Attaboy, Jeff!

Posted on August 16, 2018 by Paul Seals

On August 1-3, for the 30th year in a row, Jeff Civins chaired the Texas Environmental Superconference in Austin.  The well-attended sold-out event, presented multimedia, multidisciplinary programs addressing environmental issues and topics, with a Texas theme: “A Texas State of Mind.”  With over 500 registrants, the conference, through Jeff’s guidance, did it again.   The conference combines the latest legal and technical information with playful humor.  Jeff in his humble manner would give the credit to the planning committee, but the Superconference would not be “Super” without Jeff’s leadership and perseverance.  Who says you can’t herd cats!

The unique conference is recognized as one of the best environmental conferences in the country, attracting speakers from around the country and from federal and state agencies.  For two and a half days, cooperative federalism is on full display.

For the 30th Superconference, the program featured a panel of “experienced” environmental attorneys, who reflected on environmental regulation over the past 30 years “and then some.”  The panel included four Fellows, Pam Giblin, John Cruden, Kinnan Goleman, and myself.

As we say in Texas, “Jeff, you done good!”

Is the Superfund Taskforce an EPA Superhero or Just a Bunch of Smoke and Mirrors?

Posted on August 15, 2018 by Heidi Friedman

Is the Pruitt/Wheeler Superfund Taskforce the Clark Kent of Environmental Law, hidden cape and all, producing more effective and efficient cleanups and conquering the nasty villains of TCE and Vinyl Chloride to protect the human race?  Pruitt made his initial request to his superhero squad to prioritize Superfund on March 22, 2017, and the Task Force recommendations came out a few months later identifying 21 priority sites (which by the way were priorities well before that list came out because they were on the NPL) along with many other objectives.  On the Taskforce recommendations' first anniversary, EPA recently gave itself the traditional 1-year anniversary gift of paper by publishing an almost 100-page report detailing all of its Superfund accomplishments and identifying what the environmental villains of the world can expect in Year 2.   Although there is not enough space here to dissect the so-called “accomplishments,” the list feels a lot like that “To Do” list I sometimes generate for tasks I am about to complete, just so I can have the pleasure of drawing a line through it to say I finished something. 

Although many of those officials implementing the task force goals for EPA are superheroes in many ways, the main problem is that the Superfund process is much less than “super,” especially since the reach of the program is expanding not contracting.  For example, we are constantly dealing with new and emerging contaminants.  Closed sites are being reopened to look for 1,4-Dioxane, PFOS-PFOAs and other new or emerging contaminants, many of which are ubiquitous.  Then we have vapor intrusion to further complicate the investigation and pathway exposure evaluation process, even more so now that VI contributes to the hazard ranking system used by  EPA to score a site for listing on the NPL.  So as we make the scoring, listing, investigation and remediation processes broader and more complex, can we really argue that there is now more success in cleaning up these sites, converting them to beneficial use and delisting them?

I don’t think so, at least not yet.  To really move things along, industry and EPA should be focusing on identifying and testing more efficient technologies so that all media can be remediated in reasonable time frames.  How about working toward collaboration among stakeholders to develop reasonable, risk-based cleanup levels based on realistic exposures at sites rather than blindly insisting that MCLs apply for restoration even if no one has or will ever drink the groundwater?  And let’s talk about promoting voluntary actions instead of negotiating orders for every piece of work.  Ramming down model order language and picking insanely expensive remedies overnight to just check the boxes does not generate results or build relationships between industry and EPA to support the program.

Instead, these actions may lead to more PRPs contesting EPA’s decisions as arbitrary and capricious, resulting in further delay and inefficiency.  In fact, we are already seeing erosion of the historical deference that has been given to EPA’s decision making process.  See, e.g., Genuine Parts Co. v. EPA.   Industry and EPA need to form a partnership that focuses on real risk to human health and the environment if there is really going to be a change in the Superfund program that will benefit our communities.  If not, we will remain in the same less than super program, attempting to clean up the same sites for the next several decades.   Or maybe Wonder Woman will swoop in and save the day??? Fingers crossed!

When Should A Regulatory Program Be Eliminated?

Posted on August 9, 2018 by David Flannery

It is certainly not unusual for regulatory agencies implementing water quality standard programs to conduct periodic reviews of the appropriateness of those programs.  Such has been the case with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (“ORSANCO”) for many years. In connection with the current triennial review of its Pollution Control Standards, ORSANCO recently offered the following statement in a public notice and request for comment

This review of the Pollution Control Standards differs from past reviews in that it asks your input on whether ORSANCO should continue to maintain, administer, and periodically update the current Pollution Control Standards, or should eliminate the Pollution Control Standards and withdraw from the process of maintaining and updating such standards.

The proposal to eliminate this regulatory program was undertaken by ORSANCO following a multi-year comprehensive assessment of ORSANCO’s function and role in partnership with its member states, USEPA, and the many other water quality protection activities that are currently administered to protect the Ohio River. This review caused ORSANCO to reach the conclusion “that all member states are implementing approved programs under the federal Clean Water Act” and that “there appears to be little or no purpose for the Commission to continue the triennial review process of updating the PCS rules.” ORSANCO also concluded that elimination of its regulatory program was being proposed with full confidence that the public would have “the full and complete protection of the federal Clean Water Act and the oversight of USEPA and the states without the redundancy of the current PCS program”. http://www.orsanco.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Preferred-Expanded-Alternative-2-and-Minority-Report.pdf   

ORSANCO is seeking comment on this proposal through August 20, 2018. Details of the proposal and the public comment process can be found on the ORSANCO web site.  I am sure that ORSANCO would be very interested in hearing from any of you that have a comment on the proposal or any thoughts on the title question about when a regulatory program should be eliminated.

 ORSANCO is an interstate compact whose member states include Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.  The Compact forming ORSANCO was signed in 1948 following the consent of the United States Congress and enactment of the Compact into law by the legislatures of the eight member states.

Managing Interdependence in a World of Chaos

Posted on August 8, 2018 by Dan Esty

Managing interdependence in our complicated world of nearly 200 nations and thousands of other interests pushing and pulling on global policymaking is never easy. And yet the challenge of getting the world community to work together to solve problems remains urgent – especially for issues of inescapably global scope such as climate change. The international chaos of the past several weeks (with the U.S. President attacking allies, denigrating longstanding alliances, cozying up to autocrats, and brandishing tariff increases like a hotheaded D’Artagnan slashing his way through a Three Musketeers movie) shows just how fragile our collaborative regimes can be. Against this backdrop, the success of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement in getting so many nations and so many others (including mayors, governors, and CEOs) to commit to a joint effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions looks more amazing today than it did when the COP21 negotiations concluded three years ago.

Continued progress to address the threat of climate change cannot, however, be taken for granted.  Discord in one domain of international relations has a tendency to spill over into others.  Indeed, successful collaboration often depends on give-and-take across policy realms as well as within particular treaties or other cooperative endeavors. President Trump’s bellicose behavior on the international stage thus adds stress to the efforts to maintain momentum for climate change action – on top of the discord that he had already introduced by promising to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement.

But the news from the climate change front is not all bad.  President Trump cannot actually remove the United States from the Paris Agreement until 2020 based on the accord’s carefully specified withdrawal provisions.  More importantly, the leadership slack is being taken up by others.  Not only have foreign leaders, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Macron, grabbed the climate change mantle, a whole series of mayors (including Anne Hidalgo in Paris and Frank Jensen in Copenhagen not to mention hundreds of municipal leaders across America) and governors (including Jerry Brown in California and Jay Inslee in Washington state) have ramped up their greenhouse gas emissions control initiatives. Indeed, nearly 3000 subnational leaders across all 50 U.S. states have signed on to the “We Are Still In” coalition, and their actions have kept the United States more or less on target to achieve the emissions reduction commitment set out by President Obama in the U.S. “nationally determined contribution” to the Paris Agreement.

So while the Trump Administration’s non-cooperative posture may yet slow down the global march toward a clean energy future, it may also hasten the creation of a new multi-dimensional structure of global climate change action – and a framework for managing international interdependence more generally -- capable of withstanding the President’s belligerence. With layers of state and local activities as well as national and global ones, supported by initiatives from the business community and many other non-governmental actors, the pace of progress need not falter. And the unintended gift of a more diverse and robust regime of global collaboration may well endure.

Von Humboldt's Gifts

Posted on August 6, 2018 by David B. Farer

Somehow I'd made it this far into my life without ever having heard of Alexander Von Humboldt.  Now, thanks to a wonderfully enlightening and beautifully written biography, I'm in a state of wonderment about this man.  (Thus the title of this blog, with apologies to Saul Bellow.)

The book is The Invention of Nature -- Alexander Von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015; 473 pp.)

Von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian-born explorer and naturalist, a prodigious writer, a close friend of Goethe, friend and advisor to many including Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar, inspirer of Charles Darwin (who took a copy of Humboldt's Personal Narrative with him on the Beagle), Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and many, many others.

As a young man, he undertook a five year, groundbreaking exploration of the Americas from 1799 to 1804 (spending much of that time in Latin America, including a year in Venezuela alone), and in 1829, at age 60, undertook another arduous expedition in Russia and Siberia.

As early as the 1790s, he was documenting the impacts of deforestation and deleterious agricultural practices and speaking plainly of the consequences; namely, climate change. During his lifetime, he encouraged climate studies around the world.  He investigated the interconnectedness of volcanos around the globe, of global weather patterns (inventing isotherms along the way), compared rock strata across the earth, and studied the negative impacts of human activity on the balance of nature.

