Posted on February 6, 2017
In recent months, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the “minimal risk levels” (MRLs) established by ATSDR have played a direct role in EPA’s efforts to regulate stationary sources under the Clean Air Act. The ATSDR is an advisory agency created by CERCLA in 1980 to help EPA assess health hazards associated with Superfund Sites. ATSDR’s role was expanded by the 1984 RCRA Amendments to assess risks from hazardous substance releases at landfills and surface impoundments. In 1986 SARA further expanded ATSDR’s responsibilities under CERCLA to assess the health impacts of hazardous substance releases.
In response to its CERCLA mandate, ATSDR has developed MRLs which define the level of daily human exposure to a hazardous substance release that is likely to result in no appreciable risk of an adverse non-cancer health effect. MRLs are designed to be a screening tool and are not intended to identify levels that would trigger cleanup or other action. As a result, exposure to a hazardous substance above an MRL does not necessarily mean that adverse health effects will occur. Rather, MRLs “are set below levels that, based on current information, might cause adverse health effects in the people most sensitive to such substance-induced effect.”
In comparison to the MRLs developed under CERCLA, there are two sets of standards established by EPA under the federal Clean Air Act to address health impacts from air emissions. One of these is the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”) which define the concentration of a criteria pollutant in ambient air deemed to be protective of human health. State implementation plans are designed to achieve compliance with NAAQS. Likewise, the air emissions from permitted stationary sources are analyzed to ensure consistency with NAAQS. NAAQS are developed through a rigorous process that solicits input from the scientific community and public at large, and are promulgated as rules which are invariably subject to legal challenge and judicial review.
EPA also establishes emission limitations under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act to control toxic air emissions. These standards limit the emissions of hazardous air pollutants from specified categories of stationary sources. EPA assesses the risk to public health and the environment that remains after implementation of these limitations and must promulgate new health based standards to mitigate those residual risks.
In recent months EPA has moved beyond the NAAQS and toxic air pollutant standards to rely upon the ATSDR and its MRLs in identifying the allowable, and ostensibly enforceable, concentration of pollutants in ambient air under the Clean Air Act.
In one case, EPA asked ATSDR to evaluate the ambient air quality surrounding a stationary source. ATSDR concluded that the monitored concentrations of manganese from that source exceeded the pollutant’s MRL. Based on this finding, US DOJ filed a civil complaint against the facility. One of the claims alleged that the monitored manganese concentrations presented an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and that injunctive action was necessary under Section 303 of the Clean Air Act. The complaint requested a judicial order requiring installation of fence-line air monitors and implementation by the source of all measures necessary to prevent exceedance of the MRL for manganese at those monitors. In effect, EPA identified the MRL as the allowable concentration of manganese to be emitted under the Clean Air Act. The case has settled.
In other matters, EPA Region 5 utilized the information from an ATSDR health consultation to justify issuance of a Section 114 order under the Clean Air Act which required installation of fence-line PM10 monitors around a facility with outdoor storage piles where manganese emissions were also an issue. The company refused to install the monitors and EPA filed a civil complaint seeking to enforce the Section 114 order. EPA sought summary judgment, relying in part upon an ATSDR finding that manganese concentrations in the ambient air surrounding a nearby facility exceeded the MRL. The underlying ATSDR assessment also used PM10 Air Quality Guidelines (AQG) from the World Health Organization (WHO) to conclude that ambient PM10 concentrations might cause respiratory problems for sensitive individuals. Notably, the WHO AQG are more conservative than the NAAQS (the WHO AQG for PM10 is 50 μg/m3 as a 24-hour mean, whereas the NAAQS for PM10 is 150 μg/m3 averaged over that same time period). The case settled.
It’s worth noting that ATSDR has finalized approximately 150 inhalation based MRLs covering pollutants emitted by a broad range of industrial facilities. However, I think it is safe to assume that stationary sources do not view MRLs as imposing any additional Clean Air Act strictures on their operations since the MRLs are not listed as applicable requirements in air permits. Moreover, the Title I and V permitting programs do not require sources to perform dispersion modeling to ensure compliance with MRLs.
It remains to be seen whether EPA under the new administration will continue to reach out to ATSDR and utilize the MRLs in addressing air pollutant emissions, particularly where such limits have never been vetted through a rulemaking process. I wouldn’t bet on it.
Posted on January 25, 2017
As I reflect on my tenure as Assistant Attorney General, I have been especially proud of the Division’s cooperation with state and local governments in matters encompassing all aspects of the Division’s work – affirmative and defensive, civil and criminal. When we combine forces with our state and local partners, we leverage the resources of multiple sovereigns and, ultimately, achieve more comprehensive results for the American people.
In 2016, we had unprecedented success in civil enforcement with states, due primarily to the record‐breaking settlement with BP in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill litigation. In April 2016, the trial court entered the final consent decree in the litigation, thereby resolving civil claims of the United States and the five Gulf Coast states against BP. The claims arose from the 2010 blowout of the Macondo well and the resulting massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP will pay the U.S. and the five Gulf States more than $20 billion under the consent decree, including: 1) a $5.5 billion civil penalty; 2) more than $8.1 billion in natural resource damages; 3) $600 million in further reimbursement of clean‐up costs and some royalty payments; and 4) up to $6 billion in economic damage payments for the Gulf States or their local units of government. This resolution is the largest settlement with a single entity in Department of Justice history; it includes the largest civil penalty ever awarded under the Clean Water Act, the largest ever natural resources damages settlement and massive economic damages payments to our state partners.
And, just this month we announced our plea agreement and civil consent decree with Volkswagen. In addition to the combined $4.3 billion penalty, corporate felony plea, and individual prosecutions, the previous civil consent decrees also provide $2.7 billion to all states for projects they select from the CD options to offset NOx pollution caused by the illegal car emissions. When the various settlements with VW are combined, and their value estimated, it approaches $20 billion.
Our state connections were vital to our criminal work. Cooperation ranged from providing training to state partners to close coordination in wildlife and pollution investigations. Prosecutors from ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section presented at several events where state investigators learned of opportunities and methods for developing wildlife and environmental crimes cases, either in concert with federal counterparts or independently. Our prosecutors also trained their counterparts on the Division’s recently acquired authority over worker safety matters.
But environmental enforcement is not where ENRD’s work with state and local partners ends. We also are working with our counterparts at the state and local level in a relatively new area of responsibility for the Division – civil and criminal enforcement of federal laws that provide for humane treatment of captive, farmed, and companion animals across the United States. In July 2016, ENRD and the Office of Justice Programs co-hosted a roundtable discussion on Animal Welfare Enforcement. We were joined by more than 100 leaders in the area, including representatives of federal agencies, states and local governments, as well as researchers, scientists and others in the animal welfare field. The roundtable allowed us to focus collectively on information sharing, organizational strategies and cooperation in animal welfare enforcement.
Finally, ENRD continued to develop and enhance relationships with our state counterparts by participating in several forums designed to share experiences and expertise. In the spring of 2016, for example, I had the honor of being the first ENRD Assistant Attorney General invited to speak to the annual meeting of the Environmental Council of the States, the national association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders. I joined colleagues from EPA, New Mexico and academia to discuss innovative ways to measure the success of environmental enforcement. ENRD attorneys also partnered with the National Association of Attorneys General to present webinars on topics of mutual interest, such as e‐discovery, and share expertise regarding federal bankruptcy law in the context of environmental cases. Finally, just this week we collaborated with the National Association of Attorneys General to publish Guidelines for Joint State/Federal Civil Environmental Enforcement Litigation, which is now available on the DOJ website.
As I depart from the Division, we are in good shape. In December, the Division accepted an award by the Partnership for Federal Service, which ranked the ENRD as the #2 best place to work in all of the federal government, as well as the best place to work in the Department of Justice. With more than 300 Federal agency subcomponents competing, our new rank places us well into the top 1% of all Federal workplaces.
Posted on November 28, 2016
Speculation about the environmental implications of the impending Trump presidency is running rampant. That was the case as well when Ronald Reagan was elected President. I served as an attorney in EPA Region 4 during his administration so I have a sense of dynamics that will be in play at the regional offices during the Trump administration. With this historical perspective, I offer the following thoughts on the potential impact of the Trump administration on EPA enforcement at the regional level.
· Initial Frontal Assault – The early years of the Reagan presidency were marked by a robust and concerted effort to declaw EPA, largely carried out through political appointments at Headquarters and at the Regional Administrator level (the oft-repeated refrain was “doing more with less”). Based on his condemnation of the “Department of Environmental Protection” during the campaign, I’m inclined to expect the same from President-elect Trump. However, the list of names currently being floated for the positions of EPA Administrator and Assistant Administrator ranges widely from a climate denier to well-respected former program managers at EPA. So, at this point, the jury is out on whether President-elect Trump will follow the Reagan administration’s lead or, like the George W. Bush administration, take a more restrained approach to regulatory implementation and enforcement, while recognizing the Agency’s fundamental legitimacy.
· Effectiveness of a Frontal Assault – The efforts of the Reagan administration were largely unsuccessful and relatively short-lived. At the regional level, this was due in no small part to muted but resolute resistance to those efforts from career employees. If the Trump administration pursues similar goals, I would expect similar results. I anticipate that rank-and-file enforcement personnel in the regional offices will continue to pursue and prosecute instances of statutory/regulatory noncompliance (consistent with budgetary constraints). In light of the largely completed trend of delegating environmental programs to the states, enforcement actions undertaken these days by the EPA regional offices frequently involve allegations of significant regulatory noncompliance that state programs are unable (or unwilling) to address effectively. Regional political appointees will be hard-pressed to halt or forestall meritorious enforcement actions. In addition to wanting to avoid any appearance of impropriety, those appointees will be subject to an NGO watchdog network that is considerably more developed and vibrant than it was during the Reagan years. If EPA doesn’t enforce, the NGOs will.
· Times Have Changed – Like me, today’s regulatory enforcement landscape bears little resemblance to what it looked like 36 years ago. I can well recall spirited conversations in the late 70’s/early 80’s with reluctant program managers for some of the Region 4 states concerning the states’ adoption and enforcement of a regulatory framework that mimicked the basic structure of the major federal programs (air, water, and waste). Those days are long gone, and I would anticipate that any efforts to suppress enforcement at the federal level will have minimal impact in those authorized states that have active enforcement programs. Also, while some NGOs (e.g., NRDC, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund) were quite active during the Reagan administration, particularly in high profile enforcement matters, the proliferation since that time in the number and variety of well-financed NGOs at the national, regional, and state level will likely compensate for any decrease in EPA enforcement that may occur under President Trump. Ironically, what we may see in some cases is initiation of enforcement actions by EPA that blunt the use of citizen suits by NGOs, followed by settlements on terms considered less stringent than the NGOs would prefer.
