The Ninth Circuit Sends Climate Change Cases Back to State Court
By Leah M. Song
On May 26, 2020, the Ninth Circuit agreed with plaintiffs that two climate change lawsuits—County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al. and City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al.—had been improperly removed to the federal courts, continuing courts’ recent trend of remanding these types of cases back to state court.
A growing form of climate change litigation in the United States consists of lawsuits filed by states or municipalities against private industry, and more specifically, the fossil-fuel industry. States, cities and other units of local government have filed lawsuits alleging state common law theories, including nuisance, trespass, failure to warn of the known impacts of climate change, and unjust enrichment. The outcome of these cases thus far has hinged on whether or not the fossil fuel companies are able to successfully remove the litigation to federal court where they stand a much greater chance of getting the litigation dismissed. Generally, plaintiffs (including states, units of local government, and non-governmental organizations) asserting climate change claims against corporations prefer to be in state court where they can take advantage of perceived plaintiff-friendly common law or state statutes. On the other hand, defendants inevitably seek to remove such cases to federal court where they have had a higher level of success securing dismissals on the grounds that the issue is preempted by the Clean Air Act and/or addresses a “political question” which is better left to the discretion of Congress. See City of N.Y. v. BP P.L.C.. 325 F. Supp. 3d 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).
In County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al., six California municipalities and counties sued more than 30 fossil-fuel companies in California state court. The plaintiffs brought a variety of claims under state common law including nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, and trespass. In City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al., the Cities of Oakland and San Francisco sued five fossil-fuel companies in state court under a theory of nuisance. The fossil-fuel companies removed both cases to federal court. The San Mateo district court remanded the case back to state court while the Oakland district court refused to remand the case back to state court, finding that plaintiffs’ public nuisance claims were governed by federal common law, but then proceeding to dismiss the lawsuit. Both cases were appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
On May 26th, the Ninth Circuit joined the Fourth Circuit (Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. BP P.L.C., et al., No. 19-1644 (4th Cir. Mar. 6, 2020)) in concluding that these climate change cases alleging only state-common law claim belonged in state court. In County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al., the Ninth Circuit emphasized its limited authority to review an order remanding a case back to state court under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d). The Ninth Circuit therefore limited its review to determining whether the district court erred in holding that the federal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the federal-officer removal statute.
In order to determine whether the district court erred in holding that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction, the Ninth Circuit examined whether the companies were “acting under” a federal officer’s directions. The companies argued that they were “persons acting under” a federal officer based on several agreements with the government. However, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the companies’ activities under these agreements did not give rise to a relationship where they were “acting under” a federal officer. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit court held that the fossil fuel companies failed to meet their burden for federal-officer removal and therefore affirmed the district court’s remand order.
In City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al., the Ninth Circuit considered whether “the district court erred in determining that it had federal-question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331” and ultimately held that plaintiffs’ state common-law public nuisance claims did not arise under federal common law. The court acknowledged that there are exceptions to the well-pleaded complaint rule for claims that arise under federal law, but concluded that none of those exceptions applied here.
The court reasoned that “[t]he question whether the Energy Companies can be held liable for public nuisance based on production and promotion of the use of fossil fuels and be required to spend billions of dollars on abatement is no doubt an important policy question, but it does not raise a substantial question of federal law for the purpose of determining whether there is jurisdiction under § 1331.” Furthermore, evaluation of the public nuisance claim would require factual determinations which are “not the type of claim for which federal-question lies.” The fossil fuel companies argued that the plaintiffs’ public nuisance claim was completely preempted by the Clean Air Act, but the court was not persuaded.
In response to defendants’ argument that by amending their complaint to assert a federal common law claim, the district court properly had subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, the Ninth Circuit noted that plaintiffs only amended their complaint in response to the district court’s statements that plaintiffs’ claims were governed by federal common law. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit noted that since a party violates § 1441(a) “if it removes a cases that is not fit for federal adjudication, a district court must remand the case to state court, even if subsequent action conferred subject-matter jurisdiction on the district court.”
Notwithstanding these conclusions, the Ninth Circuit noted that the district court had not addressed alternative bases for removal raised by defendants and therefore remanded the case back to the district court. However, the Ninth Circuit specifically noted that if the district court concludes that there are no valid bases for federal jurisdiction, the case should be remanded back to state court.
Although these rulings did not address the merits of plaintiffs’ common-law claims, these cases will certainly pose challenges for defendants seeking to remove these types of cases to federal court, and will likely affect plaintiffs’ and defendants’ strategies in climate change litigation moving forward. Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on those matters, as well as other important climate change litigation cases, as they unfold.
