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Earth Day 2023--Investing in a Balanced Approach to Emerging Contaminants

Earth Day 2023—A Reflection on the Past and Forward-Looking Opportunities For Investing in Our Future




By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice


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As we prepare to celebrate the 53rd anniversary of Earth Day, it is my pleasure to kick off our Earth Day series of daily blogs penned by my colleagues at Jenner & Block.  The theme for this 53rd Earth Day is a continuation of last year’s theme—Invest in the Planet.  As I reflect on this year’s Earth Day theme and look back on the past 53 years, I am struck by the tremendous gains that have been realized from our past investments but at the same time, recognize that there is still tremendous work to be done if we are to truly realize the ultimate return on our investment—a vibrant thriving planet for future generations.    

Since the early 1970s, we have spent trillions of dollars in the United States alone to remediate environmentally impacted sites, resulting in the removal of millions of pounds of contaminants from soil and groundwater.  Again, focusing just on the United States, between 1970 and 2020, the combined emissions of six common pollutants (particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and lead) have dropped more than 77%.  Billions of dollars have been spent to prevent the direct discharge of untreated sewage into our rivers and oceans and we have progressed from it being a common occurrence for rivers to catch fire to the Chicago River now actively being used for a variety of recreational purposes, including kayaking and fishing (although I still don’t recommend jumping into the river after a particularly heavy rainstorm).  We now see that most Fortune 500 companies have robust environmental compliance programs and generate annual sustainability reports touting their environmental, health and safety accomplishments. 

Much has been accomplished since 1970 when it wasn’t unusual for industrial solid waste and raw sewage to be discharged directly into the environment.  Now, it is the rare occurrence when we read about these types of direct releases of pollutants into our environment.  Notwithstanding, the planet continues to face significant environmental threats.  New emerging contaminants threaten our drinking water supplies and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) contribute to changing atmospheric conditions impacting the global community. 

While we must remain diligent so as not to walk back the significant progress that we have already made, it is important that we also proactively identify and implement creative solutions to respond to new environmental challenges.  Consistent with the 53rd Earth Day theme—Invest in Our Planet—we must ensure that we focus our investments on those environmental issues that pose the greatest risks to our planet in order to maximize our return on our investment.  

Building on this theme, in our weekly series of Earth Day blogs, on Tuesday, we turn our attention to emerging contaminants and the significant challenge these new emerging contaminants pose both in terms of identifying these emerging contaminants and crafting regulations that are appropriately protective of human health and the environment.  On Wednesday we observe the historic investment opportunity presented by the convergence of efforts to address climate change and spur the energy transition, such as public grant programs, regulatory regimes, and, the biggest lever, tax credits.  Thursday’s blog will discuss some of the financial incentives to encourage mitigation of GHGs found in the recently promulgated Inflation Reduction Act.  To close out our blog series, as more and more companies recognize the significant return on investment that can be achieved by investing in our planet, we will provide guidance and best practices to mitigate the liability risks associated with “greenwashing” claims. 

We hope that you will find these blogs insightful and thought-provoking.  We only have one planet, and it is incumbent on all of us to invest in that planet to ensure its continued viability for future generations.