Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog

May 25, 2021 Supreme Court Narrows Triggers for CERCLA Contribution Actions

Torrence_jpgBy Allison A. Torrence

In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Guam v. United States, No. 20-382, 593 U.S. __ (2021), that a party must resolve “CERCLA-specific liability” in order to trigger contribution rights under § 113(f)(3)(B) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”).

The question before the Court was whether a settlement between Guam and the United States that resolved claims under the Clean Water Act could be the basis for a contribution claim under § 113(f)(3)(B) of CERCLA. In this case, Guam and the U.S. EPA had entered into a Consent Decree following a Clean Water Act lawsuit, settling the United States’ Clean Water Act claims against Guam and requiring Guam take actions to close and cover a dump site. Thirteen years later Guam sued the United States under CERCLA for cost recovery and contribution, claiming the United States’ earlier use of the dump site exposed it to liability. The district court, in a ruling affirmed by the court of appeals, ruled that Guam had a contribution claim at one point, based on its Clean Water Act Consent Decree because that Decree required remedial measures and provided a conditional release, which sufficiently resolved Guam’s liability for the dump site and triggered a CERCLA contribution claim under § 113(f)(3)(B). However, the Decree also triggered the three-year statute of limitations, which had expired, leaving Guam without any viable claims.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, rejecting the notion that the Clean Water Act Consent Decree was sufficiently similar to a CERCLA settlement to trigger contribution liability. The Court focused on a textual analysis of the statute, which states in relevant part that:

A person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State for some or all of a response action or for some or all of the costs of such action in an administrative or judicially approved settlement may seek contribution from any person who is not party to a [qualifying] settlement.

42 U.S.C. § 9613(f)(3)(B).

Of particular note to the Court was the reference in § 113(f)(3)(B) to “response action”, which is a term of art in CERCLA, and appears throughout the Act. The Court reasoned that this language “is best ‘understood only with reference’ to the CERCLA regime.” Guam, slip op. at 6, quoting United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U. S. 128, 135 (2007). Thus, according to the Court’s reasoning, to resolve liability for a “response action,” a party must engage in a CERCLA-specific settlement, not “settle an environmental liability that might have been actionable under CERCLA.” Id. at 7.

In conclusion, the Court held that “[t]he most natural reading of §113(f)(3)(B) is that a party may seek contribution under CERCLA only after settling a CERCLA-specific liability.” Id. at 9.

Like most major CERCLA decisions, the Court’s ruling answers one question but raises many more. We can expect future litigation on the precise bounds of how specific a settlement need be to qualify as “CERCLA-specific” under the Court’s holding. There will also likely be litigation regarding how this ruling may apply to other provision of CERCLA beyond §113(f )(3)(B). As always, the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog will be monitoring these important developments and reporting on what you need to know.

CATEGORIES: Cercla, Contamination, Groundwater, Hazmat, Real Estate and Environment

PEOPLE: Allison A. Torrence

April 23, 2021 Earth Day 2021: CERCLA and RCRA in The Biden Administration: Elevating Climate Change and Environmental Justice in Addressing Hazardous Wastes

Kenney

 

By Andi S. Kenney

Earth

 

We close out the Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog's weeklong celebration of Earth Day with the two federal programs aimed at cleaning up existing toxic waste sites and preventing the creation of new ones: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (“CERCLA”) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”).  The Trump Administration considered the remedial and regulatory roles of the CERCLA and RCRA programs as core EPA functions, so it did not target them for regulatory rollbacks like it did for many federal clean air (including climate change), clean water, and environmental review requirements. Nonetheless, the new occupant of the White House will change the focus of both these programs—in large part by elevating climate change and environmental justice considerations in decision-making.

CERCLA/Brownfields

Early in the Trump Administration, Scott Pruitt, then the EPA Administrator convened a Superfund Task Force that identified five priorities: (1) expediting cleanup and remediation, (2) invigorating responsible party cleanup and reuse, (3) encouraging private party investment, (4) promoting redevelopment and community revitalization, and (5) engaging partners and stakeholders. The Task Force set forth 42 recommendations to achieve those goals.

Following the Task Force recommendations, the Trump Administration prioritized 54 sites and completed remediation and delisted over 50 sites from the National Priorities List.  The focus was often sites with redevelopment potential.  At many of those sites, surprisingly aggressive settlements with potentially responsible parties funded the work.  At the same time, however, the number of unfunded orphan sites (those with remediation plans but no funding source) grew as federal appropriations were limited.  By January 2021, there were at least 34 unfunded orphan sites, many in at-risk areas. 

The Biden Administration is expected to retain the goals and many of the recommendations from the Task Force, but it will redeploy resources to meet its priorities.  Climate change (a phrase that literally had been removed from the Superfund Strategic Plan), and environmental justice (which seeks to address the disproportionately high health and environmental risks found among low-income and minority communities) will reemerge as key considerations in CERCLA decision-making, especially in site prioritization and remediation plans.  A 2019 GAO report indicated that these issues are often linked.  It identified roughly 2/3 (975/1570) of the NPL listed Superfund sites as vulnerable to climate-related risks—hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and/or rising sea levels.  Many of these sites were also located near low-income and minority communities.  Biden will seek to pair his climate change and environmental justice goals with his redevelopment and infrastructure plans through Brownfield grants and other incentives.

The Biden Administration has also signaled it will address emerging contaminants.  As noted by Steve Siros in Wednesday's Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog, EPA is likely to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) as “hazardous substances” under CERCLA and may set a maximum contaminant level (“MCL”) for these compounds under the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”).  These actions could have a significant impact on new and existing cleanups.  First, designating PFAS a “hazardous substance” would require facilities to report PFAS releases, which could trigger more investigations and cleanups.  Second, any PFAS limits under the SDWA or state regulations would become Applicable or Relevant and Appropriate Requirements (“ARARs”) that would have to be considered in CERCLA listing and remedy decisions. Finally, these changes would require PFAS contamination to be evaluated in EPA’s five year review at each site and potentially trigger reopeners in prior settlements.  Tighter standards for other chemicals, such as 1,4-dioxane, could have similar results.

Resources are already being deployed to support these efforts and additional funding for Brownfield and Superfund projects is in the works.  The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides $100 million for EPA grants to address disproportionate environmental harms to at-risk populations and air quality monitoring.  According to the American Jobs Plan Fact Sheet dated March 31, 2021, the Administration is proposing an additional $5 billion for Brownfield and Superfund sites and an additional $10 billion to monitor and remediate PFAS.  The Administration is also proposing to restore the Superfund tax, which expired in 1995, to ensure that resources are available in the Superfund Trust to address unfunded site cleanups.  Similarly, the Administration is considering reversing the financial responsibility exemption for chemical manufacturers, petroleum and coal products manufacturers and electric power generation, transmission and distribution facilities that was issued in the waning days of the previous Administration. 

RCRA

Like CERCLA, RCRA was not a focus of the Trump Administration’s regulatory rollbacks—though funding cutbacks affected rule development and enforcement.  The Biden Administration has already signaled that it intends to reenergize enforcement, including criminal prosecutions, which may lead to an increase in federal overfiling in RCRA enforcement actions, especially in states with lax enforcement histories.

Trump’s most significant RCRA actions addressed coal ash, referred to as Coal Combustion Residuals (“CCR”).  The Trump CCR rules, which were promulgated after the Obama-era CCR rule was vacated, are being reviewed for consistency with Biden’s Executive Order Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.  Likewise, the CCR Permit Program and the Beneficial Use Rules or Electric Utilities, which were pending on Inauguration Day, are subject to the Presidential memorandum freezing regulations pending review.

Biden’s focus on environmental justice and climate change will impact RCRA permit evaluations and enforcement, both in process and in substance.  Procedurally, those seeking RCRA permits, and even RCRA permitted facilities, may be subject to additional notification requirements, more community involvement, and greater scrutiny. Substantively, the social cost of carbon and chemical exposure risks will become part of the evaluation.

