Posted on December 2, 2016
Let’s face it – most seasoned bureaucrats (I confess I am one) often don’t react well to change. Over time, there just seems to be an intrinsic inertia that builds in all bureaucracies. Federal and state environmental agencies are, unfortunately, no exception. While we in government do strive to avoid this inherent danger (problem?), the comfort of a routine can sometimes be the enemy of innovation. The catchphrases getting a lot of attention, and gaining some real traction, in government circles these days are “process improvement” and “performance measurement”.
Many state environmental agencies and the US EPA have undertaken a variety of self-examination techniques which fall under the general rubric “business process improvement” (BPI), including Lean, Six Sigma, and Kaizen to name just a few. The articulated objective is to examine key functions and processes with a view towards achieving a host of goals such as reducing costs to the agency, optimizing agency resources, and realizing better value for the agency’s “customers”. BPI may also help transform an organization’s culture to help embrace change and communicate better with the regulated community, the public, and other governmental partners. The Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) recently released a report entitled “State Environmental Agency Business Process Improvement Activity 2010-2016,” which accompanied the launch of an online database describing state BPI activities.
Applying process improvement goals in a meaningful way and tracking performance measurement through metrics helps agencies answer the question, “How are we doing?” Performance metrics can track costs and time saved, and identify areas needing improvement. It is not measuring for the sake of measuring, but rather measuring progress toward achieving identified performance goals, such as issuing an air quality permit or awarding grants within a specified period of time.
While the decision to engage in BPI may come as a top-down mandate, the implementation of actual techniques used to arrive at new goals will have to be tailored to each program’s process and appears in practice to be largely collaborative and creative, encouraging a “think outside the box” mindset. There will always be challenges—that’s probably inherent in the nature of government with the prospect of new leadership every four years or so. Process improvement and performance metrics won’t automatically diffuse the inertia in an organization. Change just for the sake of changing isn’t all that appealing without seeing real progress towards a goal. Working together, however, initiatives borrowed from business may foster an institutional culture and organizational climate in government where personnel are more willing to accept change and perhaps come up with innovative ideas of their own.
(The author is Legal Counsel for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.)
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 15, 2016
What will a Trump Presidency mean for environmental law? I’m not sure my crystal ball is better than anyone else’s, but here are a few quick thoughts:
- It’s still going to be difficult to amend the key statutes, unless the GOP goes nuclear with the filibuster rules. I don’t see Clean Air Act amendments happening. Significant amendments might be possible to the Endangered Species Act and Superfund.
- Changing regulations is more difficult than one might think. As has already been noted, the Bush administration did not fare too well with judicial review of its efforts to roll back some Clinton environmental initiatives. For example, I still think that the new ozone standard should survive and I think that courts would take a dim view of EPA efforts to raise it. The Clean Power Plan is another matter. All Trump needs there may be a new Supreme Court Justice.
- The easiest target is executive orders. The social cost of carbon? Toast. Guidance on incorporating climate change into NEPA? Toast.
Trying to keep things light, I’ll close with a summary in haiku, which often takes nature as its subject.
Deep-six the Clean Power Plan
Goodbye to winter
Posted on October 26, 2016
ECOS – the Environmental Council of States – I suspect that most of you have heard of it, but what do you really know about ECOS? And, why should you care? As the current Past President of ECOS, I acknowledge upfront that I might be biased – but consider the following. ECOS is the national non-profit, non-partisan association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders. ECOS was founded in late 1993 at a time when the relationship between states and the EPA was strained. As Mary A. Gade, then director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, put it: “The times called for states to assume primary responsibility and leadership for environmental protection. As individual states began to articulate this new perspective, state commissioners realized the need to band together for information-sharing, strength, and support.”
Today, reflected in the ECOS 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, much of ECOS’ original purpose remains: “To improve the capability of state environmental agencies and their leaders to protect and improve human health and the environment of the United States of America. Our belief is that state government agencies are the keys to delivering environmental protection afforded by both federal and state law.”
While the purpose remains consistent, how ECOS achieves it has evolved.
One example lies in the ECOS-organized forums where states and EPA meet to discuss - and often debate - environmental concerns and our respective roles in implementing and enforcing environmental programs. While the early ECOS years were not without success working with EPA, the tenor of the overall relationship with EPA was uneven. Today, ECOS has a productive relationship with EPA. We still discuss, debate, and disagree, but in a much more constructive way. EPA representatives at all levels routinely attend and engage in the spring and fall ECOS meetings, as well as other ECOS conferences. ECOS members have been invited to internal EPA budget meetings to share our budget concerns and needs. ECOS and EPA have worked on several joint-governance projects, including the creation of E-Enterprise for the Environment. Through E-Enterprise, state, EPA and tribal representatives work to streamline environmental business processes and share innovations across programs to improve environmental results, and enhance services to the regulated community and the public by making government more efficient and effective.
ECOS is fast becoming the “go-to” organization for Congress, the White House, federal agencies, national organizations, and the media to learn about state issues, concerns, positions, innovations and ideas regarding environmental matters. Through engagement with senior government officials, testimony before Congress and many position letters, ECOS has expressed state perspectives on key legislative and regulatory issues, like reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, funding for state environmental programs and water infrastructure, increased authority over coal combustion residual sites, workload flexibility in state-EPA agreements, enforcement training, expediting federal facility cleanups, and environmental justice tools.
ECOS has developed relationships with the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense: these agencies regularly participate in ECOS. ECOS’ Legal Network brings state environmental agency counsel together with EPA counsel and DOJ’s Counselor, to explore lessons learned from successful enforcement and compliance initiatives, and to discuss best practices and enhanced collaboration.
So, how about the relationship among the states themselves? ECOS has also become a venue for states to explore differences in positions and ideas. Not surprising, membership within ECOS is politically diverse. ECOS has recognized and embraced this diversity by creating a space for states to express their opinions and positions, encouraging members to learn from each other, to reach “across the aisle” to understand differing perspectives, to compromise where needed and to develop strong and lasting relationships. ECOS will pull in experts from within the states and from other organizations to provide valuable and sometimes critical perspectives and analyses on important issues, so that state environmental leaders can better understand the complexities and impacts of environmental programs and initiatives. The lawyers of ACOEL are one source of that expertise, and they have provided valuable legal analyses to ECOS and its members on the Clean Power Plan and WOTUS. ECOS is even reaching across state agency lines, as shown by this spring’s Memorandum of Agreement with ECOS, EPA, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials to advance cooperative initiatives pertaining to environmental health, acknowledging that the public health and well-being of U.S. citizens relies on the condition of their physical environment.
So, why should you care about ECOS? Because the vast majority of day-to-day environmental program adoption, implementation and enforcement is done by the states. As Mary A. Gade said when ECOS was first created: “Charged with advancing a state’s environmental agenda, state commissioners strategize daily with governors, state and national legislators, and local government officials to accomplish their goals. State environmental commissioners have political access, substantive expertise and, most importantly, legislative combat experience.” When you organize a group of battle-ready commissioners who lead state environmental programs, and who meet and work together on a regular basis, wouldn’t you want to know what they are doing? My advice: check out http://www.ecos.org and find out what you are missing.
