By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
On June 10, 2021, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published its long-awaited response to President Biden’s January 21, 2021 Executive Order to OSHA, which had directed the agency to consider and, if necessary, by March 15, 2021, issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) in response to workplace hazards from COVID-19. With the deadline long-passed, interest in OSHA’s approach was heightened when the CDC, on May 13, 2021, issued its Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People (the “May 13 CDC Guidance”), and OSHA posted on its website that it was updating its guidance in response.
As the author predicted, OSHA did not issue a broad COVID-19 ETS applicable to all industries. Instead, on June 10, 2021, OSHA issued two documents: (1) an ETS applicable only to the healthcare industry; and (2) updated guidance applicable to all other industries, implementing the recommendations from the May 13 CDC Guidance. This article addresses only the updated guidance.
The June 10, 2021 OSHA guidance, “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” (“Updated OSHA Guidance”) replaces guidance of the same name that the agency issued on January 29, 2021. The difference between the two versions of OSHA’s guidance reflects the significant changes that have occurred in disease transmission and workplace risks, due to vaccines and other factors. Because the May 13 CDC Guidance found that most “fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing” in most locations, the Updated OSHA Guidance announced: “Unless otherwise required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their fully vaccinated workers who are not otherwise at-risk from COVID-19 exposure” (emphasis removed). Therefore, the Updated OSHA Guidance “focuses only on protecting unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in their workplaces (or well-defined portions of workplaces).” “At-risk workers” are defined as those (a) whose medical condition are such that they may not “have a full immune response to vaccination,” or (b) who, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, “may be legally entitled to reasonable accommodations that protect them from the risk of contracting COVID-19 if, for example, they cannot be protected through vaccination, cannot get vaccinated, or cannot use face coverings.”
With publication of the Updated OSHA Guidance, the agency clearly is pulling back from regulating COVID-19 in most workplaces, particularly compared to its stance earlier this year. As is typical, OSHA advises that its guidance “is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations.” Also, as typical, the guidance has a subtext that its guidance could be used to establish a recognized hazard and methods of prevention under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause. Yet, by issuing guidance, rather than regulation, OSHA is signaling that its concerns about risks from COVID-19 in most workplaces have significantly decreased since vaccines have become widely available.
In the Updated OSHA Guidance, it advises that both at-risk workers and other unvaccinated workers (collectively, “protected workers”) should be protected from the risks of COVID-19 in the workplace. The Updated OSHA Guidance proceeds to describe control measures that an employer “should take” to protect these workers in all industries except healthcare (who are covered by the new ETS); public transportation (workers are subject to CDC’s transportation-related mask mandate); and schools (which are to follow “applicable,” but unspecified, CDC guidance).
With respect to recommended protections, OSHA provides a two-part approach. Part one describes controls for all workplaces, and part two is an “Appendix” with “Measures Appropriate for Higher Risk Workplaces with Mixed-Vaccination Status Workers.” In part one, OSHA recommends 11 “multi-layered interventions” that “employers should engage with workers and their representatives to determine how to implement” for protected workers:
- Grant paid time off for vaccination.
- Sick or symptomatic employees, and protected workers who were exposed as “close contacts” should stay home.
- Physical distancing in all communal areas, particularly indoors, and use barriers when distancing is not possible.
- Provide, at employer’s cost, CDC-compliant face coverings or surgical masks to protected workers, for indoor work. All but immunocompromised workers can opt for no mask-wearing outdoors. Employers can determine that PPE, e., respirators, are necessary for protected workers, including when PPE is a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. In addition, if workers “want to use PPE if they are still concerned about their personal safety (e.g., if a family member is at higher-risk for severe illness,” employers should “[e]ncourage and support voluntary use of PPE in these circumstances and ensure the equipment is adequate to protect the worker.” However, if face coverings present greater risk, e.g., from heat-related illness, the employer should develop other face covering/respirator options.
- Educate and train workers on COVID-19, controls (including vaccination), and workplace policies, and track that training “as appropriate.” “Ensure” that supervisors are familiar with the employer’s “workplace flexibilities and other human resources policies and procedures,” and that all workers understand their rights.
- “Suggest that unvaccinated customers, visitors, or guests wear face coverings,” in workplaces where there are public interactions with protected workers, “even if no longer required by your jurisdiction.”
- Maintain ventilation systems, per CDC and ASHRAE guidance, including installing air filters at a minimum of MERV 13.
- Routinely clean and disinfect if someone with COVID-19 symptoms or diagnosis was in the worksite within the past 24 hours, in accordance with OSHA standards for use of cleaning chemicals.
- Record and report COVID-19 infections/deaths per 29 CFR part 1904, but through May 2022, OSHA is not requiring that adverse reactions to a mandated vaccine be recorded as a work-related illness.
- Protect workers from retaliation and establish an anonymous process for voicing concerns.
- Follow OSHA standards on PPE, sanitation, and other potentially applicable regulations, as well as an employer’s obligations under the General Duty Clause.
In the Appendix, OSHA recommends that employers assess whether their protected workers are at greater risk, by evaluating close contact situations, duration of contacts, type of contacts, and “distinctive factors” such as employer-provided transport, community exposure, and communal housing and living quarters, particularly in manufacturing, meat and poultry processing, high-volume retail and grocery, and seafood processing. In those workplaces, employers should evaluate imposing additional protections for protected workers, such as physical distancing, staggered work schedules, ventilation improvements, and barriers.
Although OSHA urges employers to impose a separate set of obligations solely for a subset of workers, OSHA is silent on several issues of importance to an employer managing its workplace during this “vaccine-available” phase of the pandemic. Instead, it is up to employers to determine how to navigate the public health, safety, and equal opportunity employment law, and other legal constraints to implement those issues at their workplaces. For example, OSHA is silent on:
- An employer’s methods for identifying or verifying which of its workers are vaccinated and, therefore, no longer need to be protected from COVID-19 hazards.
- Whether there are any non-excepted industries where there should be protections for vaccinated workers, who are not known to be at-risk, but who may still get symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 because, as CDC has said: “How long vaccine protection lasts and how much vaccines protect against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants are still under investigation.” However, vaccinated workers are indirectly addressed when OSHA states that “all workers should be supported in continuing face covering use if they choose, especially in order to safely work closely with other people.”
- Whether those who contracted COVID-19 over the past 90 days, but are not vaccinated, can be treated as vaccinated workers. (Note: CDC guidance states that people who recovered from COVID-19 do not need to quarantine after exposure to another COVID-19 case.)
- OSHA’s Appendix does not emphasize PPE, such as N95 respirators, even for voluntary use, and even at the higher-risk workplaces.
- The Updated OSHA Guidance does not refer to the agency’s March 12, 2021 COVID-19 National Emphasis Program or enforcement protocols.
The Updated OSHA Guidance no longer (or only briefly) discusses several topics that were discussed at length in the January 29, 2021 OSHA guidance. For example, the old guidance instructed employers to “Not distinguish between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not.” The Updated OSHA Guidance instructs the opposite. The Updated OSHA Guidance also:
- No longer addresses the need to assign a workplace coordinator for COVID-19 or to conduct a “thorough hazard assessment”.
- No longer recommends an extensive and enhanced cleaning and disinfection process.
- No longer addresses screening and testing.
- No longer provides extensive instructions regarding “good hygiene practices,” including hand washing and sanitizers.
- No longer states detailed recommendations on isolation, quarantine, contact tracing, and return to work protocols. Instead, OSHA now encourages employers to report COVID-19 cases as required locally and to support local contact tracing efforts, and to have all ill workers stay home, but does so in far less detail.
Throughout the pandemic, employers have been looking to the CDC and OSHA, as well as the EEOC, for guidance on the steps they should take to protect workers and to avoid liability to their workers, the government, and the public. Particularly now that state and local governments have eliminated all or most COVID-19 restrictions, employers seeking to limit their liabilities will have the difficult task of developing different ways to work now that their employees can, and according to OSHA, should be divided into two populations: the vaccinated worker and the protected worker. The Updated OSHA Guidance describes how the protected worker should be treated differently, but the employer has the more difficult challenge of adapting that guidance to the business’s unique culture, financial constraints, and goals for survival and success, during yet another unprecedented phase of working in a pandemic.
For more information or advice on the OSHA standards and enforcement during the pandemic, please contact the author. Additional information regarding working during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found in Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and in the Jenner & Block COVID-19 Resource Center.
Analysis of Recent and Forthcoming State Legislation on Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products and Preemptive Effects of Existing Federal Legislation
According to a report released in February 2021 by the organization Safer States, at least 27 US states will consider proposed legislation to regulate toxic chemicals in 2021. While a large driver of the proposed state laws is growing public concern over drinking water contamination from “emerging contaminants,” including PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) and 1,4-dioxane, a secondary focus has been to minimize the risk of adverse human health effects from exposure to these toxic chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products. Two states—New York and California—are spearheading these efforts through recently enacted laws to limit or prohibit certain toxic chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products that are set to take effect in 2022 and 2025, respectively. As other states consider their own bills to enact similar regulation of chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products, heightened attention will likely be paid to what extent the existing federal regulation of these products may preempt this new wave of state legislation.
- Federal Regulation of Chemicals in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products
At the federal level, chemicals used in cosmetics and other personal care products are primarily regulated by either the Toxic Substrates Control Act (TSCA) or the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). While TSCA broadly applies to any “chemical substance,” certain chemicals or uses of chemicals are exempt from TSCA if they are regulated by other federal statutes. Such products include “cosmetics” regulated by the FD&C Act, which are defined as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body...for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.” While the distinction between a cosmetic and personal care product may not always be apparent to the consumer, the difference is crucial with respect to federal oversight of the chemicals contained in the product.