Biden’s other climate change initiatives may have more significant RCRA impacts down the road.  For example, the push toward electric vehicles will reduce the demand for gas stations at current levels.  That change, combined with the fact that underground storage tanks installed or upgraded to comply with the 1988 underground storage tank standards are nearing the end of their useful lives, will trigger tank closures throughout the country.  More broadly, the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a clean fuel economy will reveal many other environmental issues that will require substantial efforts and resources to address. 

The Biden Administration is already changing the course of environmental law.  With CERCLA and RCRA, the shifts will be more subtle than in other areas, but the focus on climate change and environmental justice will have profound impacts on whose voices are heard and where, and how, resources are deployed.  The Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog will continue to monitor and report on developments in these areas and others.  In the meantime, thank you for sharing Earth Day (and Earth Week) with us!

CATEGORIES: Cercla, Climate Change, Emerging Contaminants, RCRA, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Anne Samuels Kenney (Andi)

April 21, 2021 Earth Day 2021: Heightened Chemical Regulation under the Biden Administration

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130

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

PogoA key platform of President Biden’s environmental agenda is increased regulatory scrutiny with respect to chemical substances under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Regulating chemicals in order to minimize the threat to human health and the environment is clearly also critical to achieving the aims and goals of Earth Day, especially considering that the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped spark the global environmental movement that eventually culminated in the first Earth Day in 1970. 

Turning now to the present, in the waning months of the Trump administration, there was a flurry of U.S. EPA activity under TSCA, including the issuance of risk evaluations for a number of high-priority chemical substances, including asbestos, 1,4-dioxane, and  trichloroethylene. Notwithstanding that these risk evaluations concluded that at least some uses of each of the ten high priority chemicals posed an unreasonable risk, these risk evaluations were widely criticized for failing to take into consideration reasonably foreseeable uses or failing to adequately consider various scientific studies. There had been much speculation that President Biden would reject  all of the Trump-era TSCA risk evaluations and in fact, one of President Biden’s first actions in the White House was to direct U.S. EPA to review the TSCA risk evaluation process as well as the methylene chloride risk evaluation specifically. 

Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, however, U.S. EPA is moving forward to develop risk mitigation plans for each of these high priority chemicals. At the same time, Michal Freedhoff, the acting assistant administrator for U.S. EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution, noted that U.S. EPA would be taking a hard look at these risk evaluations. In a prepared statement, Ms. Freedhoff stated:

Our goal is to allow risk management actions on these first ten chemicals to move forward as much as possible, while looking back surgically at specific areas in some of the risk evaluations to supplement them as appropriate in order to ensure we are meeting our statutory obligations and using the best available science to truly protect human health and the environment. 

As to the next 20 chemicals in the risk assessment pipeline, U.S. EPA has already announced that it will reassess its TSCA risk evaluation process, including refining its approach for selecting and reviewing scientific studies. U.S. EPA noted that it would not rely on U.S. EPA’s Application of Systematic Review in TSCA Risk Evaluations, a guidance document issued by U.S. EPA in 2018 that was  much maligned by the National Academy of Scientists. 

One can also expect an increased focus on environmental justice issues by U.S. EPA in connection with evaluating the risks posed by chemical substances. This will most likely play out in connection with an increased focus on chemical substance exposure for fence-line and front-line communities during the risk evaluation process.

Finally, there will also be increasing pressure on the Biden Administration to regulate new emerging contaminants such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under both TSCA and the Safe Drinking Water Act. PFAS compounds have not yet been considered for prioritization under TSCA but are likely to be on a list of high priority chemicals in the future. In the meantime, U.S. EPA is likely to move forward with designating at least PFAS compounds as hazardous substances under CERCLA as well as evaluating whether to set an MCL for these compounds under the Safe Drinking Water Act.   

Please check back on Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer for more Earth Day content throughout the week.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Emerging Contaminants, Sustainability, TSCA

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

January 20, 2021 U.S. EPA Issues Final Guidance on PFAS SNUR

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130 EpaBy Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

On January 19, 2021, four days after the close of the comment period, U.S. EPA issued its final guidance document to aid in implementation of its Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) for long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylate and perfluoroalkyl sulfonate chemical substances (PFAS). Not surprisingly, in light of the short time between the close of comments and issuance of the guidance, the final guidance remained largely unchanged from the draft version. 

In July 2020, U.S. EPA finalized its PFAS SNUR that requires notice and U.S. EPA review before manufacturing and processing for use certain long-chain PFAS that have been phased out in the United States. In addition, articles containing these long-chain PFAS as part of a surface coating cannot be imported into the United States without submission of a Significant New Use Notice (SNUN).

The guidance provides examples of what would and would not be articles subject to the SNUR as well as clarification on what is meant as a “surface coatings.” Although U.S. EPA declined to provide a regulatory definition of “surface coating” in the PFAS SNUR, the guidance indicates that any long-chain PFAS meeting one of the following two criteria would be a surface coating covered by the SNUR:

  • Coating on any surface of an article that is in direct contact with humans or the environment during the article’s normal use or reuse, whether the coating is oriented towards the interior or exterior of the article; or
  • Coating on any internal component, even if facing the interior of the article, if that component is in contact with humans or the environment during the article’s normal use or reuse.

Many environmental groups noted that the “direct contact” standard and the refusal to consider potential exposures associated with the disposal and/or misuse of these articles was contrary to the provisions of the PFAS SNUR and these groups are urging the Biden Administration to revisit the guidance. Because the new guidance is not labeled as “significant”, it did not need to follow the formal notice-and-comment process but this would also arguably allow the incoming Biden administration to quickly rework and issue its own guidance for implementing the PFAS SNUR. 

We will continue to provide updates on efforts by the Biden Administration to implement the PFAS SNUR on the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Emerging Contaminants, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

April 21, 2020 Supreme Court issues Landmark CERCLA Ruling Finding that State Law Challenges to USEPA Cleanup Can Be Raised in State Court (But Plaintiffs Still Lose)

Siros Lawson HeadshotBy Steven M. Siros and Matthew G. Lawson

On Monday, April 20, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued a key opinion regarding the preclusive effect of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Recovery Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. Section 9601, on state common law remedies within Superfund Sites.  In Atlantic Richfield v. Christian, Case No. 17-1498, the Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part a decision by the Montana Supreme Court that “restoration claims” asserted by private property owners could go forward against a potentially responsible party (PRP) that had previously settled its CERCLA liability with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). 

The case involves the Anaconda Smelter Site, a Superfund site covering 300 square miles of property contaminated by historical smelter and ore processing operations.  In 1983, USEPA identified Atlantic Richfield Co. as a PRP for the site’s contamination and the parties entered into a settlement agreement that required Atlantic Richfield to investigate and remediate the site under the oversight of USEPA.  In the 37 years since, USEPA has managed an extensive cleanup at the site, which included the removal of 10 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and capping in place an additional 500 million cubic yards of waste over 5,000 acres.  Atlantic Richfield estimates that it has spent approximately $450 Million USD remediating the site and that its cleanup is nearly complete. 

However, the USEPA-mandated cleanup standards were deemed insufficient by a number of local landowners who allege that their properties remain damaged by Atlantic Richfield’s contamination.  The landowners asserted common law tort claims against Atlantic Richfield seeking funds to remediate their properties—located within the Superfund Site—beyond the levels required by the USEPA-approved remedy.  For example, the plaintiffs sought funding to remediate arsenic levels in their properties’ soil to a level of 15 parts per million, rather than the 250 parts per million limit approved by USEPA.  In total, the additional cleanup efforts sought by plaintiffs are estimated to cost Atlantic Richfield an additional $50 to $58 million in cleanup costs.  Following the Montana Supreme Court’s holding that the landowner’s restitution claims could proceed in spite of Atlantic Richfield’s settlement with USEPA and the ongoing cleanup effort, Atlantic Richfield appealed the issue to the Supreme Court.