New Executive Order Presses Agencies to Continue to Seek Regulatory Flexibility in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic
By Leah M. Song
On May 19, 2020, the President issued an executive order titled “Regulatory Relief to Support Economic Recovery” (“Executive Order”). The Executive Order seeks to “overcome the effects the virus has had on [the] economy” and to that end, directs agencies and executive departments to "continue to remove barriers to the greatest engine ever known: the innovation, initiative and drive of the American people." To do so, executive departments and agencies are encouraged and directed to take appropriate action.
The Executive Order directs agencies to respond to the economic consequences of COVID‑19 by “rescinding, modifying, waiving, or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery.” Agencies are directed, "to use, to the fullest extent possible and consistent with applicable law, any emergency authorities” to support the economic response to COVID-19. Agencies are charged with identifying “regulatory standards that may inhibit economic recovery” and take appropriate action to promote job creation and economic growth. This includes issuing proposed rules, exempting persons or entities from requirements, exercising appropriate temporary enforcement discretion or temporary time extensions.
The Executive Order further instructs agencies to provide compliance assistance for regulated entities and to “accelerate procedures by which a regulated person or entity may receive a pre-enforcement ruling.” Agencies should consider enforcement discretion policies for those that “have attempted in reasonable good faith to comply with applicable statutory and regulatory standards.” Additionally, the Executive Order emphasized that agencies should “consider the principles of fairness” and “revise their procedures and practices in light of them.” The Executive Order recommends that agencies review regulatory standards and “determine which, if any, would promote economic recovery if made permanent.”
Consistent with this Executive Order, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has previously issued a COVID-19-related policy regarding EPA's decision to exercise enforcement discretion with respect to non-compliance with certain environmental requirements (this enforcement policy was the subject of a prior Corporate Environmental blog). Although EPA's enforcement discretion policy has been challenged by several states and environmental organizations, the Executive Order would seem to diminish the likelihood that EPA will rescind its enforcement discretion policy in the near term.
Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.
U.S. EPA Extends Comment Period on PFAS Safe Drinking Water Act Regulatory Determination to June 10, 2020
By Steven M. Siros
As discussed in more detail in a previous blog, on February 20, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“U.S. EPA”) announced that it was seeking public comments on its preliminary regulatory determination that seeks to implement regulatory limits for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in public drinking water across the United States. The regulatory determination is a key step in the creation of a Maximum Contamination Level (“MCL”) that will act to limit the quantity of PFAS permitted in public drinking water.
In its preliminary regulatory determination, U.S. EPA proposes setting MCL levels for two PFAS substances, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which EPA has determined meet the statutory criteria to become regulated contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act. To meet this criteria, U.S. EPA had to find that: (1) the consumption of PFOS and PFOA may result in adverse health effects; (2) PFOS and PFOA have been identified in public water supplies at frequencies and levels sufficient to cause a public health concern; and (3) that new regulation presents a meaningful opportunity to reduce the health risks posed by PFOS and PFOA.
The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and the American Water Works Association (collectively “AMWA”) submitted comments that were supportive of setting an MCL for PFOS and PFOA. In addition to targeting PFOA and PFOS, the AMWA recommended that U. S. EPA also include four other long-chain PFAS compounds in its regulatory determination. AMWA also recommended that U.S. EPA “thoroughly consider state standards and guidelines with significantly lower PFAS levels that [U.S. EPA’s] Health Advisory Level (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for combined concentrations of PFOA and PFOS.”
The AMWA also requested that U.S. EPA extend the comment period an additional 30 days to allow the AMWA to more fully engage with its members and to provide more meaningful and comprehensive comments on the proposal. To that end, U.S. EPA has now agreed to extend the comment period an additional 30 days May 10th to June 10th.
EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic
By Leah M. Song and Steven M. Siros
On 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.
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.
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.
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 and Congress Use Liability Immunity to Address the Shortage of Respirators in Healthcare Settings
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.
Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Key Endangered Species Act FOIA Case
By Matthew G. Lawson
On Monday, March 2, 2020, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to a petition from two U.S. federal agencies attempting to block the release of certain agency decision-making documents under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). The agencies’ petition followed a determination by the Ninth Circuit that certain “draft” documents created by the agencies pursuant to Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) were not exempt from public release under FOIA. The Supreme Court’s resolution of the matter is expected to have far reaching impacts on the types of documents that federal agencies may hold back from public release under FOIA.