Andrea Wulf delves into Von Humboldt's life in a lucid and engaging manner, documenting his origins, his development as an individual steeped in both science and the arts, his bold, groundbreaking expeditions, the development of his ideas and their exposition in his many books, his dramatic impact on others and the spreading and further development of his ideas by those who followed.

Wulf notes that his contemporaries described him as "the most famous man in the world after Napoleon," that aside from his numerous books and studies, he wrote on the order of 50,000 letters and received at least double that, and at the same time helped advance the careers and travels of fellow scientists and explorers.

Goethe, Wulf writes, compared Humboldt to a "fountain with many spouts from which streams flow refreshingly and infinitely, so that we only have to place vessels under them."

In 1834, at the age of 65, he began the book he intended to bring together everything he had been studying about nature. The first volume was published in 1845, and he named it Cosmos.  A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, drawing the title from the Greek word for "beauty" and "order."

It became an instant best seller in its original German version, and was translated into ten other languages in the following few years.

"Cosmos," Wulf writes, "was unlike any previous book about nature.  Humboldt took his readers on a journey from outer space to earth, and then from the surface of the planet to its inner core.  He discussed comets, the Milky Way and the solar system as well as terrestrial magnetism, volcanoes and the snow line of mountains."

By the 1850s, his portrait hung "in palaces as remote as that of the King of Siam in Bangkok," and "his birthday was celebrated as far away as Hong Kong."

Wulf describes that John Floyd, the U.S. Secretary of War, "sent Humboldt nine North American maps that showed all of the different towns, counties, mountains and rivers that were named after him," and noted that thought had been given to renaming the Rockies as "Humboldt Andes."

He was mourned around the world upon his death in 1859, and then ten years later, on the centenary of his birth, there were celebrations from Australia to America, including commemorations and parades in many of the major cities of the U.S.

And yes, the Humboldt Current and hundreds of plants and animals are also named after him.  Wulf even documents that the state of Nevada was nearly named after Von Humboldt.  Yet as Wulf describes and then sets out to change, he has been nearly forgotten in the English-speaking world outside of academia.

It's a great read; stimulating, inspiring and a finely told life of a great man.

Strong Headwinds Face Water Quality Trading in the Chesapeake

Posted on August 2, 2018 by Ridgway Hall

The Chesapeake Bay watershed covers 64,000 square miles in parts of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. When the six states and the District asked EPA to establish a multi-state Total Maximum Daily Load under the Clean Water Act in 2010 and assign each state its fair share, they took on the job of reducing discharges of nitrogen from all sources by 25%, phosphorus by 24% and sediment by 10%. The goal is to have all necessary measures in place to achieve this by 2025 to meet applicable water quality standards. With funding at the state and federal levels in short supply, a search was on for the most cost-effective ways to reduce these pollutants.  The states with the biggest burdens, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland, each turned to the emerging practice of water quality trading.

Trading enables a discharger for whom the cost per unit of pollution reduction is lower than for other dischargers to reduce its pollution below what the law requires and sell that extra reduction as a “credit” to another discharger for whom the cost per unit of pollutant reduction is greater.  The result is that the seller makes money from the credit sale, and the buyer attains compliance at a lower cost than it would otherwise incur. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  In October the Government Accounting Office published the results of a nationwide survey in which it found that only 11 states have water quality trading programs, and the only significant use being made was in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut, even though EPA has been promoting it since 1996. (I discussed this in “Water Quality: Wading into Trading” posted Nov. 28, 2017).

To encourage the Bay states to adopt trading programs that will comply with the Clean Water Act and its implementing regulations, EPA published a series of “Technical Memoranda” (TMs) addressing key elements of a trading program including “baseline” (the maximum amount of pollution allowed under any applicable law before a credit can be generated), protecting local water quality where a credit is used, credit calculation, and accounting for uncertainty. This is needed where a nonpoint source, like a farm, is generating credits by installation of best management practices (BMPs) and the pollution reduction benefits must be estimated using modeling. The TMs also address credit duration, certification by the agency, registration and tracking on a publicly posted registry, and verification that the BMPs on which the credits are based are being maintained.  Finally, they address sampling and public participation. (See my blog post of Sept. 26, 2016 “New Tools for Water Quality Trading”).  Credits can also be used to “offset” new or expanded discharges. The TMs are not regulations, but set forth EPA’s “expectations”.

Common Elements

Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland have adopted trading regulations which are intended to be consistent with the TMs.  The principal elements include . . . [CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE]

WOTUS: Legal Issue or Scientific Issue?

Posted on August 1, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, EPA and the Army Corps issued a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in support of their efforts to get rid of the Obama WOTUS rule.  It’s a shrewd but cynical document.  It’s shrewd, because it fairly effectively shifts the focus from the scientific question to the legal question.  Instead of asking what waters must be regulated to ensure that waters of the United States are protected, it asks what are the jurisdictional limits in the Clean Water Act.

It’s cynical, because, by failing to take on the science behind the 2015 rule, which seemed fairly persuasive to me, EPA and the Corps avoid the hard regulations necessary to protect our waters while clothing themselves in feel-good words about the integrity of the statute and the important role given to states under the Clean Water Act.

Part of the beauty of the SNPR is the way it carefully navigates between whether the broader jurisdictional interpretation taken by the 2015 rule is prohibited under the Clean Water Act or simply not required under the Clean Water Act.

The agencies are also concerned that the 2015 Rule lacks sufficient statutory basis. The agencies are proposing to conclude in the alternative that, at a minimum, the interpretation of the statute adopted in the 2015 Rule is not compelled, and a different policy balance can be appropriate.

I’m not sure I agree with the administration’s interpretation of the scope of the CWA, but it’s not crazy.  If I had to bet, I’d assume that it would survive judicial review.

The problem is that this simplistic legal approach ignores the science and ignores the missions of both EPA and the Corps.  If the 2015 rule is more protective of the nation’s waters, and if there are questions about the scope of jurisdiction under the CWA, then shouldn’t the administration be asking Congress to clarify EPA’s and the Corps’ authority so that they can regulate in a manner consistent with what good science says is necessary to protect the waters of the United States?

I’m not holding my breath.

Michèle Ma Belle

Posted on July 19, 2018 by Robert Falk

Michèle B. Corash, one of our giants of environmental law and my dear friend, mentor, and partner retired from active practice earlier this year.  She, her unique persona, and her achievements are well known to many, while Michèle’s other, quieter accomplishments, deeds, and attributes are likely known to only a few.  Because “these are words that go together well,” I will discuss just a small handful of her better and lesser knowns below.

As almost all of you may know, Michèle proudly served as general counsel of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1979 to 1982.  Prior to that she served as deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Energy, and, previously, was a special assistant to the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.  (Since we shared a common initial job description in our federal government careers, in working together for almost three decades, one of Michèle favorite things to say to keep me on my toes was “once a special assistant, always a special assistant.”) 

As general counsel, Michèle, among other things, helped EPA give birth to CERCLA, as well as regulations implementing key provisions of RCRA and many of our other fundamental environmental statutes.  While her participation in the reach of our environmental laws is likely her more significant accomplishment, on the other side of the equation, she also served on then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s Regulatory Reform Task Force, where she helped steer its recommendations to avoid the type of unconscionable approaches that we unfortunately witness all too often being undertaken by the current Administration. 

In her subsequent career in private practice, Michèle was widely recognized as a leader and innovator in environmental law.  She received the highest rating for environmental lawyers from Chambers USA virtually every year, and Legal 500 USA repeatedly ranked Michèle as a Leading Lawyer in Environmental Litigation.   On a wider stage, Michèle was listed in the Expert Guides to the World’s Leading Lawyers – The Best of the Best, and here on the “left” coast, California Lawyer also cited Michèle as one of the “Best of the West.”  (Perhaps of more significance to her personally, is that Michèle’s work was also recognized by The Los Angeles and San Francisco Daily Journal as having the “widest impact and is changing an industry or the law or the society as a whole.”)   

As many of you know, beyond her accomplishments in practice, Michèle was a founding member of the American College of Environmental Law and served as its President in 2008-2009 (culminating in a fabulous and still-remarked upon party in her penthouse condominium with its 360° view of San Francisco).  Prior to that, Michèle served on the ABA’s Standing Committee on Environmental Law and (after assigning me as a junior associate to be her special assistant for organizing it), chaired its International Conference on Environmental Law in Pacific Rim Nations in Hong Kong in 1991. 

Somewhat lesser-knowns about Michèle include her tireless promotion of women and diversity in the legal profession, in the business world more generally, and particularly within our firm.  (In addition to parties for ACOEL and many others, Michèle hosted current and former women attorneys and summer associates at a very well attended annual dinner at her home.)  Michèle also serves as a fabulous mentor to her nieces (who she regularly brought to work on Take Your Daughter to Work Day) and as a godmother to several close friends’ children.  As added evidence of her boundless energy, she has also been a longtime patron of the opera and remains an active member of the Board of the San Francisco Symphony. 

Although I could go on (and on) and tell you, many other things about what a wonderful mentor and friend Michèle has been over the years, instead, I prefer to conclude this serenade with Mr. McCartney’s lyrics:

Michèle, ma belle
These are words that go together well
My Michèle

Michèle, ma belle
Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble
Très bien ensemble

I love you, I love you, I love you . . . .

Fear of Forward Looking Statements: Climate Reporting and the TCFD

Posted on July 18, 2018 by Christopher Davis

Risks relating to climate change are becoming increasingly material to companies in a broad range of sectors, to investors who own their shares, to banks that lend to them, to insurers that insure them, to communities where they operate, and to regional and global economies. Climate-related factors including energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables, extreme weather events and water scarcity are having increasing impacts. As a result, climate-related disclosure has become a hot topic, or should be, as companies are required by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other regulators to disclose their material climate-related risks.

