Countering RCRA Corrective Inaction

Posted on September 14, 2017 by Dean Calland

David Van Slyke recently posted an excellent discussion about the slow progress of EPA’s efforts to implement its RCRA 2020 initiative goals under the Government Performance Results Act and looming budget cuts that would slow the pace even more. However, a trend appears to be emerging that may help counter this RCRA corrective inaction.

The current statistics on remedial progress at RCRA corrective action sites are disappointing.  EPA estimates that the average RCRA Facility Investigation (RFI) takes 10 years, with some taking up to 19 years. The RFI process usually constitutes up to 80 percent of the time in a given cleanup, and remedy selections are taking an average of 6 years, and may take as long as 8 years, according to information from Region 3, Region 7 and RCRAInfo analysis. RCRA Facilities Investigation Remedy Selection Track: A Toolbox for Corrective Action.  However, we have witnessed a positive trend over the past several years that may assist site remediators in recovering some of the time lost due to the continued reduction in resources for this program.

There appears to be an emerging willingness by several EPA regions and delegated states to incorporate RCRA FIRST principles into corrective action consent orders that can save significant time and money compared with the traditional approach.  RCRA FIRST is the acronym for “Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Facilities Investigation Remedy Selection Track.”  As Barnes Johnson, Director of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery recently wrote, RCRA FIRST was designed to use increases in efficiency and effectiveness to “reduce the planning time [of RCRA corrective action cleanups] by as much as 50-75%, resulting in faster cleanup decisions and facilitating the redevelopment of corrective action facilities.”  RCRA FIRST was an effort to address the root causes of delay such as unclear or non-specific investigation or cleanup objectives and the lack of specific processes to elevate differences among stakeholders early in the project.  As part of this effort, EPA has published a Toolbox for Corrective Action which is designed to arm both respondents and the agencies with practical recommendations to help achieve more efficient investigation decision-making and remedy selection.

The willingness of EPA regions and delegated states to discuss these approaches varies considerably; however, one of the specific reasons that caused EPA to get serious about corrective action reforms was their recognition that agency manpower is likely to continue to shrink over time, and that the traditional approach was wasteful of agency resources.  Some specific examples of how RCRA FIRST has been used to forge consensus on difficult issues are listed below.

·         Up front establishment of a Corrective Action Framework (CAF) that describes the parties’ understandings regarding future investigation and remediation work at the facility borne out of an on-site meeting with agency site managers and their superiors.  CAF Meeting Agenda; CAF Template. The CAF is not a formal agreement but it can be referenced and attached to the consent order for both parties to build upon during the subsequent work;

·         Willingness to eschew the traditional RFI study at sites with older data sets in favor of a limited scope RFI that solely addresses identified and agreed upon data gaps;

·         Allowance for the respondent to by-pass the RFI Workplan and instead roll the existing characterization data and some limited additional sampling results directly into the RFI Report;

·         In appropriate circumstances, elimination of the Current Conditions Report and Preliminary Conceptual Site Model steps in the process;

·         In certain limited instances, an agreement to skip the obligation to submit a Corrective Measures Study (CMS) altogether, in favor of moving directly to the Statement of Basis, thereby saving considerable time and money. This is more likely to happen when a presumptive remedy is being sought by the Respondent or when there is an identified reuse for the property that will bring new uses and jobs to the site;

·         Agreement to the submission of a limited Corrective Measure Study that only addresses potential corrective measures that are demonstrated, cost-effective or presumptively applicable.

·         Placing pressure on all participants to use quarterly team meetings and pre-discussed decisional criteria for decision-making in place of the extremely time consuming “redo loop” of written comment and response on technical reports and to bring impasses to the attention of decision-makers earlier (the Evaluation Process);

·         Willingness to terminate older consent orders and unilateral orders and consolidate all applicable requirements into one operative corrective action instrument;

·         An agreement that EPA managers coordinate with state agencies where both have ongoing jurisdiction (e.g., when EPA has responsibility for corrective action and the state has responsibility under their UST program) to avoid duplication of effort and cost for the Respondent;

·         A formal acknowledgement by EPA that Respondent may request a written determination that Respondent has met the consent order’s requirements for just a portion of the facility, particularly if necessary or helpful for a sale or innovative reuse of the subject parcel.

