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Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog

July 2, 2019 Exploring the E-Suite with Dr. Shalini Vajjhala, Founder and CEO, re:focus partners (San Diego, CA), and former Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Office of International & Tribal Affairs at the US EPA.

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Shalini Vajjhala

 

Exploring the E-Suite with Dr. Shalini Vajjhala, Founder and CEO, re:focus partners (San Diego, CA), and former Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Office of International & Tribal Affairs at the US EPA.

    1. Tell us about re:focus partners, including what the organization does and your role.

    re:focus is a design firm that specializes in developing resilient infrastructure solutions for cities and communities around the world and integrating project finance into the design process. Our team brings together expertise in policy, engineering, and risk management to craft integrated projects and develop new public-private partnerships. The goal of every re:focus project is to better align public funds and leverage greater private investment to protect and improve the lives of vulnerable communities.

     

    As Founder and CEO, my role involves setting the strategic direction of the organization and putting together our major initiatives and partnerships. Like most small organizations, everyone on our team does a little bit of everything, and on the day-to-day level, I usually have my sleeves rolled up on various project management, design, and analysis tasks and pieces of writing.

    1. What is your professional background that led you to become involved in the energy and environmental fields?

    I am an architect first and foremost, and I have always loved the field of green design. I went on to do graduate work in engineering and public policy (also at Carnegie Mellon University), which widened my view of the many ways to engage in the energy and environmental fields. My research focused on how community mapping could inform environmental decision-making. When I finished my PhD in 2005, I went on to join Resources for the Future, an economics think-tank in Washington, DC, as one of a handful of non-economists in the organization. Being more of a “methods” rather than domain-specific researcher gave me tremendous freedom to work on issues from infrastructure siting to environmental justice and climate change adaptation, which all have important spatial dimensions and community engagement at their core.

    In early 2009, I joined the Obama Administration and spent a few months at the White House Council on Environmental Quality before moving to the US EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs. In my time in the Administration, I worked on a huge range of issues, but one of the common threads was pulling together interesting public-private partnerships to make progress where public-sector resources alone were insufficient.

    I stepped down from my position at the EPA in 2012, just before Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard, and was urged by our various partners to continue the green infrastructure and resilience work I had started at EPA. That’s how re:focus came to be. In hindsight, I feel tremendously fortunate to have had the chance to focus on interesting problems and follow those problems into new career opportunities that allowed me to tackle the same challenges from very different vantage points, from research to policy-making to entrepreneurship.

    1. What do you think are the emerging issues in the energy and environmental fields, especially your work in sustainable infrastructure?

    We all recognize when infrastructure fails, but we rarely invest in new systems to prevent disaster and protect communities. I think the biggest emerging issue in the energy and environmental field is how we create robust and resilient infrastructure systems of all kinds and recognize the value of the “avoided losses” or the successes where something doesn’t happen—a storm hits, but a community isn’t devastated. Just as with preventative healthcare, valuing and capturing the value of these kinds of investments is going to be essential if we are going to successfully transition to more resilient communities and economies over the coming decade.

    1. What aspects of working in the energy and environmental fields have you enjoyed most?

    My favorite part of working in a field that is so broad is learning from the experiences and perspectives of colleagues from very different backgrounds and disciplines, and finding new lenses through which to see old and stubborn problems.

    1. What do you find are some of the most challenging aspects of your work in the energy and environmental fields?

    Change is hard. Change in the public sector is even harder. One of the best strategies I have found to making real and persistent change is to gradually create space for something new by starting where an existing system is failing. It is much easier to talk someone from a sinking ship onto a lifeboat than it is to get someone to shift course if they don’t know their boat is taking on water. Too often we cling to a system that we know isn’t working for us today to avoid the unfamiliar tomorrow. Finding gentle ways to bring up existing problems and look for better solutions is the most reliable approach I have found to make something new seem like the preferred alternative to the status quo.

    One important thing I try to avoid is making a future problem or benefit more important than what is happening now. Lots of experts from behavioral economics to psychology know that people everywhere struggle to make decisions that have benefits in the distant future. Instead, we look for where stakeholders in a system are losing money or value today—for example, talking about the costs of current local flooding instead of only talking about future climate changes—since these same systems are likely to be the first to fail or worst off in future.

    1. How did you make the transition from several high-profile energy and environmental policy positions in Washington, DC to becoming a sustainable-infrastructure startup founder?

    I launched re:focus in 2012 after spending several years in multiple positions  at CEQ and EPA. My roles at EPA gave me the opportunity to work with many incredibly dedicated civil servants across the federal government. One of the initiatives that I created and that our team at the Office of International and Tribal Affairs was instrumental in developing was the US-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability (JIUS). The program was an experiment to see how government agencies could build new public-private partnerships to leverage funding for green infrastructure. Based on its early success in bringing together non-traditional partners, it quickly grew into a binational presidential initiative, announced by President Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, to catalyze investment in sustainability in cities around the world. This collaboration brought together federal, state and local government officials with a whole bunch of unconventional private sector companies to find new ways to develop and finance green infrastructure in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Philadelphia, PA. Despite their many differences, these two cities still face many similar challenges when it comes to designing and financing new water, energy, and transportation systems. We turned the role of government on its head and found new ways for government agencies to tackle age-old problems. For example, in Rio, we explored how the local civil defense authorities could help fund water infrastructure in slums to reduce landslide risks and save money in their own disaster response budget.

