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March 27, 2020 EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic

Song By Leah M. Song and Steven M. SirosLinkedin_Steven_Siros_3130

Covid-19On March 26, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced a temporary policy regarding EPA enforcement of environmental legal obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated that the “EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements.”

This temporary enforcement discretion policy applies to civil violations during the COVID-19 outbreak. To clarify, the policy does not apply to: a) any criminal violations or conditions of probation in criminal sentences, b) activities that are carried out under Superfund and RCRA Corrective Action enforcement instruments, and c) imports. Additionally, the policy does not relieve any entity from preventing, responding to, or reporting accidental releases.

The temporary policy makes it clear that the EPA expects regulated facilities to comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible. To be eligible for enforcement discretion, the policy also requires facilities to document decisions made to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and demonstrate how the noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The policy addresses different categories of noncompliance differently and is broken into the following sections:

 

Routine Compliance Monitoring and Reporting by Regulated Entities

Facilities should use existing procedures to report noncompliance with routine activities, such as compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification. If reporting is not reasonably practicable due to COVID-19, facilities should maintain this information internally and make it available to EPA upon request. In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of such routine activities where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request.

Additionally, the EPA does not plan to ask facilities to “catch-up” with missed monitoring or reporting if the underlying requirement applies to intervals of less than three months. For other monitoring or reports, such as those required on a bi-annual or annual basis, when this policy is no longer in effect, the EPA expects facilities to take reasonable measures to resume compliance activities as soon as possible, including conducting late monitoring or submitting late reports, and encourages facilities to provide supporting documentation in the reporting form.

Given the online availability of trainings, the EPA does not think trainings will be affected. If training is not practicable due to COVID-19, the EPA believes that it is more important to keep experienced, trained operators on the job, even if a training or certification is missed.

EPA does expect continued submissions, certifications or required reports or other deliverables, but will exempt the requirement to obtain a “wet” signature, and will accept a digital or electronic signature. EPA strongly encourages use of approved electronic reporting mechanisms.

Settlement Agreement and Consent Decrees Reporting Obligations and Milestones

Parties to EPA administrative settlement agreements should utilize the notice procedures set forth in the agreement if the parties anticipate missing enforceable milestones. The notification should provide the information required by the agreement, which typically will include steps taken to minimize the effects and duration of any noncompliance caused by COVID-19.

Consent decrees entered into with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) remain under the jurisdiction of the courts. The EPA staff will coordinate with the DOJ to exercise enforcement discretion with regard to stipulated penalties for the routine compliance obligation. Again, parties should utilize the notice procedures set forth in the consent decree.

Facility Operations

The EPA expects all regulated entities to continue to manage and operate their facilities in a manner that is safe and that protects the public and the environment.

Facilities should contact the appropriate implementing authority if facility operations impacted by COVID-19 may create an acute risk or an imminent threat to human health or the environment. In response, the EPA will work with the appropriate authority to discuss measures to minimize or prevent the acute or imminent threat to health or the environment from the COVID-19-caused noncompliance and obtain a return to compliance as soon as possible.

If a facility suffers from failure of air emission control or wastewater or waste treatment systems or other facility equipment that may result in exceedances of enforceable limitations, the facility should notify the implementing authority as quickly as possible. The notification also should include information on the pollutants emitted, discharged, discarded, or released; the comparison between the expected emissions or discharges, disposal, or release and any applicable limitation(s); and the expected duration and timing of the exceedance(s) or releases.

If facility operations result in noncompliance are not already addressed by the EPA above, the facility should do its best to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and document such efforts.

If a facility is a generator of hazardous waste and, due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is unable to transfer the waste off-site within the time periods required under RCRA to maintain its generator status, the facility should continue to properly label and store such waste. If the facility does its best to prevent or mitigate noncompliance, the EPA will treat such entities to be hazardous waste generators.

Lastly, if a facility is an animal feeding operation, and, due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is unable to transfer animals off-site and, solely as a result of the pandemic, meets the regulatory definition of concentrated animal feeding operation (“CAFO”), the EPA will not treat such animal feeding operations as CAFOs.

Public Water Systems Regulated Under the Safe Drinking Water Act

The EPA has heightened expectations for public water systems. The EPA expects operators of such systems and laboratories performing analysis for water system to continue normal operations, maintenance, and timely analysis of samples and results.

The EPA will consider continued operation of drinking water systems to be the highest priority. The EPA considers the following tiers of compliance monitoring: 1) National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, 2) nitrate/nitrite and Lead and Copper Rule, and 3) contaminants for which the system has been non-compliant.

The EPA strongly encourages public water systems to consult with the state and EPA regional offices without delay if issues arise that prevent the normal delivery of safe drinking water.

Critical Infrastructure

In situations where a facility is essential critical infrastructure, the EPA may consider, on a case-by-case basis, a more tailored short-term No Action Assurance if it is in the public interest. The EPA will consider essential the facilities that employ essential critical infrastructure workers as determined by guidance issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

EPA’s policy will apply retroactively beginning on March 13, 2020. EPA will assess the continued need for and scope of this temporary policy on a regular basis and will update it if EPA determines modifications are necessary. EPA will post a notification here at least 7 days prior to terminating this temporary policy.

Jenner & Block’s "Corporate Environmental Lawyer" will continue to update on these matters, as well as other important COVID-19 related guidance, as they unfold.

CATEGORIES: Air, Hazmat, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Steven M. Siros, Leah M. Song

March 26, 2020 Does the OSH Act Give an Employee the Right to Refuse to Work Due to Fear of Workplace COVID-19 Exposure?

Sigel

 Song

By Gabrielle Sigel  and Leah M. Song

 

Responding to COVID‑19, many state and local governments are issuing orders encouraging or requiring workers to stay at home (“Stay-At-Home Order”) unless their employment is deemed to be in an “essential business” or “critical infrastructure industry.” Whether working in an essential business or where no Stay-At-Home Order has been issued, employees may express concerns about, or refuse, coming to work due to fear of contracting COVID‑19 at work.  The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSH Act” or “the Act”) prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for exercising rights under the Act.  If an employer fires or takes other action against an employee who walks off the job due to COVID‑19 fears, is the employee exercising a right under the Act, such that the employer could face a government lawsuit for retaliating against the employee?  Although this discussion is limited to refusal to work rights and responsibilities under the OSH Act, as with many issues raised by the novel coronavirus, the answer will be fact-specific and may be unique to this public health crisis.  After analyzing the applicable law below, we provide practical suggestions for how employers and their counsel can analyze the issue if raised at their workplace.

