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August 2020

EPA Finalizes Rollback of Obama-Era Methane Regulations for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry

Torrence_jpgBy Allison A. Torrence

PipelineOn August 13, 2020, EPA issued two final rules that will have a significant impact on methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. The final rules were issued under the Clean Air Act’s New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) for the oil and natural gas industry and rescind Obama-era rules issued in 2012 and 2016. EPA categorized the two new rules as (1) Policy Amendments and (2) Technical Amendments.

Key provisions from these two rules include the following:

  • Policy Amendments:
    • Removes the natural gas transmission and storage segment of the oil and natural gas industry from regulation.
    • Rescinds methane and volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) emissions standards for the natural gas transmission and storage segment of the oil and natural gas industry.
    • Rescinds methane emissions standards for the production and processing segments of the oil and natural gas industry and finds that EPA is no longer required or authorized to issue emission guidelines for methane from existing sources in the industry’s production and processing segments.
    • Finds that the Clean Air Act requires, or authorizes, EPA to make a “significant contribution finding” as a predicate to regulating any air pollutant that was not considered when EPA first listed or regulated an industry “source category.”
  • Technical Amendments:
    • Reduces the frequency of required fugitive emissions monitoring for gathering and boosting compressor stations from quarterly to twice a year and exempts low-production wells from fugitive monitoring requirements altogether.
    • Reduces the recordkeeping and reporting requirements of the fugitive emissions program.
      • Changes include allowing owners and operators to determine the best means to ensure all components are monitored, rather than having to include a site map and an observation path in the monitoring plan.
    • Updates fugitive emissions repair requirements.
    • Provides additional technical updates covering fugitive emissions monitoring and repairs, alternative means of emissions limitations, pneumatic pumps, engineer certifications for closed vent systems, and storage vessels.

As we discussed on this Blog previously, these rules were originally proposed on August 28, 2019. EPA held public hearings on the proposed amendments, and received nearly 300,000 written comments on the Policy Amendments and more than 500,000 written comments on the Technical Amendments.

According to EPA’s analysis:

The Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) for the two rules estimates that, combined, the two actions will yield $750 to $850 million in net benefits over the period from 2021-2030, (7 percent and 3 percent discount rates, respectively), the annualized equivalent of nearly $100 million in net benefits a year.

EPA also estimates that from 2021-2030, the combined rules will result in an increase in 850,000 short tons of Methane emissions and 140,000 tons of VOC emissions.

Environmental groups, liberal states and other interest groups are all but certain to sue to try to block implementation of the new rules, with Earthjustice staff attorney Tim Ballo recently making the following statement:

The Trump administration is once again putting industry interests over people and public health by gutting these common-sense emission standards. The rollback would only further exacerbate a climate crisis that is already near a point of no return. We cannot afford to go back. We’ve successfully sued the Trump administration in their attempt to dismantle methane emission standards in the past, and we’ll sue again to keep these standards in place.

More information about these rules is available at EPA’s website. The rules will take effect 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register.

Environmental Groups Allege EPA Failed to Engage in Endangered Species Act Consultation Before Implementing COVID-19 Enforcement Discretion Policy

Song Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130By Leah Song and Steven Siros

Covid-19On August 18, 2020, the Center for Biological Diversity, Waterkeeper Alliance, Inc., and Riverkeeper, Inc. (“Conservation Groups”) filed a new lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Administrator Wheeler (“EPA”) for failing to comply with their mandatory duties under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) in connection with promulgation of EPA’s COVID-19 enforcement discretion policy. More specifically, the Conservation Groups argued that the EPA failed to “initiate and complete ESA Section 7 consultation to ensure that EPA’s actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” as described in the March 26, 2020 “COVID-19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program” (“Temporary Enforcement Policy”), would not jeopardize any listed species or their habitats. An analysis of the Temporary Enforcement Policy can be found at Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog here.

