Supreme Court issues Landmark CERCLA Ruling Finding that State Law Challenges to USEPA Cleanup Can Be Raised in State Court (But Plaintiffs Still Lose)
On Monday, April 20, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued a key opinion regarding the preclusive effect of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Recovery Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. Section 9601, on state common law remedies within Superfund Sites. In Atlantic Richfield v. Christian, Case No. 17-1498, the Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part a decision by the Montana Supreme Court that “restoration claims” asserted by private property owners could go forward against a potentially responsible party (PRP) that had previously settled its CERCLA liability with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).
The case involves the Anaconda Smelter Site, a Superfund site covering 300 square miles of property contaminated by historical smelter and ore processing operations. In 1983, USEPA identified Atlantic Richfield Co. as a PRP for the site’s contamination and the parties entered into a settlement agreement that required Atlantic Richfield to investigate and remediate the site under the oversight of USEPA. In the 37 years since, USEPA has managed an extensive cleanup at the site, which included the removal of 10 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and capping in place an additional 500 million cubic yards of waste over 5,000 acres. Atlantic Richfield estimates that it has spent approximately $450 Million USD remediating the site and that its cleanup is nearly complete.
However, the USEPA-mandated cleanup standards were deemed insufficient by a number of local landowners who allege that their properties remain damaged by Atlantic Richfield’s contamination. The landowners asserted common law tort claims against Atlantic Richfield seeking funds to remediate their properties—located within the Superfund Site—beyond the levels required by the USEPA-approved remedy. For example, the plaintiffs sought funding to remediate arsenic levels in their properties’ soil to a level of 15 parts per million, rather than the 250 parts per million limit approved by USEPA. In total, the additional cleanup efforts sought by plaintiffs are estimated to cost Atlantic Richfield an additional $50 to $58 million in cleanup costs. Following the Montana Supreme Court’s holding that the landowner’s restitution claims could proceed in spite of Atlantic Richfield’s settlement with USEPA and the ongoing cleanup effort, Atlantic Richfield appealed the issue to the Supreme Court.
Does Environmental Investigation and Remediation Continue Despite COVID-19 Business Restrictions and Social Distancing?
As the United States rapidly transitions to working from home (when possible) companies involved in environmental investigations or remediation work must determine whether such field or other work could, should, or must continue in the days, weeks, and months ahead. The world is pivoting to tackle COVID-19, a public health crisis, and many of the “essential services” exempted from stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders (“Restriction Orders”) include work involving public health and safety, as well as critical infrastructure services. Therefore, any person with ongoing environmental investigation and remediation work (“environmental field work”) has to consider whether that work would be or should be included in the category of “essential services.”
From a policy standpoint, whether environmental field work should be considered “essential” requires an evaluation of the people and the environment potentially put at risk, the likelihood of that risk, and the resources the work uses. Continuation of environmental field work may benefit public health and the environment, but it also is occurring at some cost to public health and safety. For example, environmental projects use personal protective equipment (“PPE”) and laboratory equipment and personnel that may be able to be allocated to medical and other scientific research needs. Furthermore, some environmental field work requires close human contact and, at a minimum, will require travel to work and other activities that the Restriction Orders and federal and CDC guidelines are seeking to avoid. In addition, environmental contractors may not be able to perform work if key personnel are not available to work due to travel restrictions, health impacts, or family obligations. Thus, the consideration of whether environmental field work should continue during the COVID-19 crisis requires weighing complex public health and safety needs and risks.
To help those considering whether and how to continue environmental field work, evaluate the following:
(1) Am I allowed to do the environmental field work under a state or local COVID-19 Restriction Order?
(2) If I cannot continue under a Restriction Order or for other reasons, how do I protect my company’s interests to avoid penalties and other liabilities under the consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with or regulations imposed by state and federal environmental agencies; and
(3) If I am allowed to or required to continue the work, what regulations pertain to how to do the work safely?
1. AM I ALLOWED TO DO THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER?
As of the time of publication of this alert, there are no federal mandates or executive orders requiring business shutdowns or mandatory quarantines. However, many states, counties, and municipalities are issuing executive orders closing non-essential businesses and limiting gatherings of people.
a. State-Level COVID-19 Executive Orders
Each of these state and local mandates exempt “essential businesses” and the specific definition of an essential business varies from state to state. As a general rule, however, “essential businesses” are those that promote public safety, health, and welfare. Here are examples of several of the first state directives.
California: On March 19, 2020, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-33-20 requiring California residents to remain at home unless they are involved in 16 critical infrastructure sectors. These 16 critical infrastructure sectors were designated by the Department of Homeland Security and include the water and wastewater systems sector that is responsible for ensuring the supply of safe drinking water and wastewater treatment and service.
Illinois: On March 20, 2020, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-10 requiring Illinois residents to remain in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The order specifically exempts “essential government functions”, “essential businesses and operations”, and “essential infrastructure activities.” Essential infrastructure activities include operation and maintenance of utilities, including water, sewer, and gas, and solid waste and recycling collection and removal and essential businesses and operations includes construction related activities.
