Water Quality: Wading Into Trading

Posted on November 28, 2017 by Ridgway Hall

For over 20 years EPA has been promoting water quality trading – with particular emphasis on nutrients and sediment – as a way to improve water quality at reduced costs. Trading is based on the simple proposition that if Party A can reduce a pollutant at a lower per-unit cost than Party B, who needs to reduce its discharges of that pollutant, it is more economically efficient for Party A to reduce its discharges below what is required by law, and sell the additional reduction, or “credit”, to Party B. If the price is less than what Party B would otherwise pay and more than it costs Party A to make the reduction, B will save money and A will make money. 

The focus is on nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment because these pollutants have for many years been leading causes of water quality impairment and, in the case of nutrients, adverse effects on human health when the resulting algae blooms release toxins and harmful bacteria.  In 2016 EPA reported that nutrient-caused algae blooms were on the rise, causing fish kills, contamination of fish and shellfish, and beach closures, resulting in significant damage to local economies and impairments to human health. The biggest source of these pollutants is farming operations. Trading seems especially well-suited to help reduce polluted runoff from farms because their per unit cost of removing nutrients is far lower than for wastewater treatment plants. Finally, because farm runoff is a nonpoint discharge, it is not regulated under the Clean Water Act. Regulation is left to states. While many states require farms to have nutrient management plans, because the states have limited resources to inspect and enforce, finding incentives to stimulate a market-driven solution has obvious appeal.

So why are there so few trading programs in place? The GAO attempted to find the answers in its report Water Pollution: Some States Have Trading Programs to Help Address Nutrient Pollution, but Use Has Been Limited (October 2017). The report addresses (1) the extent to which nutrient trading programs are being used, (2) how EPA and the states oversee these programs, and (3) what factors affect participation in trading.  As of 2014, eleven states had some form of trading programs: California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. Most of the trading was being done in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia, so GAO focused primarily on these programs.

All three of these states established their trading programs through legislation and implementing regulations. All three allow point-source to point-source trading, but as of 2014 only Pennsylvania allowed non-point sources to generate credits. Virginia appears to be moving in that direction through pending regulatory amendments.  Connecticut uses a general permit that allows 79 point sources in the Long Island Sound watershed to trade nitrogen credits through a Nitrogen Credit Exchange Program. Each year plants that are not meeting their discharge limits can buy credits from plants who are below their required limits.

Virginia allows trading of nitrogen and phosphorus credits between point sources.  Most but not all sales are through a Nutrient Credit Exchange Association, which is privately run in consultation with the state, and provides tracking of credit generation and sales.  Pennsylvania allows a point source to buy credits generated by nonpoint and point source dischargers. It has a credit exchange, PENNVEST, but most trades are outside it.  The state keeps a registry of credits generated, sold and used. During 2014, there were 39 trades in Connecticut, 151 in Pennsylvania, and 31 in Virginia.

Trading programs are managed by the states, with oversight by EPA to be sure that both the elements of the trading program and individual permits that incorporate trades comply with the Clean Water Act. Those who buy credits said that the benefits of doing so include reduced cost of compliance, risk management (credits can be used to address plant failures which cause noncompliance), and flexibility in timing technology upgrades. 

GAO cites two primary disincentives to trading. First, if water quality criteria are written in narrative form, permits are also often written in narrative form, so it is difficult to determine whether or when use of a credit might be helpful. While EPA has been pressing states to adopt numerical criteria for nutrients, GAO reported that as of 2017 only 6 states had them.  I believe that this problem can be mitigated by including numerical water-quality based effluent limits (WQBELS) in NPDES permits even when the criteria element of a water quality standard is narrative.  I don’t know how widely this is done, but typically a total maximum daily load (TMDL), which is required for water bodies not meeting water quality standards, is expressed in numerical terms, and that provides the basis for WQBELs. GAO observed that the Ohio River Basin Interstate Water Quality Trading Project allows trading among sources in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, but almost no trading has occurred because there are no numerical limits in the water quality standards or a TMDL.