Posted on October 4, 2016
More about that title later, but first let me set the stage. On September 27, 2016, the D.C. Circuit, sitting en banc, heard argument in West Virginia v. EPA, in which state, industry, and labor petitioners challenge EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP, the Plan, or the Rule). The Plan regulates carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants under Clean Air Act (CAA) §111(d). I will refrain from addressing issues on which the trade and mainstream press have opined at length (e.g., the judges’ frustration at being asked to make policy decisions because Congress has failed to act and that participants – judges, lawyers, parties, reporters, the public – had to sit through almost 7 hours of argument in one day, in addition to the hours many spent waiting in line). Instead, I offer an ACOEL-centric tour, in non-chronological order, of the five “segments” of the September 27 argument.
Argument Segment #2: The Battle Between CAA §§112 and 111(d). Aficionados of the College’s 2014 white paper on EPA’s §111(d) regulatory authority will recall the difference of opinion over whether – under the 1990 Amendments to the CAA – EPA is prohibited from regulating power plants under CAA §111(d) if EPA already regulates power plants under CAA §112. Plan challengers point to the plain meaning of §111(d)(1)(A) as it appears in the U.S. Code. Plan supporters point to the existence of a “conforming amendment” to §111(d)(1)(A) found in the Statutes at Large but omitted from the U.S. Code, and they argue that EPA’s approach is a valid attempt to reconcile that amendment with the U.S. Code. After listening to the judges express frustration at not being able to satisfyingly reconcile the two versions, I recalled D.C. Circuit Judge Leventhal’s concurring opinion in Citizens to Save Spencer County v. EPA, in which he concluded that contradictory CAA provisions should be viewed as “countermanding.” Quoting from Eugene Field’s poem “The Duel” – about the fight between the gingham dog and the calico cat – he summed up the irreconcilable differences as follows: “The tension between the two animals culminates in these final lines of doggerel: ‘The truth about the cat and pup is this, They ate each other up.’ ”
Argument Segment #3: Constitutional Issues. If forced at knife-point to articulate the first portion of this argument, which began at 2:35 p.m., right after the lunch break, I would be unable to do so, other than to say that the word “commandeering” cropped up a lot. More interesting was how the second advocate for petitioners on this point – Professor Laurence Tribe of Constitutional law fame – was able to expand his separation-of-powers argument into a further analysis of issues argued during the morning session.
Argument Segments #4 and #5: Notice and Record-Based Issues. At the end of a very long day, the panel heard arguments on (a) whether EPA’s standards are “achievable” and whether parts of the Plan’s approach have been “adequately demonstrated” under §111; and (b) whether the final rule is so different from what was proposed that the public lacked notice and an opportunity to comment. Petitioners arguing the former point (the unachievability of program requirements) faced a weary panel, which pondered what the options for state and source relief would be if the Rule is upheld but later turns out to be a train wreck.
A colleague describes as follows the situation that gives rise to parties complaining that they had no notice of what a final rule would require because EPA’s proposal was so different: “EPA may propose an apple and finalize an orange. That’s OK; they’re both fruits. What EPA may not do (and what petitioners argue EPA has done here) is to propose an apple and finalize a pork chop.” Dick Stoll passionately argued – in his June 7, 2016 post for ACOEL – that previous 3-judge panels in the D.C. Circuit have not properly dealt with this lack-of-notice issue. Those panels refused challengers’ attempts to overturn pork chops, saying challengers of pork chops must first file administrative petitions for review under CAA §307(d)(7)(B) and then wait (for what could be years, if ever) for EPA to act on those petitions. Dick argued that the only way the previous 3-judge panel decisions would ever be overturned was by action of the entire court, sitting en banc. I cannot promise Dick the entire court will overturn the previous panels’ reading of §307(d)(7)(B), but I can say that Tom Lorenzen teed up the issue. When asked by Judge Griffith whether this argument appeared in petitioners’ briefs, Lorenzen said it did not because when petitioners wrote their briefs, the case was going to be heard by a 3-judge panel. But said Lorenzen, looking up at Judge Griffith, “Now we are here.” To which Judge Griffith replied, “And who else to ask but an en banc court?” “Exactly,” said Lorenzen.
Argument Segment #1: Core Legal Issues. Although I visit Argument Segment #1 last, the fate of the Clean Power Plan may well rest on how the panel addresses the issue raised at the very beginning of the day: whether or not the Plan is “transformative.” The Supreme Court, in UARG v. EPA, held that EPA cannot engage in a “transformative expansion” of its regulatory authority absent “clear congressional authorization” to do so. Petitioners argue that EPA’s Clean Power Plan amounts to a transformative expansion of EPA’s explicit regulatory authority and thus is illegal. EPA argues the program is not “transformative”; indeed, says EPA, the Rule is very similar to other CAA programs that the D.C. Circuit has upheld. So, is the Rule “business as usual” or is it “transformative”?
And so we return to the title of this post. I cannot predict what the D.C. Circuit will decide, but I think its determination will revolve around how the en banc panel answers the following question about the Clean Power Plan: Is You Is or Is You Ain’t Transformative? And that question prompts me to offer these final lines of doggerel in memory (and honor) of Judge Leventhal:
To predict the end here, it’s informative
To know if C-P-P is transformative.
To prevail in this Court,
One must prove that the sort
Of change caused by that Rule is enormative.
Posted on September 30, 2016
The Environmental Protection Agency’s use of its Clean Water Act 404(c) authority has received a fair amount of attention of late. Congressional hearings, court cases, media attention and, of course, Erik Fjelstad’s recent ACOEL blog.
EPA used this authority in the Mingo Logan coal mining-related situation after a 404 permit had been issued and the permit-regulated dredge and fill activities had been underway for some time. There is no doubt, as Erik points out, that uncertainty on the durability of a permit for a continuing dredge or fill activity, whether it be for coal mining or something else, is not ideal.
That said, there should be a way to revisit a permit if the impact of a continuing dredge or fill activity is severe and was not fully appreciated at the time of permitting. This is one situation that Congress sought to address in 404(c), and, in my opinion, without it, the integrity of the Clean Water Act to achieve its purpose of protecting waters of the United States would be at risk. Indeed, without such authority, those 404(c) permits for ongoing activities would look a lot like property rights. At the same time, this is not a common situation: EPA has finalized only two post-permit 404(c) actions.
Most common, though still rare, is EPA’s use of 404(c) authority to place restrictions on a 404 permit while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is processing a 404 permit application. In this time window, permit applicants know that there is uncertainty regarding whether and how their projects might go forward. EPA initiated the 404(c) process 29 times during the Corps’ permitting process, resolved eighteen without need for final 404(c) action, and came to final 404(c) action eleven times.
