By: Matt Ampleman, J.D. Candidate, 2017, Yale Law School
The Supreme Court last Tuesday ruled in favor of landowners seeking the right to challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (the Corps) wetlands determinations in federal courts. In U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc., 578 U.S. ____ (2016), the owner of a peat mining company in North Dakota, Hawkes, sought to expand its operations to wetlands in northwest Minnesota and sell the peat for golf courses, sports turf, landscaping, and gardening. Unfortunately for Hawkes, the Corps issued a “jurisdictional determination” (JD), which stated that the wetlands on its property were “waters of the U.S.” under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and thus Hawkes would be subject to costly CWA Section 404 permitting requirements. The Corps argued that its determination could not be challenged in federal courts because it was not a final agency action. The Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the Eighth Circuit ruling that the JD, as issued by the Corps, constituted a final agency action and could be challenged in federal court.
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.
Last week the Regional Body for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact agreed that the City of Waukesha, WI met the compact exception criteria—moving one step closer to approval for a diversion of Great Lakes water outside of the boundaries of the river basin. Many are concerned that this move may establish a bad precedent for others seeking diversion of water from the Great Lakes to address growing water quality and quantity challenges.
The City of Waukesha, located in southeast Wisconsin 17 miles west of Lake Michigan, seeks an exception from the prohibition of diversions under the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact and Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. The Compact and Agreement prohibit diversions of Great Lakes water, with limited exceptions. One exception allows a “community within a straddling county,” such as Waukesha, to apply for a diversion of Great Lakes water.
On January 7, 2016, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources forwarded the City of Waukesha’s diversion application to the other Great Lakes states, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec for regional review. On May 18, 2016 the Regional Body approved a Declaration of Finding concluding that, with conditions, the City of Waukesha’s diversion application meets the Compact exception criteria. Conditions included a reduced maximum diversion volume of 8.2 million gallons per day and a reduced area the diverted water can be served. The Compact Council will make the final decision with a vote on whether to approve, approve with conditions, or deny the City of Waukesha’s diversion application. The Compact Council is scheduled to meet June 21, 2016 in Chicago, IL.
The Compact was passed in 2008 to protect the Great Lakes from attempted water grabs. The Waukesha, WI proposal to pump water from Lake Michigan, 15 miles to the east, as a replacement water supply for its radium-contaminated wells is the first such application under the compact. The proposal has been the subject of critical review as environmental groups and others worry about setting an inappropriate precedent for access to water from the Great Lakes.
The underlying documentation is available from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as well as more detail about the upcoming meeting of the Compact Council in Chicago.
One of the more challenging issues for companies dealing with contaminated groundwater sites near public drinking water supplies is how to handle contaminants for which there are uncertain or evolving regulatory action levels. For example, perfluorinated chemicals (“PFCs”) have garnered a lot of publicity recently after these contaminants were detected in several municipal drinking water supplies. However, there currently is no federal maximum contaminant level (“MCL”) for PFCs generally, and more specifically, for perfluorooctanoic acid (“PFOA”). Instead, there are conflicting health advisory levels that vary drastically between U.S. EPA and the individual states, ranging between 20 and 400 parts per trillion (“PPT”). Similarly, 1,4-dioxane is another contaminant that is the subject of conflicting regulatory standards in drinking water. There is no MCL for 1,4-dioxane but it, along with PFOA, is on U.S. EPA’s Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List 4. As such, if detected, the municipality is required to provide notification to the public via its Consumer Confidence Report. However, the health advisory and/or clean-up level for 1,4-dioxane in groundwater varies greatly from state to state, ranging from .3 to 5 parts per billion, and as such, there is no consistent regulatory standard for 1,4-dioxane in drinking water.
Approximately 700 participants, including leaders from government, business, finance, academia, philanthropy and civil society, will meet in Washington, DC on May 5-6, to attend the Climate Action 2016 Summit. Seven organizations have come together to jointly co-host the summit, providing this diverse group with the information, connections and tools they need to lead effective implementation in a new climate regime.