In the wake of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) was created by the G20’s Financial Stability Board in 2016 to develop consistent, voluntary standards for companies, investors and insurers to report climate-related financial risks and opportunities. The task force was chaired by Michael Bloomberg, and comprised of 32 members from major global corporations, financial institutions, corporations, accounting firms, credit rating agencies and other organizations. The TCFD issued a final report presenting its Recommendations [insert link] for such disclosures in June 2017. The Recommendations have been endorsed by more than 250 companies, banks, institutional investors, insurers and other organizations.

The TCFD Recommendations focus on two kinds of financially material climate-related risks: transition (legal/policy, technology, market, reputation) and physical risks. They call for disclosures in four areas: (1) Governance of climate-related risks and opportunities, (2) Strategy for identifying and addressing climate-related impacts, (3)  Risk Management measures to assess and manage relevant risks, and (4) Metrics and Targets including reporting Scope 1, 2 and 3 greenhouse gas emissions and metrics and targets to measure and manage them.

While the TCFD Recommendations have garnered considerable attention and support, notably from institutional investors, relatively few companies have so far committed to report in accordance with the Recommendations. There are various reasons for this, including inertia, cost and advice from inside and outside counsel about the purported liability and competitive risks associated with the kinds of forward-looking statements called for by the Recommendations. Indeed, disclosures consistent with what the TCFD recommends would be much more substantive, revealing and useful than the generic boilerplate disclosures of climate and other environmental risks that commonly appear in SEC filings.

Corporate counsel often provide conservative advice on disclosures in SEC and other mandatory corporate financial reporting. Federal securities laws provide corporate issuers with safe harbors for forward looking statements (typically focused on projections of future financial results) where accompanied by meaningful cautionary statements. Also relevant here is the SEC’s 2010 “Guidance Regarding Disclosure Related to Climate Change,” which highlights mandatory reporting requirements under SEC Regulation S-K for financially material climate-related risks, including the impact of legislation or regulation, international accords, indirect consequences of regulation or business trends, and physical impacts.

While caution and risk aversion are hallmarks of typical legal advice, I would argue that good, thoughtful disclosures consistent with the TCFD Recommendations are likely to have a range of benefits to the disclosing companies, and limited risks. Doing the internal work across disparate corporate functions necessary to address the TCFD Recommendations will improve a company’s understanding and management of evolving climate-related risks and opportunities. Good, meaningful disclosures require homework that underpins good corporate governance, risk management and strategic planning. What gets measured gets managed, and the TCFD Recommendations call on companies to assess and manage climate risks and opportunities, and to report to stakeholders on how they are approaching these issues.

Companies responding in a timely and effective way to the accelerating economic and physical changes brought by climate change can be expected to have a competitive advantage over their peers that fail to do so. Likewise, companies that meaningfully and credibly disclose how they are responding to material climate risks and opportunities, as called for by the TCFD, should enjoy a competitive advantage over their competitors who do not. A range of stakeholders (including current and prospective customers and employees) are likely to respond more favorably to companies that make a good faith effort to comply with evolving best practice disclosure standards. The likelihood of being sued for securities fraud based on such well-grounded climate disclosure seems low. By contrast, the risks of successful claims of non-disclosure and misleading disclosure for companies that fail to meaningfully disclose climate-related risks affecting their business seem quite real, as suggested by the investigations of ExxonMobil’s climate-related disclosures. The market generally rewards leaders that, to paraphrase hockey great Wayne Gretsky, are skating to where the puck is going rather than where it has been, and are early responders to global megatrends like climate change.

ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS IN PENNSYLVANIA

Posted on July 13, 2018 by John Dernbach

One year ago—June 20, 2017—the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on constitutional environmental rights.  The case, Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v. Commonwealth (PEDF), has implications that will take decades to sort out, as subsequent litigation is making clear.  And it may contribute to re-imagining of environmental law.

Almost a half century earlier—May 18, 1971—Pennsylvania voters adopted by a four-to-one margin an amendment to Article I of the state constitution, which is the state’s Declaration of Rights.  Section 27 provides:

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

Because Pennsylvania courts were concerned about its impact on development, and because the first two cases brought under Section 27 had weak facts, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court in 1973 (Payne v. Kassab) articulated a three-part balancing test as a substitute for the text.  The test was easy to apply and, as a 2015 article shows, those seeking to vindicate environmental rights almost never won.  More fundamentally, the test had nothing to do with environmental rights, much less the text of Section 27. The Payne decision evinced the kind of judicial activism—or more precisely, judicial rewriting of the constitution—that the late Justice Antonin Scalia criticized.  But for more than 40 years, it was the law of Pennsylvania.

In PEDF, the petitioner challenged the state’s expenditure of hundreds of million dollars of funds from gas leasing on state forest land.  (Disclosure: I filed an amicus curiae brief in this case.)  PEDF argued that both state forests and the gas under them constituted “public natural resources” under Section 27, and that royalties and other money received from leasing must be spent to “conserve and maintain” those resources, and not used to balance the state’s budget.  A majority of the Supreme Court agreed.  In so doing, the Court held that the text of Section 27 is of primary importance in interpreting the Amendment, specifically setting aside the Payne v. Kassab balancing test.

The revitalization of Section 27 has led to a spate of environmental rights claims in litigation, much of it involving permits for shale gas drilling facilities and gas pipelines.  The Supreme Court appears to be charting a future course on Section 27 with caution.  In Gorsline v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township (June 1, 2018), which was widely anticipated to further develop the law of Section 27, the Court instead decided the case based on the meaning of the township zoning ordinance.

A major outstanding question is what Section 27 means for day-to-day environmental permitting.  The large number of environmental statutes and regulations adopted and strengthened after 1971 provide much of the protection that Section 27 now also provides.  Here, Section 27 is most likely to make a difference when a litigant can demonstrate that the applicable regulatory program contains a significant gap (e.g., cumulative effects).

A broader question is what constitutional environmental rights can mean for environmental regulation as we know it, in which decisions are influenced by, and often based on, consideration of costs and benefits.  In Friends of Lackawanna v. Commonwealth, the Environmental Hearing Board (EHB), which hears appeals from decisions by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said in late 2017 that the people living near a landfill who are adversely affected by odors are not simply part of the costs and benefits calculus in municipal waste management; they have constitutional rights.   If DEP did not do a better job of protecting them, the EHB warned, it would.  And under the radar, I am told, the revitalization of Section 27 has caused some bad project proposals to quietly go away.

Widener University Commonwealth Law School has published a listing of available Section 27 resources with links. A lot is happening, and there is more to come.

CAFO Odors and the Ghost of William Aldred

Posted on July 10, 2018 by Susan Cooke

The number and size of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have increased in recent years.  These operations keep large numbers of animals in a confined space and provide them with feed from offsite sources prior to their slaughter.  While generally viewed as cost efficient, CAFOs raise concerns about animal welfare and about their environmental impacts and effect on the health and quality of life for those living or working nearby.  Such concerns include the foul odors associated with the substantial quantities of animal waste that are generated, especially where such waste is discharged into pits and then flushed into open air lagoons.  The sludge in those lagoons sinks to the bottom and is periodically removed for land application and the liquid waste remaining at the top is sprayed as fertilizer onto adjacent fields.

The anaerobic reaction that occurs during pit and lagoon storage of the waste over an extended time period is the primary generator of such odor, the primary constituents being ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.  Anaerobic digesters and other technologies can be employed to reduce odor generation, with some also producing gases for fuel.  However, the costs of installing and operating such equipment can be substantial, and there are no specific requirements at the federal level mandating odor control or limiting ammonia or hydrogen sulfide emissions from CAFO operations.  Indeed, even the reporting of animal waste air emissions under the federal Superfund law and under EPCRA (as interpreted by EPA) is precluded under the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method (FARM) Act signed into law by Congress in March 2018

While there is little regulation at the federal level, some states have imposed limits on hydrogen sulfide.  For example, California has a one hour average standard and Minnesota has a 30 minute standard for H2S.  In addition, a few states have instituted odor standards covering some CAFOs, including Colorado’s odor standard, which is based on an odor dilution factor, for swine CAFOs above a certain size (i.e., the odor must be eliminated by a specified amount of dilution).  While most local ordinances covering odors enjoin nuisances in general, some have adopted a dilution factor standard that is generally applicable, such as the ordinance adopted in Denver, Colorado and that adopted in South St. Paul, Minnesota.

Even where CAFOs are singled out for specific regulation by state, the dilution factor standard is not often used, probably because it is in essence subjective in nature and thus quite different from most environmental emission standards.  Instead, states have generally adopted a management plan approach coupled with registration and periodic inspections.  For example, the environmental regulations covering odor control at CAFOs in North Carolina, which has a number of swine CAFOs in the southeastern portion of the state, do not include a specific standard covering odor.  Instead, those regulations impose setback requirements and provide for state agency inspections, and they empower that agency to require preparation and modification of a best management plan if it determines that odor control is necessary.

Given the absence of a specific standard for judging CAFO emissions, some neighbors of CAFO operations have brought tort suits for nuisance to address odor concerns.  In one case decided this past April, a jury awarded $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 10 neighbors of a North Carolina hog farm.  The plaintiffs claimed that the truck noise associated with farm operations and the odor associated with lagoon storage of waste from its 4700 hogs and the spraying of lagoon liquid onto nearby fields created a nuisance.

Although the federal court reduced recovery to $3.25 million under punitive damage limits imposed under the North Carolina Right to Farm Law, agribusiness interests raised strong concerns about the damage award and within weeks the North Carolina legislature had passed amendments to the state Right to Farm Law to further restrict tort recovery for alleged nuisances from agricultural and forestry operations.  Although those amendments (in Senate Bill 711) were vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper on June 25, the veto was overridden by both houses before their month-end adjournment.