In this era of ever-shrinking agency resources, it is incumbent on all stakeholders at RCRA corrective action sites to seriously consider these new techniques that can make the RCRA corrective action process more time efficient and less costly.

Preempted, Preempted Not

Posted on July 27, 2017 by Karen Crawford

First Circuit Rules that Puerto Rico Municipal Ordinances on Coal Ash Preempted

In mid-May, the First Circuit addressed whether a municipality may prohibit the beneficial use and disposal of coal ash at landfills within their borders when the state agency has authorized such activities.  In AES Puerto Rico, L.P. v. Trujillo-Panisse, No. 16-2052 (1st Cir. May 15, 2017), a coal fired power plant owner, AES-PR, challenged two municipal ordinances attempting such a prohibition as preempted by federal and Commonwealth law and were in violation of the United States and Puerto Rico constitutions.  Utility Solid Waste Activities Group and American Coal Ash Association participated on brief as amici curiae brief.  The district court granted summary judgment for the municipalities on AES’s federal claims and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the Commonwealth claims.

The First Circuit determined the ordinances could not be enforced to the extent they directly conflicted with Commonwealth law as promulgated by the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board, but reversed summary judgment in favor of the municipalities and remanded for the district court to enter judgment for AES-PR based on its claim of Commonwealth preemption.  The court reviewed the RCRA program and its intent to precipitate cooperation between the federal, state, and local governments.  After a serious discussion of the delegation of authority to states and the fact that Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board was given authority to manage solid waste (including coal ash) by the Commonwealth, unlike the district court, the court determined the EQB resolutions (and permits) carry the force of law and its permits allowing disposal in a sanitary landfill supersede a local ordinance prohibiting that disposal.  Succinctly, the court pointed out that the Commonwealth’s public policy to give municipalities as much autonomy as possible is limited by a higher power and that “a municipality cannot ‘promote and further its own public policy’ if that policy conflicts with Commonwealth law.” 

NJ Appeals Court Finds Consumer Fraud Cases Against VW Not Preempted by CAA

This week, however, a three-judge panel of Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division affirmed trial court rulings in two cases denying Volkswagen Group of America Inc.’s (VW) motions to dismiss the complaints, finding the CAA does not preempt such state court actions.  David. L. Felix, et al. v. Volkswagen Group of America Inc. and Eduardo Deang v. Volkswagen Group of America In. et al., No. A-0585-16T3 and A-086-16T3, July17, 2017, Sup. Ct. NJ – App. Div.  The motions argued the complaints were expressly or impliedly preempted by provisions of the CAA, citing language in 42 U.S.C.A. 7543(a), “… No state or any political subdivision thereof shall adopt or attempt to enforce any standard relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines subject to this part.”  Both plaintiffs alleged misrepresentation and violations of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, among other claims.  The decision included interesting arguments on interpretation and attempted distinguishing of prior tobacco, product defect and airline deregulation cases.

With respect to express preemption, the court disagreed with VW’s argument that plaintiffs’ complaints are in reality attempts to enforce EPA’s emissions standards because plaintiffs would have to prove those standards were exceeded to prevail.  Instead, the court determined that the plaintiffs were not seeking to enforce an EPA emission standard or force the manufacturer to adopt a different emissions standard, but rather the claims were centered “on VW’s alleged deceitful, fraudulent practices and its alleged breach of a duty not to mislead consumers.” 

The court also determined that the CAA did not impliedly preempt plaintiffs’ claims because the savings clause explicitly contemplates continued state involvement in regulation of motor vehicles, and that because plaintiffs’ claims do not hinge on compliance with EPA standards, there is no direct conflict with the federal regulatory scheme.

If Congress Wants to Limit EPA’s Discretion, Perhaps It Should Do a Better Job Legislating

Posted on June 5, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both industry and environmental group petitions challenging EPA’s determination of what is a solid waste in the context of Clean Air Act standards for incinerators and other combustion units.  It wasn’t actually a difficult case, but it does provide a lesson for Congress.  When the technical nature of EPA’s decisions was layered on top of the fundamental deference given EPA’s interpretation of the statute under Chevron, the petitioners were never going to prevail:

We afford great deference to EPA’s determinations based on technical matters within its area of expertise.