The second reason given by stakeholders to GAO for limited trading is the difficulty in determining the water quality benefits of a best management practice (BMP), which is what is installed on farmland to reduce runoff. Models do exist for converting the benefits of BMPs, such as vegetated buffers, no-till farming and cover crops, to numerical pollution reduction on an annual basis, but these are only estimates, and lack the precision that a point source discharger looks for in deciding whether to buy a credit from a farmer. EPA has recommended the use of an “uncertainty factor”, such as 2:1, by which a buyer of 100 nitrogen credits would have to buy 200 credits. This could be modified upwards or downwards based on site-specific conditions. It is still an estimate, and any trading program will need to apply a dose of adaptive management if it wants nonpoint source trading to get up and running.  The potential cost savings are sufficiently great that such an uncertainty ratio would not by itself, in most cases, discourage trading.

Several other factors, not discussed by GAO, also tend to discourage nonpoint source trading. There is the uncertainty of the buyer, who will rely on the credit to meet its NPDES permit terms: what if the BMP on which the credit is based fails? This is a particular concern for public utilities, whose managers and ratepayers may not want the utility relying for compliance on a set of BMPs over which the utility has no control. On the farmer side, what if the farmer invests substantial sums in BMPs to generate credits, but there turns out to be little or no market for them? Several states and some financing institutions are exploring ways to create a market to jump start the process, and we will likely see more on that. Finally, there is an inherent reluctance to be among the first in what is still largely an experimental program – especially if it is being run by a government agency.

It is no coincidence that two of the three most active programs, Pennsylvania and Virginia, are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where a numerical multi-state TMDL has been in place since 2010. (That TMDL was discussed in my blog article EPA Issues Biggest TMDL Ever for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, posted March 4, 2011.) At this writing Maryland, also in the Chesapeake watershed, is developing a trading program which will include nonpoint source trading and will be run jointly by the Maryland Departments of Environment and Agriculture.  The only way the goals of the Chesapeake TMDL will be achieved is through major reductions of the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment released by farms. In a future post, I will explore those three programs in more detail.

Pruitt Banishes “Sue and Settle” – A Solution In Search of a Problem?

Posted on November 27, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt earlier this month issued a Directive prohibiting the practice of “sue and settle.”  He also issued a Memorandum to senior staff explaining in more detail some of the concerns about “sue and settle.”  They are two very strange documents.

As to the substance of how EPA will handle future citizen suit claims, there are some specific concrete steps which individuals and groups across the political spectrum actually can support.  These include:  (1) making more information available to the public about notices of intent to sue and filed complaints; (2) involvement of affected states; (3) maintenance of a data base of citizen suits; and (4) providing a public explanation and rationale for settlement of citizen suits; and (5) providing opportunities for public comment, even where not otherwise required by law.

So far, so good.  However, at a certain point, the Administrator seems to have gone off the rails.  First, one final substantive point – the Directive purports to forbid the payment of attorneys’ fees in any settlement, on the ground that, in a settlement, there is no “prevailing party.”  Of course, if a citizen’s group has a meritorious claim, why would it give up its claims to attorneys’ fees?

What’s really strange about the documents, though, is that they make no effort to demonstrate that there has been such a thing as “sue and settle.”  Instead, the Directive merely states that:

"It has been reported, however, that EPA has previously sought to resolve lawsuits filed against it through consent decrees and settlement agreements that appeared to be the result of collusion with outside groups."

The Administrator pledges that the “days of this regulation through litigation, or ‘sue and settle’ are terminated.”

The Memorandum is even better, citing to the Federalist Papers and the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson.  I’m almost persuaded that this is the greatest threat to the American Way of Life since the fluoridation of water.  Far be it from me to compare the Administrator to General Jack D. Ripper, but this is what first came to my mind after reading these documents.

What’s Happening with the Other Clean Air Act (CAA) §111(d) Rule?