Given President-elect Trump’s penchant for unpredictability and the current uncertainties surrounding the ultimate composition of the Trump environmental team, I’m not confident in my predictive powers, other than to say that we are about to embark on what I will gently call an interesting time in the history of environmental regulation. Whether it proves to be déjà vu remains to be seen.
Posted on November 18, 2016
Q: What two things do Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and George Pataki have in common?
A: (1) None of them ever claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax; and
(2) Every one of them promised to revoke the Obama Clean Power Plan (CPP) if elected.
How Bad Is Bad?
I’ll come back to the CPP. But first, the question so many are asking: how terrible is Mr. Trump’s election going to be for the environment? Let me begin by reminiscing. In 1980, I was in EPA’s Office of General Counsel when the “killer trees” President was elected. I don’t remember actual tears in the office the next day, but people were pretty distressed and many were threatening to leave the agency.
Things really did look bad for a while. Remember Anne Gorsuch Burford, Rita Lavelle, James Watt and many others with similar agendas? But then remember the intense and angry public reaction when it appeared that core environmental protections for clean air and clean water were in jeopardy. These people were forced out of office. William Ruckelshaus returned at the top of EPA, and the ship was essentially righted.
With that history as a guide, I don’t think the Trump Administration (disclosure: I neither supported nor voted for him) will try to make any significant changes to the vast bulk of protective air, water, waste, etc. rules now on the books. I once calculated there are over 20,000 pages of EPA regulations in the C.F.R. That’s millions of words. I think that after four years of a Trump Administration, fewer than 1% of those words will be deleted or amended.
Now back to the CPP. I am pretty sure that will fall into the 1%. Others have written about what might happen to the CPP on judicial review and I won’t try to add to that guessing game. The key thing to remember is that the CPP is currently stayed by the Supreme Court, and that stay will remain in effect until any final Supreme Court disposition – which will be many months from now.
There is a good chance that the Trump EPA will not wait for any final judicial review but rather will soon undertake a rulemaking to revoke at least the more far-reaching and controversial elements of the CPP (i.e., the provisions “going beyond the fence-line” to force wind and solar in place of coal). As explained in one of my recent blogs, there would be no need to develop a new factual record in such a rulemaking. So this process may take a couple of years, but for much of that time the CPP will remain blocked by the Supreme Court stay and the earliest CPP standards aren’t scheduled to take effect until 2022.
As also explained in my blog, thanks to a recent 3-0 D.C. Circuit opinion authored by Judge Merrick Garland (and the Supreme Court precedent that he relied upon), those in the Trump EPA should have smooth sailing on judicial review if they take the time to clearly articulate their policy and legal rationale.
And what would public reaction be to such actions? Cutting the most controversial parts out of the CPP would not jeopardize the legal basis for core clean air and water protections as the early Reagan cutbacks were perceived to do. So even if revisions to the CPP provoke lots of noise from traditional public interest groups opposing any cut-backs in GHG regulation, that noise may not resonate much with a general public much more interested in jobs, health care, and public safety.
Public reaction could be far different, though, if – as indicated in some press reports -- the Trump EPA were to go beyond significantly cutting back on the CPP and deploy a nuclear option: reversing the Obama EPA’s 2009 GHG “endangerment finding.” By doing this EPA would be trying to free itself of any obligation to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. (Note: I am not addressing the more limited August 2016 aircraft emission endangerment finding.)
I think such a reversal would be extremely unwise. First, I think it would be far more vulnerable on judicial review than a significant CPP cutback. Reversing the finding would require the building of a massive new factual record. And with the growing scientific consensus that man-made GHGs are causing at least some adverse effects, even conservative judges may have difficulty upholding such a decision.
Second, having EPA in effect deny there is any climate problem from air emissions could more easily foment the kind of intense and angry public reaction that the early Reagan EPA suffered. Recall from the above that none of the other Republican candidates gunning for the CPP ever said global climate was a Chinese hoax.
Finally, I believe such a reversal is entirely unnecessary as a legal matter. As long as EPA keeps some form of GHG controls on the books, it will have carried out its legal obligations stemming from the endangerment finding. Nothing in the CAA or any judicial decision requires that the degree of GHG regulation be driven by an endangerment finding. There is nothing remotely like the MACT mandate to achieve limits being met by the best 12% in a source’s category. In short, EPA does not need to touch the endangerment finding to accomplish the goal of amending the CPP to remove its more far-reaching and controversial provisions.
More Targets and Concerns
Getting back to the basic question of how much the Trump EPA may change things, there will certainly be more rules targeted in the 1% -- the Obama Clean Water Rule for almost sure. And there are valid concerns about how much EPA’s funding and enforcement efforts may be cut back even if most rules stay on the books. Spoiler alert: I may do blogs on these topics soon.
But my main concern for people at the Trump EPA now is that they remember what happened when the Reagan EPA tried to de-regulate in a manner that was perceived as threatening core values of clean air and clean water.
Posted on October 11, 2016
Our ACOEL delegation to Cuba was an incredible opportunity to engage substantively with the lovely people of Cuba. My personal experience is that the Cuban People are joyful, happy, warm, generous, well-educated and proud of Cuba. Cuban literacy rates are extraordinarily high (97%), and with government funded education, the population has high rates of secondary education, including masters and PhD graduates, in science, medicine, engineering, architecture, and law as well as the creative arts, music, art, dance and so much more.
As a second career lawyer and chemical engineer, I loved engaging in Cuba’s electrifying mix of science and engineering education, creativity and equality. But my fascination was also challenged by the need to fully appreciate contextual implications of Cuba’s post-revolutionary government, including government-controlled media and government-provided and government-directed education and careers, healthcare, housing and food distribution. This is a wholly different mindset from U.S. capitalism, of course, which takes time and engagement to fully explore and understand. With its socialist roots and communist goals, most important in Cuba is equality: equality between bricklayers and brain surgeons, as well as between women and men. And while Cubans exhibit pride in their cultural emphasis on equality, a quality the U.S. is struggling to achieve in many respects, this emphasis may result in disincentive regarding the more challenging career choices. Also, with government-controlled investment, we saw stark contrasts between recent and historic choices in investment, targeted skills and effective implementation contrasting with apparent inefficiencies and possibly strategic neglect. For example, Havana’s recently completed opera house, which we were told was completed within three years by Cuban workmen, is a marvel of execution. It is simply breathtaking and a great example of Cuban potential. Yet several doors down are majestic and palatial structures built in the 1800’s, for which rooves and windows have long given way to healthy vegetation, and even trees, within roofless walls.
As environmental lawyers, of course, we were visiting to learn about Cuban environmental policies and to see if Cuba might be receptive to ACOEL’s offer of pro bono assistance. Recall that the timing of Cuba’s disengagement from the U.S. occurred somewhere around Kennedy’s disastrous Bay of Pigs in April 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, which were contemporaneous with awakening of the U.S. consciousness regarding environmental policy with the first publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in September 1962. In light of this, I did not expect to see evidence of U.S.-based or otherwise familiar environmental policies, practices or approaches. In our discussions throughout our visit, however, Cuba’s great interest in protecting the environment was quite clear, particularly Cuba’s focus on protecting native species and surface water and Cuba’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.
Cuban historic domestic industries include textiles, footwear, cement, flour milling, fertilizer, nickel and steel production; mining for nickel, copper, chromium and manganese; and agriculture including tobacco (cigars!), henequen (agave), rice and coffee. With Cuba opening up to the world, the Cuban government has received many proposals for development projects in the country including, of course, hotels and golf resorts, but also a long list of projects that can replace current imports and benefit from Cuba’s natural resources including: radial tires, petroleum, automobiles and trucks, refrigeration and air conditioning, stainless steel and alloys, aluminum cans and glass bottles, tableware and other goods for the hotel industry, industrial waste treatment and waste-to-energy project proposals, pharmaceuticals, containers and equipment for drug storage, delivery and other medical uses, cell phones, concentrated animal feeding operations, animal and agricultural goods processing (for example, fruits and vegetables, soy bean, yeast, spirits (rum!), sugar, coffee, cacao, dairy, shrimp, chicken, pork, beef, charcoal), and many more industrial, commercial and consumer goods.
With the natural beauty and unique species native to the Cuban archipelago, the Cuban Government quite rightly demands demonstration up front that all projects will result in no unacceptable impact to the environment and native species. However, in making this demonstration, proposed projects would greatly benefit from design and implementation of environmental management systems and approaches similar to those long implemented by the United States. For example, there may be a need for more air pollution control requirements for sooty stacks, even if Cuba is surrounded by ocean; limitations on releases of pollutants to the environment; and a systematic method of identifying, characterizing and managing solid and hazardous wastes produced by industry. Also, many indicated they had concerns regarding water resources and expressed an interest in water conservation, efficient use of water resources and protection of surface and drinking water resources. Certainly, when and if the lovely historical ghost structures so common throughout Cuba are to be preserved or redeveloped, systematic methods of renovation or redevelopment would be helpful. And finally, as Eileen will share in her blog, there are opportunities and great enthusiasm in sustainability and conservation, including sustainable energy projects, and potentially exploration of more efficient approaches to electricity distribution, such as distributed energy generation, renewable energy and energy conservation. But beyond the technical standards, more than anything, Cuba’s greatest opportunity may be in developing and adopting an integrated environmental program that will result in predictable, consistent and fair implementation, monitoring and enforcement, with reasonable penalties for noncompliance.
I am hopeful ACOEL has an opportunity to assist Cuba, and that our ACOEL Fellows catch our Cuban Enthusiasm and volunteer to join us in Cuba pro bono projects!
Posted on October 10, 2016
Jim Bruen, Eileen Millett, Mary Ellen Ternes and I remain energized from the dynamic set of informal meetings in which we participated while in Cuba. I thought you might find useful the following notes and points from four of those meetings, as we explore the potential for ACOEL pro bono projects there. We certainly have the capacity and will to help in Cuba, and I am optimistic that the College and its Fellows will find a path to do so.
One overall note on the tone and content of the meetings – and of our casual conversations with Cubans we met during our time there – is that most people had both positive and critical things to say about the government, the system and quality of life. Most, though, expressed optimism for the future of their country.
