TSCA Implementation: What’s in Pruitt’s Playbook?

Posted on June 9, 2017 by Lynn L. Bergeson

Candidate Trump’s views on chemical management were not well articulated, if they were articulated at all, in sharp contrast to his views on climate change.  Whether the silence signaled support for the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (Lautenberg), which extensively amended the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) upon its enactment last June, or something else was an open question before now.  Several developments suggest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Pruitt is firmly behind implementing the new law on schedule.  What is less clear is how key policy issues will be decided.

TSCA is the federal law that authorizes EPA to regulate imported, manufactured, and processed industrial chemical substances.  Lautenberg extensively amended TSCA, adding significant new definitions, expanding testing authority, regulating new and existing chemicals, expanding information reporting, narrowing confidential business information protection, and modifying preemption opportunities, among other changes.  Further information is available on our TSCA Reform website:  http://www.lawbc.com/knowledge-resources/tsca-reform-news-info.

The unexpected election results inspired considerable concern in some quarters regarding whether Lautenberg’s implementation would succumb to the anti-regulation rhetoric emanating from the Trump White House, torpedoing the hard fought gains reflected in the new law’s passage.  These fears were exacerbated with news of President Trump’s 2018 budget, which proposes a jaw-dropping 31 percent reduction in EPA funding (from $8.05 billion in 2017 to $5.65 billion in 2018).  Under this plan, 3,200 EPA employees would lose their jobs, and some 50 EPA programs would be scrapped.

To date, there has been no public change in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention’s (OCSPP) course of conduct regarding TSCA implementation.  Acting Toxics Assistant Administrator Wendy Cleland-Hamnett is an experienced, able leader, well respected by staff and diverse stakeholders alike. Nancy B. Beck, Ph.D., DABT, was brought on May 1 as the principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for OCSPP.  Dr. Beck holds a doctorate in environmental health and for the past five years has served as the senior director for Regulatory Science Policy at the American Chemistry Council.

The Pruitt Administration can be expected to drive EPA regulatory and science policies.  Mr. Trump is an outspoken critic in other contexts, such as with regard to climate change and Clean Water Act issues, of what he described as the Obama EPA’s “manipulated” (fake?) science to support a political outcome and, of course, vowed to “fix” this.  Under Lautenberg, EPA is required to promulgate the TSCA “framework” rules, TSCA Inventory notification, procedures for prioritizing chemicals for risk evaluation, and procedures for chemical risk evaluation,  by mid- June 2017.  It is difficult to predict how exactly the new Administration can be expected to influence the many critically important policy issues at play in these proposals.  Dr. Beck’s recent arrival at EPA, however, significantly enhances the front office’s bandwidth in science policy issues, and may suggest a policy bent decidedly more business-friendly than the proposed rules crafted under the Obama EPA.

That the Administration will seek to influence chemical regulatory policy is clear as the stakes are high and the consequences for the domestic chemical industry too great to be ignored.  How, for example, will “weight of evidence” be defined; must all “conditions of use” be included in the scope of every Section 6(b) risk evaluation; how should the “reasonably foreseen” provision in the definition of “conditions of use” be applied; will the composition of the Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals change and when?  These are just a few of the many consequential decisions that this Administration will decide concerning Lautenberg’s implementation, some of which will almost certainly be litigated.  In that the three framework rules and the scope of the risk evaluations for the ten chemical substances identified on December 19, 2016, will be out soon, we should have a much clearer sense of the chemical policies the Pruitt Administration supports.

Interesting questions also arise from application of the Executive Orders (EO) President Trump has issued with respect to their impact on TSCA implementation.  EO 13,777, Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda, issued on February 24, 2017, and EO 13,771, which directs the head of every agency to designate an officer to “oversee the implementation of regulatory reform initiatives and policies to ensure that agencies effectively carry out regulatory reforms,” could significantly impact TSCA implementation.  Of particular relevance is EO 13,771, requiring that agencies identify two rules for repeal for every new regulation the agency proposes.  The imperatives of the EOs must be viewed in the context of the cold, hard fact that an expectedly unfriendly Trump Office of Management and Budget will be in charge of regulatory reviews of each regulation, and significant EPA policies.  Application of the EO to the TSCA implementation could burden the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics’ already strained resources to an unsustainable degree, hamper its ability to devote its limited resources to implementing the new law, and seriously disrupt the chemical manufacturing community by holding hostage urgently needed new chemicals.  EPA is urged to stay focused and on target as failure to implement the new law timely and credibly will invite an erosion of the trust the public was beginning to place in the federal government’s ability to manage chemical risks since Lautenberg’s bipartisan enactment.

The Millennial Environmental Voice: We Can’t Hear You Now

Posted on June 8, 2017 by Linda Benfield

The United States’ environmental agenda shifted abruptly with the election. Instead of implementing greenhouse gas initiatives, bolstering incentives for renewable energy projects, and fine-tuning various air, water and waste standards, we are suddenly discussing the future of the Endangered Species Act, debating withdrawal from the Paris Accord, filing away the Clean Power Plan, and considering the limits of science in regulatory decision-making.

Through all the discord, angst and celebration of the changed focus of environmental regulation, the Millennials have yet to assert their generational voice. Born between 1981 and 1996, these citizens are 21-36 years old. In 2015, they became the largest share of the American workforce at 33%, and there are estimates that Millennials will make up 50% of the American workforce by 2020. With those numbers, and their age, they have the potential to significantly impact elections for the next 35 years.

But who are they, and how will they impact the environmental agenda?  Only 50% of Millennials voted in the 2016 election – the worst turnout of any voting-age generation, and a decrease in their voting participation from the 2012 election. The tropes for this generation peg them as “socially conscious,” and willing to deeply engage in causes they believe in. However, empirical “time-lapse” research comparing responses from different generations at the same point in the responders’ lives, actually indicates that Millennials are no more altruistic than previous generations, and no more determined to seek meaning in their work and lives or do work that is worthwhile to society. This generation also faces different economic and social challenges than their parents did, and it is not clear how that perspective will translate to addressing environmental challenges.  

In the last 50 years, we have fundamentally changed the environmental “baseline.” Millennials never experienced burning rivers, and they didn’t grow up underneath the Denver “Brown Cloud.” The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and 40 C.F.R. are their baseline - and that is a different perspective than their Baby Boomer parents had when they were fighting against tangible environmental degradation. The Millennials can fundamentally impact our election results – if they vote. And until they vote, we won’t know what the environmental voice of this powerful generation sounds like. 

It’s the Infrastructure, Stupid

Posted on June 7, 2017 by Gregory Bibler

On May 23, 2017, President Trump issued his Fiscal 2018 budget proposal.  EPA’s press release, issued the same day, declared:  “EPA Budget Returns Focus to Core Statutory Mission.” https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-budget-returns-focus-core-statutory-mission  EPA made clear that “returning” to the “mission” means reducing the size of the agency.  EPA’s budget would be cut by 31 percent, compared to the Fiscal 2017 enacted budget, and its current workforce would be cut by 25 percent.  The President proposes to cut 600 more positions than indicated in his March 16 budget proposal (which was abandoned with surprisingly little fanfare when the President signed the Fiscal 2017 enacted budget on May 5). 

But there is at least one bright spot in the President’s new budget proposal.  Funding is to be preserved for programs “supporting the President’s focus on the nation’s infrastructure.”  “Infrastructure,” according to EPA, includes improvements to drinking water systems.  Toward that end, the budget includes $2.3 billion for State Revolving Funds and $20 million in additional appropriations for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program.

The President is sticking by his campaign promise to help communities like Flint, Michigan finance improvements needed to reduce lead in drinking water, particularly in homes and schools.  Providing funding for these particular programs stands in contrast to the overall tenor of the budget, and the campaign’s promise to eliminate “wasteful” EPA grants. 

Revelations in Flint triggered widespread and, as it turns out, legitimate concerns about the effectiveness of existing regulatory programs to protect against lead contamination in drinking water. http://www.goodwinlaw.com/-/media/files/publications/attorney-articles/2017/eba-winter-journal-2017flint-inspires-renewed-vigi.pdf It has been more than 30 years since Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act, and more than 25 years since EPA adopted the Lead and Copper Rule (“LCR”).  After Flint, increased lead testing in schools, and greater scrutiny of data already being collected by public water systems, revealed that elevated lead levels continue to be a pervasive problem in U.S. cities and school buildings (including more than half of the 300 public school buildings tested in 2016 in Massachusetts).