The case stems from an April 2011 regulatory proposal by U.S. EPA to modify standards related to certain “cooling water intake structures,” used by power plants and manufacturing facilities to dissipate heat. Under Section 7 of the ESA, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”) and National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) were required to provide U.S. EPA their “biological opinions” as to whether the regulatory proposal was “likely to cause jeopardy” for certain ESA-listed species or negatively impact critical habitat of threatened or endangered species. Pursuant to this obligation, the USFWS and NMFS advised U.S. EPA of their preliminary determination that the proposed regulations would harm currently endangered species. However, the agencies’ preliminary determinations were never published, and following further discussions with U.S. EPA, the agencies ultimately modified their conclusion and announced a finding that the proposed regulations would pose no “no jeopardy” to endangered species. Following this determination, the Sierra Club subsequently issued a FOIA request for documents related to the ESA consultation process, but the agencies refused to turn over documents related to their draft preliminary determination. Specifically, the agencies claimed that the documents were protected under the “deliberate process privilege” exception to the FOIA. Following several years of litigation, the Ninth Circuit held in 2018 that the deliberate process privilege did not extend to block the draft documents created by the USFWS and NMFS and that the agencies were required to turn over the documents to the Sierra Club.
In its petition, the Government urged that the Ninth Circuit’s rulings must be overturned in order to protect the deliberate process privilege of FOIA, which is essential for “promoting a candid exchange within and between agencies before a final decision is made.” In its brief in response to the Government, the Sierra Club argued that the documents “conveyed the Services’ conclusion that a particular action proposed by…EPA would result in jeopardy to species protected by the ESA,” and that the agencies’ attempt to subsequently identify these documents as “drafts” did alter the conclusive nature of the documents.
The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Government’s petition is likely an ominous indicator for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups supporting the Ninth Circuit’s holding. Since 2007, the Supreme Court has overturned approximately 70% of the federal circuit decisions it agrees to review, and has overturned more than 77% of the decisions arriving from the Ninth Circuit.
EPA Announces Regulatory Determination to Regulate PFAS in Drinking Water
By Matthew G. Lawson
On Thursday, February 20, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced a preliminary regulatory determination that the agency will seek to implement regulatory limits for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in public drinking water across the United States. The regulatory determination is a key step in the creation of a Maximum Contamination Level (“MCL”) that will act to limit the quantity of PFAS permitted in public drinking water. In its preliminary regulatory determination, EPA proposes setting MCL levels for two PFAS substances, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which EPA has determined meet the statutory criteria to become regulated contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act. To meet this criteria, EPA had to find that: (1) the consumption of PFOS and PFOA may result in adverse health effects; (2) PFOS and PFOA have been identified in public water supplies at frequencies and levels sufficient to cause a public health concern; and (3) that new regulation presents a meaningful opportunity to reduce the health risks posed by PFOS and PFOA.
As part of its announcement, EPA will seek public comments on its preliminary findings for the next 60 days. Critically, the preliminary regulatory determination offers no insight into the regulatory levels EPA anticipates setting for PFOS or PFOA. Through its voluntary Health Advisory Level (“HAL”), EPA currently recommends that municipalities maintain a maximum limit of 70 parts per trillion of PFAS in drinking water served to the public. While the HAL is referenced in EPA’s preliminary regulatory determination, it is unclear whether EPA will look to set PFOS or PFAS’ mandatorily MCL at a similar level. EPA’s election to regulate PFOS and PFOA kicks off a two-year period for the agency to determine an appropriate MCL for the contaminants. Following the formal proposal of an MCL, the agency has another 18 months to set its final drinking water requirements.
The release of a preliminary regulatory determination marks a critical step in EPA’s implementation of its PFAS Action Plan. Under the PFAS Action Plan, EPA has committed to “identifying and understanding PFAS, [ ] addressing current PFAS contamination, preventing future contamination, and effectively communicating with the public about PFAS.” The plan sets forth four overarching goals for regulating PFAS:
Consider the creation of an MCL for PFOA and PFOA;
Begin necessary steps to propose designating PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” through available federal statutory mechanisms, including CERCLA, RCRA, TSCA and the CWA;
Develop and implement groundwater cleanup recommendations for PFOA and PFOS at contaminated sites;
Develop toxicity values or oral reference doses for various PFAS chemicals.
Under the Trump Administration, the EPA has repeatedly affirmed that addressing the emerging contaminant PFAS is a key and ongoing priority for the agency. As stated in the PFAS Action Plan, “the EPA has heard clearly the public’s desire for immediate action to address potential human health and economic impacts from PFAS in the environment.” In fact, despite proposing large cuts to EPA’s overall budget, the Trump Administration’s proposed budget for 2021 requests an additional $6 million dollars from Congress to carry out EPA’s PFAS Action Plan. “Under President Trump, EPA is continuing to aggressively implement our PFAS Action Plan – the most comprehensive cross-agency plan ever to address an emerging chemical,” stated EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “With today’s action, EPA is following through on its commitment in the Action Plan to evaluate PFOA and PFOS under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”