The amendments, which are similar to statutory language already enacted in Missouri for facilities engaged in crop and animal production, would limit compensation to property located within one half mile of the alleged source of a nuisance at an agricultural or forestry operation.  In addition, the suit would have to be filed within one year of the operation’s establishment or of a fundamental change (which wouldn’t include, among other things, a change in ownership or size) to that operation, with compensatory damages limited to a reduction in fair market value of the plaintiff’s property for a permanent nuisance and to diminution in fair rental value for a temporary nuisance.  While punitive damages are already capped at a specified multiple of compensatory damages, the amendments would limit them to instances where, during the previous three years, the operation had been the subject of a criminal conviction or civil enforcement action or of regulatory action taken by the state or federal government pursuant to a notice of violation.

Such limits on monetary recovery for nuisance may encourage plaintiffs to seek injunctive relief to abate odors from CAFO operations.  And tort suits for nuisance animal odors have a long history, as evidenced by William Aldred’s Case dating back to 1610 where the Court of King’s Bench held that Mr. Aldred, whose house was situated within 30 feet of a later constructed hog sty, had a right to obtain abatement of the foul odor emanating from that hog sty.

In recent years the injunction remedy in a nuisance action has sometimes been disfavored, as illustrated in the Boomer v. Atlantic Cement decision where monetary damages were awarded rather than injunctive relief for operation of a cement plant.  There the court weighed the (lower) cost of compensatory damages versus the (significantly higher) cost associated with installing abatement equipment or requiring plant shutdown.  However, it now appears that determining “entitlements” under an economic efficiency analysis, such as that described in the oft-cited Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, is undergoing more critical academic scrutiny.

Moreover, animal welfare advocates, as well as those concerned about environmental justice or greenhouse gas emissions, and perhaps even property rights advocates, may add their own voices in support of the injunctive remedy option for stopping or curtailing CAFO operations.  If so, then the right of a landowner to quiet (and unscented) enjoyment of his or her property through an injunction, as enunciated by the King’s Bench more than 400 years ago, may prove to be the most effective remedy for those seeking to curtail CAFO odor emissions.

From Nairobi to Havana - the Initiatives of the International Pro Bono Committee

Posted on July 9, 2018 by James Bruen

A real world impact of the ACOEL comes, in part, from its international pro bono initiatives. The International Pro Bono Committee reports here on the status of these initiatives. They are generally driven by the 28 members of this committee. Geographically-oriented initiatives are managed by Committee vice chair David Farer (Cuba), Tracy Hester (India) and Jim Bruen (Africa).

Africa 

ACOEL has executed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to provide legal support to a series of wildlife and other natural resource protection initiatives. By mutual agreement, we have begun our collaboration with work in three of the eight areas of AWF-proposed collaboration. 

Through our standard staffing process (described in the “Reminder…” at the end of this blog), ACOEL Fellows Virginia Robbins and James Bruen have entered into individual pro bono engagement agreements with the AWF. To date, these engagement agreements provide for us (a) to participate in practical “on-the-job” training in Nairobi for prosecutors selected from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa; and (b) to assist AWF in setting up a new cooperative mutual-assistance association between these Prosecutors. Tracy Hester may also participate in a third task of providing advice and training on a new canine wildlife crime detection program.  Ginny Robbins and Jim Bruen may travel to Nairobi for the on-the-job training program as early as the end of July or early August 2018.  This schedule may slip further as it has done repeatedly in the past because of election unrest and scheduling issues controlled by the Kenyan government, but AWF seems ready to go. 

Cuba 

After 2016 and 2017 trips to Cuba, involving meetings with Cuban environmental and other officials involving Eileen Millett, David Farer, Mary Ellen Ternes and me, as well as speeches by David Farer and Mary Ellen Ternes at the prestigious annual scientific and technical forum, ACOEL and the University of Havana are now in the process of executing the College’s standard MOU to open opportunities for Fellows to teach US environmental law and related topics at the law faculty of the University of Havana.  ACOEL is also revising a proposed MOU to open opportunities for collaboration (to be negotiated) between individual Fellows and the Institute of Ecology, a part of CITMA, the Cuban equivalent of the US EPA. 

India

Through the efforts of Tracy Hester, he and I – on behalf of ACOEL -- have begun discussions with retired India Supreme Court Justice (and retired India Green Tribunal Chairperson) Swatanter Kumar to open pro bono opportunities for Fellows to work in India and, eventually, perhaps Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan. The ACOEL Executive Committee has approved our selection of, and proposing MOUs with, qualified and underserved Indian environmental clients.  These discussions are ongoing.

Haiti

Through the efforts of Jimmy May, Tracy Hester and others, ACOEL has traveled to Haiti and completed discussions with Aristide University to allow interested Fellows to provide lectures on US environmental law to university law students.  The committee has not yet finalized arrangements for these lectures or posted these opportunities for review by the Fellows, because continuing civil unrest may compromise the safety of our participating Fellows and because governmental instability has fostered conditions which make the vitality of the rule of law uncertain. 

China

Through the contacts of Robert Percival (and after I joined Bob and his students on a great trip to China), ACOEL entered into a MOU with NRDC/Beijing. With a good number of  Fellows participating, we thereafter implemented a very effective pro bono program in China during 2014 and 2015. In 2016, China established a new law discouraging organizations like ours from conducting pro bono or other NGO work in China. Conditions may have improved just a bit since then. We are in communication with Bob and with Fellow Scott Fulton (who is also President of the Environmental Law Institute), to ascertain whether now is the time to attempt a renewal of our China pro bono work.

Peru

The National Judicial College contacted John Cruden and me last month to ask whether our Fellows would be interested in joining the faculty of a summer 2018 program in Peru to speak about “lessons learned” in the US about the practical enforcement of environmental laws. We reported this inquiry to the our committee and to the College’s Executive Committee and received enthusiastic interest. However, our follow-up communications to the Peruvians, through the National Judicial College, revealed that the judiciary there had run low on funding for the time being. But the Peruvians and the National Judicial College promised to come back to us on this when the initiative revives in the future.

A Reminder of How the We Open Opportunities for Fellows

Our committee actively (a) pursues and identifies qualified international pro bono clients, (b) negotiates standard form Memoranda of Understanding with them, (c) obtains a list of desired pro bono projects from each client, (d) advertises those projects to the ACOEL membership, (e) obtains the curricula vitae of interested Fellows, (f) sends those CVs to the prospective international pro bono client and (g) allows that client to select the Fellow(s) with whom it wants to work. The client and the individual Fellow then enter into individual pro bono engagement agreements. The ACOEL is NOT a party to any of those engagements. The ACOEL is solely a clearinghouse to match underserved clients with interested ACOEL Fellows.  The ACOEL does not practice law or provide legal advice to the international clients. The ACOEL does not contribute funds or provide loans or any other form of financial assistance to international clients. The ACOEL does not monitor the work of its Fellows in undertaking the work agreed to in their individual engagements with the international clients. But the ACOEL is delighted to receive reports of Fellows who have raved about the fun they have had, and the satisfaction they have received, in participating in these “give back” efforts.

Still No Judicial Remedy For Climate Change — Don’t Expect Advocates To Stop Trying

Posted on July 3, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

On June 25th, Judge William Alsup dismissed the public nuisance case brought by the City of Oakland and the State of California against five major oil companies.  The suit sought payment of damages into a fund to be used for necessary adaptation expenditures to deal with sea level rise.  

Why did he dismiss the case?  Simple.  The courts are not the right forum in which to address the problems of climate change.  The more complicated answer?  Because AEP v. Connecticut held that the Clean Air Act displaces federal common law claims for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and because claims with respect to sales by the defendants outside of the United States could not be addressed by a U.S. court without violating the presumption against giving extraterritorial effect to U.S. laws.

Here, plaintiffs seek to impose liability on five companies for their production and sale of fossil fuels worldwide. These claims — through which plaintiffs request billions of dollars to abate the localized effects of an inherently global phenomenon — undoubtedly implicate the interests of countless governments, both foreign and domestic. The challenged conduct is, as far as the complaints allege, lawful in every nation. And, as the United States aptly notes, many foreign governments actively support the very activities targeted by plaintiffs’ claims. Nevertheless, plaintiffs would have a single judge or jury in California impose an abatement fund as a result of such overseas behavior. Because this relief would effectively allow plaintiffs to govern conduct and control energy policy on foreign soil, we must exercise great caution.

This order fully accepts the vast scientific consensus that the combustion of fossil fuels has materially increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which in turn has increased the median temperature of the planet and accelerated sea level rise. But questions of how to appropriately balance these worldwide negatives against the worldwide positives of the energy itself, and of how to allocate the pluses and minuses among the nations of the world, demand the expertise of our environmental agencies, our diplomats, our Executive, and at least the Senate.  Nuisance suits in various United States judicial districts regarding conduct worldwide are far less likely to solve the problem and, indeed, could interfere with reaching a worldwide consensus.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  I’ve always thought that these types of suits are not the way to address climate change.  I’ve recently acknowledged that, if the current administration continues to rely on fake news to formulate its position on climate change, courts at some point might conclude that the exigencies of the situation require them to act.  For now, we haven’t reached that point, and I hope we never do.

The Dutch Government Also Doesn’t Like Citizen Climate Litigation

Posted on July 3, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

As a follow-up to my earlier post about the dismissal of public nuisance claims brought by the City of Oakland and the State of California against five oil majors concerning their contribution to climate change, I note that ClimateWire (subscription required) is reporting that the Dutch government is appealing a court order that would require it to cut carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2030. 