Non-cosmetic, personal care products are regulated under TSCA, as amended by the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act of the 21st Century, which requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify “high-priority chemicals” used in existing commerce and determine whether any current uses of the chemicals “present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.” Where an unreasonable risk is identified, the EPA has discretion to impose conditions on or outright ban the chemical use. Prior to introducing a new chemical or new use of an existing chemical into commerce, manufacturers are required to provide notice to the EPA so that the agency may assess whether the proposed chemical or use will pose an unreasonable risk. In contrast, chemicals used in cosmetic products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pursuant to the FD&C Act and generally do not require registration or preapproval by the agency before being introduced into commerce. Moreover, the FDA does not have authority to require a recall where it identifies a potential health hazard in a cosmetic product. However, the FDA does have authority to regulate the labeling of cosmetic products and to outright ban specific ingredients from being used in cosmetics generally.
- State Regulation of Chemicals in Cosmetics and Other Personal Care Products—Newly Enacted Laws and Anticipated Future Legislation
While the regulation of chemicals in cosmetic and personal care products has historically been left to the purview of the EPA and the FDA, in recent years a growing number of states have expressed interest in directly regulating chemicals in cosmetic and personal care products sold within their jurisdictions. In 2019 and 2020, state regulation of these chemicals took a significant step forward as New York and California signed into law two bills regulating chemicals used in cosmetic and/or personal care products. A brief description of both state laws is provided below.
- New York: On December 9, 2019, Governor Cuomo signed into law New York Senate Bill 4389-B/A.6295-A, making New York the first and only state to set a maximum contaminant limit of 1,4-dioxane in consumer products. While there are no direct consumer uses of 1,4-dioxane, the compound may be present in cosmetics and personal care products as a byproduct of the manufacturing process (according to one 2007 Study, approximately 22% of cosmetic and other personal care products may contain 1,4-dioxane). New York’s legislation, which takes effect on December 31, 2022, prohibits the sale of personal care products containing more than 2 ppm of 1,4-dioxane and the sale of cosmetic products containing more than 10 ppm of 1,4-dioxane.
- California: On September 30, 2020, Governor Newsom signed into law the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, California Assembly Bill 2762, banning 24 chemicals, including mercury, formaldehyde, and certain types of PFAS, from being used in cosmetic, beauty, and personal care products sold in California. California’s legislation is set to take effect in 2025 and will mark the first state-level prohibition on the various chemicals in cosmetic products.
In addition to New York and California’s recently enacted legislation, there are at least five bills currently being considered by various states that would further regulate chemicals in cosmetic and/or personal care products sold within the respective jurisdictions. A brief summary of these state bills is provided below:
- Connecticut: SB 404—Prohibiting the sale or distribution of consumer products that contain PFAS (currently before the Joint Committee on Public Health).
- Maryland: HB 0643—Prohibiting the sale or distribution of cosmetic products that contain PFAS, mercury, and other chemicals in certain instances (currently passed in both chambers and before the Governor).
- New Jersey: A 189 / S 1843—Prohibiting the sale and distribution of nail salon products that contain dibutyl phthalates, toluene, or formaldehyde (currently before the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee); A 1720—Prohibiting the sale of hand sanitizers and body cleaning products containing triclosan (currently before the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee).
- New York: A 143 / S 3331—Creating a list of “chemicals of concerns” known to exist in personal care products, requiring manufacturers of such products to disclose any chemicals of concerns contained in their products and prohibiting the sale of personal care products containing chemicals of concerns after three years (currently referred to Environmental Conservation Committee).
- Federal Preemption of State Laws
As more states continue to adopt new legislation to regulate chemicals in cosmetic and personal care products, manufacturers and/or trade organizations will likely bring preemption challenges to these state regulations. In the context of cosmetic products, the FD&C Act prohibits state or local governments from enacting “any requirement for labeling or packaging of cosmetics that is different from or in addition to, or that is otherwise not identical with” the federal rules. Thus, state laws that do not directly regulate the labeling or packing of cosmetics products but instead regulate the contents of these products will likely not run afoul of the FD&C Act’s preemption clause.
In contrast, state legislation governing chemicals in personal care products may be at a higher risk of being preempted by TSCA. TSCA broadly prohibits the enforcement of any state chemical regulation of a particular substance once the EPA completes a risk evaluation for the substance and either: (1) determines that the chemical will not present an unreasonable risk; or (2) concludes that the chemical presents an unreasonable risk under the circumstances of use, and promulgates a rule that restricts manufacturing or use of the chemical to mitigate the identified risks. Notably, the scope of TSCA’s preemption extends only to chemical uses examined in the EPA’s risk evaluation—meaning that the EPA’s failure to examine the use of a chemical in personal care products would make state regulation fair game. In addition, even where a risk evaluation of a particular chemical has been completed, TSCA will not preempt state laws that (1) only impose reporting, monitoring, or information obligations; or (2) environmental laws that regulate air quality, water quality, or hazardous waste treatment or disposal.
Early insight into the full scope of TSCA’s preemption provisions will likely be provided by anticipated challenges to individual state’s regulation of 1,4-dioxane. As explained above, New York has already taken steps to regulate 1,4-dioxane in personal care products and other states may soon look to follow suit. However, on January 8, 2021, the EPA released its final risk evaluation for 1,4-dioxane under TSCA. See 86 Fed. Reg. 1495. The EPA’s initial risk evaluation identified a number of “use conditions” in which 1,4-dioxane posed an unreasonable risk to occupational workers, but did not consider “use conditions” involving 1,4-dioxane’s presence in consumer products. In response to protests from industry, EPA’s final risk evaluation included a supplemental analysis of eight use conditions for 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct in consumer goods, including use in hobby materials; automotive care products; cleaning and furniture care products; laundry and dishwashing products; paints and coatings; and spray polyurethane foam. No unreasonable risks for these consumer uses were identified. Because the EPA’s supplemental risk evaluation examined but did not find any unreasonable risks from 1,4-dioxane in consumer products, an argument could be made that states are preempted from enacting their own 1,4-dioxane limits in consumer products. However, because the EPA’s risk evaluation did not specifically exclude cosmetic or personal care products, individual states may be able to argue that the preemption scope is limited only to the specific uses of 1,4-dioxane that were specifically examined during EPA’s risk evaluation. The resolution of any challenges to New York and other states’ regulation of 1,4-dioxane in consumer products will likely provide key insights into the scope of TSCA’s preemption powers.
By Leah Song
On May 20, 2021, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (“Board”) held a public meeting to consider revisions to the State’s COVID-19 emergency temporary standard (“ETS”), which had been the applicable law for California workplaces since November 30, 2020. (See December 1, 2020 Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog). On May 7, 2021, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (“Cal/OSHA”) issued a notice of emergency action regarding proposed revisions to the ETS for the Board to consider for adoption, given the developing science around COVID‑19, particularly the impact of vaccines and Cal/OSHA’s experience enforcing the ETS. However, on May 19, 2021, Cal/OSHA asked the Board to table its vote on Cal/OSHA’s May 7 proposed COVID-19 ETS revisions.
Given Cal/OSHA’s May 7 proposed revisions to the ETS included notable revisions changing definitions, masking and physical distancing requirements, and engineering controls, including distinctions based on whether employees were vaccinated. However, on May 13, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) posted its guidance for fully vaccinated people recommending, in part, that “fully vaccinated people no longer need to a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” CDC, Guidance for Fully Vaccinated People (May 13, 2021). In light of that new guidance, and the science that the risk is low that vaccinated people transmit the virus, Governor Newsom announced that the state will implement the new CDC mask guidelines on June 15, 2021, along with fully reopening the economy. In addition, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly announced on May 17, 2021 that, starting on June 15, 2021, “California plans to implement the CDC’s guidelines around masking to allow fully vaccinated Californians to go without a mask in most indoor settings.” However, California Department of Public Health issued a directive on May 21, 2021, that adopted the CDC guidance, but also stated that, with respect to COVID-19 protections, employers remain subject to the ETS, as applicable to their business.
On May 19, 2021, the day before the Board meeting, Cal/OSHA sent a memo recommending that the Board not vote on its May 7 proposed revisions, because it “believes it is important to revisit the proposed COVID-19 prevention emergency regulations in light of this new [CDC] guidance.” In the memo, Cal/OSHA stated that it will “limit any potential changes to consideration of the recent [CDC] guidance” regarding fully vaccinated people. On May 20, 2021, after hearing hours of public comment, the Board voted to table Cal/OSHA’s May 7 changes and to allow it to post, by May 28, 2021, its new proposed changes to the ETS for public comment. The Board will vote on June 3, 2021 in a special meeting as to whether to adopt the new Cal/OSHA proposed changes or to take other action on the ETS.
Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on the California COVID-19 ETS and other COVID-19 matters as they unfold. Additional information regarding working during the COVID‑19 pandemic can be found on this blog and in Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.
In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Guam v. United States, No. 20-382, 593 U.S. __ (2021), that a party must resolve “CERCLA-specific liability” in order to trigger contribution rights under § 113(f)(3)(B) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”).