The final time window in which EPA can exercise its 404(c) authority occurs before a landowner or project proponent applies for a 404 permit. In one case EPA was confronted with a landowner who had three parcels of land in the Florida Everglades which he was planning on filling. As a start, he applied to the Corps for a 404 permit for two of those parcels. Using its 404(c) authority, EPA precluded the applied-for fill activity on all three parcels. Additionally, in the Mingo Logan example first introduced above, EPA not only addressed the existing permits in its decision, but noted that no future and similar 404 permits should subsequently be issued for those waters.
There is also one pending 404(c) action covering this pre-permit time window. It concerns the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, where a mining company has explored the copper, gold and molybdenum “Pebble” ore deposit. This large ore deposit underlies the largest wild salmon fishery in the world, which has supported the subsistence activities and culture of local people for thousands of years, a commercial fishery for over 130 years (in which the 2 billionth fish was caught this summer!), and a “bucket list” sport fishery. In this instance, EPA has proposed salmon-protective restrictions for 404 permits related to the mining of this ore deposit.
Should EPA finalize the Bristol Bay-related 404(c) proposal, the mining company could expect to get a 404 permit only if it included EPA’s restrictions. In this context, the mining company would have certainty before it applies for a 404 permit as to the applicability of those restrictions to its fill activity. Some have complained that EPA is overreaching in proposing to exercise this authority in advance of a permit application. For my part, this seems like the most ideal time for all interested parties – local people and the mining company most of all – to find out about such restrictions.
For what it is further worth, EPA has revisited some of those final 404(c) actions to allow for some dredge and fill activities. And notably, eleven of the thirteen final 404(c) actions occurred during Republican administrations (Reagan – 9, Bush I – 1, Bush II – 1). So if politics was involved in the actions, it didn’t fit the stereotype.
Disclosure: Bessenyey & Van Tuyn, L.L.C. represents a client that supports EPA 404(c) action to protect Bristol Bay’s wild salmon from the proposed Pebble mine.
Posted on September 21, 2016
On Monday, EPA promulgated amendments to its “Exceptional Events” Rule. The rule is important, particularly in the Western states, and most particularly in connection with EPA’s latest iteration of the ozone NAAQS. EPA’s most significant revision was to eliminate the requirement that state air agencies demonstrate that, “but for” the exceptional event, the state or relevant area would have complied with the applicable NAAQS. The change is important for two reasons. First, on the merits, EPA noted that:
"the “but for” criterion has often been interpreted as implying the need for a strict quantitative analysis to show a single value … of the estimated air quality impact from the event. As a result, some air agencies began using burdensome approaches to provide quantitative analyses in their exceptional events demonstrations to show that the event in question was a “but for” cause of a NAAQS exceedance or violation in the sense that without the event, the exceedance or violation would not have occurred. In many cases, the “but for” role of a single source or event is difficult to determine with certainty and it is more often the case that the impact of emissions from events and other sources cannot be separately quantified and distinguished."
I think that EPA got this exactly right. As tort professors have always known, how a burden of proof is allocated is often outcome-determinative.
Which brings me to the second reason why the change is important – at least to me. Just hearing the words “but for” causation triggers an uncontrollable wave of nostalgia. In 1996, my client, New England Telephone, was awarded summary judgment in a CERCLA contribution case. It was then the first – and may still be the only – case in which a defendant who admittedly sent hazardous substances to a site was awarded summary judgment on the ground that its wastes had not caused the incurrence of any response costs.
I like to think that NET prevailed due to the fine lawyering of its counsel, but I have always known in my heart of hearts that the identity of the judge may have had something to do with the result. The case was heard by Robert Keeton, distinguished judge, Harvard Law professor and – importantly – one of the authors of Prosser and Keeton on Torts.
At the summary judgment hearing, Judge Keeton did not want to hear from me, even though it was my motion. He did not really even want to hear from the plaintiffs’ counsel. Instead, he launched into an approximately 30-minute lecture on the role of causation in tort law, including, of course, a discussion of “but for” causation. When he finished the discussion from Prosser and Keeton about the so-called “Minnesota fire cases”, Judge Keeton paused, looked up, smiled broadly, and said: “I wrote that part.”
It was the best summary judgment argument I ever gave. I never said a word.
Posted on September 8, 2016
Ever since EPA began considering how BACT analysis would be applied to greenhouse gas emissions, there has been concern that EPA would use its BACT authority to “redefine the source” – with the particular concern that BACT for a coal plant would now be to burn natural gas instead. In Helping Hands Tools v. EPA, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week gave some protection to biomass plants from such redefinition of the source. However, other types of facilities will get no comfort from the decision.
Helping Hands Tools involved a challenge to a PSD permit issued to Sierra Pacific for a cogeneration plant to be located at one of its existing lumber mills. Under EPA’s BACT Guidance, Sierra Pacific stated that the purpose of the CoGen plant was to use wood waste from the mill and nearby facilities to generate electricity and heat. Relying in part on the 7th Circuit decision in Sierra Club v. EPA, which held that it would impermissibly redefine the source to require a mine-mouth coal generating plant to consider different fuels in its BACT analysis, the 9th Circuit found that EPA was reasonable in determining that, because a fundamental purpose of the CoGen plant was to burn wood waste, it would impermissibly redefine the source to require Sierra Pacific to consider solar power as part of its BACT analysis.
Importantly, the Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ request that Sierra Pacific consider greater use of natural gas. The Court concluded that very limited use of natural gas for the purposes of startup, shutdown, and flame stabilization did not undermine the fundamental purpose to burn wood waste. This is critical to source-located biomass facilities, because EPA’s GHG Permitting Guidance specifically says that greater use of an existing fuel should be considered in the BACT analysis:
"unless it can be demonstrated that such an option would disrupt the applicant’s basic business purpose for the proposed facility."
Unfortunately, the language of the decision appears to me to give EPA substantial leeway in future BACT analyses to redefine the source in other cases. It seems to me that, building on the 7th Circuit decision, the Court has simply created an exception to potential source redefinition in circumstances where the location of the facility justifies a very narrow fuel selection. If a coal plant intends to burn coal from the mine next door, ok. If a lumber mill intends to burn its own wood waste, ok. Otherwise, however, all bets are off.
What is particularly troubling was the Court’s acknowledgement that the GHG BACT guidance is vague, and its deference to EPA’s application of its own vague guidance. This is precisely the concern I noted when the Guidance was first issued. Time will tell, but I foresee some fairly extreme BACT determinations being blessed by some very deferential courts.
Posted on August 30, 2016
Many, many years ago, when I was a staff lawyer at EPA headquarters, my duties included advising the program that implemented and enforced the Noise Control Act of 1972. My last involvement, though, was to help dismantle the program. In one of the more curious footnotes to the deregulatory wave that swept EPA in the early years of the Reagan administration, EPA axed the program – sort of. Leaving behind a regulatory ghost town, EPA revised its noise regulations to leave standing the bare structure of federally preemptive rules, while clearing the building of its regulatory and enforcement staff. In effect, EPA took itself out of the picture, morphing the noise regulations into a self-certification program for manufacturers.