New York: On March 20, 2020, Governor Cuomo issued an Executive Order (referred to as Pause, standing for Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone), requiring that as of 8 p.m. on March 22, all non-essential businesses must ensure that their workforce works remotely. Exempt “Essential businesses” include essential infrastructure (including utilities and construction); essential services (including trash collection, mail, and shipping services; news media; banks and related financial institutions); sanitation and essential operations of residences or other essential businesses; and vendors that provide essential services or products (including services needed to ensure the continuing operation of government agencies and provide for the health, safety, and welfare of the public).
New Jersey: On March 21, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order 107 requiring that New Jersey residents remain in their homes and requiring that all “non-essential businesses” close. A previously issued executive order (Executive Order No. 104) defined “essential businesses” to include “grocery/food stores, pharmacies, medical supply stores, gas stations, healthcare facilities and ancillary stores within healthcare facilities.” All gatherings within the state are limited to 50 persons or fewer, except for “normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, office environments, factories, assemblages for the purpose of industrial or manufacturing work, construction sites, mass transit, or the purchase of groceries or consumer goods.”
In addition to these states, many other states have either implemented similar orders (including Connecticut, Delaware, and Louisiana) or likely will do so in the coming weeks. While expressly mentioning critical sectors such as health care, police and fire, and grocery stores, the orders do not squarely address whether environmental field work constitutes “essential businesses” subject to these exemptions. However, environmental field work logically could be included under the categories used to describe “essential business,” particularly because many of the environmental statutes requiring such work expressly state that the work is being ordered or conducted to protect human health and the environment.
b. Federal (U.S. EPA) Environmental Agency Guidance
The White House has issued Coronavirus Response Guidelines, “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” including a statement that if you work in one of the 16 “critical infrastructure industries” as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, you have a “special responsibility” to continue to work.
As of this publication, U.S. EPA has not released public guidance on whether ongoing or new site cleanups and/or site investigations would constitute “critical infrastructure industry.” At least to some degree, that determination is likely to be a site-specific, based on the unique circumstances of each site and, as further discussed below, the language of the agency orders or agreements which govern the environmental field work. It is likely that in the coming weeks, U.S. EPA will provide further guidance on assessing whether site cleanup activities constitute “critical infrastructure industry” exempt from the various Restriction Orders. One issue that may need to be resolved in the future relates to potential conflicts in federal and state guidance regarding what constitutes an “essential service.” Such issues could be addressed via federal and state cooperation agreements in the event of possible conflicts between federal and state directives.
c. State Environmental Agency Guidance
At least one state environmental regulatory agency has provided guidance directly on this issue. On March 20, 2020, the California State Resources Water Control Board, which generally has jurisdiction over impacted groundwater in California, published a Guidance Document that states:
Please be aware that timely compliance by the regulated community with all Water Board orders and other requirements (including regulations, permits, contractual obligations, primacy delegations, and funding conditions) is generally considered to be an essential function during the COVID-19 response. As a result, the Water Boards consider compliance with board-established orders and other requirements to be within the essential activities, essential governmental functions, or comparable exceptions to shelter-in-place directives provided by local public health officials.
It is likely that similar guidance will be issued in the coming weeks by other state regulatory agencies.
2. IF I CANNOT CONTINUE THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER OR OTHERWISE, HOW COULD I PROTECT MY COMPANY’S INTERESTS TO AVOID PENALTIES OR OTHER LIABILITIES?
Those responsible for ongoing environmental field work should carefully evaluate the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies, and private parties, under which they are performing environmental field work. The agreements may well have force majeure and other clauses addressing delays in the work.
For example, under the current federal model remedial design/remedial action (RD/RA) judicial consent decrees with potentially responsible parties (“PRPs”) under sections 106, 107 and 122 of CERCLA, PRPs have both covenanted not to sue the United States and agreed to indemnify the same for “claims on account of construction delays.” There are additional stipulated penalty provisions. Therefore, companies must act pursuant to the force majeure provisions to avoid these claims and stipulated penalties. Force majeure is defined as “any event arising from causes beyond the control of [PRPs], of any entity controlled by [PRPs], or of [PRPs]’ contractors that delays or prevents the performance of any obligation under this [consent decree] despite [PRPs]’ best efforts to fulfill the obligation.”
Relying on these provisions involves:
- Notifying “EPA’s Project Coordinator orally or, in his or her absence, EPA’s Alternate Project Coordinator or, in the event both of EPA’s designated representatives are unavailable, the Director of the Waste Management Division” in that specific U.S. EPA Region within a stipulated period of days (the period of days may vary under each consent decree).
- Providing in writing to U.S. EPA “an explanation and description of the reasons for the delay; the anticipated duration of the delay; all actions taken or to be taken to prevent or minimize the delay; a schedule for implementation of any measures to be taken to prevent or mitigate the delay or the effect of the delay; [the PRP’s] rationale for attributing such delay to a force majeure; and a statement as to whether, in the opinion of [the PRP], such event may cause or contribute to an endangerment to public health or welfare, or the environment” within a stipulated period of days (the period of days likely varies under each consent decree).