Posted on November 24, 2017 by Steve Kohl

Long ago and in what seems like a faraway place, the D.C. Circuit vacated the NESHAP for boilers and the NSPS for Commercial and Industrial Solid Waste Incineration (CISWO) units. (See “EPA in the D.C. Circuit – Where Has All the Deference Gone”, ACOEL Blog, September 23, 2008). The demarcation between boilers and other process heaters and CISWI units is whether or not they burn waste. The D.C. Circuit held that EPA had improperly drawn that line. Since the source categories are mutually exclusive under the Clean Air Act, the improper line drawing resulted in the improper definition of each source category, resulting in the demise of the rules. Fast forwarding (sort of) to 2013, EPA finally promulgates a new and improved boiler NESHAP and new NSPS rules for new and existing CISWI units. These rulemakings were only made possible by the Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials (NHSM) rule which defines what is or is not a waste when burned. It takes the entirety of 40 C.F.R. Part 241 to provide this definition and the processes for determining if something is a waste or a fuel. 

Now comes the fun part. An existing boiler burning clean wood had to be in compliance with the NESHAP by early 2016, but the same existing boiler burning “dirty” wood categorized as a waste under the NHSM rule didn’t have to comply with the NESHAP since it is not a boiler but an incinerator. Well, it must have to comply with CISWI existing incinerator standards, right?  Well no. In fact, there really aren’t any applicable NESHAP requirements for existing boilers burning waste. 

The CISWI standards for existing units, 40 C.F.R Part 60, subpart DDDD, are §111(d) guidelines, which additionally must address the requirements enacted for incinerators in §129 of the CAA.  Those who have followed the Clean Power Plan (CPP) about which much has been written, including several ACOEL blogs (Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t Transformative?Unprecedented Program Leads To Unprecedented ResponsePulling the Plug on Greenhouse Gas Emissions), recognize that most states were in the process of developing state implementation plans (SIPs) to implement the CPP when the Supreme Court stayed the rule.  That’s because the CPP was also a §111(d) “guideline” for existing electric steam generation units. Actual application of the CPP was dependent upon SIPs approved by EPA which implement the guidelines or, if a state defaults, a federal implementation plan (FIP) implementing the CPP guidelines. Similarly, the CISWI standards for existing units must be implemented through approved SIPs or a FIP.  The SIPs or FIP required to implement the CISWI standards for existing units are required to be in place within five years, or February 7, 2018 and compliance is required by that same date.  However, no such SIP has been approved and no FIP finally promulgated.  Polite inquiries to EPA have provided no insight to the ultimate timing.

The delay in taking final agency action to implement CISWI standards for existing sources creates some interesting circumstances.  A state may recognize that through a renewal or a reopener of a facility’s Title V permit it should incorporate CISWI requirements, but it really can’t since there isn’t a federally enforceable requirement for CISWI. Subpart DDDD guidelines contain some provisions for determining whether certain sources qualify for an exemption from CISWI under §129. If they are exempt from CISWI, then they should be complying with the currently applicable boiler NESHAP, but there really isn’t any applicable rule for determining the validity of an asserted exemption. Subpart DDDD guidelines also provide that if a waste-burning source does not want to comply with CISWI and instead intends to comply with an applicable NESHAP, it must cease burning waste six months in advance of the date its chooses to switch from being a CISWI source to a NESHAP source. So if that dirty wood burning boiler doesn’t intend to comply with CISWI as of the ostensible compliance date of February 7, 2018, should it have switched to clean wood in July of 2017 even though there was no applicable rule requiring the six month period?

Final promulgation of the FIP or approval of the submitted SIPs would not appear to be a heavy lift since the proposed FIP and the submitted SIPs essentially mirror subpart DDDD.  So the delay to what is now four years and nine months out of the five years allowable under the CAA is somewhat incomprehensible. It begs the question, “What’s happening with this §111(d) rule?” 

MEAT CLEAVER OR SCALPEL?

Posted on November 22, 2017 by Annette Kovar

It’s been a long time coming. Regulatory reform is on the agenda again and maybe it’s real this time. Spawned by a quantitative “snapshot” of the state’s regulatory text developed by researchers at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Nebraska is embarking on a comprehensive review of its state regulations, including environmental regulations.  EPA has also been directed to take a critical look at its regulations.