The question before the Court was whether a settlement between Guam and the United States that resolved claims under the Clean Water Act could be the basis for a contribution claim under § 113(f)(3)(B) of CERCLA. In this case, Guam and the U.S. EPA had entered into a Consent Decree following a Clean Water Act lawsuit, settling the United States’ Clean Water Act claims against Guam and requiring Guam take actions to close and cover a dump site. Thirteen years later Guam sued the United States under CERCLA for cost recovery and contribution, claiming the United States’ earlier use of the dump site exposed it to liability. The district court, in a ruling affirmed by the court of appeals, ruled that Guam had a contribution claim at one point, based on its Clean Water Act Consent Decree because that Decree required remedial measures and provided a conditional release, which sufficiently resolved Guam’s liability for the dump site and triggered a CERCLA contribution claim under § 113(f)(3)(B). However, the Decree also triggered the three-year statute of limitations, which had expired, leaving Guam without any viable claims.
The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, rejecting the notion that the Clean Water Act Consent Decree was sufficiently similar to a CERCLA settlement to trigger contribution liability. The Court focused on a textual analysis of the statute, which states in relevant part that:
A person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State for some or all of a response action or for some or all of the costs of such action in an administrative or judicially approved settlement may seek contribution from any person who is not party to a [qualifying] settlement.
42 U.S.C. § 9613(f)(3)(B).
Of particular note to the Court was the reference in § 113(f)(3)(B) to “response action”, which is a term of art in CERCLA, and appears throughout the Act. The Court reasoned that this language “is best ‘understood only with reference’ to the CERCLA regime.” Guam, slip op. at 6, quoting United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U. S. 128, 135 (2007). Thus, according to the Court’s reasoning, to resolve liability for a “response action,” a party must engage in a CERCLA-specific settlement, not “settle an environmental liability that might have been actionable under CERCLA.” Id. at 7.
In conclusion, the Court held that “[t]he most natural reading of §113(f)(3)(B) is that a party may seek contribution under CERCLA only after settling a CERCLA-specific liability.” Id. at 9.
Like most major CERCLA decisions, the Court’s ruling answers one question but raises many more. We can expect future litigation on the precise bounds of how specific a settlement need be to qualify as “CERCLA-specific” under the Court’s holding. There will also likely be litigation regarding how this ruling may apply to other provision of CERCLA beyond §113(f )(3)(B). As always, the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog will be monitoring these important developments and reporting on what you need to know.
By Leah Song
On May 17, 2021, the United States Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that the Fourth Circuit should have considered all of the fossil fuel companies’ grounds for removal to federal court in the BP PLC, et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore case.
As previously discussed by the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog, the underlying litigation involves claims asserted in Maryland state court by the City of Baltimore against various fossil-fuel companies for damages associated with climate change. In its complaint, Baltimore asserted claims against the industry 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.
In response to Baltimore’s complaint, the fossil fuel companies sought to remove the action to federal court, as they have done in all of the state court actions filed by municipalities and states making similar claims. The fossil fuel companies’ removal petition was based on multiple grounds, including the “federal officer” removal provision, 28 U.S.C. §1442(a)(1), and multiple other federal statutes that industry believed justified federal court jurisdiction. The City sought remand to state court, and the federal district court, after having reviewed each of the removal arguments, found that industry had not asserted an appropriate basis for federal jurisdiction. Industry then appealed that district court remand decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1447(d), which expressly authorizes appellate review for removals based on 28 U.S.C. §1443 (civil rights removal), as well as §1442.
On March 6, 2020, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s remand order, but did so only after reviewing the industry’s right to removal under the federal officer removal statute, 28 U.S.C. §1442(a)(1). The Fourth Circuit found that 28 U.S.C. §1447(d) limited its appellate review solely to that issue, and not any of the other bases that industry had asserted in support of its argument for federal removal jurisdiction. The Fourth Circuit’s decision regarding the scope of review under § 1447(d) was consistent with prior decisions from the First, Ninth and Tenth circuits but conflicted with a previous decision from the Seventh Circuit.
On March 31, 2020, the fossil-fuel companies filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the United States 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…” The companies argued that the Fourth Circuit had improperly ignored several alternative grounds justifying removal of the case to federal court, including that federal common law governs claims of interstate air pollution. The Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to review the case on October 2, 2020.
On May 17, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Circuit erred in holding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider all of the defendants’ grounds for removal under §1447(d). BP PLC, et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 593 U.S. ____(2021). The Court held that, once the defendants removed the case in reliance on §1442 “and the district court ordered the case remanded to the state court, the whole of its order became reviewable on appeal.” Slip op., No. 19-1189, at 5. The Court based its decision on an interpretation of the language of §1447(d). The decision, authored by Justice Gorsuch, emphasized in the second sentence of its opinion that “the merits of [the City’s climate change] claim have nothing to do with this appeal. The only question before us is one of civil procedure[.]” Id. at 1. The Supreme Court also noted that it would not consider the merits of the defendants’ removal arguments, finding that “the wiser course is to leave these matters for the Fourth Circuit to resolve in the first instance.” Id. at 14.
Justice Sotomayor wrote the lone dissent, based on her view that the longstanding rule has been that remand orders are generally not subject to appellate review. Slip op. at 1 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). Justice Sotomayor asserted that the majority’s interpretation “lets defendants sidestep §1447(d)’s bar on appellate review by shoehorning a §1442 or §1443 argument into their case for removal. In other words, it lets the exception swallow the rule.” Id. at 2 . “Unfortunately, I fear today’s decision will reward defendants for raising strained theories of removal under §1442 or §1443 by allowing them to circumvent the bar on appellate review entirely.” Id. at 7.
Justice Alito took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
Although the case is now remanded for further consideration to the Fourth Circuit to consider the additional bases raised by defendants in support of their removal petition, parties across the country now have clarity as to which arguments the appellate court must consider when reviewing removal petitions.
Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on climate change litigation cases as they unfold.
On Friday, April 30, 2021, the Biden Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced significant steps the agency intends to take under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program to implement expanded reporting requirements for companies that store and utilize hazardous chemicals, including new obligations to report the storage, use and any releases of ethylene oxide, a commonly used industrial chemical and sterilant for medical equipment and supplies. The TRI Program, which was established under Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), serves as a resource for the public to learn about annual chemical releases, waste management, and pollution prevention activities reported by nearly 22,000 industrial and federal facilities. Under the TRI Program, U.S. facilities operating in various industry sectors must report annually the quantity of certain chemicals they release to the environment and/or manage through recycling, energy recovery and treatment. A “release” of a chemical in the context of the TRI Program means that the chemical is emitted to the air or water, or placed in some type of land disposal.
A major component of EPA’s announcement is the agency’s intent to regulate ethylene oxide. The use and release of ethylene oxide by medical device sterilization companies have prompted a number of recent high-profile lawsuits alleging that releases of the chemical into the environment have caused increased cancer rates in communities adjacent to the facilities. EPA’s announcement notes that many existing sterilization facilities “are located near areas with Environmental Justice concerns,” and that individuals living adjacent to these facilities may be at a heightened risk from exposure to ethylene oxide. “Every person in the United States has a right to know about what chemicals are released into their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan stated. “By requiring new and more data on chemical releases from facilities, EPA and its partners will be better equipped to protect the health of every individual, including people of color and low-income communities that are often located near these facilities but have been left out of the conversation for too long.” In the coming months, EPA will provide further details regarding the specific actions the agency intends to take to require sterilization facilities that use ethylene oxide to report under the TRI Program.
In addition to implementing new reporting requirements for companies utilizing ethylene oxide, EPA announced several other steps the agency plans to take that will increase reporting and public access to information under the TRI Program, including:
- Finalizing a longstanding proposed rule that will add natural gas processing facilities to the industry sectors covered under the TRI Program thereby increasing the publicly available information on chemical releases and other waste management activities of TRI-listed chemicals from this sector;
- Continuing to add new per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) to the list of chemicals that require reporting under the TRI Program, including the addition of perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) following EPA’s toxicity assessment of the substance;
- Proposing a new rule to add high-priority substances under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and chemicals included in the TSCA workplan to the list of chemicals that require reporting under the TRI Program; and
- Increasing public access to TRI data through improved search functionality and improved website interface.
EPA’s announcement marks the most recent step by the agency to implement the Biden Administration’s focus on environmental justice as a top priority of its environmental agenda. On the same day that EPA announced the agency’s updated TRI policy, EPA circulated a memorandum to all EPA-staff, indicating the additional actions the agency intends to take to fulfill its environmental justice commitment. These actions include: (1) increasing inspections of facilities that pose the most serious threats to overburdened communities; (2) focusing on implementing remedies that benefit communities, including through the incorporation of supplemental environmental projects; (3) increasing communications with overburdened communities to develop improved cleanup and non-compliance solutions; and (4) identifying locations where state regulators are not adequately protecting local communities and taking increased enforcement actions to “pick up the slack” if state regulators have not taken appropriate or timely actions.
The Corporate Environmental Blog will continue to follow developments on this issue in the coming months as EPA provides additional details on the specific actions it intends to take to expand the TRI Program.
On May 4, Jenner & Block Partner Steven M. Siros and Associate Leah M. Song will present a CLE webinar on environmental, health, and safety (EHS) issues facing the cannabis industry. The market value of the cannabis industry in the United States is expected to reach $30 billion by 2025. Currently, 36 states allow the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes and 15 states allow the recreational use of cannabis. To sustain this rapid industry growth, and avoid potential penalties and lawsuits, it is crucial that cannabis companies ensure consistent compliance with EHS rules and regulations.
In this CLE Program, Mr. Siros and Ms. Song will cover the particular EHS challenges that the cannabis industry currently faces, including issues related to emissions, water resources, waste regulation, and pesticides. The program will also address worker safety issues and the state and federal OSHA regulations cannabis operations are subject to as well as post-consumer issues cannabis companies face such as packaging issues and recycling. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in attending. Space is limited.