In October 2016, in the waning days of the Obama administration, EPA issued a white paper that announced that the LCR and its implementation are in urgent need of overhaul.  The LCR is a protocol for testing and treatment, not a set of numerical standards.  EPA stated that more prescriptive requirements that are more effective and readily enforceable need to be adopted.  Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s current war on environmental regulation, EPA has stated that it intends to formulate more stringent and clear requirements.  Meanwhile, in December 2016, Congress actually succeeded in amending the Safe Drinking Water Act to replace the moribund school drinking water provision, which was declared unconstitutional in 1996, with a new provision that, among other things, established a voluntary school lead testing grant program.

It is apparent that, on the issue of safe drinking water at least, the Trump administration has accurately measured the political mood.  Despite draconian cuts proposed to almost all of EPA’s budget and staffing, the administration has recognized that improving the regulation, testing and treatment of drinking water in schools and public water systems is politically expedient, and may do more good than harm.  It is good policy and good politics.

Trump's "2 for 1" EO: Can You Say "Arbitrary and Capricious"?

Posted on June 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, Mark Walker posted about Executive Order 13771.  Mark’s post was generally favorable, noting that a number of other countries have implemented some version of what is known as a “regulatory budget.”  This post provides something of a counterpoint to Mark’s. 

Put simply, I think that the Order is indefensible.  It’s not about regulatory reform.  It’s a transparent attempt to halt environmental regulation in its tracks, without regard to the benefit those regulations provide.

This week, on behalf of our client, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Foley Hoag filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in the case challenging the EO.  One paragraph from the brief pretty much summarizes the argument:

It is important to note, as Executive Order 13771 acknowledges, that agencies are already required, where not prohibited by law, to ensure that the benefits of regulations exceed their costs. Thus, the only impact of the Executive Order is to prohibit agencies from promulgating regulations whose benefits exceed their costs, unless they eliminate two other regulations whose benefits also exceed their costs. This is the definition of unreasoned decisionmaking. It is also a thumb in the eye of Congress, which enacted public health and environmental statutes in order to benefit the public.

It is a bitter irony that the government is defending the EO in part on the basis that it is just another in a long line of regulatory reform EOs, even though the EO is in fact a repudiation of those prior orders, not an extension of them.  This order is not about cost-benefit analysis; it is about cost-only analysis.  By definition this approach ignores the public benefits that the underlying statutes are intended to provide.  Thus, the “savings clause” cannot save the EO, because there is nothing left to save.

Energy Benchmarking, An Idea Whose Time May Have Come (And Just May be Politically Palatable)

Posted on June 5, 2017 by James B. Witkin

Given the current political climate in Washington, environmental programs most likely to survive unscathed are those that rely on market principles, especially if they are enacted at the state or local level. Sustainability advocates may want to take a closer look at energy benchmarking programs, which pass both of those tests.  

The jurisdictions closest to me, the District of Columbia and its close-in neighbor to the north, Montgomery County, Maryland, have adopted mandatory energy benchmarking programs for many commercial buildings. Other cities with similar programs include Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Kansas City and New York City. Many of those jurisdictions began requiring compliance for public buildings, then larger commercial buildings, and finally smaller buildings. In Montgomery County, buildings over 250,000 square feet had to start benchmarking last June; starting June 1, 2017, most buildings over 50,000 square feet must comply. In New York City, buildings larger than 25,000 square feet must benchmark by next May.

Although benchmarking programs vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, generally they require building owners to measure and report information on various types of energy and water usage. Some of that information may come from the owner’s own records; in tenanted buildings, landlords may need to obtain the information from tenants. Often the information is input into software such as the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager Program, which allows for uniform reporting and effective comparison of the data among buildings. That information is made available to the public.

There are several goals of benchmarking. First, it provides owners with information they may not have had, or understood—as one EPA benchmarking website states, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. By making owners focus on their energy costs, and see how those compare to their neighbors’, they should theoretically make efficient management and upgrade decisions.  Second, armed with this information, tenants looking to lease space (or buyers looking to purchase commercial properties) are better able to evaluate what their long term energy costs will be, and can make better leasing or purchasing decisions. Nothing like a lousy score to shame a landlord into making an upgrade decision that ideally is both cost effective and green.

While the programs are still young, some data indicate that they are working. (See the reports issued by the Institute for Market Transformation, and the studies cited by them.) Benchmarking seems like a concept that people on both sides of the isle should be able to support. 

Learning to talk about environmental issues across the political/ideological/economic/philosophical divide, with help from the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership

Posted on June 1, 2017 by Patricia Barmeyer

There is an organization in Georgia dedicated to the goal of building a network of leaders in the environmental area who can collaborate to work on solutions to important issues, instead of defaulting always to debate and often litigation.  The Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership was created in 2001, and I am currently participating as a member of the seventeenth IGEL class, the fifth lawyer from my firm to go through the program. It is similar in some ways to leadership programs throughout the country, but there is no other leadership program focused entirely on environmental issues.

IGEL is an experiential program, working on both substantive environmental issues and leadership development, as well as conflict management strategies.  The program has 30-35 participants every year, chosen from almost 200 applicants. Each class is chosen to represent a broad diversity of environmental leaders from business, government, academia and NGOs. Several Georgia members of ACOEL are IGEL alumni. The program consists of four 3-day sessions, held in areas to represent Georgia’s environmental diversity—metro Atlanta, the coast, the southwest agricultural area, and the north Georgia mountains. The sessions include outside speakers, group discussion, and field trips.  Every step of the way includes participation from folks with differing views, including scientists, planners, developers, permittees, regulators, environmental activists, and community leaders. The program requires, and secures, a commitment from all class members to be at every session.  It is very time-consuming—and it is hard to be out of the office for three days at a time.  But it is also lots of fun, both the sessions and the field trips.

IGEL is a non-profit organization, governed by a volunteer board composed of alumni of the program.  IGEL operates out of Georgia State University College of Business, in the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility, which has developed the curriculum for the program.

IGEL seeks to provide environmental leaders the knowledge, advanced skills and network necessary to help resolve Georgia’s environmental challenges now and in the future. It’s hard to quantify outcomes, but IGEL has created, and continues to grow, a network of committed environmental leaders who share the IGEL experience, have a broader perspective because of that experience, and do, as a result, have improved channels for communication and a deeper appreciation of opposing environmental concerns.  Our world today is highly polarized; IGEL provides a valuable service in creating a safe space for honest dialogue and respectful disagreement about important environmental issues.  If you are interested you can learn more by checking out the website. http://www.igeleaders.org/  

THE CUYAHOGA RIVER MAKES NEWS AGAIN: A POSTSCRIPT

Posted on May 31, 2017 by Michael Hardy

On May 11, 2017, I published a blog piece about the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to circumvent the State of Ohio’s “anti-degradation” water quality rules for the disposal of contaminated sediments from portions of the Cleveland Harbor and Shipping Channel.  Instead of dry land disposal in Confined Disposal Facilities (“CDF”), the Corp cited its own “Federal Standard” that justified, in its view, “open lake disposal” in Lake Erie at considerable cost savings.  The United States District Court ruled on May 5, 2017 that action was “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act.  The District Court showed no deference to the Corp’s “scientific” efforts to create its own rules in contravention to Ohio’s water quality standards.

The controversy arose in the context of the disposal of the contaminated sediments in the shipping channel of the Cuyahoga River, which makes up the last six miles of the River ( the northern end spilling into Lake Erie).  The River travels approximately 85 miles in total and drains nearly 815 square miles in four counties.  Just several miles south of the shipping channel is the 33,000 square acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park, with a number of significant tributaries feeding the River.  These upstream waters provide significant sand and gravel loadings to the northern reach of the River.