- Providing with the above writing “all available documentation supporting their claim that the delay was attributable to a force majeure.”
U.S. EPA is then to provide notice of its decision, which if U.S. EPA rejects the force majeure claim, the responsible parties must provide notice within 15 days of U.S. EPA’s decision to avail themselves of the model consent decree’s dispute resolution provision. The federal Model Administrative Settlement Agreement and Order on Consent for Removal Actions contains similar obligations and provisions.
It is thus plain that responsible parties conducting environmental field work should be prepared to contact U.S. EPA or state regulators orally as soon as practicable to determine their views on the necessity of the work and if there is disagreement about the same, begin to “paper the file” on the necessary force majeure documentation in the time frames provided in the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies.
For sites that are in the early investigation stages, regulators may agree to a temporary pause in site investigations. For sites that are currently undergoing remedial measures, the determination on whether work should continue is again likely to be fact dependent. For example, a site with an ongoing groundwater treatment system that is being operated to protect a drinking water source is likely to be deemed an essential activity. For a site where the remedial measures involve excavating impacted soils that are not immediately affecting groundwater sources, it may be the case that the regulators determine that certain activities are not “essential” and can be temporarily paused or scaled back.
Even if the decision is made to proceed with the work, other circumstances may preclude or significantly impair the ability to do the work. For example, it may be difficult to obtain necessary supplies and/or vendors to perform these services. To the extent that wastes are generated in the course of doing this work, can these wastes be managed and disposed of in a timely manner? These are all issues that should be discussed with the regulators or private parties requiring the work.
3. IF I CONTINUE THE WORK, HOW CAN I DO IT SAFELY?
Once a decision is made that environmental field work is “essential” and must proceed to at least some degree, special care must be taken to ensure that the work is performed safely given additional risks imposed by COVID-19. On March 9, 2020, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued its Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 that was the subject of a previous client alert. This OSHA guidance outlines recommended steps that employers should take to protect workers, using OSHA’s “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks (i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE. It is also prudent for all entities at the site to consider what steps they will take if they learn that one of the workers has become exposed to the novel coronavirus or contracted COVID-19. On March 20, 2020, the CDC issued updated “Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations.”
OSHA has long-standing regulations for work at hazardous waste sites under its Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (“HAZWOPER”) standard (in general industry 29 CFR 1910.120 and in construction 29 CFR 1926.65), which establishes health and safety requirements for work at sites, as well as responses to emergencies involving releases of hazardous substances. Many environmental investigation and remediation sites have rigorous site-specific health and safety plans, and many are required to have such plans by a consent decree or other regulatory or contractual obligation. Many environmental contractors have such plans as part of their standard operating procedures. However, given COVID-19, special care should be taken to ensure that PPE that would ordinarily be used to prevent exposure to hazardous substances is not contaminated prior to being utilized in the field. Moreover, ensuring feasible physical distancing, requiring diligent hygiene methods, and having appropriate cleaning equipment and chemicals in the field are also critical. All entities with employees at the site should regularly check both the OSHA and CDC website for updated guidance on workplace health and safety best practices. It also is important to ensure that the protocols are being appropriately communicated and followed by all entities (including regulators) at a site; the best protocols and procedures are only as good as their actual implementation by all.
OSHA has reminded the regulated community that if employees contract COVID-19 as a result of performing their work-related duties, the employees who become ill could constitute recordable cases of illness under OSHA’s Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Standard, 29 CFR Part 1904.
Companies and their counsel also should evaluate existing master services agreements that govern the work of their vendors and contractors with a particular eye towards: (i) how indemnification provisions might apply in the event that a vendor’s or contractor’s employee is later determined to be infected with COVID-19 and such a latency period could plausibly extend to such an employee’s work at the company’s site and its employees, and vice versa; and (ii) payment delay provisions should the company or its vendors or contractors become concerned about solvency issues.
We will continue to provide updates on the impacts of COVID-19 on environmental, health and safety issues affecting our clients. Jenner & Block has established a COVID-19 resource center that provides updates on a variety of issues affecting our clients and we would encourage you to visit this resource center for timely updates on COVID-19 related issues.
The Senate in a 70-15 vote confirmed Dan Brouillette this week as the new Secretary of Energy to succeed Secretary Rick Perry. All 47 Republicans who were present for the vote backed confirmation, as did 22 Democrats, including Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, and one Independent, Angus King of Maine.
At his confirmation hearing, Mr. Brouillette stressed the role of the DOE in advancing research, including focusing his tenure on pushing direct air capture, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), nuclear reactors, and the DOE commercialization work that fosters novel technologies in the private sector. He stated he would “absolutely” devote more DOE resources to researching DAC, and praised ongoing work on CCS and demonstrations of the technology in Wyoming in particular, nothing that he is “very excited about the work I see being done in Wyoming and within DOE writ large.”