And there, in 40 CFR Parts 201 through 211, the rules have resided (quietly) for the last 34 years – noise standards for rail equipment, trucks, and portable air compressors, as well as labeling requirements for hearing protectors. (But not garbage trucks. EPA promulgated final noise standards for those, but revoked the regulations on the eve of the DC Circuit argument in which EPA was to defend the rule. Think about that next time you hear the hydraulics whining outside your bedroom window at 5:00 a.m.)
Ah, but did the noise program really end? As one of my EPA supervisors quipped at the time, the noise program is like a spider you’ve stepped on: you think it’s dead, but then its leg starts twitching. Today’s twitch comes from the New York congressional delegation, specifically Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY), whose district lies in the flight path of LaGuardia Airport, and New York’s democratic senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Together, they have introduced “The Quiet Communities Act of 2016.” The bills (H.R.3384 and S.3197) would bring back EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control. The legislation focuses on aircraft noise (regulation of which has, since the early 1980s, rested solely in the hands of the FAA), and it’s fairly modest in scope, authorizing a program of studies and grants, not a return to command-and-control regulatory efforts. However, both bills include a charge to EPA to “assess the effectiveness of the Noise Control Act of 1972” – kind of like checking on the Betamax hiding in your garage closet.
Let’s not get carried away by the imminent descent of the “cone of silence” over our nation, though: www.govtrack.us gives the legislation a 2 percent chance of being enacted. But hey, you never know. All eyes on the spider!
Posted on August 23, 2016
One of the interesting questions that emerged in the strategic planning process for the Environmental Law Institute is whether ELI could offer more support in the development and/or administration of supplemental environmental projects, or “SEPs”.
Having played a role in the birthing of the original SEP framework in the early 1990s while at EPA, and through my own experience as a practitioner, I am convinced that penalty mitigation through the performance of SEPs can come as close to a win-win as is possible in the enforcement context. Rather than having penalties, payable as they are only to the U.S. Treasury, lose their site-specific identify and value, SEPs allow diversion of some of those resources to projects geared toward environmental or process improvements that not only achieve compliance, but also provide discrete and measurable environmental benefits.
Development and implementation of a suitable SEP can at times be challenging. For these reasons, companies sometimes opt in favor of paying a large penalty rather than a reduced penalty with a SEP. Meanwhile, the government appears to be keener than ever about utilizing this tool. EPA’s draft Environmental Justice Plan 2020 Action Agenda, for example, observes that “when these types of projects are feasible, they can play an important role in cases that raise environmental justice concerns. Thus, EPA is setting the goal of increasing the number of SEPs and mitigation projects affecting overburdened communities.”
So here’s the thought. Perhaps to lighten the SEP load for defendants and government alike, an entity like ELI could help in the conceptualization and, in appropriate cases, the administration of SEPs. As it happens, ELI already has experience in this area. For example, in the context of settlement negotiations between a state environmental regulatory agency and a defendant (I’ll not disclose identities here), ELI was brought in to help shape and then implement a SEP to develop a training module on the regulations at issue in the case. Under the SEP, in addition to developing the training materials, ELI is to deliver at least two in-person classes to targeted audiences comprised of manufacturers and/or consumers, and to make these informational briefings more broadly available online (via, e.g., webinars, and audio-video recordings suitable for posting, including on the ELI website).
And this SEP is not a one-off. As a research and education institute, a convener experienced in community outreach and engagement, and a non-partisan presence having affinities with both regulators and the business community, ELI is well-suited to work with companies and their representatives to craft and execute approvable SEPs. These range from education of stakeholders about regulatory requirements and measures that go beyond compliance; to research, analysis, and publication of information on best practices for compliance and beyond; to monitoring and evaluating the success of on-the-ground SEPs undertaken by other organizations. Also, it probably goes without saying, but because we’re a non-profit, we can and must do our work on a cost-basis. In other words, we’re cheap.
Just a thought to tuck away for the next time a SEP enters your or your client’s equation.
Posted on August 5, 2016
In Mingo Logan Coal Company v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit recently upheld EPA’s use of its “veto” authority over an Army Corps of Engineers permit to fill jurisdictional waters for the Spruce Mine in West Virginia. Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act provides EPA authority to “deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification).” This authority was described by the court in Mingo Logan as “a mighty power and its exercise will perhaps inevitably leave a permittee feeling as if the rug has been pulled out from under it.”
The salient facts in Mingo Logan involved a Section 404 permit for a “mountaintop removal” coal mine. After a 7-year EIS, the Corps issued the permit in 2006. EPA expressed reservations with the permit, but communicated to the Corps that it “had no intention of taking [its] Spruce Mine concerns any further from a Section 404 standpoint.” But times change – and so do administrations – and in 2009 EPA asked the Corps to suspend, revoke, or modify the permit. After the Corps refused to do so, EPA began the 404(c) process, which led to a final decision in January 2011 to withdraw the specification for two (of three) disposal sites covered under the permit.
On appeal, Mingo Logan argued that EPA did not consider the company’s sunk reliance costs (a point EPA conceded). Even though 404(c) does not explicitly denote costs as a factor in EPA’s decision-making, the court stated that an agency “should generally weigh the costs of its action against its benefits.” Unfortunately for Mingo Logan, the court found that the company had not appropriately raised the issue of reliance costs before EPA or the district court.
The Mingo Logan decision is a bitter pill for developers, interjecting an additional element of uncertainty into a Section 404 regulatory process that is already challenging and subject to shifting political winds. As noted at this site, the agencies and courts have struggled with the jurisdictional reach of Section 404 and when a party can challenge the government’s actions. Key take-aways from Mingo Logan include:
First, 404(c) battles are not for the faint of heart. EPA has successfully used the authority twelve times since the passage of the CWA. Every attempt to stop EPA through litigation has ultimately failed.
Second, Mingo Logan clarifies that a Section 404 permit can be withdrawn years after its issuance. The decision will serve to undermine confidence in the integrity of the permitting process in the United States.
Last, Mingo Logan highlights the inherent problems of shared EPA/Corps responsibility. Defenders of 404(c) will note that this “mighty authority” is rarely used. Although true, it misses the point that the effects of 404(c) are, in fact, regularly felt by the regulated community. The ability to say “no” gives EPA significant leverage – behind the scenes -- in the permitting process.
Query whether we would have a better, and more effective, Section 404 permitting process if all of the authority and responsibility for permitting were vested in a single agency – either the Corps or EPA.