Whether or not one agrees with all the methods used or conclusions drawn by regulatory reformers, it’s hard to disagree with the basic premise that the sheer amount of current regulation is daunting. Maybe the time has come to examine whether we can consolidate or even eliminate some requirements that have been on the books for years even though no one really knows why. Maybe the underlying problems that were meant to be addressed by many of our current regulations don’t occur anymore.  Maybe some regulations were developed based on worst case scenarios, oftentimes because there was a reluctance to leave anything to the discretion of the implementing environmental agency.

Process improvement and streamlining are hot topics these days in government circles, and I’m all for that! I do not favor being less protective of the environment, but I am for eliminating the complexity and multiplicity of paperwork, for making regulations easier to read and understand, for providing helpful guidance rather than just paraphrasing statutes, and for rethinking traditional paradigms and coming up with something more user-friendly. In short, it make sense to me to examine whether we need all the regulations now on the books and to think about streamlining and clarifying the regulations that we do need.

EPA Tries Again to Keep Toxic Pollution Information from Communities

Posted on November 21, 2017 by Peter Lehner

Your Thanksgiving turkey, like most meat in America, was probably produced at an industrial animal facility in rural America. These facilities hold thousands or tens of thousands of animals in a confined space and can produce as much waste as a mid-sized city. They are prodigious factories that generate dangerous air and water pollution, yet unlike other factories, they’ve been given a free pass from reporting their toxic emissions.

Community and environmental groups have been pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to address pollution from animal feedlots for decades, and recent court decisions seemed to indicate that the veil of secrecy surrounding these operations might finally be tugged back. However, instead of following the court’s latest ruling to ensure that industrial animal factories report toxic emissions, the EPA is proposing a sweeping exemption that would shield thousands of livestock facilities from reporting. 

This move represents the third attempt by the EPA to block these reporting requirements. Under President George W. Bush, the EPA suspended them in 2005, claiming the issue was being studied, then pushed through an illegal exemption in 2008, which was rejected in court.  And now, Scott Pruitt’s EPA is making a fresh attempt to make the exemption even broader. It’s a move that favors industry over the health of affected communities. The EPA itself has rejected this exemption, a proposal favored by industry, three times before.

While polluters are benefiting from the EPA’s dereliction of duty, people who live near these facilities continue to suffer. “During the summer we can’t keep our doors or windows open because of the stench,” writes Iowa farmer Rosemary Partridge, who lives near 30,000 hogs concentrated in factories near her farm. Partridge has worked with Earthjustice since 2015 to fight for more oversight of industrial animal agriculture. “Sometimes it gets so bad [my husband and I] get headaches and feel nauseous.”

Toxic gases from animal waste, which is often stored in open pits and sprayed over fields, include substances like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia that can cause nausea, headaches and chronic lung disease. Children in nearby schools have a heightened risk of asthma. Dairy farm workers have fallen into manure pits and drowned after being overcome by toxic fumes.

Feedlots tend to be clustered in low-income communities, and in some parts of the country, especially the Southeast, in communities of color. Earthjustice and others brought a civil rights complaint in 2014, which EPA found to have merit, over the concentration of hog farms in North Carolina.

A recent stinging report from the EPA’s independent Office of the Inspector General recommended that the EPA stop shielding polluters. Yet the agency still took a third, wild swing at stopping pollution reporting requirements for industrial animal agriculture. It’s time for the EPA to put down the bat and take the field for healthy communities.

Coming Soon to a Northeast or Mid-Atlantic State Near You: Regulations on Carbon Emissions From Transportation

Posted on November 16, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, eight states in the Transportation Climate Initiative issued a joint statement pledging to pursue regional solutions to GHG emissions from transportation.  The statement does not identify any specific policy options; instead it simply announced that they are “initiating a public conversation about these opportunities and challenges.”

Even if the statement doesn’t say so, what everyone is hearing from this announcement is simply this:  RGGI for transportation.

To give one an idea of the momentum that is finally building in support of regulation of transportation sector GHG emissions, one need look no further than the recent letter sent jointly by the New England Power Generators Association (our client), the NRDC, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists (also our client!), and the Acadia Center to four New England governors, requesting that they

"develop and participate in a regional, market-based policy to address greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector."