Other environmental groups had previously challenged EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Policy, claiming that EPA was unreasonably delaying its response to a petition filed by the groups requesting that EPA issue an emergency rule requiring written notice from regulated entities that elect to suspend required environmental reporting and/or monitoring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 failed to show that they were injured by EPA’s purported “unreasonable delay” and therefore granted summary judgment in favor of EPA.  

In this latest lawsuit, the Conservation Groups claim that EPA failed to engage in a required ESA Section 7 consultation prior to promulgating its Temporary Enforcement Policy. Notwithstanding that EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Policy explicitly states that regulated entities should “make every effort to comply with their environmental compliance obligations” and merely provides guidance on how EPA’s plans to exercise its long-held enforcement discretion in light of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conservation Groups’ complaint explains how the regulatory programs affected by the Temporary Enforcement Policy implicate the interests of listed species and their habitat as those programs are “intended to limit pollution and prevent adverse environmental harm.” For example, the complaint asserts that suspension of Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) effluent sampling program “potentially affects listed species and critical habitats by allowing unmonitored and unreported (and hence unrestricted) contamination of waterways such species depend on.”

The Section 7 consultation process is meant to “insure that any action authorized, funded, or carried out by such agency . . . is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat of such species which is determined . . . to be critical.” 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2). The Section 7 consultation process must be initiated at “the earliest possible time” for any project that “may affect” listed species. 50 C.F.R. § 402.14(a). The Conservation Groups allege that the Temporary Enforcement Policy “clearly meets the ESA’s ‘may affect’ threshold for triggering the agency’s Section 7 consultation obligations.” While the Conservation Groups recognized the unique challenges posed by COVID-19, they stated “this does not mean that EPA may simply ignore its vitally important, and legally required, ESA Section 7 duties and disregard potential impacts on imperiled species and their critical habitats.” They argue there is no evidence that the EPA undertook Section 7 consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service, or even followed the emergency consultation process provided for in the ESA.

EPA announced that it will terminate its reliance on the Temporary Enforcement Policy on August 31, 2020 (although EPA stated that the termination in no way limits its ability to exercise enforcement discretion on a case-by-case basis). EPA’s termination announcement was previously discussed on Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog here. In light of EPA’s announcement, several State Attorneys Generals that had also filed a complaint challenged EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Policy indicated that they intend to dismiss their lawsuit so long as EPA terminates its reliance on the policy on or before August 31st. In an attempt to preempt what is likely to be a motion to dismiss on mootness grounds, the Conservation Groups allege that “there is no assurance that the policy will be rescinded by that date, particularly given the recent surge in COVID-19 cases,” and that their case should therefore be allowed to proceed.

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


State Court Legal Challenge to Illinois Gov. Pritzker’s COVID‑19 Executive Orders

Song SigelBy Leah Song and Gabrielle Sigel

SealAlthough Illinois Governor Pritzker has scored successes in the federal lawsuits brought against his COVID‑19 Executive Order actions, he has not fared as well, thus far, in state court.

Back on April 23, 2020, Illinois State Representative (R) Darren Bailey filed a complaint in the Clay County Circuit Court with two counts for declaratory judgment and a request for injunction, alleging that Governor Pritzker’s extension of the stay-at-home order exceeded the authority afforded to the Governor under the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act (“IEMAA”). Specifically, the lawsuit alleged that the IEMAA grants certain enumerated powers to the Illinois Governor following the proclamation of a “public health emergency,” but that Section 7 of the IEMAA limits these authorities to “a period not to exceed 30 days” following the declaration. Thus, Rep. Bailey alleged that any extension of the stay-at-home order 30 days after the original Executive Order was void. On the same date that he filed his complaint, Rep. Bailey filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) to enjoin Governor Pritzker from enforcing the stay-at-home order against him or entering any further executive orders that would limit Rep. Bailey’s ability to travel within the state.

