The State of Washington and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are trying to expand the reach of CERCLA, but have been blocked, once again, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The case of Pakootas v. Teck Cominco Metals, Ltd., Case No. 15-35228 (9th Cir. Panel decision July 27, 2016), involves claims by the State of Washington and the Tribes against a smelter located in British Columbia. In August, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the defendants in this case. Yesterday, the full Ninth Circuit denied the plaintiffs’ petition for rehearing.
The case involves hazardous air emissions (lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury), which were emitted from the smelter’s smokestack, carried by wind, and deposited on the Upper Columbia River Superfund Site in Washington. Plaintiffs maintained that such air emissions constituted “disposal” of hazardous waste under CERCLA, thus the smelter had arranged for the disposal of hazardous waste pursuant to CERCLA and was a responsible party at the Superfund Site.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has rejected arguments by the federal government that allowing an aerospace contractor to pass through certain CERCLA remediation costs back to the government under its existing government contracts constituted an impermissible double recovery under CERCLA. Lockheed Martin Corp. v. U.S. (D.C. Cir. Aug. 19, 2016). Lockheed had incurred in excess of $287 million to remediate several contaminated sites where it had manufactured solid-propellant rockets pursuant to government contracts. Lockheed sued the government under CERCLA to recover a portion of its costs incurred to remediate these sites, alleging that the government was directly responsible under CERCLA for a portion of these costs due to the government’s acquiescence in certain of Lockheed’s disposal activities. At the same time, however, the government and Lockheed had entered into an agreement pursuant to which the government agreed that Lockheed was entitled to recover a portion of its remedial costs as indirect costs charged through its current government contracts (the “Billing Agreement”).
The district court engaged in a thorough analysis of the typical CERCLA equitable contribution factors and allocated a specific percentage of liability to Lockheed and a specific percentage of liability to the government (the percentages varied across the sites). On appeal, the government pointed to the fact that Lockheed was already recovering a significant portion of its remedial costs from the government through the Billing Agreement and argued that any further obligation on the part of the government to reimburse Lockheed for additional remedial costs was inconsistent with CERCLA’s broad equitable principles and constituted an impermissible double recovery under CERCLA Section 114.
Relying in large part on the Billing Agreement, the D.C. Circuit noted that “the government agreed to [Lockheed’s recovery of its response costs] by entering into a settlement that allowed Lockheed in its new contracts to charge the government for the company’s own CERCLA liability at the discontinued sites.” Notwithstanding that the D.C. Circuit appeared sympathetic to the government’s claim that CERCLA was not designed to provide for a government-funded cleanup program but instead intended to shift remediation costs to the polluting party, here the government voluntarily agreed to the complained of funding mechanism when it entered into the Billing Agreement. In response to the government’s argument that allowing Lockheed to continue to pass these remedial costs through the Billing Agreement constituted an impermissible “double recovery,” the D.C. Circuit noted that the district court found that crediting mechanism agreed to by the parties would preclude any perceived “double recovery” and the D.C. Circuit found no reason to disturb that finding. Interestingly, the D.C. Circuit specifically stated that nothing in the Federal Acquisition Regulations or the Defense Contract Audit Agency Manual mandated the crediting mechanism agreed to by the parties but the D.C. Circuit declined to opine on the interplay of federal contracting law and CERCLA Section 114, leaving that to be resolved at a later time.
The State Water Resources Control Board has proposed a new maximum contaminant level (MCL) for 1,2,3-trichloropropane (TCP) of five parts per trillion (ppt).TCP is a manmade chemical found at industrial and hazardous waste sites. It has been used as a cleaning and degreasing solvent and also is associated with pesticide products.
California recognizes TCP as a carcinogen, and it has been found in numerous drinking water sources in the state. In August 2009, a public health goal (PHG) for TCP was developed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) for use by the State Water Board to establish an MCL. The PHG represents the level of TCP in drinking water that OEHHA believes does not pose a significant risk to health over a lifetime of exposure (70 years). The PHG for TCP is 0.0007 µg/L, or 0.7 ppt.