    Thanks to the leadership of both of these cities, the lessons from the JIUS (pronounced: juice) were successfully highlighted at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20 in June 2012. Through the JIUS, it became clear that we were playing a unique role in designing and brokering new types of public-private partnerships for sustainable infrastructure, and re:focus was born to continue this unusual work. 

    Because I got nudged (by our many philanthropic, NGO, and corporate partners) into starting a social business to continue work that I was already doing, the transition to entrepreneurship was a bit more natural than it might have been otherwise.

    1. As a former policymaker turned startup founder that operates in the sustainable infrastructure space, what can today’s policymakers learn from your challenges and successes?

    I love this question. It’s something we think (and write!) a lot about, and most of our team has worked inside government at some point. We work hard to remember the constraints we faced and the things that were barriers for us when we were in their shoes. We also make an effort to share where and when we get stuck so our government collaborators can see things from “the other side.” As one example, over the past two years we’ve dedicated a significant amount of time to tackling procurement barriers to help both local governments and innovative companies struggling to find new solutions for their highest-priority challenges.

    The most important lessons we’ve learned are that designing major infrastructure projects takes time and investing in predevelopment (all the things you need to do before construction) is essential, so you don’t just build another version of what you had, but you genuinely get to a solution that will serve your community well into the future.

    1. What and/or who have helped you succeed as a startup founder?

    I have to credit my colleagues for every success we’ve had at re:focus. We are a tiny but mighty team, and working with good people who can laugh and persevere together through the daily ups and downs of any start-up is what makes the work worth doing. A couple of years ago, we realized that one of our major initiatives was worth spinning out into a sister company. My colleagues Elle Hempen and Ellory Monks launched The Atlas Marketplace and did an amazing job turning a spreadsheet into a social business to help cities find, source, and procure innovative solutions for everything from stormwater management to urban mobility systems. Having other female founders to celebrate the wins with and empathize when things are bumpy is one of my greatest sources of support.

    1. What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in the energy and environmental fields?

    Follow interesting problems. Careers are no longer linear progressions within a single firm. Many of the biggest opportunities in energy, environment and sustainability are at the “seams” of existing sectors and fields. At re:focus we work hard to serve as ambassadors between traditional silos. Often our work involves finding other connectors and helping everyone see a problem in the same way. For example, in talking with both transportation and water experts about greening urban stormwater systems, we try to find simple illustrations—like turning the city from a funnel into a sponge—so we avoid jargon and create the space for collaborative problem solving. Often our most successful work will involve someone saying, “Well, we've never done this before, but it looks like a little bit of x and y with a dash of z thrown in.” No one can be an expert in everything but even someone just starting out can learn how to break through jargon, learn from lots of different kinds of people, and see problems from different angles. I think the energy and environment fields offer some of the most exciting opportunities to make real and meaningful change over the coming years, and I’m incredibly optimistic about our next generation of innovators!

    Dr. Vajjhala was interviewed by Alexander J. Bandza, Associate, Energy and Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practices, Jenner & Block LLP

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Alexander J. Bandza

April 24, 2019 Climate Change Lawsuits Brought by Coastal Municipalities and States Against the Fossil Fuel Industry: Trends in Climate Change Litigation, Part 3

Matthew G. Lawson

 

By Matthew G. Lawson Air pollution

 

In the third installment of Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are discussing a quickly proliferating form of litigation—lawsuits filed by U.S. states and municipalities against companies that operate in industry sectors which have historically had high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

At present, the most common target for this litigation in the United States has been the oil and gas industry. In these cases, plaintiff cities or states will often bring suit against a large number of oil and gas companies as members of the collective industry. These claims are usually brought in state court, where the plaintiffs can take advantage of potentially favorable state common law. Using this strategy, plaintiffs have asserted claims against the fossil-fuel industry under state law theories such as nuisance, failure to warn of the known impacts of climate change, and unjust enrichment. Of course, as a counter to this strategy and in hopes of demonstrating preemption under the Clean Air Act, defendants will often look to remove climate change cases to federal court.

In order to satisfy Article III Standing requirements, Plaintiffs in these cases have generally been coastal communities which allege that they have suffered harm or are uniquely at risk of suffering harm from rising sea levels as a result of climate change.

Several examples of this ongoing litigation includes:

  • County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al. (2018): claims brought by six California municipalities and counties against 37 fossil-fuel companies in California state court. The plaintiffs, alleging they will be damaged by the effects of climate change, brought a variety of claims under state common law including nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, and trespass. Following defendants’ removal of the case to federal court, plaintiffs successfully remanded back to state court on the grounds that their claims did not implicate a federal question or raise preemption issues. Defendants have filed an interlocutory appeal in the Ninth Circuit which is currently being briefed by the parties.
  • City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al. (2018): claims brought by the City of Oakland and San Francisco against fossil-fuel companies under California common and statutory law. Plaintiffs asserted that the industry’s GHG emissions amounted to a “public nuisance” under California law. However, unlike San Mateo, the defendants in City of Oakland were able to successfully remove and ultimately retain the matter in federal court. The Northern District of California court denied plaintiff’s motion to remand the case back to state court based on its finding that federal common law necessarily governed the nuisance claims. The district court subsequently dismissed the suits on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims raised a “Political Question” best addressed by the legislature as opposed to judicial branch. This dismissal has also been appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
  • Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp. et al. (2018): The first such case to be brought by a U.S. State, Rhode Island asserted claims for nuisance, strict liability, failure to warn, design defect, trespass, impairment of public trust resources, and violations of the Environmental Rights Act against 21 fossil-fuel companies. Rhode Island’s lawsuit asserts that the state’s extensive coastline will be damaged through rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of flooding, extreme precipitation events, and ocean warming and acidification. Defendants have removed the case to federal court, and the parties are currently briefing Rhode Island’s attempt to remand the case back to state court.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

April 24, 2019 Climate Change Lawsuits Brought by Coastal Municipalities and States Against the Fossil Fuel Industry: Trends in Climate Change Litigation, Part 3

Headshot

 

By Matthew G. Lawson Air pollution

 

In the third installment of Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are discussing a quickly proliferating form of litigation—lawsuits filed by U.S. states and municipalities against companies that operate in industry sectors which have historically had high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

At present, the most common target for this litigation in the United States has been the oil and gas industry. In these cases, plaintiff cities or states will often bring suit against a large number of oil and gas companies as members of the collective industry. These claims are usually brought in state court, where the plaintiffs can take advantage of potentially favorable state common law. Using this strategy, plaintiffs have asserted claims against the fossil-fuel industry under state law theories such as nuisance, failure to warn of the known impacts of climate change, and unjust enrichment. Of course, as a counter to this strategy and in hopes of demonstrating preemption under the Clean Air Act, defendants will often look to remove climate change cases to federal court.

In order to satisfy Article III Standing requirements, Plaintiffs in these cases have generally been coastal communities which allege that they have suffered harm or are uniquely at risk of suffering harm from rising sea levels as a result of climate change.

Several examples of this ongoing litigation includes:

  • County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al. (2018): claims brought by six California municipalities and counties against 37 fossil-fuel companies in California state court. The plaintiffs, alleging they will be damaged by the effects of climate change, brought a variety of claims under state common law including nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, and trespass. Following defendants’ removal of the case to federal court, plaintiffs successfully remanded back to state court on the grounds that their claims did not implicate a federal question or raise preemption issues. Defendants have filed an interlocutory appeal in the Ninth Circuit which is currently being briefed by the parties.
  • City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al. (2018): claims brought by the City of Oakland and San Francisco against fossil-fuel companies under California common and statutory law. Plaintiffs asserted that the industry’s GHG emissions amounted to a “public nuisance” under California law. However, unlike San Mateo, the defendants in City of Oakland were able to successfully remove and ultimately retain the matter in federal court. The Northern District of California court denied plaintiff’s motion to remand the case back to state court based on its finding that federal common law necessarily governed the nuisance claims. The district court subsequently dismissed the suits on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims raised a “Political Question” best addressed by the legislature as opposed to judicial branch. This dismissal has also been appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
  • Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp. et al. (2018): The first such case to be brought by a U.S. State, Rhode Island asserted claims for nuisance, strict liability, failure to warn, design defect, trespass, impairment of public trust resources, and violations of the Environmental Rights Act against 21 fossil-fuel companies. Rhode Island’s lawsuit asserts that the state’s extensive coastline will be damaged through rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of flooding, extreme precipitation events, and ocean warming and acidification. Defendants have removed the case to federal court, and the parties are currently briefing Rhode Island’s attempt to remand the case back to state court.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

April 12, 2019 Trends in Climate Change Litigation: Part 2—Investigations & Litigation by State Attorneys General

Matthew G. Lawson

Del

By Matthew G. Lawson

 

In the second installation of Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are highlighting recent investigations brought by US state attorneys general against private companies for allegedly misleading the public and/or company shareholders regarding the potential climate impacts of their operations. 

In recent years, several major state investigations were launched following investigative journalism reports of private companies’ failures to disclose the causes and effects of climate change. One such example is the Los Angeles Times 2015 exposé into Exxon Mobil Corp.’s historic in-house research on climate change.

Approximately one month after the publication of the Los Angeles Times’ article, the New York Attorney General subpoenaed Exxon, seeking documents related to the company’s research on the causes and effects of climate change; the integration of its research findings into business decisions; and the company's disclosures of this information to shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The attorney general’s investigation was grounded in New York's shareholder-protection statute, the Martin Act, as well as New York’s consumer protection and general business laws.

In 2016, New York’s investigation was publically supported by a coalition of top state enforcement officials from Vermont, Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, and the Virgin Islands, all of which agreed to share information and strategies in similar climate change investigations and future litigation. Exxon responded by filing its own lawsuit seeking to block New York and Massachusetts’ investigations.

After a three-year contentious investigation, the New York Attorney General's office sued Exxon on October 24, 2018, alleging that Exxon engaged in “a longstanding fraudulent scheme” to deceive investors by providing false and misleading information about the financial risks the company faced from its contributions to climate change. 

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on this matter, as well as other important climate change litigation cases, as they unfold.