On April 27, 2020, Illinois Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney temporarily blocked enforcement of Governor Pritzker’s stay-at-home order by granting Rep. Bailey the TRO, solely as to him. In its order granting the TRO, the circuit court found that Rep. Bailey had “shown he will suffer irreparable harm if the [TRO] is not issued” and had “shown he has no adequate remedy at law or in equity in that absent a [TRO] being entered, plaintiff, will continue to be isolated and quarantined in his home.” On that same day, Governor Pritzker filed a notice of interlocutory appeal to the Appellate Court of Illinois, Fifth Judicial District, requesting that the court reverse and vacate Judge McHaney’s decision and dissolve the TRO. On April 30, 2020, Rep. Bailey filed in the Fifth District Appellate Court a consent to entry of order vacating the TRO and remanding the case back to the circuit court, which the court agreed to do on May 1, 2020.

On remand, Rep. Bailey filed an amended complaint on May 13, 2020, consisting of four counts seeking the follow relief:

  1. “Declaratory judgment finding that the April 30 Proclamation is void for failing to meet the definition of a disaster as defined in the IEMAA;”
  2. “Declaratory judgment finding that Pritzker had no authority to utilize emergency powers after April 08, 2020;”
  3. “Declaratory judgment finding that the Illinois Department of Public Health Act governs the conduct of the state actors in this context;” and
  4. “[I]njunctive relief.”

Shortly after, on May 18, 2020, Rep. Bailey filed a motion for summary judgment. Before the hearing on the summary judgment motion, the Governor removed the case to federal court, but it was ultimately remanded. The U.S. Department of Justice got involved in this legal battle, filing a brief in federal court arguing that this case belonged in state court.

Following the remand from federal court, Rep. Bailey filed a notice of hearing on his summary judgment motion. On July 2, 2020, Judge McHaney ruled in favor of Rep. Bailey and held that Governor Pritzker’s COVID-19 Executive Orders were void and granted summary judgment on two counts (“July 2 Order”). The court concluded that the “30-days of emergency powers provided in Section 7 of IEMAA … lapsed on April 08, 2020,” such that all COVID-19 Executive Orders after April 8, 2020 are “void ab initio.” Further, the Governor had no authority “to restrict a citizen’s movement or activities and/or forcibly close business premises.” The court also granted Rep. Bailey’s “oral request that his Amended Complaint be a representative action” such that this ruling shall “apply to all citizens of the State of Illinois.”

The court must rule on the remaining issue of whether COVID-19 “meets the definition of a disaster as defined in the IEMAA.” Until then, the July 2 Order is neither enforceable nor appealable. The Illinois Attorney General moved to dismiss the remaining count and a hearing was set for July 17, but it was vacated by agreement. On July 22, Rep. Bailey filed a motion for leave to amend and add an additional count, seeking a declaratory judgment that a “public health emergency” as defined by the IEMAA did not exist in Clay County on June 26, 2020, when Governor Pritzker issued a proclamation that a “public health emergency” existed within all Illinois counties as a result of COVID-19.

Most recently, on August 5, 2020, Rep. Bailey filed a Petition for Adjudication for Indirect Civil Contempt, seeking to hold Governor Pritzker in civil contempt of court for disregarding the July 2 Order and continuing to issue COVID-19 Executive Orders. Judge McHaney ordered Governor Pritzker to appear in the Clay County Courthouse on August 14, 2020 to “show cause why he should not be held in indirect civil contempt and sanctioned for his willful disregard with the previously entered order of the Court.” The order stated that failure to appear may result in a warrant for the Governor’s arrest. But on August 11, 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court issued an order to stay the contempt hearing set for this Friday.