Scrap_Tires

The crux of the environmental petitioners’ case was that certain of the materials, such as scrap tires, exempted by EPA from the definition of solid waste, are unambiguously “discarded” within the meaning of RCRA, so that EPA did not have discretion to exempt them.  Unfortunately, as the Court noted:

the term “discarded” is “marked by the kind of ambiguity demanding resolution by the agency’s delegated lawmaking powers.”

In other words, given the current state of decrepitude of the non-delegation doctrine, when Congress enacts legislation using words as vague as “discarded”, it is essentially telling EPA to figure out what Congress meant to say.  And when EPA does figure out what Congress meant to say, the Courts are not going to disturb EPA’s interpretation.

For those in Congress who don’t like the way EPA implements statutes for which it is responsible, they might learn a lesson from Pogo.

The Poop on (and Unfortunately Surrounding) the Cow Palace

Posted on February 23, 2015 by Brian Rosenthal

The exception from solid waste regulations for agricultural waste applied as fertilizer is a safe harbor that has boundaries based on use. In Community Ass’n for Restoration of the Environment, Inc. v. Cow Palace, LLC (E.D. Wa, 2015), facts evidencing over applied fertilizer and leaking storage lagoons, recently led a district court to a finding of possible imminent peril to public health, welfare or the environment under RCRA.

The court’s partial framing of the legal questions was telling: 

(1) [W]hether the manure at the Dairy, when over-applied to land, stored in lagoons that leak, and managed on unlined, permeable soil surfaces, constitutes the “handling, storage, treatment, transportation, or disposal of . . . solid waste....” 

Defendant’s useful product counterargument did not overcome its waste handling practices, which were deemed deficient by the court. The case is an excellent primer for the storage and handling of agricultural waste and the parameters for waste handling by large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS). The proper methods and conditions for land applying the waste as fertilizer are also discussed.

Many large farm operations properly manage waste and its use as land applied fertilizer. In Cow Palace, the court reviewed federal law and the overlay of required nutrient management best practice plans applicable to Washington farms by state regulation. Natural Resource Conservation Service lagoon storage rules and RCRA open dump rules were also addressed.

Do Air Emissions Constitute Disposal of Solid Waste? The 9th Circuit's Answer is "No".

Posted on August 27, 2014 by Karen Crawford

On August 20, 2014 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Center For Community Action and Environmental Justice; East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice; Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. BNSF Railway Company; Union Pacific Railroad Company, No. 12-56086, D.C. No. 2:11-cv-08608-SJO-SS, determining that emissions of diesel particulate matter does not constitute "disposal" of solid waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  As a result, plaintiffs could not state a plausible claim for relief under RCRA’s Citizens’ Suit provision, 42 U.S.C. §6972(a)(1)(B). 

A number of environmental organizations had sought to enjoin the emission from defendants' rail yards of particulate matter found in diesel exhaust from locomotive, truck, and other heavy-duty vehicle engines operated on or near 16 rail yards in California.  Plaintiffs cited studies by both EPA and the state agency, which identified diesel particulate matter as a toxic air contaminant with the potential or likelihood "to cause cancer and other adverse health problems, including respiratory illnesses and increased risk of heart disease."  Plaintiffs contended that, while the particulate emissions were initially emitted into the air, they ultimately were deposited on land and water.  They argued that people inhale the exhaust while it is airborne and after deposition (because the particulates are "re-entrained" into the air by wind, air currents, and passing vehicles).  Defendants moved to dismiss arguing that RCRA only applies to air emissions from burning fuel which itself consists of or contains "solid" or hazardous" waste, i.e. a "discarded material."  Otherwise, emissions fall within the scope of the Clean Air Act, which, they argued, was inapplicable. 

The district court concluded that (1) any gap that might exist between the two regulatory schemes as they apply (or don't apply) to mobile sources of air pollution "was created through a series of reasoned and calculated decisions by Congress and EPA," and, independently, (2) plaintiffs failed to state a claim under RCRA because, even if RCRA does apply, diesel exhaust is not a "solid or hazardous waste." 