Recognizing that it could not afford to build a new $150,000,000 CFD, the Port of Cleveland looked for ways to reduce the sediment loading upstream of the navigation channel.  Adapting innovative “green” technology, the first of its kind at a port like Cleveland’s, the Port installed a “bed load interceptor” machine in the water about five miles upstream of the Shipping Channel that captures the sediment and extracts the clean sand for disposal into onsite piles.  With less sediment coming downriver, the Port hopes to extend the life of the existing CDF for another 30 years. The collected sand has a financial value for use in composting, construction, landscaping and road fill.  Here is a link to a recent The Plain Dealer(Cleveland.com) article that describes the technology, as well as its costs and resultant savings in dredging/disposal costs, and that depicts the process and the location of the interceptor.

The Port of Cleveland’s success with the interceptor has prompted other ports to examine the application of the technology to their locations, including a port on Lake Superior and sites in the Mississippi River delta.

Superfund Reform, Part 2: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

Posted on May 30, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, I offered less than fulsome praise of EPA Administrator Pruitt’s announcement that he was taking control of remedial decisions for big Superfund sites.  Now, he’s followed up with a memorandum announcing establishment of a task force to look at ways to reform Superfund implementation.  While he’s still plainly wrong in putting Superfund “at the center of the agency’s core mission,” I have to confess that I think he otherwise has pretty much hit a home run with the latest memorandum.

Let’s start with the basics.  Superfund is a mess.  It’s one of the most poorly written statutes in Congressional history, and Superfund cleanups take way too long, are way too expensive, and fail to deliver bang for the buck in either risk reduction or productive reuse.

In a perfect world, Superfund would be amended to privatize cleanups and put cost-effective risk-based cleanups at the center of the program.  However, Scott Pruitt cannot unilaterally amend Superfund.  Heck, he may not realize it, but even Donald Trump cannot unilaterally amend Superfund.

Given this reality, Pruitt’s memorandum identifies all of the appropriate goals for meaningful administrative reform.  They include:

  • a focus on identifying best practices within regional Superfund programs, reducing the amount of time between identification of contamination at a site and determination that a site is ready for reuse

  • overhaul and streamline the process used to develop, issue or enter into prospective purchaser agreements, bona fide prospective purchaser status, comfort letters, ready-for-reuse determinations

  • Streamline and improve the remedy development and selection process, particularly at sites with contaminated sediment, including to ensure that risk-management principles are considered in the selection of remedies

  • Reduce the administrative and overhead costs and burdens borne by parties remediating contaminated sites, including a reexamination of the level of agency oversight necessary.

The last is my personal favorite.

I somehow expect I’m not going to be praising this administration on a regular basis, but I can still acknowledge when they get something right.  Let’s just hope that the task force is for real and comes up with a set of meaningful administrative improvements.

Fingers crossed.

States Challenge Trump Administration’s Approach to Climate Change Through Energy Efficiency Rules

Posted on May 26, 2017 by Chester Babst

When President Trump issued his energy-related Executive Order in March directing further review by the EPA Administrator of, among other things, the Clean Power Plan, it signaled the death knell for what was arguably President Obama's centerpiece domestic action on climate change. But while the Order's likely intent to neutralize this and other rules would have appeared to pave the way for a flurry of lawsuits filed by environmental groups and States particularly concerned about global warming, the federal dockets have thus far been somewhat quiet with respect to the Trump Administration's handling of prior climate change-related rulemaking.

A group of 10 states have begun to push back, though, by filing a petition in the Second Circuit. The rule that is requested to be reviewed? It doesn't involve coal-fired power plants. Nor wellpads or compressors. Rather, the petition involves rulemaking aimed at the ominous ... ceiling fan. The rule, enacted by the Department of Energy in January, establishes minimum energy efficiency standards for fans manufactured after January 2020 pursuant to the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.  According to the DOE, the rule is projected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 200 million tons and methane emissions by 17 million tons through 2049.  Some 12 days after the rule was finalized, DOE delayed the effective date by 60 days with the stated intent of conducting further review and consideration of new regulations, consistent with the Freeze Memo. In March, DOE subsequently pushed back the effective date even further until September, with the basis being that DOE Secretary Rick Perry was, perhaps unsurprisingly, unable to accomplish the review and consideration of the rule within the 60-day timeframe.  Additional energy efficiency rulemakings finalized but not published under the Obama Administration currently remain unpublished.

The significance of the lawsuit is not so much about its substantive impact on climate change. After all, the projected GHG reductions under the ceiling fan rule are only a small fraction of those projected as part of the Clean Power Plan, which itself left some wondering whether it could meaningfully affect climate change on a global level.  Further, the Clean Power Plan’s vitality was already in question following the Supreme Court’s stay.  Rather, the petition carries broader implications for the Trump Administration's apparent strategy of stalling, as opposed to directly revising or withdrawing, environmental rulemaking that it fundamentally opposes. The strategy is not a wholly illogical one, especially considering the possible legal and practical limitations that some commentators have expressed the Administration might initially face if it were forced to provide, on-the-record, a definitive basis for full-fledged withdrawal of notable climate change regulations.

One of the key figures for the petitioners, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, has contended that the DOE's delays violate the Administrative Procedure Act in that they constitute a substantive revision to a final rule without going through proper notice and comment. He is joined by nine other states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington) as well as New York City. If the petitioners prevail, it will likely force EPA and other agencies to confront existing rulemaking head-on, and would otherwise challenge the viability of President Trump's energy-related Executive Order, including associated OMB guidance for implementation of the rule review procedures.  Further pressure could also come as a result of a challenge to the so-called “2-for-1” Executive Order, which environmental groups have claimed also directs arbitrary repeal of rulemakings.  But until then, neither industry nor environmentalists should be surprised if climate change or other significant environmental regulations carried over from the Obama Administration remain in an infinite loop of administrative review.

A 2-Fer

Posted on May 25, 2017 by Mark Walker

Trump’s 2-for-1 Executive Order 13771 (January 30, 2017) requires that two existing regulations be eliminated for each newly enacted regulation in order to control regulatory costs and burdens.  The EO requires that the total incremental cost of all new and repealed regulations in FY 2017 be $0 or less.  The EO applies to most federal agencies, including the EPA.

Can anyone seriously contend that we cannot afford to get rid of some existing federal regulations?  Apparently yes - the idea was immediately dubbed by some as “ridiculous”.  A lawsuit has already been filed challenging the EO as facially arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion. 

Fourteen States recently filed an Amici Curiae brief in the lawsuit supporting the EO, pointing out that numerous Presidents, Democratic and Republican alike, have previously issued executive orders seeking to reduce the number of federal regulations and the overall regulatory burden.

The notion of eliminating one or more existing regulations for each new regulation in order to reduce costs is nothing new.  The Netherlands, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have all previously enacted similar policies.  The UK currently has a 3-for-1 policy, which is estimated to have saved billions.

Certainly the 2-for-1 policy presents administrative and procedural challenges.  There is the sticky problem of estimating costs, as the EO is intended to address total opportunity costs (opportunities foregone by society as a whole - workers, businesses, consumers, households, etc.), and not simply business compliance costs.  In addition, the repeal of existing regulations must be done in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act, which itself can be time consuming and costly.

The EO contains a savings clause that says no existing regulations can be repealed where prohibited by law.  Therefore, regulations expressly required by law without the consideration of costs cannot be repealed pursuant to the EO.  However, discretionary regulations are fair game.  Once again, we’ll have to wait and see how this EO holds up after court scrutiny.

The Making of Bad Law

Posted on May 24, 2017 by John Barkett

One of the challenges for lawyers involved in CERCLA litigation is educating the judge on how CERCLA works.  But when both the advocate and the court misapprehend how CERCLA works, Voila!  Bad law is made. 

CERCLA is hardly a model of clear drafting, but one area of confusion involves the difference in the burden of proof in the application of Section 107(a)(4)(A) and (B).  As CERCLA practitioners know, a party liable under one of the four categories of Section 107(a)(1) – (4) is liable under Section 107(a)(4)(A) to the United States, a State, or a Tribe for costs that are incurred “not inconsistent with the national contingency plan.”  On the other hand, under Section 107(a)(4)(B), “any other necessary costs of response incurred . . . consistent with the national contingency plan” is the standard applicable to private cost recovery claims.   