I.  The OSHA Anti-Retaliation Provisions

Since the OSH Act’s enactment in 1970, Section 5(a)(1) of the Act states that “[e]ach employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” 29 U.S.C. § 654 (“the General Duty Clause”).  From its beginning, the OSH Act also has provided that an employer cannot “discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee” because the employee complains about a safety issue to management or OSHA or “because of the exercise by [an] employee on behalf of himself or others of any right afforded by this Act.”  29 U.S.C. § 660(c) (“Section 11 of the OSH Act”); see also 29 CFR Part 1977.  If an employer takes discriminatory action in retaliation, the Secretary of Labor (“the Secretary”) can sue the employer, under Section 11 of the OSH Act, in federal district, to require reinstatement, back pay, and “all appropriate relief.”  29 U.S.C. § 660(c)(2).  However, the OSH Act does not expressly address how employees can exercise their rights when there is an imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury and a reasonable belief that there is not sufficient time or opportunity to seek redress from OSHA or the employer.

Interpreting Section 11 in 1973, OSHA issued its anti-retaliation regulation at 29 CFR § 1977 (the “OSHA anti-retaliation regulation”), addressing whether, under what circumstances, and how an employee could refuse to perform work under the Act.  Section 177.12(b)(1) (emphasis added) states:

[A]s a general matter, there is no right afforded by the Act which would entitle employees to walk off the job because of potential unsafe conditions at the workplace. Hazardous conditions which may be violative of the Act will ordinarily be corrected by the employer, once brought to his attention. If corrections are not accomplished, or if there is dispute about the existence of a hazard, the employee will normally have opportunity to request inspection of the workplace pursuant to section 8(f) of the Act, or to seek the assistance of other public agencies which have responsibility in the field of safety and health. Under such circumstances, therefore, an employer would not ordinarily be in violation of section 11(c) by taking action to discipline an employee for refusing to perform normal job activities because of alleged safety or health hazards.

29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(1) (emphasis added).

Despite this initial statement that employees do not have the right to walk off the job, in the next paragraph the regulation acknowledges that exigent circumstances may exist that would trigger employee protections for refusing to work.  Section 1977.12(b)(2) states:  “[O]ccasions might arise when an employee is confronted with a choice between not performing assigned tasks or subjecting himself to serious injury or death arising from a hazardous condition at the workplace,” and, on those occasions, an employer cannot take action against the employee.  29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(2).  Specifically, if:  (1) “the employee, with no reasonable alternative, refuses in good faith to expose himself to the dangerous condition;” (2) “a reasonable person… would conclude that there is a real danger of death or serious injury;” (3) due to the urgency of the situation, there is insufficient time “to eliminate the danger through resort to regular statutory enforcement channels;” and (4) the employee “sought from his employer, and was unable to obtain, a correction of the dangerous condition,” an employer taking action against the employee refusing to work could be subject to a Section 11 lawsuit brought by the Secretary.  Id.; see also 29 U.S.C. § 660(c).

OSHA has published guidance on the issue, Workers’ Right to Refuse Dangerous Work, cautioning that “OSHA cannot enforce union contracts that give employees the right to refuse to work,” but explaining the steps that workers should take if they believe working conditions are dangerous, the employer fails to eliminate the imminent danger, and there is not enough time to address the condition through regular enforcement channels:

  1. Ask your employer to correct the hazard, or to assign other work;
  2. Tell your employer that you won’t perform the work unless and until the hazard is corrected; and
  3. Remain at the worksite until ordered to leave by your employer.

Notably, this OSHA guidance does not answer the question presented by COVID‑19:  an employer’s obligations and an employee’s rights when OSHA’s direction to “remain at the worksite” is at the root of an employee’s claim of a dangerous condition.  

II.  Caselaw and OSHA Guidance Interpreting Section 11 and the OSHA Anti-Retaliation Regulation

Not surprisingly, there are no reported court cases interpreting the OSHA anti-retaliation provisions in the context of potential exposure at the workplace to a contagious illness, much less a pandemic.  However, court decisions interpreting the OSHA anti-retaliation regulation in the context of other workplace risks are instructive as to how those provisions may be applied to the workplace risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.

The foundational case upholding a worker’s OSH Act right to refuse to work is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Whirlpool Corp. v. Marshall, 445 U.S. 1 (1980).  In Whirlpool, two employees refused to conduct maintenance tasks that previously had led to the death of a fellow employee, claiming that the risk had not been eliminated despite repeated employee complaints to management.  When the employees refused to conduct the task the day after their call to OSHA, the employer sent them home without pay and put reprimands in their files.  The Secretary filed suit against the employer, alleging unlawful discrimination against the employees in violation of Section 11 of the Act, as interpreted by the OSHA anti-retaliation regulation.  On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue was whether the OSHA regulation “authorizing employee ‘self-help’ in some circumstances . . . is permissible under the Act.”  445 U.S. at 8.  The Supreme Court first found that the OSHA regulation allowing workers to “avoid workplace conditions that they believe pose grave dangers to their own safety” “conforms to the fundamental objective of the Act—to prevent occupational deaths and serious injuries” and that the regulation rationally complemented the Act’s remedial scheme.  Id. at 11-12, 21. 

The Court then conducted an analysis of the Act’s legislative history.  The Court noted that the provisions in the OSH Act were different from those in other acts protecting workers, such as the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) and the Labor Management Relations Act.  Id. at 17, n. 29.  The Court also found that

Congress very clearly meant to reject a law unconditionally imposing upon employers an obligation to continue to pay their employees their regular paychecks when they absented themselves from work for reasons of safety.  But the regulation at issue here does not require employers to pay workers who refuse to perform their assigned tasks in the face of imminent danger.  It simply provides that in such cases the employer may not “discriminate” against the employees involved.  An employer “discriminates” against an employee only when he treats that employee less favorably than he treats others similarly situated.

