U.S. EPA Updates Regional Screening Levels to Add Five New PFAS Chemicals
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.
Earth Week Series: The Future of Environmental Regulation
By Allison A. Torrence
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.
Earth Week Series: Imagine a Day Without Environmental Lawyers
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).
U.S. EPA’s Addition of 1-BP to CERCLA Hazardous Substance List Likely Precursor to Similar Actions on PFAS
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
On April 8, 2022, U.S. EPA added the industrial solvent 1-bromopropane (1-BP) to its list of CERCLA hazardous substances; this listing was triggered by U.S. EPA’s decision to add 1-BP to the Clean Air Act’s list of hazardous air pollutants in January 2022. The addition of 1-BP to the Clean Air Act’s list of hazardous air pollutants may have come as a bit of a surprise since U.S. EPA hasn’t added a new pollutant to the hazardous air pollutant list since the list was originally promulgated in 1990. However, once on the Clean Air Act list of hazardous air pollutants, the pollutant automatically falls with the CERCLA definition of “hazardous substances”. In addition to adding 1-BP to the list of hazardous substances in Table 302.4 in the Code of Federal Regulations, U.S. EPA set a CERCLA reportable quantity for 1-BP at one pound (the CERCLA statutory default).
The manner in which U.S. EPA treats 1-BP at CERCLA sites may be illustrative as to how U.S. EPA will treat PFOS and PFOA, two PFAS compounds that are currently under consideration for listing as CERCLA hazardous substances. Will U.S. EPA add 1-BP to the CERCLA required analyte list at all Superfund sites or will U.S. EPA adopt a more selective approach by relying on Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data to identify nearby sites or manufacturing facilities that may have used the industrial solvent? The more likely scenario is that U.S. EPA will utilize some screening criteria to determine whether to sample for 1-BP but how wide of a 1-BP net that U.S. EPA decides to cast remains to be seen.
1-BP is also a volatile substance so U.S. EPA could also rely on the new listing to reopen and investigate sites for potential vapor intrusion concerns. However, it is unlikely that a site would be reopened solely on the basis of 1-BP vapor intrusion risks.
We will continue to track how U.S. EPA elects to address 1-BP at Superfund sites in an effort to gain insight as to how U.S. EPA may approach future hazardous substance designations at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.
EPA Proposes Hazardous Substance Facility Response Plan Regulations; Includes Climate Change and Environmental Justice Considerations
By Allison A. Torrence
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.
In the proposed rule, EPA is proposing two initial screening criteria to determine whether a facility could cause substantial harm to the environment from a worst case discharge into or onto navigable water. Those two criteria are:
- Whether a facility has the container capacity for a CWA hazardous substance onsite at or above a threshold quantity (threshold quantity is proposed to be 10,000 times the reportable quantity).
- Whether the facility is within one-half mile to navigable water or a conveyance to navigable water.
If those two conditions are satisfied, the facility determines whether it meets any of the four substantial harm criteria:
- The ability to adversely impact a public water system;
- The ability to cause injury to fish, wildlife, and sensitive environments (“FWSE”);
- The ability to cause injury to public receptors; and/or
- Having had a reportable discharge of a CWA hazardous substance within the last five years.
If any of those substantial harm criteria are met, then the facility must submit a CWA hazardous substance Facility Response Plan to EPA.
EPA is also proposing that each EPA Regional Administrator has the authority to require CWA hazardous substance Facility Response Plans regardless of whether a facility meets the criteria proposed above, if the Regional Administrator determines that site-specific factors warrant requiring the Facility Response Plan. In making such a determination, Regional Administrators are directed to consider a number of additional factors, including potential vulnerability to adverse weather conditions resulting from climate change and potential for a worst case discharge to adversely impact communities with environmental justice concerns.
The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register in the next few weeks and EPA will accept public comment for 60 days following publication. More information is available at EPA’s website.
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.
U.S. EPA Releases its PFAS Strategic Roadmap
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.
Supreme Court Narrows Triggers for CERCLA Contribution Actions
By 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.
Earth Day 2021: CERCLA and RCRA in The Biden Administration: Elevating Climate Change and Environmental Justice in Addressing Hazardous Wastes
By Andi S. Kenney
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.
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.
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!
Earth Day 2021: Heightened Chemical Regulation under the Biden Administration
By Steven M. Siros, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health & Safety Law Practice
A 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.