If the letter seems at first blush to involve strange bedfellows, think again.  From NEPGA’s perspective, its members are reasonably sick and tired of being the only target of GHG emissions regulations – particularly given that electric generation now represents less than ½ the GHG emissions from transportation.  From the perspective of the environmental groups, they know that it will be literally impossible to meet targets of 80% reductions in GHG emissions by 2050 without very substantial reductions in emissions from transportation.

For too long, states focused on electric generation emissions to the exclusion of transportation for one reason only.  Transportation will be difficult.  Difficult is no longer an excuse.

It’s about time.

AS IT TURNS OUT, NEW SOURCES OF ENERGY ARE BLOWING IN THE WIND

Posted on November 13, 2017 by Gregory H. Smith

There is growing recognition that New England’s energy costs are much higher than neighboring parts of the country.  To a large extent, these high costs are due to the combination of transmission congestion, an ever-increasing reliance on natural gas and a shortage of natural gas supply in the New England market.  As a result, new participants are seeking entry into the market, including several seeking to expand the diversity of generation sources.

Antrim Wind Energy, LLC is an example of new participants seeking entry into the market.  In 2015, Antrim filed an Application for Certificate of Site and Facility with the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee (“SEC”) to develop a wind farm.  The Application was Antrim’s second attempt to gain SEC approval.  As noted in this space, an earlier Antrim project was denied in 2013 based primarily on its “aesthetic” effect on the region.    Several key factors led to a different outcome in the second proceeding.

Since 2013, the New Hampshire SEC has substantially revised its siting rules. Particularly pertinent to the Antrim Wind Project are new, more specific rules for aesthetic assessments.  Although review of aesthetic effects are, by their nature, somewhat subjective, the rules provide objective standards for visual impact assessments to provide greater predictability of outcomes.  The SEC rules require the Committee to consider seven different, specific criteria in making a determination as to whether a proposed project will have an unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics. 

In reviewing the second Antrim proposal, the SEC placed particular emphasis on criterion six (6), whether the project would be a dominant or prominent feature in the landscape. 

In its second proposal, Antrim made several significant modifications to its earlier application case, that, coupled with the changes in the governing law, produced the favorable outcome.  Most important, the number of wind turbines, and their size and scale were reduced.  This modification doubtless affected the Committee’s analysis of whether the project “would be a dominant and prominent feature” in the landscape.

The SEC also adopted a public interest test as part of the new rules, which made a significant difference in review of the 2015 application.  No clear definition is provided in the rules as to how an applicant can demonstrate that a project is in the public interest.  A focus on project benefits seems to be a key factor.  In the Antrim case, beyond the obvious benefits of diversifying energy generation to include clean, renewable wind energy with the corresponding beneficial effect on climate change, there were recognized benefits to the community similar to those in the land use approval process.  These included stabilizing tax payments through a municipal agreement, investments in community infrastructure, and permanent preservation of 908 acres of land as a form of mitigation. 

The Antrim Wind project now stands alone in New Hampshire as the only sizable energy project to first have been rejected by the SEC, and subsequently reheard and approved.  The protracted Antrim case demonstrates that the somewhat complicated siting rules are capable of reasoned and predictable application.  It is also clear that this case provides useful instruction for what will likely be required for approval in the subsequent applications.

Paper or Cyber? Protecting Confidential Information

Posted on November 9, 2017 by Ronald R. Janke

Equifax, Yahoo, South Korea – reports of the theft of computer-based information by known, suspected or unknown hackers have become commonplace.  A recent report of the hacking into a Securities and Exchange Commission database containing confidential information is of special interest to environmental lawyers, because it poses the question of how can regulated entities electronically submit confidential information to government agencies and be confident that such information will not be stolen through a breach of cyber security. Environmental lawyers are almost universally ill-equipped to answer that question. Even with the help of cyber security experts, the growing number of reported hacks of corporate and government networks provides little comfort for submitting confidential data electronically.

Currently, the best practice may be to submit any confidential information in hard copy.  In my experience, agencies protect such information by techniques such as storing documents with confidential information in separate, locked files, using a log to record when a document is removed and returned and who has taken it.  While a document with confidential information may be stolen from a file or erroneously filed with publicly-available documents, someone has to be physically present to obtain that document.  In contrast, documents stored electronically can be subjected to a cyber-attack by anyone located anywhere in the world.