Posted on August 4, 2016
This post started as a piece about a recent Fifth Circuit decision: Texas v. EPA. In that case, the state of Texas (and others) challenge EPA’s disapproval of Texas’s (and Oklahoma’s) plans for controlling regional haze and EPA’s decision to impose its own haze-control program instead. To make my drafting process more entertaining (and the task of posting more challenging for our official poster, Colin Gipson-Tansil), I set a goal for myself: to include within my post at least 25 valid links to others’ posts during the past year. Fortunately for me, there is almost nothing in Texas v. EPA that doesn’t link to one or more recent posts.
Jurisdiction and Venue. Many of the past year’s posts point out problems caused by the failure of the Clean Water Act to state unambiguously which federal court has jurisdiction to hear a specific challenge to an EPA action under that statute. Stoll’s 9/2/2015 post, Glick’s 10/9/2015 post, Horder’s 11/3/2015 post, Perdue’s 2/5/2016 post, and Uram’s 4/5/2016 post. Texas v. EPA demonstrates that choice-of-court problems also exist under the Clean Air Act’s judicial review provision, §307(b)(1).
Clean Air Act §307(b)(1) – said the Fifth Circuit – is a two-fold provision: first, it confers jurisdiction on the courts of appeals, and then it delineates whether the appropriate venue for challenges will be the regional circuits (if the challenged action is locally or regionally applicable) or the D.C. Circuit (if the action is nationally applicable). Believing EPA’s disapproval of its regional haze program to be locally or regionally applicable, Texas filed its challenge in the Fifth Circuit. EPA moved to dismiss or transfer the case to the D.C. Circuit based on a separate, not-as-well-known prong of §307(b)(1), which directs that a petition for review of what seems like a non-national action may be filed only in the D.C. Circuit if the action is “based on a determination of nationwide scope or effect and if in taking such action [EPA] finds and publishes that such action is based on such a determination.” After an exhaustive de novo evaluation of that portion of §307(b)(1), the Fifth Circuit determined that because the challenged EPA actions are locally or regionally applicable and because they are not based on any determinations that have nationwide scope or effect, the Fifth Circuit is the appropriate court to hear the case.
But wait. There are other link-worthy aspects of Texas v. EPA, including the following.
Explanations of Decisions to Stay Challenged Actions. During the past year, posts have discussed whether and how much a court needs to explain the basis on which it stays a challenged rule pending completion of litigation concerning that rule’s validity. Jaffe’s 2/10/2016 post, Gerrard’s 2/10/2016 post. If it is a lengthy explanation you seek for when and why a court should stay an EPA action pending completion of litigation, the Fifth Circuit provides that in Texas v. EPA.
Deference. Other recent posts have addressed when deference to an agency interpretation is – or is not – appropriate. Kovar (12/10/2015); Percival (1/27/2016); Field (2/11/2016); Haynes (2/19/2016); May (6/9/2016); Civins (7/5/2016); Jaffe (8/2/2016). In Texas, the Fifth Circuit put clear limits on deference, holding that the level of deference owed to an agency’s conclusions is “substantially diminished when the subject matter in question lies beyond the agency’s expertise.” Thus, while the Fifth Circuit was prepared to defer substantially to EPA’s views on environmental science, it declined to defer to EPA’s views on whether its actions would impair the reliability of the electricity grid. Since “EPA has no expertise on grid reliability” (that is FERC’s domain), the “deference owed to EPA’s assertions about grid reliability [is] diminished and the agency must support its arguments more thoroughly than in those areas in which it has considerable expertise and knowledge.”
That limitation on deference could have an impact on the most talked-about case by ACOEL members this past year: West Virginia v. EPA, in which more than two dozen states and many other parties challenge EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Jaffe’s 9/10/2015 post, Gerrard’s 2/10/2016 post, Jaffe’s 10/23/2015 post, Jaffe’s 12/9/2015 post, Percival’s 12/16/2015 post, Stoll’s 12/21/2015 post, Perdue’s 2/5/2016 post, Jaffe’s 2/10/2016 post, Field’s 2/11/2016 post, Session’s 2/17/2016 post, and Freeman’s 3/2/2016 post. The Fifth Circuit’s limit on deference is the basis of a recent Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure 28(j) letter sent to the D.C. Circuit by the petitioning states in West Virginia. According to those states, the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Texas v. EPA supports, among other things, the petitioning states’ argument that EPA has failed to show that the Clean Power Plan will not detrimentally affect grid reliability.
Perhaps the link in which I take the most pride, though, is this last link – to Seth Jaffe’s October 2, 2015 Brief Rant on Cost-Effectiveness Analysis. In that post, Seth argues that if the purpose of a rule is to improve visibility, EPA should use a measurement of visibility – a deciview (dv) – to assess visibility improvement. Well, in Texas v. EPA, the Fifth Circuit seemed to be heading in the direction of agreeing that in considering the cost of a regional haze program, EPA should use the $/dv metric. Alas, at the last minute, the court pulled back on a complete endorsement of the $/dv metric: because the petitioners had a “strong likelihood of establishing other flaws” in EPA’s actions, the court said it did not need to decide whether EPA “fell short of its obligation to consider the costs of its regulations” by failing to use $/dv metrics. So, Seth may have to wait a while longer before seeing a court mandate for EPA’s use of $/dv metrics to evaluate visibility improvements. I, however, achieved my goal of including a record number of links in this post.
Posted on August 3, 2016
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce its final Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) update by the end of summer 2016. But does the update account for the fact that several new regulatory programs that could significantly improve downwind air quality?
In his posts of August 3, 2015and April 30, 2014, ACOEL Fellow Paul Seals likened the voyage of the interstate transport of air pollutants to “Homer’s Odyssey”. He promised us all that the D.C. Circuit decision of June 24, 2015, in the case of EME Homer City Generation, L.P., v. EPA, concerning the CSAPR would not end the voyage of interstate transport – and indeed it has not.
Critical to the development of a rule to address the interstate transport of air pollutants is that the rule not call for emission reductions that are more than necessary to achieve attainment in every downwind state. EPA’s 2017 deadline for attaining the 2008 ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) invites the question of what the ozone air quality is likely to be in 2017. EPA’s proposed CSAPR Updateidentified only 4 monitors in the East that it predicted to be in non-attainment with the 2008 ozone NAAQS in 2017.
EPA’s prediction of 2017 air quality, however, did not take into account several new regulatory programs that are either on-the-books or on-the-way. These programs are certain to continue to improve ozone air quality in the East. Among the more significant of these programs are:
- Pennsylvania Reasonably Available Control Technology (RACT) II;
- Ozone Transport Commission Model Rules;
- Connecticut RACT;
- New York High Energy Demand Day (HEDD) controls; and
- Connecticut High Energy Demand Day (HEDD) controls
To illustrate the significance of this point, Alpine Geophysics modeled the impact of only a portion of the Pennsylvania RACT II program on ozone concentrations at the nonattainment monitors downwind of Pennsylvania identified by in the CSAPR proposal. The following results from the Alpine Geophysics report illustrate that even one of these new programs is likely to significantly improve ozone air quality at the critical monitors in the East:
EPA Nonattainment Monitors
Ozone Improvement needed (ppb)
Ozone Improvement Achieved By PA RACT Alone
|Connecticut Fairfield (90013007)
|Connecticut Fairfield (90019003)
|Connecticut New Havens (90019003)
Such improvement - related to only one of the unaddressed programs - raises the question about whether all of the EPA identified nonattainment monitors will, in fact, be in attainment with the 2008 ozone NAAQS when these on-the-books and on-the-way programs are implemented in 2017, even without the CSAPR update.