Washington State Dep't of Transp. v. Washington Natural Gas Co., 59 F.3d 793 (9th Cir. Wash. 1995) is one of many decisions that explain the distinction. In a 107(a)(4)(A) action, a defendant has the burden of proving that the government or Indian tribe’s costs are inconsistent with the National Contingency Plan (NCP) because of the presumption of NCP consistency attached to governmental or tribal actions. “In contrast, any ‘other person’ seeking response costs under § 9607(a)(4)(B) must prove that its actions are consistent with the NCP.”  59 F.3d at 799-800 (citation omitted).  In other words, Section 107(a)(4)(A) focuses on costs because consistency is presumed.  Section 107(a)(4)(B) focuses on actions because consistency must be proved.

Lawyers, law clerks, and judges who do not understand the distinction can become the purveyors of bad law.  Pentair Thermal Mgmt., LLC v. Rowe Indus., Inc. Nos. 06-cv-07164 NC & 10-cv-01606 NC, 2013 WL 1320422 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 31, 2013) illustrates the problem.  In Pentair, there was a cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls in soils.  There was no quarrel with the NCP process leading up to the selection of an excavation remedy. But during remediation problems were encountered that resulted in adjustments to the remedy and increased costs. CERCLA practitioners know that fundamental changes to a National Priorities List-site remedy require another round of public participation.  40 C.F.R. §300.435(c)(2)(ii)(H).  To defeat plaintiff’s costs, defendant decided to argue that the changes to the remedy required re-notice to the public of the remedial action because they were fundamental changes, and thus plaintiff’s actions were not consistent with the NCP.

Defendant’s argument was premised on United States v. Burlington Northern Railroad Company, 200 F.3d 679 (10th Cir. 1999), where the court of appeals concluded that the Environmental Protection Agency’s problems during a remedial action did, indeed, represent a fundamental change to the remedy requiring re-notice to the public. The court of appeals held that despite an NCP violation, on remand, the burden of proof remained on the defendant to establish that “EPA’s remedial actions resulted in demonstrable excess costs that would not have otherwise been incurred.” Id. at 695.

The district court in Pentair found NCP consistency even with the changes to the remedy.  However, without appreciating the fact that Burlington Northern was a Section 107(a)(4)(A) case—presumably because defendant was relying on the decision—the court said that even if the remedial changes were fundamental, defendant would still lose based on Burlington Northern and another governmental cost recovery action, Minnesota v. Kalman W. Abrams Metals, Inc., 155 F.3d 1019 (8th Cir. 2015).  Both of these were Section 107(a)(4)(A) cases where a defendant must prove which of the government’s costs were inconsistent with the NCP.  The district court in Pentair failed to appreciate the distinction.  It wrongly held that, had the district court determined that the remedy changes were fundamental, defendant would still have had the burden of proof to show which of plaintiff’s costs were non-NCP compliant. 

The dangers of dicta!  Compounded by the failure to comprehend the different burdens of proof in a 4(A) and a 4(B) action.  That’s the formula for making bad law.

Trumping the National Monument Designations of Past Presidents

Posted on May 23, 2017 by Larry Ausherman

When a President of the United States sets aside important federal lands for conservation, the accompanying fanfare typically invokes the notion of forever.  But, in light of President Trump’s Executive Order 13792, maybe these national treasures should be asking our government the timeless question posed long ago by The Shirelles, Carole King, and others:  “Will you still love me tomorrow?”

On April 26, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13792, which directs the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, to review and make recommendations concerning many prior presidential designations or expansions of national monuments that were made under the Antiquities Act of 1906.  The Executive Order essentially suggests that some past monument designations may have been made without adequate public input, and may be overbroad or unduly restrictive of other uses of the designated lands.  The Executive Order concerns monument designations or expansions since 1996, where the designation or expansion covers more than 100,000 acres or where Secretary Zinke determines it was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with stakeholders. 

But the Executive Order, together with the review it requires, is probably only the first step.  The review probably foreshadows a future attempt by President Trump to at least pare back certain existing national monument designations, based on Secretary Zinke’s recommendations.  Prominent among the monuments that are in the cross hairs is President Obama’s controversial Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. 

The Secretarial review is on a fast track.  The Executive Order provides that the Secretary’s interim report is due in mid-June.  The final report is due in late August, and it should include recommendations for subsequent actions.  In the meantime, the Department of the Interior is inviting public comment.  On May 5, 2017, it issued a press release describing the scope of and deadlines for public comment.  It also listed the twenty two national monuments and five marine monuments that are subject to the ongoing review.

The Antiquities Act was enacted during the term of Theodore Roosevelt, and it empowers presidents to create national monuments with federal land to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”  The presidential power created by the Act is unique in that it allows presidents to unilaterally protect federal land by designating national monuments.  In that regard, presidential power under the Act goes beyond the often used power to issue executive orders.  Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama have used the power given to them under the Act. 

Both presidential power to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act and Congressional power to change them under the Property Clause of the Constitution are well recognized, but President Trump’s signing of Executive Order 13792 leaves a looming question:  Does a president have the power either to abolish or to reduce in size a monument designated by a previous president?  The Antiquities Act is silent on that question.  According to a 1938 opinion of the United States Attorney General and the legislative history of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the Antiquities Act does not confer upon the president the power to abolish entirely an existing national monument designation.  No previous president has done so.  But the administration likely will not concede the issue of whether the president can abolish a monument.  Regardless of the Act, some note that the Constitution grants the president broad power to reverse actions of previous presidents.  The separate question of whether a president may merely reduce the size of a monument or change its boundaries is probably a closer call than the question of complete abolition of it.  Rather than abolish national monuments, President Trump might attempt to reduce the size of one or more of them.

The Act limits the size of lands that can be reserved for national monuments to “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected . . .”  But that limitation can be difficult to quantify, and it has generally not stopped presidents from designating very large swaths of land as national monuments.  For example, much of the public and political criticism of Bears Ears National Monument – designated by President Obama in the last month of his term – focuses on its huge size, which is about 1,350,000 acres of public land.  President Clinton’s 1996 designation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument covers about 1.9 million acres.  It has been subject to similar criticism, and it is also under review by Secretary Zinke.  Although it is somewhat unusual for a president to reduce the size of an existing monument, Presidents Wilson, Truman, and Eisenhower have done so.  However, these past reductions were not challenged, and so case law on the questions presented by the Executive Order is scarce.  Unlike these past actions to reduce monument size, any move by President Trump to change established monuments likely will be challenged.  The issues raised by his Executive Order are already highly contentious.

It remains to be seen whether any future effort by President Trump to abolish or reduce a monument’s size will withstand the inevitable legal challenge, but we can predict a few of the issues that could be raised.  Of course, the prominent initial question is whether either the Antiquities Act or the Constitution’s general grant of executive authority authorizes a president to change monument designations of past presidents. 

If the answer to that question is “yes,” many unresolved questions may arise about the scope of presidential authority to change designations.  Can a president abolish a monument altogether?  If a president can only alter, but not abolish, a monument, then by what criteria should the validity of the alteration be measured?  Is the challenged reduction in size so substantial as to thwart the conservation purposes for which the monument was created?  In the words of the Act, does the reduction leave the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected”?  Is a paltry level of public outreach or coordination preceding a president’s designation of a monument adequate legal justification for changing the monument?  Is outreach or coordination even legally relevant to a monument’s validity, and if it is, how should the adequacy of public outreach and coordination with stakeholders be tested?

Politics and public opinion will also steer the upcoming debate.  The national monument issue raised by the Executive Order is a lightning rod for many, including environmental groups, Tribes, State and local governments, and those who favor limiting the reach of the federal government.  This episode would not be the first time that President Trump has announced controversial policy that invites high profile legal challenges and the media attention that accompanies them.

I tend to be wary of landscape scale reservations of federal lands under the Antiquities Act and some other laws.  They can be as political as they are large.  Abuse of power is a concern.  We always should consider whether the designation fits in size and purpose the law that is being used to authorize it.  Is the designation simply a misguided, feel-good lob at a legacy, orchestrated by an outgoing president in his final days?  Or is it something more substantial, with a size and purpose that are supportable under the authorizing legislation?  Those are good questions for the president making the designation, for a reviewing court, and for Congress, in the rare case where it considers whether to change a designation.  But, when it comes to existing national monuments, I at least question whether President Trump (and then each of his successors) should be the one who gets to decide.