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

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

April 12, 2019 Trends in Climate Change Litigation: Part 2—Investigations & Litigation by State Attorneys General

Headshot

Del

By Matthew G. Lawson

 

In the second installation of Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are highlighting recent investigations brought by US state attorneys general against private companies for allegedly misleading the public and/or company shareholders regarding the potential climate impacts of their operations. 

In recent years, several major state investigations were launched following investigative journalism reports of private companies’ failures to disclose the causes and effects of climate change. One such example is the Los Angeles Times 2015 exposé into Exxon Mobil Corp.’s historic in-house research on climate change.

Approximately one month after the publication of the Los Angeles Times’ article, the New York Attorney General subpoenaed Exxon, seeking documents related to the company’s research on the causes and effects of climate change; the integration of its research findings into business decisions; and the company's disclosures of this information to shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The attorney general’s investigation was grounded in New York's shareholder-protection statute, the Martin Act, as well as New York’s consumer protection and general business laws.

In 2016, New York’s investigation was publically supported by a coalition of top state enforcement officials from Vermont, Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, and the Virgin Islands, all of which agreed to share information and strategies in similar climate change investigations and future litigation. Exxon responded by filing its own lawsuit seeking to block New York and Massachusetts’ investigations.

After a three-year contentious investigation, the New York Attorney General's office sued Exxon on October 24, 2018, alleging that Exxon engaged in “a longstanding fraudulent scheme” to deceive investors by providing false and misleading information about the financial risks the company faced from its contributions to climate change. 

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on this matter, as well as other important climate change litigation cases, as they unfold.

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

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

April 3, 2019 New Jersey Puts PFAS Manufacturers in the Cross-Hairs

Webres_Steven_Siros_3130

 

By Steven M. Siros

Dep_smallNew Jersey continues to take an aggressive stance with respect to per- and polyfluoralkyl (PFAS) contamination. On March 25, 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) issued a “Statewide PFAS Directive Information Request and Notice to Insurers” to five major chemical companies notifying those companies that NJDEP believed them to be responsible for PFAS impacts to the air and waters of New Jersey. In addition to seeking recovery from these companies for past costs incurred by NJDEP to investigate and remediate PFAS impacts, the Directive also seeks to compel these companies to assume responsibility for ongoing remediation of drinking water systems throughout the state. The Directive further seeks information from these companies regarding historical PFAS manufacturing practices as well as information regarding these companies’ ongoing efforts to manufacture PFAS replacement chemicals.

Although environmental organizations have been quick to praise the NJDEP Directive, in reality, the state agency may have overstepped its authority. NJDEP has been quick to point out that the Directive is not a final agency action, formal enforcement order, or other final legal determination and therefore cannot be appealed or contested. Notwithstanding NJDEP’s efforts to insulate its Directive from immediate legal challenge, it will almost certainly draw strong industry challenges. For example, NJDEP’s efforts to obtain information regarding PFAS replacement chemicals may run afoul of the Toxic Substances Control Act and its efforts to compel reimbursement of past claims and/or the takeover of ongoing remedial actions will certainly be the subject of court challenges.

Continuing its full court PFAS press, on April 1, 2019, New Jersey unveiled a proposed drinking water standard of 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS. These proposed drinking water levels are significantly lower than the current U.S. EPA health advisory level of 70 ppt for combined PFOS/PFOA.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Sustainability, Toxic Tort, TSCA, Water

PEOPLE: Steven M. Siros

April 3, 2019 New Jersey Puts PFAS Manufacturers in the Cross-Hairs

Webres_Steven_Siros_3130

 

By Steven M. Siros

Dep_smallNew Jersey continues to take an aggressive stance with respect to per- and polyfluoralkyl (PFAS) contamination. On March 25, 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) issued a “Statewide PFAS Directive Information Request and Notice to Insurers” to five major chemical companies notifying those companies that NJDEP believed them to be responsible for PFAS impacts to the air and waters of New Jersey. In addition to seeking recovery from these companies for past costs incurred by NJDEP to investigate and remediate PFAS impacts, the Directive also seeks to compel these companies to assume responsibility for ongoing remediation of drinking water systems throughout the state. The Directive further seeks information from these companies regarding historical PFAS manufacturing practices as well as information regarding these companies’ ongoing efforts to manufacture PFAS replacement chemicals.

Although environmental organizations have been quick to praise the NJDEP Directive, in reality, the state agency may have overstepped its authority. NJDEP has been quick to point out that the Directive is not a final agency action, formal enforcement order, or other final legal determination and therefore cannot be appealed or contested. Notwithstanding NJDEP’s efforts to insulate its Directive from immediate legal challenge, it will almost certainly draw strong industry challenges. For example, NJDEP’s efforts to obtain information regarding PFAS replacement chemicals may run afoul of the Toxic Substances Control Act and its efforts to compel reimbursement of past claims and/or the takeover of ongoing remedial actions will certainly be the subject of court challenges.