On July 23 and 24, 2020, Rep. Bailey’s attorney filed similar cases in various counties across the state, including Bond, Clinton, Edgar, Richland, and Sangamon counties, all seeking a declaratory judgment that a “public health emergency” as defined by the IEMAA did not exist as of June 26, 2020 and to void the Governor’s Executive Orders. . See Craig v. Pritzker, No. 2020-MR-589 (Sangamon Cty. Cir. Ct., Ill.); Allen v. Pritzker, No. 2020-MR-45 (Edgar Cty. Cir. Ct., Ill.); DeVore v. Pritzker, No. 2020- MR-32 (Bond Cty. Cir. Ct., Ill.); Gorazd v. Pritzker, No. 2020-MR-79 (Clinton Cty. Cir. Ct., Ill.); English v. Pritzker, No. 2020-MR-48 (Richland Cty. Cir. Ct., Ill.).

On August 11, 2020, in response to a motion for a supervisory order filed by the Illinois Attorney General on behalf of the Governor, the Illinois Supreme Court consolidated, in the Sangamon County Circuit Court before Judge Grischow, all of the cases filed in various counties, including Rep. Bailey’s lawsuit. Sangamon County includes the city of Springfield, the Capitol of Illinois.

An analysis of the Governor’s successes upholding his Executive Orders in federal court can be found here. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.

Federal Courts Beat Back Legal Challenges to Illinois Gov. Pritzker’s COVID‑19 Executive Orders

Song SigelBy Leah Song and Gabrielle SigelIL seal

Several state and federal court lawsuits have been brought challenging Illinois Governor Pritzker’s proclamations and executive orders related to COVID‑19 (“Executive Orders”). In federal court, in contrast with state court, the Governor has been successful defending his Executive Orders. Most recently, on July 29, 2020, in a written opinion issued on August 1, 2020, the Village of Orland Park, and certain of its residents lost their motion to obtain immediate invalidation of the Executive Orders, when Judge Andrea Wood, of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois (“the Northern District”), found that their claims had less than a “negligible likelihood” of succeeding. Village of Orland Park v. Pritzker, No. 20-cv-03528.

As background to the Village’s lawsuit, in response to the COVID‑19 pandemic, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Orders on March 9, March 20, April 1, April 30, May 29, and June 26, 2020 declaring a statewide public health disaster and restricting business operations, gatherings above a certain size, and other measures consistent with both stay-at-home and reopening orders. On June 16, 2020 the Village of Orland Park, the owner of a restaurant in the Village, and two Village residents (“Plaintiffs”) sued Governor Pritzker seeking to have the federal court issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction prohibiting enforcement of the Executive Orders.

Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the Executive Orders violate their due process rights, the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and their procedural and substantive rights under the Illinois constitution and the Illinois Department of Public Health Act. The Village claimed that the Executive Orders illegally attempt to prevent the home-rule municipality from implementing its own order, allowing a faster reopening. The restaurant owner claimed that the Executive Orders caused economic losses. The individual plaintiffs claimed that the Executive Orders caused personal isolation and restricted medically necessary exercise.

Based on Plaintiffs’ verified complaint, the facts of which were uncontested by the Governor at that early stage of proceedings, the court heard oral argument on June 30, 2020. The court ruled that Plaintiffs did not meet the standards for injunctive relief, which require them to show a “greater than negligible likelihood of success on the merits,” and that the balance of harms Plaintiffs may suffer as a result of their claimed injury are greatly outweighed by burdens on the Governor and the public interest. The court began its analysis of the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims by finding that “the COVID‑19 pandemic constitutes the very sort of extraordinary threat to public health and safety contemplated by the Supreme Court in Jacobson [v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905)].” Slip op. at 13. Pursuant to the standards in Jacobson, because Plaintiffs could not show that “the Executive Orders have a real or substantial relationship to preventing the spread of COVID‑19 or beyond all question plainly and palpably invade Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” Plaintiffs’ federal claims did not have more than a negligible chance of success. Id.