Atlantic Richfield argued that plaintiff’s claims were barred because CERCLA §113 strips courts of the jurisdiction to review challenges to USEPA cleanup plans.  Atlantic Richfield further argued that plaintiffs’ restoration claims were precluded by CERCLA §122(e)(6), which provides that “no potentially responsible party may undertake any remedial action” at the site without EPA approval.  Atlantic Richfield cautioned that the Montana Supreme Court’s contrary reading of CERCLA would throw a wrench into the Act’s carefully balanced settlement scheme by allowing landowners at Superfund sites to “shred EPA’s plans and impose different, and potentially detrimental, multimillion-dollar cleanups.”  In an amicus brief, The Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups sided with Atlantic Richfield, arguing that the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling would create “chaos across the Nation’s Superfund sites, with EPA pursuing one remediation course and various ad hoc private lawsuits mandating different, potentially dangerous or conflicting remediation work.” An amicus brief was also filed by the Solicitor General on behalf of the United States, which argued that the Supreme Court should deny Atlantic Richfield’s writ of certiorari because the Montana Supreme Court had yet not reached a final judgment in the underlying dispute and review of the proposed questions was premature at the current state of litigation. However, the Solicitor’s amicus brief went on to state that—in the event the Supreme Court granted certiorari—the Court should find that that Montana Supreme Court erred in holding that the landowner’s claims for restoration damages did not constitute “challenges” to USEPA’s selected remedy under CERCLA §113. The Solicitor reasoned that enactment of the landowner’s proposed restoration actions would “directly impact the implementation” of USEPA’s existing remedy and that the proposed actions therefore constituted a challenge to the cleanup.

In response, plaintiffs argued that their common law claims were not barred by CERCLA §113 because the claims did not “arise under” CERCLA.  In addition, the plaintiffs argued their claims for money to restore their property did not constitute a “challenge” to the cleanup because plaintiffs were not seeking to overturn the USEPA order or otherwise asking the court to review that order. Rather, plaintiffs were merely seeking to compel Atlantic Richfield to “restore” their impacted properties by further removing impacted soils that remained unaddressed by the USEPA cleanup order based on Minnesota common law statutes.

In a split opinion, the Supreme Court ultimately held that the plaintiff’s state law claims against Atlantic Richfield were not precluded by CERCLA, but that the plaintiffs could not move forward with additional restoration activities without first securing approval from USEPA. First, the court held that §113 did not divest the Montana Supreme Court of jurisdiction over plaintiff’s claims because the state common law claims did not arise under CERCLA. However, the Supreme Court went on to find that—as owners of property located within the Superfund Site—plaintiffs were themselves PRPs for the Anaconda Smelter Site. Thus, under CERCLA §122, plaintiff were precluded from implementing any remedial actions at the site without first securing USEPA approval. As reasoned by Chief Justice Robert’s majority opinion, “under the landowners' interpretation, property owners would be free to dig up arsenic-infected soil and build trenches to redirect lead-contaminated groundwater without even notifying EPA…[w]e doubt Congress provided such a fragile remedy to such a serious problem.” 

Justice Alito filed a separate opinion—concurring in part and dissenting in part—in which the Justice endorsed the Court’s finding that plaintiffs were PRPs under CERCLA. However, Justice Alito argued that the court should not have reached the question of whether state courts have jurisdiction to entertain “challenges” to EPA-approved cleanups. Justice Alito went on to clarify his understanding that under the Court’s majority opinion, “the Montana Supreme Court has two options on remand: (1) enter a stay to allow the landowners to seek EPA approval or (2) enter judgment against the landowners on their restoration damages claim without prejudice to their ability to refile if they obtain EPA approval.” Under either scenario, USEPA approval would be required and therefore Justice Alito concluded that the Court should not have opined on the jurisdictional question.

Justice Gorsuch also filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justice Thomas joined. Justice Gorsuch agreed that the Montana state court had jurisdiction over plaintiffs’ state law claims but disagreed with the Court’s conclusion that plaintiffs were PRPs under CERCLA and therefore precluded under CERCLA §122 from challenging the USEPA cleanup plan. Justice Gorsuch argued that CERCLA was enacted to supplement, not supplant, state common law remedies available to innocent landowners damaged by third-party contamination. Thus, Justice Gorsuch opined that plaintiffs’ state law claims should be allowed to go forward without the need to secure permission from USEPA.

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to track and update on this case as it is remanded back to the Montana Supreme Court.

CATEGORIES: Cercla, Toxic Tort, Water

PEOPLE: Steven M. Siros, Matthew G. Lawson

March 23, 2020 Does Environmental Investigation and Remediation Continue Despite COVID-19 Business Restrictions and Social Distancing?

Bandza Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130 SigelBy: Alexander J. Bandza, Steven M. Siros, and Gabrielle Sigel

DigAs the United States rapidly transitions to working from home (when possible) companies involved in environmental investigations or remediation work must determine whether such field or other work could, should, or must continue in the days, weeks, and months ahead. The world is pivoting to tackle COVID-19, a public health crisis, and many of the “essential services” exempted from stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders (“Restriction Orders”) include work involving public health and safety, as well as critical infrastructure services. Therefore, any person with ongoing environmental investigation and remediation work (“environmental field work”) has to consider whether that work would be or should be included in the category of “essential services.”

From a policy standpoint, whether environmental field work should be considered “essential” requires an evaluation of the people and the environment potentially put at risk, the likelihood of that risk, and the resources the work uses. Continuation of environmental field work may benefit public health and the environment, but it also is occurring at some cost to public health and safety. For example, environmental projects use personal protective equipment (“PPE”) and laboratory equipment and personnel that may be able to be allocated to medical and other scientific research needs. Furthermore, some environmental field work requires close human contact and, at a minimum, will require travel to work and other activities that the Restriction Orders and federal and CDC guidelines are seeking to avoid. In addition, environmental contractors may not be able to perform work if key personnel are not available to work due to travel restrictions, health impacts, or family obligations. Thus, the consideration of whether environmental field work should continue during the COVID-19 crisis requires weighing complex public health and safety needs and risks.

To help those considering whether and how to continue environmental field work, evaluate the following:

(1)     Am I allowed to do the environmental field work under a state or local COVID-19 Restriction Order?

(2)     If I cannot continue under a Restriction Order or for other reasons, how do I protect my company’s interests to avoid penalties and other liabilities under the consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with or regulations imposed by state and federal environmental agencies; and

(3)     If I am allowed to or required to continue the work, what regulations pertain to how to do the work safely?

1.    AM I ALLOWED TO DO THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER?

As of the time of publication of this alert, there are no federal mandates or executive orders requiring business shutdowns or mandatory quarantines. However, many states, counties, and municipalities are issuing executive orders closing non-essential businesses and limiting gatherings of people.

    a.    State-Level COVID-19 Executive Orders

Each of these state and local mandates exempt “essential businesses” and the specific definition of an essential business varies from state to state. As a general rule, however, “essential businesses” are those that promote public safety, health, and welfare. Here are examples of several of the first state directives.    

California: On March 19, 2020, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-33-20 requiring California residents to remain at home unless they are involved in 16 critical infrastructure sectors. These 16 critical infrastructure sectors were designated by the Department of Homeland Security and include the water and wastewater systems sector that is responsible for ensuring the supply of safe drinking water and wastewater treatment and service.  

Illinois: On March 20, 2020, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-10 requiring Illinois residents to remain in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The order specifically exempts “essential government functions”, “essential businesses and operations”, and “essential infrastructure activities.” Essential infrastructure activities include operation and maintenance of utilities, including water, sewer, and gas, and solid waste and recycling collection and removal and essential businesses and operations includes construction related activities.