A drinking water standard, or MCL, establishes a limit on the allowable concentration of a contaminant in drinking water that is provided by a public water system. The State Water Resources Control Board is proposing 5 ppt as the MCL for TCP. Formal rulemaking is expected later this year, and if approved, the MCL would become effective July 1, 2017.
EPA published a technical fact sheet about TCP in 2014. More background information and guidance on the proposed MCL action for TCP also is available from the California State Water Resources Control Board.
TCP is yet another emerging chemical that has been the subject of ongoing federal and state regulatory review and discussion for several years. It also is a chemical being analyzed and assessed at the lower threshold level of ppt versus more traditional parts per billion (ppb). As is often the case, it appears that the State of California is initiating regulatory action addressing TCP concerns, and it is likely that other states will follow.
EPA’s woes over alleged mismanagement of the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 continue with a new lawsuit recently filed by the State of New Mexico in federal district court in Albuquerque. The lawsuit names the EPA as a defendant, along with an EPA environmental contractor and mine owners contributing to the mismanagement of reclamation waters. New Mexico contends that the Agency has not done enough to remedy the toxic release of a flood of wastewater contaminated with an estimated 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into local rivers.
New Mexico’s suit seeks a declaratory judgment that the contractor and mine owners violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, as well as compensatory and punitive damages for alleged negligence and gross negligence. New Mexico also is asking for a declaratory judgment against all defendants under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.
Although the suit does not specify damages, attorneys for New Mexico said communities are owed at least $7 million for emergency response costs and third-party monitoring of water quality. They said the defendants should pay another $140 million in damages for estimated economic harm. This calculation estimated the harm done to rivers that are critical for agricultural and ranching use; to the Navajo Nation, which owns a tract of land the size of a small state that was affected; and to recreation that provides a significant amount of New Mexico’s income.
The New Mexico Attorney General is requesting full and just compensation for the environmental and economic damage caused by EPA’s spill. The lawsuit alleges that the effects of EPA’s spill were far worse than reported. New Mexico Environmental Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn has stated publicly that “from the very beginning, the EPA failed to hold itself accountable in the same way that it would a private business.”
While EPA declined to formally comment on the lawsuit, an Agency spokesperson advised that the EPA has taken responsibility for the spill and already paid the State of New Mexico $1.3 million.
The lawsuit is the first state litigation against the EPA over the spill. Other states impacted include Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and the Navajo Nation.
EPA recently took action under the Toxic Substances and Control Act (TSCA) to ensure no TCE containing consumer products enter the marketplace before the Agency has the opportunity to evaluate the intended use and take appropriate action. The new rule issued April 6, 2016, known as a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR), requires any company intending to make certain TCE containing consumer products provide EPA 90-day notice before making the product.
The final rule applies to TCE manufactured (including import) or processed for use in any consumer product, except for use in cleaners and solvent degreasers, film cleaners, hoof polishes, lubricants, mirror edge sealants, and pepper spray. A consumer product is defined at 40 CFR 721.3 as “a chemical substance that is directly, or as part of a mixture, sold or made available to consumers for their use in or around a permanent or temporary household or residence, in or around a school, or in recreation.”
EPA’s June 2014 Work Plan Chemical Risk Assessment for TCE identified health risks associated with several TCE uses, including the arts and craft spray fixative use, aerosol and vapor degreasing, and as a spotting agent in dry cleaning facilities. In 2015, EPA worked with the only U.S. manufacturer of the TCE spray fixative product, PLZ Aeroscience Corporation of Addison, Illinois, resulting in an agreement to stop production of the TCE containing product and to reformulate the product with an alternate chemical.
It is important to note that this regulatory action may affect certain entities with pre-existing import certifications and export notifications required under TSCA.
The rule becomes effective 60 days from its publication in the Federal Register.
EPA recently announced seven National Enforcement Initiatives (NEIs) for FY 2017-2019. Every three years, EPA identifies NEIs to focus resources on national environmental problems where there is significant non-compliance with laws, and where federal enforcement efforts can make a difference. According to EPA, the NEIs are selected with input from the public and other stakeholders across EPA’s state, local and tribal partners.
Starting October 1, 2016 and continuing for three fiscal years, the following are the NEIs:
- Reducing air pollution from the largest sources
- Cutting hazardous air pollutants*
- Ensuring energy extraction activities comply with environmental laws
- Reducing risks of accidental releases at industrial and chemical facilities*
- Keeping raw sewage and contaminated stormwater out of our nation’s waters
- Preventing animal waste from contaminating surface and groundwater
- Keeping industrial pollutants out of the nation’s waters*
*New for FY2017-2019 as of February 2016.
It is interesting to note that the newly identified NEIs appear to correspond to challenges that EPA recently confronted, including the Gold King Mine wastewater spill, the spill prevention litigation and settlement in New York, and the Flint, MI lead contaminated water matter, where recent government reports concluded EPA failed in its regulatory obligations to this community.
For more information, see EPA’s news release announcing these NEIs.
EPA has agreed to initiate rulemaking to better address industrial waste spills as part of a settlement with a coalition of environmental groups. The Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA), People Concerned About Chemical Safety (PCACS), and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), sued EPA last July alleging that the Agency had failed to prevent hazardous substance spills from industrial facilities, including above ground storage tanks. See Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform et al. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, et al., case number 1:15-cv-05705, in the U.S District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Jenner & Block Webinar: The Top Environmental, Health and Safety Issues for 2016 - What You Need to Know
On Tuesday, February 23rd, from 12:00– 1:15 pm CT, Jenner & Block Partners Lynn Grayson and Steven Siros will present a CLE webinar on The Top Environmental, Health and Safety Issues for 2016 - What You Need to Know. The webinar will provide an overview of key environmental, health and safety issues in 2016 including the following topics:
- Issues relating to the Corps’ jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act;
- Fallout under the Safe Drinking Water Act after Flint;
- U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan regulations, UNFCCC COP 21, and the potential regulation of aircraft GHG emissions;
- Status of TSCA reform efforts;
- Litigation relating to GMOs under FIFRA;
- RCRA waste regulation amendments;
- OSHA penalty updates;
- U.S. EPA challenges;
- Water scarcity and sustainability; and
- Technological innovation and its impact on environmental practitioners.
To register for this free Webinar click here.
On Wednesday, February 10, 2015 from 1:00 p.m.-2:30 p.m. (Central), Partner Steven Siros will be presenting at a DRI webinar titled “Relying on Chemical Fingerprinting as a Line of Evidence in Allocation Proceedings”. The webinar will provide insights on the technical aspects of chemical fingerprinting for a variety of contaminants, including PCBs, dioxins, and chlorinated solvents. The webinar will also provide an overview of how courts have treated chemical fingerprinting from an expert witness standpoint as well as a case study demonstrating how this technique can be used to delineate co-mingled plumes. Michael Bock, with Ramboll Environ will also be presenting at the webinar. Here is a link to the webinar brochure.
Yesterday evening, the Department of Health and Human Services designated Dr. Nicole Lurie, an agency assistant secretary, to lead the federal government’s response to the elevated lead levels allegedly found in the drinking water being provided by the City of Flint, Michigan, to its residents. This designation came on the heels of a meeting between Flint’s mayor and Valerie Jarrett in Washington, D.C. The federal government has elected to play a significant role in addressing this crisis, with President Obama signing an emergency declaration on Saturday which provided Flint with access to up to $5 million in federal funds. The crisis began in 2014 when Flint stopped getting water from Detroit and began obtaining its drinking water from the Flint River in an effort to lower costs.