Continuing its full court PFAS press, on April 1, 2019, New Jersey unveiled a proposed drinking water standard of 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS. These proposed drinking water levels are significantly lower than the current U.S. EPA health advisory level of 70 ppt for combined PFOS/PFOA.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Sustainability, Toxic Tort, TSCA, Water

PEOPLE: Steven M. Siros

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

Matthew G. Lawson

Climate Change

By Matthew G. Lawson

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

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

Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

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

Several examples of this emerging type of litigation have included:

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

 

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

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

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

Headshot

Climate Change

By Matthew G. Lawson

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

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

Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.

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

Several examples of this emerging type of litigation have included:

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

 

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

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson

February 12, 2019 BACT to the Future: Enviros Petition for Review on Natural Gas Power Plant Air Permit, Saying Batteries Are “BACT” Under the Clean Air Act

Bandza  By Alexander J. Bandza Air pollution

Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups petitioned the Ninth Circuit for review of EPA Region 9’s decision in December 2018 to issue a final prevention of significant deterioration (PSD) permit for the Palmdale Energy Project (Project), a gas-fired plant being developed in the city of Palmdale, CA. These environmental groups had previously but unsuccessfully challenged the permit in front of EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB), arguing that a new control technology configuration—namely, replacing the combined-cycle turbines’ duct burners with battery storage—should be used to satisfy EPA Region 9’s “Best Available Control Technology” (BACT) requirements under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The EAB denied the environmental groups’ appeal in October 2018. However, as the EAB explicitly recognized, “energy storage technology is a rapidly growing development in the electrical power supply sector,” and therefore the totality of the environmental groups’ efforts may spur additional consideration of battery storage as an option for facilities to meet their obligations under the CAA.

By way of overview, an entity desiring to construct a “major emitting facility” in a CAA-defined “attainment” or “unclassifiable” area must obtain preconstruction approval, in the form of a PSD permit, to build such a facility. CAA § 165. An applicant for a PSD permit must show that its proposal will achieve emissions limits established by BACT for pollutants emitted from its facility in amounts greater than applicable levels of significance. A BACT analysis is a site-specific, pollutant-specific determination that results in the selection of emissions limits representing application of air pollution control technologies or methods appropriate for the facility in question.

In October 2015, Palmdale filed an application with EPA Region 9 for a PSD permit to construct and operate the Project, a new major stationary source, on fifty acres of land in the City of Palmdale, California. The facility consists of two natural gas-fired combustion turbine generators, each of which is equipped with a natural gas-fired duct burner. Each of the two combustion turbine/duct burner combinations vents heat energy to its own dedicated heat recovery steam generator (HRSG), and steam from both HRSGs is routed to a single steam turbine generator. The duct burners boost the total heat input to the HRSGs, which increases steam output from the HRSGs and concomitantly the amount of electricity the steam generator, and thus the entire facility, produces.

In August 2017, EPA Region 9 issued and invited public comment on a draft PSD permit for the construction and operation of, including the regulation of emissions from, the proposed facility.  The environmental groups identified a new control technology configuration—replacing the combined-cycle turbines’ duct burners with battery storage—that neither the Project applicant nor EPA Region 9 had identified as a potential control technology in the original BACT analysis.  In response to the comments, EPA Region 9 determined that using battery storage to replace duct burners could be rejected as technically infeasible, ineffective, and on the basis of energy, environmental, and economic impacts.  As to the first basis for rejection, EPA Region 9 analyzed the largest battery configuration that the environmental groups had identified in their comments—a Tesla 100 MW lithium-ion battery storage facility for an Australian wind farm.  EPA Region 9 concluded that the duct burners could meet the hours required under the longer peak demand periods, whereas the battery configuration could not.  Thus, EPA Region 9 rejected battery storage could be BACT.

The EAB affirmed, concluding that the environmental groups failed meet their burden of establishing that the Region’s analysis was clearly erroneous or otherwise warrants review.  However, the EAB provided hope for future battery-storage efforts (emphasis added):  “The Board observes that its decision is based on the record in this matter and its decision should not be taken to suggest that the Conservation Groups’ proposal can never be BACT for a particular facility. As the Board noted above, BACT is an emission limit that is based on a ‘case-by-case’ analysis, and the Region recognizes that ‘[e]nergy storage technology is a rapidly growing development in the electrical power supply sector[.]’  Thus, what may not be BACT for purposes of this permit application may be BACT for a future permit application.”  Because the environmental groups’ challenge focuses on EPA Region 9’s approval of this air permit, it is anticipated that many of the same arguments and discussion will occur at the Ninth Circuit.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Alexander J. Bandza

February 12, 2019 BACT to the Future: Enviros Petition for Review on Natural Gas Power Plant Air Permit, Saying Batteries Are “BACT” Under the Clean Air Act

Bandza  By Alexander J. Bandza Air pollution

Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups petitioned the Ninth Circuit for review of EPA Region 9’s decision in December 2018 to issue a final prevention of significant deterioration (PSD) permit for the Palmdale Energy Project (Project), a gas-fired plant being developed in the city of Palmdale, CA. These environmental groups had previously but unsuccessfully challenged the permit in front of EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB), arguing that a new control technology configuration—namely, replacing the combined-cycle turbines’ duct burners with battery storage—should be used to satisfy EPA Region 9’s “Best Available Control Technology” (BACT) requirements under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The EAB denied the environmental groups’ appeal in October 2018. However, as the EAB explicitly recognized, “energy storage technology is a rapidly growing development in the electrical power supply sector,” and therefore the totality of the environmental groups’ efforts may spur additional consideration of battery storage as an option for facilities to meet their obligations under the CAA.