New York: On March 20, 2020, Governor Cuomo issued an Executive Order (referred to as Pause, standing for Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone), requiring that as of 8 p.m. on March 22, all non-essential businesses must ensure that their workforce works remotely. Exempt “Essential businesses” include essential infrastructure (including utilities and construction); essential services (including trash collection, mail, and shipping services; news media; banks and related financial institutions); sanitation and essential operations of residences or other essential businesses; and vendors that provide essential services or products (including services needed to ensure the continuing operation of government agencies and provide for the health, safety, and welfare of the public).

New Jersey: On March 21, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order 107 requiring that New Jersey residents remain in their homes and requiring that all “non-essential businesses” close. A previously issued executive order (Executive Order No. 104) defined “essential businesses” to include “grocery/food stores, pharmacies, medical supply stores, gas stations, healthcare facilities and ancillary stores within healthcare facilities.” All gatherings within the state are limited to 50 persons or fewer, except for “normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, office environments, factories, assemblages for the purpose of industrial or manufacturing work, construction sites, mass transit, or the purchase of groceries or consumer goods.”

In addition to these states, many other states have either implemented similar orders (including Connecticut, Delaware, and Louisiana) or likely will do so in the coming weeks. While expressly mentioning critical sectors such as health care, police and fire, and grocery stores, the orders do not squarely address whether environmental field work constitutes “essential businesses” subject to these exemptions. However, environmental field work logically could be included under the categories used to describe “essential business,” particularly because many of the environmental statutes requiring such work expressly state that the work is being ordered or conducted to protect human health and the environment.

    b.    Federal (U.S. EPA) Environmental Agency Guidance

The White House has issued Coronavirus Response Guidelines, “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” including a statement that if you work in one of the 16 “critical infrastructure industries” as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, you have a “special responsibility” to continue to work.

As of this publication, U.S. EPA has not released public guidance on whether ongoing or new site cleanups and/or site investigations would constitute “critical infrastructure industry.” At least to some degree, that determination is likely to be a site-specific, based on the unique circumstances of each site and, as further discussed below, the language of the agency orders or agreements which govern the environmental field work. It is likely that in the coming weeks, U.S. EPA will provide further guidance on assessing whether site cleanup activities constitute “critical infrastructure industry” exempt from the various Restriction Orders. One issue that may need to be resolved in the future relates to potential conflicts in federal and state guidance regarding what constitutes an “essential service.” Such issues could be addressed via federal and state cooperation agreements in the event of possible conflicts between federal and state directives.

    c.    State Environmental Agency Guidance

At least one state environmental regulatory agency has provided guidance directly on this issue. On March 20, 2020, the California State Resources Water Control Board, which generally has jurisdiction over impacted groundwater in California, published a Guidance Document that states:

Please be aware that timely compliance by the regulated community with all Water Board orders and other requirements (including regulations, permits, contractual obligations, primacy delegations, and funding conditions) is generally considered to be an essential function during the COVID-19 response. As a result, the Water Boards consider compliance with board-established orders and other requirements to be within the essential activities, essential governmental functions, or comparable exceptions to shelter-in-place directives provided by local public health officials.   

It is likely that similar guidance will be issued in the coming weeks by other state regulatory agencies.

2.    IF I CANNOT CONTINUE THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER OR OTHERWISE, HOW COULD I PROTECT MY COMPANY’S INTERESTS TO AVOID PENALTIES OR OTHER LIABILITIES?

Those responsible for ongoing environmental field work should carefully evaluate the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies, and private parties, under which they are performing environmental field work. The agreements may well have force majeure and other clauses addressing delays in the work.

For example, under the current federal model remedial design/remedial action (RD/RA) judicial consent decrees with potentially responsible parties (“PRPs”) under sections 106, 107 and 122 of CERCLA, PRPs have both covenanted not to sue the United States and agreed to indemnify the same for “claims on account of construction delays.” There are additional stipulated penalty provisions. Therefore, companies must act pursuant to the force majeure provisions to avoid these claims and stipulated penalties. Force majeure is defined as “any event arising from causes beyond the control of [PRPs], of any entity controlled by [PRPs], or of [PRPs]’ contractors that delays or prevents the performance of any obligation under this [consent decree] despite [PRPs]’ best efforts to fulfill the obligation.”

Relying on these provisions involves:

  • Notifying “EPA’s Project Coordinator orally or, in his or her absence, EPA’s Alternate Project Coordinator or, in the event both of EPA’s designated representatives are unavailable, the Director of the Waste Management Division” in that specific U.S. EPA Region within a stipulated period of days (the period of days may vary under each consent decree).
  • Providing in writing to U.S. EPA “an explanation and description of the reasons for the delay; the anticipated duration of the delay; all actions taken or to be taken to prevent or minimize the delay; a schedule for implementation of any measures to be taken to prevent or mitigate the delay or the effect of the delay; [the PRP’s] rationale for attributing such delay to a force majeure; and a statement as to whether, in the opinion of [the PRP], such event may cause or contribute to an endangerment to public health or welfare, or the environment” within a stipulated period of days (the period of days likely varies under each consent decree).
  • Providing with the above writing “all available documentation supporting their claim that the delay was attributable to a force majeure.”

U.S. EPA is then to provide notice of its decision, which if U.S. EPA rejects the force majeure claim, the responsible parties must provide notice within 15 days of U.S. EPA’s decision to avail themselves of the model consent decree’s dispute resolution provision. The federal Model Administrative Settlement Agreement and Order on Consent for Removal Actions contains similar obligations and provisions.

It is thus plain that responsible parties conducting environmental field work should be prepared to contact U.S. EPA or state regulators orally as soon as practicable to determine their views on the necessity of the work and if there is disagreement about the same, begin to “paper the file” on the necessary force majeure documentation in the time frames provided in the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies.

For sites that are in the early investigation stages, regulators may agree to a temporary pause in site investigations. For sites that are currently undergoing remedial measures, the determination on whether work should continue is again likely to be fact dependent. For example, a site with an ongoing groundwater treatment system that is being operated to protect a drinking water source is likely to be deemed an essential activity. For a site where the remedial measures involve excavating impacted soils that are not immediately affecting groundwater sources, it may be the case that the regulators determine that certain activities are not “essential” and can be temporarily paused or scaled back.

Even if the decision is made to proceed with the work, other circumstances may preclude or significantly impair the ability to do the work. For example, it may be difficult to obtain necessary supplies and/or vendors to perform these services. To the extent that wastes are generated in the course of doing this work, can these wastes be managed and disposed of in a timely manner? These are all issues that should be discussed with the regulators or private parties requiring the work.

3.    IF I CONTINUE THE WORK, HOW CAN I DO IT SAFELY?

Once a decision is made that environmental field work is “essential” and must proceed to at least some degree, special care must be taken to ensure that the work is performed safely given additional risks imposed by COVID-19.  On March 9, 2020, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued its Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 that was the subject of a previous client alert.  This OSHA guidance outlines recommended steps that employers should take to protect workers, using OSHA’s “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks (i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE.  It is also prudent for all entities at the site to consider what steps they will take if they learn that one of the workers has become exposed to the novel coronavirus or contracted COVID-19. On March 20, 2020, the CDC issued updated “Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations.” 

OSHA has long-standing regulations for work at hazardous waste sites under its Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (“HAZWOPER”) standard (in general industry 29 CFR 1910.120 and in construction 29 CFR 1926.65), which establishes health and safety requirements for work at sites, as well as responses to emergencies involving releases of hazardous substances. Many environmental investigation and remediation sites have rigorous site-specific health and safety plans, and many are required to have such plans by a consent decree or other regulatory or contractual obligation. Many environmental contractors have such plans as part of their standard operating procedures. However, given COVID-19, special care should be taken to ensure that PPE that would ordinarily be used to prevent exposure to hazardous substances is not contaminated prior to being utilized in the field.  Moreover, ensuring feasible physical distancing, requiring diligent hygiene methods, and having appropriate cleaning equipment and chemicals in the field are also critical.  All entities with employees at the site should regularly check both the OSHA and CDC website for updated guidance on workplace health and safety best practices. It also is important to ensure that the protocols are being appropriately communicated and followed by all entities (including regulators) at a site; the best protocols and procedures are only as good as their actual implementation by all.