Mr. Siros is chair of the Environmental Litigation Practice and co-chair of the Environmental Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice. He focuses primarily on environmental and toxic tort matters.
Ms. Song is an associate in the firm’s Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice.
Earth Day 2021: CERCLA and RCRA in The Biden Administration: Elevating Climate Change and Environmental Justice in Addressing Hazardous Wastes
We close out the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog's weeklong celebration of Earth Day with the two federal programs aimed at cleaning up existing toxic waste sites and preventing the creation of new ones: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (“CERCLA”) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”). The Trump Administration considered the remedial and regulatory roles of the CERCLA and RCRA programs as core EPA functions, so it did not target them for regulatory rollbacks like it did for many federal clean air (including climate change), clean water, and environmental review requirements. Nonetheless, the new occupant of the White House will change the focus of both these programs—in large part by elevating climate change and environmental justice considerations in decision-making.
Early in the Trump Administration, Scott Pruitt, then the EPA Administrator convened a Superfund Task Force that identified five priorities: (1) expediting cleanup and remediation, (2) invigorating responsible party cleanup and reuse, (3) encouraging private party investment, (4) promoting redevelopment and community revitalization, and (5) engaging partners and stakeholders. The Task Force set forth 42 recommendations to achieve those goals.
Following the Task Force recommendations, the Trump Administration prioritized 54 sites and completed remediation and delisted over 50 sites from the National Priorities List. The focus was often sites with redevelopment potential. At many of those sites, surprisingly aggressive settlements with potentially responsible parties funded the work. At the same time, however, the number of unfunded orphan sites (those with remediation plans but no funding source) grew as federal appropriations were limited. By January 2021, there were at least 34 unfunded orphan sites, many in at-risk areas.
The Biden Administration is expected to retain the goals and many of the recommendations from the Task Force, but it will redeploy resources to meet its priorities. Climate change (a phrase that literally had been removed from the Superfund Strategic Plan), and environmental justice (which seeks to address the disproportionately high health and environmental risks found among low-income and minority communities) will reemerge as key considerations in CERCLA decision-making, especially in site prioritization and remediation plans. A 2019 GAO report indicated that these issues are often linked. It identified roughly 2/3 (975/1570) of the NPL listed Superfund sites as vulnerable to climate-related risks—hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and/or rising sea levels. Many of these sites were also located near low-income and minority communities. Biden will seek to pair his climate change and environmental justice goals with his redevelopment and infrastructure plans through Brownfield grants and other incentives.
The Biden Administration has also signaled it will address emerging contaminants. As noted by Steve Siros in Wednesday's Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog, EPA is likely to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) as “hazardous substances” under CERCLA and may set a maximum contaminant level (“MCL”) for these compounds under the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”). These actions could have a significant impact on new and existing cleanups. First, designating PFAS a “hazardous substance” would require facilities to report PFAS releases, which could trigger more investigations and cleanups. Second, any PFAS limits under the SDWA or state regulations would become Applicable or Relevant and Appropriate Requirements (“ARARs”) that would have to be considered in CERCLA listing and remedy decisions. Finally, these changes would require PFAS contamination to be evaluated in EPA’s five year review at each site and potentially trigger reopeners in prior settlements. Tighter standards for other chemicals, such as 1,4-dioxane, could have similar results.
Resources are already being deployed to support these efforts and additional funding for Brownfield and Superfund projects is in the works. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides $100 million for EPA grants to address disproportionate environmental harms to at-risk populations and air quality monitoring. According to the American Jobs Plan Fact Sheet dated March 31, 2021, the Administration is proposing an additional $5 billion for Brownfield and Superfund sites and an additional $10 billion to monitor and remediate PFAS. The Administration is also proposing to restore the Superfund tax, which expired in 1995, to ensure that resources are available in the Superfund Trust to address unfunded site cleanups. Similarly, the Administration is considering reversing the financial responsibility exemption for chemical manufacturers, petroleum and coal products manufacturers and electric power generation, transmission and distribution facilities that was issued in the waning days of the previous Administration.
Like CERCLA, RCRA was not a focus of the Trump Administration’s regulatory rollbacks—though funding cutbacks affected rule development and enforcement. The Biden Administration has already signaled that it intends to reenergize enforcement, including criminal prosecutions, which may lead to an increase in federal overfiling in RCRA enforcement actions, especially in states with lax enforcement histories.
Trump’s most significant RCRA actions addressed coal ash, referred to as Coal Combustion Residuals (“CCR”). The Trump CCR rules, which were promulgated after the Obama-era CCR rule was vacated, are being reviewed for consistency with Biden’s Executive Order Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis. Likewise, the CCR Permit Program and the Beneficial Use Rules or Electric Utilities, which were pending on Inauguration Day, are subject to the Presidential memorandum freezing regulations pending review.
Biden’s focus on environmental justice and climate change will impact RCRA permit evaluations and enforcement, both in process and in substance. Procedurally, those seeking RCRA permits, and even RCRA permitted facilities, may be subject to additional notification requirements, more community involvement, and greater scrutiny. Substantively, the social cost of carbon and chemical exposure risks will become part of the evaluation.
Biden’s other climate change initiatives may have more significant RCRA impacts down the road. For example, the push toward electric vehicles will reduce the demand for gas stations at current levels. That change, combined with the fact that underground storage tanks installed or upgraded to comply with the 1988 underground storage tank standards are nearing the end of their useful lives, will trigger tank closures throughout the country. More broadly, the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a clean fuel economy will reveal many other environmental issues that will require substantial efforts and resources to address.
The Biden Administration is already changing the course of environmental law. With CERCLA and RCRA, the shifts will be more subtle than in other areas, but the focus on climate change and environmental justice will have profound impacts on whose voices are heard and where, and how, resources are deployed. The Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog will continue to monitor and report on developments in these areas and others. In the meantime, thank you for sharing Earth Day (and Earth Week) with us!
As the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog celebrates Earth Day, we turn to the important topic of drinking water. Drinking water, like the air we breathe, is an environmental issue that everyone interacts with on a daily basis. But, much like air pollution, contamination of drinking water often has the largest impact on poor communities and communities of color.
In a 2019 report co-authored by environmental organizations Natural Resources Defense Council (“NRDC”), Coming Clean, and Environmental Justice Health Alliance (“EJHA”), the groups analyzed EPA data on community drinking water systems, concluding that there “is unequal access to safe drinking water, based most strongly on race.” The report made several important findings that lead to this conclusion, including:
- Drinking water systems that constantly violated the law for years were 40 percent more likely to occur in places with higher percentages of residents who were people of color.
- Nearly 130 million people in the U.S. got their drinking water from systems that violated federal law during the time period reviewed in the report.
- Small systems – those that serve less than 3,300 people – were responsible for more than 80% of all violations. The EPA has noted many small systems are “likely to serve low-income, vulnerable populations.”
While there are many contaminants that communities monitor for in drinking water, lead is one of the most public and concerning drinking water contaminants of concern. Lead in drinking water is caused by the very pipes and service lines bringing us our water, entering the water when a chemical reaction occurs in plumbing materials that contain lead. As we saw in the Flint, Michigan lead water crisis in 2016, this corrosion of metal from the pipes and fixtures is more severe when water has high acidity or low mineral content.
Lead in drinking water has been a target of environmental activists and agencies for years. Recently, EPA amended its Lead and Copper Drinking Water Rule, under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act, to add a new lead trigger level for drinking water monitoring and add more proactive measures to identify upgrades needed to reduce the effects of deteriorating infrastructure. However, this rule was finalized at the end of the Trump Administration and the Biden Administration extended the effective date through June 2021, likely to be pushed back further as Biden’s EPA evaluates whether it wants to make additional changes.
Taking a bolder step, President Biden’s latest proposed legislation under his “Build Back Better” agenda—the American Jobs Plan—includes significant funding and plans to address lead in drinking water. According to the American Jobs Plan Fact Sheet:
“President Biden’s plan will eliminate all lead pipes and service lines in our drinking water systems, improving the health of our country’s children and communities of color.”
The current proposal includes $45 billion to replace every lead water line across the nation. In addition to the lead-specific funding, the American Jobs Plan proposes funding for broader drinking water improvements, including $56 billion to upgrade and modernize drinking water supplies through grants and low-cost flexible loans to states, Tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities; and $10 billion to provide funding to monitor PFAS substances in drinking water and invest in rural small water systems & household well & wastewater systems.
This drinking water funding is just one small part of the $2.65 trillion plan, but it will likely continue to play an important part of the President’s agenda. The Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog will stay on top of all relevant developments as negotiations on the American Jobs Plan and other drinking water proposals advance.
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
A key platform of President Biden’s environmental agenda is increased regulatory scrutiny with respect to chemical substances under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Regulating chemicals in order to minimize the threat to human health and the environment is clearly also critical to achieving the aims and goals of Earth Day, especially considering that the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped spark the global environmental movement that eventually culminated in the first Earth Day in 1970.
Turning now to the present, in the waning months of the Trump administration, there was a flurry of U.S. EPA activity under TSCA, including the issuance of risk evaluations for a number of high-priority chemical substances, including asbestos, 1,4-dioxane, and trichloroethylene. Notwithstanding that these risk evaluations concluded that at least some uses of each of the ten high priority chemicals posed an unreasonable risk, these risk evaluations were widely criticized for failing to take into consideration reasonably foreseeable uses or failing to adequately consider various scientific studies. There had been much speculation that President Biden would reject all of the Trump-era TSCA risk evaluations and in fact, one of President Biden’s first actions in the White House was to direct U.S. EPA to review the TSCA risk evaluation process as well as the methylene chloride risk evaluation specifically.
Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, however, U.S. EPA is moving forward to develop risk mitigation plans for each of these high priority chemicals. At the same time, Michal Freedhoff, the acting assistant administrator for U.S. EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution, noted that U.S. EPA would be taking a hard look at these risk evaluations. In a prepared statement, Ms. Freedhoff stated:
Our goal is to allow risk management actions on these first ten chemicals to move forward as much as possible, while looking back surgically at specific areas in some of the risk evaluations to supplement them as appropriate in order to ensure we are meeting our statutory obligations and using the best available science to truly protect human health and the environment.
As to the next 20 chemicals in the risk assessment pipeline, U.S. EPA has already announced that it will reassess its TSCA risk evaluation process, including refining its approach for selecting and reviewing scientific studies. U.S. EPA noted that it would not rely on U.S. EPA’s Application of Systematic Review in TSCA Risk Evaluations, a guidance document issued by U.S. EPA in 2018 that was much maligned by the National Academy of Scientists.
One can also expect an increased focus on environmental justice issues by U.S. EPA in connection with evaluating the risks posed by chemical substances. This will most likely play out in connection with an increased focus on chemical substance exposure for fence-line and front-line communities during the risk evaluation process.
Finally, there will also be increasing pressure on the Biden Administration to regulate new emerging contaminants such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under both TSCA and the Safe Drinking Water Act. PFAS compounds have not yet been considered for prioritization under TSCA but are likely to be on a list of high priority chemicals in the future. In the meantime, U.S. EPA is likely to move forward with designating at least PFAS compounds as hazardous substances under CERCLA as well as evaluating whether to set an MCL for these compounds under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Please check back on Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer for more Earth Day content throughout the week.
By Leah Song
President Biden has made climate change a main focus of his administration. At the beginning of his term, President Biden issued several executive orders addressing climate change: “Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis” (January 20, 2021) and “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” (January 27, 2021) (“Day 7 Environmental Executive Order”). This article will highlight the administration’s international focus, climate justice, climate litigation, and several priorities of the recent executive orders.
As President Biden promised prior to inauguration, he recommitted the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement, which is intended to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Trump had announced his intent to terminate the U.S.’s involvement in the Paris Climate Agreement shortly after taking office, but due to the rules, was not able to formally withdraw until November 4, 2019, which became final a year later on November 4, 2020. The U.S. had originally committed to cut GHG emissions by at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. Countries were supposed to submit new targets for 2030 by the end of 2020. The Biden administration will likely submit its updated Nationally Determined Contribution (“NDC”) by the end of 2021 in time for the COP26 event scheduled at the end of the year. Given the rollbacks during the Trump administration and predicted increase in emissions as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, President Biden will need to carefully consider the new target NDCs.
Keeping with the international focus, the Biden administration committed to treating climate change as a national security threat and fully integrating climate change into foreign policy and national security strategies. President Biden selected former Secretary of State John Kerry as the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and to sit on the National Security Council. Kerry’s role is complemented by Gina McCarthy, White House National Climate Advisor, and Ali Zaidi, Deputy White House National Climate Advisor, in the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. The Day 7 Environmental Executive Order also discusses the establishment of a National Climate Task Force, working across 21 federal agencies and departments to enable a “whole-of-government” approach to combatting the climate crisis. For summaries of the recent National Climate Task Force meetings, click here and here.
During his campaign and into his presidency, President Biden has made clear his focus on environmental and climate justice. The Day 7 Environmental Executive Order establishes the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council in order to prioritize environmental justice and ensure a “whole-of-government” approach to addressing current and historical environmental injustices. There will be a focus on environmental justice monitoring and enforcement through new or strengthened offices at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, and Department of Health and Human Services.
In time for Earth Day, the administration invited 40 world leaders to the Leaders Summit on Climate that will be hosted on April 22 and 23. The virtual Leaders Summit will be live streamed for public viewing. For an initial overview of the Leaders Summit, click here.
Check back on Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer for more Earth Day content throughout the week.
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
This week, as we celebrate Earth Day on April 22, Jenner & Block’s Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice will be focusing, each day, on a different aspect of the environment and how this year will affect our planet. I thought I would begin our week-long focus on Earth Day with a more personal reflection.
This past pandemic year on Earth gave me a chance to spend more time reading and lots more time thinking about our society and how we communicate with each other. Purely by coincidence, I had a chance to read two pieces of fiction that focus on both the environment and communication. In Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize winning, “The Overstory,” we learn about trees’ ability to communicate with each other as part of their survival network. The female scientist who makes this discovery in “The Overstory” calls to mind the work of Dr. Suzanne Simard, a professor of in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia, who demonstrated how trees, even of different species, communicate and support each other through underground networks of fungi, known as mycorrhizal networks. The need to communicate, to support each other, to have deep, underground roots is central to all living things. Our ability to communicate as humans starts and ends with our planet.
A complementary novel to “The Overstory” is “A Children’s Bible” by Lydia Millet. Millet’s dystopian view of our planet’s future also has an understory about each generation’s inability to communicate their perspectives about their roles in taking care of each other and society. In my reading of “Children’s Bible,” the ultimate collapse occurs not just because of an environmental disaster, but because the generations stopped being able to communicate with and rely on each other.
Using one of our most useful forms of communication—humor, our first Earth Day cartoonist, Walt Kelly, tied together the need for both protection and connection in an elegant and powerful drawing:
We are all like trees in a giant forest called Earth. We have tentacles and roots touching each other in ways we cannot see, and we cannot continue living if we fail to acknowledge these connections. As we care for each other, we are also caring for our common home. As we communicate with each other, we must remember that we are connected to each other in ways that science is continuing to discover and that our personal experience is still learning.
As with many yearly events, Earth Day gives us an opportunity to reflect, discuss, and share. Thank you for letting me have the opportunity to connect with you.
By: Todd C. Toral and PJ M. Novack
Lawsuits over alleged misleading environmental marketing claims, or “greenwashing,” are nothing new. It has been nearly 30 years since the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its first version of the “Green Guides,” which are intended to help marketers avoid the practice. Since then, there have been many greenwashing actions before the FTC. More broadly, the FTC has pursued a number of suits in federal court, such as false advertising claims over the terms “clean diesel” and “100% organic.” But last month, in a first, several environmental groups petitioned the FTC to use its Green Guides offensively against a fossil fuel company for “misleading consumers on the climate and environmental impact of its operations.”
On March 16, 2021, Earthworks, Global Witness, and Greenpeace USA filed a complaint against Chevron for misleading consumers through advertisements that exaggerate the company’s investment in renewable energy and its commitment to reducing fossil fuel pollution. The action comes on the heels of Chevron’s new “Climate Change Resilience” report, where Chevron outlined its contributions against climate change. The environmental groups argue that Chevron misrepresents its image to appear climate-friendly and racial-justice oriented, while actually doing more harm than good. In support of their claims, the environmental groups point out that Chevron is the second most polluting company in the world and had spent only 0.2% of its capital expenditures on low-carbon energy sources between 2010-2018.
Considering the recent change in administrations, this action may represent a new trend where consumer and environmental groups are willing to take on major oil companies by petitioning a potentially more consumer-friendly FTC. President Biden currently has an opportunity to fill the vacant FTC seat and tip the balance of power toward Democrats. Moreover, President Biden has signaled his personal support for environmental causes by halting oil and gas sales and canceling the Keystone XL crude pipeline. Given the shifting sands, companies should be prepared for new and perhaps more creative enforcement actions.
Environmental Organizations Petition EPA to Expand Enforcement of Clean Air Act’s General Duty Clause
Various environmental organizations, led by the Environmental Integrity Project (“EIP”), are urging the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to expand enforcement of Section 112(r)(1) of the Clean Air Act (CAA)—commonly known as the General Duty Clause (“GDC”)—in order to more closely regulate the handling of hazardous substances at industrial facilities permitted under the CAA. EIP’s ongoing efforts include petitioning EPA to require that the obligations of the GDC be incorporated in state-issued Title V air emission permits, such that these obligations may be enforced against permit holders by state regulators or through citizen suits. As explained below, efforts to expand enforcement of the GDC were for the most part blocked under the Trump Administration’s EPA, but it remains to be seen whether these efforts may achieve renewed success under the Biden Administration.
The GDC, which was first enacted as part of the 1990 amendments to the CAA, requires that owners and operators of regulated facilities that handle, process, or store “extremely hazardous substances” take certain actions to “prevent the accidental release and … minimize the consequences of any  release” of such substances. Specifically, the GDC requires facility owners and operators to: (i) conduct a hazardous risk assessment to identify potential risks from extremely hazardous substances at their facilities; (ii) design and maintain safe facilities that protect against releases; and (iii) develop and implement protocols to minimize the consequences from any accidental releases. While “extremely hazardous substances” is not defined by the GDC, the Senate Report from the 1990 CAA amendments provides that “extremely hazardous substance” includes any agent “which may as the result of short-term exposures associated with releases to the air cause death, injury or property damage due to its toxicity, reactivity, flammability, volatility, or corrosivity.” Although not necessarily exhaustive, EPA has created a list of extremely hazardous substances in 40 CFR part 68. Jurisdiction for enforcement of the GDC remains an issue of contention between EPA and environmental organizations. While enforcement of the GDC has traditionally been left to the exclusive purview of EPA, environmental groups are increasingly arguing that state air authorities can and should request delegation authority from the EPA to enforce the GDC at permitted facilities within their jurisdiction.