The co-hosts of the Summit are:
- E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations
- Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group
- Michael R. Bloomberg, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change; Founding Partner, Compact of Mayors
- Naoko Ishii, Chief Executive Officer, Global Environment Facility
- Judith Rodin, President, Rockefeller Foundation
- Peter Bakker, Chief Executive Officer, World Business Council on Sustainable Development
- Nigel Topping, Chief Executive Officer, We Mean Business
- Wallace Loh, President, University of Maryland
The goal of the Summit is to strengthen the multi-stakeholder approach to climate implementation. The summit will address how to deliver on climate commitments and embed the transformation agenda across the globe in government, key sectors and among the general population. At the same time, the summit will focus on near-term implementation actions and long-term implementation needs. These will focus on City and Sub-national implementation; Transport; Land-use; Energy; Resilience/Adaptation; and Analysis and Tools to Support Decision Making.
More information about Climate Action 2016 is available here.
On April 22, more than one billion people every year celebrate Earth Day in more than 190 countries. According to the Earth Day Network, it is the largest civic observance in the world. Here are some interesting insights about Earth Day this year:
- It’s going to be more important than ever because at last count 155 countries, including the U.S., have agreed to sign the Paris agreement on climate change during a special ceremony at the United Nations in New York.
- This year’s celebration is a lead up to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, and the Earth Day Network has pledged to plant 7.8 billion trees worldwide to account for every single person living on Earth.
- Learn more about Earth Day by viewing Google’s latest Doodle with fascinating paintings and pictures from around the world.
The United Nations has announced that up to 155 countries, including the United States, are planning to sign the Paris Climate Agreement at the Ceremony for Opening Signature, on Earth Day, April 22, 2016. The ceremony will take place at UN headquarters in New York. With over 150 world leaders set to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, the signing is expected to be the largest single signing of an international agreement in world history.
For more information about the signing ceremony and the Paris Climate Agreement, visit the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change website.
As part of our ongoing focus on Earth Day 2016, I found an interesting tool that allows one to measure one’s global footprint. The Earth Day Network has put together a Ecological Footprint Calculator that allows one to input specific parameters and determine how much of an impact each one of us has on the planet as a whole. At least for me, the results were somewhat sobering. Please click here to use the calculator to measure your impact.
In the U.S., water scarcity often seems a non-issue when you turn on a faucet and receive plentiful, clean, and sometimes even free water. Water is fundamental to business to heat, cool, clean, and manufacture goods. More so than oil, increasingly water is a limited natural resource with supplies adversely impacted by quality, pollution, insufficiency of infrastructure, drought, and flooding. PwC’s 17th Annual Global CEO Survey reveals interesting insights into the views and perceptions of business leaders regarding water.
- Water crisis was identified as the #1 global business risk in terms of impact in 2015.
- 46% of CEOs surveyed believed that resource scarcity and climate change will transform their business in the next five years.
- According to the World Resource Group, the world will face a 40% global shortfall between forecast demand and available water supply by 2030; moreover, in 2030, 47% of the world population will be living in areas of high water stress and a significant percentage of businesses will be operating there too.
- A 2014 survey of the FTSE 500 companies noted that 68% believed water was a substantive risk to business up from 59% in 2011.
- The Global Water Intelligence suggests that $84B has been spent by business around the world to conserve, manage, or obtain water.
Water-related risk poses differing challenges for business, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Business Development identifies the following broad categories of risks: financial, operational, market, reputational, and regulatory.
Does your business understand its water footprint, where water stresses exist, or have back up plans to address insufficient availability of water?
PwC’s recent publication Collaboration: Preserving Water Through Partnering That Works provides a good overview of water challenges as well as success stories focused on the water needs of business.
One of the most significant environmental and energy policy issues today is climate change. One of the biggest events of the past year in environmental and energy policy was the Paris COP21 talks. More countries than ever have pledged to significant carbon cuts, yet in many people’s views, those pledges fall short of what a lot of scientists say is necessary. A recent interview of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with Kimberly Strassel, a member of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorial board, highlights some of the challenges.
The WSJ found that attitudes toward climate change differ markedly by region of the world and by political affiliation:
The U.S. has a plan to reduce emissions by 28% but the proposal is the subject of ongoing litigation. In his interview, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern over the impact internationally if the U.S. cannot obtain approval to meet its commitments to reduce GHG. President Obama has said that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism and when asked if he agreed, the Secretary-General noted that “….longer term, it is a much, much more serious issue....concluding that climate change does not respect any borders. It affects a whole humanity, it affects our planet Earth.”