OSHA has reminded the regulated community that if employees contract COVID-19 as a result of performing their work-related duties, the employees who become ill could constitute recordable cases of illness under OSHA’s Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Standard, 29 CFR Part 1904.

Companies and their counsel also should evaluate existing master services agreements that govern the work of their vendors and contractors with a particular eye towards: (i) how indemnification provisions might apply in the event that a vendor’s or contractor’s employee is later determined to be infected with COVID-19 and such a latency period could plausibly extend to such an employee’s work at the company’s site and its employees, and vice versa; and (ii) payment delay provisions should the company or its vendors or contractors become concerned about solvency issues.

We will continue to provide updates on the impacts of COVID-19 on environmental, health and safety issues affecting our clients. Jenner & Block has established a COVID-19 resource center that provides updates on a variety of issues affecting our clients and we would encourage you to visit this resource center for timely updates on COVID-19 related issues.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Hazmat, OSHA, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Steven M. Siros, Gabrielle Sigel

February 11, 2020 White House Promises to Use “All Available Tools” to Implement Deep Cuts to EPA Funding in Fiscal Year 2021

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By Matthew G. Lawson

Epa On Monday, February 10, 2020, the Trump Administration released its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021. The proposal calls for sweeping cuts to a number of federal agencies and departments, including deep cuts to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”). If enacted, the proposed budget would grant $6.7 billion in funding to USEPA, a $2.4 billion or 26-percent reduction from the agency’s $9.1 billion budget in 2020. In the budget proposal’s preamble, the Administration promises to “call[] on the Government to reduce wasteful, unnecessary spending, and to fix mismanagement and redundancy across agencies.”

With respect to USEPA’s budget allocation, the proposal promises to “eliminate almost 50 wasteful programs that are outside of EPA’s core mission or duplicative of other efforts, saving taxpayers over $600 million.” Proposed major cuts include the reduction of nearly 50% of the agency’s research budget, including all funding for grants to independent universities and research institutes conducting air, water, and other environmental and health research. Another target for deep cuts is USEPA’s safe drinking water revolving funds. The revolving funds are used to help fund water infrastructure projects undertaken by state or municipal public water providers. Under the proposed budget, the available funds for such projects would be cut from approximately $2.77 billion down to $2 billion.

While the proposal primarily focuses on proposing cuts to USEPA’s fiscal budget, it does contain a few line item requests for additional funding. In particular, the proposal asks for an additional $6 million to carry out USEPA’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan. The additional funding is sought to continue research into the risk posed by PFAS compounds, address current contamination issues, and effectively communicate findings to the public. In addition, the budget requests $16 million into new research to help prevent and respond to the rising growth of harmful algal blooms. 

The budget proposal is not the first time the Trump Administration has sought to implement deep cuts into USEPA’s budget. In fact, the Trump Administration has now proposed nearly identical cuts to the agency’s budget in each of the last three fiscal years. As previously discussed by the Corporate Environmental Lawyer, the Trump Administration first proposed a $2.7 billion budget reduction for USEPA in fiscal year 2018. However, the proposal was rebuffed by congress and the final spending bill ultimately signed by Trump held the agency’s budget at $8.1 billion, even with its 2017 level. The following year, the Trump Administration again proposed cutting the agency’s budget by more than $2 billion, but ultimately agreed to a spending deal that increased the agency’s budget to $8.8 billion. Finally, during fiscal year 2020, the Trump Administration proposed approximately $2.7 billion in cuts to USEPA’s budget. As before, Congress rejected the proposal and ultimately approved a nearly record high budget for USEPA of $9.1 Billion.  Congress’ continued rejection of the spending cuts proposed by the Trump Administration is acknowledged in the Administration’s most recent 2021 budget proposal, which derides Congress for continuing “to reject any efforts to restrain spending” and “greatly contribut[ing] to the continued ballooning of Federal debt and deficits, putting the Nation’s fiscal future at risk.” The proposal promises that the Trump Administration will use “all available tools and levers” to ensure that the spending reductions outlined in the budget are finally implemented.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, OSHA, RCRA, Sustainability, TSCA, Water

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

November 18, 2019 DoD Quietly Releases PFAS Screening Levels

Someone fills a glass with tap water

Webres_Steven_Siros_3130By Steven M. Siros

On October 15th, the Department of Defense (DoD) issued an internal guidance document regarding CERCLA cleanup actions involving per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The DoD guidance sets screening levels for three PFAS compounds that some have criticized as being inconsistent with draft screening levels that are in the process of being finalized by U.S. EPA.

DoD’s October 15th guidance document adopts U.S. EPA’s proposed screening level (in groundwater) of 40 parts per trillion (ppt) for sites containing both perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanioic acid (PFOA). However, the DoD guidance adopts a higher screening level for sites containing only one of the three targeted PFAS compounds. For sites containing only PFOA or PFOS, the DoD screening level jumps to 400 ppt. The guidance also sets a screening level for perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS) (a shorter chain PFAS compound) at 40,000 ppt.

The DoD guidance is silent with respect to other PFAS compounds. The guidance also doesn’t specify a particular clean-up level if the above-referenced screening levels are exceeded.  Instead, the guidance notes that a site-specific risk assessment will be conducted to determine if remedial measures are necessary. 

Notwithstanding the DoD guidance document, there is no indication that U.S. EPA will not continue to rely on its 40 ppt level screening (both for single- and combined-PFAS compound sites) and 70 ppt preliminary cleanup goal proposed in its draft interim guidelines for remediating PFAS-impacted groundwater at DoD sites.

CATEGORIES: Cercla, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

September 6, 2019 Recent DOJ Directive Marks Continuing Effort to Curb Availability of Supplemental Environmental Projects in Civil Environmental Settlements

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  By Matthew G. Lawson

On August 21, 2019, the Department of Justice issue a new memorandum reducing state and local governments’ ability to enter into settlement agreements that require the completion of supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) as compensation for alleged environmental violations. While impactful in its own right, the DOJ memo can be viewed as a continuation of an over two-year long effort by the DOJ to reduce the general availability of SEPs in the settlement of civil environmental cases. 

As defined by the EPA, “SEPs are projects or activities that go beyond what could legally be required in order for the defendant to return to compliance, and secure environmental and/or public health benefits in addition to those achieved by compliance with applicable laws.” Private parties or municipalities may offer to complete SEPs as part of a settlement with EPA or other environmental regulators. By doing so, the alleged violator effectively replaces a part or all of the penalty owed for an environmental violation with the commitment to develop an environmentally beneficial project.

Despite the widespread and longstanding use of SEPs in settlement agreements, recent actions by the DOJ demonstrate a clear effort by the Department to reduce the use of SEPs in the settlement of alleged environmental violations.

The trend started with a June 8, 2017 policy directive issued by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions which broadly prohibited settlement agreements from “directing or providing” payment to any third-parties that are neither victims nor parties to the lawsuits. The directive had the immediate effect of prohibiting SEPs that require violators to fund environmental project performed by third parties.

The 2017 directive was then followed by a second memorandum on November 11, 2018, which barred the use of consent decrees to achieve “general policy goals or to extract greater or different relief from the defendant than could be obtained through agency enforcement authority or by litigating the matter to judgment.”

Finally, in its most recent move, the August 21st DOJ memorandum issued from the Department’s Environmental and Natural Resource Division details the DOJ’s determination that environmental SEPs are prohibited under the November 2018 directive. Specifically, the memo provides that “[t]he use of SEPs in consent decrees with state and local governments contravenes the prohibition on using consent decrees to ‘extract greater or different relief from [a state or local government] than could be obtained through agency enforcement authority or by litigating the matter to judgment.’” While the memorandum notes several conditions where SEPs may still be permitted, it cautions that exemptions to the general prohibition “are meant to be rare.”  