Id. at 18-19 (emphasis added).  The Court concluded that the OSHA regulation explaining that it is an employee’s right to refuse to perform an assigned task because of a reasonable apprehension of death or serious injury, coupled with a reasonable belief that no less drastic alternative is available, was a “valid exercise of [the Secretary’s] authority under the Act.”  Id. at 22.

In Whirlpool, the Court found that the employees “were clearly subjected to ‘discrimination’ when [their employer] placed reprimands in their respective employment files,” but the Court left to the lower court on remand to determine if the denial of pay for time they did not work was discrimination.  Id. at 19, n. 31. 

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Whirlpool, the Secretary has successfully obtained awards of back pay, reinstatement, and other relief under Section 11 of the Act and the anti-retaliation regulation.  See, e.g., Perez v. Clearwater Paper Corp., 184 F. Supp. 3d 831 (D. Idaho 2016) (employer who retaliated against its employee for complaining about health hazards was required to pay back pay, severance pay, emotional distress and punitive damages); Perez v. U.S. Postal Service, 76 F. Supp. 3d 1168 (W. D. Wash. 2015) (employer who retaliated against its employee when he helped another employee file a complaint with OSHA was required to pay lost wages from denial of promotion, travel, housing, and medical expenses, and emotional distress damages, and expunge the employee’s personnel record); see also Secy. v. Lear Corp. Eeds and Interiors, 822 F.3d 556, 561-62 (11th Cir. 2016) (the Secretary has power under Section 11 to enjoin an employer’s state court lawsuit alleging tortious defamation by employees who raised health and safety concerns if Secretary finds that the employer’s tort claims are baseless and retaliatory or preempted by federal law); Reich v. Hoy Shoe Co., 32 F.3d 361, 368 (8th Cir. 1994) (“an employer that retaliates against an employee because of the employer's suspicion or belief that the employee filed an OSHA complaint has as surely committed a violation of § 11(c) as an employer that fires an employee because the employer knows that the employee filed an OSHA complaint”).

The Secretary’s prosecution of Section 11 lawsuits typically uses a burden-shifting framework, consistent with other lawsuits for discrimination, in which the burden shifts to the employer if the Secretary has established a prima facie case.  See Solis v. Blue Bird Corp., 404 Fed. Appx. 412, 413 (11th Cir. 2010) (the district court properly used “the burden-shifting framework laid out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green,” 411 U.S. 792 (1973), in a Section 11 retaliatory discharge case).  For example, in Chao v. Blue Bird Corp., 2009 WL 485471 (M.D. Ga., Feb. 26, 2009), the Secretary brought suit under Section 11 of the OSH Act when an employer discharged an employee after he raised safety concerns about a work assignment and demanded further training.  Id. Blue Bird, 2009 WL 485471 at *2-4; see 29 CFR § 1977.9.  Applying McDonnell Douglas, the court found:  “Claims alleging wrongful discharge in retaliation for exercising rights afforded under the Act are analyzed under the burden-shifting framework” under which the Secretary “must present sufficient evidence to satisfy the elements of her prima facie case.”  Blue Bird at *3 (citation omitted).  To establish a prima facie case, “the Secretary must show by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) [the employee] engaged in protected activity; (2) [the employer] took adverse action against [the employee]; and (3) a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse action.”  Id. (citation omitted).  “If a prima facie case is established, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action.  Id.  If articulated [by the employer], the [Secretary] must show that the [employer’s] reason was pretextual in order to prevail.”  Id. (citation omitted). In Blue Bird, the court found that the employees’ actions were proper and protected under the Act, that the employer’s discharge and other actions violated the Act, and that the employer’s justification for its action was pretextual, and ordered the employee’s reinstatement with all prior benefits and back pay. 

On January 1, 2016 OSHA’s Directorate of Whistleblower Programs, which investigates potential Section 11 claims before they are filed in court, issued an agency-wide memo; “Clarification of the Work Refusal Standard Under 29 CFR 1977.12(b)(2)” (the “Work-Refusal Memo”).  OSHA noted that there were “five requirements for a protected work refusal:”

  • a reasonable apprehension of death or serious injury,
  • a good faith refusal,
  • no reasonable alternative,
  • insufficient time to eliminate the condition through regular statutory channels, and
  • where possible, the employee sought and was unable to obtain a correction of the dangerous condition.

Work-Refusal Memo, p. 2.  The last page of the Work-Refusal Memo has a flowchart showing how OSHA analyzes whether an employee’s work refusal is protected under the Act.  Among other points, OSHA clarifies that “[i]t is not an absolute requirement that a complainant [employee] call federal or state OSHA after being instructed to perform a dangerous task.”  Id., p. 3.  However, “OSHA should determine whether (1) the called federal or state OSHA and, if not; (2) whether there was a period of time during which the complainant reasonably could have contacted Federal or state OSHA but did not do so.”  OSHA also takes the position that an “employee voluntary quit” after “protectable refusal to work” may be considered a constructive discharge, that can trigger Section 11 liability.  Id., pp. 5‑6. 

III.  Minimizing Risk of an OSH Act Retaliation Claim During the COVID‑19 Crisis

In sum, under the OSH Act, employees are not given an unfettered right to walk off the job or refuse to work, even in response to a dangerous condition.  Moreover, employees are not necessarily entitled to pay if they refuse to work.  However, employees generally are protected from discriminatory action by an employer if they stop work when they reasonably believe that they will be forced to work under dangerous conditions, risking death or serious injury, and they have no other recourse.  Discriminatory actions are those treating an employee “less favorably” than others similarly situated.  Whirlpool, 445 U.S. at 19.  OSH Act protections are separate from those under labor contract laws.  See, e.g., Whirlpool, 445 U.S. at 17, n. 29; N.L.R.B. v. Tamara Foods, Inc., 692 F.2d 1171 (8th Cir. 1982) (non-unionized employees have a protected right under the NLRA to walk off worksite after repeated exposures to ammonia fumes); see also, Hatzel & Buehler, Inc. v. Orange & Rockland Utilities, Inc., 1992 WL 391154, *5, n.10, 10-13 (D. Del. Dec. 14, 1992) (contractor cannot rely on its employees’ rights under OSHA anti-relation regulation to claim impossibility of performance of work involving asbestos exposure).

