Earth Week 2023 brought with it two significant environmental justice developments. The week began with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announcing the adoption of regulations aimed at reducing pollution in historically overburdened communities and those disproportionately impacted by health and environmental stressors. President Biden then capped the week off by issuing an Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All which further embeds environmental justice initiatives throughout the federal government (read our analysis of that order here). These actions display the heightened emphasis on environmental justice that has led to these and other significant developments at the federal and state levels.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” With increased funding provided by the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the American Rescue Plan Act, federal agencies are investing at unprecedented levels to advance environmental justice.
The Biden administration also developed the Justice40 Initiative, with a goal of ensuring that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.” The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool geospatially identifies such disadvantaged communities, which include federally recognized Tribes and Alaska Native villages.
As companies face increased scrutiny all along the supply chain, including from regulators, customers, investors, and the public, one thing is clear: failure to consider environmental justice implications of corporate activities can significantly hinder the advancement of corporate objectives, including the achievement of climate targets, the effects of which are quite significant. By way of example, in September 2022, a company’s air permits to build a $9.4 billion plastics manufacturing complex were vacated in part because the state Department of Environmental Quality’s environmental justice analysis was found to be arbitrary and capricious, and therefore failed to uphold the “public trust doctrine” of Louisiana’s constitution.
The increased scrutiny and risks associated with failing to consider environmental justice issues is causing some companies to reevaluate corporate policies and develop business practices that embrace environmental justice and community stakeholder initiatives. In this client alert, our team explains how embracing environmental justice and community stakeholder concerns can advance corporate objectives.
A Recent History of Environmental Justice Developments
While the concept of environmental justice has long had its roots in American civil rights history, President Biden brought the topic to the forefront of federal governance as part of the administration’s “whole-of-government” approach to addressing health and environmental impacts on disproportionately affected communities. Through various executive orders, the Biden administration has put its policy of prioritizing environmental justice initiatives and directing federal agencies to make achieving environmental justice a part of their missions into practice. Federal developments thus far have taken the form of plans, new offices and positions, grant programs, mapping tools, reviews of existing legal authority, permitting guidance, and enforcement policies.
Federal, state, and local developments that are particularly relevant to the regulated community are reviewed below.
USEPA’s Legal Authorities to Advance Environmental Justice
USEPA published a May 2022 report, followed by a January 2023 addendum, that reviewed the agency’s legal authority to advance environmental justice and take steps to mitigate the cumulative impacts of federal actions taken under its various programs. The takeaway is that USEPA has existing legal authority to advance and address these topics in decision-making. This authority encompasses the full breadth of the agency’s activities, including its oversight of state programs.
USEPA also has the authority to advance environmental justice through civil rights laws. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance, prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from intentionally discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin (including limited English proficiency) in their programs or activities.
USEPA’s implementing regulations also prohibit recipients of federal financial assistance from taking actions that have a discriminatory effect. The regulations offer a mechanism for a person who believes they have been discriminated against to file a complaint with any USEPA office, as well as authorize USEPA’s Office of Civil Rights to periodically conduct compliance reviews. If a recipient is found to be noncompliant, the recipient may elect to take corrective actions to mitigate the risk of losing financial assistance.
USEPA recently issued interim guidance for addressing environmental justice and civil rights during permitting, as well as specific guidance for addressing environmental justice concerns specific to air permitting. The guidance emphasizes that compliance with federal environmental laws does not necessarily provide a shield against allegations of non-compliance with federal civil rights laws.
For example, in Chicago, the city allegedly agreed to permit a scrap metal recycling facility’s relocation from a predominantly White neighborhood into a predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood. After a two year investigation, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found the city in violation of the Civil Rights Act and the Housing and Community Development Act, stating that the city’s involvement in the relocation of the facility, approval of the new site, and methods used to achieve these objectives were shaped by the race and national origin of the residents of each neighborhood.
Therefore, even beyond what is legally required by the applicable permitting statute and regulations, companies should consider taking steps throughout the permitting process to ensure that environmental justice and civil rights concerns are being sufficiently analyzed and adequately addressed, as well as ensuring sufficient community engagement.
As outlined in USEPA’s Fiscal Year 2022-2026 Strategic Plan, new environmental justice-focused enforcement policies emphasize increased inspections in communities with environmental justice concerns, prioritizing enforcement in overburdened communities, and identifying remedies for noncompliance that offer tangible benefits to those communities. USEPA also emphasized acting through emergency orders to secure early relief where possible. Enforcement remedies include increased or additional fence-line monitoring, public availability of monitoring data, and encouraging supplemental environmental projects that are tied to addressing adverse environmental impacts on local communities.
State and Local Developments
In addition to various states that have enacted or are in the process of enacting environmental justice-related legislation, New York recently joined Montana and Pennsylvania by explicitly including a “right to clean air and water, and a healthy environment” in the New York Bill of Rights. Several other states have proposed ballot initiatives to incorporate environmental rights into their constitutions.
At the local level, the focus on environmental justice has propelled some municipalities to address the topic in similar as well as different ways. As a 2019 report prepared by the Tishman Environment and Design Center indicates, municipalities have addressed environmental injustice through various land use measures, including bans on polluting facilities; policies that incorporate environmental justice goals and considerations into municipal activities; environmental review processes; and proactive planning, zoning, and public health codes.
For example, in 2020, Washington, DC amended its comprehensive plan to incorporate environmental justice objectives. Among other things, the plan states that environmental justice principles should inform public policy decisions on the siting of municipal and industrial facilities.
Embracing Environmental Justice as Part of a Company’s Corporate Culture
Considering the heightened focus on environmental justice outcomes, companies would be well served to ensure that their environmental, health, and safety programs adequately consider potential environmental justice issues and concerns and are designed in ways that strengthen community and stakeholder relationships, such as by incorporating environmental justice commitments into a company’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals. Below, we outline some recommendations and best practices.
Keep Abreast of Environmental Justice Developments that May Affect Your Operations
Track environmental justice issues. Not all environmental justice issues will apply to a specific business. However, being aware of national and local developments will allow a company to minimize regulatory, permitting, and community concerns and challenges that may otherwise catch it off-guard, including potential risks of objections to permits and litigation.
Understand your geographical area. By taking steps to better understand the communities in the areas where a company operates or may operate, a company can evaluate risks and make better informed business decisions. For example, companies can take advantage of resources such as USEPA’s EJScreen Mapping Tool, which provides demographic, socioeconomic, and environmental information for chosen geographic areas. Other mapping tools, such as the Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool and state-specific tools are also available.
Companies with current or future operations in areas with higher percentiles of socioeconomic or environmental quality factors should prepare for the potential legal risks this may pose, including increased government and public scrutiny, and consider how to mitigate potential issues ahead of time. The tools can also be used to aid a company in analyzing health, social, and economic effects of a specific project.
Build a Proactive Environmental Plan
Create an environmental policy or revise an existing one. The rise of corporate accountability has resulted in companies revising their business plans to incorporate ESG criteria into their decision-making. A way to ensure that environmental justice is included in a company’s ESG plan is to make environmental justice part of a company’s social objectives.
In particular, as we discussed in a prior client alert, a company may wish to organize its social criteria objectives so that environmental justice commitments are treated as under the company’s direct control, much like scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions are under the direct control of the company. Companies should also consider developing a public involvement plan as part of their social criteria. Environmental justice can be measured by the amount and quality of direct community engagement and community service. In this way, companies that develop robust engagement plans that further environmental justice objectives of the local community can fold those plans into the social criteria aspects of a greater ESG policy.
Perhaps the most important takeaway is that companies should be cognizant of the interconnectedness of their environmental goals to environmental justice and social/stakeholder concerns. A good environmental justice policy means a good social policy which means a more robust and effective environmental policy and greater chance of meeting environmental objectives.
Develop a robust compliance plan. Enforcement and litigation risk will be higher for companies with operations in communities with environmental justice concerns. Therefore, it is especially important that these companies have robust compliance programs in place. As we previously discussed here, companies can benefit from consistently monitoring their operations and considering the availability of advanced monitoring technologies and methodologies (such as monitoring by aircraft and satellite) that may catch violations and prevent ongoing ones.
Companies should also strictly comply with all applicable monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements, and consider voluntary disclosure policies. USEPA’s Audit Policy provides several major incentives, including reduction of 100% of gravity-based penalties, for regulated entities to voluntarily discover and fix federal environmental violations. Moreover, the US Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section’s Voluntary Self-Disclosure Policy offers beneficial treatment to companies that disclose potentially criminal environmental violations.
Review suppliers and other entities with which the company contracts. In a prior client alert, and as mentioned above, we discussed how a company can define the social aspect of its ESG plan to assist in developing a baseline standard against which a company can measure itself. This includes a company taking steps to establish a standard by which it expects those with which it contracts to behave, reviewing its supply chains to identify any potential areas of inequity against such a standard, and subsequently holding suppliers and other entities with which it transacts accountable, while being particularly mindful of actions that could be tied back to the company.
Use Existing Tools and Resources to Assist in Siting and Permitting Decisions
Be aware of evolving siting and permitting requirements. As discussed above, companies making siting or permitting decisions should consider that projects in or near communities disproportionately burdened by pollution will receive scrutinized attention. Therefore, companies should ensure that environmental justice and civil rights concerns are being proactively evaluated and sufficiently addressed under environmental, civil rights, and environmental justice laws and seek out any available guidance to rectify such concerns. Failure to do so may result in unforeseen project hurdles, wasted resources, and an eventual siting or permit denial. We previously discussed how USEPA incorporates these concerns into the permitting process. Considering recent USEPA guidance on this topic, companies should develop their own best practices for permitting oversight, which should include the following:
- Use available screening tools to assess the existence of environmental justice or civil rights concerns early in the permitting process.
- Perform an appropriately scoped environmental justice analysis or disparate impact analysis (which should consider cumulative impacts) where concerns exist.
- Know what questions to ask, such as who is being affected by the action? How, and by how much? Compared to whom? Can we mitigate the effects and, if so, how?
- Develop a public involvement plan and engage communities and tribes to ensure that their views are accounted for (discussed further below).