With the DOJ’s most recent actions, it appears that environmental regulators will no longer be permitted to agree to SEPs in most, if not all, settlement agreements. However, open questions remains whether regulators will be able to fashion future SEPs that comply with the recent DOJ directives.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

July 29, 2019 Exploring the E-Suite with Elizabeth Anderson, Ph.D., Fellow ATS, Chief Science Officer and Senior Fellow, Exponent, Inc.; formerly, Carcinogen Assessment Group and Office of Health and Environmental Assessment, U.S. EPA

Exploring The E-Suite@2x-100

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Exploring the E-Suite with Elizabeth Anderson, Ph.D., Fellow ATS, Chief Science Officer and Senior Fellow, Exponent, Inc.; formerly, Carcinogen Assessment Group and Office of Health and Environmental Assessment, U.S. EPA

  1. I understand that you worked for U.S. EPA when it was first started as a federal agency in the early 1970s. What was your role at the “new” U.S. EPA?

I led the health sciences assessment work for the first 14 years after U.S. EPA was formed in December 1970. At the time, U.S. EPA was a very small agency. I was the only health scientist in an eight-person Office of Technical Analysis, reporting directly to U.S. EPA’s first Administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus. He is an extraordinary person—a terrific and committed leader, who also knew how to make hard work fun. The Administrator asked me to lead an intra-agency committee to write a cancer policy to address the zero risk tolerance expectation for substances with some evidence, often conflicting, of carcinogenicity, as indicated by tumors in animals or humans. Another challenge was that substances could be ubiquitous or important to our society. We knew a “zero tolerance” policy for all possible carcinogens would be unworkable, so my committee reported out a process rather than a cancer policy. That process was the first use of risk assessment to organize what is known and unknown about the likelihood that exposure to a particular agent might cause illness. On the assumption the agent might cause illness, the next step is to define what levels of risk and exposure would be acceptable and protective of public health. The concept of risk acceptance was novel at the time and was introduced in a social and political climate aimed at seeking the ideal, i.e., zero risk.

My office at U.S. EPA conducted and I co-authored more than 150 risk assessments between 1976 and 1983 as a basis for defining major regulatory policy. The National Academy of Sciences published its endorsement of this risk assessment process in 1983. The Academy’s report, referred to as “The Red Book,” inspired national and international adoption of the U.S. EPA’s approach to risk assessment started by my intra-agency committee. I led the effort to expand the health assessment program, which resulted in establishing the central risk assessment office for the Agency—the Office of Health and Environmental Assessment. This office reported directly to the Administrator, who granted us wide latitude to expeditiously conduct our assessments.

  1. What was your professional and academic background leading to your involvement in health risk assessment?

My academic background is in synthetic organic chemistry, the chemistry of making organic molecules, amongst other applications, to be biologically active. I was pre-med at the College of William and Mary, but I was strongly discouraged from pursuing medical school “because I would be taking the place of a man” (a quote from the Chairman of the Chemistry Department). Instead, I was granted a fellowship at the University of Virginia to pursue a master’s degree in synthetic organic chemistry. Next, I applied for a unique fellowship being granted by the U.S. Department of Defense and completed my Ph.D. work in synthetic organic chemistry. During those early years of U.S. EPA, my degree and training best fit the Agency’s needs. There were no degrees in toxicology, relevant applications in epidemiology were just emerging, and mechanism of action had received little attention. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

  1. What was it like to be part of the start of a new federal agency?

Most of all, it was challenging. Following the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and 20 million people marching on the first Earth Day, the spirit of the time was that significant change can happen; every move at EPA was front-page news. We all felt a sense of urgency to make a difference and establish scientific credibility for all decisions that the Agency had to make. U.S. EPA inherited a rapidly cascading series of enabling legislation starting with the Clean Air Act in December of 1970, followed by amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; Radiation Authorities; the Drinking Water Act; “Superfund” (CERCLA); and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). All compelled the Agency to be protective of public health. Implementing this Congressional directive was left to the Agency and, for our part, this meant meeting strict deadlines and establishing scientific foundations that defined protection and that could survive challenges from Congress and the scientific, private, public, and legal communities.

At a very young age, many of us at U.S. EPA inherited a great deal of responsibility. New areas of complexity seemed to develop on a daily basis. Looking back, a culture of committed, young professionals worked hard and achieved a great deal. We were inspired by the excitement and challenge of those times. Many of us have remained friends and colleagues until the present day. Some of us are still involved, as board members of the U.S. EPA Alumni Association.

  1. What were some of the accomplishments of which you were most proud that came out of your work for U.S. EPA?

I am proud of many things, but I am most proud of my role in co-authoring the first guidelines to establish risk assessment and risk management as the basis for setting public policy to protect public health and having the opportunity to found and direct U.S. EPA’s first health assessment offices, the Carcinogen Assessment Group, and the expanded Office of Health Environmental Assessment. In addition, I had the opportunity to found and direct the Agency’s expansion of health topics to include reproductive risk assessment, mutagen risk assessment, and exposure assessment groups; these offices conducted all risk assessments for the Agency’s program offices for many years.

I was fortunate to be a part of establishing the scholarship in this rapidly developing and complex field of health risk assessment. A small number of us founded the Society for Risk Analysis, a focal point for sharing scientific developments from all sectors, including engineering and the social sciences. I served as one of the early Presidents and, for 10 years, was Editor-in-Chief of the Society’s flagship journal, Risk Analysis: An International Journal. In addition, as U.S. EPA’s representative, I had the privilege of participating in the worldwide application of risk assessment first in Europe through the World Health Organization and subsequently through the Pan American Health Organization and other organizations.

  1. After you left U.S. EPA, you have had several professional engagements. Can you summarize those for us?

After spending 14 years being a part of U.S. EPA’s founding, I entered the private sector, initially as President and CEO of the first private health and environmental assessment consulting firm, Clement Associates. In addition to work for private clients, U.S. EPA contracted with me to oversee and direct the first risk assessments for all of its Superfund sites, as did the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to direct and write the first Toxicity Profiles. Later, I founded my own company, Sciences International, and directed it for 13 years, during which we addressed a wide variety of interesting and challenging issues. Subsequently, Exponent asked me to serve as Vice President for Health Sciences, a post I served in for 10 years, then as Chief Science Officer. More recently, I am honored to accept the Exponent designation of Senior Fellow, a rare recognition by the Company. Presently, I continue my work in the field of health risk assessment. I know that the framework and process we created in the early years made it possible to identify gaps in knowledge and point to ways for improving the foundations for health risk assessment.

  1. What are the emerging policy issues in the area of human health risk assessment?

Without a doubt, the need to sensibly apply the science we know to separate the important from the unimportant issues. Often, I feel that we lose sight of the fact that health risk assessment has achieved endorsement worldwide as the premier way to address the complexity of issues involved in defining public health protection. Also, the outcomes of risk assessment now have challenging new applications, e.g., in toxic tort litigation or world trade decisions.

In the policy area, one important emerging issue is the use of health risk assessment to “prove safety.” Adopting ever-diminishing levels of possible protection to achieve this goal effectively creates a “zero tolerance” policy, the very policy that would have defeated U.S. EPA at its inception. I believe that little is gained by these controversial policies that create debate for years; under these approaches we can lose sight of what is important. For example, important EPA risk assessment documents may now take years to become final because of endless debates in areas of scientific uncertainty where societal impacts can be enormous but risk reduction uncertain and marginal. We accept risk in every other part of our society, so it is unrealistic to apply a zero-risk policy to our environmental decisions.

Secondly, I feel that it is most unfortunate that the sciences so essential to public health understanding are often caught in agendas that constrain even the most objective review and use of our public health documents. There is no question that science has become politicized. I contend that U.S. EPA would have been lost without access to all scientists of importance to our decisions, regardless of who had funded their work.