U.S. EPA Issues Final Guidance on PFAS SNUR
By 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.
Supreme Court issues Landmark CERCLA Ruling Finding that State Law Challenges to USEPA Cleanup Can Be Raised in State Court (But Plaintiffs Still Lose)
By 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.
Does Environmental Investigation and Remediation Continue Despite COVID-19 Business Restrictions and Social Distancing?
By: Alexander J. Bandza, Steven M. Siros, and Gabrielle Sigel
As the United States rapidly transitions to working from home (when possible) companies involved in environmental investigations or remediation work must determine whether such field or other work could, should, or must continue in the days, weeks, and months ahead. The world is pivoting to tackle COVID-19, a public health crisis, and many of the “essential services” exempted from stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders (“Restriction Orders”) include work involving public health and safety, as well as critical infrastructure services. Therefore, any person with ongoing environmental investigation and remediation work (“environmental field work”) has to consider whether that work would be or should be included in the category of “essential services.”
From a policy standpoint, whether environmental field work should be considered “essential” requires an evaluation of the people and the environment potentially put at risk, the likelihood of that risk, and the resources the work uses. Continuation of environmental field work may benefit public health and the environment, but it also is occurring at some cost to public health and safety. For example, environmental projects use personal protective equipment (“PPE”) and laboratory equipment and personnel that may be able to be allocated to medical and other scientific research needs. Furthermore, some environmental field work requires close human contact and, at a minimum, will require travel to work and other activities that the Restriction Orders and federal and CDC guidelines are seeking to avoid. In addition, environmental contractors may not be able to perform work if key personnel are not available to work due to travel restrictions, health impacts, or family obligations. Thus, the consideration of whether environmental field work should continue during the COVID-19 crisis requires weighing complex public health and safety needs and risks.
To help those considering whether and how to continue environmental field work, evaluate the following:
(1) Am I allowed to do the environmental field work under a state or local COVID-19 Restriction Order?
(2) If I cannot continue under a Restriction Order or for other reasons, how do I protect my company’s interests to avoid penalties and other liabilities under the consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with or regulations imposed by state and federal environmental agencies; and
(3) If I am allowed to or required to continue the work, what regulations pertain to how to do the work safely?
1. AM I ALLOWED TO DO THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER?
As of the time of publication of this alert, there are no federal mandates or executive orders requiring business shutdowns or mandatory quarantines. However, many states, counties, and municipalities are issuing executive orders closing non-essential businesses and limiting gatherings of people.
a. State-Level COVID-19 Executive Orders
Each of these state and local mandates exempt “essential businesses” and the specific definition of an essential business varies from state to state. As a general rule, however, “essential businesses” are those that promote public safety, health, and welfare. Here are examples of several of the first state directives.
California: On March 19, 2020, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-33-20 requiring California residents to remain at home unless they are involved in 16 critical infrastructure sectors. These 16 critical infrastructure sectors were designated by the Department of Homeland Security and include the water and wastewater systems sector that is responsible for ensuring the supply of safe drinking water and wastewater treatment and service.
Illinois: On March 20, 2020, Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-10 requiring Illinois residents to remain in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The order specifically exempts “essential government functions”, “essential businesses and operations”, and “essential infrastructure activities.” Essential infrastructure activities include operation and maintenance of utilities, including water, sewer, and gas, and solid waste and recycling collection and removal and essential businesses and operations includes construction related activities.
New York: On March 20, 2020, Governor Cuomo issued an Executive Order (referred to as Pause, standing for Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone), requiring that as of 8 p.m. on March 22, all non-essential businesses must ensure that their workforce works remotely. Exempt “Essential businesses” include essential infrastructure (including utilities and construction); essential services (including trash collection, mail, and shipping services; news media; banks and related financial institutions); sanitation and essential operations of residences or other essential businesses; and vendors that provide essential services or products (including services needed to ensure the continuing operation of government agencies and provide for the health, safety, and welfare of the public).
New Jersey: On March 21, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order 107 requiring that New Jersey residents remain in their homes and requiring that all “non-essential businesses” close. A previously issued executive order (Executive Order No. 104) defined “essential businesses” to include “grocery/food stores, pharmacies, medical supply stores, gas stations, healthcare facilities and ancillary stores within healthcare facilities.” All gatherings within the state are limited to 50 persons or fewer, except for “normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, office environments, factories, assemblages for the purpose of industrial or manufacturing work, construction sites, mass transit, or the purchase of groceries or consumer goods.”