Failure to take these measures as part of the project scoping process may result in significant hurdles to project development. This includes the possibility of pressure being exerted on state and local regulators to change their course of action with respect to a proposed project. In the Chicago example discussed earlier, the city denied a scrap metal recycling facility’s permit to begin operating an $80 million facility after USEPA issued a letter raising health impact concerns in the surrounding community. The city’s decision, which is currently the subject of a lengthy and ongoing appeal, followed an alleged agreement between the facility operator and city that would have allowed the operator to move to the site.
This also includes active opposition to a project, which may turn into litigation. For example, developer Air Products recently sued Livingston Parish after the parish attempted to restrict the company’s proposed hydrogen/carbon capture and storage project through a moratorium. Ultimately, the parties came to a resolution, whereby the parish agreed that the moratorium was invalid and unenforceable, and the parties agreed that each would bear its own fees and costs related to the litigation.
Review existing permit conditions. Companies with existing facilities that will be applying for permit renewals should be prepared for the possibility of new and more stringent permit obligations being imposed by regulators at the time of their permit renewal. The recently enacted New Jersey environmental justice regulations, for example, set forth a step-by-step process for reviewing future permit applications, including specifically stating that existing permit holders may be subject to additional permit conditions to reduce health and environmental impacts.
More stringent requirements of which companies should be mindful may include, among other obligations: additional monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements; additional pollution controls and/or more stringent limits; and the inclusion of enforceable work practices, operating plans, and/or best practices for minimizing emissions and/or discharges.
Companies should address environmental justice-related concerns sooner than later, by taking advantage of the existing tools discussed above, to avoid unforeseen complications arising during the permit renewal process. For example, if particulate emissions are a specific concern in your area (e.g., EJScreen shows a particularly high EJ Index percentile for particulate matter 2.5), taking proactive measures to mitigate any increased particulate emissions may streamline the permit renewal process.
Engage the Local Community
Be proactive in engaging the community. Governmental environmental justice policies typically entail expectations of robust engagement with the local community and opportunities for community actors to provide input into company decisions that will affect their communities. Companies may want to similarly engage with the local community prior to taking steps to expand or modify existing operations. This is particularly true for the permitting process; however, companies are well served by engaging with communities and local tribes as a vehicle for making more informed business decisions generally.
This can include learning from a community about a company’s impact, creating strategic partnerships within the community, and collaborating with the community to advance shared goals and establish outcomes that will benefit the community overall. For example, a company can help communities finance environmental justice initiatives or help eligible applicants apply for available grants and help formulate how these community-driven initiatives will take shape.
Being proactive will better prepare a company for what issues, if any, a governmental agency may uncover during its own public engagement process. Ultimately, by strengthening its bond with the local community, companies are better situated to identify community concerns early and take appropriate action that will satisfy both company and community needs while building trust into the future.
Review existing community relationships. The community engagement discussed above should include a review of existing community relationships, specifically where potential environmental justice concerns may not have previously been addressed. To stay on track with such engagement and to ensure the maintenance of strong relationships, making periodic reviews and assessments of existing community relationships could be incorporated into a company’s ESG criteria.
Engage internal stakeholders. Community engagement goes beyond external forces at a specific facility. A company should also cultivate internal discussions with workers, unions, and other stakeholders affected by the company’s actions. Initiatives to consider include informational meetings, listening sessions, and trainings. Environmental health and safety managers should also engage upper management to ensure leadership buy-in for environmental justice initiatives. This guarantees that all levels of the company are aware of and striving towards the same goals.
By embracing environmental justice, companies minimize environmental oversight risks, are likely to achieve environmental goals more quickly, build community relationships, help reduce inequity and ultimately, create a solid foundation for long-term strength, all of which are accretive to an improved bottom line. As federal, state, and local governments continue embedding environmental justice and related initiatives in their regulations, policies, and programs, companies would be well served to do the same.
Jenner & Block’s Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety and Transitions in Energy and Climate Solutions practice teams are made up of former federal regulatory commissioners, state regulators, regulatory compliance attorneys, and internal counsel and project developers, and are able to help companies achieve environmental justice objectives. Please reach out to a member of one or both of our teams with any questions.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers recently announced a revised and final rule amending the definition of Waters of the United States (WOTUS) following the Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA that invalidated the agencies’ previous definition. The revised rule took effect immediately upon its publication in the Federal Register on September 8.
The definition of “waters of the United States” is significant because it sets the jurisdictional limits of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Under the CWA, EPA and the Army Corps have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable water from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the CWA, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
Since the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Rapanos v. United States, the agencies have relied on a “significant nexus” standard to include nearby wetlands and ephemeral waterways in the WOTUS definition. A “significant nexus” was established if the body of water “either alone or in combination with similarly situated wetlands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as navigable.”
In January of this year, the agencies published a “Revised Definition of ‘Waters of the United States’”, which incorporated both a “relatively permanent” standard and a “significant nexus” standard. However, in May 2023, the Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA rejected the “significant nexus” test, instead holding that bodies of water must have a “continuous surface connection” to a traditional navigable water to be a covered wetland (read our analysis of the Sackett decision here).
In consideration of the Sackett ruling, the agencies have again revised their final rule to conform with the Supreme Court’s decision. Under the new rule, “interstate wetlands” are no longer covered, and the “significant nexus” standard is no longer applicable in defining WOTUS. Instead, to be jurisdictional water, a wetland must be “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing…” and must have “a continuous surface connection” to a traditional navigable water.
Biden Administration Seeks Public Comment on Expanding Environmental Justice Initiatives to Ocean-Related Activities
By: Daniel L. Robertson, Associate Attorney
On June 8, 2023, the Council on Environmental Quality, on behalf of the Ocean Policy Committee (OPC), published a Federal Register request for information seeking public input on the development of a new “Ocean Justice Strategy.”
The OPC is a Congressionally mandated interagency body tasked with coordinating ocean science, technology and management policy across Federal agencies in order to maximize the effectiveness of Federal investments in ocean research and ocean resource management. Codified by the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, the Committee falls within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is led by the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. The OPC currently consists of at least 25 members, including the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In Thursday’s announcement, the Council states that the new ocean justice strategy will “aim to identify barriers and opportunities to fully integrate environmental justice principles into ocean-related activities of the Federal Government.” The strategy will further “propose equitable and just practices to advance safety, health, and prosperity” for communities near oceans and the Great Lakes. Through its request, the OPC is seeking public input “on what the vision and goals of the Ocean Justice Strategy should be and how the Federal Government can advance just and equitable access to, and management and use of, the ocean, the coasts, and the Great Lakes.” The notice provides examples of environmental justice concerns including inequitable placement of polluting infrastructure such as ports and landfills, and inadequate responses to natural hazards like storms and typhoons.
In addition to a general request for any considerations in developing the strategy, the OPC is specifically seeking public input on the following areas:
- How ocean justice is defined;
- Barriers and key challenges to realizing ocean justice;
- What elements, activities and components the strategy should include, including injustices that the federal government should better address;
- Research and knowledge gaps the federal government should address;
- How the federal government can harness existing tools (such as the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool and EJScreen) to address ocean justice, and what new tools or practices are necessary; and
- Where and how can the federal government partner with external stakeholders, and what solutions should be led by non-federal entities.
The strategy will further expand the federal government’s advancement of environmental justice initiatives, and follows President Biden’s recent executive order clarifying the administration’s “whole of government” approach to addressing environmental justice, which we previously discussed here. The notice also gives indication as to areas that the OPC may be looking to address, stating that communities have not shared an equitable benefit and burden in ocean-related activities including “climate change, sea level rise and coastal flooding, increased storm intensity, pollution, overfishing, loss of habitat biodiversity, and other threats.”
Public comments are due on or before July 24, 2023, and can be submitted through the federal rulemaking portal located here by referencing docket number CEQ-2023-004. We will continue to monitor environmental justice developments on the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its opinion in the landmark Clean Water Act (“CWA”) case of Sackett v. EPA, No. 21-454 (May 25, 2023). This decision delivers a significant change in terms of the reach and jurisdiction of the CWA, and supplies some harsh critiques between the Justices that all agreed in the judgement but were fiercely divided on how to get there.
The question presented to the Court was, seemingly, straightforward: “Whether the Ninth Circuit set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands are 'waters of the United States' under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1362(7).” But, this question has wide-reaching implications. The definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) sets the jurisdictional limits of the CWA. Under the CWA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable water from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the Act, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
The Army Corps and EPA first proposed a WOTUS definition in 1977 and it has faced revisions and legal challenges ever since. The most controversial aspect of the WOTUS definition throughout its history has been the inclusion of wetlands and other non-navigable waters. The WOTUS definition has faced Supreme Court review in three previous cases:
- U.S. v. Riverside Bayview, 474 U.S. 121 (1985)
- Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001)
- Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715 (2006)
Which brings us to the Sackett case. Justice Alito authored the majority opinion for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Gorsuch and Barrett. All of the other Justices also concurred in the judgment, but joined in separate concurring opinions. The case involved a residential property owned by the Sacketts located near Priest Lake in Idaho. The property was designated by EPA as a wetland, and when the Sacketts started backfilling their property to begin constructing a house, they received a compliance order from EPA. EPA determined that the Sackett’s wetlands were WOTUS because they were adjacent to a tributary to Priest Lake and they were part of a larger wetland that had a significant effect on Priest Lake.
In evaluating this case, Justice Alito discussed the history of the CWA and the WOTUS definition. Alito acknowledged that the statutory context of the CWA shows that some wetlands qualify as WOTUS. That is because in 1977, Congress amended the CWA to add §1344(g)(1), which includes language that refers to navigable waters “including wetlands adjacent thereto”. Thus, Alito saw the Court’s task as “harmoniz[ing] the reference to wetlands in §1344(g)(1) with ‘the waters of the United States’”. (Slip Op. at 19.) Ultimately, the Court held that:
the CWA extends only to those wetlands that are as a practical matter indistinguishable from waters of the United States….This requires the party asserting jurisdiction over adjacent wetlands to establish first that the adjacent body of water constitutes waters of the United States (i.e., a relatively permanent body of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters); and second, that the wetland has a continuous surface connection with that water, making it difficult to determine where the ‘water’ ends and the ‘wetland’ begins.
Slip Op. at 22 (internal citations omitted).