Agencies may require or prefer to receive all information electronically.  Applicants for permits and other approvals may have little choice in such circumstances, but they can initiate a conversation with the agency employee responsible for receiving any confidential information.  Expressions of concern over cyber security may instill some sense of personal responsibility in the recipient for protecting the confidentiality of sensitive information by limiting how it is accessed and used.  While agency rules may apply equally to all confidential information, the duty to protect confidential information is more personal when it is in a document located in a file drawer maintained in one’s office than when information is stored electronically on a computer database, perhaps with thousands of other documents.   In the latter case, cyber security becomes ultimately the duty of information technology specialists who design and maintain the agency’s computer networks.

AN UNDERGROUND RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

Posted on November 8, 2017 by Andrew Goddard

Environmental groups have for years sought greater regulation of coal ash waste from coal-fired power plants.  It turns out an old-fashioned Clean Water Act (CWA) citizen suit is sometimes a more effective tool.

In August, Judge Waverly Crenshaw, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, ordered the Tennessee Valley Authority to “wholly excavate the ash waste disposal areas” at the Gallatin Steam Plant and “relocate the excavated coal ash to a lined impoundment with no significant risk of discharge to waters of the United States.”  TVA estimates that this will take 24 years at a cost of $2 billion.  The least surprising aspect of this case: TVA has filed a notice of appeal.

How?  In 2015, the Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association filed a CWA citizen suit claiming that groundwater flowed through two ash pond areas and then to the nearby Cumberland River was an unpermitted point source.  Judge Crenshaw’s 125-page opinion in support of the Order includes this diagram showing one zone of earth penetrated only vertically (by storm water) and one penetrated both vertically and laterally (by storm water and groundwater):

 

This pretty much sums up the central issue in the case:  Is the groundwater flow through the lower part of coal ash landfill, picking up contaminants and transmitting them laterally to the Cumberland River, regulated by the CWA?

In his lengthy opinion, Judge Crenshaw found that the CWA does regulate groundwater where there is a direct and immediate hydrologic connection if plaintiffs are able to “prove a link between contaminated groundwaters and navigable waters.”  TVA argued that the CWA cannot reach discharges enabled by infiltration of rainwater that was not channeled by human act because they are not point sources, but Judge Crenshaw found that the ultimate question regarding point source is whether the pollutants were discharged from a discernable, combined, and discreet conveyance by any means.  He found that the entire ash dewatering complex was a discernible, combined and discreet manmade concentration of waste and that it was a “conveyance” because it is “unlined and leaking pollutants,” and thus is by definition “conveying pollutants.”

It takes a lot for a judge to impose $2 billion of costs on a public utility.  His displeasure with how the problem had been addressed over the past several decades was palpable.  He wrote that the older of the two coal ash sites

“…offers a grim preview of what it means to leave an abandoned unlined coal ash waste pond in place next to a river.  [It] has not been a waste treatment facility for over forty-five years. It has been ‘closed’ for almost twenty years.  Still, water infiltrates it.  Still, it leaks pollutants.  Still, counsel for TVA and counsel for environmental groups are locked in conflict about what can and should be done about it. … As long as the ash remains where it is in either site, there is every reason to think that the dangers, uncertainties and conflicts giving rise to this case will survive another 20 years, 45 years or more.  While the process of closure by removal would not be swift, it would, at least, end.” 

With that, he ordered that TVA remove the coal ash to an appropriate lined site that will not discharge into waters of the United States.

There was one bit of good news for TVA: because of the cost of the chosen remedy, Judge Crenshaw decided not to assess penalties. 

Not every argument was about such large costs.  TVA’s objection to the plaintiffs’ request for attorney’s fees and costs included an objection to caviar included in a claim for $200 for food and snack items purchased from Kroger before and during the trial.  The plaintiff’s response included a receipt showing the “caviar” purchase was $16.24 of “Texas Caviar,” and attached Kroger’s recipe therefor.  It is devoid of fish eggs but does include chopped cilantro.  The recipe is available through PACER here.