In addition to these states, many other states have either implemented similar orders (including Connecticut, Delaware, and Louisiana) or likely will do so in the coming weeks. While expressly mentioning critical sectors such as health care, police and fire, and grocery stores, the orders do not squarely address whether environmental field work constitutes “essential businesses” subject to these exemptions. However, environmental field work logically could be included under the categories used to describe “essential business,” particularly because many of the environmental statutes requiring such work expressly state that the work is being ordered or conducted to protect human health and the environment.
b. Federal (U.S. EPA) Environmental Agency Guidance
The White House has issued Coronavirus Response Guidelines, “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” including a statement that if you work in one of the 16 “critical infrastructure industries” as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, you have a “special responsibility” to continue to work.
As of this publication, U.S. EPA has not released public guidance on whether ongoing or new site cleanups and/or site investigations would constitute “critical infrastructure industry.” At least to some degree, that determination is likely to be a site-specific, based on the unique circumstances of each site and, as further discussed below, the language of the agency orders or agreements which govern the environmental field work. It is likely that in the coming weeks, U.S. EPA will provide further guidance on assessing whether site cleanup activities constitute “critical infrastructure industry” exempt from the various Restriction Orders. One issue that may need to be resolved in the future relates to potential conflicts in federal and state guidance regarding what constitutes an “essential service.” Such issues could be addressed via federal and state cooperation agreements in the event of possible conflicts between federal and state directives.
c. State Environmental Agency Guidance
At least one state environmental regulatory agency has provided guidance directly on this issue. On March 20, 2020, the California State Resources Water Control Board, which generally has jurisdiction over impacted groundwater in California, published a Guidance Document that states:
Please be aware that timely compliance by the regulated community with all Water Board orders and other requirements (including regulations, permits, contractual obligations, primacy delegations, and funding conditions) is generally considered to be an essential function during the COVID-19 response. As a result, the Water Boards consider compliance with board-established orders and other requirements to be within the essential activities, essential governmental functions, or comparable exceptions to shelter-in-place directives provided by local public health officials.
It is likely that similar guidance will be issued in the coming weeks by other state regulatory agencies.
2. IF I CANNOT CONTINUE THE WORK UNDER A RESTRICTION ORDER OR OTHERWISE, HOW COULD I PROTECT MY COMPANY’S INTERESTS TO AVOID PENALTIES OR OTHER LIABILITIES?
Those responsible for ongoing environmental field work should carefully evaluate the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies, and private parties, under which they are performing environmental field work. The agreements may well have force majeure and other clauses addressing delays in the work.
For example, under the current federal model remedial design/remedial action (RD/RA) judicial consent decrees with potentially responsible parties (“PRPs”) under sections 106, 107 and 122 of CERCLA, PRPs have both covenanted not to sue the United States and agreed to indemnify the same for “claims on account of construction delays.” There are additional stipulated penalty provisions. Therefore, companies must act pursuant to the force majeure provisions to avoid these claims and stipulated penalties. Force majeure is defined as “any event arising from causes beyond the control of [PRPs], of any entity controlled by [PRPs], or of [PRPs]’ contractors that delays or prevents the performance of any obligation under this [consent decree] despite [PRPs]’ best efforts to fulfill the obligation.”
Relying on these provisions involves:
Notifying “EPA’s Project Coordinator orally or, in his or her absence, EPA’s Alternate Project Coordinator or, in the event both of EPA’s designated representatives are unavailable, the Director of the Waste Management Division” in that specific U.S. EPA Region within a stipulated period of days (the period of days may vary under each consent decree).
Providing in writing to U.S. EPA “an explanation and description of the reasons for the delay; the anticipated duration of the delay; all actions taken or to be taken to prevent or minimize the delay; a schedule for implementation of any measures to be taken to prevent or mitigate the delay or the effect of the delay; [the PRP’s] rationale for attributing such delay to a force majeure; and a statement as to whether, in the opinion of [the PRP], such event may cause or contribute to an endangerment to public health or welfare, or the environment” within a stipulated period of days (the period of days likely varies under each consent decree).
Providing with the above writing “all available documentation supporting their claim that the delay was attributable to a force majeure.”