In affirming, the appeals court cited (and distinguished) prior case law, but for the most part relied on the plain language of the statutes and pertinent legislative history of Congressional actions (or intentional inaction) related to regulation of mobile sources of diesel exhausts and rail yards.  Relying on the principle of expressio unius est exclusio alterius (when Congress expresses meaning through a list, a court may assume that what is not listed is excluded), the court of appeals noted that "emitting" is excluded from the definition in RCRA of "disposal."  Citing §6903(3), the court of appeals added that the specific statutory text further limits the definition of "disposal" to "placement" of solid waste "into or on any land or water" and concluded that emitting the exhaust into the air does not equate to placing the exhaust into or on any land or water. The 9th Circuit concluded that to decide otherwise would be rearranging the wording of the statute which courts cannot do.  Specifically, the court of appeals held, "Reading §6903(3) as Congress has drafted it, ‘disposal’ does not extend to emissions of solid waste directly into the air." 

The 9th Circuit might have stopped there, but it did not  The Court of Appeals further supported its decision by (1) recognizing that the term "emitting" was used elsewhere in the statute and, therefore, was intentionally excluded from the definition of "disposal," and (2) reviewing the legislative history and determining that Congress had opted not to address diesel emissions from locomotives, heavy-duty trucks, and buses at various points in the history of the Clean Air Act amendments adopted in 1970. It also noted that a railroad emissions study required during the planning of a 1977 Clean Air Act overhaul (only one year after enactment of RCRA) omitted rail yards and mobile sources and resulted in a prohibition of federal regulation of "indirect sources" that included corridors attracting mobile sources, like roads or highways, leaving regulation of those sources entirely to the states. The opinion also discussed later amendments to the Clean Air Act, finding that in the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress finally required EPA to promulgate regulations setting forth standards applicable to emissions from new locomotives and new engines used in locomotives and prohibited states from doing the same, but left the regulation of indirect sources including rail yards, exclusively to the states, noting that, once again, in 1990, RCRA applied to neither. 

The court  of appeals was not persuaded by plaintiffs' argument that the two statutes should be "harmonized" to fill any gaps, or that there was irreconcilable conflict between the two statutes, observing that in actuality no conflict existed because neither statute applied to rail yards' diesel exhausts.  But to put an exclamation point on its holding, the 9th Circuit added: “[H]owever, to the extent that its text is ambiguous, RCRA's statutory and legislative histories resolve that ambiguity.”

The 9th Circuit's straightforward analysis of the plain language of the statutes and the  statutory history of Congressional action in this opinion is a refreshing contrast to recent opinions in which courts have struggled to find justification for EPA's attempts to regulate in areas where Congress has clearly failed to take action. 

Offers of Judgment Permitted in RCRA Citizen Suit Attorney Fees Disputes

Posted on June 28, 2013 by John A. McKinney Jr

A Third Circuit decision this month determined that offers of judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 68 may be made in attorney fee disputes in RCRA citizen suits (42 USC § 7002).  In Interfaith Community Organization v. Honeywell International, Inc., 2013 WL 2397338 (C.A.3 (N.J.)  Honeywell International (“Honeywell”) agreed to pay certain fees and costs in connection with Appellees Interfaith Community Organization and Hackensack River keeper’s monitoring costs in connection with Honeywell’s remediation of certain sites.  A dispute arose as to Appellees’ counsel’s fee filings, and Honeywell served offers of judgment as to the disputed fees.  Appellees contended that the offers were null and void in a RCRA citizen suit and prevailed on the issue below.  The Third Circuit overturned the decision below.

The Third Circuit first addressed the argument that Rule 68 is incompatible with Congressional intent allowing RCRA  citizen suits and is forbidden by the Rules Enabling Act, 28 US § 2072.  That act prohibits the Supreme Court from adopting general rules of practice and procedure for cases in the US courts that abridge, enlarge or modify a substantive right.  The Third Circuit found that Rule 68, in facilitating settlements, does not affect a litigant’s substantive rights even though a litigant may be faced with a hard choice.  Being forced to make that choice does not abridge, enlarge or modify its substantive rights.  The court found unpersuasive the appellees’ arguments attempting to distinguish a Supreme Court case that allowed Rule 68 in civil rights litigation involving fee shifting.