You may find some of the notes below inconsistent or contradictory. I think that’s reflective of the differing viewpoints and experiences to which we were exposed.
Sept 7, 2016: Meeting with Political Scientist /Publisher/Editor
• Cuba in transition; you are here at a special time
• Changes had already occurred before December 2014; more changes since then, and more to come
• Electoral system: Citizens vote for representatives to the National Assembly/ Assembly chooses President and Vice President
• Raul Castro has committed to step down in 2018
• Current VP, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is a 55 year old engineer; 30 years younger than Raul Castro
• Most in assembly are engineers, economists and teachers who serve in government at no additional salary while also pursuing their professional careers
• Power will be passing to a much younger generation of legislators and leaders; and that generation consists of highly educated professionals
• In order to travel outside of the country, Cubans need only their passports and any necessary visas from the countries to be visited.
• Government publications remain narrow in point of view; but that is not the case with private publications, where dissenting opinions are published.
• The outside perception of Cuba may be that Cubans have the least available access to world views through the internet. However, even though lack of internet may be the case at home, computers and the internet are commonly available at work and school and most people now also have internet-connected smartphones.
• Human rights issues remain, including prohibition on founding political parties
• Approximately 170,000 Americans visited Cuba last year; that is 705 more than the year before.
- This year: expecting the total to be more than 500,000
• Key issues for updating the Cuban socialist model:
- Have to confront increased social inequality & poverty
- About 20% suffering from poverty; 4 times more than 20 years ago
- Yet others are achieving higher overall income with salary plus additional sources of income. Income differential and poverty must be dealt with.
- Severe housing shortage is a critical problem.
- Housing in bad condition/ and housing shortage
- Super centralization as a defensive posture
- Overextended bureaucracy
- Water supply/ energy supply problems
- 20% of Cubans are over 60; by 2025, that will be up to 25%
- Life expectancy is about 80 years
- Population growth rate = -1.5%
- Birth rate has been low since early 70s
- Surge of migration. 65% more than the year before. Up by 45,000 this year.
- Media: all media is currently government media
- Inconsistent economic system
- High dependency on imports
- Low domestic food production and industrial output
• Last of the key issues/problems: U.S. policy toward Cuba
- Negative impact of embargo
- Fortress mentality
- Travel restrictions for U.S. citizens
• Cuban culture is closer to American culture than that of any other country in the region
Sept 7, 2016: Meeting at the Fundacion Antonio Nuñez Jimenez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (“Cuba Nature Foundation”) with an Engineer of the Foundation, a Faculty Member of the Instituto Geografia Tropical, and a Representative of the Ministry of Science
• The Foundation is the only scientific foundation/ NGO in Cuba (there are other NGOs that are cultural foundations).
• Among other things, it manages protected areas in Cuba.
• Foundation has collaborated with foundations/NGOs in U.S., and there have been visits back and forth
• Biggest problem is that the embargo gets in the way of funding from U.S. institutions
• Over 50 international cooperative projects over the past 21 years
• Goal of conservation of Cuban biodiversity and geographical diversity
• Problems: invasive species/ pollution/ climate change/mining
• Existing environmental legal framework:
- National environmental policies, strategies and legislation
- Article 27 of the Constitution on protecting environment
- Law number 81: Approved 1997
• Cuba has entered three treaties/conventions: on bio diversity, climate change, and drought.
• Most important current issues are seen as:
- Soil degradation
- Loss of biodiversity
- Damage to forest cover and lack of water
- Climate change vulnerability
• Where does Cuba go from here? Varying views expressed:
- Process of last 60 years for environment has been good/big question is how to preserve going forward as things change
- Having to redefine behavior and economy
- Problem of dealing with laws on the books that reflect a former reality
- We are a country rich in spirit and ideas, but we are poor in our economy
- How to organize the economy?
- Challenge: don't take the same directions that others took 100 years ago
- Everything to be done from an environmental perspective depends on how you organize your financial structure and financing
- Existing environmental act should be sufficient for big picture, but we need the legislation to implement it.
- Right now it is reactive, not preventive.
• General discussion among them:
- Need to access financing and technology to protect the environment and human settlements
- Existing law based on national/fed strategy and structure. No local structure.
- No legal framework to determine the information you need and which set of regulations applies. There can be conflicting regulations from one ministry to another. This needs to be combined and systemized.
- No unity on legislation, on what it means; you get lost looking for information.
- Same on pollution controls: different regulations from different ministries. Cleanup standards as example: One ministry comes up with standards/ another comes up with methodology and other aspects, but there is no master plan to compel a combination of the two.
- Implementing ministry does not itself have the power to enforce. Other institutions may have power to enforce. So there is an issue on means of enforcement.
- Current law already has a way to incentivize local application of laws or enforcement of them, but in practice it is not happening, and dissemination of information on the regulations and methods of enforcement is not occurring
Sept 7, 2016: Meeting with Former Official at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA)
• The official worked at CITMA until she retired in 2014. Her work had different aspects, including ecology, assisting companies on decision making at high levels, and environmental communication.
• Overview of environmental law in Cuba:
- Until 1990, done empirically
- But after 1990, determined to be in interest of the state and the agency to control environmental issues
- Before 1990, several agencies were dealing with protection of the environment, but then new system was established in 1990 - directed from CITMA (or “Ministry of Science”)
- Continues under Ministry of Science
- Within the Ministry, there is an Agency on the Environment
- There are several other institutions within the environmental agency.
- Local administrations propose areas to protect: geographic areas/not topics
- The Ministry analyzes what has to be done about local efforts to develop in these geographic areas.
- Ministry works together with local government
- When a company wants to work in one of these areas, it has to pass consideration by a commission that considers what company wants to do
- Ministry of Science issues permits to companies to work in these areas.
- Ministry's model for development requires compliance with permits: risk, air quality etc. within one permit roof
- Ministry follows UNESCO standards for protection of biosphere
- Other ministries also have an interest: geographical and others including tourism
- Other involved institutions: Ministries of Mining, Energy, Tourism, for example, depending on project.
Sept 9, 2016: Roundtable Meeting with Law Professor and with Engineers Connected with the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment
• They find a basic harmony in the existing environmental structure; but they are not saying the harmony is perfect; can always be better
• But there are many disparate environmental regulations that have been implemented over time based on urgencies and commitments; often, environmental regulation in Cuba is based on international commitments
• Since 1992, Cuba has been on path to amend laws to meet international commitments
- As a result of those commitments, have to revamp institutions:
- Such as sustainable development
- But need a clearer legal framework to make it work better
• Biggest problem here has been adaptation, as opposed to remediation
• But now: a delicate balance must be reached between development and environmental protection, and need a strong legal framework for this
• Per the Paris Accord, we have to deal with adaptation as well as mitigation
• Have to regulate technology to regulate environment
• Should look to integrate all of the different laws
- Right now, each agency issues its own regulations
- Would be good to integrate and facilitate within one unit
• Specific focus could be to introduce a legal framework for the verification of remediation, mitigation and adaptation.
• Currently, each ministry issues resolutions: their own general determinations to be followed
• Vertical governmental structure:
- Municipal/provincial/ national
- Local decisions cannot contradict national or provincial decisions
- They don't have equivalent of state legislation
• CITMA decisions have to be observed all over the country
• Each province also has experts in each area, representing the Ministry in the region
• Same at municipal level
• There are civil and criminal penalties in the current environmental laws
• The environmental laws are meant to be preventative but there have been sanctions
• Ministry of Justice tends to have all fines and sanctions in one single act. And they do find efficiencies here, having fines and sanctions centralized within one act.
• There are administrative sanctions; plus potential taking over of / confiscation of materials and closure of establishments
• Almost everything needs an environmental license of some degree: Whether biotech/ chemical / nuclear/ industrial activities in general; license seen as critical
• Mariel Port district being dealt with very firmly and strictly
• There are municipal/ provincial/national courts, including specialty courts like the environmental court
Posted on August 18, 2016
Today, the U.S. EPA and Department of Justice announced that Harley Davidson has accepted defeat on defeat devices. The icon of rebellion lost its black luster years ago when bankers, professors, and, of all things, lawyers, became the most noticeable owners and riders of their iron horses. The Gucci sunglasses betrayed the weekend gangsters to mere citizens who at first trembled at the rumble of Harley motors.
But now, the historic purveyor of the rawest available form of horsepower has agreed to stop selling popular “super tuners” for “Super Glides”, “Fat Boys”, “Road Kings”, “Electra Glides” and other iconic rides. The engine tuner kits are guaranteed to raise the rumble another notch or two. The problem? Emissions. What?! Yes, emissions.
Well, actually cheating about emissions. EPA says Harley’s “super tuned” engine emissions are higher than the emissions certified for stock engines. I’m shocked. The aftermarket nature of these horsepower enhancers does not matter. Harley is not supposed to help rabble rousing bikers exceed their emissions allowances, says EPA.
Wow. Is blaming Harley for breaking the rules within the rules? Has the last hope of rebellion been reduced from “rolling thunder” to a Vespa’s whine? I would take my stack of Harley t-shirts out in the backyard tonight for a ceremonial bonfire, but Birmingham has banned open burning until November.
Posted on June 2, 2016
The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) fairly boasts that it lived up to its tag line “Rescuing Liberty from Coast to Coast” by following its 2012 Supreme Court victory in Sackett v. EPA with its May 31, 2016 victory in United States Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc. In both Clean Water Act cases the PLF represented the property owners on appeal, arguing that the particular agency action was final, subject to judicial review. The Supreme Court agreed both times. Some boasting is due.
The particulars of each case flow from disputes about the scope of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act. Neither case resolved the merits issue. Both cases considered only whether the dispute may be brought to court by challenging a pre-enforcement agency action.
The Sacketts filled in a half acre of their 2/3-acre residential lot near Priest Lake, Idaho with dirt and rock in preparation for building a home. EPA served a compliance order advising the Sacketts that they violated the Clean Water Act by filling in waters of the United States without a Section 404 dredge and fill permit. The Order unilaterally prevented further construction and required the Sacketts to remove the fill material then restore the wetland pursuant to an EPA Restoration Work Plan.