Wyoming has become a focal point of the tension as to the future of coal under climate change policies or other environmental laws and the potential opportunity for CCS to resolve this tension. (Wyoming supplies 40% of the United States’ coal to 29 states.) The Wyoming Public Service Commission Chair has recently spoke about the need for a hard look at the benefits of CCS before shuttering coal plants. Also this week, the University of Wyoming announced a partnership with DOE to accelerate research on carbon capture technology at two of the state’s coal-fired power plants. In light of Mr. Brouillette’s extensive comments in support of Wyoming and CCS, we can anticipate much more on this front.
As noted by the New York Times, before becoming deputy energy secretary, Mr. Brouillette was chief of staff to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was assistant secretary of energy for congressional and intergovernmental affairs in the George W. Bush administration. He also worked as an executive at the United Services Automobile Association, a financial services provider to members of the military, and Ford Motor Company. He once was a member of Louisiana’s State Mineral and Energy Board.
How Low Will The Regulators Go: California Sets New PFOA/PFOS Drinking Water Notification Guidelines
On August 23, 2019, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) announced updated guidelines for local water agencies with respect to perfluorooactanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in drinking water. The updated guidelines lower the notification levels from 14 parts per trillion (ppt) to 5.1 ppt for PFOA and from 13 ppt to 6.5 ppt for PFOS. Public water supply systems are required to report exceedances of these guidelines to their governing boards and the Water Board.
According to the Water Board, these new guidelines were predicated on updated health recommendations issued by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), which published its own recommended notification levels for PFOA and PFOS, albeit at much lower levels. In a recently issued report, OEHHA recommended that the notification levels be set at 0.1 ppt for PFOA and 0.4 ppt for PFOS. However, OEHHA recognized that these levels are lower than what can reasonably be detected in the laboratory and therefore recommended that the Water Board set the notification levels at the lowest reliable detection levels.
In addition to the updated notification levels, the Water Board requested that OEHHA proceed to develop public health goals for both PFOA and PFOS, which is the next step in the process of establishing maximum contaminant levels for these contaminants in drinking water. We will continue to monitor and provide updates with respect to these regulatory efforts.
California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (“OEHHA”) recently adopted amendments to California’s Proposition 65 regulations regarding appropriate warnings for rental vehicles. More specifically, OEHHA’s amendments add new Sections 25607.36 and 25607.37 to Article 6 that provide more specificity regarding the content of safe harbor warnings for rental vehicle exposures, and the corresponding methods for providing those warnings that are specific and appropriate for rental-car businesses.
Proposition 65 regulations currently provide guidance concerning safe harbor warning methods and content warnings for vehicle exposures. Under the vehicle exposure regulation set forth at Section 25607.16, warnings must be provided as follows:
- The warning is printed in the owner’s manual for the passenger vehicle or off-highway motor vehicle, in no smaller than 12-point type enclosed in a box printed or affixed to the inside or outside of the front or back cover of the manual or on the first page of the text; and
- The warning is provided on a label attached to the front window on the driver’s side of the passenger vehicle or off-highway motor vehicle. If the vehicle does not have a driver’s side window, the warning may be provided on a hang tag which is hung from the rear view mirror. If the vehicle does not have a driver’s side window or rear view mirror, the warning may be placed in another prominent location. The label need not be permanently affixed.
Although OEHHA continues to state that the safe harbor warning methods in Sections 25607.16 are appropriate for exposures to listed chemicals from vehicles purchased by consumers, concerns were raised that compliance with Section 25607.16 for rental vehicles could pose public safety concerns. According to OEHHA, when placed and maintained on the driver’s side window, the vehicle exposure tailored warning has the potential to flag the vehicle as a rental vehicle, which increases the risk that the vehicle may be targeted by thieves believing that the vehicles contains valuables.
In the fourth installment of the Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are highlighting the growing trend of Climate Change Shareholder Activism. While not active litigation, pressure from activist shareholders who wish to influence the environmental policy of public companies is another powerful force in the climate change litigation arena.
One notable example of this activism is the investor group Climate Action 100+. Climate Action 100+ is an investor organization consisting of over 300 institution investors who collectively manage more than $33 trillion in assets of some of the largest carbon emitting companies in the world. The organization’s stated objective is to “engag[e] companies on improving governance, curbing emissions and strengthening climate-related financial disclosures.”
While the organization was recently formed in 2017, Climate Action 100+ has already secured several victories in its attempt to influence public companies in carbon intensive industries.
- In late 2018, following negotiations with Climate Action 100+, Royal Dutch Shell announced new short-term carbon emission reduction goals in order to ensure the company stays in step with the global emissions goals set out in the Paris Accords. Shell has agreed to reduce its net emissions around 20% by 2035 and around 50% by 2015.
- In February 2019, Australia’s largest coal miner, Glencore, succumbed to shareholder pressure mounted by Climate Action 100+ and agreed to freeze its coal production at current levels. The company further announced it would take steps to increase disclosure of its emissions and environmental impacts.