The medical science regarding COVID‑19 and the virus’ transmission is still growing.  To bring an action against an employer, the Secretary would first need to demonstrate that exposure to COVID‑19 (or the virus) in a particular workplace presents a “real danger of death or serious injury.”  See 29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(2).  Still, an employer will want to take precautions to avoid being sued by the Secretary for retaliatory conduct if employees raise COVID‑19 concerns or refuse to come to work out of fear of the disease.  To protect against an OSH Act Section 11 claim, employers and their counsel will want to consider the following:

First, an employer should not take any potentially retaliatory actions merely because an employee raises a COVID‑19 safety concern or if the employee contacts OSHA about that concern.  See 29 CFR § 1977.9 (employee’s rights to raise safety concerns and/or contact OSHA protects employee from any retaliation in response).

Second, in response to an OSHA inquiry, complaint, or inspection, the employer would be well‑advised to demonstrate its compliance with potentially applicable OSHA regulations, such as PPE standards, e.g., 29 CFR § 1910.132. 

Third, although OSHA recognizes that “[t]here is no specific OSHA standard covering COVID‑19,” the employer should consider its workplace conditions in light of OSHA’s “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID‑19” (“the OSHA Guidance”), issued on March 11, 2020 (and any updates thereto).  As discussed in a previous article on the COVID‑19 OSHA Guidance, OSHA recommends steps that employers should take to protect workers at different levels of risk, using OSHA’s “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks ( i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE).  Notably, OSHA recognizes that for “most employers,” they can protect their employees just by implementing “basic infection prevention measures.”  OSHA Guidance at 8, 20-22. 

Fourth, if a fellow worker contracted COVID‑19 and had been at the worksite within at least 14 days prior, the employer should consider the adequacy of its cleaning of the affected work area.  See CDC’s “Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations”; OSHA Guidance at 9-10. 

Fifth, the employer should evaluate whether the employer has control over the worksite conditions that are the subject of the complaint and whether a change in operations or additional precautions are possible and appropriate, especially given that the business may be deemed “essential.”  See OSHA Guidance at 11-12.  This evaluation, and potential implementation of additional hazard controls, can demonstrate that the employer took appropriate steps to address the hazard, as explained in 29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(1).

Sixth, the employer should consider the action it should take in response to an employee’s refusal to come to work or to work as instructed, given that it may be the employer’s obligation to show that its action was not discriminatory, i.e., no different than taken with respect to others working in the same circumstances.  The employer will want to show that the reasons for its actions, including, for example, discharge, were non-discriminatory, including whether those measures are equally applied, consistent with existing company policies and procedures, and otherwise not a pretext for retaliating against an employee taking allegedly lawful action.

As with many employment law issues, dealing with employees’ concerns is both delicate and crucial to a business’s success, particularly in these fraught and novel times.  Careful consideration of Section 11 OSH Act responsibilities should be a key part of the employer’s COVID‑19 legal compliance analysis. 

See Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Coronavirus Resource Center for further articles regarding legal issues facing our community in the wake of the public health emergency.

CATEGORIES: Hazmat, OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel, Leah M. Song

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, Alexander J. Bandza

March 20, 2020 White House and Congress Use Liability Immunity to Address the Shortage of Respirators in Healthcare Settings

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Due to COVID-19, the nation’s healthcare industry is facing a severe shortage of respiratory protection equipment for healthcare workers. Both Congress and the White House have recently taken steps to try to address that shortage by enacting liability immunity under the Families First Coronavirus Response law, signed late on March 18, 2020. These provisions protect manufacturers, distributors, and others of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”)-designated industrial respirators from any claims of liability arising from their use during the response to COVID-19. The intent is that this would increase the supply of NIOSH-approved small-particular filtering respirators from those who manufacture or have on-hand respirators that previously had not been FDA-approved as medical devices.

As explained in OSHA’s Hospital Respiratory Protection Program Toolkit: Resources for Respirator Program Administrators (May 2015), respirators are different from facemasks, including surgical masks. Fluid-resistant facemasks are loose-fitting devices that can protect the healthcare worker from larger droplets of infectious bodily fluids from patients, and vice versa. Facemasks “are not considered respiratory protection— facemasks do NOT provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller particles, including those emitted into the room air by a patient who is exhaling or coughing, or generated during certain medical procedures.” Id. at 5. Respirators, on the other hand, protect the hospital worker from both large and small infectious particles in the air (smaller particles are known as “aerosols”). An N95 respirator is a half-mask air-purifying device with NIOSH-approved N95 filters or filtering material. The “95” refers to the NIOSH specification that the respirator filter at least 95% of airborne particles. N95 respirators can be designed for single-use or in a mask that allows re-use after replacement of N95 filter or cartridges, and, in contrast with facemasks, they are designed to form a tight seal on the user’s face. Another type of respirator that protects against inhalation of aerosols is an “air-supplying respirator,” which provides clean air from a source other than the immediate ambient air. Self-contained breathing apparatus, commonly known as “scuba equipment,” is an example of an air-supplying respirator.

Although N95 respirators are generally used in all workplaces where control of inhalation of smaller-sized particles is required to reduce hazards, in order to use such respirators in a hospital, in general, the manufacturer must have its devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medical device. Certain N95 respirators can be outfitted with the additional splash protection of a surgical mask, and are called a “surgical respirator,” “medical respirator,” or “surgical N95.” Those devices are deemed a medical device, which must be approved by both the FDA and by NIOSH for their particle-filtering ability Non-surgical N95s are not typically used in a hospital setting and a manufacturer and others may be reluctant to supply them for hospital use, particularly given the potential liability risks from their use in that setting.

Faced with a shortage of surgical N95 respirators, the White House turned to manufacturers and users of industrial N95s as an additional source. On March 2, 2020, the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), pursuant to section 564 of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), that allows the emergency, COVID-19 use of designated NIOSH-certified N95 respirators in the health care setting. The EUA also stated that certain NIOSH-approved respirators that had passed the manufacturer’s recommended shelf-life also could be used in certain circumstances.

