The End for EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID 19 Pandemic

Song

By Leah M. Song

Covid-19On June 29, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) issued a termination addendum to the COVID‑19 temporary enforcement policy previously issued on March 26, 2020. As further discussed below, EPA’s temporary enforcement policy will now terminate no later than August 31, 2020. 

The temporary enforcement policy discussed EPA enforcement of environmental legal obligations during the COVID‑19 pandemic. The temporary policy made clear that the EPA expected regulated facilities to comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible. To be eligible for enforcement discretion, the policy also required facilities to document decisions made to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and demonstrate how the noncompliance was caused by the COVID‑19 pandemic. The temporary enforcement policy was analyzed in Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog here.

In the recent termination addendum, EPA pointed to various federal and state guidelines developed in response to the pandemic, but noted that as restrictions begin to be relaxed or lifted, so too are compliance obstacles. However, EPA also noted that in some states, the resurgence of COVID‑19 cases could result in a pause in reopening and EPA acknowledged that “there will be a period of adjustment as regulated entities plan how to effectively comply both with environmental legal obligations and with public health guidance.”

EPA therefore selected August 31, 2020, as the termination date for the temporary enforcement policy. EPA stated that the termination date reflects “the changing circumstances on facility operations, worker shortages, and other constraints caused by the public health emergency,” but “ensures that there is adequate time to adjust to the changing circumstances.”

EPA reminded entities that “[a]s stated in the temporary policy, entities should make every effort to comply with their environmental compliance obligations and the policy applies only to situations where compliance is not reasonably practicable as a result of COVID‑19” which “should become fewer and fewer.” EPA made clear that it “will not base any exercise of enforcement discretion on this temporary policy for any noncompliance that occurs after August 31, 2020.” However, EPA will still consider exercising its enforcement discretion on a “case-by-case basis regarding any noncompliance, including noncompliance caused by the COVID‑19 public health emergency, before or after the temporary policy is terminated.”

Finally, EPA floated the possibility that the temporary enforcement policy could terminate even before August 31, 2020. EPA will continue to assess national and state conditions, such as “the expiration or lifting of ‘stay at home’ orders” and “the status of federal and/or state COVID‑19 public health emergency guidelines.” In the event that EPA determines conditions warrant earlier termination of the policy, EPA will provide at least 7 days’ notice prior to termination of the policy. 

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on these matters, as well as other important COVID‑19 related guidance, as they unfold.


Trends in Climate Change Lawsuits: State Common Law Issues

Song

By Leah M. Song

EarthAs we have discussed in our previous blog posts, a growing form of climate change litigation in the United States consists of lawsuits filed by states or municipalities against private industry, and more specifically, the fossil-fuel industry. States, cities and other units of local government have filed lawsuits alleging state common law theories, including nuisance, trespass, failure to warn of the known impacts of climate change, and unjust enrichment.

The following cases are the primary cases that are currently ongoing: Rhode Island, Baltimore, Oakland, and San Mateo.

Defendants in these cases have universally tried to remove these cases to federal court where defendants presumably believe that they stand a much greater chance of getting the litigation dismissed. Generally, plaintiffs (including states, units of local government, and non-governmental organizations) asserting climate change claims against corporations prefer to be in state court where they can take advantage of perceived plaintiff-friendly common law or state statutes. On the other hand, defendants inevitably seek to remove such cases to federal court where they have had a higher level of success securing dismissals on the grounds that the issue is preempted by the Clean Air Act and/or addresses a “political question” which is better left to the discretion of Congress. See City of N.Y. v. BP P.L.C.. 325 F. Supp. 3d 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).

As further discussed below, in most of these cases, the district courts have remanded the cases back to state court and those decision have been appealed to the appellate courts. At the same time, defendants have sought to stay the court’s remand orders while the appeals proceed in federal court. These efforts to stay these remand orders have universally been unsuccessful, with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to stay these orders, as seen here.

The following provides a brief overview and status update on each of these cases:   

  • In Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. BP PLC, Baltimore brought action against various fossil-fuel companies for public nuisance, private nuisance, strict liability failure to warn, strict liability design defect, negligent design defect, negligent failure to warn, trespass, and violations of Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act. As noted above, defendants sought to remove the case to federal court but the district court remanded the case back to the state court.

On March 6, 2020, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s order remanding the case back to state court. The district court rejected each of the fossil-fuel companies’ stated grounds for removal, but the Fourth Circuit held that its appellate jurisdiction was limited to a review of the district court’s conclusion that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the federal-officer removal statute pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d) and 28 U.S.C. § 1442. The Fourth Circuit found none of the three contractual relationships on which the fossil-fuel companies based their claims for federal officer removal were sufficient to justify removal from state court, either because the relationships failed to satisfy the requirement that the fossil-fuel companies were “acting under” the direction of a federal officer or because the contractual relationships were “insufficiently related” to Baltimore’s claims for purposes of the nexus prong.

On March 31, 2020, the fossil-fuel companies filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court, seeking review of the question of whether the statutory provision prescribing the scope of appellate review of remand orders “permits a court of appeals to review any issue encompassed in a district court’s order remanding a removed case to state court where the removing defendant premised removal in part on the federal officer removal statute… or the civil-rights removal statute.” Baltimore’s response was due by April 30, 2020, but has been extended to June 29, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp. et al. was the first climate change damages case to be brought by a In this case, Rhode Island brought action against 21 different fossil-fuel companies for nuisance, strict liability, failure to warn, design defect, trespass, impairment of public trust resources, and violations of the Rhode Island Environmental Rights Act. Rhode Island’s lawsuit asserts that the state’s extensive coastline will be damaged through rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of flooding and ocean acidification. The fossil-fuel companies had removed to federal court and Rhode Island tried to remand back to state court. On July 22, 2019, the federal court ordered the litigation to be remanded back to Rhode Island state court. While acknowledging that at least two federal courts had reached opposite conclusions, the court held that Rhode Island’s climate change claims were not preempted by the Clean Air Act and did not implicate a substantial federal question such that removal to federal court was appropriate. With respect to the Clean Air Act, the court found that the statute did not act to preempt all state-law causes of action for air pollution, including Rhode Island’s claims against defendants for releases of greenhouse gases. In addition, the court held that Rhode Island’s claims did not implicate a substantial federal question because “[t]he rights, duties, and rules of decision implicated by the complaint are all supplied by state law, without reference to anything federal.”

Rhode Island promptly notified the First Circuit of the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Baltimore, noting that that the Fourth Circuit’s decision “rejects the exact arguments raised … as to the proper scope of … appeal” as well as the fossil-fuel companies’ “tenuous justification for federal officer removal.” In response, Chevron filed a letter seeking to distinguish the Baltimore decision on the grounds that the Fourth Circuit “considered itself bound by [c]ircuit precedent” and had based its holding that federal officer removal was inapplicable on an incorrect characterization of plaintiffs’ claims in that case.

  • On May 26, 2020, the Ninth Circuit joined the Fourth Circuit in Baltimore in concluding that these climate change cases alleging only state-common law claims (County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al. and City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al.) belonged in state court. In County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al., six California municipalities and counties sued more than 30 fossil-fuel companies in California state court. The plaintiffs brought a variety of claims under state common law including nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, and trespass. In City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al., the cities of Oakland and San Francisco sued five fossil-fuel companies in state court under a theory of nuisance. Defendants sought to remove both cases to federal court. The San Mateo district court remanded the case back to state court while the Oakland district court refused to remand its case, finding instead that plaintiffs’ public nuisance claims were governed by federal common law, but then proceeding to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to state a claim. Both cases were appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with plaintiffs that two climate change lawsuits had been improperly removed to the federal courts, continuing courts’ recent trend of remanding these types of cases back to state court. These cases were recently analyzed on Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer here.

Shortly after these rulings, both Rhode Island and Boulder filed letters informing the respective courts of the Ninth Circuit’s San Mateo and Oakland decisions.

Although San Mateo and Oakland did not address the merits of plaintiffs’ common-law claims, these cases will certainly pose challenges for defendants seeking to remove these types of cases to federal court, and will likely affect plaintiffs’ and defendants’ strategies in climate change litigation moving forward.

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on climate change litigation cases as they unfold.


PFAS SNUR Finalized Without “Safe Harbor” Provisions

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130By Steven M. Siros

Epa logoOn June 22, 2020, U.S. EPA issued a final TSCA significant new use rule (SNUR) for long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylate (LCPFAC) and perfluoroalkyl sulfonate (PFAS) chemical substances. Specifically, the SNUR designates as a significant new use manufacturing (including importing) or processing of (i) an identified subset of LCPFAC chemical substances for any use that was not ongoing as of December 15, 2015 and (ii) for all other LCPFAC chemical substances for which there were no ongoing uses as of January 21, 2015. 

The SNUR also makes inapplicable the exemption for persons who import LCPFAC chemical substances as part of the surface coating on articles (note that the SNUR narrows the scope of affected articles from all imported articles to only those articles that contain such a substance in a surface coating). The SNUR also makes inapplicable the exemption for persons who import PFAS chemical substances in carpets. Persons subject to this SNUR would be required to provide notification to U.S. EPA prior to manufacturing or importing these chemical substances which notification would trigger U.S. EPA’s TSCA review and evaluation of the intended use. 

The final SNUR did drop two controversial provisions that would have provided a “de minimis” exemption below which notification would not be required and a “safe harbor” provision that would have allowed article importers to avoid enforcement action if they could demonstrate that their use was ongoing prior to the rule’s effective date. 

In response to comments submitted on the proposed “safe harbor” provisions, U.S EPA noted that “[a] safe harbor approach undermines the regulatory process for what uses are allowed by permitting a manufacturer to claim a use was ongoing at the time the SNUR was issued” especially since manufacturers and/or importers were put on notice of the proposed SNUR five years ago. 

With respect to the proposed “de minimis” threshold for articles before the notification requirements would kick in, U.S. EPA  noted while it was not establishing a de minimis threshold in the final rule, U.S. EPA stated that it “will, however, continue to engage with interested stakeholders on this issue and continue to consider whether guidance for applying this standard may be appropriate in the future, whether as a general matter or, for instance, as applied to specific categories of substances or potential exposures.”

The SNUR will take effect 60 days after official publication in the Federal Register. 


U.S. OSHA Issues Guidance on Returning to Work

SongSigel

 

By Leah M. Song and Gabrielle Sigel 

Covid-19

 

On June 18, 2020, U.S. OSHA issued its “Guidance on Returning to Work,” (“Reopening Guidance”) compiling best practices and existing regulatory standards to assist employers and workers return to work and reopen businesses characterized as non-essential in the earlier weeks of the COVID‑19 pandemic. OSHA described the purpose of the Reopening Guidance as a supplement to OSHA’s first COVID-19 guidance for all employers, issued on March 9, 2020, titled “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID‑19,” and to the White House’s April 16, 2020 “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again,” both of which have been analyzed on the Jenner & Block Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog here and here, respectively.  In its news release introducing the Reopening Guidance, OSHA states that “[n]on-essential businesses should reopen as state and local governments lift  stay-at-home … orders, and follow public health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal requirements or guidelines.”

The Reopening Guidance states that it “focuses on the need for employers to develop and implement strategies. . .” for safe work after reopening. Although OSHA does not directly state that employers must have written reopening plans, OSHA’s Reopening Guidance provides the following “guiding principles” that employers’ reopening plans “should address”:

  • Hazard Assessment
  • Hygiene
  • Social distancing
  • Identification and Isolation of Sick Employees
  • Return to Work After Illness or Exposure
  • Controls
  • Workplace Flexibilities
  • Training
  • Anti-retaliation

(Reopening Guidance, pp. 6-10.) OSHA then provides suggestions on how to implement each of the “guiding principles.” Id. For instance, the Hazard Assessment guiding principle includes “practices to determine when, where, how, and to what sources of SARS-CoV-2 workers are likely to be exposed in the course of their job duties.” The Reopening Guidance provides several examples of how to implement hazard assessments, such as assessing job tasks to determine which involve occupational exposure to the virus and exposure to other members of the public or coworkers. In the discussion of the guiding principle of “Controls,” OSHA addresses PPE and makes clear, as it did in its Face Coverings guidance on June 10, 2020, that face coverings are not PPE. (Reopening Guidance, p. 8.) OSHA repeats this distinction regarding PPE in its discussion of the guiding principle of “Training.” OSHA states that although employers should train workers on how to don/doff, clean, store, maintain, and dispose of PPE, face coverings are not PPE, indicating that those training procedures are not for face coverings. (Reopening Guidance, p. 9.)  The CDC, however, has issued more comprehensive guidelines regarding use of face coverings.  OSHA concludes its discussion of the guiding principles by stating:  “Regardless of the types of infection prevention and control measures employers incorporate into their reopening plans, they should consider ways to communicate about those measures to workers, including through training … and providing a point of contact for any worker questions or concerns.”  