By way of overview, an entity desiring to construct a “major emitting facility” in a CAA-defined “attainment” or “unclassifiable” area must obtain preconstruction approval, in the form of a PSD permit, to build such a facility. CAA § 165. An applicant for a PSD permit must show that its proposal will achieve emissions limits established by BACT for pollutants emitted from its facility in amounts greater than applicable levels of significance. A BACT analysis is a site-specific, pollutant-specific determination that results in the selection of emissions limits representing application of air pollution control technologies or methods appropriate for the facility in question.

In October 2015, Palmdale filed an application with EPA Region 9 for a PSD permit to construct and operate the Project, a new major stationary source, on fifty acres of land in the City of Palmdale, California. The facility consists of two natural gas-fired combustion turbine generators, each of which is equipped with a natural gas-fired duct burner. Each of the two combustion turbine/duct burner combinations vents heat energy to its own dedicated heat recovery steam generator (HRSG), and steam from both HRSGs is routed to a single steam turbine generator. The duct burners boost the total heat input to the HRSGs, which increases steam output from the HRSGs and concomitantly the amount of electricity the steam generator, and thus the entire facility, produces.

In August 2017, EPA Region 9 issued and invited public comment on a draft PSD permit for the construction and operation of, including the regulation of emissions from, the proposed facility.  The environmental groups identified a new control technology configuration—replacing the combined-cycle turbines’ duct burners with battery storage—that neither the Project applicant nor EPA Region 9 had identified as a potential control technology in the original BACT analysis.  In response to the comments, EPA Region 9 determined that using battery storage to replace duct burners could be rejected as technically infeasible, ineffective, and on the basis of energy, environmental, and economic impacts.  As to the first basis for rejection, EPA Region 9 analyzed the largest battery configuration that the environmental groups had identified in their comments—a Tesla 100 MW lithium-ion battery storage facility for an Australian wind farm.  EPA Region 9 concluded that the duct burners could meet the hours required under the longer peak demand periods, whereas the battery configuration could not.  Thus, EPA Region 9 rejected battery storage could be BACT.

The EAB affirmed, concluding that the environmental groups failed meet their burden of establishing that the Region’s analysis was clearly erroneous or otherwise warrants review.  However, the EAB provided hope for future battery-storage efforts (emphasis added):  “The Board observes that its decision is based on the record in this matter and its decision should not be taken to suggest that the Conservation Groups’ proposal can never be BACT for a particular facility. As the Board noted above, BACT is an emission limit that is based on a ‘case-by-case’ analysis, and the Region recognizes that ‘[e]nergy storage technology is a rapidly growing development in the electrical power supply sector[.]’  Thus, what may not be BACT for purposes of this permit application may be BACT for a future permit application.”  Because the environmental groups’ challenge focuses on EPA Region 9’s approval of this air permit, it is anticipated that many of the same arguments and discussion will occur at the Ninth Circuit.

CATEGORIES: Air, Climate Change, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Alexander J. Bandza

December 17, 2018 New OSHA Enforcement Policy Under General Duty Clause for Worksite Exposure to Air Contaminants

 By Gabrielle Sigel

OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs recently issued an enforcement memorandum to all OSHA Regional Administrators providing a new “Enforcement Policy for Respiratory Hazards Not Covered by OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits” (“Enforcement Policy”). OSHA’s 2003 policy on the same topic is now superseded and archived.

The Enforcement Policy explains how and when OSHA will cite an employer for respiratory hazards from an air contaminant under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause (“GDC”). The GDC is the statutory requirement that an employer “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.”  29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1).  By regulation, OSHA has stated that “An employer who is in compliance with any standard in this part shall be deemed to be in compliance with the requirement of section 5(a)(1) of the Act, but only to the extent of the condition, practice, means, method, operation, or process covered by the standard.” 29 CFR 1910.5(f).  There is an open question as to whether and when an employer is in violation of the law if either (a) OSHA has not set a regulatory exposure limit for a particular chemical; or (b) exposures are below OSHA’s regulatory Permissible Exposure Limit (“PEL”), but above another organization’s recommended occupational exposure limit (“OEL”) for the same chemical.  An OEL can be issued by, for example, an industry group, U.S. EPA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.

OSHA’s new Enforcement Policy states that a GDC violation for airborne chemical exposures cannot be alleged unless OSHA can meet the 4-element standard of proof imposed by the courts for any GDC violation:

  1. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
  2. The hazard was recognized;
  3. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and,
  4. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.

The Enforcement Policy provides that exceeding an OEL is not sufficient evidence on its own to support a GDC citation; all four of the above GDC proof elements must be met. However, even if all four elements cannot be proven, OSHA still can issue a Hazard Alert Letter (“HAL”) if exposures are above an OEL.  The Enforcement Policy includes a sample HAL. 

The Enforcement Policy also provides examples of the evidence that OSHA needs to prove a GDC violation for airborne exposures above an OEL. With respect to the first element—that employees were exposed—OSHA can rely on air sampling and other workplace-based evidence, including witness statements.  However, in contrast to many OSHA requirements when there is a regulatory PEL, in GDC cases, OSHA will consider whether the exposed employee is wearing respiratory protection.  Unlike the 2003 version of the policy, the 2018 Enforcement Policy specifically states that “if the exposed employees were wearing appropriate respiratory protection with no deficiencies in the respirator program, then the likelihood that OSHA could establish a respiratory hazard covered by the general duty clause would be low.”  However, OSHA does not preclude a GDC citation if respirators are used; the Enforcement Policy provides the exception for a respirator program only if that program has “no deficiencies.”

With respect to element #2—hazard recognition—the Enforcement Policy states that this element is met if: (a) there is direct evidence of employer knowledge; or (b) if the employer should have known of the hazard. Direct evidence can include prior receipt of a HAL or information regarding the hazard in a Safety Data Sheet prepared by a chemical’s manufacturer.  Indirect evidence can include an OEL issued by an industry association, professional organization, or a non-OSHA government agency.  With respect to GDC proof elements #3 and #4, OSHA states it likely will be required to present expert testimony to prove its case.  However, that expert can rely on published studies and need not necessarily conduct a new study of the dangers of the hazard at that particular worksite. 

The Enforcement Policy does not expressly address whether OSHA will pursue GDC violations for chemicals for which OSHA has issued a PEL. As written, the new Policy does not prohibit a GDC citation in those circumstances.  The Enforcement Policy states that it applies when an air contaminant “is not covered” by an OSHA PEL, and does not include language restricting the policy to “those cases where an OSHA PEL has not been issued,” as the old version of the policy had stated.  (Emphases added.)  In addition, the new Policy refers Regional Administrators to the Field Operations Manual (“FOM”) for further guidance in preparing a GDC citation.  The current FOM expressly states that a GDC citation may be issued when there are exposures above an OEL but below an OSHA PEL.  FOM (8/02/2016) § III.D.2, Example 4‑25.

Therefore, under the Enforcement Policy, OSHA may assert that even employers with worksite air contaminant exposures below an OSHA PEL, as well as those using chemicals that do not have an issued OSHA PEL, are subject to a GDC citation, if there are unprotected worksite exposures above a recognized OEL.

CATEGORIES: Air, OSHA, Toxic Tort

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

December 17, 2018 New OSHA Enforcement Policy Under General Duty Clause for Worksite Exposure to Air Contaminants

 By Gabrielle Sigel

OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs recently issued an enforcement memorandum to all OSHA Regional Administrators providing a new “Enforcement Policy for Respiratory Hazards Not Covered by OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits” (“Enforcement Policy”). OSHA’s 2003 policy on the same topic is now superseded and archived.

The Enforcement Policy explains how and when OSHA will cite an employer for respiratory hazards from an air contaminant under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause (“GDC”). The GDC is the statutory requirement that an employer “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.”  29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1).  By regulation, OSHA has stated that “An employer who is in compliance with any standard in this part shall be deemed to be in compliance with the requirement of section 5(a)(1) of the Act, but only to the extent of the condition, practice, means, method, operation, or process covered by the standard.” 29 CFR 1910.5(f).  There is an open question as to whether and when an employer is in violation of the law if either (a) OSHA has not set a regulatory exposure limit for a particular chemical; or (b) exposures are below OSHA’s regulatory Permissible Exposure Limit (“PEL”), but above another organization’s recommended occupational exposure limit (“OEL”) for the same chemical.  An OEL can be issued by, for example, an industry group, U.S. EPA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.

OSHA’s new Enforcement Policy states that a GDC violation for airborne chemical exposures cannot be alleged unless OSHA can meet the 4-element standard of proof imposed by the courts for any GDC violation:

  1. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
  2. The hazard was recognized;
  3. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and,
  4. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.

The Enforcement Policy provides that exceeding an OEL is not sufficient evidence on its own to support a GDC citation; all four of the above GDC proof elements must be met. However, even if all four elements cannot be proven, OSHA still can issue a Hazard Alert Letter (“HAL”) if exposures are above an OEL.  The Enforcement Policy includes a sample HAL. 

The Enforcement Policy also provides examples of the evidence that OSHA needs to prove a GDC violation for airborne exposures above an OEL. With respect to the first element—that employees were exposed—OSHA can rely on air sampling and other workplace-based evidence, including witness statements.  However, in contrast to many OSHA requirements when there is a regulatory PEL, in GDC cases, OSHA will consider whether the exposed employee is wearing respiratory protection.  Unlike the 2003 version of the policy, the 2018 Enforcement Policy specifically states that “if the exposed employees were wearing appropriate respiratory protection with no deficiencies in the respirator program, then the likelihood that OSHA could establish a respiratory hazard covered by the general duty clause would be low.”  However, OSHA does not preclude a GDC citation if respirators are used; the Enforcement Policy provides the exception for a respirator program only if that program has “no deficiencies.”