The answer to this question, and to the merit of any new transport rule, lies with additional air quality modeling of these programs. When EPA announces its final rule on the CSAPR update by the end of summer, we will see whether the agency has taken account of these additional programs and see the future direction of this on-going odyssey.
Posted on August 2, 2016
On Friday, the D.C. Circuit largely upheld EPA’s Boiler MACT rule. The industry challenges were a complete washout. The environmental petitioners won one significant victory and a number of smaller ones.
The environmental petitioners’ one significant victory is important. EPA included within relevant subcategories any source that burns a fuel containing at least 10% of the “subcategory-defining fuel.” However, for defining MACT, EPA included only those sources that burn fuel containing at 90% of the subcategory-defining fuel for existing sources, and 100% for new sources. The Court rejected this approach.
"The CAA, however, demands that source subcategories take the bitter with the sweet. Section 7412 mandates, without ambiguity, that the EPA set the MACT floor at the level achieved by the best performing source, or the average of the best performing sources, in a subcategory. It thus follows that if the EPA includes a source in a subcategory, it must take into account that source’s emissions levels in setting the MACT floor."
Which brings me to my big take-away from this decision. Chevron lives. By my count, The Court cited Chevron 30 times. Chevron pervades the decision. Even in the one big issue that EPA lost, the Court’s decision was based not on a rejection of EPA’s interpretation of an ambiguous provision under step 2 of Chevron, but on a plain meaning interpretation of § 112. EPA defined what a source is, but it then refused to calculate MACT based upon the performance of all of the sources in a given subcategory. The statute simply did not allow EPA that leeway.
Other than EPA’s attempt to avoid taking “the bitter with the sweet”, however, the Court’s deference – by three Republican appointees – to EPA’s technical decisions was notable. Not every case is the Clean Power Plan. Where EPA is not really pushing the boundaries, I don’t see the Supreme Court weakening Chevron any time soon.
Posted on June 7, 2016
Clean Power Plan (CPP) groupies are beside themselves over the D.C. Circuit’s surprise “straight-to-en banc” move for CPP judicial review. The buzz is mostly over the survivability of the CPP’s interpretations of Clean Air Act (CAA) §111(d) in light of the nine judges’ dispositions.
I won’t weigh in on that issue here. My target is another issue, one that has been lurking in the background and has bugged me greatly for the last couple of years. Now that the issue is before an en banc panel, I am fervently hoping the Court will do what only en banc panels can do: declare that a few recent D.C. Circuit rulings are wrong.
The issue involves garden variety adlaw: should the CPP be vacated because EPA failed to propose or adequately foreshadow key elements of the final rule? Parties attacking the CPP have advanced this argument, and EPA has defended on numerous grounds that its notice was adequate.
I won’t opine here on whether EPA’s notice was adequate. My beef is with EPA’s fall-back defense: EPA’s argument that even if there were wholly insufficient notice of the CPP’s final provisions, the Court has no authority to vacate the CPP on those grounds.
EPA’s theory is that since CAA §307(d)(7)(B) provides that only an issue raised in public comments can be raised on judicial review, a final rule that was never proposed cannot be challenged on judicial review because there were no public comments on that provision. Yep, read on.
EPA argues that parties claiming a final rule was never proposed must instead file administrative petitions for review under CAA §307(d)(7)(B) and wait (usually for a few years, if ever) for EPA to act on those petitions. In the meantime, under EPA’s position, regulatory provisions that were never proposed or foreshadowed must go into full force and effect.
This means that EPA can get away with murder, at least in the adlaw context. Just forget the bedrock principle that an agency can impose and enforce only those rules that have first been proposed. Under EPA’s position, the bedrock is blown away by a Richter 8.8 otherwise known as CAA §307(d)(7)(B).
In the last two years, EPA has managed to convince D.C. Circuit panels to accede to this unfair and baseless approach. See my 2015 ACOEL post discussing these opinions. In a piece I published in Bloomberg BNA in 2014, I showed how the D.C. Circuit had never previously interpreted CAA §307(d)(7)(B) in this fashion , and had on many occasions vacated final rule provisions that had never been proposed.
As explained in the above-cited pieces, the absurdity of EPA’s position is that final rules will go into full force and effect against parties because they failed to object to something they could not object to. This just can’t be right. The en banc CPP panel should do the right thing and declare the three most recent decisions to be wrong.
[Mr. Stoll is not representing any party in the pending D.C. Circuit CPP judicial review proceedings.]
Posted on May 4, 2016
You do not have to be a football fan to be aware of the legal battles between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the star quarterback, and perpetual winner, Tom Brady arising out of Brady’s use of deflated footballs at a playoff game. Brady won the round in district court where the judge focused on the merits of the factual case. Goodell recently won on appeal where the court of appeals focused on the fact that the NFL Players Association bargained away the right to challenge Goodell’s decisions on the merits. On appeal, it did not matter whether Brady did anything wrong. All that mattered was that Goodell thought Brady did something wrong.
In recent dealings with EPA on its model Administrative Order on Consent (“AOC”) for Remedial Investigations and Feasibility Studies (“RI/FS”), it seems EPA wants PRPs to make the same mistake the Players Association made: let EPA be judge and jury over any dispute that arises under the AOC. The most troubling language in the model is that EPA’s final decision on the dispute “becomes part of the Order.” While the vast majority of EPA folk I have met are more reasonable than Roger Goodell, RI/FS projects can involve millions of dollars, which sets the table for expensive disputes.
What is a Brady fan to do? First, the model should be changed to allow pre-enforcement review, as pointed out in a recent ACOEL post by Mark Schneider. Second, if the AOC process is otherwise desirable, there are ways to minimize the effect of the model language on at least one category of dispute: work expansion disputes, often the most serious and expensive variety of disputes. A very specific Scope of Work attached to the AOC would minimize the risk of work expansion by EPA through dispute resolution. If a dispute arises that could expand the work, do not invoke dispute resolution. Take the position that the AOC does not apply to EPA’s demand because the demand is beyond the scope of the AOC. If EPA enforces the AOC on this point you can defend without EPA’s position becoming part of the AOC beforehand. Thus, you avoid Brady’s fate—having a good argument and nowhere to go.
Posted on April 28, 2016
In auto racing, the black flag is the ultimate sanction, signaling that a competitor has been disqualified and has to leave the race. That’s what happened to EPA recently, when it withdrew a controversial proposed rule to “clarify” that the Clean Air Act prohibits converting a certified vehicle for racing.