In the Reopening Guidance, OSHA reiterates what it states on its COVID‑19 webpage, that during the pandemic, employers continue to be responsible for complying with OSHA regulations. In the Reopening Guidance, OSHA provides an Appendix A organizing those regulatory requirements in table format. In addition, OSHA states that “[w]here there is no OSHA standard specific to SARS-CoV‑2, employers have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards” under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause. 29 CFR 654(a)(1). (Reopening Guidance, p. 11.)

The Reopening Guidance (pp. 11-16) concludes with a series of Employer FAQs, addressing the following topics:

  1. OSH Act does not prohibit worksite COVID‑19 testing, but OSHA cautions that a negative result may not indicate no hazard;
  2. OSH Act does not prohibit worksite temperature checks or health screenings;
  3. OSHA requirements when performing tests and screening, including to protect employees who are performing screenings and to maintain records generating employee medical information;
  4. Referencing the sources of other equal employment laws, other than the OSH Act, pertaining to health and medical issues;
  5. Referencing the CDC as the source of guidelines for a sick employee’s safe return to work; and
  6. Advising, in general, how employers can determine whether OSHA-required PPE is needed.

As with all its published guidance, OSHA states that it is “not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations.”

Please feel free to contact the authors with questions or for further information. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


U.S. Court of Appeals Denies AFL-CIO’s Petition for OSHA COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard

SongSigel

 

By Leah M. Song and Gabrielle Sigel 

Covid-19

 

On June 11, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (“AFL-CIO”) petition for a writ of mandamus to compel OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard for Infectious Diseases (“ETS”), providing regulations to protect workers against coronavirus exposure in the workplace.

The three-judge panel, consisting of Judges Henderson, Wilkins, and Rao, found that “OSHA reasonably determined that an ETS is not necessary at this time” given the “unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the regulatory tools that the OSHA has at its disposal to ensure that employers are maintaining hazard-free work environments, see 29 U.S.C. § 654(a).” The statutory section referenced by the court, includes the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“the OSH Act”), which states that each employer “shall 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 to his employees.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1). The statute also requires that each employer shall “comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(2). The panel held that “OSHA’s decision not to issue an ETS is entitled to considerable deference.”

Following the Court’s ruling, Solicitor of Labor Kate O’Scannlain and OSHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt stated in a news release: “We are pleased with the decision from the D.C. Circuit, which agreed that OSHA reasonably determined that its existing statutory and regulatory tools are protecting America’s workers and that an emergency temporary standard is not necessary at this time. OSHA will continue to enforce the law and offer guidance to employers and employees to keep America’s workplaces safe.” The ALF-CIO has the right to ask for a rehearing, including en banc, i.e., by all the judges appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit grew out of written requests that the AFL-CIO and more than 20 unions, including unions for healthcare workers, sent to OSHA in early March.  They asked OSHA to issue an ETS, rather than have employers rely solely on existing OSHA regulations and new COVID-19 guidance.  They requested an ETS that would include a requirement that all employers devise and implement an infection control plan and implement the necessary controls. After the AFL-CIO sent a letter on April 28, 2020, to the Secretary of Labor calling on the agency “to take immediate action to protect the safety and health of workers from exposure to COVID-19 on the job,” the Secretary responded two days later and stated that an ETS was not necessary.

On May 18, 2020, the AFL-CIO filed its petition for a writ of mandamus in the U.S. Court of Appeals to compel OSHA to issue an ETS within 30 days. The petition was based on Section 6(c) of the OSH Act, which states that OSHA “shall provide…for an emergency temporary standard to take immediate effect upon publication in the Federal Register if [it] determines (A) that employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards, and (B) that such emergency standard is necessary to protect employees from such danger.” 29 U.S.C. § 655(c)(1). The AFL-CIO argued in its court petition that the COVID-19 pandemic is “exactly the type of workplace catastrophe that Congress intended an emergency temporary standard to address.” Given the risks facing essential workers and those returning to work, the AFL-CIO requested an expedited briefing and disposition of the petition and for OSHA to be given 10 days to respond.

On May 29, 2020, OSHA filed its response to the AFL-CIO’s petition, describing its efforts to protect workers during the pandemic through enforcing “existing rules and statutory requirements” and providing “rapid, flexible guidance.” OSHA emphasized the extreme nature of an ETS and how an ETS is rarely used as it “imposes a mandatory standard immediately without public input” and “stays in place…until a permanent rule informed by comment is put in place just six months later.” OSHA argued that 1) the AFL-CIO failed to demonstrate legal standing to bring the petition for a writ of mandamus; 2) an ETS is not “necessary” given OSHA’s existing specific rules, the general duty clause and would otherwise be counterproductive to OSHA’s COVID-19 efforts; and 3) “an ETS would foreclose ongoing policy assessments by the executive branch, Congress, and the states.” The National Association of Home Builders of the United States and other business associations filed amicus curiae briefs in support of OSHA’s position.

On June 2, 2020, the AFL-CIO filed its reply brief  defending its legal standing to bring the case based on its representation of workers in highly impacted industries and that at least 660 of its members have died as a result of COVID-19. The AFL-CIO continued to stress that an ETS is necessary given the “urgent situation” and “grave danger” that COVID-19 presents. Additionally, the AFL-CIO stated that “Congress required OSHA to issue standards despite inevitable scientific uncertainty,” and an ETS does provide flexibility navigating new scientific information since “an ETS can be issued and modified without notice and comment.” The AFL-CIO clarified that the OSH Act requires the agency to issue an ETS, “not that it requires a static, uniform, or all-encompassing ETS.”

In denying AFL-CIO’s petition, the court did not address OSHA’s standing argument, ruling solely on the substance of AFL-CIO’s petition.

Of note, OSHA regulations do not have direct application to the 22 states who have their own state occupational safety and health agencies and regulations governing private employers. One of those “state plan states” is California.  On May 20, 2020, the Labor & Employment Committee of the National Lawyers Guild and Worksafe, a California nonprofit “dedicated to ensuring occupational safety and health rights of vulnerable workers,” filed a petition for a temporary emergency standard before the California Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board (“the Board”). The petitioners requested that the Board create two new California safety regulations. First, the petitioners requested “a temporary emergency standard that would provide specific protections to California employees who may have exposure to COVID-19, but are not protected by the Aerosol Transmissible Diseases standards (Sections 5199 and 5199.1).” The petitioners recommended that the Board consider their draft emergency temporary standard for the Board’s consideration of language for an emergency standard. The petitioners’ draft parallels the framework of the Injury and Illness Prevention Program, but adding COVID-19 related provisions, such as identifying an employee representative, establishing various procedures, and analyzing job hazards and implementing preventative measures. Second, the petitioners requested that the Board enter into “a permanent rulemaking effort to protect workers from infectious diseases including novel pathogens,” such as COVID-19. As of June 11, 2020, the Board has not yet issued its decision on the petition.

Please feel free to contact the authors with questions or for further information. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.

OSHA Faces FAQs on Face Coverings

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On June 10, 2020, in a series of six “frequently asked questions and answers” (Face Coverings FAQs), OSHA provided its first general guidance on the use of cloth face coverings in the workplace.  In announcing the FAQs, OSHA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Loren Swett, stated that it was issuing the guidance because “millions of Americans will be wearing masks in their workplace for the first time” and “OSHA is ready to help workers and employers understand how to properly use masks so they can stay safe and healthy in the workplace.”

The Face Coverings FAQs document is the first COVID-19 guidance that OSHA has provided in a Q&A format.  In this format, OSHA’s guidance may not provide straightforward answers to many employers’ questions.  For most employers, the most important takeaway from the Face Coverings FAQs is: Cloth face coverings are not OSHA-required personal protective equipment (“PPE”), which must be provided and paid for by an employer; however, an employer may recommend or require cloth face coverings as a method of non-PPE virus “source control” and as part of a COVID-19 infection response plan.  OSHA does not address whether employer-required cloth face coverings, when required as non-PPE “source control,” must be paid for by the employer.

Here are some key points from the Face Coverings FAQs:

  • Cloth face coverings are used to “contain the wearer’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks and to limit the spread of … the virus that causes … COVID-19, to others.” By “containing” droplets, rather than protecting the wearer against “droplets,” cloth face coverings are solely used for “source control”, not wearer protection.
  • “Source control” is to prevent people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic “from spreading potentially infectious respiratory droplets to others.”
  • Cloth face coverings, whether homemade or commercially produced, “are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE)” under OSHA’s PPE regulations, 29 CFR 1910.132.
  • Cloth face coverings are different from PPE, such as medical face masks (surgical masks) or respirators, because the sole purpose of cloth face coverings is as source control.
  • Because face coverings are not PPE, “OSHA’s PPE standards do not require employers to provide them.” However, “OSHA generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work,” as a method of source control.
  • Because cloth face coverings are not necessary PPE, an employer cannot be required under OSHA’s PPE standards to provide them at no cost to workers.
  • Employers can require cloth face coverings. Specifically, employers “may choose to ensure that cloth face coverings are worn as a feasible means of abatement in a control plan designed to address hazards from …the virus that causes COVID-19.” (emphasis added)  In those circumstances, employers are “choos[ing] to use cloth face coverings as a means of source control,” in combination with engineering and administrative controls, such as social distancing. 
  • Cloth face coverings cannot be a substitute for social distancing measures.
  • Cloth face coverings cannot be used by “those who have trouble breathing or are otherwise unable to put on or remove a mask without assistance.”
  • Employers “have discretion” as to “whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings…based on the specific circumstances present at the work site.” For example, an employer can determine that cloth face coverings cannot be used if they “present[] or exacerbate[] a hazard” or are incompatible with otherwise required PPE. 
  • If the employer determines that cloth face coverings are inappropriate, “employers can provide PPE, such as face shields and/or surgical masks,” instead of encouraging face masks. In a footnote, OSHA explains that when surgical masks are used solely for “source control,” they are not considered “PPE,” which would be required to be provided and paid for by the employer under the PPE regulations.
  • Neither cloth face coverings nor surgical masks can be used as a substitute for respirators, when respirators are required. Respirators prevent the wearer from inhaling small particles, and must be provided and used according to OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.134.
  • Per existing regulation, filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs), such as N95s, can be used by employees “voluntarily,” if they first receive certain required information regarding their use and hazards.
  • Even though cloth face coverings are not required pursuant to PPE regulations, OSHA twice refers to an employer’s statutory obligations under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” In those references, OSHA refers to using cloth face coverings as source covering one “feasible method” to address hazards from the virus in the workplace.

OSHA makes important distinctions between a cloth face coverings and “medical face masks”, of which surgical masks are an example. A surgical mask is not necessarily approved by the FDA as a medical device.  Both medical face masks and cloth face coverings fail to protect the wearer against airborne transmissible agents because of their loose fit, and both can be used to “contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets”, i.e., “source control”. However, in contrast with cloth face coverings, surgical masks can be PPE if they are used to “protect workers against splashes and sprays (i.e., droplets) containing potentially infectious materials.”  However, a surgical mask also may not be considered PPE, when it is used solely as “source control.” Thus, with respect to surgical masks, OSHA is making the distinction between PPE and non-PPE based on the purpose for which the employer uses it—if the mask is used solely for purposes of “source control,” it is not PPE; if the mask is used for wearer protection against others’ droplets, it is PPE.  However, because “cloth face coverings” are defined to exclude protecting the worker from others’ infection, if an employer is stating that it is using a piece of equipment as a method of wearer protection, the employer will be required to show that, in fact, the device can provide that protection and treat it as PPE.