The Dutch case is more similar to the Oregon children’s suit than Oakland litigation, because the Oregon case, like the Dutch case, is against the government, seeking further regulation, rather than against private parties, seeking damages.  All of these cases, though, present some of the same concerns regarding whether courts are the right place to make climate policy, as noted by the Dutch government spokesman, quoted in ClimateWire:

We also believe that renewable energy should be increased and CO2 emissions should be reduced, so this is really about something else: It’s about how the judge has intervened in something that’s [called] democracy, and actually democracy has been sidelined.

It would be nice if democracy could show a greater capacity for addressing climate change, but I still agree that sidelining democracy is rarely a good thing.  Of course, there are good scientific reasons why democracies don’t do so well at dealing with climate change.  Appeals to the courts may be unavoidable.

Florida Gets A “Do-Over”

Posted on July 2, 2018 by Karen Crawford

Florida v. Georgia, 585 U.S. ____ (2018), Slip Opinion No. 142, June 27, 2018

On June 27, in a 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS or the Court) rejected the Special Master’s conclusion that the Court could provide no relief to Florida for its claims of harm from Georgia’s upstream water usage from the Flint River, ultimately affecting downstream flow in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, a basin affected by operations of a dam and lake by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps).  SCOTUS reserved judgement on the ultimate outcome of the case, and sent the case back to the Special Master for further consideration with specific direction as to the additional factual findings it considered necessary to decide this case.

Citing several historical decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in equitable apportionment disputes over water rights between neighboring states, the Court characterizes the following guiding principles to be used in deciding such cases:

1.    The states possess an equal right to make a reasonable use of the waters in question.

2.    When confronted with competing claims to interstate water, the Court’s effort is to secure equitable apportionment, without quibbling over formulas.

3.    Given sovereign status and equal dignity, a complaining state’s burden is much greater than the burden ordinarily shouldered by a private party seeking an injunction, requiring a demonstration by “a clear and convincing evidence” that it has suffered a “threatened invasion of rights” that is “of serious magnitude.”

Once the Court finds the complaining State has met this burden, the Court must determine whether the State has shown it has not only some “technical right,” but a right with a “corresponding benefit” as a precondition to any equitable apportionment.  If so, then the Court will seek to arrive at a  just and equitable apportionment of an interstate stream, by considering all relevant factors, because equitable apportionment is flexible and should weigh all relevant factors by examining extensive and specific factual findings to properly apply the doctrine of equitable apportionment.  To do this, the Court has observed it must consider physical and climatic conditions, the consumptive uses in the several sections of the rivers at issue, the character of return flows, the extent of established uses, the availability of storage water/capacity, the practical effect of wasteful uses on downstream area, and the benefit to downstream areas against the damage to upstream areas if a limitation is imposed. 

In this case, however, the Court stated the Master instead made several assumptions regarding what should be key findings of fact, including that 1) Florida has suffered harm from decreased water flow into the subject basin, 2) Florida had shown that Georgia has taken too much water, and 3) inequitable use by Georgia had caused injury to Florida.  These assumptions were found by the Court to stop short of providing the necessary findings of fact required to decide the case.  As a result, all Parties agreed that the recommendation of the Special Master turned on one single, discrete issue --whether Florida has shown that a cap on Georgia’s consumption would address its injury if the decree did not bind the Corps as well.

The Court determined that the Master’s conclusion that Florida failed to meet its burden because it did not present “clear and convincing evidence” that its injuries could be redressed by a decree capping Georgia’s upstream water consumption if that decree does not also bind the Corps, was too strict a standard to apply to redressability at this point in the case.  The Court determined that the Special Master had not defined the approximate amount of water that must flow into the Apalachicola River in order for Florida to receive a significant benefit from a cap on Georgia’s use of the Flint River waters, and that unless and until that necessary fact was established, Florida needed only to show that, applying the principles of “flexibility” and “approximation”, it is likely to prove it is possible for the Court to fashion such a decree. 

The Court determined that further findings are needed on all of the evidentiary issues underlying the Master’s assumptions before the Master’s conclusion that Florida failed to meet its initial burden of demonstrating that the Court can eventually fashion an effective equitable decree could be reached and supported.  The Court stated that “to require “clear and convincing evidence” about the workability of a decree before the Court or a Special Master has a view about likely harms and likely amelioration is, at least in this case, to put the cart before the horse.”  The Court addressed here only that Florida had made a legally sufficient showing as to the possibility of fashioning an effective remedial decree, thereby meeting its burden.

The lengthy dissent ultimately agreed with the Special Master’s conclusion that the Corps would not change its operations during droughts if the Court capped Georgia’s water use, and thus Florida would not benefit during droughts.  Further, the dissent argued there was no need to remand the case for further findings by the Special Master as the evidentiary findings ultimately rest with the Court.  But the majority opinion discusses the differences of view as to interpretation of the facts related to estimated water flows, further emphasizing the complex nature of these cases.  The dissent suggests that giving Florida another bite at the apple was unlikely to produce additional evidence to affect the outcome and would be unfair to Georgia.  Ultimately, the dissent appears to agree that the Master’s ordinary balance-of-harms analysis was sufficient, and he applied that test. 

Also, this blogger found the majority’s “Chevron-like” discussion of the deference that should be given to the Special Master’s findings interesting but a bit disturbing in that the Court cited a precedent that those findings “deserve respect and a tacit presumption of correctness.”   The Court’s division over today’s decision turned on both the correctness of the findings by the Special Master and whether he had correctly applied the applicable precedents to sufficient findings.  A clear disagreement is articulated by the majority and dissenting opinions surrounding the factual evidence related to whether the amount of water that would flow to Florida during drought conditions would ultimately be increased by a cap on Georgia’s water use from the Flint River.  The answer to this question turns on the behavior of the Corps in both storing the resulting additional water, then releasing that additional stored water from Lake Seminole during drought conditions.

Interestingly, in addressing Florida’s exceptions to the Master’s evidentiary determinations, the Court discussed the consequences of the United States’ declining to waive sovereign immunity from suit in this case at its outset.  An early motion by Georgia to dismiss Florida’s complaint on the grounds that the United States was a necessary party was denied as the Special Master concluded at that time that a decree binding the Corps might not prove necessary.  Ultimately, however, the Report of the Special Master was based on the conclusion that a decree binding the Corps was necessary to redress the injury to Florida.  The Court’s analysis of the evidence indicated that, since the cap on Georgia’s consumption was upstream of the Corps-operated dam and lake, the cap could effectively result in more water storage and more water that could be released to the Apalachicola River reaching Florida in both non-drought and drought conditions.  It also disagreed with the Master’s conclusion that effective relief was rendered impermissibly “uncertain” given the Corps’ revised Master Manual and its documented commitment that it will “work to accommodate any determinations or obligations the Court sets forth if a final decree equitably apportioning the basin’s waters proves justified in this case” and take such a decree into consideration in appropriate operational adjustments to the Master Manual, if applicable. 

Again, the Supreme Court stressed that Florida will ultimately be entitled to a decree only if it is shown that “the benefits of the [apportionment] substantially outweigh the harm that might result.”

For those keeping score on certain of these issues and looking for clues as to “life after Kennedy”, Justice Breyer penned the majority opinion, joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Sotomayor.  Justice Thomas wrote the dissent, joined by Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch.

“To Count or Not to Count, That is the Question”

Posted on June 28, 2018 by Jeff Civins

“To count or not to count”--greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions--was a question facing both the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) and the US Forest Service (“USFS”), in deciding whether to lease 13 parcels of federal mineral estate in Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico for oil and gas production, and the federal district court in New Mexico, on an appeal of those agencies’ joint determination to lease those parcels.  The appeal, filed by plaintiff citizen groups, in San Juan Citizens Alliance v. United States Bureau of Land Management, No. 16-cv-376-MCA-JHR, D. NM (June 14, 2018), asserted a number of violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) based on, among other things, the agencies’ alleged failure to take a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas leasing.  The GHG emissions in question related to those that would result not from the production of oil and gas from the leases, but rather from the consumption of that production--and the resulting climate change impacts of those emissions.  The court answered yes to the question of whether to count those emissions, but its determination raised another question--what difference would or should counting those GHG emissions make.

Operating under a memorandum of understanding, the USFS and BLM jointly manage oil and gas leasing on federal forest land, with the USFS regulating the surface and the BLM, the subsurface.  The USFS identifies specific lands to be offered for lease; the BLM provides a reasonably foreseeable development scenario.  If the UFS consents to leasing, it may include conditions; BLM may then issue competitive leases.  The leases here were issued after protracted administrative proceedings, which included the USFS’s preparation of an environmental impact statement and supplement that supported the permitting of oil and gas leasing and which culminated in the BLM’s issuance of a Decision Record and Environmental Assessment approving the parcels for lease, which “tiered to” the USFS environmental studies.

Plaintiffs argued that the agencies “failed to take a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas leasing” before making an irretrievable commitment of resources.  Regulations of the Council on Environmental Quality, at 40 CFR Part 1500, define the pertinent terms.

Direct effects” are “caused by the action and occur at the same time and place” while “indirect effects” are effects that “are caused by the action and are later in time or farther removed in distance, but are still reasonably foreseeable.” A “cumulative impact,” on the other hand, is an “impact on the environment [that] results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency … or person undertakes such other actions.” “Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time.” 

BLM’s Decision Record explained that the agency was evaluating only GHG emissions associated with exploration and production of oil and gas (estimated to be 0.0018% of the US’s total GHG emissions), because the environmental impacts of GHG emissions from consumption of that oil and gas, e.g., refining and consumer-vehicle combustion, were not direct effects and neither were they indirect effects because production was not a proximate cause of GHG emissions resulting from consumption.  BLM argued, however, that emissions from consumption were accounted for in the cumulative effects analysis. 