Until now, national monuments have, for the most part, enjoyed an air of permanence.  With some exceptions, presidents have typically deferred to the monument designations of predecessors, even while dismantling other aspects of a previous administration’s policies.  But President Trump’s actions raise questions about whether the tradition might end.  As legal challenges unfold, it may be years before we know to what extent this president, and every future president, could toss established national monuments into the same bin of ephemera that is used to dispose of old political appointments and presidential proclamations.

Can We Really Expect An Administrator Not To Administrate?

Posted on May 19, 2017 by Jeffrey Porter

This month EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that he will personally pass judgment on any Superfund remedy estimated to cost more than $50 million.  Revisions to CERCLA Delegations of Authority 14-2 Responses and 14-21A Consultations, Determinations, Reviews and Selection of Remedial Actions at Federal Facilities, May 9, 2017.

Administrator Pruitt’s announcement begins with his unequivocal assurances that the “Superfund program is a vital function” of EPA, and that he is taking this action “to facilitate the more-rapid remediation and revitalization of contaminated sites and to promote accountability and consistency in remedy selection.”

Skeptics fear that Administrator Pruitt has some other secret objective.   But no one can seriously argue that this isn’t Administrator Pruitt’s decision to make.  The Superfund statute unequivocally says “[t]he President shall select appropriate remedial actions determined to be necessary” in accordance with the statute and the implementing regulations, and “which provide for cost-effective response.”  42 U.S.C. §9621(a).  The implementing regulations unequivocally delegate that responsibility to Administrator Pruitt  (well, to be precise, it is theoretically possible that another federal agency or a state can be a “lead agency” under the regulations but, in that unlikely case, the Administrator’s May 9th decision presumably wouldn’t apply).  

After all, it was a perceived need for prompt federal action to clean up the most complex contaminated sites in our country that drove the enactment of the Superfund statute over thirty-five years ago.  Because Congress perceived that need, the statute limits the ability of anyone, including state and local governments, to interfere with the selection and implementation of a Superfund remedy.

Over the decades, the contaminated sites posing the most immediate concern have been addressed, sites that would never have been prospects for Superfund listing thirty years ago have found their way into the program, and the Superfund statute has been interpreted, and reinterpreted, in regulations, countless judicial decisions, and EPA guidance documents.   If those regulations, judicial decisions and guidance documents have one thing in common, it is that they vest in EPA the maximum decision-making discretion permitted by the statute.

Because the sites posing the most immediate concern have been addressed, and what was once new is now the subject of thousands of pages of regulations, judicial decisions and guidance documents, anyone familiar with the Superfund program has to agree that regional program staff have, over the decades, been increasingly left mostly alone to make remedial decisions costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

And, as someone who has practiced in this area of environmental law for almost thirty years, I think it is equally clear that regional decision-making has attempted to soften the effect of Congress’s unambiguous statement of its intention that no one, including state and local governments, stands in the way of Superfund remedies by local consensus building, and that what Administrator Pruitt calls “consistency” has suffered as a result.

As a life-long Democrat, I have plenty of concerns about the Trump Administration’s environmental agenda.  But Administrator Pruitt has been anything but obtuse about his support of aspects of that agenda that concern me so I’m going to take him at his word regarding his intentions for the Superfund program, including because increased accountability and consistency in the Superfund program would be a very good thing.

Scott Pruitt Just Solved All of the Problems with Superfund. Not.

Posted on May 17, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA Administrator Pruitt issued a memorandum requiring that all Superfund remedies estimated to cost at least $50 million be approved by the Administrator.  I’m not optimistic that this will cure, or even ameliorate, what ails CERCLA.  

First, the memorandum gets off on precisely the wrong foot.  Administrator Pruitt states that:

 The Superfund program is a vital function of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and under my administration, Superfund and the EPA’s land and water cleanup efforts will be restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.

What’s the problem with this statement?  When EPA has actually looked at the top risks addressed by its programs, risks from Superfund sites never even make the list.  Except for a limited set of circumstances, Superfund has been a colossal waste of money, resources, and focus for EPA.  If Administrator Pruitt wants to reform Superfund, he shouldn’t be “placing it at the center of the agency’s core mission.”  He should be further deemphasizing it.

Even if one assumes that this is just puffery, the new approach is flawed on the merits, for at least two reasons.

First, the problem with Superfund is that it’s the last bastion of command and control regulation.  I understand that Pruitt may want to take the reins precisely to reduce the number of ukases issuing from the regional offices.  However, the underlying problem will remain; he just thinks he’ll be providing kinder, gentler, command and control.  Wouldn’t it be better to support fundamental reform of CERCLA, to create a privatized program, such as in Massachusetts and other states?

Finally, while PRPs might just wish Superfund went away, in the real world, PRPs just want certainty and timely decisions.  Aside from a few cases where Pruitt might put the kibosh on expensive remedies that don’t eliminate real risks, I fear that in the majority of cases, all that will happen will be that cleanup decisions will be delayed; PRPs will pay more as a result of such delays.

This administration continues to give regulatory reform a bad name.

BUSINESS AND PARIS: CAN WE TALK?

Posted on May 16, 2017 by Charles F. Becker

Addressing environmental issues on a world scale will always be a difficult proposition.  The most recent attempt, the Paris Climate Accord, was no exception.  Every nation, leader and business had an opinion on what needed to be done.  Eventually, enough countries signed on to allow the Paris Agreement to be deemed “in force.” 

What was surprising about the discussions leading up to the Agreement was that 81 companies chose to publicly declare they would take action to reduce their emissions.  The companies included Wal-Mart, Mars, IKEA, Siemens, Amazon, GE, GM and Best Buy.  Not a bad group of supporters.  The declarations were, of course, prior to the election and President Trump is now deciding whether the United States is better served being out of the Paris Agreement.

One would think that after the election, there might be some changes in corporate support for the Accord.  But not so.  Most of the signing companies, and hundreds more, have reaffirmed their commitment to reduce their emissions.  Even coal companies have expressed support.  In making his decision on Paris, the President might want to consider the viewpoint of those businesses.  For example, in a March statement to Bloomberg, representatives of Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft said:

We believe that strong, clean energy and climate policies, like the Clean Power Plan, can make renewable energy supplies more robust and address the serious threat of climate change while supporting American competitiveness, innovation and job growth.

 

A common theme from all of the corporate supporters is to acknowledge that climate change is real and that they want to do something about it for the good of the planet. 

I have to say, however, if that’s really what the businesses believe, they aren’t helping their cause by saying it to a President who has very publicly advanced a contrary view.  The good news is, these businesses didn’t really mean it.  They were just setting out alternative facts.  Businesses care about “shareholder value” -- what action will be best for the bottom line.  That’s not a shocking concept and it provides a very understandable basis for supporting the Paris Agreement.  They just need to be willing to explain it better.  I believe this is the letter the companies really meant to send: 

Dear President Trump:

 

Regarding your consideration of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, please don’t do it.  We know you’ve got our best interests at heart, but you’ve done enough.  Let us explain.

 

We sell things—steaks, trucks, drain pipes, wigs, designer clothes.  You know, stuff people can’t live without.  It’s a whole different world from selling real estate.  You get by with a Phase I every once in a while, but we have regulation on everything we do.  And it’s been that way for a long time.

 

The difficulty is that we have discovered two simple truths.  First, people (and by that we mean our customers, your voters) actually want environmental regulation.  Even now, after all of your great efforts to explain why climate change was invented by the Chinese and late night talk show hosts, Pew Research says that 74% of the people (our customers, your voters) believe that the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.  We know, that’s made up of 52% Republicans and 90% Democrats, but we did our own research and discovered that we sell coffee and cola and cars to Republicans and Democrats.  We’re as shocked as you, but there it is.

 

Second, and this is really important: Quit changing the rules!  We were just getting used to the regulations.  We have already taken steps to address future goals, like those in the Paris Agreement.  For example, many of us have converted our facilities from coal to gas.  We’re not going back. 

 

Don’t get us wrong.  We’ll vote for you and we wish you nothing but the best.  But Here’s the Thing (sorry, couldn’t resist): we’re going to outlive your time – by a lot.  In a few years, you’ll be gone from office.  Sooner or later the Democrats are going to be back in power.  Sure, they all have really small hands, but what do you think they’re going to do with them?  You guessed it – they’re going to change your rules and go back to where we are now.  We’ve seen it over and over.  And they are going to make up for lost time with 74% of the people (our customers, your voters) saying it’s a great idea. 