A key example of EIP’s efforts to increase enforcement of the GDC is provided in the organization’s April 14, 2020 Petition Objecting to a Title V Permit issued to Hazlehurst Wood Pellets LLC (“Hazlehurst”), a wood pellet mill operating in the State of Georgia. At the time of the petition, Hazlehurst’s Title V permit had been approved by state authorities, but remained subject to final review by EPA. EIP’s Petition asked EPA to deny Hazlehurst’s air emissions permit on the grounds that the permit failed to recognize or incorporate the requirements of the GDC. According to the Petition, ensuring compliance with the GDC was critical due to the fact that Hazlehurst regularly handles hazardous products, including “copious amount of wood dust,” which had previously caused flash fires at the facility. The Trump Administration EPA’s subsequent Order Denying the Petition rejected EIP’s request, finding that the GDC is not an “applicable requirement” for the purposes of Title V, and as such, “Title V permits need not—and should not—include terms to assure compliance with the [GDC] as it is an independent requirement…” EPA reasoned that if the requirements of the GDC were integrated into a Title V permit, the obligations would ostensibly be enforceable through citizen suits. Concluding that “neither citizens nor state and local air agencies may enforce the [GDC] under the CAA,” EPA rejected the Petition. At the same time, EPA clarified that because the GDC is “self-implementing,” it is independently enforceable by EPA and applies even when it is not expressed as part of a facility’s air permit.
While EPA’s Order denied the environmental organization’s request to expressly require GDC compliance in Title V permits, the Order did make clear that facilities holding Title V permits are still subject to the GDC’s requirements which may be enforced by EPA. According to recently issued EPA Guidance on the GDC, owners and operators who maintain extremely hazardous substances must adhere, at a minimum, to recognized industry standards and any applicable government regulations for handling such substances. While it remains to be seen whether the Biden Administration EPA will continue to resist expressly incorporating the GDC in Title V permits, the Biden Administration’s emphasis on regulatory compliance and environmental justice indicates that future enforcement of the GDC is likely to increase. For this reason, facilities holding air emission permits should review their existing protocols for handling and storing hazardous substances and ensure these protocols are consistent with prevailing industry standards and the requirements of the GDC.
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
Breaking from the pack and potentially creating a circuit split, the Second Circuit’s decision in City of New York v. Chevron, et al. dismissing New York’s City’s climate change lawsuit is a significant victory for the oil and gas industry. The unanimous ruling from the Second Circuit affirmed a district’s court decision dismissing New York’s common law claims, finding that issues such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions invoked questions of federal law that are not well suited to the application of state law.
Taking a slightly different tact than state and local plaintiffs in other climate change lawsuits, the State of New York sued five oil producers in federal court asserting causes of action for (1) public nuisance, (2) private nuisance, and (3) trespass under New York law stemming from the defendants’ production, promotion and sale of fossil fuels. New York sought both compensatory damages as well as a possible injunction that would require defendants to abate the public nuisance and trespass. Defendants filed motions to dismiss that were granted. The district court determined that New York’s state-law claims were displaced by federal common law and that those federal common law claims were in turn displaced by the Clean Air Act. The district court also concluded that judicial caution counseled against permitting New York to bring federal common law claims against defendants for foreign greenhouse gas emissions.
The Second Circuit agreed with the district court, noting that the problems facing New York can’t be attributed solely to greenhouse gas emissions in the state nor the emissions of the five defendants. Rather, the greenhouse gas emissions that New York alleges required the City to launch a “$20 billion-plus multilayered investment program in climate resiliency across all five boroughs” are a byproduct of emissions around the world for the past several hundred years.
As the Second Circuit noted, “[t]he question before it is whether municipalities may utilize state tort law to hold multinational oil companies liable for the damages caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Given the nature of the harm and the existence of a complex web of federal and international environmental law regulating such emissions, we hold that the answer is ‘no.’”
Finding that New York’s state common law claims were displaced by federal common law, the Second Circuit then considered whether the Clean Air Act displaced these federal common law claims. The Second Circuit noted that the Supreme Court in Am. Elec. Power Co. v. Connecticut (AEP) (2011) had previously held that the “’Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common-law right to seek abatement’ of greenhouse gas emissions.” As to the State’s damage claims, the Second Circuit agreed with the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning in Native Vill. Of Kivalina v. Exxonmobil Corp. (9th Cir. 2012) that the “displacement of federal common law does not turn on the nature of the remedy but rather on the cause of action.” As such, the Second Circuit held that “whether styled as an action for injunctive relief against the Producers to stop them from producing fossil fuels, or an action for damages that would have the same practical effect, the City’s claims are clearly barred by the Clean Air Act.
The Second Circuit was careful to distinguish its holding from the holdings reached by the First, Fourth, Ninth and Tenth circuits in prior climate change cases, noting that in those other cases, the plaintiffs had brought state-law claims in state court and defendants then sought to remove the cases to federal courts. The single issue in those cases was whether defendants’ federal preemption defenses singlehandedly created federal question jurisdiction. Here, because New York elected to file in federal as opposed to state court, the Second Circuit was free to consider defendants’ preemption defense on its own terms and not under the heightened standard applicable to a removal inquiry.
Whether the Second Circuit’s decision has any impact on BP PLC, et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, a case that has now been fully briefed and argued before the Supreme Court remains to be seen. The Baltimore case was one of the state court cases discussed above that was removed to federal court. The defendants had alleged a number of different grounds for removal, one of which is known as the “federal officer removal statute” that allows removal to federal court of any lawsuit filed against an officer or person acting under that office of the United States or an agency thereof. The limited issue before the Supreme Court was whether the appellate court could only consider the federal-officer removal ground or whether it could instead review any of the grounds relied upon in defendants’ removal petition.
Some commenters have noted that the Second Circuit’s decision creates a circuit split that may embolden the Supreme Court to address these climate change cases in one fell swoop. The more likely scenario, however, is that the Supreme Court limits its opinion to the narrow issue before it and leaves resolution of whether state law climate change nuisance actions are preempted by federal law for another day.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is continuing to investigate an unexplained source of per-fluorinated compounds (PFAS) contamination that may be associated with the deployment of a fire-fighting compound in response to a major gasoline release by the Colonial Pipeline system on August 14, 2020. The Colonial Pipeline, which spans 5,500 miles from Houston, Texas, to Linden, New Jersey, runs through a number of southern and mid-Atlantic states, including North Carolina. The active pipeline delivers an average of 100 million gallons of liquid petroleum products each day. On August 14, 2020, a leak in the pipeline resulted in the release of approximately 1.2 million gallons of gasoline into the environment near the town of Huntersville, North Carolina. The release was the largest onshore gasoline spill in the United States in over 20 years and in connection with Colonial Pipeline’s emergency response to that release, Colonial Pipeline sprayed a commonly used fire suppressant known as F-500 encapsulate on the contaminated land to minimize the risk that vapors from the release would ignite.
However, following Colonial Pipeline’s initial emergency response, new questions have emerged regarding PFAS that was detected at the release site. As part of the ongoing efforts to investigate the nature and extent of the gasoline release, DEQ directed Colonial Pipeline to collect samples from the F-500 encapsulate and test that encapsulate for various PFAS formations. The resulting test data found elevated levels—as high as 22,600 parts per trillion (“ppt”)—of at least three different PFAS compounds. Samples of a nearby surface water showed PFAS concentrations ranging from 1 ppt to 14.9 ppt.
The source of the PFAS is not readily apparent, however, because as verified by the Safety Data Sheet , F-500 is not known to contain PFAS compounds. In fact, F-500 acts differently than aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) to fight fires. AFFF is intended to separate oxygen from the fuel while F-500 works by removing the heat, neutralizing the fuel, and interrupting the free radical chain reaction. As such, it does not rely on fluorine compounds for effectiveness.
It is possible that the source of the PFAS identified by Colonial Pipeline was a result of residual AFFF residing in the storage tank or in the fire-fighting equipment that was used to dispense the F-500 encapsulating agent. The F-500 was transported to the site by the Pelham Alabama fire department and the fire-fighting equipment that sprayed the F-500 was supplied by the Hunterville Fire Department. However, notwithstanding that the equipment was supplied by the municipal fire departments and that the F-500 is not known to contain PFAS compounds, DEQ has still requested that Colonial Pipeline provide data demonstrating that there have been no PFAS impacts to soil or groundwater as a result of the emergency response.
This a cautionary tale for environmental health and safety professionals charged with maintaining emergency spill response materials, including fire suppressant products, for their respective organizations. Such professionals are faced with a unique challenge of ensuring that products maintained for spill containment or remediation purposes are not only fit for these purposes, but also that these products do not contain chemicals that pose a potential threat to human health or the environment. This challenge is particularly acute with PFAS, of which there are over 5,000 different formulations which can be found in a large variety of different consumer and industry products. Even if a decision is made to swap out one product that may historically contained PFAS with a new product that is purportedly PFAS-free, care should be taken to ensure that product distribution equipment is PFAS-free. Otherwise, one might find oneself in the unfortunate position of having to defend against claims relating to PFAS impacts in the environment.
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On the heels of a 2020 decision in National Association of Wheat Growers, et al. v. Becerra that barred the State of California from requiring Proposition 65 warnings for glyphosate-based pesticides because those warnings violated the First Amendment, another California District Court has thrown up a First Amendment roadblock for Proposition 65 claims relating to acrylamide in food and beverage products. As explained in more detail below, on March 29, 2021, the District Court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the California Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) barring future State and private party Proposition 65 lawsuits alleging a failure to warn of acrylamide in food and beverage products.