The March 2, 2020 EUA did not address protection of industrial manufacturers from liability for use of respirators in medical settings. On March 11, 2020, the FDA clarified the EUA by stating that the FDA had deemed general use N95 respirators as medical devices within the meaning of 201(h) of the FDCA and eligible for liability protections under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act of 2005, 42 U.S.C. § 247d-6d (“the Public Readiness Act”). Under the Public Readiness Act, certain devices, called “countermeasures,” are entitled to broad liability immunity during their use in response to a public health emergency. Specifically, a “covered person” is forever immune from liability for any type of “loss” associated with the use of a designated “countermeasure,” including death, physical, mental, or emotional injury, fear of such injury, including medical monitoring, and damage to property including business interruption. 42 U.S.C. § 247d-6d(a)(1)-(2). A “covered person” includes the United States, manufacturers and distributors of the countermeasure, and all employees of a manufacturer or distributor of a designated countermeasure. 42 U.S.C. § 247d-bd(i)(2). Liability protection is provided regardless of whether the countermeasure is sold, donated or otherwise provided and used for medical services.

On March 14, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 6201, the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” which in Division F, Section 6005, designated personal respiratory protective devices approved by NIOSH (42 CFR part 84) and designated by the FDA in the March 2, 2020 EUA, as a “covered countermeasure” subject to all liability immunities under the Public Readiness Act.” The U.S. Senate passed the bill, without amendment, on March 18, 2020, and later that day, the bill was signed into law by the President. Industrial respirators will remain a liability-protected countermeasure if they are used to address COVID-19 anytime between January 27, 2020 and October 1, 2024, in response to the public health emergency declared by the Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar II on January 31, 2020.

In the meantime, as supplies continue to be short, the CDC has issued guidelines for how medical providers should triage their use of respiratory protective equipment. The guidelines issued as of March 19, 2020 are here.

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

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

March 19, 2020 OSHA Issues Temporary Enforcement Guidance on Healthcare Employers’ Requirements for Fit-Testing of Respirators

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

One of the current Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations on center stage as a result of the health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 is OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR § 1910.134 (“the Standard”).  On March 14, 2020, OSHA issued a Temporary Enforcement Guidance, entitled “Healthcare Respiratory Protection Annual Fit-Testing for N95 Filtering Facepieces During the COVID-19 Outbreak” (“Temporary Guidance”).  Although directly applicable only to the healthcare industry, the Temporary Guidance portends what may become the new normal for all industries that require respirator use and that are continuing to operate during the COVID-19 crisis. 

In general, the Standard requires employers to provide respirators at the appropriate level of protection when it is necessary to protect employees from workplace inhalation hazards.  The Standard also requires such employers to have a written program addressing respirator use, and to implement procedures including for start-up and annual medical evaluation and fit-testing, training, and cleaning of respirators.  Through the Temporary Guidance, OSHA Compliance Officers are provided instructions from OSHA headquarters regarding enforcement of the Standard in the healthcare industry in light of the supply shortages of N95 filtering facepiece respirators. 

The Temporary Guidance notes that the CDC recommends that healthcare providers who are providing direct care to patients with known or suspected COVID-19 to, among other things, use personal protective equipment (“PPE”), such as respirators.  In the Temporary Guidance, OSHA recommends that if N95 respirators are not available, healthcare employers should provide a respirator of “equal or higher protection,” e.g. N99 or N100 filtering facepieces, reusable elastomeric respirators, or powered air purifying respirators.  In addition, to conserve resources, OSHA recommends that fit-testing of filtering facepiece respirators continue, but that employers use a qualitative, non-destructive method, rather than a quantitative, destructive method for fit-testing.  The CDC has its own guidelines regarding what healthcare workers should do when they are facing a shortage of N95 respirators.

With respect to enforcement, OSHA directed all offices to “exercise enforcement discretion” concerning the annual fit-testing requirement, 29 CFR § 1910.134(f)(2), if employers take other actions to mitigate risks to employees, including:

  • Make a “good-faith effort” to comply with the Standard.
  • Use only NIOSH-certified respirators [see concerns regarding counterfeit respirators].
  • Perform initial fit-testing for employees using the same model, style, and size of respirator that the employee will actual use.
  • Train employees regarding how to perform a “seal check” each time a respirator is donned.

Other requirements that OSHA is relying on to mitigate risk and avoid non-compliance are listed in the Temporary Guidance.

CATEGORIES: Air, Hazmat, OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

March 12, 2020 U.S. OSHA Issues Guidance for Employers Regarding Preparing for COVID-19 Risks

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

On March 9, 2020, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” (“Guidance”) compiling best practices and existing regulatory standards for evaluating and preparing for risks to workers from exposure to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. OSHA urges that “it is important for all employers to plan now for COVID-19.” (p. 3) The Guidance describes: (1) how a COVID-19 outbreak could affect workplaces; (2) steps employers can take to reduce workers’ risk of exposure; (3) classification of jobs into categories of risk and controls to protect workers in each category; and (4) how to protect workers living or traveling outside the U.S.

OSHA acknowledges that “[w]hile there is no specific OSHA standard covering SARS-CoV-2 exposure, some OSHA requirements may apply to preventing occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2,” specifically, OSHA’s regulations regarding provision of personal protective equipment (“PPE”) [ 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I], respirator use [29 CFR 1910.134], and the all-encompassing General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, which requires employers to provide each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1). (p.17) OSHA also suggests that the bloodborne pathogen standard [29 CFR 1910.1030] offers a framework for controlling exposures to respiratory secretions that may contain the virus.