 

What we’re trying to say is THIS WHIPSAW REGULATION IS KILLING US!

 

Only you can make it stop and leaving us in the Paris Agreement would be a great place to start.

 

We can’t tell you how appreciative we are of your attempts to reconsider some of the regulations for a few years.  Really, thank you.  But we need to make money and it’s a lot harder to do when we have to keep changing all our procedures and equipment that 74% of the people (you know) said they wanted in the first place.

So, if you could see your way to just switching your focus to getting that really important wall built and put these environmental changes on the back burner, that would be huge . . . believe me.

                                                            Most Sincerely,

 

                                                Your Friends Making Incredibly Great Stuff

The Cuyahoga River Makes News Again

Posted on May 11, 2017 by Michael Hardy

To many environmental law veterans, the name of the Cuyahoga River triggers memories.   The 1969 fire on that River galvanized major reforms to the water pollution laws of the United States.

As I sit in my 36th floor office and look out the windows in several directions, I can see most of the upper Cuyahoga River course through the “Industrial Flats” as it winds from the Cleveland Harbor north on Lake Erie to the large Arcelor Mittal steel plant nearly six miles downriver.  Known as the “crooked river” by Indian lore, it has many oxbows and switchbacks with colorful names like “Collision Bend” and “Irishtown Flats”.  Home to rowing teams, large tugs, iron ore freighters, and sand and gravel barges, it is a busy river requiring constant upkeep through dredging.

The Cuyahoga River has made remarkable progress since the 1969 fire, with many targeting the fifty-year anniversary of the fire for the removal of its “impaired” classification.  But the River still suffers from years of industrial and municipal sewage disposal.  Although a variety of fish have returned, it should not be surprising to know that slightly elevated PCBs remain in the sediments, a fact that complicates the dredging and disposal of the spoils.  Therein lies the newest chapter in the River’s history.

Congress has funded the dredging of the Cuyahoga River for nearly 40 years and, in 2015, allocated resources to the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) for that year.  Accordingly, the Corps filed an application with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) for a water quality certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act before commencement of the dredging project.  The OEPA, concerned over elevated levels of PCBs in some of the dredging spoils, authorized the dredging to proceed, provided the Corps disposed of all the dredged material in on-site “confined disposal facilities” (CDFs).  Based on sampling and analysis it conducted, the Corps agreed to utilize a CDF for the sediments dredged from the Cleveland Harbor, but objected to the required use of a CDF for the spoils coming from the “Upper Channel” of the River.  Calculating what it called a “Federal Standard” to identify less costly alternatives, the Corps proposed instead to use “open lake disposal” for those materials, which immediately drew the opposition of the OEPA and Ohio Department of Natural Resources.  The Corps argued that the use of a CDF for those spoils would add nearly $1,300,000 to the cost of the project.  The Court wanted the “Federal Standard” to override Ohio’s anti-degradation water quality rules and other initiatives designed to improve the health of Lake Erie.  Instead of an administrative appeal of the OEPA conditional certification, the Corps gave the State an ultimatum – either find a “non-federal source” for the added costs or forfeit the Congressionally authorized dredging.  Because of the potential dire economic consequences to the steel mill and other businesses, the State sued the Corps and obtained a preliminary injunction.  The District Court sided with the State and ordered the dredging to commence, with the responsibility for the incremental costs to be determined in subsequent proceedings.

On May 5, 2017, the District Court issued a 52-page Opinion finding that the Corps’ actions were “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act. State of Ohio v. The United States Army Corps of Engineers, U.S.D.C. N.D.Ohio Case No. 1:15 – CV 629.  Among other things, the Court found that the Corps’ elevation of its so-called “Federal Standard” to supersede duly promulgated water quality standards of Ohio exceeded the Corps’ authority. The Corps could not make up its own rules to evade its obligations to comply with properly adopted environmental standards or to fulfill Congressional mandates to dredge the entirety of the Cuyahoga navigation channel and use a CDF to manage the spoils.  Accordingly, the District Court ruled that the Corps must absorb the added costs of the on-land CDF disposal.

RCRA 2020: Has That Vision Been Lost -- Or Has EPA Just Temporarily Misplaced Its Reading Glasses?

Posted on May 2, 2017 by David Van Slyke

The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) was enacted in 1993 to improve governmental performance by requiring federal agencies to (1) develop five-year strategic plans containing long-term, results-oriented goals; (2) prepare annual performance plans and goals; and (3) prepare annual performance reports that review the agency's success or failure in meeting its goals.

Relative to U.S. EPA’s responsibilities under RCRA’s corrective action efforts, GPRA has been implemented through the “RCRA 2020” program under which EPA established (via a 1999 guidance document) two Environmental Indicators (“EIs”) to measure its progress in achieving national cleanup goals:

  • Current Human Exposures Under Control - Ensures that people near a particular facility are not exposed to unacceptable levels of contaminants.
  • Migration Of Contaminated Groundwater Under Control -  Ensures that contaminated groundwater does not spread and further contaminate groundwater resources.

The RCRA 2020 Corrective Action Baseline List currently includes 3,779 RCRA facilities.  Initially introduced by EPA in 1999, that initial list (much smaller -- only 1714 facilities) became the basis for EPA’s 2005 GPRA performance goals.  The list has been updated in 2008, 2010, and most recently in April 2013.  The Baseline List includes properties that are heavily contaminated, others that were contaminated but have since been cleaned up, and properties awaiting full investigation that may require little or no future corrective action.

EPA’s overall “aspiration goal” is to “largely implement[ ] final remedies at 95 percent of facilities requiring corrective action by the year 2020.”  While it is not at all clear what “largely implement” means, in addition to that goal the following GPRA goals for 2015 apply to the 2020 Baseline list (in percentages of facilities meeting those goals):

  • human exposures under control
  • migration of contaminated groundwater under control
  • final remedy construction
  • performance standards attained

It is now unclear, however, whether EPA is actually on track to meeting its 2020 goals.  While the Agency has published national EI results for the 2005 and 2008 baseline lists, including then-current statements for each facility as to whether or not the two key EIs have been met, EPA appears not to have generated (or at least not made publicly available) similar compiled results for the much more expanded 2010 or 2013 lists of facilities.  

Further, EPA’s March 21, 2017 memorandum regarding the President’s 2018 budget for the Agency would reduce the Headquarters and Regional program office resources for the RCRA corrective action program by 33.4 FTEs.  That budget memo also reduces the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance’s (OECA) civil enforcement and compliance monitoring budget by a total of 262 FTEs; some unknown portion of that cut will fall on the RCRA corrective action program.  (In an ironic and perhaps inadvertently amusing entry, that same budget memo proposes to increase the OECA budget by 10 FTE “to provide 24/7 security detail for the Administrator.”)

At best, given today’s state of play, the current vision for RCRA 2020 is blurry.  At worst, well…, um…, the year 2020 is only 975 (more or less) days away.

Perhaps It Should Be Renamed the “Really, Really, Endangered Species Act”

Posted on May 1, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last Friday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court decision ruling that the Fish & Wildlife Service decision that listing of the whitebark pine as endangered or threatened was “warranted, but precluded” was not arbitrary and capricious.  The decision seems correct, but as the frustration of the Court reflects, it’s only because the ESA is designed to fail.

The procedural history is lengthy and not really necessary to repeat here.  Suffice it to say that the whitebark pine is both an important species and in significant distress, if not dire straits.  In response to a listing petition, the FWS issued a finding that listing the whitebark pine is “warranted, but precluded.”  Thus, the FWS instead added the whitebark pine to the list of “candidate species.”

A candidate species is one for which [FWS has] on file sufficient information on biological vulnerability and threats to support a proposal for listing as endangered or threatened, but for which preparation and publication of a proposal is precluded by higher priority listing actions.

The particular issue here was whether the FWS has any authority to base listing decisions on anything other than the Listing Priority Number assigned to the species.  As the Court noted, however, the ESA provides only that the ranking system is intended to “assist” in the identification of species for listing.  There is nothing that makes the LPN determinative.