The Decision Record explained:

The very small increase in [GHG] emissions that could result from approval of the action alternatives would not produce climate change impacts that differ from the No Action Alternative. This is because climate change is a global process that is impacted by the sum total of [GHG] emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere. The incremental contribution to global [GHG] from the proposed action cannot be translated into effects on climate change globally or in the area of this site-specific action. It is currently not feasible to predict with certainty the net impacts from the proposed action on global or regional climate.

The Air Resources Technical Report discusses the relationship of past, present and future predicted emissions to climate change and the limitations in predicting local and regional impacts related to emissions. It is currently not feasible to know with certainty the net impacts from particular emissions associated with activities on public lands.

The Air Resources Technical Report noted that the BLM did not have the ability to associate an action’s contribution in a localized area to impacts on global climate change,” but may do so in the future when “climate models improve in their sensitivity and predictive capacity.” 

In its review of the agencies’ record, the court noted “neither the Record Decision nor its tiered or incorporated documents estimate the potential greenhouse gas emissions from consumption of the oil and gas produced by wells developed on the leases, nor do they discuss the potential impacts of such emissions. “  The court concluded that the failure to estimate the amount of GHG emissions resulting from consumption of the oil and gas produced as a result of development of wells on the leased areas was arbitrary and required that BLM reanalyze the potential impact of such greenhouse gases on climate change in light of the recalculated amount of emissions in order to comply with NEPA.

For that reason, the court remanded the case to the BLM to address this error and to consider whether, based on that reanalysis, its mitigation analysis needed to be revised as well.  The court reasoned that GHG emissions from the consumption of oil and gas were an indirect effect that BLM should have considered, citing Sierra Club v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm’n, 867 F.3d 1357, 1374 (D.C. Cir. 2017), and found that BLM also did not adequately consider the cumulative effects of those emissions, together with other emissions.

The question raised by this case, and Sierra Club v. FERC, which the court cites, is how helpful the analysis of indirect and cumulative effects will be to the agency in its decision-making and could or should that analysis result in the selection of a different alternative or in requirements to mitigate. As a practical matter, given the global nature of the concern posed by GHG emissions and the relatively small contribution of the activity under review, is there an expectation that an agency will make meaningful changes in its decision-making as a result of any required reanalysis? So perhaps the question should be not whether to count or not to count, but rather, “What difference would or should counting make?”And, perhaps an even more salient question is, as a policy matter, should concerns posed by GHG emissions be better addressed through legislation and rulemaking rather than by imposing constraints on an ad hoc basis?

AND NOW FOR SOME GOOD NEWS

Posted on June 27, 2018 by Leslie Carothers

ACOEL blog readers sorry to see the U.S. retreat from international leadership on the environment may be encouraged to learn that, on the other side of the world, the government of China is determined to copy some signature U.S. strategies to accelerate pollution control in their country.  Specifically, the National People’s Congress enacted comprehensive revisions to its Environmental Protection Law in 2015, including provisions to increase public reporting of pollution releases to accompany many existing regulatory laws. The revisions, along with other recent legislation, also empowered public interest plaintiffs from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) registered with the government, as well as prosecutors to engage in aggressive public interest litigation, to enforce anti-pollution and clean up requirements.

Many countries have strong environmental laws, but most struggle to build and maintain effective programs to implement and enforce them.  For many years, China has stressed the overriding importance of economic and employment growth.  Provincial governments with major responsibility for enforcement have been measured on economic indicators and not by success in abating pollution.  But the growing level of public protest over worsening pollution and waste disposal practices has compelled the national government to add environmental performance to the priorities of provincial and local governments and to experiment with new legal tools to improve it.

The Environmental Law Institute is playing an important role with a Chinese partner, the China Environmental Protection Foundation (CEPF), in providing training to environmental lawyers and others from NGOs, as well as prosecutors and judges, to help educate them on the new Chinese laws and to share the U.S. experience with public interest litigation and statutory citizen suit provisions in environmental cases.  The impact of NGO and other citizen plaintiffs on implementing U.S. environmental law has been immense.  During the 1970s and 1980s, suits against companies where government had not acted against permit violations and suits against government for failure to meet statutory deadlines for other requirements channeled strong public pressure and achieved significant results. The most notable recent example is the petition by environmental NGOs, renewable energy firms, and states to require the U.S. EPA to make a finding that motor vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases could be “reasonably anticipated to endanger public health and welfare” under Title II of the Clean Air Act.   This lawsuit produced the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), requiring EPA to make a finding whether or not an endangerment was presented.  The evidence, most people would agree, supported only one answer. The endangerment finding was made, upheld by the D.C. Circuit, Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc. v. EPA, 684 F. 3d 102 (D.C. Cir. 2012), and left standing by the Supreme Court, which declined to review the finding.

The five workshops on public interest lawsuits organized by Tianjin University Law School, CEPF, and ELI have each assembled around 50 NGO staff, prosecutors, judges and other lawyers for three days of teaching on Chinese law by Chinese experts and officials and one day by ELI lawyers, including volunteers like me, and ELI’s Chinese- and U.S.-trained lawyer, Zhuoshi Liu, who also coordinates the planning.  Language challenges notwithstanding, I can attest that the Chinese participants show keen interest in the presentations and ask many thoughtful questions of the speakers.  It is too soon to know whether this new initiative to take more problems to court will succeed. Certainly, the Chinese plaintiffs do not yet have the body of public reports disclosing violations that made U.S. cases easier to develop, and they and China’s well-educated judges need greater access to scientific and technical support to find violations and order appropriate relief.  The NGOs could also use the help of private law firm lawyers in China willing to undertake cases pro bono as some do in the U.S.  In any case, it is exciting and encouraging to be able to work with dedicated Chinese lawyers and other professionals in the early stages of a serious drive in China to rank environmental protection much higher on the nation’s agenda and to gain clearer skies and cleaner land and water for its people.

DAVID AND GOLIATH AT THE CONOWINGO DAM

Posted on June 26, 2018 by Ridgway Hall

Exelon owns and operates the Conowingo Dam across the Susquehanna River in Maryland just below the Pennsylvania border, including a 573 megawatt hydroelectric power plant. It is seeking a renewal of its operating license from FERC under the Federal Power Act for 50 years. Section 401 of the Clean Water Act requires that any applicant for a federal license that may result in a discharge submit a certification by the state where the discharge will occur that the discharge “will comply with the applicable provisions” of the CWA, including water quality standards. The certification may include conditions and requirements, including monitoring and reporting, deemed necessary to ensure compliance. The certification becomes part of the federal license, and the licensing agency may not change it.

The facts in this case are unusual, and the outcome will likely be precedential. For decades, sediment has flowed down the 450 miles of the Susquehanna River from New York and Pennsylvania and accumulated in the reservoir behind the dam, trapping nitrogen, phosphorus, metals, PCBs and other pollutants along with the sediment,  Now the trapping capacity has been reached. Several times in recent decades severe storms have scoured out tons of this sediment and carried it over the dam and into the Chesapeake Bay 10 miles downstream, causing not just violation of water quality standards, but severe damage to oysters, bay grasses and benthic organisms.  In addition, the dam has blocked historic fish passage. Measures such as fish ladders and transportation have produced only modest relief. Since 2010 the entire Chesapeake Bay and its tributary system has been subject to a multi-state total maximum daily load (TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, but at the time that was set, it was not anticipated that the Conowingo trapping capacity would be exhausted this soon.

On April 27, 2018, the Maryland Department of the Environment issued a CWA certification in which it determined that numerous conditions must be complied with by Exelon in order to reasonably ensure compliance with water quality standards. It requires, among other things, measures to ensure compliance with standards for dissolved oxygen (DO), chlorophyll-A (an indicator of algae), turbidity, temperature, pH and bacteriological criteria in the reservoir and downstream waters including the Bay, plus compliance with plans to protect various fish species, waterfowl and habitat. It also requires shoreline protection, removal of trash from the reservoir and a variety of monitoring programs.

Notably, to satisfy the DO standards, which are adversely affected by nutrients and are critical to aquatic life, MDE requires that starting in 2025 Exelon must annually reduce the amount of nitrogen in its discharges by 6 million pounds, and phosphorus by 260,000 pounds. Exelon can also satisfy this requirement by installing best management practices elsewhere upstream or paying $17 per pound of nitrogen and $270 per pound of phosphorus for any amounts not removed.

Exelon promptly filed a request for reconsideration and administrative appeal with MDE. It also filed a complaint in Maryland state court seeking a declaration that the certification could not be considered “final action” until proceedings before MDE were concluded, including Exelon’s right to an evidentiary hearing; an injunction against any consideration of the certification by FERC, and, alternatively, for judicial review. Exelon also filed suit in the U.S District Court in Washington, D.C., claiming that MDE’s certification exceeded its CWA authority and constituted an unconstitutional taking of its property, and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.  See Exelon’s filings at here.

Among Exelon’s complaints is the fact that the certification would require it to spend vast sums to remove pollutants that did not come from its operations, but from upstream polluters. The fee equivalent of the nitrogen and phosphorus removals would amount to $172 million per year – far more than Exelon earns from the operation of Conowingo. An environmental impact statement had concluded that efforts to remove the sediment from behind the dam “would be cost-prohibitive and ineffective.” Releases from the dam, Exelon contends, are not “discharges” but “pass-through.” Exelon also argues that fish passage damage was caused decades ago and it would be unfair to make Exelon bear the full cost of restoring it.