OSHA’s references to the General Duty Clause are worth repeating and analyzing.  In the Face Covering FAQs, OSHA makes a distinction between what is required by existing regulations, such as the PPE or Respiratory Protection standards, and what may be required under the General Duty Clause.  In other guidance, OSHA has stated that the General Duty Clause is one of the "OSHA requirements" that “apply to preventing occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2.” In the first comprehensive guidance OSHA issued regarding COVID-19, at page 7, OSHA stated that developing an infectious disease response plan is a step that all employers can take to guard against the workplace risks of exposure to the virus.

In the context of the General Duty Clause, OSHA’s Face Covering FAQs guidance states that an employer’s “control plan designed to address hazards” from the virus and COVID-19 can include “control measures,” including engineering controls, administrative controls (such as social distancing), PPE, and different methods of virus “source control,” all as “feasible methods” to address the hazards. OSHA also describes non-PPE as a “means of abatement” under the General Duty Clause.  Thus, especially because of the potentially broad scope of the General Duty Clause, an employer would be well-advised to have a COVID-19 response plan, which should include an identification of the risk of workplace exposure (it may be low) and descriptions of engineering and administrative controls, PPE, and other controls for the risk of exposure to the virus in the workplace.  Consistent with the Face Coverings FAQs guidance, the response plan should carefully distinguish between equipment to be used as required PPE and equipment required or allowed to be used as “source control.”

Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information.  For regular updates about the impact of COVID 19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID 19 Resource Center.


U.S. EPA Limits States’ Veto Rights on Infrastructure Projects

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130By Steven M. Siros

 

Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), projects requiring federal permits or licenses that have the potential to result in point source discharge into waters of the United States must obtain a Section 401 water quality certification evidencing compliance with applicable state water quality standards.  Until this state certification is received, a project can’t obtain its federal permit or license. 

 

In response to claims that the states are unreasonably delaying Section 401 certifications and/or imposing requirements that go beyond the mandates of the CWA, U.S. EPA has issued a final rule clarifying the time period for states these certification reviews and limiting the conditions that can be imposed on a project as part of this certification process.  In a press release accompanying the final rule, U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated that “EPA is returning the Clean Water Act certification process under Section 401 from its original purpose, which is to review potential impacts from discharges from federally permitted projects may have on water resources, not to indefinitely delay or block critically important infrastructure.” 

 

Section 401 of the CWA requires certifying authorities to act on Section 401 certification requests within a “reasonable period of time” that shall not exceed one  year.  33 U.S.C. 1341(a)(1).  Federal licensing and permitting agencies are tasked in the final rule with establishing what constitutes a “reasonable period of time either categorically or on a case-by-case basis” but in no circumstances can the period exceed one year.  40 CFR § 121.6.    The final rule provides that the “reasonable period of time” starts to run once the certifying agency receives a “certification request” as opposed to running once the certifying authority deems the application or request “complete” as had been the historical practice.  

 

The final rule also clarifies that the state review is limited to ensuring compliance with water quality standards as opposed to addressing non-water quality related considerations  For example, U.S. EPA noted that certifying authorities have “on occasion required in a certification condition the construction of biking and hiking trails … and the creation of public access for fishing along waters of the United States.”  Certifying authorities have also attempted to address air emission and transportation effects as part of the certification process.  U.S. EPA's final rule specifically states that the Section 401 certification “is limited to assuring that a discharge from a Federally licensed or permitted activity will comply with water quality requirements.”  40 CFR  § 121.3.

 

Within this “reasonable time period” set by the permitting agency, certifying authorities can grant, grant with conditions or deny certification requests.  40 CFR § 121.7.  Certifying authorities may also waive the certification requirement, either expressly or by failing to act.  40 CFR § 121.9.  Section 401 certifications must include supporting information for each condition, including a statement explaining why the condition is necessary to assure that the discharge will comply with state water quality requirements.  Denials must state the reasons for denial, including the specific water quality requirements with which the discharge will not comply, and if the denial is for insufficient information, the denial must describe the specific information that would be required.  In the event that a certifying authority fails to comply with the procedural requirements governing the certification process, the final rule allows the permitting agency to deem that the certifying agency has waived its certification rights.  40 CFR § 121.9(a)(2). 

 

U.S. EPA's final rule has been praised by industry groups with the American Petroleum Institute issuing a statement that " the addition of a well-defined timeline and review process will provide certainty to operators as they develop infrastructure projects that meet state water quality standards."  The Natural Resources Defense Council, on the other hand, issued a statement claiming that the new rule "makes a mockery of this EPA's claimed respect for cooperative federalism." 

 

Please feel to contact the author with questions or for further information. For regular updates on breaking environmental, health and safety issues, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog.


The Ninth Circuit Sends Climate Change Cases Back to State Court

Song

By Leah M. Song

EarthOn May 26, 2020, the Ninth Circuit agreed with plaintiffs that two climate change lawsuits—County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al. and City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al.—had been improperly removed to the federal courts, continuing courts’ recent trend of remanding these types of cases back to state court.

A growing form of climate change litigation in the United States consists of lawsuits filed by states or municipalities against private industry, and more specifically, the fossil-fuel industry. States, cities and other units of local government have filed lawsuits alleging state common law theories, including nuisance, trespass, failure to warn of the known impacts of climate change, and unjust enrichment. The outcome of these cases thus far has hinged on whether or not the fossil fuel companies are able to successfully remove the litigation to federal court where they stand a much greater chance of getting the litigation dismissed. Generally, plaintiffs (including states, units of local government, and non-governmental organizations) asserting climate change claims against corporations prefer to be in state court where they can take advantage of perceived plaintiff-friendly common law or state statutes. On the other hand, defendants inevitably seek to remove such cases to federal court where they have had a higher level of success securing dismissals on the grounds that the issue is preempted by the Clean Air Act and/or addresses a “political question” which is better left to the discretion of Congress. See City of N.Y. v. BP P.L.C.. 325 F. Supp. 3d 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).

In County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al., six California municipalities and counties sued more than 30 fossil-fuel companies in California state court. The plaintiffs brought a variety of claims under state common law including nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, and trespass. In City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al., the Cities of Oakland and San Francisco sued five fossil-fuel companies in state court under a theory of nuisance. The fossil-fuel companies removed both cases to federal court. The San Mateo district court remanded the case back to state court while the Oakland district court refused to remand the case back to state court, finding that plaintiffs’ public nuisance claims were governed by federal common law, but then proceeding to dismiss the lawsuit. Both cases were appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

On May 26th, the Ninth Circuit joined the Fourth Circuit (Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. BP P.L.C., et al., No. 19-1644 (4th Cir. Mar. 6, 2020)) in concluding that these climate change cases alleging only state-common law claim belonged in state court. In County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al., the Ninth Circuit emphasized its limited authority to review an order remanding a case back to state court under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d). The Ninth Circuit therefore limited its review to determining whether the district court erred in holding that the federal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the federal-officer removal statute.

In order to determine whether the district court erred in holding that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction, the Ninth Circuit examined whether the companies were “acting under” a federal officer’s directions. The companies argued that they were “persons acting under” a federal officer based on several agreements with the government. However, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the companies’ activities under these agreements did not give rise to a relationship where they were “acting under” a federal officer. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit court held that the fossil fuel companies failed to meet their burden for federal-officer removal and therefore affirmed the district court’s remand order.

In City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al., the Ninth Circuit considered whether “the district court erred in determining that it had federal-question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331” and ultimately held that plaintiffs’ state common-law public nuisance claims did not arise under federal common law. The court acknowledged that there are exceptions to the well-pleaded complaint rule for claims that arise under federal law, but concluded that none of those exceptions applied here.

The court reasoned that “[t]he question whether the Energy Companies can be held liable for public nuisance based on production and promotion of the use of fossil fuels and be required to spend billions of dollars on abatement is no doubt an important policy question, but it does not raise a substantial question of federal law for the purpose of determining whether there is jurisdiction under § 1331.” Furthermore, evaluation of the public nuisance claim would require factual determinations which are “not the type of claim for which federal-question lies.” The fossil fuel companies argued that the plaintiffs’ public nuisance claim was completely preempted by the Clean Air Act, but the court was not persuaded.

In response to defendants’ argument that by amending their complaint to assert a federal common law claim, the district court properly had subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, the Ninth Circuit noted that plaintiffs only amended their complaint in response to the district court’s statements that plaintiffs’ claims were governed by federal common law. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit noted that since a party violates § 1441(a) “if it removes a cases that is not fit for federal adjudication, a district court must remand the case to state court, even if subsequent action conferred subject-matter jurisdiction on the district court.”

Notwithstanding these conclusions, the Ninth Circuit noted that the district court had not addressed alternative bases for removal raised by defendants and therefore remanded the case back to the district court. However, the Ninth Circuit specifically noted that if the district court concludes that there are no valid bases for federal jurisdiction, the case should be remanded back to state court.

Although these rulings did not address the merits of plaintiffs’ common-law claims, these cases will certainly pose challenges for defendants seeking to remove these types of cases to federal court, and will likely affect plaintiffs’ and defendants’ strategies in climate change litigation moving forward. Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on those matters, as well as other important climate change litigation cases, as they unfold.

 

New Executive Order Presses Agencies to Continue to Seek Regulatory Flexibility in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

Song

By Leah M. Song

Covid-19On May 19, 2020, the President issued an executive order titled “Regulatory Relief to Support Economic Recovery” (“Executive Order”). The Executive Order seeks to “overcome the effects the virus has had on [the] economy”  and to that end, directs agencies and executive departments to "continue to remove barriers to the greatest engine ever known: the innovation, initiative and drive of the American people."  To do so, executive departments and agencies are encouraged and directed to take appropriate action.

The Executive Order directs agencies to respond to the economic consequences of COVID‑19 by “rescinding, modifying, waiving, or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery.”  Agencies are directed, "to use, to the fullest extent possible and consistent with applicable law, any emergency authorities” to support the economic response to COVID-19. Agencies are charged with identifying “regulatory standards that may inhibit economic recovery” and take appropriate action to promote job creation and economic growth. This includes issuing proposed rules, exempting persons or entities from requirements, exercising appropriate temporary enforcement discretion or temporary time extensions.

The Executive Order further instructs agencies to provide compliance assistance for regulated entities and to “accelerate procedures by which a regulated person or entity may receive a pre-enforcement ruling.” Agencies should consider enforcement discretion policies for those that “have attempted in reasonable good faith to comply with applicable statutory and regulatory standards.” Additionally, the Executive Order emphasized that agencies should “consider the principles of fairness” and “revise their procedures and practices in light of them.” The Executive Order recommends that agencies review regulatory standards and “determine which, if any, would promote economic recovery if made permanent.”

Consistent with this Executive Order, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has previously issued a COVID-19-related policy regarding EPA's decision to exercise enforcement discretion with respect to non-compliance with certain environmental requirements (this enforcement policy was the subject of a prior Corporate Environmental blog).  Although EPA's enforcement discretion policy has been challenged by several states and environmental organizations, the Executive Order would seem to diminish the likelihood that EPA will rescind its enforcement discretion policy in the near term. 

Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


Employers are Back in the Workplace: So is OSHA!

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On May 19, 2020, in recognition of many more businesses opening their workplaces in response to governors modifying stay-at-home orders and the President’s urging businesses to reopen across the country, OSHA revised two of its prior COVID-19 enforcement policies, thereby informing employers that OSHA would no longer grant enforcement discretion regarding the recording of work-related COVID-19 exposure cases and that OSHA intended to conduct more onsite inspections of alleged workplace violations and complaints, particularly those focusing on COVID-19 issues. 