In the case below, the District Court had entered a judgment ordering Honeywell to remediate one area and Honeywell had entered into consent decrees agreeing to remediate additional areas.  Appellees contended that Rule 68 cannot apply after a judgment has been rendered on liability.  The Third Circuit disagreed and found that liability also included fees and costs, and they had not been determined in this case.

Given this decision (which also addresses issues other than Rule 68), it is likely RCRA citizen suit defense counsel will utilize the offer of judgment rule more often.  However, there are numerous cases and articles detailing the perils of using the rule in the wrong case or in the wrong way.  Counsel should pay close attention to those.

I Believe in Environmental Regulation, But….

Posted on June 10, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

I believe in governmental environmental regulation.  We have a complicated world and it is not surprising that many activities, including those generating greenhouse gases, cause negative externalities.  At the same time, however, I have spent more than 25 years representing regulated entities in negotiations with government regulators and it is impossible to do such work without obtaining an appreciation for the very significant costs that bureaucracies impose.

With all due respect – cue the upcoming diss – to my many friends in government, the absence of market discipline or the ability to fire nonpolitical bureaucrats often leads to street level bureaucrats operating under a law of their own devising.  Moreover, if a complex economy causes externalities requiring regulation, that same complexity should cause regulators to pause before imposing or revising complicated regulatory regimes.  Unintended consequences abound.

The genesis of these musings was the confluence of a number of otherwise unrelated recent regulatory developments.  The most significant was headline in the Daily Environment Report earlier this week noting that “EPA [is] Still Unable to Provide Time Frame For Revising Definition of Solid Waste Rule.”  RCRA is the perfect example. No one can really quarrel with the need for hazardous waste regulation, in order to prevent the creation of more Superfund sites.  However, if we’re still fighting over the definition of something as basic as solid waste more than 30 years after the inception of the program and EPA’s most recent efforts to update the definition remain fruitless after about five years of effort, then we have to acknowledge some serious implementation problems where the rubber is trying to hit the road.

I’ll also provide two recent examples from my home state of Massachusetts.  MassDEP has been engaged in a serious regulatory reform effort, which has earned deserved praise.  However, as NAIOP has recently noted in comments on the draft proposal to revise the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, MassDEP’s proposed Active Existing Pathway Elimination Measure Permit is “so cumbersome that it is not clear that a PRP or redeveloper would want to seek such a permit.”  This calls to mind MassDEP’s reclaimed water regulations, which were intended to encourage water reuse, but are so cumbersome that no one is applying for the permits.

Thus, the final caution.  The MassDEP example is extremely common – and extremely troubling.  Regulator gets great idea for innovative program. Prior to implementation, concerns are raised about what happens if….  More effort is put into avoiding the perceived downsides than in actually making the program work.  Program ends up being worse than nothing.

I believe in environmental regulation, but…

Vapor Intrusion -- EPA Offers Guidance for Comment, but Now More Issues than Ever

Posted on May 3, 2013 by Kenneth Gray

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.

Harvard Law Students Shoot for Gun Control

Posted on April 1, 2013 by April Jester

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.

You Want to Preclude a Citizens' Suit? Pick Your Poison.

Posted on September 17, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

When clients are threatened with citizen suits – and particularly when the threatened litigation involves a matter where EPA or a state regulatory agency is heavily involved, the clients always want to know why they can’t somehow get rid of the citizen suit, given that EPA is on the case. The answer is that they can – but only in limited circumstances.

The recent decision in Little Hocking Water Association v. DuPont confirmed this answer in the context of RCRA. The Little Hocking Water Association provides public water to certain communities in Ohio, directly across the Ohio River from a DuPont plant which uses , also known as PFOA or C8 – also known as the contaminant du jour. According to the complaint, the Little Hocking wells have among the highest concentrations of C8 of water supply wells anywhere and its customers have among the highest C8 blood levels anywhere. Little Hocking Water Association thus sued DuPont under RCRA’s citizen suit provision, claiming that DuPont’s release of C8 had created an “imminent and substantial endangerment."