The Chamber filed its lawsuit in October 2019 alleging that because the State did not “know” that eating food with acrylamide causes cancer in people, Proposition 65 violated the First Amendment because it mandated that businesses place warnings on food and beverage products stating that acrylamide is known to the State to cause cancer. The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT)--a nonprofit organization that frequently files private party Proposition 65 lawsuits--intervened in the matter.
The Chamber requested a preliminary injunction to bar the State and any private litigant from filing new lawsuits to enforce Proposition 65 against businesses that do not warn consumers that acrylamide in food is “known to the State of California to cause cancer”. Both the State and CERT opposed the request for a preliminary injunction, arguing that the Chamber had not met its burden. CERT also argued that the preliminary injunction would be an unconstitutional prior restraint on its First Amendment right to bring Proposition 65 enforcement claims.
The Court quickly dismissed CERT’s unconstitutional restraint argument noting that if the Chamber is correct that Proposition 65 lawsuits targeting acrylamide are violative of the First Amendment, then the lawsuit has an illegal objective and therefore can be enjoined without violating the First Amendment. In considering whether the Chamber was likely to succeed on the merits of the complaint, the Court then proceeded to examine the Proposition 65 safe harbor warning which states as follows: “Consuming this product can expose you to [acrylamide], which is … known to the State of California to cause cancer.” After examining the scientific evidence presented to the Court, the Court found that the State had not shown that this warning was purely factual and uncontroversial.
Although the Court acknowledged that high exposure animal studies showed an increased incidence of cancer, dozens of epidemiological studies had failed to tie human cancer to a diet of food containing acrylamide. After considering the competing expert testimony, the Court concluded that the “safe harbor warning is controversial because it elevates one side of a legitimately unresolved scientific debate about whether eating goods and drinks containing acrylamide increases risk of cancer.” The Court recognized California’s substantial government interest in protecting the health and safety of consumers but concluded that at this stage of the litigation, the Chamber had shown that the Proposition 65 warning that the State demands does not directly advance that interest and is more extensive than necessary.
Finally, in evaluating whether the Chamber had demonstrated that it would suffer irreparable harm, the Court acknowledged the significant increase in Proposition 65 acrylamide pre-litigation notices and lawsuits over the past several years. As the Court noted, irreparable harm is relatively easy to establish in a First Amendment case like this and this burden was met by the Chamber. As such, the Court granted the Chamber's request for a preliminary injunction.
Again, it is important to note that this is just a preliminary injunction that bars future State and private party Proposition 65 acrylamide lawsuits while the case proceeds on the merits. However, this decision, along with the 2020 Wheat Growers decision noted above, may evidence a willingness on the part of California courts to give serious credence to First Amendment challenges to Proposition 65 warning requirements and may represent a light at the end of the Proposition 65 tunnel for entities that sell food and beverage products in California (and this time, it may not be the light from a train).
Congressional Review Act Resolution Introduced to Revoke EPA Methane Rule—Does this Open the CRA Floodgates?
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On March 25, 2021, Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives introduced joint resolutions pursuant to the Congressional Review Act (CRA) that if approved by Congress and signed by President Biden would rescind the Trump-era rollback of Obama-era regulations that (1) imposed methane-specific emission limits on “production and processing” segments of the oil and gas industry and (2) required that transmission lines and storage equipment be inspected for methane leaks and repaired in a timely manner in accordance with the New Source Performance Standards for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry. The CRA resolution, if approved by Congress and signed by President Biden, would reinstate these Obama-era regulations for the oil and gas industry.
The CRA, which was enacted in 1996, is a tool that allows Congress to disapprove a range of regulatory rules issued by federal agencies by first approving a joint resolution of disapproval that then goes to the President for signature. If signed by the President, the disapproved rule either does not take effect or does not continue. In addition, once a joint resolution of disapproval is enacted, the CRA provides that a new rule may not be issued in “substantially the same form” as the disapproved rule. Congress has a limited window to act—the CRA requires that a joint resolution of disapproval must be introduced within 60 legislative working days of the date that the rule was submitted to Congress.
The CRA had not been widely used prior to the Trump administration and the Democrats had widely criticized President Trump's prior use of the CRA to rescind Obama-era regulations. As such, there had been some uncertainty as to whether the Democrats would embrace this tool in light of their prior opposition and hostility to the use of the CRA by many environmental groups. However, with this joint resolution and another March 23rd CRA resolution to disapprove of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s conciliation rule, the CRA floodgates may have opened. The resulting deluge will likely be of short duration, however, as the window for CRA disapprovals for Trump-era actions is expected to close on April 4th.
EPA Finalizes Revised Cross-State Air Pollution Rule Update: Emissions Reductions Required at Certain Power Plants Beginning in May
On March 15, 2021, EPA finalized the Revised Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (“CSAPR”) Update for the 2008 ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”). This final rule is issued pursuant to the “good neighbor provision” of the Clean Air Act and in response to the D.C. Circuit’s remand of the previous version of the CSAPR Update in Wisconsin v. EPA on September 13, 2019. The previous version of the CSAPR Update was issued in October 2016, and was found to be unlawful because it allowed certain states to continue their significant contributions to downwind ozone problems beyond the statutory dates by which the downwind states were required to be in compliance with the NAAQS. The Revised CSAPR Update attempts to address the deficiencies identified by the D.C. Circuit.
Beginning in the 2021 ozone season (the ozone season is May 1 through September 30), the Revised CSAPR Update will require additional emissions reductions of nitrogen oxides (“NOX”) from power plants in 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. EPA determined that additional emissions reductions were necessary in these 12 states because projected 2021 ozone season NOX emissions from these states were found to significantly contribute to downwind states’ nonattainment and/or maintenance problems for the 2008 ozone NAAQS. NOX is an ozone precursor, which can react with other ozone precursors in the atmosphere to create ground-level ozone pollution (a/k/a smog). These pollutants can travel great distances, often crossing state lines and making it difficult for downwind states to meet or maintain the ozone NAAQS.
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
On his first full day in office, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, which required OSHA to “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID‑19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary,” and if so, to issue such emergency temporary standards (ETS) by March 15, 2021. Executive Order 13999, § 2(b) (Jan. 21, 2021), 86 FR 7211 (Jan. 26, 2021). An ETS, which skips the initial notice and comment process before it is in effect, can be issued pursuant to Section 6(c) of the OSH Act if OSHA determines that employees are exposed to “grave danger” and that an emergency standard is “necessary” to protect them from the grave danger. 29 USC § 655(c).
March 15, 2021 came and went; no ETS was issued. As of this writing, OSHA has not made a public statement as to why it did not issue an ETS on March 15, or the agency’s considerations and future plans regarding an ETS. Why might OSHA have chosen not to act now? What has OSHA done instead? What ETS might be on the horizon?
Why Might OSHA Have Decided Not to Issue an ETS Now?
There is considerable legal risk that a COVID-19 ETS will not hold up in court. OSHA has not successfully issued an ETS since 1978. Its last attempt to issue an ETS would have regulated asbestos exposure and was invalidated by the US Court of Appeals in 1984. In Asbestos Info. Ass’n v. OSHA, 727 F.2d 415 (5th Cir. 1984), the court rejected the ETS because OSHA did not sufficiently support its conclusion of a “grave danger,” i.e., that 80 people would die in the next six months without the ETS and that OSHA could not show that an asbestos ETS was “necessary” given its existing respiratory standard.
As an additional legal hurdle, OSHA, in the last administration, has already gone on record that an ETS is unnecessary, and won that position in federal court. On June 11, 2020, the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied the AFL-CIO’s petition for a writ of mandamus to compel OSHA to issue an ETS for Infectious Diseases. The three-judge panel 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 panel held that “OSHA’s decision not to issue an ETS is entitled to considerable deference.”
OSHA Issues Immediately Effective COVID-19 National Enforcement Program and Updated Enforcement Guidance: No ETS Yet
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
On March 12, 2021, OSHA took two significant new actions to enhance its enforcement actions regarding COVID-19 workplace safety: (1) establishing the National Emphasis Program – COVID-19 (the NEP) targeting higher hazard industries for OSHA enforcement action; and (2) updating and replacing its former Interim Enforcement Response Plan for COVID-19 (the Enforcement Plan) to prioritize in-person worksite inspections by OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHO). This action is in response to President Biden’s January 21, 2021 Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, in which he directed OSHA to “launch a national program to focus OSHA enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 on violations that put the largest number of workers at serious risk or are contrary to anti-retaliation principles.” Executive Order (EO) No. 13999, § 2(d), 86 FR 7211 (Jan. 26, 2021). Although the Executive Order (§ 2(b)) also required OSHA to consider whether to issue a COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), and to do so by March 15, 2021 if determined necessary, these two new OSHA policy documents are not an ETS. Instead, OSHA has buried in the text of both the NEP and the Enforcement Plan that “in the event that” OSHA issues an ETS, the ETS will be used instead of a General Duty Clause violation as the basis for citations with respect to COVID-19 safety violations, which will be enforced through the new NEP and Enforcement Plan.
A National Emphasis Program is an OSHA enforcement policy procedure, developed in accordance with OSHA’s Directives System, through which OSHA decides how it is selecting sites for enforcement initiatives. An OSHA enforcement response plan informs CSHO how to conduct their enforcement activities, whether in regard to an NEP, a particular hazard, or otherwise. In this case, the NEP and the Enforcement Plan together tell employers the categories of workplaces and the types of enforcement procedures that are OSHA’s highest COVID-19 safety priorities.