Finally, I see an increasing lack of understanding of the difference between science as applied to public health protection—to preempt and prevent disease—and the science of establishing causality. It is critical to use honest science, regardless of the setting, to avoid mistakes. Distortion of scientific foundations and fact to achieve economic or political gain is deplorable and should be rejected.

  1. What do you enjoy most about your work in the field of human health risk assessment?

The endless challenges. Risk assessment demands that we honestly express what is known and unknown. Exploring the unknowns and narrowing our knowledge gaps are endlessly rewarding endeavors.

  1. What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your work?

It is very difficult to find a single answer to this question. Exploring new science will always be at the top of the list. The greatest non-scientific challenge is the fact that not all are in engaged in finding the truth. Trying to explain the known scientific facts in situations involving exploitation of scientific unknowns or distortion, whether in the courtroom or as a part of political debate, is challenging. The climate created by the spirit of the ’60s was to seek the truth. We were all essentially on the same page; we shared common goals even as we debated the best methods of scientific approach. Today, goals often do not converge; science in the age of polarization is challenging.

  1. What or who helped you succeed as a leader in the area of human health risk assessment?

I have been surrounded by thought leaders and gifted people throughout my career. The environmental movement attracted so many to the new U.S. EPA. One who contributed so much to my understanding was Dr. Roy Albert, the Deputy Director of the School of Environmental Medicine at NYU. He was blessed with an extraordinary intellect and excellent sense of balance. He was the outside Chair of our Carcinogen Assessment Group in the early years, a role that would not be possible in the bureaucracy today. And I must continue to give credit to U.S. EPA Administrator Ruckelshaus.

  1. What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in your field?

Follow your dreams. Work is never work if you feel passionate about what you are doing. Achieve the best education you can get and keep your options open. You may need to help create your own opportunity. Have confidence in your capabilities to achieve your goals and set high ones.

Dr. Anderson was interviewed by Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice, Jenner & BlockSigel_Gabrielle_COLOR

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Consumer Law and Environment, RCRA, Toxic Tort, Water

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

May 15, 2019 EPA Adds Seven Sites to the Superfund National Priorities List

Torrence_jpgBy Allison A. Torrence

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On May 13, 2019, U.S. EPA announced that it is adding seven sites to the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL), which includes the most serious contaminated sites in the country. EPA uses the NPL as a basis for prioritizing contaminated site cleanup funding and enforcement activities.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA a/k/a Superfund) requires EPA to create a list of national priorities among sites with known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances throughout the United States, and update that list every year. EPA has established a Hazard Ranking System (HRS) screening tool, which EPA uses, along with public comments, to determine which contaminated sites should be on the NPL.

Under the Trump Administration, EPA has expressed a renewed focus on contaminated site cleanup, declaring the Superfund program to be a “cornerstone” of EPA’s core mission to protect human health and the environment. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler reiterated this focus when announcing the seven new NPL sites:

By adding these sites to the National Priorities List, we are taking action to clean up some of the nation’s most contaminated sites, protect the health of the local communities, and return the sites to safe and productive reuse. Our commitment to these communities is that sites on the National Priorities List will be a true national priority. We’ve elevated the Superfund program to a top priority, and in Fiscal Year 2018, EPA deleted all or part of 22 sites from the NPL, the largest number of deletions in one year since Fiscal Year 2005.

Currently, there are 1,344 NPL sites across the United States. The following sites are being added to the NPL per EPA’s announcement:

  • Magna Metals in Cortlandt Manor, New York
  • PROTECO in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico
  • Shaffer Equipment/Arbuckle Creek Area in Minden, West Virginia
  • Cliff Drive Groundwater Contamination in Logansport, Indiana
  • McLouth Steel Corp in Trenton, Michigan
  • Sporlan Valve Plant #1 in Washington, Missouri
  • Copper Bluff Mine in Hoopa, California

Information about the NPL sites, including a map of all sites, is available on EPA’s website.

CATEGORIES: Cercla, Hazmat, Real Estate and Environment, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Allison A. Torrence

May 15, 2019 EPA Adds Seven Sites to the Superfund National Priorities List

Torrence_jpgBy Allison A. Torrence

Map

On May 13, 2019, U.S. EPA announced that it is adding seven sites to the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL), which includes the most serious contaminated sites in the country. EPA uses the NPL as a basis for prioritizing contaminated site cleanup funding and enforcement activities.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA a/k/a Superfund) requires EPA to create a list of national priorities among sites with known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances throughout the United States, and update that list every year. EPA has established a Hazard Ranking System (HRS) screening tool, which EPA uses, along with public comments, to determine which contaminated sites should be on the NPL.

Under the Trump Administration, EPA has expressed a renewed focus on contaminated site cleanup, declaring the Superfund program to be a “cornerstone” of EPA’s core mission to protect human health and the environment. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler reiterated this focus when announcing the seven new NPL sites:

By adding these sites to the National Priorities List, we are taking action to clean up some of the nation’s most contaminated sites, protect the health of the local communities, and return the sites to safe and productive reuse. Our commitment to these communities is that sites on the National Priorities List will be a true national priority. We’ve elevated the Superfund program to a top priority, and in Fiscal Year 2018, EPA deleted all or part of 22 sites from the NPL, the largest number of deletions in one year since Fiscal Year 2005.

Currently, there are 1,344 NPL sites across the United States. The following sites are being added to the NPL per EPA’s announcement:

  • Magna Metals in Cortlandt Manor, New York
  • PROTECO in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico
  • Shaffer Equipment/Arbuckle Creek Area in Minden, West Virginia
  • Cliff Drive Groundwater Contamination in Logansport, Indiana
  • McLouth Steel Corp in Trenton, Michigan
  • Sporlan Valve Plant #1 in Washington, Missouri
  • Copper Bluff Mine in Hoopa, California

Information about the NPL sites, including a map of all sites, is available on EPA’s website.

CATEGORIES: Cercla, Hazmat, Real Estate and Environment, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Allison A. Torrence

April 2, 2019 Trends in Climate Change Litigation: Part 1

Matthew G. Lawson

Climate Change

By Matthew G. Lawson

The term “climate change litigation” has become a shorthand for a wide range of different legal proceedings associated with addressing the environmental impacts of climate change. Plaintiffs in climate change lawsuits may include individuals, non-governmental organizations, private companies, state or local level governments, and even company shareholders who, through various legal theories, allege that they have been harmed or will suffer future harm as a direct result of the world’s changing climate. The targets of climate change litigation have included individual public and private companies, government bodies, and even entire industry groups. While there appears to be no shortage of plaintiffs, defendants, or legal theories emerging in climate change litigation, one clear trend is that the number of these lawsuits has grown dramatically in recent years. By one count, more than fifty climate change suits have been filed in the United States every year since 2009, with over one hundred suits being filed in both 2016 and 2017.

In light of the growing trend of climate change litigation, Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog is starting a periodic blog update which will discuss the emerging trends and key cases in this litigation arena.  In each update, our blog will focus on a sub-set of climate change cases and discuss recent decisions  on the topic. In Part 1 of this series, we will be discussing Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

Perhaps the most high-profile and well-publicized cases in the climate change litigation arena have been lawsuits brought by private citizens against their own national government. A common objective of these cases is to push governments to implement policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions through legal hooks such as international agreements, international treaties, or constitutional provisions. While the early focal point for these cases has been European countries, citizen-initiated litigation continues to spread across the globe, including the United States.