Section 7002 of RCRA contains provisions precluding such citizen suits if either EPA or a state “has commenced and is diligently prosecuting” an action under RCRA to abate the endangerment. In the DuPont case, releases of C8 from the DuPont facility had been the subject of at least two administrative orders on consent entered into by DuPont and EPA. However, consent orders aren’t the same as “an action” under § 7002 or § 7003 of RCRA – and they thus do not preclude a citizen suit.

DuPont tried the next best argument – that EPA had primary jurisdiction over the regulation of C8 – and that the existence of EPA’s regulatory authority and the issuance of the consent orders meant that the courts should defer to EPA. DuPont’s argument was that a court could not fashion a remedy in the case without essentially establishing a new cleanup standard for C8 and that doing so is the job of EPA, not the courts.

The Court gave the primary jurisdiction argument short shrift. As the Court noted, using the doctrine of primary jurisdiction in citizen suits would dramatically reduce the scope of such suits. Since Congress provided a citizen suit mechanism – and provided very specific, discrete, circumstances in which citizen suits are precluded – it doesn’t make sense to use primary jurisdiction to establish another defense, particularly where the defense would almost eliminate the remedy. 

The bottom line? If you don’t want to face a citizen suit (and you’re not in compliance), get yourself sued by EPA or your state regulatory agency. The mere existence of EPA or state regulation, even if requirements are embodied in a consent order, is not enough.

Just What We Need: More Community Engagement in Superfund Sites

Posted on May 26, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response announced release of its Community Engagement Implementation Plan. Who could be against community engagement? It’s as American as apple pie. It’s environmental justice. It’s community input into decisions that affect the community. It’s transparency and open decision-making.

 

Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m against it. Study after study shows that, in terms of the actual risks posed by Superfund sites, we devote too many of our environmental protection dollars to Superfund sites, when we should be focusing on air and water. Why do we keep doing this? Because the community demands it. As Peter Sandman has noted, perceptions of risk are driven only partly by the actual hazard posed. To a significant degree, those perceptions are more driven by outrage over the situation. In some circumstances, what Sandman calls outrage management makes sense, but I’m skeptical that EPA’s community engagement initiative is really about outrage management.

 

In any case, here’s the public policy question of the day. Does it really make sense to spend scarce environmental protection resources, not to reduce risk, but to reduce outrage?

Energizing Brownfields

Posted on May 7, 2010 by George von Stamwitz

It has always amused me how many people are involved with Brownfields work as compared to how few projects have been completed. It is tough to make the economics work on a Brownfield development in the best of times. Thanks to clean energy rules and incentives this may be changing.

 

Brownfields and clean energy have several synergies. Brownfields are often in industrial corridors, with great infrastructure and proximity to electrical grids. Biomass projects in particular need access to efficient transportation networks in order to move large volumes of material. Clean energy projects such as solar, wind and biomass plants work well with risk based remediation and institutional controls required for cost effective risk management at a Brownfields sites.



Add to these synergies a vast array of incentives, mandatory quotas and grants for clean energy and we just may have a path to economic viability for some Brownfields projects. EPA has a task force known as ER3 to help facilitate such projects. Keep your eye on a project in Charlotte, North Carolina known as ReVenture Park which seems destined to put wind energy, wastewater treatment and a biomass plant on a large, complex CERCLA/RCRA site.

When a Discharge Isn't

Posted on March 8, 2010 by Brian Rosenthal

For all environmental lawyers and especially for business advisors and bankruptcy lawyers, a very important case was decided by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in fall 2009. The case concerns the effect of a bankruptcy discharge from a 1986 bankruptcy filing versus an affirmative Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”) clean-up injunction. The question is whether the injunction is a discharged claim in bankruptcy. The Court of Appeals concludes a mandatory injunction to perform clean-up does not equate to an equitable remedy giving rise upon breach to a right to payment, which is the covered equitable remedy subject to discharge.

 

Here, the formerly bankrupt company’s reorganization left it no choice but to have this particular clean-up conducted by a third party at an estimated cost of $150,000,000. The Court found, however, the clean-up order did not result in a right to payment because RCRA does not allow either a demand for clean-up costs or any monetary relief. 

 

Finding that all equitable orders will inevitably require the ordered party to spend money to comply, the Court concludes discharges are limited to matters where the claim gives rise to a right to payment.  Such situations arise where an equitable decree can not be executed and results in a right to seek money damages and not merely those that impose a cost on the defendant.  

 

This case reaches a conclusion contrary to a 6th Circuit case and is distinguishable from the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Ohio v. Kovacs.  In Kovacs a receiver was appointed to take possession of the debtor’s assets so it could obtain money to pay for an ordered clean-up, and the Supreme Court found the receiver, therefore, was seeking money rather than an order that the debtor clean up the contaminated site. 

 

The holding in this 7th Circuit case is certainly one that will likely reverberate around the country for years to come. United States v. Apex Oil Co., Inc., 579 F.3d 734 (7th Cir. 2009).

UPDATE ON THE POULTRY LITIGATION IN OKLAHOMA Poultry litter is not a solid waste under RCRA

Posted on February 26, 2010 by Linda C. Martin

The Oklahoma State Attorney General sued several poultry companies for polluting the Illinois River and its watershed in Eastern Oklahoma as a result of the application and disposal of poultry litter in the watershed. State of Oklahoma v. Tyson Foods, Inc. et. al. Case No. 05-CV-329-GFK(PJC). The suit alleged claims under CERCLA, RCRA, and nuisance among other things. You are referred to the articles posted March 9, 2009 an September 3, 2009 for particulars regarding the claims. 

 

Two weeks before trial, the Cherokee Nation moved to intervene in the case as a necessary party, but the Judge wouldn’t allow it. The Court decided that the damages claims would not be tried, but that the injunctive claims as well as the state penalty claims could be tried with the absence of the Cherokee Nation in the suit. The reasoning was, among other things, that the Cherokee Nation would be potentially prejudiced if the remaining damage claims went forward without it, but that would not be the case if the remaining injunctive claims and state law penalty claims were tried. Although the Cherokee Nation filed an immediate appeal with the Tenth Circuit, it did not ask that the case be stayed pending the outcome of the appeal.

 

The case has now been tried to the Court. It began on September 24, 2009 and only this month concluded with closing arguments. However, during the trial the Court ruled, in response to a Rule 52(c) motion, among other things, that:

  • Poultry litter is an agricultural commodity for which there is both a market and a market value in the watershed.
  • Poultry litter has market value because it can be beneficially used as a fertilizer and soil amendment.
  • The State did not produce sufficient evidence to convince the Court that farmers, ranchers or other applicators of poultry litter in the Illinois River Watershed land-applied poultry litter within the watershed solely to discard it.
  • Under the applicable law and the evidence produced at trial, poultry litter is not a “solid waste” under RCRA, and therefore the State’s RCRA claim was dismissed. 

This ruling is very important because of the focus on nutrient issues under the Clean Water Act Nonpoint Source Pollution. EPA states on its website that “States report that nonpoint source pollution is the leading remaining cause of water quality problems.”  Indeed, EPA has a “National Nutrient Strategy” and is focusing more on these issues than ever before. 

UPDATE ON THE POULTRY LITIGATION IN OKLAHOMA Poultry litter is not a solid waste under RCRA

Posted on February 26, 2010 by Linda C. Martin

The Oklahoma State Attorney General sued several poultry companies for polluting the Illinois River and its watershed in Eastern Oklahoma as a result of the application and disposal of poultry litter in the watershed. State of Oklahoma v. Tyson Foods, Inc. et. al. Case No. 05-CV-329-GFK(PJC). The suit alleged claims under CERCLA, RCRA, and nuisance among other things. You are referred to the articles posted March 9, 2009 an September 3, 2009 for particulars regarding the claims. 

 

Two weeks before trial, the Cherokee Nation moved to intervene in the case as a necessary party, but the Judge wouldn’t allow it. The Court decided that the damages claims would not be tried, but that the injunctive claims as well as the state penalty claims could be tried with the absence of the Cherokee Nation in the suit. The reasoning was, among other things, that the Cherokee Nation would be potentially prejudiced if the remaining damage claims went forward without it, but that would not be the case if the remaining injunctive claims and state law penalty claims were tried. Although the Cherokee Nation filed an immediate appeal with the Tenth Circuit, it did not ask that the case be stayed pending the outcome of the appeal.

 

The case has now been tried to the Court. It began on September 24, 2009 and only this month concluded with closing arguments. However, during the trial the Court ruled, in response to a Rule 52(c) motion, among other things, that:

  • Poultry litter is an agricultural commodity for which there is both a market and a market value in the watershed.
  • Poultry litter has market value because it can be beneficially used as a fertilizer and soil amendment.
  • The State did not produce sufficient evidence to convince the Court that farmers, ranchers or other applicators of poultry litter in the Illinois River Watershed land-applied poultry litter within the watershed solely to discard it.
  • Under the applicable law and the evidence produced at trial, poultry litter is not a “solid waste” under RCRA, and therefore the State’s RCRA claim was dismissed. 

This ruling is very important because of the focus on nutrient issues under the Clean Water Act Nonpoint Source Pollution. EPA states on its website that “States report that nonpoint source pollution is the leading remaining cause of water quality problems.”  Indeed, EPA has a “National Nutrient Strategy” and is focusing more on these issues than ever before. 

A Rant Against Superfund

Posted on April 15, 2009 by Seth Jaffe

As some of my clients know all too well, I’ve been spending a lot of time on some Superfund matters recently. Although I can’t remember a period when I didn’t have at least one moderately active Superfund case, significant immersion in complex remedial decision-making and negotiations provides an unwelcome reminder just how flawed CERCLA is. Almost 20 years after the acid rain provisions of the Clean Air Act ushered in wide-spread acceptance of the use of market mechanisms to achieve environmental protection goals and the state of Massachusetts successfully privatized its state Superfund program, the federal Superfund program, like some obscure former Russian republic which remains devoted to Stalinism, is one of the last bastions of pure command and control regulation.

 

Can anyone tell me why the remedy selection process takes years and costs millions of dollars – before any cleanup has occurred or risk reduction been achieved? Can anyone tell me why, after the remedy has been selected, EPA has to spend millions of dollars – charged back to the PRPs, of course – to oversee the cleanup? Oversight costs can easily exceed 10% of cleanup costs, while oversight during the remedial design and feasibility study process sometimes seem to be barely less than the cost of actually performing the RI/FS.

While there are certainly a multiplicity of causes, there are two factors which greatly contribute to the problem. One was, coincidentally, highlighted in a post today by my friend Rob Stavins. As Rob noted, unlike the acid rain program, which was new at the time, the Superfund bureaucracy is well entrenched and there are a number of actors with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo

The second issue relates to the genesis of the Superfund program, as well as its continuing raison d’être. Whenever EPA has ranked relative risks from different environmental hazards, Superfund sites come in at the bottom. However, if you think back to Superfund’s origins, what comes to mind? Love Canal and the Valley of the Drums – and some concerned near-by residents who rallied around a cause to ensure that the problem would be addressed. As renowned risk communications expert Dr. Peter Sandman has noted, there is not necessarily a significant correlation between actual risk levels and public outrage, and it’s not possible to decrease outrage simply by providing accurate information about risks.

In short, the public is outraged by hazardous waste sites and does not trust PRPs to clean them properly. All of those EPA oversight costs are, in large part, intended not to decrease risk, but to lower outrage.  Outrage is understandable in some circumstances, and efforts to reduce it are laudable, but is it really an appropriate use of scarce environmental protection resources to spend the money that gets poured into Superfund sites?

There has to be a better way. Indeed, there is a better way. It’s called a privatized system in which PRPs have to meet well-defined cleanup standards, but are allowed to do so on their own, in whatever manner is most cost-effective, subject to audits by regulators. Privatized programs such as the one in Massachusetts are not perfect. However, their flaws – which largely stem from a failure to fully support privatization -- pale in comparison to the waste that is the federal program under CERCLA.

In other contexts, I’ve called on the Obama administration to embrace regulatory reform. Why not start with Superfund? Notwithstanding Rob Stavins’ point about the difficulty of overturning an entrenched status quo, if the states could do it, why not the federal government?

Besides, I have an entrenched personal reason for seeking Superfund reform. This stuff drives me nuts.