Merits aside, EPA’s start-and-stop performance is an excellent example of notice-and-comment rulemaking gone wrong. The original proposal appeared last July, a brief passage buried in the middle of a 629-page proposed rule on greenhouse gas emissions for medium- and heavy-duty engines and vehicles – hardly the place where one would look for a rule directed at race cars. See 80 Fed.Reg. 40137, 40527, 40552 (July 13, 2016). As should have been expected, EPA’s pronouncement that the Clean Air Act flatly prohibits converting emission-certified vehicles for competition went unnoticed for months. It wasn’t until late December, nearly three months after the close of the comment period, that SEMA (the Specialty Equipment Market Association, the trade group representing the motor vehicle aftermarket industry) discovered the proposed rule.
That’s when the yellow flag came out. SEMA and its members blasted EPA’s interpretation as reversing a decades-old policy that allowed the race-conversion market to flourish, and for hiding the proposal in an inapplicable rule. EPA’s response was to hold to its interpretation and to post SEMA’s comment letter in a “notice of data availability” so that others could comment – not on EPA’s proposal, but on SEMA’s letter. 81 Fed.Reg. 10822 (March 2, 2016).
SEMA stepped up the pressure with a White House petition that quickly garnered more than 150,000 signatures. Then came a letter to EPA from seven state attorneys general, and bills in both the House and Senate (brilliantly named the Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports Act, or “RPM”) to reverse EPA’s interpretation and codify the race exemption in the Clean Air Act.
On April 15, EPA hit the brakes, announcing that it was withdrawing its proposal. www.epa.gov/otaq/climate/regs-heavy-duty.htm. EPA stated that it never meant to change its policy towards “dedicated competition vehicles,” but admitted that its “attempt to clarify led to confusion.” EPA voiced its support for “motorsports and its contributions to the American economy and communities all across the country.
The checkered flag came out, but EPA had already pulled into the pits.
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 February 18, 2016
Citizen suits under federal environmental laws have been under fire through criticism of “sue and settle” where agencies, in particular the U.S. EPA, have been accused of intentionally relinquishing statutory discretion for the sake of settling lawsuits without participation by affected third parties. From this perspective, the scope of citizen suits has broadened. However, two recent federal circuit court opinions curb this growth.
On January 6, 2016, the Third Circuit and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals issued opinions that underscore certain limitations in the citizen suit provisions. The Third Circuit examined a Clean Air Act citizen suit in Group Against Smog and Pollution, Inc. v. Shenango Inc. (No. 15-2041) (GASP). The Sixth Circuit examined a Clean Water Act citizen suit in Askins v. Ohio Dept. of Agriculture, Ohio Envtl. Prot. Agency, U.S. EPA (No. 15-3147). Both courts affirmed dismissal of the citizen suits by the district courts based on statutory limitations Congress placed in each statute.
These two cases highlight a couple of important components of citizen suits. First, citizen suits are to serve as a backup to the non-discretionary functions and enforcement responsibilities of the States and the EPA. As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “the citizen suit is meant to supplement rather than to supplant governmental action.” The Sixth Circuit stated, “Paradoxically, [Plaintiffs’] expansive reading of the citizen-suit provision would grant citizen greater enforcement authority than the U.S. EPA. . . . Congress did not intend to give citizens greater and faster enforcement authority against a state than the U.S. EPA.”
The other important component highlighted is the role of the “diligent prosecution bar” against citizen suits. Citizen suits are prohibited if the EPA or State agency “has commenced and is diligently prosecuting” the matter. While most courts seem willing to restrict citizen suits when there is clear prosecution (civil or criminal) in a state or federal court, the answer is less clear when there is no active or concluded matter at the courthouse or the enforcement action is only administrative. In GASP, the Third Circuit slightly tilted the bar in favor of the agency and regulated entity by concluding that if the agency has diligently prosecuted a suit, the presence of a final judgment, consent decree, or consent order and agreement would likely prevent a citizen suit challenge. This is logical given that environmental enforcement proceedings that are filed in court often, if not always, result in a judicially enforceable consent decree or consent order and agreement in which the regulated entity must fulfill specified obligations or be subject to stipulated penalties. It also provides certainty to the agreement reached between the agency and the regulated entity, which benefits all involved.
While these recent decisions were not momentous court opinions, the Third and Sixth Circuits did provide a bit more clarity to the role citizen and how our environmental laws are enforced. In this arena, I think we all would agree that a little clarity can go a long way.
Posted on February 17, 2016
For us gray hairs, the phrase used to be “Dateline”, now it’s “Tweetline” . . . Flash!. . . President Obama @POTUS “. . . Addressing climate change takes all of us, especially the private sector going all-in on clean energy worldwide."
Apparently “all of us” didn’t include five Supreme Court Justices, led by its Chief Justice, John Roberts. Indeed, it was SCOTUS going “all out” for climate change. As in, going “all out” to frustrate one of the EPA’s and President Obama’s signature efforts to respond to and act upon climate change challenges to the global environment. What EPA and the President got (by a split decision) instead was a stay that some have characterized as the quashing of the biggest environmental regulatory change in United States history.
That body blow to regulatory appropriation of the climate change debate was instigated by the challenge of virtually every major coal power company to the EPA’s issuance of binding emission reduction requirements for existing domestic power plants. The coal, fired power industry argued that EPA’s action was “draconian” and would cause the “shutting down or curtailing generation from existing plants and shifting that generation to new sources”. That, of course, was the precise intent of POTUS and other signatories of the Paris climate change accord last year.
SCOTUS’s stay was unprecedented and terse. Not a word of explanation about why the stay was issued. The proponents of the stay were modestly baffled. In the words of Basin Power’s legislative rep, Dale Niezwaag, the decision came as a surprise . . . "The supreme court has never issued a stay on a rule that hasn't been ruled on by a lower court. So this is precedent, setting from our point. When we put it in, we figured it was going to be a long shot, so we were very surprised that the Supreme Court ruled in our favor”.
There are takeaways galore. However, two are most intriguing to me. Was this unprecedented stay an unwarranted and thinly disguised, reach into the realm of executive branch constitutional authority? Second, did the Supreme Court simply muscle its way into a social and scientific debate that begs any legal or factual question of “irreparable harm” to either the power industry or the citizenry of the republic. In short, was the stay an expression of SCOTUS climate change denial?
The stay makes EPA’s rules unenforceable and will undoubtedly limit their intended goal of achieving emissions cuts to (ostensibly) slow global warming. More importantly, the ruling, in effect, invalidated POTUS’s pledge on climate agreement made in Paris last spring. How should one construe the interjection of the Supreme Court into a case that would have, under normal circumstances, been taken up by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit as soon as early 2017? Was a signal being sent to that court to heed the antipathy some believe certain SCOTUS justices have towards the global warming debate altogether?
