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July 2020

New York Sets PFAS And 1,4-Dioxane MCL

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130By Steven M. Siros

 

On July 30, 2020, New York’s Public Health and Planning Council voted to establish maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for PFOA and PFOS, two of the more common per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS.    The MCL for both PFOA and PFOS was set at 10 parts per trillion (ppt) and once approved by the state’s Health Commissioner, public water systems serving 10,000 people or more will be required to start testing for these compounds within 60 days of the date the regulations are published in the New York State Register.  Systems serving between 3,300 and 9,999 person would have to begin testing within 90 days, while all other systems would need to begin testing within six months.  In conjunction with setting the PFAS MCL, New York also set a 1 part per billion MCL for 1,4-dioxane, another emerging contaminant.

The most immediate impact of the new MCLs will be the testing obligation it imposes on drinking water providers.  If these contaminants are detected in drinking water above the MCL, the drinking water provider will be required to notify its consumers and develop a plan to address the MCL exceedances.  Although New York has historically provided grants to assist municipalities in addressing these types of emerging contaminants, these grants are unlikely to be sufficient in light of the wide-spread testing that will now be required.  As such, one can likely expect a substantial increase in litigation as municipalities aggressively look to shift the burden of paying for these remedial measures from ratepayers to manufacturing and/or other industrial operations that may have contributed to the presence of these contaminants in the environment.  


Virginia Issues First COVID-19 Emergency Workplace Safety and Health Standard

SongSigel

 

By Leah M. Song and Gabrielle Sigel 

Covid-19

 

On July 27, 2020, Virginia became the first state to adopt an emergency workplace safety standard regarding exposure to COVID-19. Virginia is one of the 22 states which has jurisdiction to issue its own workplace safety and health regulations, which must be at least as stringent as regulations issued by U.S. OSHA, but can go beyond federal requirements. The Virginia regulation titled §16 VAC 25‐220, Emergency Temporary Standard, Infectious Disease Prevention: SARS‐CoV‐2 Virus That Causes COVID‑19 (“Emergency Standard”) was adopted during a meeting of the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board on July 15, 2020. The Emergency Standard will expire “(i) within six months of its effective date, upon expiration of the Governor’s State of Emergency, or when superseded by a permanent standard, whichever occurs first, or (ii) when repealed by the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board.” The Emergency Standard was available as of July 24, 2020, but will be formally published on July 27, 2020, and its legal effective date is July 27, 2020.

The Emergency Standard shall apply to every employer, employee, and place of employment in Virginia within the jurisdiction of the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Program (“VOSH”), as described in §§ 16 VAC 25-60-20 and 16 VAC 25-60-30 for both public and private employers.

The “[a]pplication of this [Emergency Standard] to a place of employment will be based on the exposure risk level” (i.e., “very high,” “high,” “medium,” and “lower” of COVID-19 and “related hazards present or job tasks.” The Emergency Standard includes a minimum list of factors to be considered in determining exposure risk level, such as the work environment and employee contact, as well as employer requirements for each exposure risk level.

The Emergency Standard details mandatory requirements for all employers, regardless of exposure risk level, such as:

  • Exposure assessment and determination, notification requirements, and employee access to exposure and medical records
  • Return to work policies and procedures
  • Physical distancing
  • Limited access to common areas
  • Compliance with respiratory protection and personal protective equipment standards
  • Compliance with sanitation and disinfection standards

The Emergency Standard details additional requirements for each exposure risk level designated as “very high,” “high,” and “medium.” For all workplaces other than those with low exposure risk, the employer must develop and implement a written Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan (“IDPR Plan”). The IDPR Plan, employers shall consider contingency plans for outbreaks, identify basic infection prevention measures, and address interaction with outside businesses.

In addition, the Emergency Standard requires that in workplaces in the “very high” and “high” exposure risk levels, the employer shall implement protective measures such as isolation facilities and physical barriers. For the “medium” exposure risk level, the employer shall consider protective measures such as flexible work arrangements and increasing physical distancing.

With regard to face coverings, the Emergency Standard defines “face covering” as not PPE. The Emergency Standard states: “Employee use of face coverings for contact inside six feet of coworkers, customers, or other persons is not an acceptable administrative or work practice control to achieve minimal occupational contact. However, when it is necessary for an employee to have brief contact with others inside the six feet distance a face covering is required.” §16 VAC 25‐220-30. At the “medium” exposure level, employers of "medium" exposure level workplaces are required, “to the extent possible,” to provide and have their employees wear face coverings where it is not feasible to physically distance between employees or in customer-facing jobs for the “medium” exposure level. Face coverings may not be required under certain circumstances, such due to the wearer’s medical condition and religious waivers.

To the extent that an employer actually complies with a recommendation contained in CDC guidelines, and those guidelines provide “equivalent or greater protection than provided by a provision of this [Emergency Standard], the employer’s actions shall be considered in compliance with this [Emergency Standard].” “An employer’s actual compliance with a recommendation contained in CDC guidelines … shall be considered evidence of good faith in any enforcement proceeding related to this [Emergency Standard].”