In the Guidance, OSHA divides job tasks into exposure levels of “very high, high, medium, and lower risk” and then recommends steps employers should consider taking to protect workers in each risk category, using its “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks, i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE. (pp. 18-25) OSHA’s analysis is summarized below:

  • Very High Risk Workers: Workers in the health care and related professions (including autopsy and mortuary workers) performing aerosol-generating procedures on known or suspected COVID-19 patients or handling specimens or body parts from such patients.
    • Engineering Controls: Install and maintain air-handling systems in healthcare facilities; patients with suspected or known COVID-19 should be placed in airborne infection isolation rooms, “if available;” aerosol-generating procedures should occur only in isolation rooms; use Biosafety Level 3 precautions for handling specimens.
    • Administrative Controls: Follow all healthcare facility guidelines and standards for identifying and isolating infected individuals and protecting workers; “consider” offering enhanced medical monitoring of workers; train workers on preventing transmission; ensure psychological and behavioral support for employee stress. Safe
    • Work Practices: Provide emergency responders and others working outside of fixed healthcare facilities with hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol. PPE: Provide respirators for those working within 6 feet of potential or known infected patients; PPE ensemble including gowns, fluid-resistant coveralls, aprons and other protective clothing; proper disposal of PPE, including training of those involved in disposal.
  • High Risk Workers: Other health care and mortuary workers who are exposed to known or suspected COVID-19 patients, but not those exposed to aerosol-generating procedures.
    • Engineering and administrative controls, safe practices, and PPE: Same as for Very High Risk Workers, adjusted based on somewhat lower risk.
  • Medium Risk Workers: Workers whose job requires frequent and/or close contact within 6 feet of those who may be infected with the virus, but are not known to have contracted COVID-19. “Medium risk” classification applies to those who work with the general public in communities with “ongoing community transmission,” such as in schools and “some high-volume retail settings.”
    • Engineering Controls: Physical barriers, such as sneeze guards, “where feasible.”
    • Administrative Controls: “Consider” offering facemask to ill employees and customers until they can leave the workplace; inform customers of COVID-19 symptoms; “where appropriate,” limit customer and public access to workplace areas; communicate availability of medical resources.
    • PPE: May need combination of gloves, own, face mask, face shield/goggles, depending on work tasks, hazard assessment, and types of exposures; need for respirator would be “rare.”
  • Lower Risk Workers: Workers whose jobs do not require frequent contact with the public and other coworkers.
    • Engineering Controls: None additional.
    • Administrative Controls: Monitor public health communications, including CDC’s website, and work with workers on effective communications.
    • PPE: None additional.

In addition to the steps above, OSHA’s Guidance provides “Steps All Employers Can Take to Reduce Workers’ Risk of Exposure to SARS-CoV-2.” (pp. 7-17) While not requiring employers take these measures, the Guidance states that “[a]s appropriate,” employers should implement “good hygiene and infection control practices”; “explore whether” employers can establish practices including physical and social distancing, and have cleaning equipment and chemicals that are EPA-approved for addressing viruses. (pp. 8-9) OSHA also states that employers should develop policies and procedures for “prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate.” (p.9) OSHA also encourages employers to “develop, implement and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protections” with the principal goal of allowing sick workers or those with illness in families to stay home. (p.11)

With respect to employers with workers working abroad, the Guidance advises that employers keep abreast of CDC and State Department announcements, tell workers that the State Department will not provide medications or supplies to Americans abroad, and be aware that travel in and out of a foreign country may be limited. (pp. 25-26) (The Guidance was issued before the President announced his ban of travel from Europe on March 11.)

Further and updated information about OSHA’s response and guidance about COVID-19 can be found at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/. California-OSHA also has published extensive “Guidance on Requirements to Protect Workers from Coronavirus.”

CATEGORIES: Air, Hazmat, OSHA

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

February 4, 2020 EPA Issues Emergency Guidance to Mitigate Spread of Coronavirus in the United States

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By Matthew G. Lawson

  CoronavirusOn January 29, 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”) activated its Emerging Viral Pathogens Guidance for Antimicrobial Pesticides (the “Guidance”) in an attempt to help curb the spread of the Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) (the “Coronavirus”) in the United States. Drafted pursuant to USEPA’s authority under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the Guidance sets forth a voluntary process by which companies holding FIFRA registrations for disinfecting/antimicrobial products can promote the use of their products against specific “emerging pathogens,” including the Coronavirus. While the Guidance was finalized in August 2016, it had remained inactive prior to USEPA’s recent announcement.

Under the typical FIFRA registration process, the manufacturer of a disinfecting product that wishes to promote the product’s use against a specific virus or bacteria must first submit testing data to USEPA that demonstrates the product’s efficacy against the microbe. Following USEPA’s approval of the submitted data, the manufacturer is then permitted to update its product’s labeling to include the use of the product against the microbe. However, as noted by USEPA, “

ecause the occurrence of emerging viral pathogens is less common and predictable than established pathogens,” it can be difficult “to assess the efficacy of EPA registered disinfectants against such pathogens in a timely manner and to add these viruses to existing product registrations…” For this reason, USEPA’s emergency Guidance allows manufacturers to receive special permission to advertise their products for use against emerging viral pathogens during public health outbreaks. The intent of USEPA’s guidance is to “expedite the process for registrants to provide useful information to the public” regarding products that may be effective against emerging pathogens.

To receive the benefit of the Guidance, a manufacturer must submit a “label amendment request” to USEPA with a statement explaining its product’s effectiveness against an emerging viral pathogen. This step is ideally completed prior to a public health outbreak. So long as the product meets certain eligibility criteria, USEPA will approve the amendment. Next, in the event a public health outbreak occurs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) “identifie[s] [an] emerging pathogen and recommend[s] environmental surface disinfection to help control its spread,” approved manufacturers are permitted to start advertising the effectiveness of their products for controlling the pathogen. A manufacturer can provide a statement of their product’s efficacy against the pathogen “in technical literature distributed to health care facilities, physicians, nurses, public health officials, non-label-related websites, consumer information services, and social media sites.” However, the efficacy statement may not appear on the actual label of the product.

As of Tuesday, February 4, 2020, more than 20,500 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed worldwide. While the vast majority of confirmed cases have occurred in mainland China, cases have been confirmed in more than two dozen other countries, including eleven confirmed cases in the United States. The CDC has warned that the Coronavirus poses an “unprecedented threat” to public health in the United States. USEPA’s Guidance notes that the agency will continue working closely with the CDC to identify and address Coronavirus in a timely manner and to monitor developments closely.