With respect to element #2—hazard recognition—the Enforcement Policy states that this element is met if: (a) there is direct evidence of employer knowledge; or (b) if the employer should have known of the hazard. Direct evidence can include prior receipt of a HAL or information regarding the hazard in a Safety Data Sheet prepared by a chemical’s manufacturer.  Indirect evidence can include an OEL issued by an industry association, professional organization, or a non-OSHA government agency.  With respect to GDC proof elements #3 and #4, OSHA states it likely will be required to present expert testimony to prove its case.  However, that expert can rely on published studies and need not necessarily conduct a new study of the dangers of the hazard at that particular worksite. 

The Enforcement Policy does not expressly address whether OSHA will pursue GDC violations for chemicals for which OSHA has issued a PEL. As written, the new Policy does not prohibit a GDC citation in those circumstances.  The Enforcement Policy states that it applies when an air contaminant “is not covered” by an OSHA PEL, and does not include language restricting the policy to “those cases where an OSHA PEL has not been issued,” as the old version of the policy had stated.  (Emphases added.)  In addition, the new Policy refers Regional Administrators to the Field Operations Manual (“FOM”) for further guidance in preparing a GDC citation.  The current FOM expressly states that a GDC citation may be issued when there are exposures above an OEL but below an OSHA PEL.  FOM (8/02/2016) § III.D.2, Example 4‑25.

Therefore, under the Enforcement Policy, OSHA may assert that even employers with worksite air contaminant exposures below an OSHA PEL, as well as those using chemicals that do not have an issued OSHA PEL, are subject to a GDC citation, if there are unprotected worksite exposures above a recognized OEL.

CATEGORIES: Air, OSHA, Toxic Tort

PEOPLE: Gabrielle Sigel

October 17, 2018 Trump Administration Releases Fall 2018 Regulatory Agenda

Torrence_jpgBy Allison A. Torrence

The Trump Administration has released its Fall 2018 Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions. This regulatory agenda “reports on the actions administrative agencies plan to issue in the near and long term [and] demonstrates this Administration’s ongoing commitment to fundamental regulatory reform and a reorientation toward reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens on the American people.”

According to the Trump Administration, the regulatory agenda reflects the following broad regulatory reform priorities:

  • Advancing Regulatory Reform
  • Public Notice of Regulatory Development
  • Transparency
  • Consistent Practice across the Federal Government

The EPA-specific regulatory agenda lists 148 regulatory actions in either the proposed rule stage or final rule stage, and provides information about the planned regulatory actions and the timing of those actions. Notable regulatory actions under consideration by EPA include:

More information, and EPA's Statement of Priorities, can be found here.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, FIFRA, Greenhouse Gas, Hazmat, RCRA, TSCA, Water

PEOPLE: Allison A. Torrence

September 17, 2018 EPA Finalizes Unprecedented NPL Listing

By Matthew G. Lawson

Rockwell GrenadaOn September 13, 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) took the final, unprecedented step of adding a contaminated site to the Superfund National Priorities List (“NPL”) based solely on the risk to human health posed by indoor air vapor intrusion at the site. The newly designated site, which consists of the former Rockwell International Wheel & Trim facility and its surrounding 76 acres (the “Site”), is located in Grenada, Mississippi. The Site has an extensive history. Beginning in 1966, the Rockwell facility operated as a wheel cover manufacturing and chrome plating plant. After chrome plating operations ceased in 2001, the facility was used for metal stamping until approximately 2007. According to EPA, the Site’s historic operations resulted in multiple releases of trichloroethene, toluene, and hexavalent chromium into the surrounding soil and adjacent wetland. However, EPA’s primary concern—and reason for listing the site—is the potential for airborne volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) to enter the facility through cracks, joints, and other openings, resulting in contaminated indoor air. The potential for indoor air contamination appears to be of particular concern to EPA, given that nearly 400 individuals currently work within the facility.

The Site will now join a list of approximately 160 contaminated sites that have been federally designated as NPL sites. The NPL includes the nation’s most contaminated and/or dangerous hazardous waste sites. A contaminated site must be added to the NPL to become eligible for federal funding for permanent cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. While EPA’s decision to list the Site based on risks from indoor air contamination is unprecedented, the move is not all together surprising, given EPA’s recent rulemaking actions. In May 2017, EPA passed a final rule expanding the list of factors the agency is allowed to consider when designating NPL sites to specifically include risks to human health from impacted indoor air. In the preamble to the rule, EPA noted that it needed the authority to list sites on the basis of significant risk to human health from vapor intrusion contamination. 

In contrast to EPA’s position, environmental consultants operating at the Site have strongly opposed the NPL designation. Several of the firms submitted comments on the final listing, asserting that EPA’s risk evaluation failed to take into account the Sub Slab Depressurization System (“SSDS”) installed at the facility in 2017, which subsequently reduced levels of VOCs in the indoor air to safe levels. However, EPA rejected these arguments, noting that even though the SSDS may protect workers from immediate threats, “it is not intended to address possible long-term remedial goals such as addressing the sources of the contamination below the building.”

EPA’s designation of the Site should alert potentially responsible parties that vapor intrusion issues may result in an increased chance of a site becoming listed on the NPL. In addition, parties relying on engineering controls to maintain compliant indoor air vapor levels should note the potential for EPA to deem such actions insufficient as long-term site remedies.

CATEGORIES: Air, Cercla, Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas, Hazmat, Sustainability

PEOPLE: Steven R. Englund, Matthew G. Lawson