OSHA began its announced changes in enforcement policies by stating that, “The government and the private sector have taken rapid and evolving measures to slow the virus’s spread, protect employees, and adapt to new ways of doing business.”  The two revised policies are to “ensure employers are taking action to protect their employees” as workplaces reopen.  Both new policies go into effect on May 26, 2020.

OSHA’s first policy change is to its own enforcement procedures.  OSHA plans to increase in-person inspections of “all types of workplaces.”  OSHA stated that it can conduct more onsite inspections because the risk to OSHA inspectors is lower and the PPE that OSHA inspectors would need is “more widely available.” Thus, OSHA will rescind its April 13, 2020, Interim Enforcement Response Plan for COVID-19, which stated OSHA's temporary policy of suspending most onsite inspections in favor of written and telephonic communications with employers.  Under the May 26, 2020 Updated Interim Enforcement Response Plan, OSHA intends to return to its pre-pandemic approach for determining whether to respond to employee complaints by (a) in-person investigation; (b) non-formal telephonic investigations; and/or (c) requests that employers respond in writing to a complaint, such as through a Rapid Response Investigation in response to a reported fatality or work-related in-patient hospitalization.  However, in all cases, OSHA intends to “continue to prioritize COVID-19 cases.” 

OSHA’s updated policy also provides that in geographic areas with sustained or resurgent cases of community transmission, OSHA’s Area Directors have the discretion to prioritize onsite inspections for cases of fatalities and imminent danger exposures, particularly in “high-risk workplaces, such as hospitals and other healthcare providers treating patients with COVID-19 [and] workplaces with high numbers of complaints or known COVID-19 cases.”

OSHA’s second announced enforcement policy change concerns OSHA’s recordkeeping regulations, which obligates employers in many businesses with 10 or more employees to record certain cases of employee illness as a recordable case on OSHA-required logs of work-related injuries and illnesses.  The recordkeeping regulation provides that if the employee has a confirmed case of COVID-19, which is “work-related” as defined in OSHA regulation, 29 CFR § 1904.5, and for which the employee received medical treatment beyond first aid or days away from work (the latter almost always being the case), the employee’s illness is recordable. 

The challenge to employers in the case of a community-wide communicable disease is knowing whether the employee’s illness is “work-related.”  In OSHA’s April 10, 2020 enforcement discretion policy issued on this topic, OSHA recognized that for all workplaces except those with a high-risk of exposure to COVID-19-positive people (e.g., COVID-19 hospital wards and prisons), employers did not have to take action to determine whether an employee’s illness was due to a work-related exposure and thus recordable.  In the new OSHA policy, effective May 26, 2020, all employers, regardless of COVID-19 exposure risk levels, must determine whether an employee’s illness is work-related. 

However, OSHA recognizes that, “[g]iven the nature of the disease and ubiquity of community spread, … in many instances it remains difficult to determine whether a COVID-19 illness is work-related, especially when an employee has experienced potential exposure both in and out of the workplace.”  Thus, if the employer conducts a “reasonable and good faith inquiry” and the employer “cannot determine whether it is more likely than not that exposure in the workplace played a causal role…., the employer does not need to record that COVID-19 illness.” (Emphasis added.)

OSHA will consider whether an employer has made a “reasonable determination of work-relatedness” by evaluating:

  • The reasonableness of the employer's investigation into work-relatedness. OSHA states that employers should “not be expected to undertake extensive medical inquiries, given employee privacy concerns and most employers' lack of expertise in this area.” Instead, in response to known employee illness, the employer should “(1) ask the employee how he believes he contracted the COVID-19 illness; (2) while respecting employee privacy, discuss with the employee his work and out-of-work activities that may have led to the COVID-19 illness; and (3) review the employee's work environment for potential exposure,” including other cases in that environment.
  • The evidence available to the employer.“Available” evidence can be information both available at the time of the investigation and learned later by the employer.
  • The evidence that a COVID-19 illness was contracted at work. OSHA will evaluate “all reasonably available evidence… to determine whether an employer has complied with its recording obligation.” Such evidence can include clusters of cases in the work environment or whether the employee had “frequent, close exposure to the general public in a locality with ongoing community transmission” and in either case there is “no alternative explanation.”  On the other hand, a case is “likely not work-related,” if the employee had “close” and “frequent” exposure to someone outside the workplace who was infectious during the relevant time period.

Especially because OSHA can do its own post hoc determination of the reasonableness of the employee’s decision, employers should document their investigation of each case of an employee COVID-19 illness.

OSHA ends its revised policy by cautioning employers that, regardless of whether an employee’s illness is recordable, “as a matter of health and safety” [subtext: subject to potential OSHA enforcement], the employer should respond to protect other workers when it learns that one employee has become ill.  OSHA does not describe, however, what those next steps should be.

Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information.  For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


U.S. EPA Extends Comment Period on PFAS Safe Drinking Water Act Regulatory Determination to June 10, 2020

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130By Steven M. Siros

Epa logoAs discussed in more detail in a previous blog, on February 20, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“U.S. EPA”) announced that it was seeking public comments on its preliminary regulatory determination that seeks to implement regulatory limits for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in public drinking water across the United States.  The regulatory determination is a key step in the creation of a Maximum Contamination Level (“MCL”) that will act to limit the quantity of PFAS permitted in public drinking water. 

In its preliminary regulatory determination, U.S. EPA proposes setting MCL levels for two PFAS substances, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which EPA has determined meet the statutory criteria to become regulated contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  To meet this criteria, U.S. EPA had to find that: (1) the consumption of PFOS and PFOA may result in adverse health effects; (2) PFOS and PFOA have been identified in public water supplies at frequencies and levels sufficient to cause a public health concern; and (3) that new regulation presents a meaningful opportunity to reduce the health risks posed by PFOS and PFOA.

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and the American Water Works Association (collectively “AMWA”) submitted comments that were supportive of setting an MCL for PFOS and PFOA. In addition to targeting PFOA and PFOS, the AMWA recommended that U. S. EPA also include four other long-chain PFAS compounds in its regulatory determination. AMWA also recommended that U.S. EPA “thoroughly consider state standards and guidelines with significantly lower PFAS levels that [U.S. EPA’s] Health Advisory Level (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for combined concentrations of PFOA and PFOS.”

The AMWA also requested that U.S. EPA extend the comment period an additional 30 days to allow the AMWA to more fully engage with its members and to provide more meaningful and comprehensive comments on the proposal. To that end, U.S. EPA has now agreed to extend the comment period an additional 30 days May 10th to June 10th.

Illinois Judge Blocks Current and Future Extensions of Illinois Stay-at-Home Order

Lawson Headshot SongBy Matthew G. Lawson and Leah M. Song

PritzkerOn Monday, April 27, 2020, Illinois Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney temporarily blocked enforcement of Illinois Governor JB Pritzker's March 20, 2020 stay-at-home order, which had been extended through April 30, by granting a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) sought by Illinois State Representative (R) Darren Bailey.  As issued, the judge’s decision prohibits Governor Pritzker from enforcing the pending stay-at home order—or any future executive orders that require home quarantine—against Rep. Bailey.

As background to the lawsuit, on March 9, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Pritzker issued an Executive Order, declaring all counties within Illinois as disaster areas (the “Disaster Declaration”). Governor Pritzker’s Disaster Declaration was issued pursuant to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act, 20 ILCS 3305 et seq. (“Illinois Emergency Act”). On March 20, pursuant to the Governor’s authority under the Illinois Emergency Act, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-10, which requires “individuals currently living within the State of Illinois…to stay at home or at their place of residence” (“the March Stay-at-Home Order”). The March Stay-at-Home Order provides an exception allowing individuals to leave the home to engage in an enumerated list of “essential activities,” including tasks essential to health and safety, certain approved outdoor activities, and to perform work for essential businesses. The March Stay-at-Home Order was originally set to end on April 7, 2020, but on April 1, Governor Pritzker issued an extension of the March Stay-at-Home Order through April 30, 2020, and on April 23, the Governor announced his intent to further extend the order through May 30, 2020.

On April 23, 2020, Rep. Bailey—whose district includes Clay County, Illinois—filed a complaint in the Clay County Circuit Court alleging that Governor Pritzker’s April 1 extension of the stay-at-home order exceeded the authority afforded to the Governor under the Illinois Emergency Act.  Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the Illinois Emergency Act grants certain enumerated powers to the Illinois Governor following the proclamation of a “public health emergency,” but that Section 7 of the Illinois Emergency Act limits these authorities to “a period not to exceed 30 days” following the declaration.  Thus, Rep. Bailey alleges that any extension of the stay-at-home order beyond April 8, 2020—i.e, more than 30 days beyond the March 9 Disaster Declaration, is void and that the Governor’s publicly announced plan to extend the Executive Order through May 30, 2020 is “void ab initio”. The lawsuit further alleges that Governor Pritzker’s unauthorized use of the Illinois Emergency Act has impermissibly limited Rep. Bailey’s constitutionally protected freedoms to travel within the state of Illinois. The complaint requests a declaratory judgment that Governor Pritzker’s April 1 extension of the March Stay-at-Home Order is void, and seeks a permanent injunction enjoining Governor Pritzker, or anyone under his authority, from enforcing the March Stay-at-Home Order, at any time, against Rep. Bailey.

On the same date that he filed his complaint, Rep. Bailey filed a motion seeking a TRO to enjoin Governor Pritzker from enforcing the March Stay-at-Home Order against him or entering any further executive orders as a result of the Disaster Declaration that would limit Rep. Bailey’s ability to travel within the state. To obtain a TRO, under Illinois law, the movant must establish: (1) a protectable right; (2) irreparable harm; (3) an inadequate remedy at law; and (4) a likelihood of success on the merits. See ­­­­­­ Smith v. Dep't of Nat. Res., 35 N.E.3d 1281, 1287 (Ill. App. Ct. 5th Dist. 2015). In its order granting the TRO, the circuit court found that Rep. Bailey had “shown he will suffer irreparable harm if the [TRO] is not issued” and had “shown he has no adequate remedy at law or in equity in that absent a [TRO] being entered, plaintiff, will continue to be isolated and quarantined in his home.” The court’s order provided that the TRO will stay in effect until “a date to be agreed upon by the parties, not to exceed 30 days from [April 27] wherein [plaintiff’s motion for] a preliminary injunction will be heard on that date.”

On Tuesday, April 28, 2020, Governor Pritzker filed a notice of interlocutory appeal to the Appellate Court of Illinois, Fifth Judicial District, requesting that the court reverse and vacate Judge McHaney’s decision and dissolve the TRO. Both Bailey and Pritzker will have an opportunity to file briefs before the appellate court. A date for oral argument before the court has not been set. “We are certainly going to act in a swift action to have this ruling overturned,” Pritzker said in a press briefing following the original decision. “Representative Bailey’s decision to go to the courts is an insult to all Illinoisans who have been lost during this COVID-19 crisis. It’s a danger to millions of people who might get ill because of his recklessness.” 

While Judge McHaney’s ruling states that it only prohibits enforcement against Rep. Bailey, the lawsuit potentially opens the door for others in Illinois to file similar lawsuits or to resist compliance with the Governor’s Executive Orders issued since April 7, 2020.  In addition, the complaint seeks a declaration that the stay-at-home order is void which arguably could have state-wide effect. In a statement concerning the lawsuit, Rep. Bailey said that he filed the complaint “on behalf of myself and my constituents who are ready to go back to work and resume a normal life,” although the TRO and Complaint as written did not state that it applied to any person other than Rep. Bailey. In the meantime, Governor Pritzker vowed to continue issuing new public health directives, as he deemed necessary, while the case remained unresolved.


USEPA Warns E-Commerce Platforms to Scrub Fake Coronavirus Disinfectant Products

Lawson HeadshotBy Matthew G. Lawson

COVID-19 (2)As discussed in a prior post on Corporate Environmental Lawyer, on January 29, 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”) activated its “Emerging Viral Pathogens Guidance for Antimicrobial Pesticides” (the “Guidance”) to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the cause of COVID-19, in the United States.  The Guidance allowed manufacturers of disinfecting/antimicrobial products that are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to revise their FIFRA registration and promote their products’ effectiveness against specific “emerging pathogens,” including the Coronavirus.  Relying on the Guidance, manufacturers can revise their FIFRA registrations to provide a statement of their products’ efficacy against the pathogen “in technical literature distributed to health care facilities, physicians, nurses, public health officials, non-label-related websites, consumer information services, and social media sites.” 