Interestingly, Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Kavanaugh and Jackson all concurred in the judgment—they all agreed the ruling of the lower court should be reversed—but they strongly disagreed with the majority’s adoption of the “continuous surface connection” test for wetlands. Thus, the concurring opinions written by Justice Kagan and Justice Kavanaugh read like dissents and sharply criticized Justice Alito’s majority opinion. Both Justices argued that the majority’s test disregards the ordinary meaning of “adjacent” and narrows the CWA to exclude wetlands the Act has covered since 1977. That is because “adjacent” does not mean adjoining or contiguous; it can mean nearby. Thus, these concurring Justices would have adopted a test, consistent with agency practice, that “a wetland is “adjacent” to a covered water (i) if the wetland is adjoining—that is, contiguous to or bordering—a covered water—or (ii) if the wetland is separated from a covered water only by a man-made dike or barrier, natural river berm, beach dune or the like.” (Kavanaugh Concurring Op. at 4.)
Justice Thomas also concurred with the majority opinion, but wrote a separate opinion, with which Justice Gorsuch joined. Justice Thomas’s concurrence did not address the textual arguments that were the focus of the other opinions; instead he provided a detailed history of water regulation and stated that the CWA jurisdiction should be limited to truly navigable waters. He also included a section discussing his views on the court’s Commerce Clause jurisprudence and his belief that many environmental laws are not sufficiently related to interstate commerce to pass Constitutional muster.
While there was strong debate between the Justices, the definition of WOTUS appears to be settled at long last. A wetland will NOT be considered a WOTUS (and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the CWA) unless it has a continuous surface connection with a traditional navigable water. As we previously reported, EPA and the Army Corps recently updated the WOTUS rule in early 2023. That definition is not consistent with the Sackett ruling, and will likely be further revised by the agencies. EPA has not indicated yet how or when it will be revising the rule, or whether it will have enforcement guidance or leniency in the interim. We will be monitoring those developments and provide the latest updates on the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog.
By: Daniel L. Robertson, Associate Attorney
In the 1962 book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson brought to the forefront of public attention contaminants of emerging concern (CECs). CECs, or emerging contaminants, are chemicals or materials that can be characterized by a perceived, potential or real threat to human health or the environment. These threats typically “emerge” as advances in scientific technologies reveal previously unknown adverse effects of a specific chemical that may already be ubiquitous in the environment. Examples in recent years include 1,4 dioxane, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), ethylene oxide, and per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS). Pharmaceuticals and nanomaterials are increasingly being considered as areas of concern that may require further scrutiny in future.
Often by the time adverse impacts are identified, the contaminant is in widespread use. PCBs, for example, were prevalent in coolants and lubricants in a variety of electrical equipment because PCBs are very effective insulators. PFAS were heralded as revolutionary for their effective fire-fighting and coating characteristics and currently are in a multitude of everyday products ranging from food packaging to the clothes we wear.
As we gain a better understanding of the potential effects of these chemicals, regulators face challenges in promulgating appropriate regulations for these CECs. Meanwhile, companies seemingly acting in full compliance with permits and regulatory requirements find themselves targeted by lawsuits seeking to compel remediation of impacted sites and product reformulation. Long dormant sites previously considered remediated may be reopened and additional clean-up required as, for example, may result as a result of U.S. EPA’s pending proposals to designate certain PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).
As history has shown, and due to ongoing technological advancements, new emerging contaminants will continue to be identified and the process of evaluating potential health and environmental risks will begin anew. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the approach employed by the Toxic Substances and Control Act (TSCA) is the most effective approach to regulating CECs, when contrasted for example with the approach taken by the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). While both programs are designed to protect human health and the environment through restricting the use of harmful substances, they accomplish this through different means. TSCA requires reporting oversight of a chemical where U.S. EPA demonstrates an unreasonable risk. REACH, on the other hand, obligates manufacturers and importers to register and demonstrate the safe control of a chemical prior to that chemical being placed into the market.
As applied to PFAS, in the United States, U.S. EPA seeks to regulate specific PFAS through a variety of avenues. In August 2022, U.S. EPA proposed designating two PFAS substances as CERCLA hazardous substances, and in April 2023 proposed additional PFAS substance designations. In March 2023, U.S. EPA simultaneously proposed maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) setting drinking water limits for two PFAS compounds and proposed to regulate four additional PFAS through a Hazard Index screening approach that will require site-specific determinations for drinking water concentration. Pursuant to the 2019 PFAS Act, 176 PFAS substances have been added to the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) chemical database, creating additional reporting liabilities for impacted companies. However, in December 2022, U.S. EPA proposed reclassifying all TRI-listed PFAS to the Chemicals of Special Concern list, which would further increase reporting scrutiny on regulated companies. Each of these practices takes significant resources to implement, and with 10,000 PFAS already identified, could create a significant investment over time.
Contrast this approach with the approach of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) that in February proposed a blanket restriction of all 10,000 PFAS substances in the European Union. This itself creates uncertainty for companies where no commonly accepted testing methods exist whereby companies can test for all of these compounds. The approach further restricts PFAS chemicals for which studies on their adverse impacts may not yet exist. It is expected that ECHA will receive a substantial number of comments on its proposal, much like U.S. EPA has received on its proposals discussed above.
While there may not be a single “right” way to address CECs, the risks posed by emerging contaminants will continue to challenge both the regulators and the regulated community to find the appropriate regulatory balance between protection of human health and the environment and the need to continue to manufacture products that we rely upon daily. As demonstrated by the 2016 Lautenberg amendments to TSCA, stakeholders on all sides appear invested to continue striving towards this balance.
On April 12, 2023, a federal district court judge in North Dakota issued a temporary injunction blocking implementation of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers regulations redefining Waters of the United States (“WOTUS”) under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) (the “2023 WOTUS Rule”). The injunction was issued in a challenge brought by 24 states, and will take effect in those states: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
The WOTUS definition is one of the most controversial and highly-litigated aspects of the CWA, if not all environmental law, because it has wide-ranging implications. The definition of “waters of the United States” is so important because it sets the jurisdictional limits of the CWA. Under the CWA, EPA and the Army Corps have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable waters from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the CWA, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
The Army Corps and EPA first proposed a WOTUS definition in 1977 and it has faced revisions and legal challenges ever since. The WOTUS definition has faced Supreme Court review in three previous cases, and is currently pending review in a fourth Supreme Court case, Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 19-35469, on appeal from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Incorporating PFAS in Industrial Wastewater Discharge Permits to Minimize Risk or Extent of Future CERCLA Liability
PFAS are being detected in drinking water systems across the United States. Moreover, evolving regulatory developments already require or soon will
require that public water systems sample for and remediate these chemicals (see, e.g., here). When public water systems find PFAS, which is a
significant possibility, public water systems are likely to look to upstream industrial facilities to recoup their remediation costs. And, once PFOA and PFOS becomes CERCLA hazardous substances (likely Summer 2023), public water systems will have a federal cause of action to do so: CERCLA cost recovery.
Among other potential defendants, public water systems may target upstream industrial facilities that have PFOA or PFOS in their wastewater discharges. Indeed, recent U.S. EPA guidance explains that the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program, which regulates wastewater discharges, “interfaces with many pathways by which [PFAS] travel and are released into the environment, and ultimately impact water quality and the health of people and ecosystems.”
Industry categories known or suspected to discharge PFAS include: organic chemicals, plastics & synthetic fibers (OCPSF); metal finishing; electroplating; electric and electronic components; landfills; pulp, paper & paperboard; leather tanning & finishing; plastics molding & forming; textile mills; paint formulating; and airports. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list.
While U.S. EPA’s Office of Water is working to revise Effluent Limitation Guidelines and develop water quality criteria to support technology-based and water quality-based effluent limits for PFAS in NPDES permits, there are currently no enforceable limits at the federal level. As an interim measure, recent U.S. EPA guidance describes steps that NPDES permit writers can implement under existing authorities to reduce PFAS discharges, including incorporating monitoring requirements, best management practices, and site-specific limits developed on a best professional judgment basis into permits.
An important question will be whether upstream industrial facilities that have PFAS in their wastewater discharges will be able to rely on the federally permitted release exemption as an affirmative defense to CERCLA liability. This exemption provides that parties are not liable under CERCLA for federally permitted releases. See 42 U.S.C. § 9607(j). The exemption also extends to state permitted releases under federally approved programs. Blankenship v. Consolidation Coal Co., 850 F.3d 630, 638 (4th Cir. 2017).
In the NPDES context, the exemption most notably covers “discharges in compliance with a permit.” See 42 U.S.C. § 9601(10)(A). The limited case law on this issue sheds light on two points. First, the exemption can only cover what a NPDES permit can regulate – the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters from a point source. Second, the exemption does not apply with respect to releases that (1) were not expressly permitted, (2) exceeded the limitations of the permit, or (3) occurred at a time when there was no permit.
In 1995, U.S. EPA offered some guidance as to its interpretation of the scope of this exemption. Specifically, the Agency stated that the exemption would apply if: (1) the source, nature, and amount of the potential release had been identified and made part of the public record during the permitting process, and (2) the permit contains a condition requiring that the treatment system be capable of eliminating or abating the potential release.
Going back further in time, in a 1988 proposed rule that never took effect, U.S. EPA explained that the exemption covers discharges that are in compliance with a permit limit that specifically addresses the discharge in question. To qualify, the permit must either address the discharge directly through specific effluent limitations or through the use of indicator pollutants. In the case of the latter, the administrative record prepared during permit development must identify specifically the discharge of the pollutant as one of those pollutants the indicator is intended to represent.
Industrial facilities that have PFOA or PFOS in their wastewater discharges should evaluate whether their permits have any provisions that address these chemicals. Assuming they do not, which is the most likely scenario at this early stage, it is unlikely that the federally permitted release exemption will apply. However, if there are provisions that address these chemicals, or if the applicable permitting agency seeks to add such provisions through original permit issuance, modification, or renewal, businesses should consider the extent to which this will influence whether the federally permitted release exemption may apply.
Specifically, when negotiating permit conditions, businesses should keep in mind that U.S. EPA guidance suggests that for the exemption to apply, the source, nature, and amount of the potential PFOA or PFOS release must be identified and made part of the public record during the permitting process, and the resulting permit must contain a condition requiring that the treatment system be capable of eliminating or abating the potential release.
