EPA Proposes to Defund Superfund Litigation

Posted on October 12, 2017 by David Uhlmann

The Trump administration has unleashed a withering assault on environmental protection efforts that seeks to roll back decades of bi-partisan efforts to provide clean air and water in the United States.  Environmental groups and state attorneys general are challenging the EPA in court over its proposals to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Clean Water Rule, and dozens of lesser-known regulatory programs.  While those lawsuits have achieved some initial success, based on EPA’s failure to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act, there is justifiable concern about the fate of EPA’s regulatory programs.

But less attention has been paid to a rollback buried in the EPA’s FY 2018 budget, which also might have devastating impacts:  the proposal to end EPA funding of Superfund litigation by the Justice Department.  Since 1987, the EPA has reimbursed the Justice Department for the cost of bringing Superfund cost recovery cases, with as much as a third of the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) budget devoted to Superfund work.  (This year, ENRD was expecting about 20 percent of its funding to come from the EPA.)  The cost-sharing arrangement is enormously beneficial to the Superfund program, which receives hundreds of millions of dollars of cost recovery every year in cases litigated by ENRD.

EPA's effort to defund cost recovery litigation could lead to layoffs at ENRD, cripple the Superfund program, and undermine criminal and civil enforcement of the environmental laws.  The proposal has all of the features of another Trump administration executive fiat that could fly under our collective radar.  It deserves condemnation from everyone who cares about public health and the environment, as I explain in an October 4th New York Times op-ed entitled Undermining the Rule of Law at the EPA.

Harvey and Hindsight

Posted on October 10, 2017 by Tracy Hester

There’s nothing like a good catastrophe to make your typical disaster planning look bad.

You hear the word “unprecedented” a lot in Houston these days.  Hurricane Harvey brought an astonishing 50.1 inches of rain to the Houston region over three days, which means the storm effectively provided our entire annual rainfall within the space of three weeks.  The deluge damaged 195,714 homes in Texas, forced over 7,500 Texans into emergency shelters, shut down power and transportation to thousands more, and triggered hundreds of inspiring do-it-yourself rescue missions as flooded neighbors helped each other when official high water rescue teams faced impossible demands.

The environmental cost was, also, “unprecedented.”  Even Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike did not cause the scale of refinery shutdowns, upset emissions, wastewater treatment system disruption, and chemical plant incidents (including spectacular explosions and fires at the Arkema chemical plant) that we saw in the greater Houston region during Harvey.  At least 13 CERCLA sites in the greater Houston area flooded, and EPA was unable to even access numerous sites for over a week to assess any damages or identify any releases.

“Unprecedented,” however, has a different connotation when viewed through a legal lens.  The post-Harvey environmental liability battles have only just begun, and they promise to raise a broad array of challenging legal issues.  The flooding damage lawsuits alone (including takings claims against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) are multiplying fast.  In particular, EPA has already contacted PRPs at some flooded CERCLA sites to demand that they respond to hazardous substance releases – which might have some ACOEL members closely scrutinizing the model reopener provisions and the scope of covenants not to sue in their clients’ consent decrees.  The Act of God defense will likely get a fresh re-examination, including arguments about how to apply it when hurricanes – even massive ones - are not exactly a surprise in the Gulf Coast region.  And fires, explosions, and discharges at facilities could turn a spotlight onto the scope of the general duty clause under Section 112r of the Clean Air Act and the legal penalties for inaccurate or delayed initial release reports under CERCLA and other statutes.

In the long run, Texas and Houston – and other coastal states, counties, cities and towns– will need to revise their disaster frameworks to anticipate and account for Harvey-type storms into the future.  These storms are no longer, unfortunately, “unprecedented,” and the standard terms of consent decrees and agreed orders on liability for secondary releases from post-remediation incidents will need a lot more scrutiny than they’ve typically received.  

From High Within the Ivory Tower, the Tenth Circuit Decides That a Third-Party Liability Policy Doesn’t Cover Third-Party Environmental Liabilities

Posted on October 9, 2017 by Thomas Hnasko

In an unpublished decision in Taos Ski Valley, Inc. v. Nova Casualty Co., the Tenth Circuit decided the so-called “owned or occupied property” exclusion in a third-party comprehensive general liability (“CGL”) policy barred coverage for the third-party damage claims asserted by the New Mexico Environment Department against Taos Ski Valley (“TSV”) because the petroleum-product contamination, through the expedient efforts of TSV, was successfully confined to the boundaries of property occupied by TSV and did not impact groundwater, a third-party resource owned by the State of New Mexico.  In so doing, the Court reasoned language added to the owned or occupied property exclusion, which barred coverage for damage to the insured’s property “for any reason,” was sufficient to disclaim coverage.

The Tenth Circuit was not persuaded by the reasoning of Judge Pozner and others that, under a CGL policy, the location of the damage is immaterial; rather, it matters only that the damage caused an immediate third-party liability instead of damage only to the insured’s first-party property interests.  Moreover, the Court was not persuaded by the argument that environmental practitioners can now advise their clients to defer environmental clean-ups until property owned by the public (as a third party), i.e., the groundwater aquifer, is damaged.  The Court summarily concluded that, in such an event, the policy would foreclose coverage on another basis, because the damage to the groundwater would be expected and intended by the insured.  Certainly any environmental practitioner knows this is pure folly.  Simply instructing an environmental consultant to schedule the groundwater sampling on Thursday, as opposed to Tuesday, might well do the trick to ensure publicly-owned water resources, as opposed to just soil, suffer environmental harm and trigger coverage under the CGL policy.  More importantly, it is unfortunate the Court actually believes the New Mexico Supreme Court, as a matter of state law, would sanction a result encouraging the pollution of our resources, instead of prompt environmental clean-ups, in order to secure insurance coverage.  Claims of environmental contamination, after all, constitute damage to the public, as a third party, whether damage occurs within or outside of the boundaries of property owned or occupied by the insured.

HIPPOS, THE DANCE OF THE HOURS, AND THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Posted on October 5, 2017 by James Holtkamp

The award-winning 1940 movie Fantasia includes a segment with a bevy of hippopotami in tutus preforming the Dance of the Hours. It is a remarkable depiction of an alternate reality in which the law of gravity doesn’t seem to apply.  The 2017 version of an alternate reality is the Trump Administration’s perspective on climate change.  Like the hippos in Fantasia, Messrs. Trump and Pruitt and other Administration officials are trying to ignore inexorable laws of nature and human behavior.  Unlike the hippos, they will not succeed (reserving judgment on whether they will look as nice in their tutus).

In June, Mr. Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, claiming that it was a ”bad deal” that would “kill American jobs.” With Nicaragua belatedly deciding to sign on to the Agreement, the only two countries left that are not participating in the Agreement are the U.S. and Syria.  (Nicaragua, by the way, initially refused to sign the Agreement, not because it thought the Agreement was too stringent, but rather that it wasn’t stringent enough.)

Meanwhile, Category 5 hurricanes march through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, epic droughts wither the Pacific Coast, sea lanes in the Arctic are open for the first time in recorded memory, and entire islands disappear beneath rising seas.  The human cost of these and other climate-related events is immense.

The preamble to the Paris Agreement identifies the following climate-vulnerable areas of society:

·         Poverty-stricken populations

·         Food security

·         Quantity and quality of jobs

·         Human rights

·         Health

·         Indigenous peoples

·         Local communities

·         Migrants

·         Children

·         Gender Equality

·         Empowerment of women

·         Intergenerational equity

·         Ecosystem integrity

·         Justice

The rejection of the Agreement by the Trump Administration represents a denial of the broad impact of climate change on society as articulated in the Agreement.  Like the hippos in the dance, the Administration wants to live in a world in which the laws of nature don’t apply.  But real-world hippos and the rest of the inhabitants of the planet (including all of us and our children and grandchildren) will suffer the consequences of their denial of reality.

Looking for Shelter under the Permit Shield

Posted on October 4, 2017 by George House

As a follow up to Kenneth Gray’s post on PFASs, the PFAS situation in the lower Cape Fear River of North Carolina is a new battleground for the Clean Water Act NPDES permitting process.  GenX is a product that DuPont, and now Chemours, began manufacturing in or about 2010 as a substitute for PFOA of Parkersburg fame.  When GenX is used in other processes at the same plant facility, it is released in the process wastewater as a byproduct.  While testing Chemours discharge for GenX, two other perfluorinated compounds, identified by EPA as PFESA Byproducts 1 and 2, were discovered.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) of North Carolina sued Chemours (spin-off of DuPont) on September 7, 2017 and sought injunctive relief from the North Carolina Superior Court for an order requiring Chemours to, “immediately cease discharging the substances identified as PFESA Byproduct 1 and PFESA Byproduct 2  . . . from its manufacturing process into the surface waters . . . and, to continue to prevent the discharge of process wastewater containing GenX into the waters of the State.”   DEQ alleged among other things that Chemours and its predecessor DuPont, “failed to timely disclose to DWR (the permitting authority) the discharge of GenX and related compounds into the Cape Fear River” and, “In particular, none of the DuPont and Chemours NPDES permit applications referenced ’GenX’ or any chemical name, formula, or CAS number that would identify any GenX or related compounds in the Facility’s discharge.”  Further, DEQ alleged, “Part of the permit applicant’s burden . . . is to disclose all relevant information, such as the presence of known constituents in a discharge that pose a potential risk to the human health.” 

By letter from counsel dated September 8, 2017, Chemours responded, “The NPDES permit specifically describes the portion of the Fayetteville Works’ complex that generates the PFESA’s and, in accordance with well- and long-established NPDES permitting practice as construed and ratified by the courts, this is sufficient for the discharges to be covered by the permit . . . . chemical substances did not have to be enumerated by name in Chemours’ NPDES permit in order to be covered under the permit, so long as the process from which they were generated was described in the permit.”  Chemours further stated that this situation, “characterizes the circumstances that also prevail at countless permitted facilities throughout North Carolina and the rest of the United States, where numerous untested and unregulated trace-level compounds are present in permitted discharges”.

North Carolina courts will now have to grapple with the issues presented in Piney Run Pres. Ass'n v.Cnty. Comm'rs that was recently cited with approval in S. Appalachian Mt. Stewards v. A&G Coal Corp., both Fourth Circuit cases, and rule upon the issue of how much information a permit applicant must disclose to successfully avail itself of the “permit shield.”

Doing the Environment in My Retirement

Posted on October 3, 2017 by Ben Fisherow

It’s been sixteen months since retirement … or have I just been on a sabbatical?  The days have been full enough and way too stress-free seriously to consider going back.  So, it now seems it will be retirement for sure, and not return, but the urge persists to be RESPONSIBLE and to feel at least some pressure to perform.  How to achieve the latter without reverting to the former?

I have volunteered to teach environmental enforcement to old fogies (like me) at one of our nearby adult education outlets – the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  Rather than go all-in to this teaching gig, I will try myself out during OLLI’s 3-day “February Shorts” that run between the normal lengthy Fall and Spring sessions.  Compressing thirty years of experience enforcing the nation’s major environmental statutes into three 90 minute lectures will be interesting.  What’s more, the talks need to be entertaining, which means a Power Point with visuals and music (Remember Randy Newman’s “Cuyahoga River?”).  Thank God for the help of my daughter-in-law.

I am also applying to the District of Columbia’s Master Gardener program.  This promises to be quite cool because after 8 weeks of classroom instruction, one needs to volunteer 50 hours of community service to obtain the Master’s certificate.  Since my tech-savvy daughter-in-law is the principal of an elementary school, and they need some help around the grounds, I’ll have the chance to really accomplish some things. 

Moreover, DC like many other cities has been grappling with the problems posed by the runoff of stormwater into its sewer system where it combines with normal flows of industrial and residential waste.  The increased volume of this combined sewage during wet weather, which often exceeds the capacity of the District’s system to treat, must be discharged from several outfalls, untreated, directly into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.  The threats to the public and aquatic life are obvious.  “Green infrastructure” projects are an innovative approach to intercepting excess wet weather flows before they reach stormwater drains.  They could present a feasible alternative to building new, massive, underground tunnels to store combined sewage until it can be properly treated and safely discharged from the District’s single large sewage treatment plant at Blue Plains. 

The District is working with EPA to substitute green for gray infrastructure as one way to achieve the sewage discharge reductions the Clean Water act requires.  And, so far, it appears EPA has been willing to accommodate increased neighborhood green spaces, roof gardens, permeable pavement and the like as potential alternatives to the disruption that construction of deep tunnels could cause.  With my Master’s certificate in hand, I hope to present myself to the District as a worker to help them Implement some of their green infrastructure initiatives.

Pretty good ideas, I think.  Whether I succeed with any of them remains to be seen.