As of April 23, 2020, USEPA’s expedited FIFRA review process has produced a list of nearly 400 different disinfectant products approved by USEPA as being effective against the Coronavirus.  “During this pandemic, it’s important that people can easily find the information they’re looking for when choosing and using a surface disinfectant,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “With this expanded list, EPA is making sure Americans have greater access to as many effective and approved surface disinfectant products as possible and that they have the information at their fingertips to use them effectively,” Wheeler continued.

In addition to providing the opportunity for an expedited review of disinfectant products, USEPA has taken the additional step of initiating enforcement actions against companies and individuals accused of selling illegal products that claim to protect again the Coronavirus.  For example, on March 25, 2020, USEPA announced that it had seized shipments of an illegal health product, “Virus Shut Out,” which claimed to protect users from the Coronavirus.  Because no effort was made to secure a proper FIFRA-registration for the product, USEPA stated that the untested product had the potential to be “harmful to human health, cause adverse effects, and may not be effective against the spread of germs.”

On April 23, 2020, USEPA took the additional step of warning numerous e-commerce companies, including Facebook Inc., eBay Inc., Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., and others, that their platforms were being used to sell unregistered disinfectant products that fraudulently claimed to be effective against the Coronavirus.  The e-commerce platforms were instructed by USEPA to “take action against these dishonest dealers and immediately take these illegal products off of their sites.”  USEPA’s warning indicated that any business failing to properly monitor its platform would be subject to enforcement proceedings under FIFRA.  USEPA’s threatened actions would not be the first time the agency brought enforcement actions against online retailers for selling unregistered products in violation of FIFRA.  In February 2018, USEPA entered into a settlement agreement with Amazon Services LLC (“Amazon”) for nearly 4,000 violations of FIFRA, dating back to 2013.  Under the terms of the agreement, Amazon was required to pay a civil penalty of approximately $1.2 million and implement more stringent controls to ensure unregistered products were not sold on its platform.

Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information about the FIFRA registration and recent USEPA warning.  For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


Supreme Court Expands the Reach of Clean Water Act Permitting Authority

HawaiiTorrence_jpgBy Allison A. Torrence

On April 23, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision on the reach of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). The Court’s decision in County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Case No. 18–260, addresses whether the CWA requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source such as groundwater. In a 6-3 opinion, the Court held that CWA permitting authority extended to indirect discharges that are the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan and Kavanaugh. Justice Kavanaugh also wrote a concurring opinion and Justices Thomas, Gorsuch and Alito dissented.

At issue in the case was the County of Maui’s wastewater reclamation facility located on the island of Maui, Hawaii. The County pumps partially treated sewage through four injection wells hundreds of feet underground. After injection, the effluent travels approximately a half mile through groundwater to the Pacific Ocean.

The case came up from the Ninth Circuit, which had ruled that a permit was required when “the pollutants are fairly traceable from the point source to a navigable water such that the discharge is the functional equivalent of a discharge into the navigable water.” Hawaii Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, 886 F. 3d 737, 749 (9th Cir. 2018) (emphasis added). The Supreme Court took issue with the Ninth Circuit’s fairly traceable standard, explaining that “[v]irtually all water, polluted or not, eventually makes its way to navigable water” and thus, the lower court’s standard would give EPA broad new permitting authority not supported by the CWA’s statutory language or legislative history. Slip Op. at 5.

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Supreme Court issues Landmark CERCLA Ruling Finding that State Law Challenges to USEPA Cleanup Can Be Raised in State Court (But Plaintiffs Still Lose)

Siros Lawson HeadshotBy Steven M. Siros and Matthew G. Lawson

On Monday, April 20, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued a key opinion regarding the preclusive effect of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Recovery Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. Section 9601, on state common law remedies within Superfund Sites.  In Atlantic Richfield v. Christian, Case No. 17-1498, the Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part a decision by the Montana Supreme Court that “restoration claims” asserted by private property owners could go forward against a potentially responsible party (PRP) that had previously settled its CERCLA liability with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). 

The case involves the Anaconda Smelter Site, a Superfund site covering 300 square miles of property contaminated by historical smelter and ore processing operations.  In 1983, USEPA identified Atlantic Richfield Co. as a PRP for the site’s contamination and the parties entered into a settlement agreement that required Atlantic Richfield to investigate and remediate the site under the oversight of USEPA.  In the 37 years since, USEPA has managed an extensive cleanup at the site, which included the removal of 10 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and capping in place an additional 500 million cubic yards of waste over 5,000 acres.  Atlantic Richfield estimates that it has spent approximately $450 Million USD remediating the site and that its cleanup is nearly complete. 

However, the USEPA-mandated cleanup standards were deemed insufficient by a number of local landowners who allege that their properties remain damaged by Atlantic Richfield’s contamination.  The landowners asserted common law tort claims against Atlantic Richfield seeking funds to remediate their properties—located within the Superfund Site—beyond the levels required by the USEPA-approved remedy.  For example, the plaintiffs sought funding to remediate arsenic levels in their properties’ soil to a level of 15 parts per million, rather than the 250 parts per million limit approved by USEPA.  In total, the additional cleanup efforts sought by plaintiffs are estimated to cost Atlantic Richfield an additional $50 to $58 million in cleanup costs.  Following the Montana Supreme Court’s holding that the landowner’s restitution claims could proceed in spite of Atlantic Richfield’s settlement with USEPA and the ongoing cleanup effort, Atlantic Richfield appealed the issue to the Supreme Court.

Continue reading "Supreme Court issues Landmark CERCLA Ruling Finding that State Law Challenges to USEPA Cleanup Can Be Raised in State Court (But Plaintiffs Still Lose)" »

OSHA Promises Relaxed Enforcement during Pandemic if Employers Make “Good Faith Effort” to Comply with Non-Achievable Recurring Requirements

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 Song

By Gabrielle Sigel  and Leah M. Song

Covid-19

 

On April 17, 2020, OSHA posted an April 16, 2020 enforcement guidance, which, for the first time, recognized that due to COVID-19, employers were not able to feasibly comply with a wide-range of OSHA regulatory requirements.  In a memorandum titled, “Discretion in Enforcement when Considering an Employer’s Good Faith Efforts during the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic” (“Good Faith Guidance”).  OSHA instructed its Compliance Officers that they should exercise enforcement discretion and not issue citations for regulatory violations if employers made a “good faith effort” but ultimately could not comply with regulations requiring “annual or recurring audits, reviews, training, or assessments” (collectively, “Recurring Requirements”).  The Good Faith Guidance takes effect immediately, applies to all OSHA-regulated industries, and continues “until further notice.”

In support of its enforcement discretion decision, OSHA found that, due to widespread business shutdowns in response to COVID-19, many employers were not able to perform certain mandatory Recurring Requirements, such as annual audiograms, Process Safety Management revalidations and reviews, respirator spirometry testing, annual training requirements, and inspection, certification, and relicensing activities.  As further support, OSHA noted that the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine had advised that all occupational spirometry testing for respirator use be suspended, and the Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation recommended that all audiometric evaluations be suspended. 

Given these circumstances, OSHA stated that an employer should not be cited for failure to comply with Recurring Requirements if the employer demonstrates that it made “good faith efforts,” as follows:

  • “Thoroughly explored all options” to comply with regulatory requirements, such as virtual or remote trainings;
  • Implemented any interim alternative protections, such as engineering or administrative controls;
  • Took steps to reschedule the required annual activity as soon as possible; and
  • Ensured that employees were not exposed to hazards from tasks, processes, or equipment for which they were not prepared or trained

If an employer was unable to comply with Recurring Requirements because the workplace was required to close entirely, the employer should demonstrate a “good faith attempt to meet the applicable requirements as soon as possible following the re-opening of the workplace.” 

Given the Good Faith Guidance, employers would be well-advised to document their good faith efforts to comply with Recurring Requirements and why it was not possible to comply.  Although OSHA Compliance Officers have been directed to take an employer’s good faith efforts into “strong consideration” before issuing a citation, the Compliance Officer must document the regulatory violation and the good faith efforts in its case file.  In addition, in a program to be developed “at a later date,” OSHA plans to conduct monitoring inspections of locations where violations occurred but were not cited to “ensure that corrective actions have been taken once normal activities resume.”

The Good Faith Guidance supplements other previously issued OSHA enforcement discretion guidance memos and enforcement directives arising out of the COVID-19 health emergency, which have been analyzed in Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.

For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center and the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.


White House Reopening Guidelines: How Will Workplaces Open Up Again?

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On April 16, 2020, the White House issued “Guidelines:  Opening Up America Again”  (Guidelines), with criteria for how state and local officials, employers and individuals should approach reopening segments of their communities after various stay-at-home orders, essential-business regimens and other social distancing measures that Federal, State and local governments have issued in response to the coronavirus and COVID-19. 

The Guidelines recommend a three-phased approach to reopening, with “Gating Criteria” before States can begin Phase One.  An important component to the Guidelines are the directions to all employers and to industry-specific employers.  In general, until a state or locality is in Phase Two, when schools are allowed to reopen, burdens on employers and employees will not significantly diminish.  It is only in Phase Three that the workplace will begin to resemble “pre-COVID-19” conditions.

The “Gating Criteria” for States, before Phase One can begin, include 14-day downward trajectories in symptoms and cases, having non-crisis care treatment of all patients, and having a “robust program” for testing “at-risk” healthcare workers.  In addition, the Guidelines describe “Core State Preparedness Responsibilities” regarding testing, contact tracing, healthcare system capacity and other safety and health plans for the community, before Phase One can begin.  One of the “Core State Preparedness Responsibilities” is to “protect the health and safety of workers in critical industries.” 

The Guidelines include specific recommendations for employers in all phases of the reopening process, as follows: 

Develop and implement appropriate policies, in accordance with Federal, State, and local regulations and guidance, and informed by industry best practices, regarding:

  • Social distancing and protective equipment
  • Temperature checks
  • Testing, isolation and contact tracing
  • Sanitation
  • Use and disinfection of common and high-traffic areas
  • Business travel

Monitor workforce for indicative symptoms. 

Do not allow symptomatic people to physically return to work until cleared by a medical provider.

Develop and implement policies and procedures for workforce contact tracing following employee COVID+ test.

Compliance with these Guidelines can impose on employers significant costs, business interruptions and other burdens.  For example, due to personnel and supply chain shortages, many employers will have limited ability to conduct temperature and symptom checks or to provide protective equipment.  In addition, effective contact tracing within the workplace can be procedurally difficult, time-consuming and require additional, trained personnel.

The Guidelines also have more specific directions impacting employers for each phase of reopening.

Phase One

In Phase One, the Guidelines discourage gatherings of more than 10 people, such as trade shows, minimize non-essential travel and recommend that “vulnerable individuals” continue to shelter in place.  “Vulnerable individuals” are those who are “elderly” (an undefined term) or who have “serious underlying health conditions.”  The Guidelines remind individuals that if someone has a vulnerable individual in the household “by returning to work or other environments where distancing is not practical, they could carry the virus back home.” 

These precautions can make certain workers reluctant to return to work and may require additional flexibility or hiring criteria by employers.  In addition, in Phase One, schools and organized youth activities are to remain closed, which will place burdens and challenges on all businesses, whether they seek to remain open or to reopen anew. 

Under the Guidelines, all employers are to do the following in Phase One:

  • Continue to ENCOURAGE TELEWORK whenever possible and feasible with business operations.
  • If possible, RETURN TO WORK IN PHASES.
  • Close COMMON AREAS where personnel are likely to congregate and interact, or enforce strict social distancing protocols.
  • Minimize NON-ESSENTIAL TRAVEL and adhere to CDC guidelines regarding isolation following travel.
  • Strongly consider SPECIAL ACCOMMODATIONS for personnel who are members of a VULNERABLE POPULATION.