The Sacketts tried to challenge EPA’s order, but were told by EPA, then by the District Court, that they had no right to challenge the order until EPA attempted to enforce it. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, setting the Sacketts squarely on the horns of their dilemma. Disregarding the unilateral compliance order subjected the Sacketts to potential fines of up to $75,000 per day. Complying with the order meant spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to carry out the EPA’s Restoration Work Plan, and never getting to build on their property.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert, and Justice Scalia, authoring the decision concluded that the compliance order met the Bennett two-prong test for reviewability: (1) no adequate remedy other than review under the Administrative Procedures Act, and (2) no statute, in this case the Clean Water Act, precluded that review. Justice Alito, concurring, declared: “The position taken in this case by the Federal Government -- a position that the Court now squarely rejects -- would have put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees.” And later: “In a nation that values due process, not to mention private property, such treatment is unthinkable.”
The Hawkes case, four years later, is the same song, second verse. This time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued the offending decision -- a jurisdictional determination (JD) that waters of the United States existed on 530 acres from which Hawkes Co., Inc. (Hawkes) and its affiliated companies planned to mine for peat. Hawkes provides peat for golf courses and sports fields, and mining peat on the 530 acres would extend the life of its peat mining business by ten to fifteen years. The USACE concluded that the property was connected by a “relatively permanent water” (a series of culverts and unnamed streams) that flowed into the Middle River and then into the Red River of the North, a “traditional navigable waterway” about 120 miles away. With the USACE determination, Hawkes needed a permit to harvest peat. Moreover, USACE advised that before it issued a permit, it would require additional hydrological and functional resource assessments and an evaluation of upstream potential impacts, the cost of which would exceed $100,000.
Using an analysis, discussed in my colleague’s post Sending a Message on WOTUS, the Court concluded that a JD satisfied both prongs of Bennett, and affirmed the Eighth Circuit, remanding the Hawkes companies to District Court of Minnesota - Minneapolis with the right to litigate the jurisdictional determination, same as the Sacketts. When the Supreme Court ruled favorably on their case the Sacketts were remanded to the Idaho District Court, where their court battle continues. Presumably, the battle will continue with the Hawkes’ companies as well.
At the heart of each battle is whether or not the property actually contains “Waters of the United States.” Following the procedural “yellow brick road” won’t get anyone out of Oz -- not until a clear definition of waters of the United States emerges.
Posted on June 2, 2016
The May 31 decision in Hawkes may be less important for what it says about the reviewability of jurisdictional determinations (JDs) under the Clean Water Act than for what is says about the far more consequential stakes in the pending challenges to EPA’s Clean Water Rule (aka WOTUS), which will undoubtedly find its way to the Court following a decision by the Sixth Circuit which is expected before the end of the year.
Contrary to my prediction the Court did rule (unanimously) that JDs are final agency actions subject to review under the APA. In an opinion penned by Chief Justice Roberts the Court upheld the conclusion of the Eighth Circuit but substituted a different test for finality, one that emerged during oral argument and one that introduces a novel and perhaps questionable rationale. The key question was whether JDs have legal consequences. In roundabout fashion, Roberts concluded they did because a positive finding of jurisdiction meant that the applicant was denied the advantage of a negative determination (or NJD). That had the effect of denying the applicant the benefit of what Roberts called a “safe harbor” provision contained, not in the statute or implementing regulations, but in a 2015 Memorandum of Agreement between by EPA and the Corps. Roberts read the MOA as creating a legal right – similar to a covenant not to sue – binding the government to a five year commitment not to revisit the NJD, an interpretation the government vigorously disputed as pointed out by Justice Ginsburg in her concurrence.
This ruling could have significant practical effects. Since 2008 the Corps and EPA have issued over 400,000 JDs of which approximately 40% were approved JD’s. Under the MOA, the process has become more formal, giving it at least the appearance if not the reality of adjudication. The formality of the process convinced a number of the Justices, particularly Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan, that JDs should be considered final actions under the Abbott Labs test. They emphasized the fact that under the MOA the agencies were not simply giving advice to the public. This raises the question whether the agencies may want to rethink the MOA and consider revising the safe harbor provision to make clear it is not binding. The Solicitor raised this possibility during the oral argument (transcript at p 16 lines 16-25).
Pursuing that route, however, runs the risk of further alienating Justice Kennedy and the government can ill afford to lose his potentially crucial vote if and when the Clean Water Rule reaches the Court. In his concurring opinion, joined not surprisingly by Justices Alito and Thomas, Kennedy went out of his way to take several pot shots at the Clean Water Act and the agencies implementation of it. Referring to “the Act’s ominous reach” Kennedy said it “continues to raise troubling questions regarding the Government’s power to cast doubt on the full use and enjoyment of private property throughout the Nation.” During oral argument Kennedy offered the view that the CWA is “arguably unconstitutionally vague, and certainly harsh in the civil and criminal penalties it puts into practice.”
It is too soon to write the obituary for the Clean Water Rule. But Kennedy’s vote is more in doubt now than when he authored the concurring opinion in Rapanos showing a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of both the values enshrined in the CWA and the constitutional issues it raises. Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test, widely accepted as controlling by the lower courts, was the blueprint EPA and the Corps used to write the rule. Given these more recent statements, that may not be enough to win his approval. The fate of the rule may well depend on how soon and by whom the vacancy on the Court is filled.
Posted on March 17, 2016
In a highly unusual case that has led to a near unanimous call for legislative change by environmental lawyers in Connecticut, a Superior Court judge ruled that the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (“DEEP”) can unilaterally revoke a consent order that it negotiated with a company requiring the investigation of a contaminated site. The lawsuit was initially brought by DEEP, among other reasons, to enforce the consent order. However, after the defendant filed a counterclaim against DEEP alleging that the department had not acted reasonably and breached the order, the department unilaterally revoked the order and moved to dismiss the counterclaim. The court held that the state statute that authorizes the department to issue, modify, or revoke orders, allows the department to revoke consent orders.
Although the state agency may have had good reason to revoke the consent order in this case to help it improve its position in the litigation, that decision undermines the public policy in favor of encouraging negotiated settlements in environmental matters. Most environmental consent orders are carefully negotiated, with give and take on each side. If a private party knows that the environmental agency can simply revoke a consent order at any time, why would that party make concessions to resolve a dispute through an administrative order on consent?
The U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. ITT Continental Baking Company long ago recognized that administrative consent orders and judicial consent decrees are in the nature of contracts and should be construed basically as contracts. Therefore, the federal courts typically place a heavy burden on a party seeking to modify a consent decree. Even the Connecticut court which ruled that DEEP can unilaterally revoke consent orders questioned the wisdom of such authority.
It remains to be seen whether the Connecticut state legislature will clarify that the state environmental department lacks the authority to unilaterally withdraw from an agreement that it negotiated. A bill, S.B. 431, was recently proposed by the Judiciary Committee of the State General Assembly to reverse the Superior Court decision. The general assembly has until May 4, 2016, when the session ends, to pass such legislation. If the legislation does not pass, and DEEP retains such authority, it is likely to find it much more difficult to settle administrative orders on consent in Connecticut.
Posted on March 8, 2016
For many of us, the only “drone” we knew of growing up probably was that boring, monotonous lecture late on a sunny afternoon. Or if you were expert in biology, you would have known that a “drone” is a stingless male bee whose sole job is not to gather nectar or pollen, but to mate with the queen. Today, however, everyone over the age of 5 knows that drones are a hot gift item, anything that flies without a pilot onboard but controlled remotely. A “drone”, in government parlance, is generally termed a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), or a UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) -- which is a UAV, plus the ground-based controls.
UAVs have spawned a wide range of legal and regulatory issues, including not only Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licensing but significant privacy, tort and property rights matters. Given the existing and potential use of UAV-collected information about environmental conditions, the next big fight in environmental enforcement will be the admissibility of UAV-collected evidence. Many may not know of the growing use of, and potentially expanding realm for, drones in the environmental arena. The World Wildlife Fund has been using UAVs for several years for such disparate activities as 1) monitoring prairie dog colonies for potential habitat for one of North America’s most endangered mammals, the black-footed ferret. 2) undertaking surveillance activities to reduce poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa and Asia, and 3) monitoring the three main species of marine turtles in Suriname to combat poaching of their eggs. Likewise, the Nature Conservancy has tested drones to monitor the sandhill crane population in the U.S. And a new NGO, Conservation Drones, has been working with groups all over the “developing tropics to use UAVs for conservation.”
It is not a big leap from use of UAVs for wildlife conservation purposes, to enforcement efforts against unlawful pollution of waterways and illegal logging. For example, a drone can obtain imagery of discoloration suggestive of discharges of hazardous substances; can detect differences in water temperature using thermal sensors to detect illegal discharges; can film illegal mining or deforestation activities; or can even collect small volume water samples from remote areas. But in the US, if one of your clients is the target of such surveillance, is the evidence admissible in an enforcement proceeding?
The answer is—maybe. It depends. The type of answers clients hate to receive from their trusted legal counsel. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all of the ongoing machinations of the Federal Aviation Administration as it attempts to develop final rules for the commercial (non-hobby) operation of UAVs. But while the federal government attempts to preempt the field, States have stepped in and, in conflicting ways, attempted to respond to the growing drone game. In 2015, 45 states considered 168 drone bills, and 20 states enacted legislation. In some states, use of a drone over the private property of another person, without prior consent, could result in criminal or civil prosecution or damage claims—even if the drone is used for the environmentally beneficial uses described above. Thus, one must become familiar with her or his state’s laws, as well as monitor the ongoing FAA and Congressional activities, to best effectively prepare and advise clients on this brave new world.
China currently is using UAVs to track excessive air and water pollution is China. In one city with 40,000 sources of industrial pollution and 900 industrial parks, drones are using “high-resolution digital cameras, infrared and laser scanners, and magnetometers…. Some UAVs are also fitted with an infrared thermal imaging unit that shows the operation of facilities at night.” How this information will be used in China remains to be seen.
At home in the US drones are going to fuel more and more back-and-forth legal maneuvers of environmental regulators and NGOs against companies and their lawyers. The gathering and use of drone-generated information may be as intense a fight as the sport use of the UAVs themselves. To get a preview of that emerging arena, check out the more recent “Flight Club” aka Game of Drones—the “bad boys” who want to be the next big sports league. Coming soon to a screen near you.