That’s all well and good, but it does nothing for the whitebark pine.  As the Court stated:

When pending actions outstrip available resources, the Secretary must make its choices and live with its priorities, even though that means leaving factually (if not listed) threatened or endangered species without the protections of the ESA.

In other words, to paraphrase Eddie Cochran, “I’d like to help you tree, but you’re too inanimate to vote."

Does Chevron Ever Permit EPA to Rewrite a Statute? EPA’s Release Reporting Exemptions Are Struck Down

Posted on April 13, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated EPA’s final rule governing reporting of air releases from animal feeding operations.  The Court found that EPA had no statutory authority to exempt AFOs from the reporting regulations.

The decision is also important because it is another in a recent line of cases regarding the extent of agency authority to interpret statutes.  The issue was whether EPA had authority to exempt smaller AFOs from reporting requirements, on the ground that it could not:

foresee a situation where [it] would take any future response action as a result of such notification[s].

Although EPA did not explicitly justify its rule on de minimis grounds, the Court understood EPA to be making a de minimis argument and analyzed the rule in that context.  The Court concluded that EPA had not justified a de minimis exception, because:

an agency can’t use it to create an exception where application of the literal terms would “provide benefits, in the sense of furthering the regulatory objectives, but the agency concludes that the acknowledged benefits are exceeded by the costs.”

Here, the Court found that there were benefits to requiring reporting without a de minimis exception.  That was enough to vacate the rule.

It is worth noting the concurrence from Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who agreed that EPA had overstepped, but was concerned about the panel opinion’s summary of Chevron as being focused on whether the agency’s interpretation is “reasonable.”  Stoking the anti-Chevron flames, Judge Brown wrote to make clear that the “reasonableness” inquiry does not apply at step one of Chevron.  Ever-vigilant, she wants to be certain that courts do not abdicate their duty to state what the unambiguous language of a statute means.

I don’t have any problem with that.  Phase I of Chevron is an important bedrock principle.  If there’s no ambiguity, there’s no deference.  However, it’s worth noting that Judge Brown also stated that:

an Article III renaissance is emerging against the judicial abdication performed in Chevron’s name.

Notwithstanding the congressional discussion of this issue, I remain skeptical that any such “Article III renaissance” is occurring.  One concurrence from one appellate judge who happens to be named Gorsuch does not a renaissance make.

Of course, the really important part of Judge Brown’s concurrence was her citation to Luck Be a Lady, from Guys and Dolls, the greatest musical of all time.

Trump’s “Tortured” Maneuvering Can Be Legal Maneuvering

Posted on April 11, 2017 by Richard G. Stoll

Bob Sussman is a former high-ranking Obama and Clinton EPA official with a stellar academic and professional background.  He recently published in Inside EPA a thought-provoking piece entitled “Trump’s Tortured Maneuvering on Climate Change.”

No matter what your views on climate, Bob’s piece is worth reading.  I find much to agree with in Bob’s observations, but would respectfully disagree with one. 

Focusing on the president’s March 28 Executive Order (EO), Bob raises the valid question of why Mr. Trump touted it on job-saving, energy independence grounds.  Bob makes a strong case (as if he really needed to) that coal mining jobs are dwindling due to market forces and that the U.S. energy outlook is just fine. 

Bob posits that Trump’s job-energy independence focus reveals a divide and major discomfort within the Administration on whether and how much to deny that humans are involved with climate change.  He notes that the March 28 Order side-steps any position on both the “Endangerment Finding” and the Paris Accords.   

So far so good.  My respectful disagreement relates to Bob’s argument that the Trump EPA would have a difficult time sustaining major cutbacks to the Obama Clean Power Plan (CPP) on judicial review.  He speculates that a new Trump CPP might simply retain “building block 1” (plant efficiency improvements) from the 3-block “beyond-the-fenceline” Obama CPP.  He argues that “the courts may well balk at this approach as a contrived effort to duck the challenge of climate change by taking refuge in narrow legal arguments.”

Here is why I disagree:

a.  Following the 2007 Supreme Court Massachusetts ruling and EPA’s subsequent Endangerment Finding, EPA is not required by the Clean Air Act (CAA) to issue GHG rules with any particular degree of stringency – EPA must just issue rules.

b.  The “beyond-the-fenceline” features of the Obama CPP are based upon truly adventurous interpretations of the words of the CAA.  There is certainly nothing in the CAA that requires those interpretations.  (Recall the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the unprecedented step of staying the Obama CPP throughout the entire judicial review process.)  Even if the D.C. Circuit were to uphold these interpretations, it would only be upholding the Obama EPA’s discretion to adopt them; the Court could not rule that such interpretations were mandated by the CAA.

c.  The Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit case law are clear on the following points:

i.  A new administration is free to reverse rules issued by a prior administration based entirely upon policy preferences, even where there are no new facts or information, so long as the new administration adequately explains the basis for the reversal;

ii.  There is no heightened standard of judicial review when an agency reverses course; and an agency need not convince the court that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the rejected one.

See my recent ACOEL blog for the citations to the cases.

d.  Because the statutory interpretations supporting beyond-the-fenceline requirements are so adventurous (and stayed by the Supreme Court), it should be easy for the Trump EPA to defend a new CPP as a matter of policy based on CAA interpretations that are far less adventurous.

e.  If and when the new CPP reaches the Supreme Court, it is difficult to see the Court departing from the precedents of the cases cited in my ACOEL blog, particularly with Justice Gorsuch filling Justice Scalia’s seat.

Jordan Cove LNG Project Scores Legal Victory

Posted on April 10, 2017 by Rick Glick

The Jordan Cove LNG project in Coos Bay, Oregon, prevailed in a legal challenge to a key permit.  The permit, issued by the Oregon Department of State Lands, allows dredge and fill work for a deep water ship channel.  In Coos Waterkeeper v. Port of Coos Bay, the Court of Appeals rejected that challenge and upheld the permit.

Petitioners’ main argument on appeal was that DSL’s permitting decision should have applied statutory environmental standards not only to the dredge and fill work, but also terminal operations after construction.  The court found this argument to lack merit, finding that DSL’s authority is limited to the “project,” defined in the statute and its legislative history as the dredge and fill work only. 

Petitioners also argued that DSL should have asserted permitting jurisdiction over complementary uplands excavation.  This work would initially be separated from the bay by a 40-foot berm, and then the berm would be removed to create the channel.  The court concluded that DSL jurisdiction would not apply to uplands work (i.e. above the high tide line), and that removal of the berm and flooding the affected uplands are within scope of the permit.

The politics of LNG development in Oregon are highly charged.  The Oregon LNG project was abandoned following election of a new county board of commissioners made up of project opponents.  Local opposition slowed down state regulatory review and the project never was tested against objective legal standards.  It is heartening to see that for the Jordan Cove project, which also is controversial, both the state agency and the court assessed the project as they would any other.  The politics are still there, but the rule of law in this instance rose above.

The outcome of this case highlights an anomaly in green Oregon.  Unlike our neighbors to the north and south, we have no mini-NEPA law.  If we did, the environmental effects of the Jordan Cove project taken as a whole would certainly have been part of the state permitting calculus.  Many bills to create a comprehensive environmental impact review process have been proposed, but none have taken hold.  With a Democratic controlled legislature and state house, it seems only a matter of time.

Should Courts Defer to EPA’s Scientific Expertise if EPA Gets Rid of Its Expertise?

Posted on April 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected challenges to the Federal Implementation Plan EPA promulgated after finding that Arizona’s regional haze State Implementation Plan was inadequate.  I think that the result is both correct and unsurprising.

However, one part of the opinion – a recitation of black-letter law – caught my eye.  In discussing the standard of review, the court noted that the arbitrary and capricious standard is “highly deferential.”  No surprise there.  It also noted that courts are particularly deferential when reviewing agency scientific determinations.  Also no surprise.

And yet….

What happens if EPA eliminates all of its climate science expertise, and then eliminates the Endangerment Finding?  Certainly, a court could still recite the traditional level of deference, but then note that “deference is not abdication” and rule that EPA’s decision must be reversed even under the deferential threshold.

And yet….

What happens if the Trump administration repeatedly makes regulatory decisions based on a “scientific” viewpoint that is so broadly rejected by the scientific community that “scientific” must be put in quotation marks?  Might courts at some point conclude that EPA has forfeited the deference normally given to agency scientific decisions?