U.S. EPA is then to provide notice of its decision, which if U.S. EPA rejects the force majeure claim, the responsible parties must provide notice within 15 days of U.S. EPA’s decision to avail themselves of the model consent decree’s dispute resolution provision. The federal Model Administrative Settlement Agreement and Order on Consent for Removal Actions contains similar obligations and provisions.
It is thus plain that responsible parties conducting environmental field work should be prepared to contact U.S. EPA or state regulators orally as soon as practicable to determine their views on the necessity of the work and if there is disagreement about the same, begin to “paper the file” on the necessary force majeure documentation in the time frames provided in the governing consent decrees, administrative orders, or various other agreements with state and federal environmental agencies.
For sites that are in the early investigation stages, regulators may agree to a temporary pause in site investigations. For sites that are currently undergoing remedial measures, the determination on whether work should continue is again likely to be fact dependent. For example, a site with an ongoing groundwater treatment system that is being operated to protect a drinking water source is likely to be deemed an essential activity. For a site where the remedial measures involve excavating impacted soils that are not immediately affecting groundwater sources, it may be the case that the regulators determine that certain activities are not “essential” and can be temporarily paused or scaled back.
Even if the decision is made to proceed with the work, other circumstances may preclude or significantly impair the ability to do the work. For example, it may be difficult to obtain necessary supplies and/or vendors to perform these services. To the extent that wastes are generated in the course of doing this work, can these wastes be managed and disposed of in a timely manner? These are all issues that should be discussed with the regulators or private parties requiring the work.
3. IF I CONTINUE THE WORK, HOW CAN I DO IT SAFELY?
Once a decision is made that environmental field work is “essential” and must proceed to at least some degree, special care must be taken to ensure that the work is performed safely given additional risks imposed by COVID-19. On March 9, 2020, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued its Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 that was the subject of a previous client alert. This OSHA guidance outlines recommended steps that employers should take to protect workers, using OSHA’s “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks (i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE. It is also prudent for all entities at the site to consider what steps they will take if they learn that one of the workers has become exposed to the novel coronavirus or contracted COVID-19. On March 20, 2020, the CDC issued updated “Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations.”
OSHA has long-standing regulations for work at hazardous waste sites under its Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (“HAZWOPER”) standard (in general industry 29 CFR 1910.120 and in construction 29 CFR 1926.65), which establishes health and safety requirements for work at sites, as well as responses to emergencies involving releases of hazardous substances. Many environmental investigation and remediation sites have rigorous site-specific health and safety plans, and many are required to have such plans by a consent decree or other regulatory or contractual obligation. Many environmental contractors have such plans as part of their standard operating procedures. However, given COVID-19, special care should be taken to ensure that PPE that would ordinarily be used to prevent exposure to hazardous substances is not contaminated prior to being utilized in the field. Moreover, ensuring feasible physical distancing, requiring diligent hygiene methods, and having appropriate cleaning equipment and chemicals in the field are also critical. All entities with employees at the site should regularly check both the OSHA and CDC website for updated guidance on workplace health and safety best practices. It also is important to ensure that the protocols are being appropriately communicated and followed by all entities (including regulators) at a site; the best protocols and procedures are only as good as their actual implementation by all.
OSHA has reminded the regulated community that if employees contract COVID-19 as a result of performing their work-related duties, the employees who become ill could constitute recordable cases of illness under OSHA’s Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Standard, 29 CFR Part 1904.
Companies and their counsel also should evaluate existing master services agreements that govern the work of their vendors and contractors with a particular eye towards: (i) how indemnification provisions might apply in the event that a vendor’s or contractor’s employee is later determined to be infected with COVID-19 and such a latency period could plausibly extend to such an employee’s work at the company’s site and its employees, and vice versa; and (ii) payment delay provisions should the company or its vendors or contractors become concerned about solvency issues.
We will continue to provide updates on the impacts of COVID-19 on environmental, health and safety issues affecting our clients. Jenner & Block has established a COVID-19 resource center that provides updates on a variety of issues affecting our clients and we would encourage you to visit this resource center for timely updates on COVID-19 related issues.
White House Promises to Use “All Available Tools” to Implement Deep Cuts to EPA Funding in Fiscal Year 2021
By Matthew G. Lawson
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.
DoD Quietly Releases PFAS Screening Levels
By 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.