Posted on March 4, 2016
The United States Environmental Protection Agency recently modernized its implementation of its two primary self-disclosure incentive policies – the Audit Policy and the Small Business Compliance Policy – by creating a centralized, web-based “eDisclosure” portal to receive and automatically process regulated entities’ self-disclosed civil violations of environmental law. The Audit Policy and Small Business Compliance Policy provide penalty mitigation and other incentives for large and small businesses that discover, promptly disclose and expeditiously correct environmental violations and take steps to prevent future violations. According to EPA, the automated eDisclosure system will make the processing of more routine voluntary disclosures faster and more efficient, and save time and resources for both regulated entities and EPA. Nonetheless, while efficiency is desirable for both public and private parties, potential users of the new system should bear in mind that self-disclosure of a violation to EPA should be undertaken with the assistance of experienced environmental consultants and legal counsel.
In the future, all self-disclosed civil violations (except for disclosures under EPA’s New Owner Policy) must be made through the eDisclosure portal. Entities that disclose potential violations through the portal may qualify for one of two types of automated treatment, Category 1 or Category 2. Category 1 disclosure is available only for minor violations of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (“EPCRA”). For Category 1 disclosures, the eDisclosure system automatically issues an electronic Notice of Determination (“eNOD”) confirming that the violations have been resolved with no assessment of civil penalties, on the condition that the certified eDisclosure is accurate and complete.
Category 2 Disclosures include all non-EPCRA violations, EPCRA violations where the entity can certify compliance with all of the Audit Policy’s nine conditions except that the method of violation discovery was systematic, violations of CERCLA § 103/EPCRA § 304’s chemical release reporting requirements, and EPCRA violations with ”significant economic benefit” (as defined by EPA). For these disclosures, the eDisclosure system automatically issues an electronic Acknowledgement Letter confirming EPA’s receipt of the disclosure and promising that EPA will make a determination regarding eligibility for penalty mitigation if and when it considers taking an enforcement action for environmental violations.
EPA stated in its December 9, 2015 Federal Register notice announcing the launch of the eDisclosure portal that it “is not modifying the substantive conditions in its Audit Policy or Small Business Compliance Policy.” However, anyone considering using the eDisclosure portal to self-report a civil violation of environmental law needs to be aware that EPA has significantly changed its longstanding approach to responding to Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests for such disclosures.
Since 1997, EPA has deemed resolved voluntary disclosures under the Audit Policy and Small Business Compliance Policy publicly releasable under FOIA. The agency will continue to take this approach to Category 1 disclosures submitted through the eDisclosure portal. Specifically, it will grant FOIA requests for eNODs issued for Category 1 disclosures in most cases.
However, EPA’s handling of unresolved voluntary disclosures will shift 180 degrees going forward. Until now, EPA has generally withheld unresolved disclosures pursuant to FOIA’s “law enforcement proceeding” exemption, Exemption 7(A). This exemption protects from disclosure “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information (A) could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings ….” Now, simultaneous with its implementation of the eDisclosure portal, EPA has eliminated its practice of withholding unresolved disclosures and replaced it with a presumption in favor of releasing regulated entities’ voluntary disclosure information to the public. In responding to FOIA requests for individual unresolved disclosures, EPA now will determine on a case-by-case basis whether it “reasonably foresees that release would harm an interest protected by a FOIA exemption.” In doing so, it will aim “to be as accommodating as possible in responding to such requests,” with the result that it “generally expects to make Category 1 and Category 2 disclosures publicly available within a relatively short period of time after their receipt.”
As the agency explains it, this policy shift is consistent with the 2009 memoranda from President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in favor of federal government transparency. Nonetheless, it could reduce the perceived benefits of the Audit Policy and Small Business Compliance Policy for some in the regulated community and provide a disincentive to self-report. Moreover, at least one commentator has suggested that EPA’s new willingness to release information in response to FOIA requests may “fuel… private attorney general litigations.” This could be particularly problematic where EPA releases disclosure information through a FOIA request before it has determined whether in fact the business in question is eligible for penalty mitigation or will not be a target of enforcement action. Although EPA is trying to reassure the regulated community that this policy change will not result in more citizen suits, potential eDisclosure portal users are legitimately concerned about such arguably premature releases of disclosure information, and should carefully evaluate their circumstances before making any disclosure, especially under Category 2.
The potential for the release of unresolved disclosures to cause harm to eDisclosure users could be further exacerbated as an unintended result of the expansion of intergovernmental data exchanges such as the Environmental Information Exchange Network, a partnership of states, territories, tribes and EPA working to provide increased access to high-quality environmental data.
In sum, by introducing the eDisclosure system, EPA has streamlined the self-disclosure process for certain environmental violations, which likely will reduce the time and expense involved in making such disclosures. However, EPA has not provided any additional detail or direction for businesses to use in determining whether a specific violation meets the substantive criteria of the Audit Policy or Small Business Compliance Policy. This determination – and the ultimate decision of whether disclosure will be beneficial – should be made with careful consideration of the relevant facts and applicable law, under the guidance of knowledgeable environmental consultants and legal counsel..
Posted on February 22, 2016
In my last blog entry, I advocated for the amendment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to eliminate the bar on pre-enforcement review as one step toward improving the investigation and cleanup of sediment sites. In this entry, I propose that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and potentially responsible parties (PRPs) significantly revise the dispute resolution process for EPA Administrative Settlement Agreements and Orders on Consent (“ASAOCs”) to require the resolution of disputes by neutral third parties unaffiliated with EPA or an affected PRP.
The goal of sediment remediation is to protect public health and the environment through prompt and cost-effective remedial action. Unfortunately, this goal has not been met at many sediment sites. At some sites, neither the public nor the PRPs have been served by investigations that have unnecessarily taken decades and wastefed hundreds of millions of dollars to undertake. EPA’s selection of remedies at many sites has been delayed and has not resulted in the selection of protective and cost-effective remedies.
Most sediment cleanups are performed in accordance with consent decrees, which appropriately vest dispute resolution authority in federal district court judges. In contrast, most sediment investigations are conducted under ASAOCs, which vest dispute resolution authority in EPA personnel. While many at EPA with responsibility for dispute resolution have the best of intentions and seek to be objective, the fact that they work for EPA, often supervise the EPA staff who made the decision leading to the dispute, and are often steeped in EPA practices renders most of them unable to serve in a truly independent role. To ensure fairer dispute resolution, ASAOCs should instead vest dispute resolution authority in neutral third parties with no affiliation with either EPA or the PRPs subject to the ASAOC. This would require the amendment of existing ASAOCs and the insertion of new dispute resolution language, which differs from EPA’s model language, in ASAOCs that have not yet been signed.
Additionally, while the dispute resolution official should be deferential to EPA, he or she should not rubber-stamp agency decisions, as currently is often the case. Where investigations have been mired in years of inaction, an independent dispute resolver with a fresh perspective may determine that EPA has sufficient data to make informed cleanup decisions and could compel agency action. At other sites where EPA is requiring PRPs to prepare feasibility studies advocating for remedies that almost certainly will fail, it is essential that a neutral decision-maker act independently to ensure that feasible remedies are selected.
EPA will resist any effort to revise its approach to dispute resolution, and it may require the intervention of elected officials or others to compel such a change. The public, EPA, and affected PRPs would all benefit from it.
Posted on February 22, 2016
As a private practitioner and former trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, I have advocated for timely and cost-effective cleanups that protect public health and the environment. Unfortunately, only a minority of cleanups under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) have met these criteria. Of the many impediments to the thorough, prompt and cost-effective remediation of contaminated sites, and sediment sites in particular, one of the most significant is CERCLA’s bar on pre-enforcement review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) remedial decisions. To promote more effective and timely cleanups of sediment sites, I suggest that CERCLA be amended to eliminate the current bar on pre-enforcement review. By allowing potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to seek and obtain judicial review of EPA decisions or failures to make decisions, more progress would likely be made on more sites.
CERCLA Section 113(h) states that, with limited exceptions, “No Federal court shall have jurisdiction … to review any challenges to removal or remedial action selected under section 9604 of this title, or to review any order issued under section 9606(a) of this title ….” 42 U.S.C. § 9613(h). Despite many challenges, courts have generally upheld the validity of this provision. As a result, PRPs typically cannot challenge EPA's decisions unless EPA has sought to compel performance under an enforcement order or if EPA is acting under a consent decree. As the “opportunity” for challenge may not come until years after EPA has made its cleanup decision, most PRPs are not willing to face the risk of losing a remedy challenge and the potential imposition of treble damages.
CERCLA should be amended to allow parties to challenge agency action or inaction at other times in the process, such as during the preparation of remedial investigations and feasibility studies. At many sediment sites, EPA has delayed remediation and required parties to incur hundreds of millions of dollars during investigations. If PRPs had the opportunity to obtain judicial review of agency action and inaction earlier in the process, they could seek to compel the agency to act in a way that is consistent with CERCLA’s requirements.
Having worked at the Department of Justice when CERCLA Section 113(h) was drafted, I recall my colleagues stating at the time that a bar on pre-enforcement review was necessary to avoid the challenges of having a non-expert federal judge address complex scientific questions and to prevent PRPs from tying up EPA in litigation. I offer three suggestions in response to these concerns. First, if a federal judge were confronted with a particularly complex issue, the court could appoint a special master to handle the proceedings. Second, to encourage PRPs to seek prompt resolutions, a CERCLA amendment could require PRPs to fully comply with an agency’s directives pending resolution of the judicial dispute and impose a penalty on those parties whose challenge of agency action was unsuccessful. Third, agencies could seek an expedited hearing of disputed issues.
While it is very unlikely that Congress would consider a CERCLA amendment to address only this issue, PRPs should raise this issue the next time amendments are being considered. It will succeed only through the concerted efforts of advocates who seek more and better cleanups and those who seek prompt and reasonable government decision-making.
Posted on January 26, 2016
In 2010 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued interpretive guidance titled Commission Guidance Regarding Disclosure Related to Climate Change on how to apply existing SEC disclosure requirements concerning the risks of climate change to public companies, material climate-related trends, legal proceedings, legislation and other climate associated matters that could affect those companies. Specifically, the SEC's interpretative guidance highlighted the following areas as examples of when climate change may trigger SEC disclosure requirements:
- Impact of Legislation and Regulation: When assessing potential disclosure obligations, a company should consider whether the impact of certain existing laws and regulations regarding climate change is material. In certain circumstances, a company should also evaluate the potential impact of pending legislation and regulation related to this topic.
- Impact of International Accords: A company should consider, and disclose when material, the risks or effects on its business of international accords and treaties relating to climate change.