Reopening of restaurants is not generally addressed in the Guidelines, except in the context of “large venues,” which in Phase One “can operate under strict physical distance protocols.”  Examples of “large venues” are “sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues and places of worship.”  Bars are recommended to remain closed, but gyms may re-open, with protections.  Senior Living facilities and hospital should remain on shut-down to outside visitors, but elective surgeries can resume with precautions.

Phase Two

Most importantly for employers, schools and youth activities can reopen in Phase Two.  However, precautions about protecting vulnerable individuals continue, including the concern about workers in the same household potentially affecting those individuals.

The concern about public gatherings and social settings is targeted to groups of more than 50 people, unless “precautionary measures are observed.”  Examples or a definition of “precautionary measures” are not provided.  In this phase, non-essential travel can be resumed for individuals and in the workplace. 

For all employers, the Phase Two Guidelines recommend:

  • Continue to ENCOURAGE TELEWORK whenever possible and feasible with business operations.
  • Close COMMON AREAS where personnel are likely to congregate and interact, or enforce moderate social distancing protocols.
  • NON-ESSENTIAL TRAVEL can resume.
  • Strongly consider SPECIAL ACCOMMODATIONS for personnel who are members of a VULNERABLE POPULATION.

“Large venues” can operate under “moderate physical distancing protocols,” another term which is undefined.  Bars can reopen “with diminished standing-room occupancy, where applicable and appropriate.”

Phase Three

Phase Three has limited directions or restrictions on the workplace.  “Vulnerable individuals can resume public interactions” but should practice physical distancing and undefined “precautionary measures.”  All other populations “should consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.”  Employers, however, can “resume unrestricted staffing.”  Large venues are recommended to “operate under limited physical distancing protocols” and bars can increase standing room occupancy.

Some level of physical distancing and undefined “precautionary measures” are to be maintained throughout all three phases described in the Guidelines.  The Guidelines do not provide a marker for when the protections described in the last, Third Phase, can be lifted. 

Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information.  For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Releases Compliance Guidance for COVID-19 Pandemic

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By Steven M. Siros and Leah M. Song  Covid-19

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (“IEPA”) posted a Compliance Expectations Statement (the “Statement”) as guidance during the COVID-19 crisis. As discussed in the Jenner & Block Corporate Environmental Lawyer previous blog post, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“U.S. EPA”) recently issued its own temporary guidance regarding exercise of its enforcement discretion during the COVID-19 situation. U.S. EPA acknowledged that the individual states should issue their own guidance based on each state’s specific COVID-19 situation. Consistent with that guidance, IEPA issued its Statement.

Importantly, IEPA’s Statement is not intended to be used as a “get out of jail” card. At the beginning, the Statement specifically notes that “[a]ll regulated entities are expected to take every possible step to ensure ongoing compliance with environmental requirements, including all terms and conditions contained in permits, so that all regulated facilities or activities are operated and maintained in a manner safe for human health and the environment.” However, if a regulated entity is unable to comply with environmental requirements because of Governor Pritzker’s Executive Order 2020-10 and disaster proclamations, IEPA acknowledges that enforcement discretion may be appropriate.

IEPA acknowledges that it will exercise enforcement discretion in “situations brought on by, and directly related to, responses to COVID-19 that will not create or result in harm or risk to human health or the environment.” These situations will be “considered on a case-by-case basis” and will involve “interaction between the regulated entity and the Agency prior to the potential noncompliance to allow full discussion of the circumstances.” Compliance will be expected as soon as possible following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

Notably, this approach does not extend to critical infrastructure, such as drinking water or wastewater facilities, nor will it allow for any practice, action, or event that could create or result in harm or risk to human health or the environment.

The key takeaway for regulated entities with respect to the IEPA Statement, U.S. EPA’s temporary guidance, and other similar state guidance relating to enforcement discretion in connection with the COVID-19 situation is to communicate early and often with the regulators. As a general matter, it has been our experience that most state regulators are willing to work with regulated entities to streamline reporting and/or other obligations so long as that streamlining process does not result in an increased risk of harm to human health or the environment.  

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on these matters, as well as other important COVID-19 related guidance, as they unfold.


OSHA to Manufacturers: Coronavirus "Safety Tips” in an “Alert” to Manufacturing Employers

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On April 16, 2020, OSHA released an “alert” with “safety tips” that manufacturing employers “can follow to help protect manufacturing workers from.”  (“Manufacturers Alert”) (emphasis added).  Although the “alert” is not a regulation which OSHA can directly enforce, OSHA may attempt to use an alert as a basis for imposing liability on employers under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause.  In any case, employers should expect that OSHA compliance officers will use the Manufacturers Alert to evaluate enforcement options in response to employee complaints about coronavirus exposure in the workplace.  In addition, employees may view the Manufacturers Alert as a checklist to evaluate their workplaces and for complaints to OSHA and their employers.  The full list of OSHA’s “tips” are provided at the end of this article.

OSHA’s Manufacturers Alert was issued on the same day that the White House issued its guidelines for “Opening Up America Again” (“the Guidelines”).  The Guidelines include recommendations specifically targeted to employers prior to a State or region reopening for business.  Notably, OSHA’s Manufacturers Alert did not include several precautions or directions to employers that were listed in the Guidelines, including directions to employers to conduct symptom monitoring, temperature checks, and contact tracing, and to obtain clearance by a medical provider before a symptomatic worker can return to the workplace.

According to the Guidelines, all employers should:

Develop and implement appropriate policies, in accordance with Federal, State, and local regulations guidance, and informed by industry practices, regarding:

  • Social distancing and protective equipment
  • Temperature checks
  • Testing, isolating, and contact tracing
  • Sanitation
  • Use and disinfection of common and high-traffic areas
  • Business travel

Previously, OSHA published “Ten Steps All Workplaces Can Take to Reduce Risk of Exposure to Coronavirus.”  The Manufacturers Alert adds six-foot physical distancing to those “Ten Steps” and tells manufacturing employers to consider limiting closer work or taking “innovative approaches” to limit exposures during closer work.  Unlike the Ten Steps, the Manufacturers Alert also includes directions to allow workers to wear masks at work and to train workers on donning, doffing, and maintaining protective clothing and equipment.

OSHA’s Manufacturers Alert lists the following 12 “tips:”

  • Encourage workers to stay home if they are sick.
  • Establish flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), if feasible.
  • Practice sensible social distancing and maintain six feet between co-workers, where possible.
  • For work activities where social distancing is a challenge, consider limiting the duration of these activities and/or implementing innovative approaches, such as temporarily moving or repositioning workstations to create more distance or installing barriers (e.g., plexiglass shields) between workstations.
  • Monitor public health communications about COVID-19 recommendations for the workplace and ensure that workers have access to and understand that information.
  • Train workers on how to properly put on, use/wear, take-off, and maintain protective clothing and equipment.
  • Allow workers to wear masks over their nose and mouth to prevent spread of the virus.
  • Encourage respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes.
  • Discourage workers from using other workers’ tools and equipment.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency-approved cleaning chemicals from List N or that have label claims against the coronavirus.
  • Promote personal hygiene. If workers do not have access to soap and water for handwashing, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60 percent alcohol. Provide disinfectants and disposable towels workers can use to clean work surfaces.
  • Encourage workers to report any safety and health concerns.

For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


EPA Issues Guidance on COVID-19 Impacts for Ongoing Cleanups

 

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By Steven M. Siros and Leah M. Song

Covid-19Building on its  March 26, 2020 temporary enforcement policy, on April 10, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) issued its interim guidance regarding new or ongoing cleanup activities during the COVID-19 situation.

The interim guidance focuses on decision making at emergency response and longer term cleanups sites where EPA is the lead agency or has direct oversight of, or responsibility for, the cleanup work. This includes, but is not limited to, Superfund cleanups, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) corrective actions, Toxic Substance and Control Act PCB cleanups, Oil Pollution Act spill responses, and Underground Storage Tank Program actions.

Discretion Vested With the Individual Regions

In general, the interim guidance vests each EPA Region with the authority to make site-specific decisions taking into consideration the possible impact of COVID-19 on sites, surrounding communities, EPA personnel, and response/cleanup partners. Importantly, at sites where the Region determines that work should move forward, the Region is charged with reviewing each site’s health and safety plan (“HASP”) to ensure that it appropriately incorporates CDC’s and other relevant COVID-19 guidelines.

Key Factors For Making Site Work Decisions

The interim guidance outlines a series of site-specific factors that should guide Region’s when making determinations as to whether field response actions will continue, be reduced, or be paused. When making this assessment, Regions are directed to consider all relevant site-specific factors, including but not limited to (i) the safety and availability of work crews, EPA, state or tribal staff; (ii) the critical nature of the work; (iii) logistical challenges (e.g., transportation, lodging, availability of meals, etc.); and (iv) other factors particular to a site.

Factors that would support continuing site work include where:

  • a failure to continue response actions would likely pose an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment, and whether it is practical to continue such actions; and
  • maintaining any response actions would lead to a reduction in human health risk/exposure within the ensuing six months.

Factors that would support a pause in work include:

  • work that would not provide near-term reduction in human health risk could be more strongly considered for delay, suspension, or rescheduling of site work;
  • state, tribal or local health officials have requested a stoppage;
  • any workers have tested positive for or exhibited symptoms of COVID-19;
  • workers may closely interact with high-risk groups or those under quarantine;
  • contractors are not able to work due to state, tribal or local travel restrictions or medical quarantine; and
  • workers can't maintain proper social distancing.

According to EPA, as of April 1st, EPA has reduced or paused on-site construction work at approximately 34 EPA or PRP-lead Superfund National Priority List sites, or 12% of all EPA sites with ongoing remedial actions, due to the evolving situation with COVID-19.

With respect to non-field work, given that much of the work to advance cleanup of sites is performed away from sites, to the extent possible, the interim guidance notes that this work should continue. Important work can be conducted virtually and represent opportunities to make progress on primary activities like investigation reports (including pre-NPL work), modeling, negotiations between the parties, decision documents, cleanup documentation, workplans, progress reports, and maintaining compliance with obligations such as financial assurance.

Interim Guidance Does Not Extend Compliance Deadlines

Importantly, the interim guidance does not excuse a parties’ compliance obligations under consent decrees or similar enforcement instruments. Instead, parties are directed to review the governing enforcement instrument, including provisions allowing for adjustments to schedules to be made at the discretion of EPA’s project manager and/or force majeure provisions, for directions on providing the requisite notice and other information described in the provisions. For further discussion regarding these types of provisions in enforcement instruments, please see our earlier blog titled “Does Environmental Investigation and Remediation Continue Despite COVID-19 Business Restrictions and Social Distancing.”

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on these matters, as well as other important COVID-19 related guidance, as they unfold.

 

 


OSHA to Most Employers: Limited Exemption from Recording Requirement for Employees’ COVID 19 Cases

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19On April 10, 2020, US OSHA partially retracted its initial instructions to employers, which had required employers to evaluate employees who contracted COVID‑19 as potential recordable occupational illnesses under OSHA’s injury/illness recordkeeping rules, 29 CFR Part 1904.  According to its new “Enforcement Guidance for Recording Cases of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID‑19),” (Recording Guidance), in most cases, OSHA will not enforce its recordkeeping rules that otherwise would have required all employers to make determinations as to whether “workers who contacted COVID‑19 did so due to exposures at work.”  However, OSHA did not retract its basic position that COVID‑19 “is a recordable illness,” which must be recorded as a work-related illness on OSHA 300 logs (or their equivalent) if:  (1) the employee has a “confirmed case of COVID‑19” based on at least one positive test for the virus; (2) the COVID‑19 is “work-related,” per 29 CFR § 1904.5, i.e., the disease is contracted from exposure in the work environment; and (3) the case meets recording criteria, including a significant illness diagnosed by a healthcare professional or days away from work.  Instead, OSHA recognized that in areas with community-spread of the coronavirus, most employers “may have difficulty” making determinations that COVID‑19 cases were due to exposures at work, so those employers would no longer have to affirmatively investigate whether the employee’s COVID‑19-positive diagnosis was work-related in order to avoid the risk of an OSHA enforcement action for a recordkeeping violation.