Some environmental groups have joined the administrative appeal process.  Stewards of the Lower Susquehanna and Waterkeepers Chesapeake (a group of 18 Waterkeeper organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed) appealed to MDE asking that protection against scouring by big storms be strengthened and that likely effects from climate change be considered, but otherwise supporting the certification. The Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, both with longstanding interests in water quality and restoration of the fisheries and fish passage, have also been actively involved.

The stakes are high. MDE, “David” in my title, has taken some bold measures to address some enormous problems, and Exelon is fighting back hard. However it comes out, the resolution will have precedential value for other CWA 401 cases across the country, and particularly for hydroelectric projects.

HOW WILL WE COPE WHEN DAY ZERO ARRIVES IN A U.S. CITY?

Posted on June 21, 2018 by Eileen Millett

While those of us here in the northeast have been wringing out soggy clothing, using umbrellas as an essential feature of our wardrobes, praying for sun, and genuinely wondering if the long hot days of summer will ever truly be with us, residents of Cape Town, South Africa are experiencing the opposite dilemma.  Although recently the situation began to improve, Cape Town is suffering through one of the longest and driest spells in its history, and could be the first major city to run out of water.   They could come face to face with Day Zero when no water comes from the taps.

Cape Town, named one of the world’s best places to visit by the New York Times and Britain’s Daily Telegraph, is Africa’s third main economic hub, and until the gold rush development of Johannesburg, was the largest city in South Africa. It is alive with multi-million dollar beach front homes, art museums and two of the world’s top 50 restaurants.  The city could now have another distinction.  Despite reducing its water use to half, announcing three new desalination plants, and residents taking 90-second showers, it will take years to normalize  the extended drought its residents have suffered through.   Cape Town is suffering from a three-year drought the likes of which haven’t been seen in a century, as the city has become warmer and drier.

We take water’s existence for granted.  When we turn on the tap, it better be there, and it better be drinkable.  Water quality and less water quantity have been front and center in deliberations about water management.   Flint, Michigan brought us to the battle zone at the mouth of the Flint River, and demonstrated the ramifications head-on of high levels of lead in drinking water.  Lack of proper treatment, exposure and yes, environmental justice issues were at the fore.  Obviously, we care about what is in our drinking water, but we don’t give much thought to whether or how much water is readily available.  Little has prepared us for the day when the amount of water flowing from our faucets will be limited to a few hours a day, if even we have access to water at all. 

Not so the case in Cape Town, South Africa, a coastal paradise, responsible for 10% of Africa’s GDP, where residents have been living with the ramifications of severely limited supplies of water, and where this thriving metropolis of 4 million is poised to become the first major city in the world to completely run dry.   They have little choice but to prepare and to live with the crisis.  Can we afford to dismiss Cape Town as an outlier or should we be preparing for a Day Zero closer to home?

Population growth and urbanization, combined with drought, a natural climate phenomenon or a feature of climate change, depending on your point of view, has pushed Cape Town to a 2019 Day Zero countdown clock, but has not resulted in its being able to avoid Day Zero entirely — a day when the doomsday scenario occurs and the taps run dry.  Earlier this year, Day Zero had been predicted to fall on May 11, 2018, the day when taps in all homes and businesses would be turned off, and when Cape Town’s 4 million residents would have had to line up for water rations.  Cape Town residents are now forced to subsist on 13 gallons of water a day.  Exceeding the daily water limit results in fines.  Residents and tourists alike are implored to recognize the water crisis and to conserve.  This means taking extreme measures on a daily basis, like taking 90-second showers, drinking a half gallon of water, utilizing only one sinkful to hand wash dishes or laundry, having water for one cooked meal, two hand washings, two teeth brushings and one toilet flush.   The 13-gallon limit is less than the minimum U.N. daily recommendation for domestic needs.

Tragically, Cape Town’s looming problem might have been avoided if only there had been better planning, better crisis management and no drought.  To be fair, Cape Town did undertake a program to fix old and leaky pipes, to install meters and to adjust tariffs.  The city did not, however, look for new water sources.  Cape Town depends on water from six dams that are rainfall dependent, and now stand at just over 25% of capacity.  Depending on these dams as a limited source has been exacerbated by the city’s population growth swelling by upwards of 30% in the last decade, with most of that growth in the city’s poorer areas that actually consume less water.  And therein lies one of the realities of South Africa’s sad apartheid legacy — extraordinary inequality and concentrated wealth and privilege.  Folks in the more affluent area of the city can access privately maintained water tanks and pools for their water needs.  Pools provide a built in bathing option and an emergency water supply.

With only about half of the residents reaching the 13 gallon a day target, most consider a shut-off inevitable.  It is not a question of if, but how the city will make water accessible and prevent anarchy.  In poorer parts of the city, people share communal taps and carry water buckets to their homes.  With the clock ticking, Capetonians are sharing water-saving tips — don’t boil food, bake it or grill it; use paper plates; order pizza and eat it from the box; use water collected from showing to wash clothes, use grey water to flush toilets, and more.

Recent rainfall in Cape Town will help to normalize the situation, but the city has not averted the crisis.  Closer to home the condition of the Rio Grande in New Mexico reflects a broader trend in the west, where greenhouse gas emissions have made wet years less wet and dry years even drier.   So although conservancy districts store water in reservoirs, once that water is drained, if there are no summer rains, farmers will face an uncertain future.  Despite the northeast’s rainy spring and general good fortune with water reserves, there are lessons to be learned from our neighbors to the west, and very far south on a different continent.

Places

Posted on June 20, 2018 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

On vacation on Sanibel Island, FL, three hour’s drive from the central Florida town I grew up in, I’m thinking about place.  When I vacationed here as a child, Sanibel was a sleepy island, with primitive bungalows for tourists, insatiable hordes of mosquitoes, mephitic drinking water, and glorious shell beaches, refreshed daily by the tides. Like most of Florida’s West Coast, Sanibel has undergone a sea change since then, transformed into a high-end resort community with luxury accommodations and expensive homes – and, yes, points of public access to the beach. There’re fewer good shells, because so many more people are hunting them.

A visitor from the early days might say the island had been spoiled, but in fact people who cared about Sanibel and its sister island, Captiva, worked to protect it even as it morphed under intense development pressure. The local land trust, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), begun in 1967 with the first flush of the modern environmental movement, is the largest private landowner on the islands and manages over 1200 acres of conservation lands on Sanibel and another 600 on Captiva. That’s in addition to the conservation lands managed by the State of Florida and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which include the 6400-acre J. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1945, through the efforts of J.N. “Ding” Darling, a Pulitzer-prize winning political cartoonist and conservationist who kept a winter home on Captiva, the refuge protects a part of “the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States” and “spectacular migratory bird populations.”

We all live in places, vacation in places; we care about them –their people and their nature. There are over 1300 active land trusts in the United States, most of them local or regional. These organizations protect and manage over 56 million conservation acres largely though private donations.  Local governments protect additional land through easement acquisition programs, open space zoning, and protections for ecologically sensitive areas. These actions go on largely under the radar of the divisive politics that infects national environmental and natural resource policy. There are still conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats in these local settings, but they are joined by a common interest in their place – the qualities that make that place worth living in for everyone.  This common commitment is more elusive at larger geographic scales, where red and blue segregate along lines of rural/urban, coast and heartland.

The power of place to mobilize action to protect and defend is no panacea for environmental ills. Rootedness in place can cause people to overlook the larger consequences of their actions, as in NIMBY cases. It also may fail to be an effective motivator for addressing issues at larger scales, such as climate change. But there’s evidence that politically diverse communities that are seeing the effects of global change, such as cities and counties in Southern Florida, are moving toward meaningful climate change policies – with both adaptation and mitigation components. A common threat to “home” might help lift even climate change into the realm of common commitment.

Big Tribal Victory in Culvert Case, Big Implications for Taxpayers

Posted on June 13, 2018 by Rick Glick

On June 11, the Supreme Court issued a one-sentence order affirming the Ninth Circuit’s 2016 judgment in United States v. State of Washington. In that case, the government sued Washington on behalf of several Indian tribes, asserting that culverts constructed by the state over decades blocked salmon runs for which the tribes held treaty fishing rights. The Court of Appeals ordered Washington to repair or replace the offending culverts. The Supreme Court split 4-4, with Justice Kennedy recusing himself, which allows the Ninth Circuit ruling to stand.

The ruling is a major victory for Indian treaty rights. The historical tradeoff for acceding to white settlement throughout the West was preservation of hunting and fishing rights dating from time immemorial. These rights were to ensure tribal sustenance and to preserve religious and cultural practices. The Court of Appeals held that inherent in fishing rights is a duty to maintain viable salmon habitat and migration corridors.

The justice for the tribes in the outcome cannot be denied. However, compliance with the ruling carries an enormous price tag, in the many billions of dollars. Further, culverts aren’t the only sources of degradation of salmon habitat. Settlement of the West entailed construction of hundreds of dams and other stream obstructions. More than a century of agriculture, mining and industrial activities have denuded riparian zones, straightened meandering streams, filled spawning gravels with sediments, and added nutrients and other pollutants to waterways. Most, if not all, streams listed by Western states as water quality impaired under Clean Water Act section 303(d), are on the list for temperature, suspended solids, dissolved oxygen and other pollutants related to development.

A great deal of litigation and regulatory activity is ongoing to address these concerns, but does the U.S. v. Washington case add the potential for accelerated court mandated corrections? How will state and local government budgets cope with aggressive timelines for compliance? Will the Administration and Congress step up to help?

The latter question raises justice issues of its own. Washington argued that the culverts it installed were in accordance with federal designs. In a statement, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said, "It is unfortunate that Washington state taxpayers will be shouldering all the responsibility for the federal government's faulty culvert design."