In keeping with my “newsflash” metaphor, since I started writing this post, the country mourns the unexpected passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. The lack of a tie breaker justice for the foreseeable future could throw the question of the right of the EPA to forge ahead on the POTUS’s climate change agenda into months or years of limbo. Will the D.C. Circuit’s decision answer the question next spring? Will certain senators relent and vote in a replacement for Justice Scalia this year? Will the eight remaining justices do something other than call things a tie until they have a full complement on the bench?
Stay tuned to this blogspot for more breaking news.
Posted on February 12, 2016
The Supreme Court's unexplained stay of the clean power plan was "one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time," writes Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School in a recent, excellent blog. Rather than venting outrage, Gerrard quickly moves on to explain that the Clean Power Plan isn’t the only way to cut carbon pollution.
Ramping up efforts like fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and building efficiency standards, he notes, will also help reduce carbon pollution. Gerrard mentions a couple of points about agriculture, but often, this sector is overlooked when it comes to climate solutions. It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the opportunities to reduce climate pollution from our food system.
Food waste is the second largest component of most landfills. As it rots, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that 2 percent to 4 percent of all manmade climate pollution arises simply from food rotting in landfills.
Keeping food waste out of landfills can help reduce methane pollution. Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some cities have enacted laws to manage organic waste disposal in landfills. The idea is to create incentives to reduce food waste and divert it to other purposes, such as animal feed or composting. Instead of being thrown away and becoming a source of pollution, this “waste” can be put to good use. Landfill gas collection systems can be further incentivized. And the nascent effort to reduce food waste from businesses and households can be significantly ramped up.
Another major source of greenhouse gases is the over application of fertilizer. Excess nitrogen fertilizer causes two big problems. The first is water pollution. Nitrogen that isn’t taken up by crops runs off farms and enters larger waterways, where it stimulates the growth of algae and creates “dead zones” deprived of oxygen. The second, and less frequently discussed issue, is the volatilization of nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2. The IPCC estimates that 12 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions come from synthetic fertilizer application.
A number of techniques can reduce these emissions while also providing a cost benefit to farmers. Farm policies could encourage practices like cover cropping, which reduces the need for fertilizer by making soils more rich and fertile. Crop rotations can do the same, yet current crop insurance programs actually discourage the use of these practices. Precision application technologies for fertilizers are getting ever better, but their uptake on farms is slow.
Manure from animals, and the "enteric emissions" from cattle (more commonly thought of as belching) are two more significant sources of climate pollution. Enteric fermentation alone may account for as much as 40 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC. Changes in diet might help with these emissions, but this is an area that needs more research.
Some of the emissions from manure can be captured if manure lagoons were covered and better managed. As it stands, these pits are only slightly regulated and are major sources of water pollution sources as well as odor nuisances. An even better practice is to raise cows on rotating pastures, where their waste can enhance soils and help store carbon. And, of course, if Americans did shift to a diet lower in red meat, as per the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, we could further reduce climate pollution from cattle.
Agriculture is one of our nation's most important economic sectors, and is especially vulnerable to the extreme weather impacts of climate change. Its product -- food -- is critical not only for our economy, but is an integral and uniquely personal part of our everyday lives. When we think about how to address climate change, it makes sense to think about food and agriculture. The food we choose to produce, and how we produce it, use it, and dispose of it, all have an impact on climate pollution—and therefore have the potential to become climate solutions.
Posted on February 11, 2016
I am a terrible predictor of what cases the Supreme Court will hear and what the Court will decide on those matters it chooses to hear. For example, I wrongly predicted that the Supreme Court would never consider reviewing the D.C. Circuit’s decisions in cases involving other recent EPA regulations, but the Supreme Court chose to hear those cases, which led to its decisions in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA and Michigan v. EPA. And if asked to guess whether the Court would issue a stay of EPA’s Clean Power Plan under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, I might well have said that the odds were greatly against that happening – despite the merits of the arguments being raised by those seeking the stay.
Perhaps, though, my poor predictive abilities are the result of my looking at each case in isolation instead of looking at them in combination and considering whether the Supreme Court’s February 9, 2016 stay decision is an outgrowth of the combined knowledge gained by the Court in its recent reviews of those other Clean Air Act cases. Specifically, as pointed out by State Petitioners in their briefs in support of a stay of the Clean Power Plan (see here and here,) EPA has touted its Plan as being one that will completely transform the way energy is created and delivered in this country even though – argued State Petitioners – the plain statutory language (of Clean Air Act section 111(d)) does not authorize such Agency action, and the approach of the Clean Power Plan is at odds with EPA’s 45-year history of implementing section 111(d). Maybe such claims struck a chord with the Court, which – in UARG – told EPA that the Agency cannot make “decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance’” under a long-extant statute, like the Clean Air Act, without “clear congressional authorization.”
And then there was Michigan, where the Court determined that EPA had proceeded unlawfully in adopting another extensive and expensive Clean Air Act regulatory program. State Petitioners in the Clean Power Plan litigation made sure that the Court was aware that by the time the Court issued its decision in Michigan – a case where the underlying rule was not stayed during the pendency of litigation – the affected parties had spent billions of dollars to meet the terms of the underlying, un-stayed rule. In other words, justice delayed in Michigan was justice denied.
None of this is to say what the Court will or will not do if and when it reviews arguments on the lawfulness of the Clean Power Plan. I make no predictions on that. But I believe the Court acted appropriately in calling for the completion of litigation before requiring affected parties to make the massive, unprecedented, costly, and transformative changes to the energy industry that the Clean Power Plan demands.
Posted on February 10, 2016
Yesterday, the Supreme Court stayed EPA’s Clean Power Plan rule. No matter how much EPA and DOJ proclaim that this says nothing about the ultimate results on the merits, the CPP is on very shaky ground at this point.
Everyone, supporters and opponents alike (and yours truly), thought that there was no possibility that the Court would grant a stay. And it is precisely because a Supreme Court stay of a rule pending judicial review is such an “extraordinary” – to use DOJ’s own word – form of relief that one has to conclude that five justices have decided that the rule must go.
This isn’t just a preliminary injunction; it’s a preliminary injunction on steroids. First, everyone seems to acknowledge that it’s unprecedented for the Supreme Court to stay a rule pending judicial review. Second, the standards in DOJ’s own brief make pretty clear that a stay will only issue if the Court is pretty convinced on the merits. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Court implied that it does not even trust the Court of Appeals, because the stay will remain in force, even if the D.C. Circuit affirms the rule. The stay will only terminate either: (1) if the Court of Appeals upholds the CPP and the Supreme Court denies certiorari or (2) if the order is upheld and the Supreme Court also upholds it.
Back to the drawing board for EPA. Perhaps § 115 of the Clean Air provides a way out!
Posted on February 4, 2016
With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water. As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014.
How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”
The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”
EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens. Even philanthropic groups are stepping in. EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.
The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight. As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.