Moreover, even without relying on deference to state authority during a public health emergency recognized in Jacobson, Judge Wood also was unpersuaded by the merits of any of Plaintiffs’ federal claims when analyzed based on “traditional constitutional analyses.” Slip op. at 14. With respect to Plaintiffs’ procedural and substantive due process claims, while the complaint was unclear as to the liberty or property interests at stake, the court considered that Plaintiffs “may be asserting rights to work, rights to travel, or rights to freedom of association.” Slip op. at 15. However, the court found that Plaintiffs failed to show that they were deprived of those interests without due process of law. For example, the court reasoned that “there is no constitutional procedural due process right to state-mandated procedures.” Id. Even if Plaintiffs “are ultimately correct that the Governor should have complied with the procedures…in implementing his response to COVID‑19, they still will not have established a federal constitutional violation.” Id. The court also found that Plaintiffs could not establish that their rights were, in fact, violated. The court dispensed with Plaintiffs’ equal protection claim by noting the “many rational bases for the distinctions drawn among different types of business in the Executive Orders.” Slip op. at 23. The court also found that the Governor’s defense under the doctrine of sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution barred all of the state law claims in federal court. Slip op. at 27.

After finding that Plaintiffs had less than a negligible chance of prevailing on the merits of their claims, the court considered the balance of harms to “further demonstrate[ ] that a preliminary injunction would be inappropriate.” Id. “Granting a preliminary injunction to Plaintiffs would do extraordinary damage to the state’s interest (and the public interest) in preventing the spread of COVID‑19…. On the other side of the balance, Plaintiffs have made no showing that they are experiencing substantial harm as a result of the Executive Orders at this time or that they are likely to experience substantial harm in the near future.” Slip op. at 28. Therefore, the court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for injunctive relief.

On July 27, 2020, the Governor moved to dismiss the entire case for failure to state a claim and lack of jurisdiction. Judge Wood arranged a briefing schedule on the Governor’s motion, and set September 29, 2020, for the next telephonic hearing in the case.

The ruling in Village of Orland Park follows three other successes for the Governor thus far in federal court. Judge John Lee heard the first Northern District case opposing the Governor’s Executive Orders in a case filed by The Beloved Church and its pastor against the Governor and the Stephenson County Sheriff and other officials on April 30, 2020. Cassell v. Snyders, No. 20-cv-50153. The church claimed that the Governor’s April 30, 2020 Executive Order violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and three state statutes. On May 2, 2020, the court denied the church's request for injunctive relief. In a written decision issued on May 3, 2020, after finding, based on Jacobson, that the “traditional tiers of constitutional scrutiny do not apply” during an epidemic (slip op. at 14), the court ruled that the Order was a “neutral, generally applicable law” that is supported by a rational basis (slip op. at 26). The court then invoked the Governor’s Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity with respect to the state law claims, and found the state law claims also unlikely to succeed on the merits. After this denial of injunctive relief in the district court, the church’s interlocutory appeal remains pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit as of this writing.

In a second federal case brought by a religious institution, in Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker, No. 20‑cv‑02782, two churches contested the Governor’s Executive Order, which limited gatherings of more than ten people and imposed social distancing requirements, including on churches. They filed their complaint and a motion for emergency injunctive relief on May 7 and 8, 2020, respectively. The complaint challenged the Governor’s Order on federal and state constitutional grounds and state statutory grounds, but their motion for injunctive relief rested only on U.S. First Amendment rights. On May 13, 2020, Judge Robert Gettleman found that the Governor’s Order was both neutral and of general applicability; therefore, because it was supported by a rational basis, it was not unconstitutional. The court further found that “Plaintiffs’ request for an injunction, and their blatant refusal to follow the mandates of the Order are both ill-founded and selfish.” Slip op. at 11. When the district court denied injunctive relief, the churches appealed to the Seventh Circuit. Their requests for injunctive relief were denied on appeal. In its June 16, 2020 decision, the Seventh Circuit, in part relying on Chief Justice Roberts’ concurring opinion to the denial of injunctive relief in a case brought by churches in the Ninth Circuit, ruled that “Illinois has not discriminated against religion and so has not violated the First Amendment.” Slip op. at 12. The Seventh Circuit then denied the churches’ request for rehearing en banc on July 27, 2020.