- Indirect Consequences of Regulation or Business Trends: Legal, technological, political and scientific developments regarding climate change may create new opportunities or risks for companies. For instance, a company may face decreased demand for goods that produce significant greenhouse gas emissions or increased demand for goods that result in lower emissions than competing products. As such, a company should consider, for disclosure purposes, the actual or potential indirect consequences it may face due to climate change related regulatory or business trends.
- Physical Impacts of Climate Change: Companies should also evaluate for disclosure purposes the actual and potential material impacts of environmental matters on their business.
Although the SEC advised it would “monitor” the impact of its interpretive guidance on company filings, the SEC has yet to engage in any significant enforcement actions regarding climate change disclosures in light of its 2010 guidance. However, the New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has taken up the charge. On November 8, 2015, Peabody Energy Corporation, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, entered into a settlement agreement with the Attorney General with respect to Peabody’s statements regarding climate change in its SEC filings and other public statements. This settlement may well mark the first chapter in greater scrutiny of the substance of the climate change disclosures by companies.
Using the Martin Act (a New York state securities law that grants the Attorney General broad authority to investigate financial fraud and misleading disclosures) the Attorney General, in 2013, commenced an investigation into Peabody’s climate change disclosures. The November 8th settlement found that Peabody made two misleading public statements. First, Peabody’s statement in its annual reports filed with the SEC that it could not “reasonably predict the future impact of any climate change regulation on its business” was found to be misleading to investors. Peabody, in conjunction with its consultants, had prepared market projections of the potential impact of certain proposed climate change regulations and failed to disclose such projections. The market projections forecasted that “certain potential regulatory scenarios could materially and adversely impact Peabody’s future business and financial condition.”
Second, in several of Peabody’s SEC filings, Peabody’s disclosure regarding the International Energy Agency’s (“IEA”) projections of future coal demand failed to note the IEA’s less-favorable projections. Peabody’s discussion of the IEA’s projections misled investors by cherry picking the high case for coal usage, which “assumes that governments do not implement any recent commitments that have yet to be backed-up by legislation and will not introduce other new policies bearing on the energy sector in the future, even those that are likely to be implemented by various nations.” The IEA’s projections also include a low case for coal usage and a central position and, while the IEA does not endorse any particular scenario, Peabody omitted both the low case and central position in several of its SEC filings.
Pursuant to the settlement agreement, Peabody agreed (i) to include specific disclosures in its next quarterly report with the SEC and (ii) that in future SEC filings or communications with shareholders, the financial industry, investors, the general public and others (a) it will not represent that it cannot reasonably project or predict the range of impacts that any future laws, regulations and policies relating to climate change would have on Peabody’s markets, operations, financial condition or cash flow or (b) any citation to the IEA’s projections will include an explanation of the IEA’s various scenarios.
The NY Attorney General is also reported to be investigating ExxonMobil, under the Martin Act, over its climate change statements. While the Peabody settlement agreement reflects the Attorney General’s increased attention to climate change disclosures by energy companies, the effect may well ripple into other industries. In addition, members of the House and Senate have requested an update on the SEC’s efforts to implement the SEC’s 2010 guidance. Nonetheless, questions remain as to whether the obligation to disclosure climate change associated risks will, in fact, be action-forcing so as to result in a change in the behavior of public companies. Will those companies and the public take substantive steps to address the root causes and impacts of climate change or just continue to write detailed disclosures of the potential risks that pass muster with the regulators? Will those enhanced disclosures result in increased investor pressures sufficient to cause those companies to undertake serious, significant, and potentially costly, measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become low-carbon?
Posted on December 30, 2015
There’s been a disturbance in The Force. On December 4, 2015, Environmental Jedi across the galaxy felt that subtle hitch in the harmonious heartbeat of the universe due to some cosmic, regulatory insult. That sense of loss warned Jedi everywhere that Balance has been tipped, Light has been dimmed, and Nature has been nicked.
On that day, a former Senator, now Galactic Emperor, affixed his signature to a benign sounding decree from the Legislative Houses of the Republic known as the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, see House Report 114-357). Buried beneath 550 pages of directives and declarations about everything from intergalactic traffic lights to hyper-space railroad switchyards lay a seed of great detriment that wary but weary policy watchers had not noticed. While the Jedi have been exposed to this loathsome idea before, their continual resistance to the Dark Side’s alluring arguments about “emergency” and “public need,” must have faded like dim memories of policy battles a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. For just a single page of text in a section numbered 61002 slipped through seemingly without notice and certainly without ignition of even a single lightsaber.
The Emperor’s executive agency—ominously known in previous days as the “Federal Power Commission”–—has long had authority to declare an “emergency” by reason of “a sudden increase in the demand for electric energy, or a shortage of electric energy or of facilities for the generation or transmission of electric energy, or of fuel or water for generating facilities, or other causes” and then to order electric utilities to take responsive action (16 U.S.C.A. § 824a(c)). Now, with the authority of a fully-armed and operational FAST Act, electric utility actions or omissions in response to such orders that violate federal, state or local environmental laws or regulations shall not be considered violations, shall not subject the electric utility to civil or criminal penalties, and—for the love of Obi-Wan—shall not subject such a party to “a citizen suit under such environmental law or regulation.” Electric utilities supplying emergency power to those in need will avoid any Imperial entanglements. To coin a phrase, “These aren’t the violations we’re looking for. . . .You can go about your business. . . . Move along. . . . Move along.”
What the most destructive hurricanes and sea storms in recent interstellar history could not do, has now been done. What a lack of power, potable water, sanitation, health care, police protection and basic transportation for entire cities did not justify, has been written into law now, apparently without a fight. Where were the Jedi? What Imperial plot lies in back of this development?
Under the previous Emperor, everyone knew such an exculpatory policy was completely unnecessary and would wreck the environment like the Death Star wrecked Alderan. But now no outcry? No rescue? Is the Resistance powerless? Where is Luke? Has Leia lost her lightsaber? Are the Jedi extinct or has their attention simply been frozen in carbon? Perhaps this is just another reason to anticipate eagerly Episode VIII, where all ambiguities will be explained without need of Chevron Step One. May The Force be with you in 2016!
Posted on November 17, 2015
In a string of recent decisions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit appears to be shifting away from the long-standing general presumption that standing is self-evident for target entities of a regulatory program — Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc. v. EPA, Grocery Manufacturers Ass’n v. EPA, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers v. EPA, and Delta Construction Company v. EPA.
In Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit held industry had “failed to establish that the [Greenhouse Gas] Rules caused them ‘injury in fact,’ [or that] injury … could be redressed by the Rules’ vacatur.” The court found that although “Industry Petitioners contend[ed] that they are injured because they are subject to regulation of [GHGs],” they lacked standing because several aspects of “the … Rules … actually mitigate Petitioners’ purported injuries.”
In Grocery Manufacturers and Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, EPA decisions concerning the ethanol regulatory program were challenged by a multitude of trade groups – automakers, oil companies, food suppliers – each claiming its members were harmed by the regulations. In twin decisions separated by over two years, the D.C. Circuit held none of this broad universe of industry petitioners had standing to challenge EPA’s actions.
In Delta Construction Company v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit held all petitioners lacked standing to seek remand of EPA’s Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) emission standards for heavy-duty trucks. Some Petitioners had attacked the Rule because the emission standards would drive up the price of the trucks they purchased; another Petitioner alleged the rule made its products—modified diesel engines to run on vegetable oil —“economically infeasible.” The Court found the Purchaser Petitioners’ standing failed on both the causation and redressibility prongs of the standing test. The Manufacturer Petitioner was determined not to fall within the “zone of interests” intended to be protected by the Clean Air Act.
These four D. C. Circuit rulings all found technical defects in the industry petitioners’ standing. They may signal a lasting shift away from the basic assumption that a regulated industry has standing to challenge regulations aimed at its activities.
Given this new, strict scrutiny of industry standing, practitioners would be well advised not to take for granted the standing of their clients. In the docketing statement for a regulatory challenge, industry counsel should substantively focus on the “brief statement of the basis for the … petitioner’s claim of standing” and reference materials in “the administrative record supporting the claim of standing.”
Posted on September 9, 2015
California’s “Proposition 65” warning requirements have long been a major concern for businesses that want their products offered for sale in the State’s large marketplace. Businesses whose products contain even a detectable amount of any one of more than 900 chemicals often face enforcement lawsuits brought by for-profit plaintiffs unless their products contain a “clear and reasonable” Proposition 65 warning. Short of eliminating the chemical entirely, the only way for businesses to immunize themselves from such claims has been for companies to label or display their products with a generic warning based on language set forth in the original Proposition 65 regulations. It usually states: “WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
Three new developments threaten to make Proposition 65 less predictable and more difficult.
1) New Proposition 65 Warning Regulations Proposed for Adoption: Earlier this year, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (“OEHHA”) formally proposed an extensive set of new rules concerning the requirements for Proposition 65 warnings to be deemed “clear and reasonable.” While Proposition 65’s current regulations allow for compliance with its warning requirements through the type of generic, one sentence statement appearing above, the proposed regulations will, among other things, require:
a. use of a yellow triangle pictogram containing an exclamation point;
b. a more unequivocal warning statement indicating that the product “can expose” a user to chemicals known to the State to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm;
c. listing particular chemicals if they are among a group of twelve which are the most frequent targets of Proposition 65 litigation;
d. adding a URL to all warnings linking a public website that OEHHA will operate to provide information supplementing the warning for those so interested (see below); and
e. presentation of the warning in languages in addition to English if the product label otherwise uses languages other than English.
The proposed new Proposition 65 warning regulations specify alternative and additional requirements for certain types of products, including for food, restaurants, and several products or facilities that have previously been the subject of enforcement litigation. They also adopt revised and more onerous requirements for warnings for “environmental exposures,” such as for air emissions that arise from the operation of facilities or equipment within the State. As proposed, businesses will have two years from the adoption of a final rule to transition their warnings to meet the requirements of the new regulation, after which they can face enforcement actions and citizen’s suits for products in the California market that still bear the old (or no) warnings.
2) New Proposition 65 Website-Related Requirements Proposed for Adoption: Although not contemplated by the voters when they approved Proposition 65 over twenty-five years ago, OEHHA is also proposing that it operate a website to provide information to the public to supplement and explain the basis for the Proposition 65 warnings given by businesses. Information to be provided on this website may include the routes or pathways by which exposure to a chemical from a product may occur, OEHHA’s quantification of the level of exposure to a chemical presented by a product, and other information that may be of interest to plaintiffs as well as to sensitive consumers and other members of the public.