CATEGORIES: Air, Hazmat, Matthew G Lawson, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

February 4, 2020 Clothing Company Agrees to Pay $69.5 Million to Settle PFAS Claims

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130 By Steven M. Siros Drinking water

In a consent decree filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Wolverine World Wide, Inc. (“Wolverine”) has agreed to pay up to $69.5 million to resolve claims that it was responsible for PFAS contamination found in drinking water in the Michigan townships of Plainfield and Algoma. The consent decree alleges that Wolverine’s historical operations utilized PFAS to waterproof clothing and that these operations resulted in PFAS releases that impacted local drinking water supplies in these Michigan townships. Although Wolverine disputes these allegations,  in the consent decree, Wolverine agreed that it would (1) remediate the PFAS impacts at its historical operations and (2) provide alternative drinking water supplies for approximately 1,000 properties within the zone of PFAS impacted groundwater. 

CATEGORIES: Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Hazmat, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

February 4, 2020 EPA Issues Emergency Guidance to Mitigate Spread of Coronavirus in the United States

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By Matthew G. Lawson

  CoronavirusOn January 29, 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”) activated its Emerging Viral Pathogens Guidance for Antimicrobial Pesticides (the “Guidance”) in an attempt to help curb the spread of the Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) (the “Coronavirus”) in the United States. Drafted pursuant to USEPA’s authority under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the Guidance sets forth a voluntary process by which companies holding FIFRA registrations for disinfecting/antimicrobial products can promote the use of their products against specific “emerging pathogens,” including the Coronavirus. While the Guidance was finalized in August 2016, it had remained inactive prior to USEPA’s recent announcement.

Under the typical FIFRA registration process, the manufacturer of a disinfecting product that wishes to promote the product’s use against a specific virus or bacteria must first submit testing data to USEPA that demonstrates the product’s efficacy against the microbe. Following USEPA’s approval of the submitted data, the manufacturer is then permitted to update its product’s labeling to include the use of the product against the microbe. However, as noted by USEPA, “

ecause the occurrence of emerging viral pathogens is less common and predictable than established pathogens,” it can be difficult “to assess the efficacy of EPA registered disinfectants against such pathogens in a timely manner and to add these viruses to existing product registrations…” For this reason, USEPA’s emergency Guidance allows manufacturers to receive special permission to advertise their products for use against emerging viral pathogens during public health outbreaks. The intent of USEPA’s guidance is to “expedite the process for registrants to provide useful information to the public” regarding products that may be effective against emerging pathogens.

To receive the benefit of the Guidance, a manufacturer must submit a “label amendment request” to USEPA with a statement explaining its product’s effectiveness against an emerging viral pathogen. This step is ideally completed prior to a public health outbreak. So long as the product meets certain eligibility criteria, USEPA will approve the amendment. Next, in the event a public health outbreak occurs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) “identifie[s] [an] emerging pathogen and recommend[s] environmental surface disinfection to help control its spread,” approved manufacturers are permitted to start advertising the effectiveness of their products for controlling the pathogen. A manufacturer can provide a statement of their product’s efficacy against the pathogen “in technical literature distributed to health care facilities, physicians, nurses, public health officials, non-label-related websites, consumer information services, and social media sites.” However, the efficacy statement may not appear on the actual label of the product.

As of Tuesday, February 4, 2020, more than 20,500 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed worldwide. While the vast majority of confirmed cases have occurred in mainland China, cases have been confirmed in more than two dozen other countries, including eleven confirmed cases in the United States. The CDC has warned that the Coronavirus poses an “unprecedented threat” to public health in the United States. USEPA’s Guidance notes that the agency will continue working closely with the CDC to identify and address Coronavirus in a timely manner and to monitor developments closely.

CATEGORIES: Air, Hazmat, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

January 22, 2020 U.S. Navy Does Not Have to Pay to Monitor Residents for PFOS/PFOA Exposure Issues

SongBy Leah M. Song

In our previous blog post, we discussed the case of Kristen Giovanni, et al. v. Navy. As an update, on January 15, 2020, the district court judge said that the Navy did not have to pay to monitor residents for potential health issues linked to PFOS and PFOA exposure. 

The court dismissed the suit finding that the regulator's failure to designate the chemicals as hazardous substances precluded the plaintiffs from filing under state law. To qualify for medical monitoring, Section 1115 of Pennsylvania’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (HSCA) stated that citizens must have been exposed to a hazardous substance, a designation that PFOA and PFOS lack under either federal or state law. The judge reasoned that “merely having the essential qualities of a hazardous waste…is not enough to be a hazardous substance under HSCA.”

Another basis for the Court’s ruling was that the state and federal governments are “well on their way to classifying PFAS as hazardous substances.” This may increase efforts to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law.

The plaintiffs’ attorney said that the decision would not be appealed but they would see what could be done in the future if the substances are designated as hazardous substances.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Hazmat, Leah M Song, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Steven M. Siros

January 13, 2020 Failure to Designate PFAS as Hazardous Substance May Doom Medical Monitoring Lawsuit

Linkedin_Steven_Siros_3130 PFOAPFOS

The fact that neither perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) nor perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) is classified as a hazardous substance may prove fatal to plaintiffs’ efforts to convince a federal court to allow a novel citizen suit to proceed.  In the case of Kristen Giovanni, et al. v. Navy which is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, plaintiffs brought a citizen suit under a Pennsylvania cleanup statute seeking to compel the Navy to monitor residents for potential health issues linked to PFOS and PFOA exposure. In October 2018, the Third Circuit Appellate Court affirmed an earlier ruling from the district court that had rejected plaintiffs’ efforts to compel the Navy to undertake a government-led health assessment, finding that such a request constituted an impermissible challenge to an ongoing CERCLA response action. The Third Circuit concluded that plaintiffs' request for a government-led health study sought injunctive relief that could potentially interfere with the ongoing response action at the site. Plaintiffs’ request for medical monitoring, on the other hand, sought to compel the Navy to fund a trust, which the Third Circuit concluded was not a challenge to ongoing response actions at the site.

