Exploring the E-Suite with Sharon Neal, Assistant General Counsel-EHS Counsel,
Exelon BSC, Law Department
- How did you get involved in environmental law?
My interest in the environment began when I was young, around 10‑12 years old. I recall hearing my parents talk of their concerns about the environment and that triggered my curiosity. In college, I began by focusing on environmental science. In my sophomore year, a single paragraph in an environmental studies text discussed environmental law as an up-and-coming field for those with an interest in protecting the environment and shaping policy. From that moment, I decided to become an environmental lawyer. I graduated from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 1988. I became a lawyer for the Illinois EPA in 1990, and I have been practicing environmental law ever since.
- What do you enjoy most about your work in environmental law?
I have never stopped finding my work in this field interesting and meaningful. No two days mirror one another. There is always something new to learn and do in light of the vast, ever changing nature of the environmental field. Even after more than 20 years with Exelon, my knowledge of the Company’s broad range of operations continues to grow. I have also so enjoyed and appreciated the many talented, intelligent and committed people with whom I have worked over my entire career, who have a wide range of expertise, such as in environmental science, investigation, remediation, nuclear operations, utility operations, regulatory and governmental affairs, and law. They have truly enriched my practice and life.
- What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of environmental law?
As a field, environmental law is especially challenging in light of the seemingly endless and changing laws, regulations, and other requirements, at the federal, state and local levels, with separate requirements for air, land, and water. It is challenging to stay current and to understand the legal implications for a large company that has many different types of complex operations. As with all fast-paced work, deadlines and competition for time are always a challenge. Also, unique to environmental law, is the deep intersection of science, law, and policy. The longer I have practiced, the more I have come to understand that you cannot possibly be an expert in all aspects of environmental law; there just too much to know and to know well. However, I do feel that what makes this field challenging also makes it continually interesting.
- What or who helped you succeed as an environmental lawyer?
I have had the privilege of working with so many exceptionally bright and experienced environmental specialists, consultants, attorneys (in-house and outside counsel) since my start in environmental law, as well as great, supportive managers and company leaders, here at Exelon, who prioritize environmental compliance and stewardship. That has made all the difference. Much of what I do is as part of a team made up of persons with diverse expertise. We work together and rely on each other to succeed.
- What do you think are the emerging issues in the field of environmental law?
Climate change will be at the heart of much of environmental law and policy going forward. There will be great emphasis on efforts to limit the operations that impact and create climate change, along with more and continuing efforts to reduce those impacts. There also will be a focus on responding and adapting to the effects that we already are seeing and that we will increasingly see in the future. We cannot overstate the significance of climate change in environmental issues going forward.
- Describe those projects as an environmental lawyer of which you are the proudest.
Looking at my career as a whole, what stands out initially is the work I did when I was with the Illinois EPA. That was my first environmental position, so my learning curve was steep. Yet, within those first couple of years, I was able to negotiate and write state laws and regulations. I appreciate that I had the opportunity to do such important work so early in my career.
I have worked on so many interesting matters at Exelon. The focus of my work has changed many times over the years, depending on regulatory and operational/business developments. Some of the most fascinating work has been supporting Exelon Nuclear, including on Clean Water Act issues. I have spent much time at our nuclear stations, including at the Quad Cities Generating Stations, which, among other things, operates a successful fish hatchery that feeds into the Mississippi River. I also had the opportunity to attend a U.S. Supreme Court argument concerning federal regulations under the Clean Water Act, which affected Exelon, among other regulated entities. I have supported Exelon on many interesting projects over the years focused on evaluating, preventing and mitigating environmental impacts. I have especially enjoyed learning about and supporting Exelon’s many environmental stewardship projects.
- Which community service or pro bono matters have been the most meaningful to you and why?
Exelon has an extensive pro bono and volunteer network, which provides opportunities for employees to participate in numerous activities that benefit a wide range of organizations and individuals in the communities that Exelon serves. At our annual Exelon Law Department All Hands clinics, attorneys and support staff work together to help many persons in single day’s event. At a recent clinic, we assisted seniors with planning and preparing important end of life documents. Last year’s clinic focused on providing support for those seeking immigration relief. Exelon’s Law Department holds such clinics annually in each of its four main cities, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
In the past year, I have also participated in some especially rewarding events and projects focused on introducing children and young adults to the field of law. A few of these events have supported “Just the Beginning”, a pipeline organization that motivates young people in economically challenged communities to become part of the legal profession and future leaders. I have also worked with young students in the “Lawyers in the Classroom” program, sponsored by the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago. It is a pleasure to teach and talk with the students in these programs and encourage them to see the legal profession as meaningful and attainable.
Also, in the past year, at the recommendation of a friend and colleague within the Exelon/EHS legal group, I became a board member of Thresholds, one of the oldest and largest Illinois organizations supporting persons with mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Thresholds provides a wide range of support—from care to employment to housing—for thousands of people in the broader Chicagoland community. I have been deeply gratified by the support I have received from Exelon and other friends, such as Jenner & Block, for my work on behalf of Thresholds.
- What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in your field?
I am confident that environmental law, and the field of environmental studies, in general, will continue to be important, fascinating work. If you have the opportunity to work for the government, especially early in your career, take that opportunity. Government service is an incredible place to learn, not only substantive environmental law, but many aspects of how policy comes to be law, how regulations are drafted and laws are enacted, interagency relationships, and the needs and role of the regulated community. I am grateful to have had that opportunity at the start of my career.
Ms. Neal was interviewed by Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice, Jenner & Block
In 2016, U.S. EPA established an advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (PPT) for combined perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)-- two of the more commonly found polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). However, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recently suggested that these advisory levels may not be stringent enough, releasing draft risk values earlier in 2018 that are significantly more conservative than the values relied upon by U.S. EPA in 2016. The ATSDR draft report identifies a minimal risk level for PFOA that equates to approximately 11 ppt and approximately seven ppt for PFOS.
The ATSDR draft report, the issuance of which the White House had sought to delay, has been subject to criticism by both sides of the spectrum, with some questioning the science behind the conclusions reached in the report, while others claim that the draft report doesn’t go far enough. The public comment period on the draft report closed on August 20, 2018 and the report has yet to be finalized.
However, in lieu of waiting for the report to be finalized and/or for U.S. EPA to take further action to revise its current health advisory level, several states have elected to move forward to establish their own regulatory limits for these chemicals. New Jersey and Vermont had taken the lead in adopting more stringent regulatory standards, with New Jersey adopting a 14 ppt limit for PFOA and Vermont adopting a 20 ppt limit for combined PFAS in drinking water. However, these levels were established prior to the release of the draft ATSDR report and a number of other states have since jumped on the regulatory bandwagon. For example, New York’s Drinking Water Quality Council recently recommended that New York adopt a 10 ppt limit for PFOA and PFOS. Michigan, which had adopted U.S. EPA’s recommended advisory level of 70 ppt, also is in the process of developing more stringent standards for PFAS in drinking water.
ATSDR has yet to release a time-line for finalizing its draft toxicological profile for PFAS and although U.S. EPA has announced that it intends to evaluate the need for a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS, that is several years away. In the interim, it appears likely that individual states will continue to adopt their own individual regulatory levels for these chemicals in drinking water which will continue to result in a patchwork regulatory framework across the United States.
OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs recently issued an enforcement memorandum to all OSHA Regional Administrators providing a new “Enforcement Policy for Respiratory Hazards Not Covered by OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits” (“Enforcement Policy”). OSHA’s 2003 policy on the same topic is now superseded and archived.
The Enforcement Policy explains how and when OSHA will cite an employer for respiratory hazards from an air contaminant under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause (“GDC”). The GDC is the statutory requirement that an employer “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1). By regulation, OSHA has stated that “An employer who is in compliance with any standard in this part shall be deemed to be in compliance with the requirement of section 5(a)(1) of the Act, but only to the extent of the condition, practice, means, method, operation, or process covered by the standard.” 29 CFR 1910.5(f). There is an open question as to whether and when an employer is in violation of the law if either (a) OSHA has not set a regulatory exposure limit for a particular chemical; or (b) exposures are below OSHA’s regulatory Permissible Exposure Limit (“PEL”), but above another organization’s recommended occupational exposure limit (“OEL”) for the same chemical. An OEL can be issued by, for example, an industry group, U.S. EPA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.
OSHA’s new Enforcement Policy states that a GDC violation for airborne chemical exposures cannot be alleged unless OSHA can meet the 4-element standard of proof imposed by the courts for any GDC violation:
On December 11, 2018, the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jointly issued a proposed rule to define the basic jurisdictional reach of the federal Clean Water Act (“CWA”), which applies to protection of the “navigable waters” of the U.S. The proposed rule defines the term “waters of the United States,” which establishes the scope of waters subject to the CWA (“the Proposed WOTUS Rule”). The definition of WOTUS has been the subject of decades of litigation, including at the U.S. Supreme Court, see Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715 (2006), itself a divided opinion. The Trump Administration’s WOTUS rule, when issued in final, would replace the definitional rule issued in June 2015 by the Obama Administration. 80 Fed. Reg. 37054. Obama’s 2015 rule itself was the subject of litigation; including after the Trump Administration attempted to delay application of that rule. See, e.g., Puget Soundkeeper Alliance v. Wheeler, No. C15-1342-JCC (W.D. Wash. Nov. 26, 2018). As of now, 28 States are not subject to the 2015 rule, but to the definition of WOTUS pursuant to rules issued in 1977 and the 1980s, as well as decisions of the Supreme Court and the agencies’ guidance and practices.
The Proposed WOTUS Rule, which the Trump Administration states is consistent with the Rapanos plurality opinion written by Justice Scalia, purports to provide “clarity, predictability, and consistency” and, by limiting the scope of the CWA’s jurisdiction, “gives states and cities more flexibility to determine how best to manage waters within their borders.” By setting forth “six clear categories of waters” that are considered WOTUS, the Proposed WOTUS Rule seeks to ensure that the CWA applies only to those waters “that are physically and meaningfully connected to traditional navigable waters.” The six categories are, in general:
On Thursday, November 29th, Jenner & Block Associate Matthew Lawson will be giving a CLE presentation on the “Environmental Impact of Blockchain” at the Chicago Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Environmental Law Committee Meeting. Matthew Lawson’s presentation will discuss both the negative environmental impacts caused by the growth in popularity of cryptocurrency mining, and the potential positive impacts on the environment from emerging and future applications of the Blockchain technology.
The presentation is on November 29, 2018, from 12:15 PM - 1:30 PM at the Chicago Bar Association, 321 S. Plymouth Ct. Chicago, IL 60604.
For more information on the event click here.
The director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Peter Breysse, continues to defend his agency's minimal risk levels (MRLs) for perfluorinated chemicals that were released in June 2018 as part of a draft toxicological profile. In response to questions posed at a recent Senate hearing, Breysse noted that ATSDR’s draft MRLs roughly corresponded to drinking water levels of 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and 21 ppt for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Where these levels are exceeded, ATSDR has recommended that residents take steps to lower their exposures and contact state and local authorities. Breysse also recommended that residents consult with physicians and noted that ATSDR has information on its website for physicians to consult regarding exposure risks for these chemicals.
The drinking water levels referenced in the ATSDR toxicological profile (14 ppt for PFOS and 21 ppt for PFOA) correspond generally with regulatory standards implemented in several states, including New Jersey and Vermont, both of which have the lowest regulatory levels for these compounds in the United States. However, the ATSDR MRLs are much stricter than U. S. EPA’s drinking water advisory level of 70 ppt. In addition, many news outlets reported that U.S. EPA had sought to delay ATSDR’s issuance of its June 2018 toxicological profile. Perhaps coincidentally, at about the same time as ATSDR issued its draft report, U.S. EPA announced plans to begin to evaluate the need for a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS.
Although ATSDR and U.S. EPA continue to work cooperatively (at least on paper) to address PFOA and PFOS at contaminated properties throughout the United States, it remains to be seen how well these agencies will cooperate in setting an MCL for these contaminants. The agencies' "cooperative" relationship may face choppy waters, especially in light of ATSDR's continued defense of its MRLs and U.S. EPA's skeptical view regarding same.
On Tuesday, November 6th, Colorado voters rejected a highly contested ballot initiative which would have set unprecedented limits on oil and gas drilling in the state. The measure, Proposition 112, would have prohibited drilling new oil or natural gas wells within 2,500 feet of certain occupied buildings—including homes, schools and hospitals; various water sources—including lakes, rivers and creeks; and other areas specifically designated as “vulnerable” by the state. In total, a report from the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission estimated that the measure would have prohibited new hydraulic fracturing operations on as much as 95% of the land in Colorado’s top oil and gas producing counties.
The proposition received a high degree of pre-election attention, with individuals from politician Bernie Sanders to actor Leonardo DiCaprio encouraging Colorado voters to support the initiative. While early polling indicated Proposition 112 was supported by the majority of Colorado voters, the initiative was ultimately defeated with 57% of the state’s voters opposing it in Tuesday’s elections. In what may have served as a fatal blow, Colorado’s governor-elect, Jared Polis, distanced himself from the ballot initiative in the days leading up to the election. The newly elected Democrat had campaigned as a pro-environment alternative to his Republican opponent, but categorized the ballot initiative as “economically damaging” to the state of Colorado.
At present, New York, Vermont, and Maryland are the only states to have established outright bans on fracking. None of those states, however, has oil and gas reserves approaching the production capacity of Colorado. The state’s oil and gas industry has grown dramatically in the last decade, with the state’s production of crude oil rising from 73,000 barrels per day in 2008 to 477,000 barrels per day in August 2018. As the state’s production of oil and gas continues to grow, it appears likely that legislative battles over fracking regulations will continue to unfold.
New Jersey Federal District Court Dismisses Enviro’s Constitutional Challenges to FERC’s Approval of PennEast’s $1B Gas Pipeline, Holding that the Court Doesn’t Have Jurisdiction under the Natural Gas Act
On Monday, in N.J. Conservation Found. v. FERC (No. 17-11991), the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissed the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s (“NJCF”) suit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) because the Court found that the courts of appeals, and not it, had subject matter jurisdiction under the Natural Gas Act (“NGA”). NJCF’s suit sought to declare that FERC’s practice of issuing certificates authorizing the construction of natural gas pipeline facilities violated the U.S. Constitution. While pled solely against FERC and its Commissioners, the case was predicated on FERC’s prior approval of PennEast Pipeline Company, LLC’s (“PennEast”) right to construct a $1B interstate natural gas pipeline. NJCF’s case centered on three purported Constitutional issues with FERC’s environmental analysis: (1) FERC’s approvals that delegate the power of eminent domain in the absence of adequate public use analyses violate the Takings Clause; (2) FERC’s approvals that grant eminent domain prior to receiving environmental impact findings from regulatory agencies violate the Fifth Amendment; and (3) FERC’s approvals that provide for subsequent state or federal authorizations, which then may require changes to the pipeline route or prevent construction, also violate the Takings Clause. The Court granted FERC’s motion to dismiss, holding that the Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction because the NGA vested the courts of appeals, not district courts, with exclusive jurisdiction to hear NJCF’s claims. NJCF is another voice in a growing chorus of district court and appellate cases that have rejected dissatisfied parties’ collateral attempts to re-litigate FERC’s decisions and decision-making processes, especially with regard to environmental issues, outside of FERC.
The United States’ Largest Wholesale Energy Provider Launches Blockchain-Based Pilot for Renewable Energy Markets
On April 18, 2018, the Corporate Environmental Lawyer published a blog entry discussing the growing use of Blockchain technology by startup companies seeking to connect populations without access to traditional electricity markets to electricity produced by distributed renewable energy systems. As discussed in that blog entry, proponents of Blockchain technology have asserted the platform’s built-in efficiencies would allow it to compete with traditional, utility-owned electrical grids, with one company going as far as setting up a “micro-grid” in Brooklyn, New York. It appears that the marriage between Blockchain and the electricity grid may be moving forward at an accelerated pace as the technology is now being examined and piloted by major utility operators.
PJM Interconnection (“PJM”), the United States’ largest power grid operator and market administrator serving over 65 million people from Chicago to Washington D.C., has announced its intention to test a Blockchain system that will allow clean-energy buyers and sellers to trade the renewable energy credits that wind and solar farms produce as they generate electricity. Working through its subsidiary—PJM Environmental Information Services—PJM has announced a partnership with Energy Web Foundation, a nonprofit entity with experience developing Blockchain platforms for smaller energy markets in Europe and Asia. The partnership hopes to rollout a pilot for the program by the end of the first quarter of 2018. “This collaboration between EWF and PJM-EIS is a major milestone for the adoption of advanced digital technologies in the energy sector,” said Hervé Touati, CEO of Energy Web Foundation. “We are excited to partner with a leader such as PJM-EIS.”
Blockchain, the technology that functions as a public ledger underpinning digital currency transactions, continues to be promoted as a key driver of growing renewable energy markets. At its core, the belief that Blockchain can spur renewable energy growth and disrupt current energy markets stems from the potential built-in efficiencies of the technology, which allow buyers and sellers of clean power to interact directly, without the need for a central coordinator. While the potential impact of Blockchain on future energy markets is still unknown, the successful use of the technology by PJM could represent a major milestone in the growth and development of the technology in the marketplace.
On October 23, 2018, President Trump signed into law America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 which, in addition to authorizing federal funding for water infrastructure projects, also requires drinking water systems serving more than 3,300 people to test for unregulated contaminants pursuant to U.S. EPA’s Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule (UCMR). Prior to this new law, only drinking water systems that served more than 10,000 people were required to monitor for unregulated contaminants. Contaminants covered by the UCMR include PFOA, PFOS, 1,2,3-TCP, hexavalent chromium and 1,4-dioxane. This new testing requirement, which goes into effect in 2021, is expected to add more than 5,000 drinking water systems to the list of systems that are required to test for these unregulated contaminants.
The challenge that continues to be faced by drinking water systems across the country is what to do if these contaminants are in fact found in the drinking water supply. As their name would imply, U.S. EPA has yet to set drinking standards for these contaminants although many states and local entities continue to enact a patchwork of regulatory requirements often without regard to the technical feasibility of treating these chemicals and/or the health risks actually posed by these chemicals. Unfortunately, until such time as U.S. EPA takes action to enact a federal standard, the regulated community will continue to be subject to this regulatory quagmire and now, with the new testing requirements, more drinking water systems will be forced to struggle with this issue without any clear regulatory guidance.
On November 5, 2018, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a landmark case regarding the preemptive effect of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (the “Atomic Energy Act”) on a state’s regulation of uranium mining. The case, Virginia Uranium Inc. v. Warren, questions whether the Atomic Energy Act’s regulation of radiation safety standards extends to preempt a Virginia state law banning uranium mining within the borders of the state. The Virginia law dates back to the early 1980s, after the largest uranium deposit in the United States was discovered in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. In response to the discovery, the Virginia General Assembly asked the state’s Coal and Energy Commission to evaluate the potential safety effects of uranium mining, and enacted an indefinite ban on mining the deposit. The unharvested deposit is valued at up to $6 billion USD.
In 2007, the owners of the land, Virginia Uranium Inc., Cole Hill LLC and Bowen Minerals LLC, announced their intention to begin mining the deposit. After failing to convince the Virginia legislature to overturn its mining ban, the plaintiffs sought to challenge Virginia’s law as preempted under the Atomic Energy Act.
The Atomic Energy Act gives the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission the sole power to regulate several steps in the production of nuclear fuel, including setting radiation safety standards for milling uranium ore and disposing of uranium waste byproducts. The Atomic Energy Act does not, however, directly regulate the mining of uranium on non-federal land.
According to the Plaintiffs/Petitioners, the Virginia ban is preempted by the Atomic Energy Act because the purpose and direct effect of Virginia’s law is to regulate radiation safety standards, which the Atomic Energy Act exclusively entrusted to the purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Predictably, the Virginia legislature has taken a much less expansive view of the law, arguing that the Atomic Energy Act only regulates uranium “after [uranium’s] removal from its place of deposit in nature.” Thus, according to the legislature, a state is free to regulate—or ban—the harvesting of uranium prior to its removal from the deposit.
The eventual resolution of the dispute will not only have a significant impact on the availability of American mined uranium, but may also potentially set the stage for the broader battle over states' rights brewing between the Trump administration and liberal states like California, which have looked to enact environmental laws in areas currently regulated by the federal government.
The Trump Administration has released its Fall 2018 Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions. This regulatory agenda “reports on the actions administrative agencies plan to issue in the near and long term [and] demonstrates this Administration’s ongoing commitment to fundamental regulatory reform and a reorientation toward reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens on the American people.”
According to the Trump Administration, the regulatory agenda reflects the following broad regulatory reform priorities:
- Advancing Regulatory Reform
- Public Notice of Regulatory Development
- Consistent Practice across the Federal Government
The EPA-specific regulatory agenda lists 148 regulatory actions in either the proposed rule stage or final rule stage, and provides information about the planned regulatory actions and the timing of those actions. Notable regulatory actions under consideration by EPA include:
- Revised Definition of “Waters of the United State”
- Notice of proposed rulemaking planned for October 2019; final rule planned for September 2019
- Definition of “Waters of the United States”–Recodification of Preexisting Rule
- Final rule planned for March 2019
- Clean Water Act Section 404(c) Regulatory Revision
- Notice of proposed rulemaking planned for June 2019
- National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for Lead and Copper: Regulatory Revisions
- Notice of proposed rulemaking planned for February 2019
- National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: Regulation of Perchlorate
- Notice of proposed rulemaking planned for October 2019; final rule planned for December 2019
- Emission Guidelines for Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Existing Electric Utility Generating Units; Revisions to Emission Guideline Implementing Regulations; Revisions to New Source Review Program (a/k/a The Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule to replace the Clean Power Plan)
- Final rule planned for March 2019
- TSCA Chemical Data Reporting Revisions and Small Manufacturer Definition Update for Reporting and Recordkeeping Requirements Under TSCA Section 8(a)
- Notice of proposed rulemaking planned for December 2018; final rule planned for October 2019
More information, and EPA's Statement of Priorities, can be found here.
Under the Trump Administration, EPA has expressed a renewed focus on the Superfund program and making sure that site cleanups operate optimally. In 2017, EPA established a Superfund Task Force, “to provide recommendations for improving and expediting site cleanups and promoting redevelopment.” The Superfund Task Force has made a number of recommendations, including recommending that EPA “Promote the Application of Adaptive Management at Complex Sites” and “Broaden the Use of Adaptive Management (AM) at Superfund Sites.”
According to the Superfund Task Force,
Adaptive Management is an approach used at large and/or complex sites that focuses limited resources on making informed decisions throughout the remedial process…Under an Adaptive Management strategy, Regions are encouraged to consider greater use of early and/or interim actions including use of removal authority or interim remedies, to address immediate risks, prevent source migration, and to return portions of sites to use pending more detailed evaluations on other parts of sites.
The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (a/k/a the TSCA Reform Act), signed into law in 2016, was a major overhaul of the 40-year-old chemical law, reforming how new and existing chemicals are evaluated and deemed “safe.” Since the law’s passage, EPA has completed determinations on 1,602 new chemical cases. EPA has also taken action to ban or restrict use of five existing chemicals, including trichloroethylene (TCE) and methylene chloride, which EPA found to pose heightened risks.
EPA has expended considerable resources over the past two year to fulfil these new review and evaluation requirements. EPA has now taken action to pass some of those costs down to the chemical industry in the form of fees authorized by the TSCA Reform Act.
On September 27, 2018, Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler signed the final Fees Rule, setting out the fees EPA will impose on industry to pay for the costly TSCA review process. The final rule will become effective one day after publication in the Federal Register, which is expected to happen in the next few days.
On September 13, 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) took the final, unprecedented step of adding a contaminated site to the Superfund National Priorities List (“NPL”) based solely on the risk to human health posed by indoor air vapor intrusion at the site. The newly designated site, which consists of the former Rockwell International Wheel & Trim facility and its surrounding 76 acres (the “Site”), is located in Grenada, Mississippi. The Site has an extensive history. Beginning in 1966, the Rockwell facility operated as a wheel cover manufacturing and chrome plating plant. After chrome plating operations ceased in 2001, the facility was used for metal stamping until approximately 2007. According to EPA, the Site’s historic operations resulted in multiple releases of trichloroethene, toluene, and hexavalent chromium into the surrounding soil and adjacent wetland. However, EPA’s primary concern—and reason for listing the site—is the potential for airborne volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) to enter the facility through cracks, joints, and other openings, resulting in contaminated indoor air. The potential for indoor air contamination appears to be of particular concern to EPA, given that nearly 400 individuals currently work within the facility.
The Site will now join a list of approximately 160 contaminated sites that have been federally designated as NPL sites. The NPL includes the nation’s most contaminated and/or dangerous hazardous waste sites. A contaminated site must be added to the NPL to become eligible for federal funding for permanent cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. While EPA’s decision to list the Site based on risks from indoor air contamination is unprecedented, the move is not all together surprising, given EPA’s recent rulemaking actions. In May 2017, EPA passed a final rule expanding the list of factors the agency is allowed to consider when designating NPL sites to specifically include risks to human health from impacted indoor air. In the preamble to the rule, EPA noted that it needed the authority to list sites on the basis of significant risk to human health from vapor intrusion contamination.
In contrast to EPA’s position, environmental consultants operating at the Site have strongly opposed the NPL designation. Several of the firms submitted comments on the final listing, asserting that EPA’s risk evaluation failed to take into account the Sub Slab Depressurization System (“SSDS”) installed at the facility in 2017, which subsequently reduced levels of VOCs in the indoor air to safe levels. However, EPA rejected these arguments, noting that even though the SSDS may protect workers from immediate threats, “it is not intended to address possible long-term remedial goals such as addressing the sources of the contamination below the building.”
EPA’s designation of the Site should alert potentially responsible parties that vapor intrusion issues may result in an increased chance of a site becoming listed on the NPL. In addition, parties relying on engineering controls to maintain compliant indoor air vapor levels should note the potential for EPA to deem such actions insufficient as long-term site remedies.
United Airlines became the first U.S. airline to publicly commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 50% by 2050. In a press release issued on September 13, 2018, United Airlines explained that it would achieve that reduction by expanding its use of more sustainable biofuels and by relying on more fuel-efficient aircraft and implementing other operational changes to better conserve fuel. United Airlines' commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 50% by 2020 is consistent with reduction targets established by the International Air Transport Association in May 2018.
U.S. EPA has yet to regulate GHG emissions from aircraft in the United States, notwithstanding U.S. EPA’s July 25, 2016 endangerment finding for GHG emissions from aircraft and U.S. EPA’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking contemplating adoption of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) aviation carbon emission design standards.
The decision by United Airlines is likely to be followed by other U.S. carriers that have international routes because those carriers will be subject to the ICAO standards when flying internationally.
Last week, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney and California Attorney General obtained guilty verdicts against Plains All American Pipeline, L.P. regarding the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill near Santa Barbara, CA. By way of background, on May 19, 2015, a pipeline operated by Plains to transport crude oil ruptured on shore just north of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, California, causing over 140,000 gallons of crude oil to be released from the pipeline, which spilled crude oil into the Pacific Ocean and across coastal beaches. At trial, testimony revealed that over 100,000 gallons of crude oil were never recovered.
Plains was convicted of one felony for unlawfully discharging oil into state waters and eight misdemeanors for the following: failing to timely call emergency response agencies; violating a county ordinance banning oil spills; and killing marine mammals, protected sea birds, and other sea life. Sentencing will be held on December 13, 2018.
According to a statement by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the verdict “should send a message: If you endanger our environment and wildlife, we will hold you accountable. At the California Department of Justice, we will continue prosecuting corporate negligence and willful ignorance to the fullest extent of the law.” (Emphasis added.)
As noted in Law360 (sub. req.), the verdict “underscore[s] the importance of pipeline companies taking their maintenance, inspection and compliance duties seriously, especially in states like California which have strict requirements and liability where knowledge or intent isn’t necessary to sustain criminal convictions.” Furthermore, the conviction specifically as to failure to notify emergency responders “underscores the importance of that duty and that companies must ensure their policies leave no room for error.” The relative rarity of criminal environmental convictions for corporations means this case is one to watch is it moves towards sentencing and/or appeals.
In a recently filed lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court, the State of Illinois accused Trump International Hotel & Tower of violating multiple clean water laws and endangering fish and aquatic life in the Chicago River. The lawsuit, filed on August 13, 2018 by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, alleges that the Trump Tower’s water intake cooling system failed to comply with state and federal permit requirements, which are designed to limit the number of fish killed by the intake screens or sudden changes in pressure and temperature caused by the cooling system. The state’s lawsuit further alleges that the Trump Tower's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit (“NPDES Permit”) expired on August 31, 2017, and that the building had been operating without a permit for nearly a year.
The 1,400 ft. skyscraper is one of the city’s largest users of river water. In order to cool the tower, the building, like most other buildings along the river, uses a water intake cooling system that siphons approximately 20 million gallons of water per day (“MGD”) from the Chicago River. After being utilized to cool the building, this water is subsequently pumped back into the river up to 35 degrees hotter than its original temperature. Because the building's intake system withdraws more than 2 MGD, the building must comply with regulations promulgated under Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). According to the attorney general’s lawsuit, these regulations required Trump Tower to document the efforts it has taken to minimize the impact of its intake system on the river’s fish and other aquatic life—actions which the lawsuit claims the building failed to complete. According to a Chicago Tribune article published in June 2018, Trump Tower is the only building relying on water from the Chicago River that has failed to document these efforts.
In May 2017, Trump Tower submitted a delayed application to renew its then expiring NPDES permit. Despite the building’s alleged failure to timely submit a permit renewal request, it appears the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (“IEPA”) had been preparing to reissue the Trump Tower’s NPDES Permit as recently as last January. However, the agency changed course after several environmental groups threatened to sue prompting the agency to delay reissuance of the NPDES Permit.
Representatives of the Trump organization have responded to the lawsuit with criticism. “We are disappointed that the Illinois Attorney General would choose to file this suit considering such items are generally handled at the administrative level,” stated a representative for the Trump Organization. “One can only conclude that this decision was motivated by politics.”
Environmental groups responded positively to the lawsuit. The Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Chicago River, which had jointly announced their own plans to bring suit against Trump Tower last June, stated that they looked forward to assisting in the state’s lawsuit “to assure an outcome that addresses the permit violations, protects additional aquatic life from harm, and makes the river healthier for fish."
This is not the first time Attorney General Madigan has gone after Trump Tower for discharge violations. In 2012, the State sued Trump Tower for failing to obtain a permit for the same intake system. The 2012 lawsuit resulted in Trump Tower agreeing to pay $46,000 in fines and obtaining the proper permitting. In its most recent lawsuit, the State is seeking a preliminary and (after trial) permanent injunction to stop Trump Tower from using its cooling water intake system. In addition, the complaint seeks $10,000 in daily penalties. In an interesting twist, it appears that industry groups previously urged the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency to overhaul or eliminate the CWA’s cooling water intake rules, which industry groups described as “cumbersome.”
The presence of emerging contaminants such as perfluorinated chemicals (PFOS) and 1,4-dioxane in drinking water often make the headlines as sampling technologies become more sophisticated and these contaminants are being detected with increasing frequency in drinking water systems across the country. There has been a significant push to compel regulators to set regulatory standards and/or issue health advisories for these emerging contaminants, but the impact that these standards and health advisories have on drinking water systems cannot be ignored.
In reaction to media coverage of these emerging contaminants in drinking water supplies, state regulators have been at the front of the pack in trying to set what are often conflicting standards that may not always reflect the current state of science regarding these contaminants. These state regulations often fail to consider the difficulties that drinking water suppliers face in complying with these standards, especially in instances where there are not established treatment technologies that are capable of treating these contaminants in a cost-effective manner. In addition, when setting health advisories for various contaminants, U.S. EPA typically does not consider the effect of those advisories on drinking water providers. It is often the case, however, that these providers are pressured either by state regulators and/or the general public to ensure that the drinking water meets these health advisory levels, which are set without regard to whether cost-effective technologies exist that are capable of treating these emerging contaminants.