TIME FOR ACOEL TO STAND UP FOR ENVIRONMENTAL LAW

Posted on November 6, 2017 by Stephen L. Kass

On this 10th anniversary of the founding of ACOEL, it is appropriate to devote some thought to what we have achieved in furthering ACOEL’s goals of “maintaining and improving the ethical practice of environmental law; the administration of justice; and the development of environmental law at both the state and federal level.” My focus here is on the most significant threat in our history to our third goal (development of environmental law) and, as a consequence, our second goal (administration of justice).

For the first time since the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970, our federal government is led by officials (the President, the EPA Administrator, the Secretaries of Energy and Interior, the Attorney General and White House staff)  openly committed to eviscerating or repealing  large portions of the federal laws on which environmental protection in our country is premised.  While there have been times when new administrations,  EPA Administrators or Cabinet Secretaries have sought to reverse policies or programs under individual statutes, our nation has not previously experienced a wholesale attack on the entire range of protections promised by NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Oil Pollution Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act and a myriad of less well-known laws and regulations that have helped the U.S. confront our own environmental challenges while leading the world in the development of environmental law.  Because environmental impacts are increasingly recognized as disproportionately affecting the poor, the curtailment of environmental enforcement under many of these laws also undermines the belated efforts our nation has begun to make toward environmental justice.  The White House’s and EPA’s joint denial of human-induced climate change (and the censoring of EPA employees who attempt to speak about it) is the most visible – and dangerous – part of this initiative, but it is only part of the larger effort to rescind or hollow out the body of environmental law on which our nation, and the world, have come to depend.

ACOEL should speak and act to reverse this dangerous and irresponsible trend within our federal government.  I recognize that many of our individual members, or their firms, may represent one or more clients who believe that, at least in the short run, their businesses will benefit from fewer environmental regulations, more lenient enforcement of environmental standards or the reversal of efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.  Because of their professional commitments, it is of course appropriate, and in some cases necessary, for those ACOEL members to recuse themselves from participation in any such statements or actions by our organizations as a whole.  Yet ACOEL has acted as an institution in the past in advising ECOS (the Environmental Council of the States) on Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act developments, and we are currently carrying out, or planning, important environmental law training programs in Africa, Asia and Cuba.  To do that with credibility requires that we actively defend, both publicly and privately, the corpus of environmental law of which we are justly proud in our own nation.  ACOEL’s goals, and our organization’s significance, require that we do no less.

Court Rejects BLM’s Efforts to Unbalance the Scales of Justice

Posted on November 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte granted summary judgment to plaintiffs and vacated the Bureau of Land Management’s notice that it was postponing certain compliance dates contained in the Obama BLM rule governing methane emissions on federal lands.  If you’re a DOJ lawyer, it’s pretty clear your case is a dog when the Court enters summary judgment against you before you’ve even answered the complaint.

The case is pretty simple and the outcome should not be a surprise.  BLM based its postponement of the compliance deadlines on § 705 of the APA, which authorizes agencies to “postpone the effective date” of regulations “when justice so requires.”  However, every court that has looked at the issue has concluded that the plain words of the APA apply only to the “effective date” of a regulation and not to any “compliance date” contained within the regulation.

It seems clearly right to me.  For Chevron geeks out there, I’ll note that the Court stated that, because the APA is a procedural statute as to which BLM has no particular expertise, its interpretation of the APA is not entitled to Chevron deference – a conclusion which also seems right to me.

What particularly caught my eye about the decision was the Court’s discussion of the phrase, “when justice so requires.”  In a belt and suspenders bit of analysis, the Court also made findings that justice did not require postponement.  BLM’s argument was that justice required the postponement because otherwise the regulated community would have to incur compliance costs.  However, as the Court noted, “the Bureau entirely failed to consider the benefits of the Rule, such as decreased resource waste, air pollution, and enhanced public revenues.”  Indeed:  

If the words “justice so requires” are to mean anything, they must satisfy the fundamental understanding of justice: that it requires an impartial look at the balance struck between the two sides of the scale, as the iconic statue of the blindfolded goddess of justice holding the scales aloft depicts. Merely to look at only one side of the scales, whether solely the costs or solely the benefits, flunks this basic requirement. As the Supreme Court squarely held, an agency cannot ignore “an important aspect of the problem.” Without considering both the costs and the benefits of postponement of the compliance dates, the Bureau’s decision failed to take this “important aspect” of the problem into account and was therefore arbitrary.