New Jersey continues to take an aggressive stance with respect to per- and polyfluoralkyl (PFAS) contamination. On March 25, 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) issued a “Statewide PFAS Directive Information Request and Notice to Insurers” to five major chemical companies notifying those companies that NJDEP believed them to be responsible for PFAS impacts to the air and waters of New Jersey. In addition to seeking recovery from these companies for past costs incurred by NJDEP to investigate and remediate PFAS impacts, the Directive also seeks to compel these companies to assume responsibility for ongoing remediation of drinking water systems throughout the state. The Directive further seeks information from these companies regarding historical PFAS manufacturing practices as well as information regarding these companies’ ongoing efforts to manufacture PFAS replacement chemicals.
Although environmental organizations have been quick to praise the NJDEP Directive, in reality, the state agency may have overstepped its authority. NJDEP has been quick to point out that the Directive is not a final agency action, formal enforcement order, or other final legal determination and therefore cannot be appealed or contested. Notwithstanding NJDEP’s efforts to insulate its Directive from immediate legal challenge, it will almost certainly draw strong industry challenges. For example, NJDEP’s efforts to obtain information regarding PFAS replacement chemicals may run afoul of the Toxic Substances Control Act and its efforts to compel reimbursement of past claims and/or the takeover of ongoing remedial actions will certainly be the subject of court challenges.
Continuing its full court PFAS press, on April 1, 2019, New Jersey unveiled a proposed drinking water standard of 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS. These proposed drinking water levels are significantly lower than the current U.S. EPA health advisory level of 70 ppt for combined PFOS/PFOA.
BACT to the Future: Enviros Petition for Review on Natural Gas Power Plant Air Permit, Saying Batteries Are “BACT” Under the Clean Air Act
Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups petitioned the Ninth Circuit for review of EPA Region 9’s decision in December 2018 to issue a final prevention of significant deterioration (PSD) permit for the Palmdale Energy Project (Project), a gas-fired plant being developed in the city of Palmdale, CA. These environmental groups had previously but unsuccessfully challenged the permit in front of EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB), arguing that a new control technology configuration—namely, replacing the combined-cycle turbines’ duct burners with battery storage—should be used to satisfy EPA Region 9’s “Best Available Control Technology” (BACT) requirements under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The EAB denied the environmental groups’ appeal in October 2018. However, as the EAB explicitly recognized, “energy storage technology is a rapidly growing development in the electrical power supply sector,” and therefore the totality of the environmental groups’ efforts may spur additional consideration of battery storage as an option for facilities to meet their obligations under the CAA.
In 2016, U.S. EPA established an advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (PPT) for combined perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)-- two of the more commonly found polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). However, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recently suggested that these advisory levels may not be stringent enough, releasing draft risk values earlier in 2018 that are significantly more conservative than the values relied upon by U.S. EPA in 2016. The ATSDR draft report identifies a minimal risk level for PFOA that equates to approximately 11 ppt and approximately seven ppt for PFOS.
The ATSDR draft report, the issuance of which the White House had sought to delay, has been subject to criticism by both sides of the spectrum, with some questioning the science behind the conclusions reached in the report, while others claim that the draft report doesn’t go far enough. The public comment period on the draft report closed on August 20, 2018 and the report has yet to be finalized.
However, in lieu of waiting for the report to be finalized and/or for U.S. EPA to take further action to revise its current health advisory level, several states have elected to move forward to establish their own regulatory limits for these chemicals. New Jersey and Vermont had taken the lead in adopting more stringent regulatory standards, with New Jersey adopting a 14 ppt limit for PFOA and Vermont adopting a 20 ppt limit for combined PFAS in drinking water. However, these levels were established prior to the release of the draft ATSDR report and a number of other states have since jumped on the regulatory bandwagon. For example, New York’s Drinking Water Quality Council recently recommended that New York adopt a 10 ppt limit for PFOA and PFOS. Michigan, which had adopted U.S. EPA’s recommended advisory level of 70 ppt, also is in the process of developing more stringent standards for PFAS in drinking water.
ATSDR has yet to release a time-line for finalizing its draft toxicological profile for PFAS and although U.S. EPA has announced that it intends to evaluate the need for a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS, that is several years away. In the interim, it appears likely that individual states will continue to adopt their own individual regulatory levels for these chemicals in drinking water which will continue to result in a patchwork regulatory framework across the United States.