Beginning on June 30, 2018, EPA will launch its new Hazardous Waste Electronic Manifest (e-Manifest) System. EPA’s e-Manifest system is many years in the making and follows the 2012 Hazardous Waste Electronic Manifest Establishment Act, and two final rules issued by EPA in 2014 and 2017.
Beginning on June 30th, the following changes take effect:
- Facilities that receive hazardous waste that requires manifesting must submit manifests to EPA.
- EPA will charge receiving facilities for all paper and e-manifests (lower fees for e-manifests; higher fees for paper manifests).
- Generators, transporters and disposers of hazardous waste may transmit waste manifest data electronically through EPA’s e-Manifest system.
The new requirement for receiving facilities to submit all manifests to EPA is a big change. To assist industry in this transition, EPA recently announced that it would grant extra time for receiving facilities to submit paper manifests during the initial months after system launch.
On May 18, 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued an order denying a rehearing request on FERC’s prior issuance of a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a natural gas pipeline project for Dominion Transmission. An environmental group had challenged that certificate, arguing in part that FERC failed to adequately consider the upstream and downstream impacts of the project. These upstream and downstream impacts, according to the environmental group, included greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. FERC, on a party-line vote, concluded that the upstream and downstream GHG impacts of this particular project were not sufficiently causally connected to and/or the reasonable foreseeable effect of the project and therefore fell outside of the scope of the required NEPA analysis. FERC distinguished its holding with the decision in Sierra Club v. FERC, 867 F.3d 1357 (D.C. Cir. 2017) by noting that in that case, the pipeline project was delivering natural gas to identifiable gas-fired electric generating plants and therefore the downstream use of the gas was foreseeable.
The Delaware Riverkeeper Network sent a letter to FERC asking it to formally rescind its May 18 order, claiming that FERC’s decision was contrary to the requirements of NEPA. This letter, along with similar letters from other environmental groups, are likely precursors to legal challenges to FERC’s interpretation of its obligations under NEPA. Notwithstanding the positions being advanced by these environmental groups, FERC continues to review and approve pipeline projects without requiring a detailed analysis of GHG emissions as evidenced by FERC’s May 31 approval of the Okeechobee Lateral Project.
White House Cites National Security Concerns as Administration Moves to Save Coal and Nuclear Power Plants
A combination of stagnant power consumption growth and the rise of natural gas and renewable power sources has resulted in the displacement and potential closure of many older coal and nuclear power plants in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, since 2008, coal and nuclear energy have seen a continuous decline in their percentage of the nation’s total energy generation market. And in 2015, the closure of coal fueled power plants accounted for more than 80% of the nation’s retired energy generating capacity.
In an attempt to reverse these trends, President Donald Trump has ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take “immediate action” to stem the closure of nuclear and coal power plants. In an official White House statement issued on June 1, 2018, the Trump Administration stated that “keeping America's energy grid and infrastructure strong and secure protects our national security… Unfortunately, impending retirements of fuel-secure power facilities are leading to a rapid depletion of a critical part of our nation's energy mix, and impacting the resilience of our power grid.”
The statement is not the first time the Administration has asserted that coal and nuclear plants are critical to national security. In January of this year, Mr. Perry presented a sweeping proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”), which requested subsidies for struggling coal and nuclear plants that were no longer able to operate profitably in the current energy markets. In presenting the proposal, Mr. Perry argued that coal and nuclear plants’ unique ability to store at least 90 days of fuel on-site made the energy sources critical to the reliability and stability of the United States’ energy markets. In a 5-0 decision, FERC rejected the Energy Secretary’s proposal, and casted doubt on Mr. Perry’s claims that energy markets would become vulnerable and unreliable without contributions from coal and nuclear power.
It appears the Trump Administration may now be seeking a more direct route to provide assistance to coal and nuclear power plants. According to Bloomberg, a draft memo from the Department of Energy (“DOE”) reveals that the agency is considering using its authority under Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act and the Defense Production Act of 1950 to force regional grid operators to buy electricity from a list of coal and nuclear plants the department deems crucial to national security. The plan would require suppliers to purchase power from the plants for 24 months in order to starve off closures as the Administration works to provide a long-term solution. If the DOE plan is implemented, it is likely to face legal challenges from both utilities and environmental groups. Regardless of whether the DOE elects to pursue this strategy, it appears that the Trump Administration is focused on working to protect aging coal and nuclear plants.
A recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska rejected efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity (the “Center”) to challenge the constitutionality of the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA, which was originally enacted in 1996, allows for Congressional disapproval of rules promulgated by administrative agencies under limited circumstances. Historically, the CRA had been used sporadically, but the current Congress has relied on the CRA on at least 16 occasions to roll back Obama administration regulations, and more CRA resolutions may be on the horizon.
In Center for Biological Diversity v. Zinke, the Center challenged the use of the CRA to invalidate a Department of Interior (DOI) rule which limited certain hunting and fishing practices on Alaskan National Wildlife Refuges. More specifically, the Center argued that the CRA unconstitutionally allowed Congress to alter DOI’s authority without using bicameralism and presentment to amend the underlying statutes that gave DOI its authority over the National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska. The Center also argued that the CRA’s prohibition on the issuance of a future rule in “substantially the same form” violates the separation of powers doctrine.