In the NEP, OSHA is targeting those specified industries whose workers “have increased potential exposure to [a COVID-19] hazard, and that puts the largest number of workers at serious risk.” NEP, p. 1. The NEP also focuses on making sure that “workers are protected from retaliation,” including by referring allegations of retaliation to OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program. Id. OSHA makes clear that its NEP is to “augment” its continuing enforcement actions at all workplaces where it receives a complaint, severe incident report, or referral involving COVID-19 safety issues.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Releases Updated Public Health Guidelines for Vaccinated Individuals, Including Recommendations for the Workplace
On Monday, March 8, 2021, the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) released its first set of public health recommendations for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19, titled “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People.” The CDC’s newly published guidelines are intended to replace the CDC’s existing public health guidance specifically for those individuals fully vaccinated for COVID-19. By “fully vaccinated”, CDC means ≥2 weeks after an individual has received the second dose in a 2-dose series (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna), or ≥2 weeks after an individual has received a single-dose vaccine (Johnson and Johnson [J&J]/Janssen). The updated guidance includes specific recommendations for vaccinated individuals in the non-healthcare workplace, public spaces and private and/or family settings. While the CDC guidance is only intended to provide recommended best practices, it is anticipated that the CDC’s newest guidance will be relied on by states, municipalities, school systems, and private employers as these entities continue to update and implement their own respective health guidance and COVID-19 policies and protocols.
According to the updated guidelines, vaccinated persons can now engage in a number of new activities, including:
- Visiting with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing;
- Visiting with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing; and
- Refraining from quarantine and testing following a known exposure to COVID-19 if asymptomatic.
Notably, the new guidelines leave in place many of CDC’s existing recommendations for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals. For example, the CDC recommends that fully vaccinated individuals continue to wear a mask in public, physical distance, avoid crowds and avoid poorly ventilated spaces. In addition, the CDC is continuing to recommend that vaccinated individuals delay domestic and international travel, and, if they do travel, continue to follow all CDC requirements and recommendations when doing so.
CDC’s guidelines for vaccinated individuals include a number of implications for private employers. In the context of non-healthcare workplaces, the CDC is now recommending that fully vaccinated employees do not need to quarantine following a known or suspected exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace unless that the vaccinated individual develops “COVID-like symptoms.” However, the guidelines still recommend that vaccinated persons receive testing “through routine workplace screening programs” following an exposure to COVID-19. Notably, CDC’s no quarantine recommendation does not extend to vaccinated employees working in congregate settings or other high-density workplaces (e.g., meat and poultry processing and manufacturing plants), and as a result vaccinated employees in congregate work environments should continue to adhere to the quarantine requirements following exposure. Employers should therefore evaluate their respective work environment to determine the appropriate quarantine procedures for employees who have received a vaccine. Under the guidelines, vaccinated individuals also need to comply with any existing COVID-19 health and safety rules issued by their employer. Thus, an employee’s vaccination status should not allow the employee to avoid his or her workplaces’ COVID-19 policies and procedures. Finally, CDC’s new guidelines do not update the CDC’s prior recommendation (issued December 30, 2020) regarding business travel. The CDC is continuing to recommend that employers “minimize non-essential travel” for all employees and, if resuming non-essential travel, ensure their employees continue to follow all state and local COVID-19 regulations and guidance regardless of their vaccination status.
In the accompanying scientific brief to its newly released guidance, the CDC cites to existing studies demonstrating the highly effective nature of the approved mRNA COVID-19 vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 infection (including both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections). Despite early evidence of the effectiveness of the approved vaccines, the CDC noted that only “approximately two-thirds of U.S. adults state that they [are] at least somewhat likely to receive a COVID-19 vaccine (or had received one already).” Because maintaining requirements to continue COVID-19 prevention measures after vaccination “may disincentive vaccine uptake,” the CDC explained that its new guidance intends to communicate additional advantages, to the individual and the community, from vaccination. The CDC advised that its guidance for vaccinated individuals will continue to be updated and modified “based on the level of community spread of SARS-CoV-2, the proportion of the population that is fully vaccinated, and the rapidly evolving science on COVID-19 vaccines.”
On March 2, 2021, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado in the case of Colorado v. EPA, et al., Nos. 20-1238, 20-1262, and 20-1263, that had issued a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the Trump Administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule (“NWPR”) in the State of Colorado. Under the Tenth Circuit ruling, the NWPR was put back into force, and the State of Colorado’s case was remanded back to district court for further proceedings challenging the rule.
The NWPR is the latest attempt by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to define “Waters of the United States” and thereby define the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. The agencies have been grappling with this definition for nearly 50 years, and have faced nearly constant legal challenges along the way. In 2017, the Trump Administration rescinded the definition that had been promulgated under the Obama Administration, and in 2020, offered up its own definition in the NWPR. The NWPR narrows the definition of “Waters of the United States” from past definitions–notably by excluding certain wetlands and ephemeral streams from the definition and thus excluding them from the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
A number of lawsuits were filed challenging the NWPR, including Colorado v. EPA. The Colorado case was significant because Colorado sought, and was granted, a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the NWPR in the State of Colorado. The State had argued that by reducing the reach of the Clean Water Act, the NWPR caused irreparable injury to the State because Colorado would be forced to undertake additional enforcement actions in place of the federal government to protect the quality of its waterways. While the district court had found this to be sufficient injury to support the State’s preliminary injunction, the Tenth Circuit found that it was too speculative and uncertain. Thus, the preliminary injunction was rejected and reversed because the State of Colorado could not show irreparable injury. Notably, the Tenth Circuit did not address the merits of the State’s challenge to the NWPR.
Additionally, prior to the Tenth Circuit’s ruling, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers had requested the court hold the appeal in abeyance for 60 days in light of the new leadership at the agencies following the election of President Biden. The court denied the request and issued its ruling lifting the preliminary injunction the following day. The Biden Administration has indicated it is reviewing the NWPR and may want to make changes to broaden the definition of “Waters of the United States” once again. If that is the case, the agencies may look to settle the Colorado case and other similar litigation with a promise of changes to come. The Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog will monitor and report on these matters as they develop.
OSHA under Deadline for a Nationwide COVID 19 Workplace Safety Rule: Four States’ Existing Laws and New Federal Guidance and Orders Foretell the Future
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
On his first full day in office, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, which required OSHA to “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID‑19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary,” and if so, to issue such emergency temporary standards (ETS) by March 15, 2021. Executive Order 13999, § 2(b) (Jan. 21, 2021), 86 FR 7211 (Jan. 26, 2021). An ETS, which skips the initial notice and comment process before it is in effect, can be issued pursuant to Section 6(c) of the OSH Act if OSHA determines that employees are exposed to “grave danger” and that an emergency standard is necessary to protect them from the grave danger. 29 U.S.C. § 655(c).
Putting aside that OSHA has not successfully issued an ETS since 1978, including that the last attempt to issue an ETS, regulating asbestos exposure, was invalidated by the US Court of Appeals in 1984, OSHA now has several models for a COVID‑19 ETS from which it may draw. Specifically, California, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia are among the 22 states and territories that administer and enforce their own state-plan OSHA, rather than rely solely on federal standards and enforcement. These four states have developed their own COVID‑19 safety regulations that apply to most, if not all, workplaces in their respective states, and have both distinctive features and commonalities. Employers would be well-advised to be aware of each of the states’ specific standards, not only to comply with regulatory requirements in that state, but to consider whether their workplace is ready for potential, nationwide regulations which may incorporate elements of these states’ approaches.
With OSHA under a Presidential deadline to issue a nationwide COVID-19 safety regulation, we review the current status of OSHA guidance; describe the basic elements of the four states’ regulations; and look at recent federal orders by other agencies to anticipate what employers nationwide may soon be facing.
US OSHA: COVID‑19 Regulation and Guidance in the Prior Administration
Biden Administration Takes New Action to Ensure Increased Consideration of Climate Change Impacts by the Federal Government
On Friday, February 19, 2021, the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) rescinded prior draft guidance issued under the Trump Administration in 2019 (the “2019 Draft CEQ Guidance”), which had limited the degree to which federal agencies needed to consider and quantify climate change impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The rescission of the 2019 Draft CEQ Guidance is the latest step by the federal government to implement President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, which was signed on President Biden’s first day in office (the “Day 1 EO”). In addition to directing CEQ to rescind its prior guidance, President Biden’s Day 1 EO set forth numerous directives implementing the administration’s new climate change policy, including an order reinstating the Interagency Working Group (IWG) and directing the IWG to develop an updated “Social Cost of Carbon” (“SCC”) valuation to better quantify the economic harms associated with the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses (“GHGs”). Under the Day 1 EO, the IWG was directed to publish its new interim SCC value within 30 days of the Order and publish a final SCC value by January 2022. Together, the Day 1 EO’s rescission of the 2019 Draft CEQ Guidance and reinstatement of the IWG signal a clear intent from the Biden Administration to significantly increase the degree to which federal agencies must consider and account for climate change impacts when enacting future regulation or taking other agency actions.
The origins of the SCC metric can be traced back to President Clinton’s 1993 Executive Order 12866, which required that federal agencies, to the extent permitted by law, “assess both the costs and the benefits of [their] intended regulation and…propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that the benefits of the intended regulation justify its costs.” Compliance with Executive Order 12866 poses a unique challenge for federal agencies where a proposed regulation is expected to cause a significant increase or decrease of carbon dioxide or other GHG emissions, as the benefits or costs associated with these emissions cannot easily be quantified or compared to other metrics used in the agency’s cost-benefit analysis.