Considering this guidance, it is unlikely that the incorporation of mere monitoring requirements and/or best management practices that do not eliminate or abate the potential release of PFOA or PFOS will be sufficient for a discharger to rely on the federally permitted release exemption. However, the incorporation of site-specific limits developed on a best professional judgment basis likely will.
Indeed, it may be in the best interest of businesses to advocate for provisions in their permits that address PFOA and PFOS to minimize their risk or extent of future CERCLA liability. An important consideration will be the cost of eliminating or abating the potential release of PFOA or PFOS now versus the likelihood and associated cost of being sued for CERCLA cost recovery and ultimately having to pay the costs associated with remediating the unpermitted discharges of PFOA or PFOS later.
We will continue to provide timely updates on U.S. EPA’s ongoing efforts to regulate PFAS under the various environmental statutes at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
Almost two years to the date after U.S. EPA issued its regulatory determination for contaminants on the forth Contaminant Candidate List, U.S. EPA has issued its draft rule setting drinking water limits for several PFAS compounds. Specifically. U.S. EPA’s draft rule proposes a four part per trillion (ppt) maximum contaminant level (MCL) for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). According to an U.S. EPA fact sheet that accompanied the proposed rule, the four ppt level is the lowest concentration that can be reliably detected within “specified limits of precision and accuracy during routine laboratory operations conditions”.
These proposed MCLs are higher than U.S. EPA’s previously issued health advisory levels (HALs) of 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS. The reason for the higher proposed MCL levels is due in large part to the fact that U.S. EPA is required to consider available treatment technologies and treatment costs when setting an MCL which it is not required to do when setting a HAL. U.S. EPA’s proposed maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for these specific PFAS which doesn’t need to consider technical feasibility of cost is “0”. With respect to its previously issued HALs, U.S. EPA specifically noted that following receipt of public comments and finalization of the PFAS MCL, it will decide whether to update or remove the HALs for PFOA and PFOS.
U.S. EPA’s draft rule also proposes to regulate several additional PFAS, including hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (commonly referred to as GenX), perfluorononanoate (PFNA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS). Rather than proposing an MCL for these PFAS, U.S. EPA instead seeks to regulate these PFAS utilizing a hazard index which is a screening level approach that provides a risk indicator rather than a risk estimate for a mixture of components.
This hazard index approach is sometimes used by other federal agencies, including the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Under this hazard index approach, U.S. EPA has identified health-based water concentrations (HBWCs) (i.e., the level at which no health effects are expected for that PFAS) for PFHxS (9 ppt); GenX (10 ppt), PFNA (10 ppt) and PFBS (200 ppt). The detected concentration of each PFAS in drinking water is then divided by the HBWC to get a individual hazard quotient (HQ). The hazard index is the summation of each of these HQs—if the hazard index value exceeds 1.0, then that would be an exceedance of the MCL.
The MCLs will become effective three years after they are finalized. At that time, public drinking water systems will be obligated to test for these specific PFAS and take steps to mitigate any exceedances that are identified.
U.S. EPA has proposed a 60-day comment period on the draft rule; however, in light of what are expected to be significant public comments, it is likely that this comment period will be extended.
We will continue to provide timely updates on U.S. EPA’s ongoing efforts to regulate PFAS under the various environmental statutes at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.
On December 30, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) announced they had finalized the rule establishing the definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) (the “WOTUS Rule”). This definition is one of the most controversial and highly-litigated aspects of the CWA, if not all environmental law, because it has wide-ranging implications.
The definition of “waters of the United States” is so important because it sets the jurisdictional limits of the CWA. Under the CWA, EPA and the Army Corps have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable waters from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the CWA, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
The Army Corps and EPA first proposed a WOTUS definition in 1977 and it has faced revisions and legal challenges ever since. The WOTUS definition has faced Supreme Court review in three previous cases, and is currently pending review in the case of Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 19-35469, on appeal from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The WOTUS definition was revised in 2015 by the Obama Administration to expand the definition and then in 2020 by the Trump Administration to narrow the definition; with both definitions facing swift legal challenges, including vacatur of the Trump rule in 2021. At issue in all of these rules is how to treat non-traditional navigable waters, like ephemeral bodies of water and wetlands.
The current WOTUS Rule goes back to re-establish the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS, and also incorporates guidance from the most recent Supreme Court case, the 2006 case of Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715. In Rapanos, the Court did not reach a majority opinion. Justice Scalia authored a plurality opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion, and Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion. EPA and the Army Corps are incorporating Justice Kennedy’s opinion, which provided that wetlands and other bodies of water that have a “significant nexus” to more traditional navigable waters should be included in WOTUS. Id. at 759. This was in contrast to Justice Scalia’s opinion, which limited WOTUS to “only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are "waters of the United States" in their own right…” Id. at 739-42.
Thus, the new WOTUS Rule includes the following categories of waterbodies: (1) traditional navigable waters (e.g., certain large rivers and lakes); (2) territorial seas; (3) interstate waters; (4) impoundments; (5) tributaries; (6) adjacent wetlands; (7) and additional waters. To determine jurisdiction for tributaries, adjacent wetlands, and additional waters, the WOTUS Rule looks at whether the body of water meets either the “relatively permanent standard” or “significant nexus standard”, as follows:
- Relatively Permanent Standard is a test that readily identifies a subset of waters that will virtually always significantly affect traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, or interstate waters. To meet the relatively permanent standard, the waterbodies must be relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing waters connected to traditional navigable waters or waters with a continuous surface connection to such relatively permanent waters or to traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, or interstate waters.
- Significant Nexus Standard is a test that clarifies if certain waterbodies, such as tributaries and wetlands, are subject to the Clean Water Act based on their connection to and effect on larger downstream waters that Congress fundamentally sought to protect. A significant nexus exists if the waterbody (alone or in combination) significantly affects the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of traditional navigable waters, the territorial seas, or interstate waters.
The WOTUS rule will be published in the Federal Register in the next few days, and will be effective 60 days after publication. Legal challenges will surely follow, and its future longevity will likely be determined by the Supreme Court in the Sackett case. EPA had tried to avoid Supreme Court review based on the fact that it was working on a revised rule, but that argument was not successful. Therefore, it is likely that the Court will go forward and make a ruling on WOTUS, potentially undermining the basis for the current WOTUS rule. As always, we will keep you updated on key developments in the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog.
More information about the new WOTUS Rule is available on EPA’s website.
By Steven M. Siros, Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On November 2, 2022, U.S. EPA released the pre-publication version of the fifth contaminant candidate list (CCL 5) containing 66 chemicals, 12 microbes, and three chemical groups (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), cyanotoxins, and disinfection byproducts). Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), every five years, U.S. EPA is obligated to publish a list of unregulated contaminants and contaminant groups that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and that may require regulation. Once on the CCL, U.S. EPA will compile and evaluate additional data and then proceed to make regulatory determinations for those contaminants that U.S. EPA determines present the greatest public health concerns. A regulatory determination is a formal decision by U.S. EPA that is the first step in developing a national primary drinking water regulation for a specific contaminant. For example, U.S. EPA recently made regulatory determinations for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and is in the process of working on developing drinking water standards for these contaminants.
With respect to the PFAS chemical group included in CCL 5, U.S. EPA defined PFAS as a class of chemicals with the chemical structure R-(CF2)-C(F)(R’),R” where the CF2 and the CF moieties are saturated carbons and none of the R groups can be hydrogen. The definition triggered opposition from both industry and environmental groups. Industry groups opposed the class approach, noting that not all PFAS pose the same risks and that adopting a class approach can lead to the regulation of useful and necessary products. Environmental group, on the other hand, sought a broader definition that would include any compound containing at least one fully fluorinated methyl or methylene carbon atom.
U.S. EPA specifically acknowledged that this definition as limited to the CCL 5 and should not be reviewed as representing U.S. EPA’s definition of PFAS for all regulatory programs. However, U.S. EPA does seem more sympathetic to the concerns raised by the environmental groups as evidenced by the following excerpt from the pre-publication notice:
EPA is also aware there may be emerging contaminants such as fluorinated organic substances that may be used in or are a result of the PFAS manufacturing process (e.g., starting materials, intermediates, processing aids, by-products and/or degradates) that do not meet the structural definition. Those emerging PFAS contaminants or contaminant groups may be known to occur or are anticipated to occur in public water systems, and which may require regulation. If emerging PFAS contaminants or contaminant groups are identified, EPA may consider moving directly to the regulatory determination process or consider listing those contaminants for future CCL cycles. EPA will continue to be proactive in considering evolving occurrence and health effects data of these emerging contaminants.
We will continue to track U.S. EPA’s ongoing efforts to regulate PFAS in the various environmental media and provide timely updates on the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.
Jenner & Block Wishes Bon Voyage to Gay Sigel as She Starts Her Next Adventure with the City of Chicago
As Gay Sigel walked through the doors at One IBM Plaza in Chicago, fresh out of law school and ready to launch her career as an attorney at Jenner & Block, she could not have envisioned the tremendous impact she would have on her clients, her colleagues, and her community over the next 39 years. Gay started her legal career as a general litigator, but Gay and Bob Graham were quick to realize how the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was creating a new and exciting area of the law that was increasingly important for the firm’s clients: Environmental Law. Gay and Bob saw an opportunity to specialize in that area and founded Jenner & Block’s Environmental Health and Safety Practice. Gay has been an ever-present force in the EHS community ever since.
Over her 39-year career at Jenner & Block, Gay has worked on some of the most significant environmental cases in the country for clients ranging from global Fortune 50 corporations to environmental organizations to individuals. For more than a decade, she taught environmental law at Northwestern University, helping shape the next generation of environmental lawyers. She has worked on issues of global impact, like those affecting climate change, issues of local impact like those related to combined sewer overflows to the Chicago River, and issues of individual impact like those involving employee safety and health. No matter the subject, Gay has always been a tireless advocate for her clients. We often describe her as the Energizer Bunny of environmental lawyers: she is the hardest working attorney we have ever met.