The district court dismissed the Center’s lawsuit, finding that “Public Law 115-20 was passed by both the House and the Senate and submitted to the President for approval as required by the CRA—which was also passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President. Thus, the requirements of bicameralism and presentment are met and [the Center’s] separation of powers concerns fail to state a plausible claim for relief.” The court further noted that “[a]ny injury caused by DOI’s inability to promulgate a substantially similar rule, in the absence of any assertion that DOI would otherwise do so, is too speculative to constitute a concrete or imminent injury and is insufficient to confer Article III standing.” The court also noted that even if the Center could establish an “injury in fact,” the Center had not adequately alleged how invalidating the CRA would redress the Center’s alleged injuries.
Although the CRA remains in full force and effect, one might wonder whether it will retreat back into the shadows at least until the next administration. The conventional view had been that Congress only has 60 days after a rule takes effect to pass a CRA resolution disapproving it. However, lawmakers in Congress are advancing a more novel interpretation of the CRA to review (and potentially disapprove) older rules (and guidance). If a rule or guidance was not officially “submitted” to Congress for review (and many apparently have not officially been submitted), then the current administration could now submit them for review which would restart the 60-day clock. For example, in April, the Senate voted to disapprove a 2013 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau guidance on auto loan financing. The House has not yet taken action on the resolution. If, however, the guidance were to be disapproved under the CRA, then the effect of that disapproval is that the agency will be unable to enact a “substantially similar” rule or guidance. That is really the true power of the CRA, and word is that members of Congress are reviewing older rules and guidance that could be the target of a CRA resolution. Whether the CRA remains a powerful tool this far into the Trump administration remains to be seen, but one can expect that the Center’s constitutional challenge to the CRA is unlikely to be the last.
Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA) has introduced a discussion draft of a bill that proposes to revise the definition of “modification” in the Clean Air Act (CAA) to “clarify when a physical change in, or change in the method of operation of, a stationary source constitutes a modification or construction.”
Under current law, EPA determines whether a change at an existing facility is a “modification” that requires new source review (NSR) by looking at whether the change increases the annual emission rate of an air pollutant. Under Congressman Griffith’s proposal, a change at an existing facility will only be a “modification” if it results in an increase to the hourly emission rate of an air pollutant. This change is significant because it would enable facilities to make changes that would allow them to operate for longer hours, thus increasing annual emissions, as long as the hourly emissions don’t increase.
The proposed bill also makes clear that the term “modification” does not include changes to an existing stationary source that reduce the amount of any air pollutant or that are designed to restore, maintain, or improve the reliability or safety of the source.
At the May 16, 2018, Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on the Environment hearing, William Wehrum, EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, told the subcommittee that he strongly supported the proposed bill. The Democrats on the subcommittee opposed the proposal and ranking member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) made a statement critical of the proposed bill:
On April 2, 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a potentially groundbreaking decision by holding that trespass and conversion claims arising from hydraulic fracturing are not precluded by the rule of capture. In reaching this conclusion, the court found that the Southwestern Energy Production Company (“Southwestern”) may have committed trespass when it extracted natural gas located under neighboring properties by draining the gas through fissures created from hydrofracturing fluid. Such a holding was almost universally thought to be precluded by the rule of capture. The rule of capture, which can be traced back to 18th century fox hunting, has historically been applied to find that oil and gas companies cannot be held liable for “capturing” oil and gas that drain naturally from neighboring land as a result of legal extraction activities. In differentiating hydraulic fracking from traditional oil and gas extraction, the court focused on the fact that hydraulic fracking actually pumps fluid across property lines to open up non-natural fissures that allow the natural gas to seep back across the property to be extracted.
The potential impact of the Pennsylvania court’s decision has spurred high levels of concern from the greater fracking industry. On the same day that Southwestern filed an appeal requesting an en banc rehearing of the decision, seven separate industry trade groups filed leave with the court seeking permission to file amicus briefs urging the court to grant Southwestern the rehearing. One of these groups, the Marcellus Shale Coalition (“MSC”), is a collection of approximately 200 producers, midstream, and local supply-chain companies that produce more than 95% of the natural gas in Pennsylvania. The group has asserted that the April 2nd ruling interrupts well-established law and creates an “unprecedented form of tort liability” that threatens the entire industry. In a similar filing, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry stressed that the decisions could have devastating effects on the industry and the economy of Pennsylvania. According to the American Petroleum Institute, the hydraulic fracking industry currently provides an estimated 322,600 jobs to Pennsylvania and contributes nearly $44.5 million in revenue to the state’s economy.
In Southwestern’s own appeal, the company echoed many of the concerns proclaimed by the industry. The company stressed that the decision would “unleash a torrent of speculative lawsuits” that could threaten the economic livelihood of the industry throughout the state. The company also characterized the April 2nd ruling as an impractical precedent for future decisions. Southwestern noted that the opinion would require courts and juries to speculate whether hydrofracturing fluid located miles below the surface ever moved onto neighboring property, which is a task the company portrayed as “a fool’s errand.”
The ultimate resolution of the matter has potentially far-reaching impacts on the U.S. energy markets. Behind Texas, Pennsylvania is the United States’ second largest producer of natural gas. The state generated 19 percent of the United States’ total output in 2017 and has seen steady gains in production output since 2010. Further, the decision raises questions about whether other state courts may adopt the logic of the Pennsylvania Superior Court and similarly hold that trespass and conversion claims against hydraulic fracking are not precluded by the historic rule of capture.
We will continue to track this case as it moves through the Pennsylvania courts.