OSHA’s “enforcement discretion” towards an employer’s obligation to record COVID‑19 cases has several important caveats:

First, healthcare emergency response organizations, and correctional institutions (here, Non‑Exempt Employers) would continue to be required to determine whether an employee’s COVID‑19 diagnosis was due to workplace exposure.

Second, OSHA’s enforcement discretion apparently is limited to areas where there is community transmission of the virus.

Third, all employers would continue to be required to determine that an employee’s COVID‑19 diagnosis is a work-related case, if:

  1. “There is objective evidence that a COVID‑19 case may be work related [such as if] a number of cases develop[] among workers who work closely together without an alternative explanation” and
  2. The “objective evidence” is “reasonably available to the employer . . . [such as if] information [is] given to the employer by employees” or the employer learns information in the “ordinary course of managing its business and employees.”

If a case is recorded, the employer must keep the employee’s name confidential “if an employee voluntarily requests” that the employer do so.  Although OSHA’s Recording Guidance does not expressly address OSHA’s requirement to report serious and fatal illnesses to OSHA, because the reporting requirement is triggered by hospitalizations or fatalities due to a “work-related incident,” if, in reliance on the Recording Guidance, an employer does not determine that the illness is a work-related case, it follows that the case also would not be a reportable case. 

OSHA stated that it was granting this enforcement discretion in order to allow employers more time to focus on “good hygiene practices” and otherwise mitigating the effects of COVID‑19 in the workplace.  This Recording Guidance supplements OSHA’s general guidance on COVID‑19 preparedness in the workplace and OSHA COVID-19 enforcement guidances issued to address certain aspects of its respiratory protection rules, as well as OSHA’s new workplace poster, entitled “Ten Steps All Workplaces Can Take to Reduce Risk of Exposure to Coronavirus.”

For more information about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally go to Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


OSHA to Employers: Some Relief from Respiratory Protection Rules in the Face of N95 Shortages

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19On April 3, 2020, U.S. OSHA issued two Enforcement Guidance memos which, for the first time, provide guidance to all industries, including healthcare, regarding how to comply with OSHA rules in the face of N95 shortages.  The first document is entitled “Enforcement Guidance for Respiratory Protection and the N95 Shortage Due to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic” (N95 Shortage Guidance).  The N95 Shortage Guidance informs all employers whose employees are required to use, or permitted to voluntarily use, respiratory protection, the limited circumstances in which an OSHA inspector may, on a “case-by-case basis, exercise enforcement discretion” when an employer deviates from OSHA’s current respiratory protection standards, including OSHA’s principal rules at 29 CFR §1910.134 (the Respiratory Standard).  While offering some relief from the threat of an OSHA enforcement action, the N95 Shortage Guidance also serves to reemphasize employers’ continuing obligations under the Respiratory Standard despite the short, often non-existent, supply of respiratory protection equipment. 

Employers’ continuing obligations in the face of shortages include:

  1. Manage your respiratory protection program (RPP) in accordance with the Respiratory Standard and “pay close attention to shortages of N95s.”
  2. Identify and evaluate respiratory hazards.
  3. Develop, implement, and document worksite-specific procedures to address changes in use of N95s and other respiratory protection.
  4. Revise your written RPP to reflect changes in workplace conditions caused by the N95 shortage and COVID-19.

For the first step completing these obligations, “all employers should reassess their engineering controls, work practices, and administrative controls” to identify how to decrease the need for N95s.  OSHA suggests alternatives to use of N95s, e.g., use of wet methods or portable local exhaust systems and moving the task requiring use of respiratory protection outdoors.  More cautiously, OSHA states that “[i]n some instances, an employer may also consider taking steps to temporarily suspend certain non-essential operations.”  However, OSHA does not require that employers stop performing tasks with respiratory hazards. 

Under the N95 Shortage Guidance, if N95 alternatives are not possible and “respiratory protection must be used” OSHA provides a series of decision-making options:

  • Use alternative classes of NIOSH-approved respirators if they “provide equal or greater protection” compared to N95s.
  • If NIOSH-approved alternatives are not available, or use of these alternatives create additional hazards, then employers may:
    • Implement extended use or reuse of N95s, with extended use preferred over reuse; or
    • Use NIOSH-approved N95s past the manufacturer’s recommended shelf life, but only if the equipment’s integrity has not been compromised.

OSHA then states further requirements for the use of any of these options, including documenting the use of options in written RPPs and providing additional training to employees on the new procedures.  In the health care industry only, OSHA refers employers to the CDC’s guidance on the hierarchy of decisions applicable in case of expired N95s, but states that its N95 Shortage Guidance is not intended to cover COVID-19 “crisis standard of care” scenarios.

In the second guidance document issued on April 3, 2020, entitled “Enforcement Guidance for Use of Respirators Protection Equipment Certified under Standards of other Countries or Jurisdictions” (Respirator Use Guidance), OSHA provides the hierarchy of decision-making that constitutes making a “good-faith effort” to provide appropriate respiratory protection:

  • Implement OSHA’s hierarchy of controls to eliminate or substitute out workplace hazards
  • Prioritize efforts to acquire and use equipment as follows:
    • NIOSH-certified
    • Foreign-certified, as listed by OSHA, other than by China
    • China-certified [without any NIOSH certificate]
  • Only use equipment beyond shelf life if in non-compromised condition
  • Extended use or reuse in accordance with CDC’s Strategies for Optimizing the Supply of N95 Respirators
  • Use homemade masks or other improvised face coverings “only as a last resort”

The Respirator Use Guidance also summarizes other requirements for respiratory protection, including training, documenting changes in procedures and conditions, and equipment inspection.

The two April 3 Enforcement Guidance documents accompany OSHA’s March 14, 2020 enforcement guidance regarding respirator fit-testing for health care employers only, previously discussed by the author here.  See Jenner & Block’s “Corporate Environmental Lawyer” blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID-19/Coronavirus Resource Center for frequently updated information for businesses and organizations worldwide.


EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic

Song By Leah M. Song and Steven M. SirosLinkedin_Steven_Siros_3130

Covid-19On March 26, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced a temporary policy regarding EPA enforcement of environmental legal obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated that the “EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements.”

This temporary enforcement discretion policy applies to civil violations during the COVID-19 outbreak. To clarify, the policy does not apply to: a) any criminal violations or conditions of probation in criminal sentences, b) activities that are carried out under Superfund and RCRA Corrective Action enforcement instruments, and c) imports. Additionally, the policy does not relieve any entity from preventing, responding to, or reporting accidental releases.

The temporary policy makes it clear that the EPA expects regulated facilities to comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible. To be eligible for enforcement discretion, the policy also requires facilities to document decisions made to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and demonstrate how the noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The policy addresses different categories of noncompliance differently and is broken into the following sections:

 

Continue reading "EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic" »

Does the OSH Act Give an Employee the Right to Refuse to Work Due to Fear of Workplace COVID-19 Exposure?

Sigel

 Song

By Gabrielle Sigel  and Leah M. Song

Covid-19

Responding to COVID‑19, many state and local governments are issuing orders encouraging or requiring workers to stay at home (“Stay-At-Home Order”) unless their employment is deemed to be in an “essential business” or “critical infrastructure industry.” Whether working in an essential business or where no Stay-At-Home Order has been issued, employees may express concerns about, or refuse, coming to work due to fear of contracting COVID‑19 at work.  The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSH Act” or “the Act”) prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for exercising rights under the Act.  If an employer fires or takes other action against an employee who walks off the job due to COVID‑19 fears, is the employee exercising a right under the Act, such that the employer could face a government lawsuit for retaliating against the employee?  Although this discussion is limited to refusal to work rights and responsibilities under the OSH Act, as with many issues raised by the novel coronavirus, the answer will be fact-specific and may be unique to this public health crisis.  After analyzing the applicable law below, we provide practical suggestions for how employers and their counsel can analyze the issue if raised at their workplace.

I.  The OSHA Anti-Retaliation Provisions

Since the OSH Act’s enactment in 1970, Section 5(a)(1) of the Act states that “[e]ach employer shall 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 to his employees.” 29 U.S.C. § 654 (“the General Duty Clause”).  From its beginning, the OSH Act also has provided that an employer cannot “discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee” because the employee complains about a safety issue to management or OSHA or “because of the exercise by [an] employee on behalf of himself or others of any right afforded by this Act.”  29 U.S.C. § 660(c) (“Section 11 of the OSH Act”); see also 29 CFR Part 1977.  If an employer takes discriminatory action in retaliation, the Secretary of Labor (“the Secretary”) can sue the employer, under Section 11 of the OSH Act, in federal district, to require reinstatement, back pay, and “all appropriate relief.”  29 U.S.C. § 660(c)(2).  However, the OSH Act does not expressly address how employees can exercise their rights when there is an imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury and a reasonable belief that there is not sufficient time or opportunity to seek redress from OSHA or the employer.

Interpreting Section 11 in 1973, OSHA issued its anti-retaliation regulation at 29 CFR § 1977 (the “OSHA anti-retaliation regulation”), addressing whether, under what circumstances, and how an employee could refuse to perform work under the Act.  Section 1977.12(b)(1) (emphasis added) states:

[A]s a general matter, there is no right afforded by the Act which would entitle employees to walk off the job because of potential unsafe conditions at the workplace. Hazardous conditions which may be violative of the Act will ordinarily be corrected by the employer, once brought to his attention. If corrections are not accomplished, or if there is dispute about the existence of a hazard, the employee will normally have opportunity to request inspection of the workplace pursuant to section 8(f) of the Act, or to seek the assistance of other public agencies which have responsibility in the field of safety and health. Under such circumstances, therefore, an employer would not ordinarily be in violation of section 11(c) by taking action to discipline an employee for refusing to perform normal job activities because of alleged safety or health hazards.

29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(1) (emphasis added).

Despite this initial statement that employees do not have the right to walk off the job, in the next paragraph the regulation acknowledges that exigent circumstances may exist that would trigger employee protections for refusing to work.  Section 1977.12(b)(2) states:  “[O]ccasions might arise when an employee is confronted with a choice between not performing assigned tasks or subjecting himself to serious injury or death arising from a hazardous condition at the workplace,” and, on those occasions, an employer cannot take action against the employee.  29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(2).  Specifically, if:  (1) “the employee, with no reasonable alternative, refuses in good faith to expose himself to the dangerous condition;” (2) “a reasonable person… would conclude that there is a real danger of death or serious injury;” (3) due to the urgency of the situation, there is insufficient time “to eliminate the danger through resort to regular statutory enforcement channels;” and (4) the employee “sought from his employer, and was unable to obtain, a correction of the dangerous condition,” an employer taking action against the employee refusing to work could be subject to a Section 11 lawsuit brought by the Secretary.  Id.; see also 29 U.S.C. § 660(c).

OSHA has published guidance on the issue, Workers’ Right to Refuse Dangerous Work, cautioning that “OSHA cannot enforce union contracts that give employees the right to refuse to work,” but explaining the steps that workers should take if they believe working conditions are dangerous, the employer fails to eliminate the imminent danger, and there is not enough time to address the condition through regular enforcement channels:

  1. Ask your employer to correct the hazard, or to assign other work;
  2. Tell your employer that you won’t perform the work unless and until the hazard is corrected; and
  3. Remain at the worksite until ordered to leave by your employer.

Notably, this OSHA guidance does not answer the question presented by COVID‑19:  an employer’s obligations and an employee’s rights when OSHA’s direction to “remain at the worksite” is at the root of an employee’s claim of a dangerous condition.  

II.  Caselaw and OSHA Guidance Interpreting Section 11 and the OSHA Anti-Retaliation Regulation

Continue reading "Does the OSH Act Give an Employee the Right to Refuse to Work Due to Fear of Workplace COVID-19 Exposure?" »

Does Environmental Investigation and Remediation Continue Despite COVID-19 Business Restrictions and Social Distancing?