The Emergency Standard also expressly addressed the notification requirements when there is an employee with a positive COVID-19 case. Employers must notify (a) the building or facility owner if any employee in the building tests positive for COVID-19; (b) the Virginia Department of Health within 24 hours of the discovery of a positive case; and (c) the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry within 24 hours of the discovery of three or more employees who test positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day period.

Additionally, employers are prohibited from using antibody testing to “make decisions about returning employees to work who were previously classified as known or suspected to be infected” with COVID-19.

The Emergency Standard also confirms an employee’s right to “refus[e] to do work or enter a location that the employee feels is unsafe.” Section 16 VAC 25-60-110 provides requirements regarding the “discharge or discipline of an employee who has refused to complete an assigned task because of a reasonable fear of injury or death.” That provision states that such discharge or discipline will be considered retaliatory “only if the employee has sought abatement of the hazard from the employer and the statutory procedures for securing abatement would not have provided timely protection.”

Under Emergency Standard §16 VAC 25‐220‐80, covered employers will have until August 26, 2020, to train employees, covering topics such as the requirements of the Emergency Standard, COVID-19 symptoms and methods of transmission, safe and healthy work practices, and anti-discrimination provisions. It is important to note that training requirements for exposure risk levels “very high,” “high,” and “medium” differ from the less-comprehensive requirements for the “lower” risk level. Under subsection 16 VAC 25‐220‐70, if an employer is required to have an IDPR Plan, the employer must develop and train employees on their IDPR Plan by September 25, 2020.

Training and outreach materials, including training PowerPoints, FAQs, an IDPR Plan template, and an exposure risk level flow chart, are being developed by the VOSH Cooperative Programs Division, with some available here, as of July 24, 2020.

At the federal level, OSHA has come under scrutiny for its decision not to adopt a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (“AFL-CIO”) and other unions asked OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”), rather than have employers rely solely on existing OSHA regulations and new COVID-19 guidance to no avail. On May 18, 2020, the AFL-CIO filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the U.S. Court of Appeals to compel OSHA to issue an ETS within 30 days. However, on June 11, 2020, the court held 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 environment.” On June 18, 2020, the AFL-CIO filed for a rehearing en banc. Please see Jenner & Block’s analysis of the AFL-CIO lawsuit here. In addition, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation, titled “The COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act” (H.R. 6559), which would require OSHA to issue an ETS. The provisions of H.R. 6559, including the provisions relating to the ETS, were included in H.R. 6800, The Heroes Act. H.R, passed by the House on May 15, 2020, and which is set to be part of the upcoming political debates and votes by the House and the Senate on new COVID-19 economic stimulus and related legislation.

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

Trump Administration Issues Final Rule Substantially Modifying NEPA Regulations

Lawson Headshot By Matthew G. Lawson

SealOn Wednesday, July 15, 2020, the Trump Administration announced the publication of comprehensive updates to federal regulations governing the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  The updated regulations—issued by the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”)—are provided in the agency’s final rule titled “Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act” (the “Final Rule”), which is expected to be published in a forthcoming Federal Register publication.  The Final Rule significantly overhauls the responsibilities of federal agencies under NEPA, and represents the first major overhaul to NEPA’s regulations in over 30 years.  During his announcement, President Trump promised that the overhaul would remove “mountains and mountains of bureaucratic red tape in Washington, D.C.” and speed up the approval and construction of major projects such as interstate highways and pipelines. 

NEPA requires federal agencies to quantify and consider the environmental impacts of proposed actions “with effects that may be major and which are potentially subject to Federal control and responsibility.” The federal agency must conduct its NEPA review prior to “any irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources” towards the proposed action.  To fulfill its obligations under NEPA, federal agencies much first complete an “Environmental Assessment” (“EA”) that analyzes whether a proposed action will have a significant impact on the environment.  If the EA concludes that an action could have significant environmental impacts, the agency is obligated to take the next step under NEPA and prepare a detailed “Environmental Impact Assessment” (“EIS”) that describes and quantifies the anticipated impacts.  Federal agencies are required to undertake an EA and potentially an EIS before commencing public infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and ports, or before issuing permits to certain private actions that require federal approval, such as the construction of pipelines or commencement of mining operations. 

The Trump Administration has repeatedly voiced displeasure with the existing NEPA process, which the President has characterized as “increasingly complex and difficult to manage.”  Legal challenges initiated under the existing NEPA regulations have also stalled a number of energy projects publicly supported by the administration, including the Keystone XL, the Dakota Access pipelines.  The administration's new regulations are expected to reduce the obligations imposed on federal agencies under NEPA through a variety of measures, including reducing the types of environmental impacts that must be considered during a NEPA review; shortening the permitted time period for reviews; and exempting certain types of actions from the review requirements.