New Jersey Federal District Court Dismisses Enviro’s Constitutional Challenges to FERC’s Approval of PennEast’s $1B Gas Pipeline, Holding that the Court Doesn’t Have Jurisdiction under the Natural Gas Act
By: Alexander J. Bandza
On Monday, in N.J. Conservation Found. v. FERC (No. 17-11991), the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissed the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s (“NJCF”) suit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) because the Court found that the courts of appeals, and not it, had subject matter jurisdiction under the Natural Gas Act (“NGA”). NJCF’s suit sought to declare that FERC’s practice of issuing certificates authorizing the construction of natural gas pipeline facilities violated the U.S. Constitution. While pled solely against FERC and its Commissioners, the case was predicated on FERC’s prior approval of PennEast Pipeline Company, LLC’s (“PennEast”) right to construct a $1B interstate natural gas pipeline. NJCF’s case centered on three purported Constitutional issues with FERC’s environmental analysis: (1) FERC’s approvals that delegate the power of eminent domain in the absence of adequate public use analyses violate the Takings Clause; (2) FERC’s approvals that grant eminent domain prior to receiving environmental impact findings from regulatory agencies violate the Fifth Amendment; and (3) FERC’s approvals that provide for subsequent state or federal authorizations, which then may require changes to the pipeline route or prevent construction, also violate the Takings Clause. The Court granted FERC’s motion to dismiss, holding that the Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction because the NGA vested the courts of appeals, not district courts, with exclusive jurisdiction to hear NJCF’s claims. NJCF is another voice in a growing chorus of district court and appellate cases that have rejected dissatisfied parties’ collateral attempts to re-litigate FERC’s decisions and decision-making processes, especially with regard to environmental issues, outside of FERC.
As we previously reported on here, the Trump Administration earlier this month proposed a $2.7 billion budget reduction for U.S. EPA. However, Congress has passed a spending bill that rejects reductions to both U.S. EPA and the Department of Energy. Trump signed the bill today.
As reported here, as to the U.S. EPA, Congress proposed holding the agency’s funding at $8.1 billion, even with the 2017 level.
And, at the DOE:
- $6.2 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, an $868-million jump from the 2017 level. Trump had sought to cut its budget to just under $4.5 billion.
- The omnibus includes an increase of nearly $1.5 billion in DOE clean energy funding, including a 14% increase to the renewable energy and efficiency office, and a 16% increase at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Trump had sought to cut the renewables office by 65% and eliminate ARPA-E.
- The Office of Fossil Energy would increase by 10%, the nuclear office by 19%, science office by 16%, and the energy office by 8%. The loan programs office would be preserved, as would funding for carbon capture and storage.
These avoided spending cuts and/or spending increases are an encouraging sign for environmentalists and other clean tech advocates.
In the Absence of Any Federal Movement, States Continue to Attempt to Legislate Carbon Rules or Taxes
As reported in Salon and Law360 (sub. req.), states, the “laboratories of democracy,” continue to attempt to experiment with legislation carbon rules or taxes. Washington and Oregon are the latest examples, although such efforts have so far failed. Washington’s proposal would have taxed carbon emissions, whereas Oregon’s proposal would have established a cap-and-trade program.
After the Washington tax bill failed, a coalition of environmental, community and labor groups filed a proposed citizens’ initiative that would put a price on carbon emissions. The proposal would charge $15 per metric ton of carbon content of fossil fuels and electricity sold or used in the state starting in 2020. It would increase by $2 a year in 2021 until the state meets its carbon emissions reduction goal for 2035.
As of February of this year, as reported in Law360 (sub. req.), 10 states have released bills to combat climate change and raise revenue by using the tax system, with some 30 different bills in play. According to this report, the range of carbon taxes are from $5-35/ton (bills in Vermont set the base rate at $5 per ton of carbon while bills in New York set it at $35 per ton).
These state-level efforts underscore the challenge of convincing the public and a broad base of stakeholders to act on a problem that Congress first tried to address over a decade ago, most famously through the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 and the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. Interestingly, it may be this patchwork of state-level action that induces Congress to act sometime in the future.
D.C. Circuit Provides Additional Clarity on Federal and State Roles in Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting
On Friday, June 23, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a decision in a long-running dispute between the developer of an interstate natural gas pipeline project and New York State environmental regulators concerning a federal water quality permit that must be obtained before project construction may begin. Millennium Pipeline Company v. Basil Seggos, et al., D.C. Cir. No. 16-1415 (June 23, 2017). The decision provides additional clarity regarding the interplay of Federal and State permitting authorities with respect to interstate natural gas pipeline infrastructure, and the role of the courts in adjudicating disputes with State permitting agencies.
The pipeline project at issue is a proposed 7.8 mile extension of Millennium Pipeline’s existing interstate natural gas pipeline in southern New York. The extension will serve a new natural gas-fired power plant. To construct the project, Millennium must obtain a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) pursuant to Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act (“NGA”), 15 U.S.C. § 717f(c). The NGA requires that FERC ensure that all proposed interstate natural gas pipeline projects comply with all applicable federal, state, and local regulations, including environmental regulations. 15 U.S.C. § 717b(d). FERC granted Millennium a certificate of public convenience and necessity, conditioned on Millennium obtaining a Clean Water Act (“CWA”) water-quality certificate pursuant to section 401 of the CWA, 33 U.S.C. § 1341(a)(1), since its project would cross several streams.