Bandza Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130 SigelBy: Alexander J. Bandza, Steven M. Siros, and Gabrielle Sigel

DigAs the United States rapidly transitions to working from home (when possible) companies involved in environmental investigations or remediation work must determine whether such field or other work could, should, or must continue in the days, weeks, and months ahead. The world is pivoting to tackle COVID-19, a public health crisis, and many of the “essential services” exempted from stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders (“Restriction Orders”) include work involving public health and safety, as well as critical infrastructure services. Therefore, any person with ongoing environmental investigation and remediation work (“environmental field work”) has to consider whether that work would be or should be included in the category of “essential services.”

From a policy standpoint, whether environmental field work should be considered “essential” requires an evaluation of the people and the environment potentially put at risk, the likelihood of that risk, and the resources the work uses. Continuation of environmental field work may benefit public health and the environment, but it also is occurring at some cost to public health and safety. For example, environmental projects use personal protective equipment (“PPE”) and laboratory equipment and personnel that may be able to be allocated to medical and other scientific research needs. Furthermore, some environmental field work requires close human contact and, at a minimum, will require travel to work and other activities that the Restriction Orders and federal and CDC guidelines are seeking to avoid. In addition, environmental contractors may not be able to perform work if key personnel are not available to work due to travel restrictions, health impacts, or family obligations. Thus, the consideration of whether environmental field work should continue during the COVID-19 crisis requires weighing complex public health and safety needs and risks.

To help those considering whether and how to continue environmental field work, evaluate the following:

(1)     Am I allowed to do the environmental field work under a state or local COVID-19 Restriction Order?

(2)     If I cannot continue under a Restriction Order or for other reasons, how do I protect my company’s interests to avoid penalties and other liabilities under the consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with or regulations imposed by state and federal environmental agencies; and

(3)     If I am allowed to or required to continue the work, what regulations pertain to how to do the work safely?

1.    AM I ALLOWED TO DO THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER?

As of the time of publication of this alert, there are no federal mandates or executive orders requiring business shutdowns or mandatory quarantines. However, many states, counties, and municipalities are issuing executive orders closing non-essential businesses and limiting gatherings of people.

    a.    State-Level COVID-19 Executive Orders

Each of these state and local mandates exempt “essential businesses” and the specific definition of an essential business varies from state to state. As a general rule, however, “essential businesses” are those that promote public safety, health, and welfare. Here are examples of several of the first state directives.    

California: On March 19, 2020, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-33-20 requiring California residents to remain at home unless they are involved in 16 critical infrastructure sectors. These 16 critical infrastructure sectors were designated by the Department of Homeland Security and include the water and wastewater systems sector that is responsible for ensuring the supply of safe drinking water and wastewater treatment and service.  

Illinois: On March 20, 2020, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-10 requiring Illinois residents to remain in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The order specifically exempts “essential government functions”, “essential businesses and operations”, and “essential infrastructure activities.” Essential infrastructure activities include operation and maintenance of utilities, including water, sewer, and gas, and solid waste and recycling collection and removal and essential businesses and operations includes construction related activities.

New York: On March 20, 2020, Governor Cuomo issued an Executive Order (referred to as Pause, standing for Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone), requiring that as of 8 p.m. on March 22, all non-essential businesses must ensure that their workforce works remotely. Exempt “Essential businesses” include essential infrastructure (including utilities and construction); essential services (including trash collection, mail, and shipping services; news media; banks and related financial institutions); sanitation and essential operations of residences or other essential businesses; and vendors that provide essential services or products (including services needed to ensure the continuing operation of government agencies and provide for the health, safety, and welfare of the public).

New Jersey: On March 21, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order 107 requiring that New Jersey residents remain in their homes and requiring that all “non-essential businesses” close. A previously issued executive order (Executive Order No. 104) defined “essential businesses” to include “grocery/food stores, pharmacies, medical supply stores, gas stations, healthcare facilities and ancillary stores within healthcare facilities.” All gatherings within the state are limited to 50 persons or fewer, except for “normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, office environments, factories, assemblages for the purpose of industrial or manufacturing work, construction sites, mass transit, or the purchase of groceries or consumer goods.”

In addition to these states, many other states have either implemented similar orders (including Connecticut, Delaware, and Louisiana) or likely will do so in the coming weeks. While expressly mentioning critical sectors such as health care, police and fire, and grocery stores, the orders do not squarely address whether environmental field work constitutes “essential businesses” subject to these exemptions. However, environmental field work logically could be included under the categories used to describe “essential business,” particularly because many of the environmental statutes requiring such work expressly state that the work is being ordered or conducted to protect human health and the environment.

    b.    Federal (U.S. EPA) Environmental Agency Guidance

The White House has issued Coronavirus Response Guidelines, “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” including a statement that if you work in one of the 16 “critical infrastructure industries” as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, you have a “special responsibility” to continue to work.

As of this publication, U.S. EPA has not released public guidance on whether ongoing or new site cleanups and/or site investigations would constitute “critical infrastructure industry.” At least to some degree, that determination is likely to be a site-specific, based on the unique circumstances of each site and, as further discussed below, the language of the agency orders or agreements which govern the environmental field work. It is likely that in the coming weeks, U.S. EPA will provide further guidance on assessing whether site cleanup activities constitute “critical infrastructure industry” exempt from the various Restriction Orders. One issue that may need to be resolved in the future relates to potential conflicts in federal and state guidance regarding what constitutes an “essential service.” Such issues could be addressed via federal and state cooperation agreements in the event of possible conflicts between federal and state directives.

    c.    State Environmental Agency Guidance

At least one state environmental regulatory agency has provided guidance directly on this issue. On March 20, 2020, the California State Resources Water Control Board, which generally has jurisdiction over impacted groundwater in California, published a Guidance Document that states:

Please be aware that timely compliance by the regulated community with all Water Board orders and other requirements (including regulations, permits, contractual obligations, primacy delegations, and funding conditions) is generally considered to be an essential function during the COVID-19 response. As a result, the Water Boards consider compliance with board-established orders and other requirements to be within the essential activities, essential governmental functions, or comparable exceptions to shelter-in-place directives provided by local public health officials.   

It is likely that similar guidance will be issued in the coming weeks by other state regulatory agencies.

2.    IF I CANNOT CONTINUE THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER OR OTHERWISE, HOW COULD I PROTECT MY COMPANY’S INTERESTS TO AVOID PENALTIES OR OTHER LIABILITIES?

Those responsible for ongoing environmental field work should carefully evaluate the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies, and private parties, under which they are performing environmental field work. The agreements may well have force majeure and other clauses addressing delays in the work.

For example, under the current federal model remedial design/remedial action (RD/RA) judicial consent decrees with potentially responsible parties (“PRPs”) under sections 106, 107 and 122 of CERCLA, PRPs have both covenanted not to sue the United States and agreed to indemnify the same for “claims on account of construction delays.” There are additional stipulated penalty provisions. Therefore, companies must act pursuant to the force majeure provisions to avoid these claims and stipulated penalties. Force majeure is defined as “any event arising from causes beyond the control of [PRPs], of any entity controlled by [PRPs], or of [PRPs]’ contractors that delays or prevents the performance of any obligation under this [consent decree] despite [PRPs]’ best efforts to fulfill the obligation.”

Relying on these provisions involves:

  • Notifying “EPA’s Project Coordinator orally or, in his or her absence, EPA’s Alternate Project Coordinator or, in the event both of EPA’s designated representatives are unavailable, the Director of the Waste Management Division” in that specific U.S. EPA Region within a stipulated period of days (the period of days may vary under each consent decree).
  • Providing in writing to U.S. EPA “an explanation and description of the reasons for the delay; the anticipated duration of the delay; all actions taken or to be taken to prevent or minimize the delay; a schedule for implementation of any measures to be taken to prevent or mitigate the delay or the effect of the delay; [the PRP’s] rationale for attributing such delay to a force majeure; and a statement as to whether, in the opinion of [the PRP], such event may cause or contribute to an endangerment to public health or welfare, or the environment” within a stipulated period of days (the period of days likely varies under each consent decree).
  • Providing with the above writing “all available documentation supporting their claim that the delay was attributable to a force majeure.”

U.S. EPA is then to provide notice of its decision, which if U.S. EPA rejects the force majeure claim, the responsible parties must provide notice within 15 days of U.S. EPA’s decision to avail themselves of the model consent decree’s dispute resolution provision. The federal Model Administrative Settlement Agreement and Order on Consent for Removal Actions contains similar obligations and provisions.

It is thus plain that responsible parties conducting environmental field work should be prepared to contact U.S. EPA or state regulators orally as soon as practicable to determine their views on the necessity of the work and if there is disagreement about the same, begin to “paper the file” on the necessary force majeure documentation in the time frames provided in the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies.

For sites that are in the early investigation stages, regulators may agree to a temporary pause in site investigations. For sites that are currently undergoing remedial measures, the determination on whether work should continue is again likely to be fact dependent. For example, a site with an ongoing groundwater treatment system that is being operated to protect a drinking water source is likely to be deemed an essential activity. For a site where the remedial measures involve excavating impacted soils that are not immediately affecting groundwater sources, it may be the case that the regulators determine that certain activities are not “essential” and can be temporarily paused or scaled back.

Even if the decision is made to proceed with the work, other circumstances may preclude or significantly impair the ability to do the work. For example, it may be difficult to obtain necessary supplies and/or vendors to perform these services. To the extent that wastes are generated in the course of doing this work, can these wastes be managed and disposed of in a timely manner? These are all issues that should be discussed with the regulators or private parties requiring the work.

3.    IF I CONTINUE THE WORK, HOW CAN I DO IT SAFELY?

Once a decision is made that environmental field work is “essential” and must proceed to at least some degree, special care must be taken to ensure that the work is performed safely given additional risks imposed by COVID-19.  On March 9, 2020, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued its Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 that was the subject of a previous client alert.  This OSHA guidance outlines recommended steps that employers should take to protect workers, using OSHA’s “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks (i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE.  It is also prudent for all entities at the site to consider what steps they will take if they learn that one of the workers has become exposed to the novel coronavirus or contracted COVID-19. On March 20, 2020, the CDC issued updated “Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations.” 

OSHA has long-standing regulations for work at hazardous waste sites under its Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (“HAZWOPER”) standard (in general industry 29 CFR 1910.120 and in construction 29 CFR 1926.65), which establishes health and safety requirements for work at sites, as well as responses to emergencies involving releases of hazardous substances. Many environmental investigation and remediation sites have rigorous site-specific health and safety plans, and many are required to have such plans by a consent decree or other regulatory or contractual obligation. Many environmental contractors have such plans as part of their standard operating procedures. However, given COVID-19, special care should be taken to ensure that PPE that would ordinarily be used to prevent exposure to hazardous substances is not contaminated prior to being utilized in the field.  Moreover, ensuring feasible physical distancing, requiring diligent hygiene methods, and having appropriate cleaning equipment and chemicals in the field are also critical.  All entities with employees at the site should regularly check both the OSHA and CDC website for updated guidance on workplace health and safety best practices. It also is important to ensure that the protocols are being appropriately communicated and followed by all entities (including regulators) at a site; the best protocols and procedures are only as good as their actual implementation by all.

OSHA has reminded the regulated community that if employees contract COVID-19 as a result of performing their work-related duties, the employees who become ill could constitute recordable cases of illness under OSHA’s Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Standard, 29 CFR Part 1904.

Companies and their counsel also should evaluate existing master services agreements that govern the work of their vendors and contractors with a particular eye towards: (i) how indemnification provisions might apply in the event that a vendor’s or contractor’s employee is later determined to be infected with COVID-19 and such a latency period could plausibly extend to such an employee’s work at the company’s site and its employees, and vice versa; and (ii) payment delay provisions should the company or its vendors or contractors become concerned about solvency issues.

We will continue to provide updates on the impacts of COVID-19 on environmental, health and safety issues affecting our clients. Jenner & Block has established a COVID-19 resource center that provides updates on a variety of issues affecting our clients and we would encourage you to visit this resource center for timely updates on COVID-19 related issues.