On June 15, 2020, several Illinois Republican Party organizations filed a complaint and motion for a TRO and preliminary injunction in the Northern District, alleging that because Governor Pritzker’s Executive Order prohibited gatherings greater than fifty people but exempted the free exercise of religion from this limit, the organizations’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments were violated. Illinois Republican Party v. Pritzker, No. 20-cv-03489. Specifically, the Republican organizations alleged that, by exempting the free exercise of religion from the gathering limit, Governor Pritzker created an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech. On July 2, 2020. Judge Sara Ellis, denied plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunctive relief, ruling that their likelihood of success on the merits of their constitutional claims was less than negligible and the balance of harms weighed heavily against them. The court based its ruling on both Jacobson and a “traditional First Amendment analysis.” Slip op. at 9. The court found that “by exempting free exercise of religion from the gathering limit [in the Executive Order], the Order creates a content-based restriction.” Id. at 15. The court held, however, that the Executive Order survives “strict scrutiny” because the content-based restriction may “eliminate[ ] the increased risk of transmission of COVID‑19 when people gather while only exempting necessary functions to protect health, safety, and welfare and free exercise of religion. Therefore, the Governor has carried his burden at the stage in demonstrating that the Order is narrowly tailored to further a compelling interest….” Id. at 18. The political organizations filed for emergency relief on appeal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the Governor’s compelling interest in controlling the spread of COVID‑19 passed strict scrutiny, and denied their motion for emergency relief on July 3, 2020, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied plaintiffs’ emergency application for write of injunctive relief on July 4, 2020. Further proceedings on appeal to the Seventh Circuit are pending as of this writing.

Although the Governor scored successes in the federal lawsuits brought against his COVID‑19 actions, he has not fared as well thus far in state court. The state court litigation against the Governor’s Executive Orders will be addressed in a separate blog, to be published shortly.

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

 


OEHHA Proposes Additional Safe Harbor Levels for Cooked or Heat-Processed Foods Containing Proposition 65 Chemicals

Lawson HeadshotBy Matthew G. Lawson

OEHHA California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment home page

On Tuesday, August 4, 2020, the California Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to adopt amendments to the regulations implementing the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (“Proposition 65”).  Specifically, OEHHA is proposing to amend Title 27 of the California Code of Regulations, by adopting a new Section 25505, to address listed chemicals formed by cooking or heat processing foods.  The proposed amendments, if adopted, would provide new, specific “safe harbor” levels for Proposition 65 listed chemicals that are caused by cooking or heat processing in certain food groups.  Manufacturers and sellers of these food products in California could then rely on these levels to demonstrate that their products do not require a consumer warning label under Proposition 65.

In general, Proposition 65 requires that parties manufacturing, distributing, or selling consumer products in California provide a “clear and reasonable warning” to the consumer whenever their product may expose the purchaser to a chemical that OEHHA has identified and listed as a carcinogen or reproductive toxin, unless an exception applies.  A key exemption to Proposition 65’s warning requirements includes where a consumer product will not exposure a consumer to a listed chemical in quantities above certain OEHHA-designated Safe Harbor Levels.  Safe Harbor Levels, which include No Significant Risk Levels (NSRLs) for cancer-causing chemicals and Maximum Allowable Dose Levels (MADLs) for chemicals causing reproductive toxicity, have been established for many of the chemicals listed under Proposition 65 and represent the maximum level of exposure to a chemical that has been deemed “safe” by OEHHA.  Products that expose consumers to chemicals at or below a designated Safe Harbor Level are not required to provide a warning label or otherwise warn consumers about potential exposure to the listed chemical in their product.  Critically, Proposition 65’s warning requirements are almost entirely forced through litigation brought by private party plaintiffs.  In 2018 alone, defendants paid over $35 million in settlements to private party plaintiffs, with over 75% going to attorneys’ fees.