EPA Proposes Notice of Intent to Proceed with Rulemaking for CERCLA Financial Responsibility Requirements for the Chemical Manufacturing, Petroleum and Coal Products Manufacturing, and Electric Power Industries
By Alexander Bandza
Yesterday, on January 11, 2017, the EPA issued a notice of intent to proceed with rulemaking regarding whether and to what extent financial responsibility requirements under CERCLA section 108(b) should apply to the Chemical Manufacturing, Petroleum and Coal Products Manufacturing, and Electric Power Industries.
The rulemaking will have an interesting path forward in light of its history and the upcoming administration change. On January 6, 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) that identified additional classes of facilities within three industry sectors that could warrant developing financial responsibility requirements under CERCLA section 108(b): (1) the Chemical Manufacturing industry (NAICS 325); (2) the Petroleum and Coal Products Manufacturing industry (NAICS 324); and (3) the Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution industry (NAICS 2211). In August 2014, environmental groups filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, for a writ of mandamus requiring issuance of CERCLA section 108(b) financial responsibility rules for the three additional industries identified by EPA in the ANPRM. EPA and the petitioners submitted and the court approved an Order on Consent, which included a schedule for further administrative proceedings under CERCLA section 108(b). Critically, in granting the motion to enter the Order, the D.C. Circuit recognized that “the content of [the rulemaking required under the Order] is not in any way dictated by the [Order].” Therefore, the upcoming administration may be bound to entertain the process of rulemaking, it appears free to disregard producing any rule as a result of this process.
Trade Associations Obtain Nationwide Injunction Against Portions of the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” Regulatory Scheme, and Agencies Stand Down (For Now)
Portions of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces regulations, specifically those related to reporting violations of labor laws and restricting mandatory arbitration, have been enjoined on a nationwide basis by the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas (“District Court”). The paycheck transparency provisions were upheld by the District Court and remain enforceable. Following the District Court’s Order, on October 25, 2016, federal executive agencies issued guidance to their senior procurement officials to halt implementation of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces regulations enjoined by the Court, and confirmed that the paycheck transparency provisions (FAR 52.2005, 22.2007(d) and clause 52.222-60) remain in effect.
As reported, the government is still weighing whether to appeal the injunction. Although it seems likely that the government will appeal the District Court’s order and argue that the District Court does not have the authority to issue the injunction on a nationwide basis, it remains uncertain whether the government could actually obtain this relief. When faced with a similar TX federal district court nationwide injunction of executive action and regulation in the context of immigration, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s authority to issue that nationwide injunction. On review, the Supreme Court split 4-4, leaving the Fifth Circuit’s decision in place. Effectively, this means that TX federal district courts and the Fifth Circuit can stall the administration’s desired policies on a nationwide basis until the Supreme Court acquires another Justice. Because we are in an election year and do not know the identity of the next Supreme Court Justice or when that Justice would be confirmed, the ultimate outcome of this injunction remains elusive at this time. However, even with some legal uncertainty, we anticipate that most government contractors would prefer to forego all but the paycheck transparency requirements until there is a greater likelihood that the enjoined regulations will be upheld than exist at this time. Indeed, even beyond the strength of the substantive arguments, the District Court briefing and oral argument made clear that had the regulations had gone into effect, the government was not yet ready to accept any reports of purported “violations” because the electronic portal to receive such data was not yet complete.
Trade Associations File Suit Challenging the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” Regulatory Scheme as Unlawful and Unconstitutional
As we previously reported here, the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council (FAR Council) issued the Final Rule and Final Guidance implementing President Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order (E.O. 13673), signed on July 31, 2014. Despite strenuous objections, including from groups representing defense contractors, on August 25, 2016, DOL and FAR Council finalized the rules (the “Fair Pay Regulations”) by which those who seek to contract with the government (contracts over $500,000) must disclose alleged and final wage and labor law “violations,” including non-final agency allegations of labor law violations and determinations subject to appeal. Certain portions of the Fair Pay Regulations take effect as early as October 25, 2016.
In Associated Builders and Contractors of Southeast Texas v. Fed. Acquisition Regulatory Council, Case No. 1:16-cv-00425, E.D. Tex. (filed Oct. 7, 2016), Associated Builders and Contractors of Southeast Texas (“ABC-Texas”), Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. (“ABC”), and the National Association of Security Companies (”NASCO”) filed suit in federal district court against members of the DOL and FAR Council challenging E.O. 13673 and the Fair Pay Regulations. ABC and ABC-Texas represent nearly 21,000 member construction contractors and related firms in Texas and throughout the country. NASCO represents companies that employ more than 400,000 trained security officers.
DOL, FAR Council Finalize “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” Regulations, Forcing Government Contractors to Disclose Non-Final Labor Law Alleged Violations in the Contracting Process
By Gabrielle Sigel and Alexander J. Bandza
On August 25, 2016, the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council (FAR Council) issued the Final Rule and Final Guidance implementing President Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order (E.O. 13673), signed on July 31, 2014. Under this new regime, those who seek to contract with the government (contracts over $500,000) must disclose alleged and final wage and labor law “violations,” including non-final agency allegations of labor law violations and agency determinations still subject to appeal, rendered against the contractor within the last three years. The government, through newly established agency labor compliance advisors (ALCAs), will then review each of those alleged and final “violations” and determine whether to award or extend the government contract. The Rule and Guidance will take effect in phases starting on October 25, 2016.
As previously reported by my colleague Lynn Grayson, ExxonMobil has faced a recent onslaught of scrutiny over allegations that fossil fuel companies had committed fraud by downplaying the effect of climate change on their businesses. These matters include a subpoena issued by the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Attorney General’s office related to allegations of violating two state laws by obtaining money under false pretenses and conspiring to do so; and New York Attorney General Schneiderman’s investigation where documents have been subpoenaed to determine whether the company misled investors about the dangers climate change posed to its operations.
Two events last week suggest that this fight will not end anytime soon.
- ExxonMobil filed suit in the Northern District of Texas, seeking an injunction barring the enforcement of a civil investigative demand issued by the Massachusetts Attorney General to ExxonMobil, and a declaration that this demand violates ExxonMobil’s rights under state and federal law, including the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, as well as the Dormant Commerce Clause.
- The Attorneys General of 13 states wrote a sharply-worded letter to their colleagues, noting that “this effort by our colleagues to police the global warming debate through the power of the subpoena is a grave mistake” and “not a question for the courts.” The letter outlines how this investigation is in fact “far from routine” because of its following three characteristics: “1) the investigation targets a particular type of market participant; 2) the Attorneys General identify themselves with the competitors of their investigative targets; and 3) the investigation implicates an ongoing public policy debate.”
We will continue to monitor developments on this heated situation.
Two recent New York Times op-ed contributors shed light on the magnitude of the challenges that we face domestically with respect to water, its infrastructure, and our ability to measure it, and offer possible policy prescriptions.
Not only are countless businesses publicly supporting a global climate agreement from COP21 as we previously reported, several businesses and business coalitions are pledging to take operational and strategic actions in advance of such an agreement. As reported by Ceres, set out below here are a few of the business coalitions and their pledges:
OSHA Penalty Limits to Increase Almost 80% in the Next Year, With Annual Inflation Adjustments Authorized Thereafter
Buried in the landmark Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (H.R. 1314) (“2015 Budget Act”) signed by the President on Monday, November 2, 2015, Section 701 requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to begin indexing its penalty limits to inflation, much like the US EPA and other federal agencies do now. This section, called the “Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015” (“2015 Penalties Act”), also has “catch-up” provisions, which mean that the existing $7,000 penalty limit (for other-than-serious and serious violations under OSHA, originally set in 1990) can be increased to approximately $12,477 per violation, and the existing $70,000 penalty limit (for willful and repeat violations) can be increased to approximately $124,765 per violation. OSHA must adjust these penalties through an interim final rulemaking no later than August 1, 2016.
IARC’s Classification of Red Meat and Processed Meats as Carcinogenic Exposes Food Manufacturers, Distributers, and Retailers to Proposition 65 Liability
The Internet was buzzing yesterday with news that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen (“probably carcinogenic to humans”) and processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen (“carcinogenic to humans”). In general, IARC evaluates the environmental causes of cancer in humans, including chemicals (e.g., formaldehyde), complex mixtures (e.g., air pollution), physical agents (e.g., solar radiation), biological agents (e.g., hepatitis B virus), and personal habits (e.g., tobacco smoking). IARC has long played a role as a source of scientific information that carries weight in federal and state regulation of potentially harmful substances and toxic tort lawsuits involving such substances.
A Jenner & Block team including Partner Gabrielle Sigel and Associate Alexander Bandza of the Firm’s Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety group, supported by Partner Jessica Ring Amunson and Associate Amir Ali of the Firm’s Washington, D.C. office, won a significant victory in federal court environmental and pipeline litigation on behalf of clients Apex Oil Co., Inc. and Petroleum Fuel & Terminal Co. (PF&T). Apex and PF&T are defendants in a cost recovery and injunction action brought against them by Chevron U.S.A. Inc. in the U.S. District Court for Maryland. Chevron’s lawsuit concerns a pipeline that PF&T purchased from Chevron in 1994. Chevron has claimed more than $30mm in damages for costs of remediating pollution allegedly caused by discharges from the pipeline over the course of approximately 20 years.
On September 15, 2015, US EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance published a proposed list of national enforcement initiatives (NEIs) for fiscal years 2017–19. This latest NEI list includes NEIs from the last round (FY2014–16) as well as three new potential NEIs that US EPA is considering.
U.S. EPA Releases One-Week Internal Review on the Colorado Mine Blowout, Concludes the Incident Was “Inevitable”
Earlier this week, the U.S. EPA released its “Internal Review of the A
ugust 5, 2015 Gold King Mine Blowout,” which provides the EPA Internal Review Team’s “one week rapid assessment” of the events and potential factors contributing to the Colorado mine adit blowout earlier this month. The Review sets out a series of conclusions and recommendations, many of which lay the foundation for absolving the U.S. EPA of any wrongdoing here while proposing extensive recommendations for the future.