answer to that question is found in the Clean Water Act itself.  Roughly calculated, increasing the FCR ten times equates into the criteria for many toxic pollutants becoming ten times more stringent.  Under the Clean Water Act NPDES Permit limits must be established to meet these new criteria.  Under the new standards adopted by Oregon some of the toxic pollutants that are likely to present particularly challenging compliance issues for permittees will include mercury, PCBs and arsenic, as the presence of these pollutants are somewhat pervasive in Northwest waters.  In most instances, requiring permittees to implement costly pollution controls to attempt to achieve the new criteria at the end of the pipe will have minimal affect on achieving the new stringent standards in the receiving waters.  In light of EPA’s recent disapproval of Idaho’s standards, the state must now decide if it needs to amend its criteria or conduct its own fish survey statewide.  Untested legal issues are raised by EPA’s disapproval like whether a state must establish a state-wide FCR based on a very small percentage of the population or because a downstream state (Oregon) has decided to adopt more stringent criteria.  Like many increasingly complex issues under the Clean Water Act, these issues may have to be settled in federal court.