Gay’s true passion is to make this world a better, more just place for others. So, throughout her career as an environmental, health, and safety lawyer, Gay has devoted her time, energy, and emotional resources to innumerable pro bono cases and charitable and advocacy organizations. Her pro bono work includes successfully protecting asylum applicants, defending criminal cases, asserting parental rights, and defending arts organizations in OSHA matters. Among her many civic endeavors, Gay was a founding member of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago (n/k/a as the Legal Council for Health Justice); she was the Secretary and active member of the Board of Directors for the Chicago Foundation for Women; and she was on the Board of the New Israel Fund. Gay continues to promote justice wherever she sees injustice, including as an advocate for women’s rights, particularly for women’s reproductive rights.
In both her environmental, health, and safety practice as well as her pro bono and charitable work, Gay is a tremendous mentor to younger (and even older) attorneys. She is curious, committed, exacting, fearless, and demanding (though more of herself than of others). We all give Gay much credit for making us the lawyers we are today.
Gay is leaving Jenner & Block to embark on her next adventure. She is returning to public service as Assistant Corporation Counsel Supervisor with the City of Chicago's Department of Law where she will be focusing on environmental issues. The City and its residents will be well served as Gay will bring her vast experience and unparalleled energy to work tirelessly to protect the City and its environment. We will miss working with and learning from Gay on a daily basis, but we look forward to seeing the great things she will accomplish for the City of Chicago. We know we speak for the entire firm as we wish Gay bon voyage—we will miss you!
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
U.S. EPA issued its long anticipated interim updated drinking water health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) that replace previous U.S. EPA health advisories for these per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that had been set at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The updated advisory levels, which U.S. EPA claims are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, evidence that U.S. EPA believes that adverse health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are about as close to zero as you can get. U.S. EPA notes that these interim health advisories will remain in place until EPA establishes a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation.
U.S. EPA has set a new health advisory level of 0.02 ppt for PFOS and 0.004 ppt for PFOA. These new levels are dramatically lower than U.S. EPA's previous 70 ppt level that applied to both PFOA and PFOS. U.S. EPA also set final advisories for hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid and its ammonium salts (also referred to as GenX) at 10 ppt and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) at 2,000 ppt.
Interestingly, U.S. EPA's health advisory levels for both PFOA and PFOS are set well below the current analytical detection limit of 4 ppt. Responding to questions as to how the regulated community is supposed to demonstrate compliance with these health advisory levels, U.S. EPA acknowledged it was a "complicated matter" and U.S. EPA's advice was for water providers to test for PFAS using the currently analytical methodology that can test to 4 ppt.
Environmental groups and the plaintiffs’ bar were quick to applaud the new health advisory levels, noting that any detectible levels of PFOA or PFOS represent unacceptable levels of these compounds in drinking water. The regulated community, on the other hand, blasted the new health advisory levels, claiming that the advisory levels ignored U.S. EPA’s commitment to embrace scientific integrity.
Regardless of which side of the fence that you find yourself, it is clear that U.S. EPA’s new PFAS health advisories will be relied upon by plaintiffs to file lawsuits in any instance where a detectible concentration of PFOA and/or PFOS is found in drinking water which in turn is likely to keep drinking water providers throughout the United States awake at night.
We will continue to provide updates on U.S. EPA’s efforts to regulate PFAS at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On May 18, 2022, U.S. EPA updated its Regional Screening Level tables to include five new per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The five new PFAS compounds added to the RSL tables are hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid and its ammonium salt (HFPO-DA – sometimes referred to as GenX chemicals), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS). U.S. EPA added its first PFAS substance, PFBS or perfluorobutanesulfonic acid, to the RSL tables in 2014 and updated that listing in 2021 when U.S. EPA released its updated toxicity assessment for PFBS.
The RSLs are risk-based screening values for residential and industrial soils and tap water that U.S. EPA relies upon to help determine if remediation is necessary. Although U.S. EPA is quick to point out that the RSLs are not cleanup standards, regulators at both the state and federal levels rely on these RSLs to drive decision-making at contaminated sites. The regulators also rely on these RSLs notwithstanding that U.S. EPA has yet to officially designate any PFAS as a CERCLA hazardous substance or RCRA hazardous waste (although efforts are ongoing on both fronts--CERCLA hazardous substances / RCRA hazardous wastes).
U.S. EPA set the screening levels for PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, and PFHxS based on the Minimal Risk Levels from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s toxicological profiles. The screening level for HFPO-DA was set based on a final, peer-reviewed toxicity value. For example, the screening level for PFOS is set at 38 parts per trillion for tap water and 1.6 parts per million for industrial soils and the screening level for PFOA is set at 60 parts per trillion for tap water and 2.5 parts per million for industrial soils
As we await further U.S. EPA action with respect to regulating PFAS under RCRA and CERCLA, it is interesting to note that U.S. EPA is currently engaged in a significant information gathering exercise related to historical PFAS use. Relying on its authority under CERCLA Section 104(e), U.S. EPA has recently issued scores of information requests seeking information regarding facilities’ past PFAS uses and practices. The use of these information requests is consistent with the statements in U.S. EPA’s 2021 PFAS Roadmap where U.S. EPA indicated that it intended to rely on its various enforcement tools to identify and address PFAS releases.
We will continue to provide timely updates on PFAS-related issues at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.
By Matthew G. Lawson
“When the wind of change blows, some people build walls, others build windmills.” While this ancient Chinese proverb most likely did not envision the construction of large-scale, offshore wind farms, its wisdom remains strikingly applicable to the United States’ energy and infrastructure policies in the 21st Century. At a time of growing concern over fossil fuel availability, climate change and energy grid security, the Corporate Environmental Lawyer is taking a moment during Earth Day 2022 to look towards our nation’s investment into improved infrastructure and clean, self-sustaining energy sources.
Undoubtably one of the largest recent, public investments in the United States’ infrastructure and energy future occurred on November 15, 2021, when President Biden signed into law the bipartisan and highly anticipated $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. According to the bill’s Summary, over the next five years, the legislation will provide significant infrastructure investments, including an additional $110 Billion in funding towards bridge and roadway repairs, along with approximately $30 Billion in public transportation. In addition, the bill allocates approximately $65 Billion to the Country’s power infrastructure, with nearly $29 billion dedicated solely to bolstering and protecting the electric grid. Finally, the bill includes $7.5 billion to deploy a national network of electric vehicle chargers across highway corridors throughout the United States.
Perhaps even more critical than the legislation’s investment is infrastructure spending, is its investment in future clean energy sources. Funds allocated through 2025 for clean energy projects include $84,000,000 for enhanced geothermal systems, $100,000,000 for wind energy, and $80,000,000 for solar energy. Moreover, the Biden Administration is betting big on “Clean hydrogen”—an emerging form of clean energy that utilizes surplus from other renewable sources to create additional power by splitting water molecules—by earmarking approximately $8 million in funding for investment in the technology.
Looking beyond the United States’ public infrastructure investments, private investment into clean-energy assets also skyrocketed in 2021, reaching a record $105 billion. This investment represents an 11% jump from 2020 and a 70% surge during the past five years, according to the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. Private backing into U.S. assets such as wind farms and solar plants represents about 14% of the $755 billion in global private investment made last year, including investment in the United States’ first commercial-scale offshore windfarm, the 30 MW Block Island Wind Farm, which is set to supply power to the energy grid by 2023. The project is the first of what the Department of Energy (DOE) anticipates being a major rollout of privately-funded offshore wind, including an estimated addition of more than 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by the year 2030.
At a time when Americans are increasingly feeling pessimistic about the future of our Country, it is important to embrace the opportunity for bilateral agreement presented through future investments in the nation’s infrastructure and clean energy. Safe roads, reliable energy grids, clean air and new jobs are an area of common agreement between Americans at a time when such agreements appear to be increasingly rare. As a nation, we would do well to embrace our changing world and new challenges by investing in ourselves and our future.
By Connor S.W. Rubin
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to over 11 million people fleeing their homes, and 5 million who have reportedly left Ukraine – a staggering number for a conflict that began in late February. However, while the war in Ukraine is one of the latest events causing a surge of refugees, those fleeing Russian aggression are by no means alone. As of the most recent data from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (“UNHCR”), which counts until mid-2021, there were 20,835,367 people qualified as refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate – an uptick from the 20,661,855 recorded in 2020. Additionally, the UNHCR tracked 50,872,901 “internally displaced persons of concern” during the same period in 2021.
These numbers reflect the staggering impact of human conflict and economic instability; however, they do not show the full impact of human activity. The term “refugee” has a specific definition, laid out in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (together “the Convention”). The definition includes any person who crosses a border “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” That definition, written 24 years before Wallace Broecker first put the term “global warming” into the public domain, does not include those fleeing climate disasters in its definition. While recent legal guidance from the UNHCR notes that communities impacted by climate change “may be exposed to a risk of human rights violations that amount to persecution within the meaning of the 1951 Convention” due to limitations on “access to and control over land, natural resources, livelihoods, individual rights, freedoms and lives”, impacts of climate change alone do not qualify someone fleeing their homeland as a refugee. This is because fleeing formerly arable land that no longer sustains crops due to gradual desertification or fleeing cities that have become unlivable due to flooding, fires, or other extreme events do not inherently create “a well-founded fear of being persecuted.”
Is it time for an update to the definition? Some commenters believe so. According to the World Bank, by 2050 over 143,000,000 people could be intra- or internationally displaced from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America by climate change. This is roughly equivalent to the populations of California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Tennessee combined. Without changes to how we view refugees, many of these people may be forced from the areas they’ve lived for generations without any legal status or protections. Advocates who support such changes argue that the current definition of “refugee” under international law fails to include many people forced to flee their home for reasons that fit the spirit of refugee law, but not the strict limitations imposed by the 1951 Convention. The (aptly named) advocacy group “Climate Refugees” gives examples of hypothetical cases, including “the Bangladeshi family displaced across borders by a disaster, the subsistence farmer in Chad with no option but to leave his country because he lacks water for farming, or a mother forced to flee her country because of a climate change-induced resource war.” Such displaced people fall into the goals as stated in the preamble of the 1951 Convention that all people should be able to “enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination.” As further articulated by Andrew Schoenholtz in the Chicago Journal of International Law, while “some individuals displaced by natural disasters and climate change may be ‘persecuted’ in connection with a characteristic protected by the Refugee Convention, the vast majority of these newest forced migrants will need new norms developed to address their unique situation.”