Significantly, in addition to its potential public education function, the proposed website regulations also empower OEHHA to require that manufacturers, importers, and distributors of products bearing a Proposition 65 warning provide the agency with information if so requested. Such information may include the identities of the chemicals in the product for which a warning is being given, the location or components of a product in which such chemicals are present, the concentration of those chemicals, and “any other information the lead agency deems necessary.” While trade secret protection may be asserted in some circumstances, the requirement to provide information to OEHHA will be enforceable by public prosecutors, including the California Attorney General and District Attorneys.
3) Potential Changes Relative to Proposition 65’s “Safe Harbor” Levels for Chemicals Listed for Reproductive Effects: Lead has been the focus of the vast majority of all Proposition 65 enforcement actions to date and resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of settlements with national and international implications over the past two decades. Cases have included those concerning trace levels of lead in ceramic tableware, water faucets, candy, mini-blinds, toys, and a wide array of other consumer products and foods. However, in 2013, a trial concerning lead in 100% fruit juices, packaged fruits, and baby foods resulted in a highly significant Proposition 65 defense verdict based on a judge’s finding that the trace levels of lead exposure presented by each of these products was less that the State’s published “safe harbor” warning threshold for lead of 0.5 “micrograms/day.” A California Court of Appeal decision published earlier this year sustained, among other things, the trial court’s finding that it was permissible for defendants’ experts to construct a daily average level of exposure based on real world data concerning the frequency of the consumption of the products at issue over a fourteen day time period. Environmental Law Foundation v. Beech-Nut Corporation, et al., 325 Cal.App.4th 307 (2015).
In anticipation of this type of appellate decision, earlier this year, one of the most historically active Proposition 65 plaintiff’s groups, the Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation, filed a lawsuit seeking a writ of mandate and declaratory relief challenging the 0.5 microgram/day “safe harbor” for lead. Mateel contends that California’s published threshold for lead was not set consistently with Proposition 65’s 1,000-fold safety factor requirement for reproductive toxicants. It therefore argues that this longstanding Proposition 65 safe harbor threshold should be declared illegal and inoperative despite it having been published more than 25 years ago and relied on for thousands of settlements and warning decisions. Mateel further argues in its case that OEHHA should be ordered to promptly establish a dramatically more stringent safe harbor level for lead based on updated science concerning trace level exposures to lead. It also seeks to have OEHHA ordered to adopt a rule precluding the averaging of exposure across multiple days in relation to the lead safe harbor level. A second prominent citizen’s group, the Center for Environmental Health, which also focuses on Proposition 65 enforcement, submitted an administrative petition to OEHHA in early July seeking relief parallel to that sought by Mateel, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.
OEHHA has just announced that, in response to this petition, it will soon initiate a rulemaking to update the existing Proposition 65 safe harbor for lead and several related Proposition 65 regulations. The proposals include several major changes in the way the extent of exposure is calculated and how Proposition 65’s regulatory exemption for “naturally occurring” exemption for foods is determined. OEHHA’s new proposals essentially seek to nullify the important Beech-Nut precedents and will likely make it even more difficult for businesses to defend Proposition 65 claims about lead and the nearly 300 other chemicals listed for reproductive effects, especially those that may be present as trace contaminants in food products. OEHHA’s proposals include the following four elements:
A. Revised Safe Harbor for Lead and Other Chemicals. OEHHA proposes to repeal the current safe harbor level for lead (the Maximum Allowable Dose Level or MADL). In its place, OEHHA proposes multiple levels that depend on the frequency of exposure, from exposure once per day to once every 116 or more days. OEHHA asserts that the once-per-day figure should be reduced from 0.5 to 0.2 micrograms/day and that the existing 0.5 microgram/day level should instead apply only to exposures that occur no more than once every third day. For exposures that would occur only once every 6 to 9 days, the lead safe harbor figure would rise to 1.0 microgram/day and to higher amounts as exposure intervals become more infrequent. Plaintiffs’ groups contend that the lead safe harbor should be an order of magnitude lower at 0.03 micrograms per single day and do not want any alternative levels based on frequency of exposure over time. Despite its proposal for lead, as to all other chemicals listed for reproductive effects OEHHA proposes to eliminate any consideration of the frequency of exposure when safe harbor levels are applied.
B. Naturally Occurring Allowances for Lead and Arsenic in Some Foods. OEHHA also proposes to adopt specific naturally occurring allowances for lead and arsenic (but not other chemicals such as cadmium) in some specific types of food ingredients/products. The allowances for arsenic are 60 ppb and 130 ppb for white and brown rice respectively. For lead, they are 8.8 ppb for raw leafy vegetables and 6.2 ppb for raw non-leafy vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, eggs, and fresh milk. The agency bases its proposal on data regarding background levels of lead in soil in California as well as rates of uptake by relevant plants.
C. Averaging of Product Samples. OEHHA further proposes to expressly prohibit averaging lead or other contaminant levels across different lots of a food product in the final form it will be purchased by a consumer. It would instead require that the level of a contaminant in a lot of food be determined by “representative sampling” from within a particular lot. OEHHA also would define a “lot” on a production basis, apparently by reference to date or production codes, which could significantly increase the amount of testing required. Testing on this scale may be infeasible for most businesses.
D. Average Rate of Exposure. Finally, OEHHA proposes to dictate that, as to any Proposition 65-listed chemical (lead or otherwise), the “average rate of exposure” must always be calculated based on the arithmetic mean and not a geometric mean or some other measure of the central tendency of a data set. OEHHA’s proposal flies directly in the face of the scientific testimony that prevailed in Beech-Nut and the prior position of the California Attorney General’s office on this issue.
OEHHA has scheduled public hearings to further discuss its new proposals on October 14 and 19, 2015. It is also inviting written public comment on the lead safe harbor issue until October 28, 2015, and on the averaging issues until November 2, 2015.
Posted on July 28, 2015
ACOEL Fellow John Cruden, head of DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, recently gave this speech to the ABA Litigation Section on the current direction of federal environmental enforcement efforts. The speech focuses on efforts to coordinate with and leverage local, state, regional and international partners.
Posted on January 7, 2015
Much of my legal work deals with hazardous material remediations driven by CERCLA or state equivalents. The allocation of these costs among liable parties, in court or out, is generally conceded to be expensive and ultimately unsatisfying to most of them. I never thought I would see it in another area of environmental law but now I have.
Dams are regulated in my state by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. It is a big job. Most of our lakes and ponds are dammed streams or rivers. At one point New Jersey had 196 dams where a failure might result in probable loss of life and/or extensive property damage. 50 of these need repairs at an estimated cost in excess of $33 million. There were also another 396 dams where failure might result in significant property damage. 317 are in need of repair to bring them up to state standards at a cost in excess of $126 million. Who pays for the necessary repairs to these dams and how?
A case decided by our intermediate appellate court on January 2nd of this year answers this question in a most CERCLA-like way. In New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection v. Alloway Township the Appellate Division interpreted provisions of the Safe Dam Act (N.J.S.A. 58:4-1 to 4-14). This Act “casts a ‘broad net’ of liability … so that its remedial purpose … is served” by imposing “significant obligations” on the owner or person having control of a reservoir or dam. At issue in this case was a privately owned lake created by an earthen dam that now has township road on top which is supported by a county bridge and culverts that are part of the dam.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) brought an action against the person owning the property below the lake and the dam, the township that maintained the road on the dam and the county that maintained portions of the dam. The court held “there are four classes of people who are subject to the statute: (1) dam owners; (2) reservoir owners; (3) those who control the dam; and (4) those who control the reservoir. It follows that if a party fits into any one of those categories, the [NJDEP] may seek enforcement of the SDA against that person.” All the parties fell into at least one of those classes.
The Appellate Division also blessed the allocation of liability made below. There, the judge, sitting in the Chancery Division - General Equity Part, made an equitable allocation of the costs of compliance: sixty-five percent to the County, twenty-five percent to the property owner, and ten percent to the Township.
What – equitable allocation in another environmental program? Cheer up CERCLA lawyers. Our skills may be useful in dam regulatory litigation.
Posted on June 18, 2014
It has been more than 30 years since EPA hired its first criminal investigators, but questions remain about when environmental violations will result in criminal charges. Critics frequently portray environmental crime as a poster child of “over-criminalization” with a recent example Senator Rand Paul in his book Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds.
To address these concerns, I have suggested that prosecutors should limit criminal charges to violations that involve one or more of the following aggravating factors: (1) significant environmental harm or public health effects; (2) deceptive or misleading conduct; (3) operating outside the regulatory system; or (4) repetitive violations. By doing so, prosecutors would focus on violations that undermine pollution prevention efforts and avoid targeting defendants who committed technical violations or were acting in good faith.
I subsequently developed the Environmental Crimes Project to determine how often the aggravating factors I identified were present in criminal prosecutions. With the assistance of 120 students at the University of Michigan Law School, I analyzed all defendants charged in federal court with pollution crime or related Title 18 offenses from 2005-2010. We examined court documents for over 600 cases involving nearly 900 defendants to create a comprehensive database of environmental prosecutions.
Our research revealed that prosecutors charged violations involving aggravating factors in 96% of environmental criminal prosecutions from 2005-2010. More than three-quarters of the violations involved repetitive conduct, and nearly two-thirds involved deceptive or misleading conduct. Moreover, we found that 74% of the defendants engaged in conduct that involved multiple aggravating factors. And, for 96% of the defendants with multiple aggravating factors, one of the first three factors (harm, deceptive conduct, or operating outside the regulatory system) was present along with repetitiveness.
These findings support at least three significant conclusions. First, in exercising their charging discretion, prosecutors almost always focus on violations that include one or more of the aggravating factors. Second, violations that do not include one of those aggravating factors are not likely to be prosecuted criminally. Third, prosecutors are most likely to bring criminal charges for violations that involve both one of the first three factors and repetitiveness—and are less likely to bring criminal charges if that relationship is absent.
I plan to update my research with data from 2011-2012 and to examine a representative sample of civil cases using the same criteria. But my research already should provide greater clarity about the role of environmental criminal enforcement and reduce uncertainty in the regulated community about which environmental violations might lead to criminal charges. My research also suggests that prosecutors are exercising their discretion reasonably under the environmental laws and should lessen concerns about over-criminalization of environmental violations.
For more, please see David M. Uhlmann, Prosecutorial Discretion and Environmental Crime, 38 HARV. ENVTL. L. REV. 159 (2014).