Of particular significance to OEHHA’s proposed regulatory amendment is the Proposition 65 listed chemical acrylamide, which can often form in certain plant-based foods during high-temperature cooking processes, such as frying, roasting, or baking.  Acrylamide was first added as a Proposition 65 listed chemical in 1990 after studies showed it had the potential to produce cancer in laboratory mice.  Acrylamide was additionally listed as a reproductive toxin in February 2011, when OEHHA determined that the chemical could cause reproductive effects in mice.  Despite the relatively long period of time Acrylamide has been listed as a Proposition 65 regulated chemical, private party enforcement actions over the chemical have spiked heavily in recent years.  In response, on October 7, 2019, the California Chamber of Commerce filed suit in federal court against the California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, seeking to block enforcement of Proposition 65’s warning requirements for foods containing acrylamide as the result of the normal cooking process.  The Chamber’s complaint alleged that more than 461 companies have received Proposition 65 notice of violations “in connection with alleged exposures to acrylamide in their food products over the past three years.”  The complaint further noted that the creation of acrylamide is an unavoidable effect of cooking many plant-based foods and that “there is a lack of reliable scientific evidence suggesting a causal relationship between acrylamide in food products and cancer risk in humans.” 

OEHHA’s proposed regulatory amendment appears aimed at addressing the specific concerns asserted in the Chamber of Commerce litigation.  In its Statement of Reasons for the proposed amendments, OEHHA acknowledge that the regulatory amendment was needed because “some degree of formation of listed chemicals in many foods is unavoidable when the foods are cooked or otherwise processed with heat.”  In addition, OEHHA noted that the agency would consider adding additional food groups to the proposed regulations at a later date.

The proposed regulations provide that a Proposition 65 “exposure” does not occur where a listed chemical in a food product “was created by cooking or other heat processing” and “the producer, manufacturer, distributor, or holder of the food has utilized quality control measures that reduce the chemical to the lowest level currently feasible.”  In conjunction with this amendment, the amended regulations provide new Safe Harbor maximum concentration levels for listed chemicals in certain cooked or heated foods that are deemed by OEHHA to be the “lowest level currently feasible.”  Food products containing a listed chemical at or below the listed levels are not required to provide a warning under Proposition 65.  Listed food groups with specific new Safe Harbor Levels covered by the regulation include:

  • Almonds, roasted, roasted almond butter, and chocolate-covered almonds;
  • Bread, wheat and non-wheat-based products including loaves, rolls, buns, and baguettes;
  • Cookies, including animal crackers, thin and crispy cookies, and sandwich wafers;
  • Potatoes and sweet potato products, including french fried potatoes, sliced chips, and other potato products such as hash browns and potato puffs;
  • Prune juice, including made from concentrate and non-concentrate; and
  • Waffles

Notwithstanding the new proposed Safe Harbor Levels, the last sentence in new Section 25505(a) could still result in Proposition 65 claims.  The sentence provides “[i]f a person does not reduce the level of the chemical in a food to the lowest level currently feasible, the resulting exposure must be calculated without regard to the levels set out in subsection (d).”  Although this may not have been the intent of OEHHA, this language could be read to allow a Proposition 65 plaintiff to still claim that a manufacturer failed to utilize control measures that reduce the chemicals to the “lowest level currently feasible” even if below the Safe Harbor Level.  Hopefully OEHHA will clear up this potential ambiguity in any final rule. 

We also note that while the newly proposed amendments may assist many potential defendants, the updated Safe Harbor Levels explicitly will not apply “to parties to an existing court-ordered settlement or final judgment to the extent that such settlement or judgment establishes a concentration of the chemical in a specific product covered in the settlement or judgment.” 

OEHHA is currently accepting written comments concerning its proposed regulatory action and intends to close its comment period no later than October 6, 2020.  At present, OEHHA has not announced an intended final publication date for the proposed regulations, but the agency has noted that it anticipated its regulatory process may be delayed “due to the COVID-19 emergency.”