Other (though less ubiquitous) compacts or treaties such as the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, by the Organisation for African Unity – subsequently adopted by the African Union (“the OAU Convention”) and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration have expanded the definitions of “refugee”, but these may also be inadequate for what advocates seek. The 1969 OAU Convention was organized as many African states were either newly freed from colonialism, or else still fighting for freedom. As such, the definition of refugee was expanded to include “every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or whole of his country of origin or nationality.” The “events seriously disturbing public order” could likely be found to include natural disasters but may still not be fully inclusive of climate change’s pernicious, but slower-acting changes. Further, the requirement of “serious” disturbance of the public order may require large-scale disorder, which may not be present in each circumstance. The Cartagena Convention is a non-binding regional instrument signed by 10 Latin American nations. The definition of refugee is like that found in the OAU Convention’s and includes “persons who have fled their country because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” These two instruments are uniquely broad in their definition, and even they may not include the full sum of those advocates seek to include in a new definition of “climate refugee.”
However, that may not be the case for long. On February 4, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14013 entitled Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration. This order required the National Security Advisor and Secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security, the Director of USAID, and the Director of National Intelligence to “prepare and submit … a report on climate change and its impact on migration, including forced migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation.” That report, released in October of 2021, advocates for an interagency working group to address growing climate migration and its effects, and an expansion of the use of Temporary Protected Status to help resettle those impacted most severely by climate disasters. While stopping short of what some advocates hoped for in terms of seeking to declare climate refugees protected, the report at least shows a willingness to substantively engage in the effects of climate change and its role in global movement.
As the world grapples with how to prevent climate change, and increasingly turns to how to adapt to the effects of climate change, climate refugees will continue to be a growing problem around the world. Addressing their legal status is just one step in a complex and quickly evolving landscape.
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On the 60th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carlson’s groundbreaking book “Silent Spring”, the world continues to struggle to manage the human health and environmental risks associated with newly discovered emerging contaminants. Silent Spring focused on the challenges associated with managing the risks associated with pesticides (and more specifically DDT), and even today, many of the largest personal injury verdicts are associated with alleged exposure to pesticides.
Over the many years since Silent Spring, numerous contaminants have moved through the emerging contaminant life cycle, including asbestos, dioxins, PCBs, MTBE, BPA, 1,4-dioxane, and most recently, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) (although PFAS seems stuck in the middle of the life cycle).
The life cycle journey of emerging contaminants has been influenced significantly by our improved ability to understand the potential impacts of these emerging contaminants on human health and the environment. As new contaminants are identified, resources are devoted to better understanding the potential environmental and health risks associated with these contaminants and regulations generally evolve to mitigate identified risks. In response to increased regulatory pressure, industry’s use of chemicals evolves and the risks are mitigated. Of course, industry’s use of these chemicals also evolves and is influenced by lawsuits when the regulations and/or the enforcement of the regulations lags.
In addition to improved understanding of the risks posed by some of these emerging contaminants, the fact that we are able to measure smaller and smaller quantities of these contaminants also impacts the life-cycle journey of these emerging contaminants. When I started practicing environmental law in the dark ages, contaminants in soil and groundwater were measured in parts per thousand. As science evolved to detect lower and lower levels, regulatory levels moved from parts per million to parts per billion, and then parts per trillion, and PCBs are now regulated in parts per quadrillion. As detection levels drop, the number of new emerging contaminants will increase and the life-cycle journey for each of these contaminants begins.
A lot can be said for the progress that has been made since the summer of 1962. Although some will argue it should still be faster, the time from discovery of the contaminant to identification of risks and regulation of these identified risks has greatly improved since the 1960s. This is due in part to the fact society has a much lower tolerance for risks posed by emerging contaminants and is much quicker to demand a response from the regulators now than was the case in the 1960s when environmental laws in the United States were in their infancy. A reformed TSCA is better situated to address both environmental and health and safety impacts of chemicals (both newly manufactured chemicals and new chemical uses). U.S. EPA, working in collaboration with manufacturers, implemented a global stewardship program to eliminate the manufacture and import of long-chain PFAS compounds. In October 2021, U.S. EPA announced its PFAS Strategic Roadmap intended to implement a whole-of-agency approach to addressing PFAS.
As our understanding of risks evolves and our detection levels drop, it is inevitable that we will continue to identify new emerging contaminants that need to be regulated. However, I think Rachel Carlson would be proud of the progress we have made and continue to make to ensure that the world is a safer place for everyone.
As we near Earth Day 2022, the United States may be headed toward a profound change in the way EPA and similar administrative agencies regulate the complex areas of environmental law. EPA began operating more than 50 years ago in 1970, and has been tasked with promulgating and enforcing some of the most complex regulations on the books. From the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act; to CERCLA and RCRA and TSCA; and everything in between.
EPA has penned voluminous regulations over the past 50 years to implement vital environmental policies handed down from Congress—to remarkable effect. While there is certainly progress left to be done, improvements in air and water quality in the United States, along with hazardous waste management, has been impressive. For example, according to EPA data, from 1970 to 2020, a period in which gross domestic product rose 272% and US population rose 61%, aggregate emissions of the six criteria pollutants decreased by 78%.
For the past 50 years the environmental administrative law process has worked mostly the same way: First, Congress passes a law covering a certain environmental subject matter (e.g., water quality), which provides policy objectives and a framework of restrictions, prohibitions and affirmative obligations. Second, EPA, the administrative agency tasked with implementing the environmental law, promulgates detailed regulations defining terms used in the law and explaining in a more comprehensive fashion how to comply with the obligations outlined in the statute. Depending on the subject matter being addressed, Congress may leave more details up to EPA, as the subject matter expert, to fill in via regulation. In some instances, there is a third step, where additional authority is delegated to the states and tribes to implement environmental regulations at the state-level based on the framework established by Congress and EPA. Occasionally someone thinks EPA overstepped its authority under a given statute, or failed to act when it was supposed to, and litigation follows to correct the over or under action.
Currently, this system of administrative law is facing challenges from parties that believe administrative agencies like EPA have moved from implementing Congress’s policy to setting their own. The most significant such challenge has come in the consolidated Clean Air Act (“CAA”) cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, West Virginia v. EPA, Nos. 20-1530, 20-1531, 20-1778, 20-1780. In West Virginia v. EPA, challengers object to the Obama-EPA’s Clean Power Plan (“CPP”), which used a provision in the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) section of the CAA to set greenhouse gas emission standards for existing power plants. The biggest issue with the CPP, according to challengers, is that the new standards would require many operators to shut down older coal-fired units and shift generation to lower-emitting natural gas or renewable units. Challengers, which include several states, power companies and coal companies, argue the CPP implicates the “major questions doctrine” or “non-delegation doctrine”. These doctrines provide that large-scale initiatives that have broad impacts can't be based on vague, minor, or obscure provisions of law. Challengers argue that the NSPS provision used as the basis for the CPP is a minor provision of law that is being used by EPA to create a large-scale shift in energy policy. EPA argues that, although it is currently revising its greenhouse gas regulations, the actions taken in the CPP were authorized by Congress in the CAA, are consistent with with the text of the CAA as written, and do not raise the specter of the major questions or non-delegations doctrines.
While this case will certainly dictate how EPA is permitted to regulate greenhouse gases under the CAA, it will likely have broader impacts on administrative law. On the one hand, the Court may issue a narrow opinion that evaluates the CPP based on the regulations being inconsistent with the text or intent of the CAA. On the other hand, the Supreme Court may issue a broader opinion that invokes the major questions or non-delegation doctrines to hold that based on the significant-impacts of the regulation, it is an area that should be governed by Congress, not an administrative agency. If the Supreme Court takes the latter route, it could set more limits on Congress’s ability to delegate regulatory authority to administrative agencies like EPA.
Indeed, in the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the OSHA emergency temporary standard on employer vaccine or test mandate (“the OSHA ETS”), Ohio v. Dept. of Labor, et al., 595 U.S. ____ (2022), the Court struck down an administrative regulation in a preview of what might be coming in the EPA CAA case. As everyone knows by now, the Supreme Court struck down the OSHA ETS, holding it was an overstep of the agency’s authority to regulate safety issues in the workplace. The Court’s opinion focused on the impact of the OSHA ETS—that it will impact 84 million employees and it went beyond the workplace—instead of the statutory language. The Court stated, “[i]t is telling that OSHA, in its half century of existence, has never before adopted a broad public health regulation of this kind—addressing a threat that is untethered, in any causal sense, from the workplace.” Slip op. at 8.
Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch invoked the major questions doctrine in their concurring opinion, stating that Congress must speak clearly if it wishes to delegate to an administrative agency decisions of vast economic and political import. In the case of OSHA and COVID-19, the Justices maintained that Congress did not clearly assign to OSHA the power to deal with COVID-19 because it had not done so over the past two years of the pandemic. Notably, the fact that when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, it authorized OSHA to issue emergency regulations upon determining that “employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful” and “that such emergency standard[s] [are] necessary to protect employees from such danger[s]”, was not a sufficient basis for the Court or the three consenting Justices. In their view, in order to authorize OSHA to issue this vaccine or test mandate, Congress had to do more than delegate to OSHA general emergency powers 50 years ago, but instead would have had to delegate authority specific to the current pandemic.
Applying this logic to EPA and the currently-pending CAA case, Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch may conclude that provisions of the CAA written 50 or 30 years ago, before climate change was fully on Congress’s radar, should not be used to as the basis for regulations that impact important climate and energy policy. Of course, many questions remain: Will a majority of the court adopt this view, and how far they will take it? If Congress can’t delegate climate change and energy policy, what else is off the table—water rights? Hazardous waste? Chemical management? If Congress can’t delegate to EPA and other administrative agencies at the same frequency as in the past, how will Congress manage passing laws dealing with complex and technical areas of law?
All of these questions and more may arise, depending on how the Supreme Court rules in West Virginia v. EPA. For now, we are waiting to see what will happen, in anticipation of some potentially significant changes on the horizon.
 Jenner & Block filed an Amicus Curiae brief in this case on behalf of Former Power Industry Executives in support of EPA.
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
On this 52nd anniversary of Earth Day, I am not writing yet another, typically not very funny, riff on one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. Instead, I am inspired by one of the most popular of our blogs, written in 2017 by our talented former partner, E. Lynn Grayson, “Imagine a Day Without Water.” To start our Earth Week series of daily blogs by our firm’s EHS department, I offer words of hope and gratitude for the vast amount of work that has been done to improve and protect the environment – work done by lawyers, scientists, policy makers, and members of the public, to name a few.
Imagine what lawyers and scientists faced in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day. There was oppressive soot and polluted air throughout urban and industrial areas in the United States. The Cuyahoga River was so blighted it had caught fire. Although there was a new federal Environmental Protection Agency and two new environmental statutes – the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act, one of the most highly complex and technical statutes ever written – both needed an entire regulatory structure to be created in order to be operationalized and enforced. This foundational work had to be done when there was not even an accepted method for determining, much less regulating, environmental and public health risk. Then two years later, in 1972, a comprehensively overhauled Clean Water Act was enacted, followed within the next decade by TSCA, RCRA, and CERCLA, to address the consequences of past waste and chemical use, and to control their future more prudently. Other laws were also passed in that time period, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Although Earth Day was created in the U.S. – the idea of Senator Gaylord Nelson (WI-D) and supported by Representative Pete McCloskey (CA-R) (both lawyers) and grass roots organizers – environmental consciousness also was growing worldwide. The 1972 Stockholm Declaration, from the first UN Conference of the Human Environment, recognized the importance of environmental protection amid the challenge of economic disparities. That work, including of the United Nations Environment Programme, led to the 1992 “Earth Summit” issuing the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which adopted a focus on sustainable development and the precautionary approach to protecting the environment in the face of scientific uncertainty, and creating the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which itself led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement, as well as other global efforts focusing on climate change and resource conservation.
Thus, within a split-second on our earth’s timeline, humans were able to tangibly improve and focus attention on the environment, through laws, agreements, governmental and private commitments, and public support. I note these developments, which were stimulated by lawyers on all sides, not to naively suggest that the global climate change, water accessibility, toxic exposure, and other environmental challenges that we face today can easily be solved, nor do I suggest that only lawyers can provide the solution. Instead, let’s take hope from the fact that in fewer years than the average for human life expectancy, there have been significant environmental improvements in our air, land, and water, and our collective focus on preserving the planet has been ignited.
These past efforts have improved the environment – not perfectly, but demonstrably. The legal structure that helped make these improvements happen has worked – not perfectly, but demonstrably. Hopefully, we will continue to work on these issues, despite their seeming intractability, under a system of national laws and global agreements. The alternative is too painful to contemplate.
Closing on a personal note, our firm’s Environmental Law Practice lost one of the best environmental lawyers in the profession, when Stephen H. Armstrong passed away last week. Steve was one of the first in-house environmental counsel I had the opportunity to work with when I began my focus on environmental law in the 1980s. He demonstrated how to respect the science, embrace the legal challenges, fight hard for your client, and always act with integrity. Although I was a young woman in a relatively new field, he consistently valued my opinions, supported my professional development, and with his deep, melodious laugh and sparkle in his eye, made working together feel like we shared a mission. And a ”mission” it was for him; I have never met any lawyer who cared more or wrestled harder about their clients’ position, while always undergirded by a deep reverence for doing the right thing. Once he joined our firm more than a decade ago, he continued being a role model for all of us. Our firm’s Environmental Law Practice, and all those who worked with him, will miss having him as a devoted colleague, friend, and mentor. Our earth has been made better for his life on it.
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, Act Iv, Scene 2 (circa 1591).
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On March 22, 2022, U.S. EPA released a new web tool designed to ensure that information regarding environmental violations and enforcement actions is more readily available to the public. The new tool, called ECHO Notify, allows users to sign up for weekly emails when new information is available with respect to violations of environmental statutes or enforcement actions in a specific geographic area or with respect to a particular facility.
ECHO Notify provides information on both state and federal enforcement and compliance activities under the following programs: Clean Air Act (stationary sources), Clean Water Act (point sources), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (hazardous waste handlers), and Safe Drinking Water Act (public water system). The tool provides U.S. EPA-specific enforcement-related information with respect to other environmental statutes.
In a press release that accompanied the release of the new tool, U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan stated that “EPA is committed to empowering communities with the information they need to understand and make informed decisions about their health and environment.” Administrator Regan went on to state “EPA has developed ECHO Notify so that finding updates on environmental enforcement and compliance activities is as easy as checking your email.”
This new tool is another example of U.S. EPA’s continued focus on environmental justice communities and its desire to ensure that information regarding environmental compliance and enforcement activities is readily available to those communities. We will continue to provide updates regarding U.S. EPA initiatives at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.
EPA Proposes Hazardous Substance Facility Response Plan Regulations; Includes Climate Change and Environmental Justice Considerations
On March 11, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced it was proposing new regulations that would require certain facilities located close to navigable waters create and submit Facility Response Plans for worst case discharges of hazardous substances. These regulations would add to EPA’s existing regulations of worst case discharges of oil, which have been in place since 1994. Adding a new twist in these proposed regulations, EPA would grant Regional Administrators wide discretion to make the Facility Response Plan requirements mandatory at facilities that, in the Regional Administrator’s judgment, were vulnerable to climate change or potentially impacting an environmental justice community, even if the facilities are not near a navigable water.
The Clean Water Act (“CWA”) contains general spill response plan requirements, which require EPA to establish rules “to prevent discharges of oil and hazardous substances from vessels and from onshore facilities and offshore facilities, and to contain such discharges…” 42 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(1)(C). In response to this requirement of the CWA, EPA promulgated its Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (“SPCC”) Regulations, found at 40 C.F.R. part 112.
The proposed hazardous substance Facility Response Plan rules are being promulgated pursuant to Section 311(j)(5) of the Clean Water Act (CWA), a slightly more specific provision that was added to the CWA in 1990. Section 311(j)(5)(A) directs EPA to issue regulations that require certain facilities to prepare and submit to EPA “a plan for responding, to the maximum extent practicable, a worst case discharge, and to a substantial threat of such a discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance.” 42 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i). Specifically, the CWA states that facilities covered by this requirement include, a facility “that, because of its location, could reasonably be expected to cause substantial harm to the environment by discharging into or on the navigable waters, adjoining shorelines, or the exclusive economic zone.” 42 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(5)(C)(iv).
In 1994, EPA promulgated regulations that require certain facilities that store and use oil to prepare and submit a Facility Response Plan. See 40 C.F.R. §§ 112.20-112.21. However, EPA never issued regulations requiring similar response plans for facilities storing hazardous substances. On March 21, 2019, several environmental groups (the Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Water Action, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform) sued EPA alleging violations of the CWA and the Administrative Procedures Act for its failure to issue those regulations. The environmental groups and EPA entered into a consent decree on March 12, 2020, that resolved the lawsuit and required EPA promulgate hazardous substance response plan regulations by March 12, 2022.
On January 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on the scope and authority of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). The Court granted certiorari in the case of Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 19-35469, on appeal from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The question presented to the Court is, seemingly, straightforward: “Whether the Ninth Circuit set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands are 'waters of the United States' under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1362(7).” But, this question has wide-reaching implications. The definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) sets the jurisdictional limits of the CWA. Under the CWA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) have the power to regulate, among other things, the discharge of pollutants to navigable water from a point source (33 U.S.C. § 1362(12)) and the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters (33 U.S.C. § 1344). “Navigable waters” are defined in the CWA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §1362(7). “Waters of the United States” is not defined further under the Act, so the agencies have been left to try to craft a definition.
The Army Corps and EPA first proposed a WOTUS definition in 1977 and it has faced revisions and legal challenges ever since. The WOTUS definition has faced Supreme Court review in three previous cases:
- U.S. v. Riverside Bayview, 474 U.S. 121 (1985)
- Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001)
- Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715 (2006)
In the most recent Supreme Court treatment, the Court did not reach a majority opinion. Justice Scalia authored a plurality opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion, and Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion. Following the Rapanos decision, lower courts and the agencies have grappled with whether to follow the framework laid out by Justice Scalia or Justice Kennedy. The primary difference is how they dealt with bodies of waters on the fringe of jurisdiction, like wetlands. Justice Scalia would include in WOTUS: “only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water forming geographic features that are described in ordinary parlance as streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes…[and] only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are "waters of the United States" in their own right…” Id. at 739-42. Justice Kennedy went beyond wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” to include wetlands and other bodies of water that have a “significant nexus” to more traditional navigable waters. Id. at 759.
The WOTUS definition was revised in 2015 by the Obama Administration to expand the definition and then in 2020 by the Trump Administration to narrow the definition; with both definitions facing swift legal challenges, including vacatur of the Trump rule in 2021. Just recently, on November 18, 2021, EPA and the Army Corps announced that they were issuing a proposed rule to re-establish the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS. The current proposed rule includes the “significant nexus” standard for non-traditional navigable waters.
In the case currently before the Supreme Court, Petitioners Michael and Chantell Sackett purchased property in Idaho in 2004 intending to build a home. When the Sacketts began filling in the wetlands on the property, EPA issued an administrative compliance order stating the property contained wetlands subject to CWA authority. The Sacketts were ordered to restore the property or face daily penalties. The Sacketts sued EPA, challenging the compliance order. The case has wound through the courts for years, eventually landing in the Ninth Circuit, where that court applied Justice Kennedy's “significant nexus” test and held that “EPA reasonably determined that the Sacketts' property contains wetlands that share a significant nexus with Priest Lake, such that the lot was regulable under the CWA and the relevant regulations.” Sackett v. EPA, 8 F. 4th 1075, 1093 (9th 2021).
In their petition for certiorari, Petitioners asked the Court to take the case to clear up the deep confusion over what standard applies and how it is interpreted by lower courts and the agencies. EPA tried to resist certiorari by arguing that the decision below was correctly decided and not in conflict with any opinion of the Court or other courts of appeals. Now, EPA faces an uphill battle before a Court that is more conservative than in 2006 and, in all likelihood, will be receptive to adopting Justice Scalia’s “continuous surface connection” standard, thereby narrowing the scope of the CWA.
PFOA and PFAS Take Another Step Towards Becoming Full-Fledged Members of the CERCLA Family of Hazardous Substances
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On January 10, 2022, U.S. EPA forwarded to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a proposed rule that seeks to designate perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) as “hazardous substances” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). Although not unexpected since this was of the key elements of U.S. EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap, U.S. EPA’s proposed rule is unique in that it represents one of the first times that U.S. EPA has by rule sought to designate a chemical as a CERCLA hazardous substance. U.S. EPA's actions in sending the proposed rule to OMB may also be foreshadowing for a similar effort to designate PFOA and PFOS as "hazardous wastes" under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) which would subject these substances to RCRA's cradle to grave regulatory scheme.
The effect of listing PFOA and PFOS as CERCLA “hazardous substances” is significant for the following reasons:
- New Sites: By designating PFOA and PFOS as CERCLA “hazardous substances”, due to the ubiquitous nature of these contaminants in the environment, hundreds of sites could become CERCLA Superfund sites. For example, PFAS chemicals can be found in the soil and groundwater at sites that historically used firefighting foams, including airports, refineries, and military installations. It is also a contaminant of concern at manufacturing operations associated with cookware, stain-resistant clothing, and various packaging products. Finally, it may be a concern at municipal landfills and wastewater treatment facilities. There may also be trickle-down effects at the state level since many states automatically include federally-designated substances in the state definition of hazardous substances.
- Existing/Closed Sites: Moreover, at existing Superfund sites (including sites where a final remedy has been selected and is being implemented), U.S. EPA can require that the sites be investigated for PFOA and PFOS. If found, U.S. EPA can require that existing remedial strategies be modified to address these contaminants in the soil or groundwater. Similarly, even at sites where remedial measures have been completed, U.S. EPA could still seek to reopen the sites and require that these newly designated hazardous substances be remediated.
- Cost-Recovery Claims: Designation of PFOA and PFOS as CERCLA hazardous substances would open the door for both U.S. EPA and private-party PRPs to bring CERCLA cost recovery and/or contribution claims to pay for the costs to investigate and remediate these chemicals. In light of the increased scrutiny of these compounds in drinking water supplies, one could expect numerous CERCLA cost-recovery lawsuits by drinking water providers to recover the costs to treat public drinking water system.
- Reporting Requirements: Designation as a CERCLA hazardous substance also triggers release reporting under CERCLA. CERCLA § 103 (42 U.S.C. § 9603) requires that releases of “reportable quantities” (RQ) of CERCLA hazardous substances be reported to the National Response Center. Until such time as U.S. EPA promulgates a specific RQ for PFOA and PFOS, the default RQ for these chemicals will be one pound. Although many states are moving towards banning the use of fire-fighting foam that contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, if PFOA and/or PFOS are designated as CERCLA "hazardous substances", it is likely that any use of fire-fighting foam containing these substances would trigger CERCLA release reporting.
Once U.S. EPA receives the review back from OMB and publishes the proposed rule for comment in the Federal Register, U.S.EPA can expect to receive robust comments both against and in favor of the designation. We will continue to follow U.S. EPA’s efforts to designate PFOA and PFOS as CERCLA “hazardous substances” at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.
EPA faces continuing pressure to improve the way it protects communities from lead in drinking water. One focus of the current EPA has been the Lead and Copper Drinking Water Rule Revisions (“LCRR”), promulgated under the Trump administration. As it grappled with what to do with the LCRR, the Biden EPA delayed the LCRR’s effective date and compliance deadlines on two occasions, most recently making the LCRR effective on December 16, 2021 and pushing the compliance deadline back nine months, from January 16, 2024 to October 16, 2024. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: Lead and Copper Rule Revisions; Delay of Effective and Compliance Dates, 86 FR 31939 (June 16, 2021). Then, in conjunction with the LCRR’s effective date, on December 16, 2021, EPA announced its plans to revise and strengthen the LCRR, while leaving the rule in place for now. Review of the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation: Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR), 86 FR 71574 (Dec. 17, 2021).
In response to the delays of the LCRR’s effective date and compliance deadlines, the states of Arizona, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas filed a challenge in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case of Arizona et al. v. U.S. EPA et al., Case No. 21-1159. On January 6, 2022, the states filed their opening brief, explaining that they wanted the court to vacate the recent EPA actions, which were, in their view, unlawful delays of the compliance deadlines in the LCRR.
The Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (“LCRR”)
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On December 20, 2021, U.S. EPA finalized its Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) that will require public water systems (PWS) to collect monitoring data for 29 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and lithium in drinking water. Every five years, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires U.S. EPA to publish a new list of unregulated contaminants that will be monitored by PWS. UCMR 5 focuses almost exclusively on PFAS and targets 29 of the more than 4,700 PFAS that have been identified to date.
Starting in 2023, all PWSs serving more than 10,000 customers are obligated to monitor for these UCMR 5 contaminants while smaller PWSs (those serving less than 10,000 customers) must monitor subject to availability of appropriations (U.S. EPA is responsible for all analytical costs associated with PWSs serving less than 10,000 customers) and laboratory capacity. In response to comments on the draft UCMR 5 expressing concern about the lack of laboratory capacity to support the PFAS monitoring, the final rule notes that U.S. EPA expects laboratory capacity to quickly grow to meet UCMR demand. The final rule identifies applicable U.S. EPA test methods for each of the 29 targeted PFAS compounds. However, some commenters were critical that the final rule did not identify a testing technique to determine “total PFAS” in drinking water. The final rule acknowledges this issue but notes that U.S. EPA “has not identified a complete, validated peer-reviewed aggregate PFAS method” at this time.
The data collected is expected to inform U.S. EPA as it evaluates whether to set a specific drinking water limit or treatment standard under the SDWA for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). U.S. EPA has committed to establishing a national drinking water regulation for PFOA and PFOS by the fall of 2023 and it is likely that additional PFAS will be in the SDWA regulatory pipeline in the near future.
We will continue to track U.S. EPA regulatory agenda at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On Monday, October 18, 2021, U.S. EPA released its PFAS Strategic Roadmap (Roadmap) outlining the agency’s three-year strategy for addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The Roadmap acknowledges that U.S. EPA cannot solve the problem of “forever chemicals” by tackling only one route of exposure or one use at a time. Instead, the Roadmap outlines a multi-pronged approach with specific emphasis on the following:
- Accounting for the full lifecycle of PFAS, their unique properties, the ubiquity of their uses, and the multiple pathways for exposure;
- Focusing on preventing PFAS from entering the environment in the first instance which is a foundational step in reducing the exposure and risks of PFAS contamination;
- Holding polluters accountable for releases of PFAS into the environment;
- Investing in scientific research to fill gaps in understanding PFAS to drive science-based decision making; and
- Ensuring that disadvantaged communities have equitable access to solutions.
In order to achieve these objections, U.S. EPA’s Roadmap identifies the following specific agency actions:
- U.S. EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention commits to:
- Publish a national PFAS testing strategy to generate toxicity data on PFAS compounds (Fall 2021);
- Ensure robust TSCA review for new PFAS chemical submissions (ongoing);
- Review previous TSCA regulatory decisions to ensure that the those decisions were sufficient protective of human health and the environment (ongoing);
- Enhance PFAS reporting under the Toxics Release Inventory (Spring 2022); and
- Finalize new PFAS reporting under TSCA Section 8 (Winter 2022).
- U.S. EPA’s Office of Water commits to:
- Finalize the Fifth Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule to require testing for 29 PFAS substances (Fall 2021);
- Establish an MCL for PFOA and PFOS (Fall 2023);
- Finalize the toxicity assessments for GenX and five additional addition PFAS compounds (Fall 2021);
- Publish health advisories for GenX and PFBS (Spring 2022);
- Set Effluent Limitations Guidelines to restrict PFAS discharges nine different industrial categories (2022); and
- Leverage the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program to reduce the discharges of PFAS and obtain more comprehensive information on PFAS discharges (Winter 2022).
- S. EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management commits to:
- Designate PFOA and PFOS as CERCLA hazardous substances (Summer 2023);
- Evaluate designation of other PFAS compounds as CERCLA hazardous substances (Spring 2022); and
- Issue updated guidance on the destruction of PFAS and PFAS-containing materials (Fall 2023).
In addition to U.S. EPA’s Roadmap, the White House announced ongoing efforts by the following seven agencies to address PFAS pollution: the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration. We will continue to track these ongoing efforts to regulate PFAS at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.
The Need to Be Green: Focus on Environmental Sustainability Can Inure to Bottom Line for Cannabis Industry
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
A recent article published in Politico highlights some of the potential impacts of cannabis production on the environment. As the production of cannabis accelerates across the United States, it is becoming increasingly likely that the environmental impacts of cannabis production will become more regulated especially in the areas of energy use and water reliance. Cannabis companies would be well served to ensure that they have effective environmental management strategies in place to not only ensure continued compliance but also to reduce the companies’ environmental footprint that could in turn result in significant cost savings.
For example, according to the article, a typical growing operation can consume up to 2,000 watts of electricity per square meter for indoor growing operations as compared to 50 watts of electricity for growing other leafy greens such as lettuce. According to a recent study, at least one expert estimates that cannabis production accounts for about one percent of electricity consumption in the United States. Depending on the source of electricity, greenhouse gas emissions may be generated in the course of energy production that could be attributable to the cannabis operation’s carbon footprint. President Biden is focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and one the key focus industries for President Biden is the agricultural industry. Implementing an energy efficiency program with a focus on renewable energy sources may allow cannabis companies to be better positioned to comply with future regulations while at the same time reducing overall energy costs.
Although not discussed in the article, cannabis production can be a fairly water intensive process with some studies estimating usage as high as six gallons per plant. A recent study concluded that by 2025, total water use in the legal cannabis market is expected to increase by 86%. As water scarcity issues become more prevalent especially in light of the changing climate, ensuring adequate sources of water will be critical to ensuring the ability to continue to grow cannabis plants. At the same time, adopting effective water conservation procedures will allow facilities to reduce their environmental footprint with resulting cost savings.
For more detailed insight on these issues, please click here for an article that was recently published in the Cannabis Law Journal.