Several examples of this emerging type of litigation have included:

  • Urgenda Foundation v. The State of the Netherlands (2015): In the first internationally recognized climate change lawsuit asserted against a national government, a Dutch environmental group, the Urgenda Foundation, represented over 900 citizens in a lawsuit alleging that the Dutch government had failed to address the risks of climate change. Ruling in support of the citizen group, the Hague court determined that the Dutch government was required to protect the living environment from the dangers of climate change by reducing CO2 emissions a minimum of 25%—relative to 1990 levels—by the year 2020. This decision was later upheld by the Dutch court of appeals which recognized the plaintiffs’ claims under the European Convention on Human Rights, an international convention to protect human rights in Europe.
  • Friends of the Irish Environment v. Ireland (2018): Following the success of the Urgenda litigation, an Irish advocacy group, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), filed suit in the Irish High Court in an attempt to compel the government to increase its GHG emissions reduction goals. Following the path laid out in Urgenda, the FIE plaintiffs asserted their claims under the theory that the Irish government was not fulfilling its objectives under the Paris Climate Agreement. This case was argued before the High Court on January 22, 2019, and is currently awaiting a decision.
  • Juliana v. United States, 217 F. Supp. 3d 1224 (2016): Launched by the U.S. advocacy group, Our Children’s Trust, Juliana is a lawsuit filed by 21 young people (ages eight to nineteen) who assert that the United States is denying its youngest citizens their constitutional right to a safe and livable climate. Unlike the cases brought in Ireland or the Netherlands, the plaintiffs in Juliana have not taken the position that the United States is bound to reduce GHG emissions through any form of internal law or agreement. Instead, the plaintiffs’ complaint asserts the legal theory that the United States Constitution provides its citizens a substantive due process right “to a climate system capable of sustaining human life.” In conjunction with this argument, the plaintiffs have asserted a unique application of the centuries-old “Public Trust Doctrine,” arguing that the climate itself is a natural resource that must be held in trust for the people. Juliana has gone through a complex legal history, including multiple attempts at dismissal from both the Obama and now Trump administrations. Currently, the case is being briefed in front of the 9th Circuit on interlocutory appeal.

 

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, FIFRA, Greenhouse Gas, Hazmat, OSHA, RCRA, Real Estate and Environment, Sustainability, Toxic Tort, TSCA, Water

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

April 2, 2019 Trends in Climate Change Litigation: Part 1

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Climate Change

By Matthew G. Lawson

The term “climate change litigation” has become a shorthand for a wide range of different legal proceedings associated with addressing the environmental impacts of climate change. Plaintiffs in climate change lawsuits may include individuals, non-governmental organizations, private companies, state or local level governments, and even company shareholders who, through various legal theories, allege that they have been harmed or will suffer future harm as a direct result of the world’s changing climate. The targets of climate change litigation have included individual public and private companies, government bodies, and even entire industry groups. While there appears to be no shortage of plaintiffs, defendants, or legal theories emerging in climate change litigation, one clear trend is that the number of these lawsuits has grown dramatically in recent years. By one count, more than fifty climate change suits have been filed in the United States every year since 2009, with over one hundred suits being filed in both 2016 and 2017.

In light of the growing trend of climate change litigation, Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog is starting a periodic blog update which will discuss the emerging trends and key cases in this litigation arena.  In each update, our blog will focus on a sub-set of climate change cases and discuss recent decisions  on the topic. In Part 1 of this series, we will be discussing Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

Perhaps the most high-profile and well-publicized cases in the climate change litigation arena have been lawsuits brought by private citizens against their own national government. A common objective of these cases is to push governments to implement policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions through legal hooks such as international agreements, international treaties, or constitutional provisions. While the early focal point for these cases has been European countries, citizen-initiated litigation continues to spread across the globe, including the United States.

Several examples of this emerging type of litigation have included:

  • Urgenda Foundation v. The State of the Netherlands (2015): In the first internationally recognized climate change lawsuit asserted against a national government, a Dutch environmental group, the Urgenda Foundation, represented over 900 citizens in a lawsuit alleging that the Dutch government had failed to address the risks of climate change. Ruling in support of the citizen group, the Hague court determined that the Dutch government was required to protect the living environment from the dangers of climate change by reducing CO2 emissions a minimum of 25%—relative to 1990 levels—by the year 2020. This decision was later upheld by the Dutch court of appeals which recognized the plaintiffs’ claims under the European Convention on Human Rights, an international convention to protect human rights in Europe.
  • Friends of the Irish Environment v. Ireland (2018): Following the success of the Urgenda litigation, an Irish advocacy group, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), filed suit in the Irish High Court in an attempt to compel the government to increase its GHG emissions reduction goals. Following the path laid out in Urgenda, the FIE plaintiffs asserted their claims under the theory that the Irish government was not fulfilling its objectives under the Paris Climate Agreement. This case was argued before the High Court on January 22, 2019, and is currently awaiting a decision.
  • Juliana v. United States, 217 F. Supp. 3d 1224 (2016): Launched by the U.S. advocacy group, Our Children’s Trust, Juliana is a lawsuit filed by 21 young people (ages eight to nineteen) who assert that the United States is denying its youngest citizens their constitutional right to a safe and livable climate. Unlike the cases brought in Ireland or the Netherlands, the plaintiffs in Juliana have not taken the position that the United States is bound to reduce GHG emissions through any form of internal law or agreement. Instead, the plaintiffs’ complaint asserts the legal theory that the United States Constitution provides its citizens a substantive due process right “to a climate system capable of sustaining human life.” In conjunction with this argument, the plaintiffs have asserted a unique application of the centuries-old “Public Trust Doctrine,” arguing that the climate itself is a natural resource that must be held in trust for the people. Juliana has gone through a complex legal history, including multiple attempts at dismissal from both the Obama and now Trump administrations. Currently, the case is being briefed in front of the 9th Circuit on interlocutory appeal.

 

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, FIFRA, Greenhouse Gas, Hazmat, OSHA, RCRA, Real Estate and Environment, Sustainability, Toxic Tort, TSCA, Water

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

March 12, 2019 EPA Can’t Dodge Gold King Mine Liability

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By Steven M. Siros

Gold King Mine Spill

U.S. EPA continues to be on the hook for damages associated with the Gold King Mine located in San Juan County, Colorado. Several years ago, a contractor working on behalf of U.S. EPA to address environmental impacts associated with a closed gold mine, destroyed a plug holding water trapped inside of the mine, causing the release of approximately three million gallons of mine waste water into Cement Creek, which was a tributary of the Animas River. Although U.S. EPA took responsibility for the incident, it has refused to pay damages incurred as a result of he release, leading to lawsuits being filed by a variety of plaintiffs, including the states of Utah and New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, and affected individuals. Plaintiffs asserted a variety of claims, including claims under CERCLA, RCRA, CWA, and the Federal Tort Claims Act (FCTA).  U.S. EPA filed a motion to dismiss, arguing among other things, that it was entitled to sovereign immunity for damages resulting from an ongoing cleanup effort. 

On February 28, 2019, the federal district court in New Mexico rejected U.S. EPA’s claim that it was protected from CERCLA liability on sovereign immunity grounds, noting that at least three circuit courts have found that U.S. EPA can face liability under CERCLA where U. S. EPA’s actions in remediating a site are alleged to have caused releases of hazardous wastes. The court also found that plaintiffs’ allegations (which included Utah and New Mexico, as well as the Navajo Nation and individuals), if proven, would demonstrate U.S. EPA’s liability as an “arranger,” “operator,” and “transporter” of hazardous substances. Specifically, Plaintiffs stated claims for arranger liability because they "allege that EPA took intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance.” With respect to operator liability, the court noted that Plaintiffs “allege that EPA managed, directed, or conducted operations specifically related to the pollution, that is, operations having to do with the leakage or disposal of hazardous waste.” Finally, regarding transporter liability, Plaintiffs “allege that EPA took steps to drain the mine and treat the water at the site.”

With respect to the RCRA, CWA, and FCTA claims, the court concluded that there were disputed issues of fact that precluded the court from being able to grant dismissal of those claims. We will continue to provide updates on this proceeding.

CATEGORIES: Cercla, Climate Change, OSHA, RCRA, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros