A Ray of Regulatory Sunshine

Posted on April 30, 2020 by Lynn L. Bergeson

We are all desperate for good news.  In my continuing efforts not to become further mired in the quiet despair we are all experiencing, I thought I would pass along some good news, ironically occasioned by the pandemic.

To help alleviate supply chain disruptions by pesticide registrants that manufacture disinfectant products included on List N, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in March, announced it was taking action to help hasten the availability of EPA-registered disinfectants.  EPA explained that it is temporarily allowing manufacturers of select already-registered EPA disinfectant products to obtain certain active ingredients from any source without obtaining prior EPA approval. The action only applies to products listed on EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (List N). For List N disinfectant manufacturers, EPA’s decision was very good news, and EPA has moved with extraordinary speed in qualifying products to be effective against the virus that causes COVID-19.  As of April 23, EPA now has over 400 such products, up from less than 100 such products pre-pandemic.

Typically, EPA requires disinfectant manufacturers to apply for and receive EPA approval prior to making a change in the source of the active ingredient.  Under EPA’s action, however, manufacturers can source certain active ingredients from alternate suppliers by simply informing EPA of the change.  Once EPA has been notified, the registrant can immediately distribute or sell a product modified according to this temporary amendment, provided that the resulting formulation is chemically similar to the current formulation.  Presumably after the crisis subsides, the program would revert back to the standard approval process.  Registrants would then be disallowed from releasing for shipment new registered product unless that product is produced using a source of active ingredient identified in the product’s approved Confidential Statement of Formula, or otherwise would have complied with relevant requirements in the absence of this temporary amendment.

When announcing its temporary action in March, EPA stated that it intended to assess the continued need for the temporary amendment on a regular basis.  More recently, EPA has done one better, resulting in yet more good news.  EPA Assistant Administrator Alexandra Dunn, our esteemed ACOEL colleague, announced on April 22, 2020, that EPA may well consider permanently dropping certain “administrative hoops” based on a review of the temporary policy after the coronavirus crisis subsides.  EPA’s commitment to review the “value added” of these and perhaps other administrative requirements, consider eliminating them, and possibly institutionalize the streamlined temporary approach could be a great take-away from the crisis and an unexpected benefit.  Any such decision would, of course, be firmly premised on the conclusion that in eliminating these administrative hurdles, there would be no risk to human health or the environment.

Crises have a tendency to sharpen focus and realign priorities.  Maybe this crisis will help distinguish essential requirements to protect health and the environment from non-essential, vestigial ones that we can all live without.

County of Maui Decided: Groundwater Discharges Require Permit . . . Sometimes

Posted on April 27, 2020 by Rick Glick

On April 23, in a 6-3 opinion, the U. S. Supreme Court decided one of the more closely followed environmental disputes of recent years.  In County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the issue was whether injecting municipal sewage effluent into groundwater, which then travels about half a mile before discharging to the ocean, requires a permit under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The Court found that it did.

The purpose of the CWA is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”  The principal tool for achieving this lofty goal is a permit system for discharges from “point sources”, meaning a “discrete conveyance.”  The most obvious example of a regulated discharge is that from the end of a pipe directly to a navigable waterway.  In the Maui case, the discharge passed through groundwater before entering the ocean, but data showed the ocean discharge contained the same pollutants as were pumped underground. 

Is such a discharge “from” the point source, i.e. municipal treatment plant, or from the groundwater?  Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer announced a new test for deciding such a case.  A permit is required for a point source discharge or the “functional equivalent.”  That is, a direct discharge and a discharge through groundwater are functionally equivalent when “the discharge reaches the same result through roughly similar means.”  He likened the situation to a recipe that calls for adding drippings from the meat into the gravy; no one would question that “from” in that context includes conveyance through a pan or cutting board. 

The majority rejected arguments from the County, EPA and Justices Alito and Thomas in dissenting opinions, that there should be a bright line test—no discharges through groundwater should ever be subject to federal regulation.  Justice Breyer reasoned that approach would create gaping “loopholes” that would prevent attainment of the CWA’s conservation goals.  For example, a facility could terminate a discharge pipe on the beach a few feet from the navigable receiving water, and then maintain that a permit is not necessary because the pollutants came from the soils between the pipe and waterway. 

Justice Breyer acknowledged that functional equivalence will not always be easy to discern, as groundwater always eventually finds its way to navigable waters.  There will be times when the presence of pollutants in navigable waters is too attenuated from the discharge to justify a permit.  In Maui’s situation, the injected pollutants had to travel about half a mile to the ocean.  What if they had to travel 250 miles and did not emerge in the receiving waters for 100 years?  The majority is content to allow future courts and agencies to refine the new test.

This decision, and the unwillingness to adopt an easy to apply test, reflects a recognition by the Court of the complexities that underlie jurisdictional determinations under the CWA.  As noted here, the Trump Administration’s attempt at rewriting the definition of “waters of the United States,” which is the basis for CWA jurisdiction, goes the other direction.  The proposed WOTUS rule seeks to establish a simple definition based on observable, running water.  In doing so it follows Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in the Rapanos case and rejects Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test.  The latter is nuanced and involves professional judgment about the interconnectedness of natural systems.  The Maui Court’s “functional equivalent” test is of a kind with “significant nexus” in its focus on achieving the purpose of the CWA.

While the Court’s decision is sensible and promotes science-based jurisdictional determinations, it leaves a great deal of uncertainty in place.  The Court expects, and we can too, that there will be many cases and administrative processes considering when discharges to groundwater require permits.

The Supreme Court’s Decision in County of Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund – The Answer to the Yes or No Question is Maybe

Posted on April 24, 2020 by Jeffrey Porter

The United States Supreme Court’s April 23 decision in County of Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-260_i4dk.pdf) proves that legislating is best done by the Congress, not the Courts.   The Court’s decision also tells us that the era of judicial deference to EPA that began in the mid-1980s seems to be coming to an end.

The Supreme Court was asked a yes or no question with huge ramifications for state authorities and millions of property owners:  does a discharge to groundwater require a permit under the Federal Clean Water Act?   The Supreme Court’s answer to this yes or no question is a muddled maybe, the Court concluding that EPA’s answer to the same question – an unequivocal “no” – was “neither persuasive, nor reasonable.”  

More specifically, the Supreme Court’s holding is that a Federal permit is required when a discharge to groundwater is the “functional equivalent” of a discharge from a point source directly into a navigable water.

How are the millions of people responsible for discharges to groundwater, including the owners of every septic system in the United States, supposed to determine whether their particular discharge is the “functional equivalent of a direct discharge”? 

Well, according to the Supreme Court, “many factors may be relevant” with “time [for the discharged pollutants to get to a navigable water]” and “distance” being “the most important in most cases.”   

The Supreme Court offers us no more guidance on “functional equivalency,” instead looking forward to lower courts putting additional meat on the very brittle “functional equivalent” bone through decisions in future cases, months and years down the road.  

In an apparent attempt to calm the millions who don’t currently have a Federal permit that the Federal Government has said they don’t need, the Court shares its expectation that “district judges will exercise their discretion mindful, as we are, of the complexities inherent in the context of indirect discharges through groundwater, so as to calibrate the Act’s penalties when, for example, a party could reasonably have thought that a permit was not required.”

The Court doesn’t tell us how “indirect dischargers” are to pay the staggering legal fees to get to the end of these future cases, nor does it explain how we can have come to a place where the Federal law is so “complex” that one can’t know whether the law applies to them without litigation.

While the Court suggests that EPA and the States might lend a helping hand through future regulations and general permits, given the Court’s lack of deference to Agency decision-making, one wonders why they would bother.

For over thirty years our Federal Courts, including the Supreme Court, have struggled to determine the scope of the Clean Water Act.   The Maui case is the fourth time the Supreme Court has grappled with this question.

In the meantime, Republican and Democrat Presidential Administrations promulgate regulations expanding and contracting the scope of the Clean Water Act.   These efforts invariably result in still more litigation and more uncertainty.

The only way out of this labyrinth is for Congress to answer the question once and for all.  This will involve environmental activists getting less Clean Water Act coverage than they want and industry and municipalities settling for more coverage than they would prefer.   But we all deserve the unambiguous answer to the question the Supreme Court refused to provide in Maui.

Earth Day 50: Have We Made any Real Progress?

Posted on April 22, 2020 by Christopher Davis

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. The coronavirus pandemic has consumed the world’s attention, and thus it seems likely that Earth Day and environmental issues will unfortunately get less attention than otherwise might have occurred.

The first Earth Day in 1970 changed my life. In particular, Garrett Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, and a little book called The Environmental Handbook, had a powerful influence on my thinking and career path.  I decided my calling was in solving environmental problems, stopping pollution and protecting nature. Over the last 50 years, this has taken me through a brief career in environmental engineering, a rewarding 30 years in environmental law, and most recently economic advocacy to leverage private sector solutions to climate change.

So where are we now, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day? There has certainly been progress in building environmental consciousness, institutionalizing environmental protection, developing environmental laws, building a global cadre of environmental professionals, reducing at least the most obvious forms of air and water pollution and cleaning up hazardous waste sites. In most places, at least in the developed world, the air and water are cleaner.

Yet on a macro scale, many indicators of environmental quality have declined significantly since 1970. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the physical impacts of climate change are accelerating, and we are making little progress in implementing the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting average global warming to well under 2 degrees Celsius. Deforestation continues to shrink the world’s tropical forests, biodiversity is being lost, species extinction is accelerating, wetlands are disappearing, and our oceans are becoming degraded. Groundwater and surface water resources are being depleted and nonpoint sources threaten water quality. Toxic pollutants are ubiquitous. By most accounts, the world’s ecosystems are in worse shape than they were in 1970. Our expanding human population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the world’s natural systems on which we all depend.

So, while we have won many battles in environmental protection and the implementation of environmental laws, we are losing the war. The imperatives of economic growth and resource consumption have overwhelmed the forces of environmental protection and conservation. Our generation has been responsible for many great technological and social advances. Yet as we mark the 50th Earth Day, our environmental legacy is troubling.

Perhaps the lessons of the coronavirus crisis—and the need for prevention, global collaboration, and commitment of resources necessary to anticipate and combat such crises-- will enable the kind of concerted action needed to successfully confront the systemic risks of climate change and global ecological degradation. We have the tools and knowledge to solve these problems; we lack only the moral imperative and collective political will to do so--and the sense of urgency that inspired me and so many others on that first Earth Day.

“Happy [50th] Earth Day—Something More to Crow About”

Posted on April 20, 2020 by Jeff Civins

In May of last year, I posted a blog about Earth Day’s upcoming 50th anniversary, highlighting one planned celebration of that landmark event, EarthX, which last year drew a crowd of 175,000 visitors in Dallas and which this year was anticipating over 200,000 attendees.  But the world is a different place today than it was a year ago and EarthX organizers, under the leadership of the environmentalist Trammell S. Crow, developed a Plan B, transforming the event into a virtual, online experience, featuring a series of high profile thought leaders, sharing the objective of EarthX and its founder—to inspire people and organizations to take action towards a more sustainable future worldwide.  Among this year’s virtual programs is its Law and Policy Symposium.

The Symposium had been planned to be a full-day event with sessions on water, public and private lands, the challenges of climate change, and the future of environmental law--with speakers representing a diverse range of perspectives.  Fingers crossed, EarthX is planning to hold that same event on October 22, “Half Earth Day.”  But to celebrate Earth Day on its true birthday, EarthX will be presenting instead a 90-minute virtual program on April 22 at 12 PM Central time/1 PM Eastern Time.

This condensed program includes an EPA Update, from EPA Region 6 Regional Administrator Ken McQueen, and a series of conversations:

  • Between Seth Seigel, NY Times bestselling author of “Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What we Drink,” and Brent Fewell, Founder, Earth and Water Law Group, on the topic of our water;
  • Between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Pam Giblin of the Climate Leadership Council, on the challenges of climate change; and
  • Between Yale Professor Dan Esty, editor of  A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, and John C. Cruden, Principal, Beveridge & Diamond and former Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, Department of Justice. 

There will be a special chat room for virtual attendees to ask questions during the presentations and perhaps provision for ongoing online discussions after the Symposium is over. 

To register and to see the complete agenda, go to https://earthx.org/earthxlaw/

The Symposium organizers hope that this year’s virtual program—and the full program in October-- will foster a dialog among diverse perspectives that results in the identification of points on which there might be consensus, and identification of a range of paths forward to inspire people and organizations to take action towards a more sustainable future worldwide.  In these times particularly, a dialog among diverse perspectives seeking a common objective would be something to crow about.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: How the COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Our Misuse of Data

Posted on April 17, 2020 by Jonathan Ettinger

As I was reading the latest statistics regarding the spread of COVID-19, I became frustrated.  My frustration stemmed not just from the fact that we are unprepared despite repeated warnings, but also from the way our elected officials and their teams present (and the media reports) the data.  Having practiced environmental law for over thirty years and observed countless instances of data misuse and misinterpretation, I am not surprised, but I am disappointed.

I am not talking about the inherent unreliability of the data due to selective and inconsistent testing or the fact that we cannot count infected but asymptomatic people.  For a good discussion of that, see Nate Silver’s recent article.  Rather, I am talking about something much simpler: how many people are getting infected and at what ages.  During the early stages of the pandemic, the media were reporting that the virus was unusual because it appeared to afflict not the young or the elderly but the middle-aged.  Then, of course, it became apparent that the elderly were dying at a much higher rate than others (and at a higher rate than those infected with an ordinary flu). 

I then had a discussion with someone who said “Yeah, but it turns out young adults are being infected at a high rate; they are vulnerable, too!”  It was this simple assertion I wished to validate (or invalidate).

But, that was not easy.  Nearly every article on the topic (and most government updates, too) focused on percentages – but the wrong percentages.  It is easy to find statements like the following: “A USA TODAY analysis of data reported by 19 states shows that Americans of all ages seem to be equally susceptible to a coronavirus infection. States are reporting cases in every age range, though people in their 50s have slightly more confirmed cases on average.”  Here is the graph that accompanied it. 