During a hearing following remand from the Third Circuit, the district court judge noted that Section 1115 of Pennsylvania’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (HSCA) (which provides for a citizen-suit right of action) only provides relief for HSCA designated “hazardous substances.” Although plaintiffs’ counsel argued that PFOA and PFOS fell within the HSCA’s definition of “hazardous substances,” in fact neither substance has been designated as a “hazardous substance” under CERCLA, nor have they been so designated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. In what may be foreshadowing of how the court intends to rule, the judge noted that if he were to dismiss plaintiffs’ case, in the event that either the state or U.S. EPA were to designate PFOA and/or PFOS as “hazardous substances,” plaintiffs would be able to file a new lawsuit.

CATEGORIES: Climate Change, Hazmat, Sustainability, Toxic Tort, Water

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Steven M. Siros

December 30, 2019 New York Bans PFAS Chemicals in Firefighting Foam as Industry Fights for Exemptions

HeadshotBy Matthew G. Lawson

On December 23, 2019, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo gave conditional approval to a state ban on firefighting foams containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (known as “PFAS”).  PFAS, commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their ongoing persistence in the environment, are a family of man-made chemicals commonly found in a variety of products, including food packaging, cookware, stain-resistant clothing, and, in the case of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), many types of firefighting foams.  According to the U.S. EPA, PFAS chemicals are not only “extremely persistent in the environment,” but have also been linked to numerous health conditions including cancer in humans.

The legislation (“A445A”) requires the New York Office of Fire Prevention and Control to promulgate regulations that will provide guidance for state agencies and local government to avoid the purchase of firefighting foams containing PFAS compounds and outright prohibits the manufacture of PFAS containing firefighting foams within two years of the effective date of the bill.  As a condition to his approval, Governor Cuomo noted that an amendment to the current legislation was needed to allow discretionary use of firefighting agents containing PFAS where no other viable options exist.  On the basis of an agreement with the New York legislature to implement these amendments, the Governor conditionally approved the bill.    

With the enactment of the legislation, New York becomes the third U.S. state to ban PFAS chemicals behind Washington and New Hampshire. In addition, six other states have enacted some form of partial prohibitions on the use of foams containing PFAS chemicals.  In response to the recent state legislation, the FluoroCouncil has affirmed that use of firefighting foam containing PFAS “is credited with saving lives and property” and that use of such foams may be essential for extinguishing fires caused by flammable liquids.

Regulation of PFAS chemicals is also being considered at the federal level.  As noted in a prior blog by the Corporate Environmental Lawyer, a federal bill is currently being considered that would require the U.S. EPA to promulgate drinking water standards for PFOS as well as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), another common chemical in the PFAS family.  According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the estimated cost of implementing these federal standards across the country are likely to exceed “several billion dollars.” The Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on forthcoming or pending state and federal legislation regarding PFAS chemicals.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas, Hazmat, Sustainability, Toxic Tort

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

September 5, 2019 Available Company Defenses to Climate Change Shareholder Activism: Trends in Climate Change Litigation, Part 5

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  GHG

By Matthew G. Lawson

As noted in Jenner & Block’s prior blog post, Shareholder Activism: Trends in Climate Change Litigation, Part 4, an emerging issue for public companies in high greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emitting industries is increased pressure from environmentally focused “activist shareholders.” These shareholders often seek to leverage their ownership shares to influence companies into taking action to decrease GHG emissions and/or increase public disclosure of such emissions. These efforts may be undertaken through negotiations with company management or through the introduction of specific shareholder proposals and proxy materials to be presented and voted on at annual shareholder meetings.

Several recent actions taken by the SEC may now help shield public companies from certain attempts by shareholders to introduce climate change related proposals for consideration at shareholder meetings. Under SEC rule 14a-8(i)(7), public companies may exclude from shareholders’ voting ballots any proposals which seek to “micromanage” the company’s ordinary business operations. In recent months, the SEC has asserted that rule 14a-8(i)(7) may be utilized by companies to block certain types of climate change related proposals. The agency has articulated this position by issuing “no-action” letters to public companies seeking to block climate-change proposals from their shareholders. In effect, these letters act as an assurance that the SEC will not recommend enforcement action against the companies for blocking the respective proposals because the agency agrees that the proposal falls under the purview of rule 14a-8(i)(7). However, the SEC has, in a few instances, refused to issue “no-action” letters to companies seeking to block shareholder climate change proposals.

Whether a shareholder’s climate change proposal is excludable under rule 14a-8(i)(7) therefore appears to be a case-by-case determination which depends on the specific demands of a proposal. As a general rule, the SEC has found that proposals which only seek greater disclosure of a company’s GHG emissions cannot be excluded under rule 14a-8(i)(7), but proposals which impose GHG emission reduction targets on the company or require specific methods for reporting or calculating GHGs may be excluded under rule 14a-8(i)(7). A few instructive examples of these general conclusions are provided below:

  • On February 14, 2019, the SEC issued a no-action letter to J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc. approving the company’s request to block a shareholder proposal that, if implemented, would require the company to adopt quantitative targets for reducing GHG emissions and issue a report demonstrating its progress towards achieving these targets. The SEC found that the proposal sought to micromanage the business by probing into complex matters that were better left to the informed judgment of management.
  • On March 4, 2019, the SEC refused to issue a no-action letter to Anadarko Petroleum Corporation after the company sought to block a proposal requesting that the company describe if, and how, it planned to reduce its total contribution to climate change to fall in line with the global temperature objectives of Paris Agreement.
  • On April 2, 2019, the SEC issued a no-action letter to ExxonMobil which affirmed that the company could exclude a shareholder proposal which would require the company to adopt and disclose certain GHG emission reduction targets. The SEC noted that the proposal sought to replace the ongoing judgments of the company’s management with “specific methods” for implementing complex policies.

Of course, the threat of potential governmental enforcement actions is only one reason why a company may hesitate to block shareholder proposals. Beyond the business considerations of such a decision, public companies may also need to consider whether adopting certain types of shareholder proposals—particularly those calling for increased disclosure and transparency of GHG emissions—may be beneficial to protect the company from the risk of future lawsuits by the company’s shareholders.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Greenhouse Gas, Hazmat, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

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