While the Final Rule provides numerous modifications to the language of the existing regulations, three changes expected to have substantial impact on the NEPA process include:

  • Narrowing of “Effects” that Agencies Must Consider: The Final Rule seeks to narrow the scope of the environmental consequences that must be considered during an agency’s NEPA review by striking from NEPA’s definition of “effects” references to “direct”, “indirect”, and “cumulative” effects. Instead, the new definition provides that federal agencies must only consider environmental “effects” that “are reasonably foreseeable and have a reasonably close casual relational to the proposed action…” According to CEQ, NEPA’s existing definition of “effects” “had been interpreted so expansively as to undermine informed decision making, and led agencies to conduct analyses to include effects that are not reasonably foreseeable or do not have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action or alternatives.”  Under the Final Rule’s definition of “effects”, it is unclear whether agencies are ever required to consider a proposed project’s incremental contribution to “global” environment effects, such as Climate Change. Since global effects arguably do not have a “close causal relationship” with any single action, these impacts may now fall outside of NEPA’s purview.

By eliminating the reference to “indirect” emissions and requiring a “close causal relationship” between a project and its environmental effects, the Final Rule also appears to limit federal agencies’ obligation to consider indirect “upstream” and/or “downstream” impacts associated with a project. This issue is of particular significance to the ongoing legal debate regarding the scope of greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions that must be considered in NEPA reviews of interstate pipeline projects. Because the volume of GHG emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels transported by a pipeline often far exceed the emissions directly associated with the pipeline’s construction, litigation can often arise as to whether these subsequent “downstream” emissions must be considered during the pipeline’s NEPA review. Under the Final Rule, it appears that upstream / downstream GHG emissions will often be excluded from NEPA’s requirements unless the emissions have a close relationship with the specific project. Ultimately, the manner in which federal agencies and courts interpret “close causal relationship” in the Final Rule has the potential to significantly reduce the scope of federal agencies’ evaluation of climate change impacts associated with federal projects.

  • Limitations on Review Period and Report Length: The Final Rule seeks to expedite the NEPA review process by requiring federal agencies to limit all NEPA reviews to a maximum of two years.  In addition, the final EIS issued by an agency may not exceed 150 pages of text or, for proposals of unusual scope of and complexity, 300 pages of text.  Exceptions from the review period and/or EIS page limitations may only be granted through specific written approval from a senior agency official.  The limitations imposed by the Final Rule appear to represent a significant departure from the existing NEPA process.  According to a CEQ Report issued on June 12, 2020, the average final EIS is currently 661 pages in length and takes approximately 4.5 years to complete.
  • Directive for Agencies to Expand Categorical Exclusions of NEPA Requirements for Certain Types of Projects: The Final Rule requires federal agencies to develop a list of actions that the agency does not expect to have a significant effect on the environment.  Outside of “extraordinary circumstances,” agencies will not be required to conduct an EA for any projects falling within these categorical exclusions.  Furthermore, the Final Rule clarifies that a NEPA review is not required where a proposed action would only have “minimal Federal funding or minimal Federal involvement,” such that the agency cannot control the outcome of the project.

The updated regulations are set to take effect 60 days after the publication of the Final Rule in the Federal Register.  CEQ has further clarified that federal agencies may apply the updated regulations to any ongoing NEPA reviews, including environmental reviews started before the effective date of the regulations.  However, environmental groups have already publicly stated that they intend to challenge the new rule, claiming at least in part that CEQ failed to respond to the more than one million comments that were submitted in response to the proposed new rules.

 

Lawsuits Challenging EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID‑19 Pandemic Hit Dead End

Song

By Leah M. Song

Covid-19As an update to our July 1st blog regarding EPA’s notice that its COVID-19 Temporary Enforcement Policy will end on August 31, 2020, there have been some new developments in the lawsuits filed challenging that policy.

On July 8, 2020, Judge McMahon of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and other environmental organizations (“Plaintiffs”) failed to show that they were injured by EPA’s purported “unreasonable delay” in responding to the petition. The Plaintiffs had petitioned EPA to publish an emergency rule requiring an entity to provide written notice if they were suspending monitoring and reporting because of COVID-19.

The court held that the Plaintiffs failed to establish the standing requirements. The Plaintiffs did not establish that they were “legally entitled to the information they seek” and lacked association standing as well. The Plaintiffs did not demonstrate that they “suffered a sufficiently concrete injury nor that that alleged injury is fairly traceable to EPA’s purported delay in responding to the Petition.”

The court said it was “perfectly obvious that, at the time Plaintiffs brought this lawsuit, the EPA had not ‘unreasonably’ delayed its response to the Petition.” Judge McMahon said that “the real litigation – over the legality of the [Enforcement Policy] itself – is presently being briefed in an action brought by nine State Attorneys General. That is where the action will – and should – take place.” Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the EPA.

One day later on July 9, the State Attorneys General indicated that they will drop their lawsuit against EPA given the upcoming Enforcement Policy deadline. “EPA does not intend to extend the [Enforcement] Policy beyond August 31 and, should the policy terminate on (or before) August 31, Plaintiffs currently intend to voluntarily dismiss the Complaint without prejudice.” The parties prepared a “contingent, expedited briefing schedule” should EPA not terminate the Enforcement Policy by that date. This announcement is unlikely to cause Judge McMahon to revisit the summary judgment ruling since this decision doesn’t change that Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the claims.

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

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

Song

By Leah M. Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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