Posted on June 13, 2014
If it’s wastewater from a treatment plant pumped into injection wells and it ends up in the ocean, you need an NPDES permit under the Clean Water Act. At least that’s the conclusion from the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, decided May 30, 2014.
In Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, a case in which my colleague David Henkin in our Honolulu office represented the plaintiffs, the Court considered the following facts: The County of Maui operates a wastewater treatment plant located about a half mile from the ocean that pumps millions of gallons of treated wastewater into several injection wells each day. Within the last few years, EPA and others performed a tracer dye study because of concern that much of this wastewater was migrating through a groundwater aquifer and emerging in the ocean off the coast of Maui through seeps and springs. The results of this study confirmed that, for a number of the injection wells, this was the case, even though it took several weeks for the dye to move from the wells into the ocean through the groundwater aquifer. Based on other information, the County apparently had been aware since 1991 that its wastewater discharges were reaching the ocean. Plaintiffs, Hawai’i Wildlife Fund and others, brought a citizens suit under the Clean Water Act asserting that because the County wastewater treatment facility had no NPDES permit, the discharge of wastewater into the ocean via the injection wells and groundwater was an illegal, unpermitted discharge.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Mollway agreed and granted the plaintiffs summary judgment. The Court was not deterred by the County’s argument that it had an application for an NPDES permit pending with the State or other preliminary matters. Instead the Court observed that “the only area of dispute between the parties is whether the discharges into the aquifer beneath the facility constitute a discharge into ‘navigable waters[,]’” the operative language of the Clean Water Act in this case.
On this point, the Court turned to the Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision and concluded that waters regulated by the CWA are broader than waters that are “navigable-in-fact,” hardly a controversial conclusion. The Court then went on to conclude that “liability [for an unpermitted discharge] arises [under the CWA] even if the groundwater . . . is not itself protected by the [Act] as long as the groundwater is a conduit through which the pollutants are reaching [the ocean].” As the Court observed, “[t]here is nothing inherent about groundwater conveyances and surface water conveyances that requires distinguishing between these conduits under the [CWA].” In the Court’s view, as long as the groundwater served as a conveyance for pollutants that reached navigable waters, liability for an unpermitted discharge would attach.
The Court also concluded that liability for an unpermitted discharge arose under an alternative test which the parties drew from the Ninth Circuit’s post-Rapanos decision in Northern Cal. River Watch v. City of Healdsburg, even though the Court expressed skepticism about the applicability of this test where groundwater is involved. Under this alternative test, because there was a clearly discernible nexus, i.e., the groundwater aquifer, between the County’s discharge of pollutants into injection wells and its subsequent emergence in the ocean, and because the discharge of pollutants to the ocean significantly affected the “physical, biological, and chemical integrity” of the ocean in the area of the seeps and springs through which the discharge emerged, liability for an unpermitted discharge also would attach.
Next up: civil penalties and remedy.
Posted on May 8, 2014
Debarment is the process whereby the federal government can permanently prevent a company from doing business with the federal government or suspend a company from doing business with the federal government for a period of years. The debarment process has been available for decades to the United States to be used against companies or persons whom the government believes are untrustworthy. For instance, removal from EPA’s list of violating facilities requires agency evaluation of corporate attitude. But the Obama Administration has broadened the scope of the process to potentially ensnare many an unsuspecting entity.
The debarment process as it currently exists has resulted in the following scenarios:
A. An oil company in the Rocky Mountain region settled a regulatory violation with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and as part of the agreement paid a substantial seven figure fine and adopted new procedures designed to prevent a reoccurrence of the violation and a two-year period of probation. Imagine the surprise of the company’s managers and in-house lawyers when eighteen months after the settlement was executed, they received a Notice of Debarment for a three-year period preventing the use of their federal leases requiring new permits.
B. A wind farm owner that was convicted for killing bald eagles discovered that the company could not sell future electricity production to a federal facility.
C. An oil and gas company that pleaded guilty to a Clean Water Act spill faced debarment from being able to bid on federal oil and gas leases for five years.
Companies or persons found to be in violation of civil or criminal statutes or departmental regulations are subject to debarment. While in egregious cases debarments can be perpetual, most debarments are for a period of three to nine years. Debarments do not affect a company’s current government contracts, but do affect renewals of those contracts or the need for new permits on federal lands. The debarments are company-wide. Consequently, the above-mentioned wind farm owner also could not sell its electricity produced from its coal fired power plants to federal facilities.
Debarment proceedings are administered by the various Offices of Debarment, located within each cabinet department, with the closest responsibility for enforcing the law that was violated. Thus, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Debarment (staffed by the Inspector General’s personnel) handles violations of fish and wildlife, public lands and Indian law. Environmental Protection Agency lawyers in the grants and debarment program handle debarment proceedings authorized by Section 508 of the Clean Water Act or Section 306 of the Clean Air Act.
Upon the entry of a federal court judgment or consent decree a representative of the Department of Justice, often an Assistant United States Attorney, forwards the document to the appropriate cabinet department’s Office of Debarment. The government deems debarment proceedings to be separate from the underlying litigation. Agreements to avoid debarment may not be a condition of any plea bargain or consent decree. Adverse outcomes after executive branch debarment hearings may be appealed to a federal district court under deferential Administrative Procedures Act standards.
Posted on April 29, 2014
On April 18, EPA lost another NSR enforcement case. Not only that, but this was a case EPA had previously won. As we noted last August, Chief Judge Philip Simon of the Northern District of Indiana, had previously ruled that the United States could pursue injunctive relief claims against United States Steel with respect to allegations by EPA that US Steel had made major modifications to its plant in Gary, Indiana, in 1990 without complying with NSR requirements.
Having reread the 7th Circuit opinion in United States v. Midwest Generation, Judge Simon has had a change of heart and now has concluded that injunctive relief claims (as well as damages) are barred by the statute of limitations, even where the same entity that allegedly caused the original violation still owns the facility. Judge Simon concluded that the Court of Appeals had spoken with sufficient clarity to bind him. The language he cited was this:
"Midwest cannot be liable when its predecessor in interest would not have been liable had it owned the plants continuously. (Italics supplied by Judge Simon.)"
Judge Simon seems to have felt more compelled than persuaded.
"Candidly, it is a little difficult to understand the basis for the statements in Midwest Generation that even claims for injunctions have to be brought within five years. But that is what Midwest Generation appears to mandate. And in a hierarchical system of courts, my job as a trial judge is to do as my superiors tell me.
So while the basis for applying a limitations period to the EPA’s injunction claim under §§ 7475 and 7503 is thinly explained in Midwest Generation, upon reconsideration I do think that’s the outcome required of me here."
One final note. In his original opinion, Judge Simon ruled against US Steel, in part, because the concurrent remedy doctrine, which US Steel argued barred injunctive relief where damages were not available, could not be applied against the United States. As Judge Simon noted, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals did not discuss the concurrent remedy doctrine, so we don’t know the basis of its holding that a party continuously owning a facility that is alleged to have violated the NSR provisions of the CAA more than five years ago is not subject to injunctive relief. However, it is worth pointing out, as we discussed last month, that Judge James Payne, of the Eastern District of Oklahoma, dismissed injunctive relief claims brought by the Sierra Club (not the government, of course), relying on the concurrent remedy doctrine.
Something tells me that the United States isn’t quite ready to give up on these cases, notwithstanding a string of recent defeats. The NSR enforcement initiative may be in trouble, but it’s not quite dead yet.
Posted on April 18, 2014
Appalling environmental conditions that have accompanied China’s rapid growth have been described on Chinese social media as “postapocalyptic,” “terrifying,” and “beyond belief.” During the last year, air pollution in several Chinese cities became so horrendous at times that road travel, schools, construction projects, and airports temporarily were shut down. Epidemiologists estimate that 1.2 million Chinese die prematurely each year from exposure to air pollution. Due to widespread water pollution, tap water is not safe to drink, even in luxury hotels. Pollution is estimated to cost the Chinese economy more than 3.5% of gross domestic product annually.
Rising public demand to clean up the environment has caught the attention of China’s Communist Party leadership. In an address at the opening of the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) last month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution.” Chinese authorities agree that enforcement is the number one problem with their environmental laws. Bie Tao, Deputy Director General of Policies and Regulations of MEP, cited estimates that half of all regulated facilities in China violate the law and that pollution in China would be 70% less than it currently is if polluters were in full compliance with the law.
Problems with enforcement of China’s environmental laws run deep. China’s regulatory system is highly decentralized with the nation’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) less than a fiftieth the size of the U.S. EPA for a country with more than three times as many people than the U.S. Enforcement problems are compounded by local corruption, small penalties for violations, the lack of an independent judiciary and the absence of a long tradition of respect for the rule of law.
As Chinese authorities struggle to increase the enforceability of their environmental laws, two ACOEL members were given an unusual opportunity last month to peak into a window on the NPC’s legislative processes. On March 19, James A. Holtkamp and I were invited to appear before the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC’s Standing Committee in Beijing along with David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Billed as a “Green Dialogue,” the event was an extraordinary effort to obtain U.S. expert input to help resolve disagreements within the NPC on proposed amendments to make China’s basic Environmental Protection Law more enforceable.
Representatives of the NPC’s Standing Committee and MEP presented us with six sets of questions concerning U.S. enforcement procedures and policies. Many were directed at understanding how penalties for environmental violations are determined in the U.S. A proposal to provide that maximum fines for environmental violations in China be calculated in part based on the number of days the violation has occurred was one issue that had created disagreement within the NPC. We noted that this has become a fundamental principle of U.S. pollution control law and that it provides a powerful incentive for violators promptly to stop and correct violations. We emphasized the importance of monitoring and reporting requirements in environmental permits. We also suggested that China should consider adopting a policy that enforcement actions should recoup at least the economic benefit of the violation to ensure that companies do not profit from their violations. This has been EPA’s long-standing policy and there appears to be some interest in adopting such a policy in China.
Chinese authorities are moving toward requiring greater transparency from polluters. Beginning on January 1, 2014, they mandated that China’s 15,000 largest companies provide the public with continuous data concerning their air and water emissions, something that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. By opening up a “Green Dialogue” on U.S. enforcement practices, China’s legislators are exhibiting a healthy appetite for entertaining new ideas to improve the effectiveness of their environmental laws. Our U.S. expert panel consisting of an industry practitioner, a public interest lawyer, and an academic apparently proved to be a persuasive coalition for we have learned that many of our recommendations are being incorporated into the new draft of China’s basic Environmental Law.