I think I detect a theme here.  Some of you will remember that Foley Hoag filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, supporting the challenge to President Trump’s “2-for-1” Executive Order.  We made pretty much the same arguments in that case that Magistrate Judge Laporte made here – minus the reference to the scales of justice.

Unless SCOTUS gets rid of all agency deference, the Trump Administration is going to get some deference as it tries to eliminate environmental regulations wherever it can find them.  However, if it continues to do so while looking solely at the costs of the regulations to the business community, while ignoring the benefits of the regulations, it’s still going to have an uphill battle on its hands.

“Let No Man Put Asunder:” The Act of God Defense and Climate Change

Posted on November 2, 2017 by Peter Hsiao

Following the punishing hurricanes in the gulf coast and island regions of the United States, concern immediately turned to the environmental impacts of toxic releases from damaged chemical facilities.  EPA reports that 13 of the 41 Superfund sites in the area were flooded by Hurricane Harvey.  High winds and rain damaged the protective cap at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, risking the escape of dioxin contaminated sediments, and EPA ordered the responsible companies to take immediate action.  Even without an order, facility owners will often act as quickly as possible to contain any spills and mitigate their impacts. 

But as a matter of law, would there be a basis to defend against the EPA order or claims for response costs by asserting the Act of God defense?  CERCLA and the Oil Pollution Act both provide a complete defense to liability if the party can show that the release of hazardous substances (or petroleum under the OPA) was caused solely by an act of God.  The defense is severely limited by the requirement that a natural disaster must be “unanticipated” and an “exceptional” event.  For example, CERCLA’s legislative history says a major hurricane may be an act of God, but may not qualify as unanticipated or exceptional in an area where hurricanes are common.  Reportedly there are no cases where the defense has been successfully raised.

A superstorm such as Hurricane Harvey may present a more compelling case for this defense.  While hurricanes are expected in the area, an event that unleashed an estimated 19 trillion gallons of water can be considered exceptional and arguably unforeseeable, even with the recent history of other superstorms (e.g., Sandy, Katrina).  Successfully asserting the defense will likely depend upon expert testimony showing the facility implemented enhanced protective measures before the storm, probably true for most major industrial facilities in the affected area, and that exceptional circumstances overwhelmed those measures, which circumstances could not have been anticipated or prevented even by the exercise of due care or foresight.  

Comparing the precautions taken by other similarly situated facilities will also be important to establish the standard of care.  For example, the Texas environmental agencies worked with chemical facilities before the storm to protect hazardous waste containers from damage and flooding, and any facility asserting the defense will likely need to have undertaken similar precautions to have any chance of success.  For a toxic tort case, there is no statutory Act of God defense, but the same types of arguments will be used to show the facility exercised due care and reasonable foresight in taking protective measures. These issues will also be presented in insurance claims and litigation regarding coverage disputes. 

The defense however has an additional requirement, that the Act of God not be the result of human action, such as from greenhouse gas emissions.  While the relationship between climate change and these superstorms may not be known until years of further study, there is preliminary evidence that global warming made the storms worse by increasing ocean temperatures and raising the sea level, intensifying the impacts of its wind speed, rainfall and storm surges. 

So the Act of God defense may become impossible to win for a superstorm if man-made contributions were a factor – but is this meaningful?  The defense has never been successfully asserted in any event.  But if an alternative causation for a superstorm can be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, there is a potential basis for the responsible party under CERCLA or a tort theory to seek contribution or otherwise allocate a proportionate share of liability to others.  And the large number of “other” potential defendants who contributed to global warming will raise difficult issues of justiciablity.  The recent superstorms may produce a test case with the right combination of circumstances to squarely present these issues to a court. 

That is, while not a complete defense, climate change may provide new theories for defendants.  When a door closes, a window may blow open.