Interestingly, other Washington State officials do not appear to share AG Ferguson’s sense of outrage. As reported in the New York Times, Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz did not support petitioning the Supreme Court for review: "For some time now I've hoped that instead of litigation we could focus together on our ongoing work to restore salmon habitat," Inslee said. Franz added, "It is time to stop fighting over who should do what." And indeed, the state has been actively working on the culverts.

The courts were not moved by Ferguson’s argument that the federal government is to blame for bad culvert design. Still, it does seem that the issue of salmon habitat restoration is not for Washington State to resolve by itself, but is a national problem resulting in significant part from national policies, and thus requires a national solution.

EPA Must Produce Any Agency Records Supporting Administrator Pruitt’s Statement that Human Activity Is Not the Largest Contributor to Climate Change

Posted on June 8, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last Friday, EPA was ordered to produce documents, in response to a FOIA request, on which Administrator Pruitt relied in stating on CNBC that: “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” and “there’s a tremendous disagreement about of [sic] the impact” of “human activity on the climate.”

I’ve done a fair number of FOIA requests in my time.  The request here was about as plain and simple – and clear – as it is possible to be.  The extent to which the government contorted the request in order to make it seem impossible to answer did not sit well with the Court.  Here’s the request as modified by the plaintiffs.  They sought:

(1) agency records that Administrator Pruitt relied upon to support his statements in his CNBC interview,” and “(2) any EPA documents, studies, reports, or guidance material that support the conclusion that human activity is not the largest factor driving global climate change.

EPA objected to the request in part on the basis that it was an improper interrogatory that required the EPA to take a position on the climate change debate.  To which the Court stated that “this hyperbolic objection strays far afield from the actual text of both parts of the FOIA request.”

EPA also argued that the request was vague, asking “how is one to even know precisely what documents one relies on forming one’s beliefs.”  Yikes.  And what is the definition of “is,” Mr. Administrator?

I loved the Court’s response.

Particularly troubling is the apparent premise of this agency challenge to the FOIA request, namely: that the evidentiary basis for a policy or factual statement by an agency head, including about the scientific factors contributing to climate change, is inherently unknowable. Such a premise runs directly counter to “an axiom of administrative law that an agency’s explanation of the basis for its decision must include ‘a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.  EPA’s strained attempt to raise an epistemological smokescreen will not work here to evade its obligations under the FOIA.”

Epistemological smokescreen.  Humph.

Nor was the Court done.  Responding to EPA’s objection to having to take a position on climate change, the Court trenchantly noted that:

EPA’s apparent concern about taking a position on climate change is puzzling since EPA has already taken a public position on the causes of climate change.

The bottom line?  EPA must complete a search for responsive documents by July 2, 2018, promptly disclose responsive documents, and explain any withholding by July 11, 2018.

This is not the first case under this Administration where I’ve thought how blessed I am that I’m not at DOJ and in the position of having to defend the indefensible from EPA.

Ending Secret Science or Censoring Science?

Posted on June 7, 2018 by Chester Babst

On April 30, 2018, EPA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking entitled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” Although EPA’s stated intent is to increase transparency and public confidence in the Agency’s regulations, a number of its critics have described the proposed rule as “exquisitely opaque,” “vague,” and “lacking data transparency.” Even supporters of the proposed rule seem to recognize that it may need some work before it is issued in final form.

Critics of the proposed rulemaking argue that some scientific studies cannot be released publicly because they may include personal health information and identifiers or they may involve trade secrets.  Proponents of the proposed rulemaking note that the proposed rule allows EPA to make studies available in a manner that protects privacy and confidential business information. However, it does not provide how this would be accomplished. If personal identifiers could be redacted from studies examining health effects, who would perform this data removal and who would pay for the costs associated with this removal? Proponents also note that the proposed rulemaking would give the Administrator the power to grant exemptions to these disclosure requirements if the Administrator deems it impractical or not feasible to release the research in a manner that protects privacy and other private interests, but critics are concerned that the proposed rule does not provide what factors would govern this type of discretionary exemption.

Although the concept that environmental regulations should rely on data, information and methods that are publicly available and sufficiently transparent to meet a “standard of reproducibility” is laudable, the initial reactions to the proposed rule suggest that finding a path to that end will not be easy.

Regulation of Groundwater under the Clean Water Act

Posted on June 4, 2018 by William Brownell

In the early 1980s, the State of Michigan filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the United States alleging that chemicals from a federal facility located near Lake Michigan could “enter the groundwaters under the … area” occupied by the facility and then “be discharged [through that groundwater] into Grand Traverse Bay.” The Department of Justice told the Court that “these claims are not allowed under the Clean Water Act since the Act does not regulate pollutant discharges onto soil or into underlying groundwater,” and the suit was eventually dismissed.  According to the United States, “[t]he statutory language, the legislative history, the case law, and EPA’s interpretation of the Act all support this conclusion.” 

Thirty years later, in 2016, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the County of Maui, alleging that the County was violating the Clean Water Act by disposing of treated waste water through underground injection wells into groundwater that was hydrologically connected to the Pacific Ocean.  According to a Department of Justice amicus brief, this claim was allowed under the Clean Water Act because a discharge “that moves through groundwater with a direct hydrological connection [to surface water] comes under the purview of the CWA’s [NPDES] permitting requirements.”   

Which is right:  the 1985 government or the 2016 government?  Not surprisingly, both sides assert that they offer the government’s “longstanding” position.  For example, those concluding that releases to hydrologically connected groundwater are not subject to the Clean Water Act’s NPDES permit program point to (among other statements) an Office of General Counsel memorandum from 1973 that “the term ‘discharge of a pollutant’ is defined so as to include only discharges into navigable waters…. “[d]ischarges into ground waters are not included”; to EPA’s assertion in 2004 that NPDES “regulations apply to … [e]xisting facilities that discharge directly to surface waters”; and to EPA’s statement in 2017 that “discharges to groundwater are not regulated by the NPDES permit program.”  

Proponents of regulating releases to groundwater under the NPDES program rely principally on statements made in the preamble to a 2001 proposed rule for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and on the amicus brief filed in 2016 by the Department of Justice in the County of Maui case.

This “hydrological connection” theory of Clean Water Act groundwater regulation is now pending before the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits, and the period for certiorari is running in the Ninth. Clearly, the Clean Water Act cannot mean two opposite things at the same time.  Which Department of Justice is right?  

EPA recently issued a Federal Register notice asking the public to weigh in on the confusion created by its prior statements.  Perhaps instead of debating who said what when, what is needed is a dispassionate return to the statutory language.  As the Supreme Court said unanimously in 2004 in South Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, the Clean Water Act “defines the phrase ‘discharge of a pollutant’ to mean ‘any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source,’” and in turn defines a “point source” as a “‘discernible, confined and discrete conveyance’ … ‘from which pollutants are or may be discharged.’” The Court explained this “definition makes plain” that “a point source need not be the original source of the pollutant,” but “it need[s] [to] … convey the pollutant to ‘navigable waters.’”  If the NPDES program applies only where a point source conveys the pollutant to navigable water and EPA agrees that groundwater is not a point source, shouldn’t that be the end of the debate? 

From Graduation to Earth Day

Posted on May 31, 2018 by Charles F. Becker

“Ben, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.”

                        “Yes, sir.”

“Are you listening?”

                        “Yes, I am.”

“Plastics.”

                        [Pause] “Exactly how do you mean?”

“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”

                        “Yes, I will.”

“Enough said. That’s a deal.”

The Graduate - 1967

Mr. McGuire’s sage advice to young Ben Braddock advanced an era of plastics that continues to this day. Once considered to be a miracle product, it is not possible to avoid it in everyday life—it is everywhere, in one form or another. Yet, as we now know, plastic presents certain environmental problems – it won’t go away and there is a lot of it:

The focus of Earth Day 2018 (April 22nd) was on plastic — educating everyone on the environmental impact of plastic disposal.  Education is always worthwhile, but it isn’t as though we don’t know the dangers.  Moreover, this is a world-wide problem, with China being the major contributor and the U.S. a distant 12th.  So what is the solution?

One possibility is to use less plastic.  That could be by governmental mandate, business choice or societal shaming.  But if history is a teacher, “just say no” will not work. Plastic production has increased steadily at a compound average growth rate of 8.4% per year since 1950.  As of 2017, we have created 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste; by 2050, that figure is expected to be 26 billion.  

Perhaps we could use a biodegradable form of plastic—something that will break down in the environment. Regrettably, business hasn’t shown much interest.  Capacity for such production is less than 0.2 percent of petrochemical-based plastic.

Recycling is perhaps the most commonly suggested solution. But with decades promoting the recycling of plastics, it is still the case that at least 85% of all plastics are not recycled.  Further, a recent study on recycling plastic into clothing indicates we may actually be making the situation worse by causing the shedding of micro-fibers of plastic that get to waterways.

So is all lost? Scientific ingenuity—and some luck—tells us no.

Like the discovery of penicillin, x-rays, and plastic itself, it may be that the solution has been stumbled upon by accident. In 2016, a Japanese team identified a plastic-eating bacteria as a possible natural solution to plastic pollution. In 2018, while trying to reproduce the results, a team from the University of Portsmouth accidentally created a more potent form of the released enzyme.  The enzyme breaks down the plastic to its original building blocks. It may even be possible to spray it on huge floating plastic ocean islands to break up the material. 

Is this the silver bullet we need?  It appears promising, but research is ongoing.  We can only hope it turns out to be the solution because the alternatives seem to be the equivalent of stopping a freight train with a pillow.

As a postscript, I should give time to another view – let nature take its course.  George Carlin figured it out when he said:

The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ’cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?” 

Plastic… a**hole.

I’m rooting for the enzyme.