It afflicts everyone roughly equally, right?  Those in their 30s and 40s are as likely to be infected as those in their 70s, right?  WRONG!  These are percentages of total coronavirus cases, not percentages of the population.  There is a fundamental difference between saying 15% of the population between the ages of 30 and 40 are infected and 15% of the total infections are of people in their 30s. 

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2016 there were roughly 323 million people in the United States – 43 million (13.3%) in their 30s and 20 million (6.2%) in their 70s.  If those percentages remain valid today, the graph above shows that those in their 70s are more than twice as likely to become infected as those in their 30s.  Regardless of whether that figure is accurate, it certainly means that one cannot say that “Americans of all ages seem to be equally susceptible to a coronavirus infection.”

How the data are reported makes a big difference.  Let’s get it right.

EPA Remains the “Anti-Environmental Protection Agency”; Wheeler Refuses to Tighten the PM 2.5 NAAQS

Posted on April 16, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

After more than three years of ignoring science whenever it does not support this Administration’s preferred outcomes, the issue of the future of science in environmental regulation has now been well and truly joined.  Yesterday, Administrator Wheeler, disagreeing with the recommendation of EPA’s own staff, announced that EPA is proposing to retain the current National Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM2.5 of 12 ug/m3, notwithstanding substantial evidence that PM2.5 poses significant risks even below 10 ug/m3

In the long-gone days prior to January 2017, this would be short and easy.  The Clean Air Science Advisory Committee would have said that the current standard is not protective.  NGOs and states would have sued, the D.C. Circuit would have vacated EPA’s decision, and even a right-leaning Supreme Court probably would not have thought it necessary to hear a further appeal.

Now, however, the Chair of CASAC doesn’t believe that epidemiology provides a basis for setting NAAQS and CASAC recommended keeping the current standard.  What happens when EPA’s owns science advisors don’t believe in science?  And what happens when the most outcome-based Supreme Court in living memory lies in wait?

I truly don’t know.  I suspect that the D.C. Circuit, depending upon the panel, might still find a decision to keep the current standard to be arbitrary and capricious, but I would not count on the Supreme Court affirming that decision.

In the meantime, I am curious about Administrator Wheeler.  Does he really believe what he is saying or does he just not care that this decision will fairly directly lead to thousands of additional deaths?  As EPA’s proposed rule acknowledges, NAAQS are standards,

"the attainment and maintenance of which in the judgment of the Administrator, based on such criteria and allowing an adequate margin of safety, are requisite to protect the public health."

Greenwire reports that Administrator Wheeler told reporters that “there’s still a lot of uncertainty” surrounding the research supporting the lower PM2.5 NAAQS.  Of course, since the statutory standard requires “an adequate margin of safety,” one would have thought that the uncertainty supports more stringent standards, rather than less stringent ones. Indeed, ever since Ethyl Corp. v. EPA, courts have been clear that EPA must be prepared to regulate even in the face of uncertainty if it is to fulfill its mission to protect the public.

I may not be able to predict what the courts will do, but I’m confident that history will not treat this Administration kindly.  Over time, there is little doubt that the evidence against PM2.5 is only going to grow stronger.  However, by the time a future administration acts on that accumulated weight of data, thousands of people will have died needlessly.

Well done, Mr. Wheeler.

If You Thought That COVID-19 Was Bad, Try It Mixed With Some PM2.5!

Posted on April 9, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, I discussed the Administration’s guidance concerning the exercise of its enforcement discretion during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now comes evidence that the guidance may actually be self-defeating.  While the administration is – understandably – trying to cut regulated industries some slack while they are trying to deal with COVID-19, it turns out that exposure to PM2.5 has a significant impact on the COVID-19 death rate.

study released earlier this week by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health concludes that an increase in the ambient PM2.5 concentration of just 1 ug/m3 causes an increase of 15% in the death rate from COVID-19.  And lest you think that the results stem from other factors unique to New York City and other places particularly hard-hit by the virus, the authors took into account all of the obvious confounding factors, including:

"population density, percent of the population ≥65, percent living in poverty, median household income, percent black, percent Hispanic, percent of the adult population with less than a high school education, median house value, percent of owner-occupied housing, population mean BMI (an indicator of obesity), percent ever-smokers, [and] number of hospital beds."

A 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate for a 1 ug/m3 increase in PM2.5 is an extraordinary result.  At some level, we knew it already, but let me summarize very simply.  PM2.5 is really, really, bad for you.

And so we come back to this administration.  I’ll pass over the enforcement discretion memorandum and focus instead on EPA’s apparent decision not to change the current national ambient air quality standard for PM2.5.  Of course, the current chair of the SAB doesn’t believe in basing NAAQS on epidemiological studies, but for those of us who still believe in science, this study certainly only strengthens the case for reduction in the PM2.5 NAAQS.