Just asking.  It’s purely a hypothetical, of course.

Slashing EPA’s Budget Will Hinder Efforts to Improve Environmental Regulations

Posted on April 5, 2017 by Mark R. Sussman

          Since the election of President Trump and appointment of EPA Administrator Pruitt, more than a few articles and blogs have been written about the new administration’s plans to dismantle EPA, including the proposal to cut EPA’s budget by almost one third.   Even if one agrees that EPA needs to be “down-sized,” the massive cuts proposed by the Trump Administration are counter-productive.   If EPA fires thousands of environmental professionals, who will be left to repeal or revise unnecessary or unduly burdensome regulations?  Unlike Executive Orders, regulations cannot be rescinded or revised with the stroke of a pen.

          The hazardous waste regulations adopted to implement RCRA provide a case in point.  The Obama EPA adopted the final Hazardous Waste Generator Improvements Rule (discussed by a recent blog by Donald Stever) at the end of last year, acknowledging that the RCRA regulations are in many cases ambiguous, contain inconsistencies, and lack flexibility.  EPA took a year to address more than 200 comments before it finalized the rule.  Other aspects of the RCRA regulations also need to be modernized to encourage, rather than discourage, the reuse of materials derived from waste.

          Just one example involves the recycling of mercury-containing lamps, which have been regulated as Universal Waste since 1995.  Although fluorescent lamp manufacturers have reduced the amount of mercury in their lighting over time, such lamps are regulated as Universal Waste because many lamps exhibit the toxicity characteristic for mercury; and thus, would be classified as D009 hazardous waste.  While the Universal Waste Rules simplify the management of mercury containing lamps, the hazardous waste regulations and longstanding EPA interpretations of these rules impede the reuse of materials recovered through the recycling of universal waste lamps. 

          Two of the primary materials produced through lamp recycling are calcium phosphate powder and crushed glass.  Calcium phosphate powder removed from fluorescent lamps contains mercury at levels below the hazardous waste threshold, and the amount of mercury in such powder is typically further reduced by a retorting process.  Significantly, the phosphate powder also contains several rare earth elements, including Europium, Terbium and Yttrium, which are considered strategic materials by the United States Government, because of the need for such elements in many military and high-tech commercial products, such as cell phones, computer hard drives and other electronic equipment, and precision-guided munitions. 

          China controls about 95% of the production of rare earth elements.   Therefore, recycling calcium phosphate powder to produce rare earths provides a sustainable, domestic source of rare earths needed in the U.S. economy.  Unfortunately, as a waste derived material, regulators have limited the ability of businesses to stockpile calcium phosphate powder for future recycling, and much of this material is currently being disposed of in landfills, rather than being reserved for the recovery of rare earths.   

          Similarly, the crushed glass produced by lamp recycling has characteristics that make it a useful substitute for sand and other materials used in construction operations, such as for road sub-base and pipe bedding materials.  EPA’s view, however, is that since Universal Waste lamps would be considered D009 hazardous waste, glass produced as part of the recycling process is in the same hazardous waste treatability group as the initial universal waste lamps, and therefore, is subject to the Land Disposal Restrictions (LDR) for D009 –non-wastewaters. Thus, the glass must be tested to demonstrate compliance with the LDR standard of 0.025 mg/l for mercury using the TCLP test (designed to assess leachate in a landfill environment), before the glass can be used on land as a substitute for other products.  While the glass from lamp recycling typically complies with the LDR standard, the additional regulatory process discourages the reuse of this glass as a substitute for raw natural resources.

          If President Trump were truly interested in alleviating “unnecessary regulatory burdens placed on the American people”, EPA needs the resources to review specific regulations and identify those regulatory changes that will accomplish the President’s goals.  Slashing EPA’s budget, before identifying and promulgating the regulatory changes, will likely result in missed opportunities for improving environmental regulations.  Instead, massive reductions in staff and efforts to rescind many regulations without careful consideration will lead to mistakes and litigation, which is in no one’s interest.  Businesses need certainty, and the approach outlined by President Trump’s Executive Orders will instead result in more confusion and uncertainty.

TRUMP, TARIFFS, TERRA, and TWEETS

Posted on April 3, 2017 by Earl Phillips

Regardless of political leanings or perspectives held regarding this President and his administration or the likely effectiveness of tariffs in global trade, we likely agree that creating more good American jobs is a positive thing.  If his plan is successful, Donald Trump and this administration will, in part through the use of tariffs, reinvigorate domestic manufacturing. 

If willing to think more broadly, this may be achieved while at the same time improving (and setting the stage to further improve) the global environment and international worker safety.  These objectives need NOT be mutually exclusive.

Both the Republican and Democratic primaries featured unique candidates with compelling messages of creating and protecting jobs for Americans.  The Republican candidate survived his primary and went on to win the election, so let's consider the relevant promises and pronouncements of candidate, now president, Trump. His overarching refrain has been to "make America great again".  Consistent with this message, he has repeatedly assured the American public that he will promote, and ultimately increase, domestic manufacturing.  His vision is that this manufacturing, and the related jobs, will improve the lot of American workers.  While offering limited specifics, he has been unwavering in his commitment to level the economic playing field by imposing significant tariffs on goods and services manufactured abroad.

If President Trump is correct relative to the effectiveness of a tariff and willing to adjust this blunt tool to incorporate concerns for the global environment and humane working conditions, he can provide a path that leads to greater domestic manufacturing and jobs, as well as unparalleled international leadership with respect to the environment and worker safety.  This is possible provided President Trump is willing to leverage the appetite of overseas manufacturers to sell goods and services to Americans in return for a more level manufacturing playing field, as well as enhanced international Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) protections and benefits.

Assuming this administration does, in fact, look to tariffs as a means to stimulate domestic manufacturing, the following offers a path to proceed with the stated agenda while establishing a program designed to employ even more well trained Americans and improve the global environment:

 1. TARIFFs could be structured to afford the impacted offshore manufacturer with the following option: (A) PAY THE FULL TARIFF.  This option would presumably level the economic playing field between the offshore and domestic manufacturer of goods or provider of services; or (B) PAY A REDUCED TARIFF and EXECUTE AN EHS INSPECTION/ENFORCEMENT AGREEMENT.  This option would achieve not only the U.S. manufacturing and jobs agenda, but also would drive international EHS benefits.  A significant portion of the REDUCED TARIFF could be used to directly fund an environmental, health and safety inspection corps (EHS Corps).  This EHS Corps would be comprised of appropriately educated and trained American workers.  Notably, these EHS positions would be in addition to our domestic manufacturing jobs and represent even more American jobs for those with science, engineering, operations, and business and legal degrees.  THE INSPECTION/ENFORCEMENT AGREEMENT would also call for the participating company to submit to regular inspections, an enforcement regime and an administrative/judicial process similar to our federal template.  This Agreement would further level the manufacturing playing field while improving the global environment and driving international EHS performance to levels comparable to our federal programs.

 2. The EHS Corps would regularly inspect REDUCED TARIFF participants using a straightforward template approximating the United States federal EHS regulations.  This approach would not only compel offshore participants to achieve environmental protection and worker safety objectives similar to their U.S. counterparts, but also cause them to incur the same or similar resource and financial burdens to comply with this template or suffer enforcement consequences if they fail.  This compliance mandate when combined with the payment of the REDUCED TARIFF, would further level the playing field between offshore and domestic manufacturers.  Should a participant be a repeat or willful violator, then beyond the sanctions available within the REDUCED TARIFF inspection and enforcement regime, the U.S. would reserve the right to re-impose the FULL TARIFF or consider other import/export sanctions.

3. Strategically, the differential between the FULL TARIFF and the REDUCED TARIFF should motivate responsible corporations and businesses to elect the REDUCED TARIFF.  Beyond this, the REDUCED TARIFF should generate adequate revenue to fund the training and deployment of the EHS Corps as well as the inspection/enforcement process.

CONCLUSION:

President Trump and his administration can be true to their stated commitment to increase domestic manufacturing jobs through a more aggressive tariff while going one important step beyond, establishing the U.S. as an architect and catalyst for an improved, and more internationally uniform, approach to environmental, health, and safety concerns. 

 

NOTE:  THE CONCEPT OUTLINED ABOVE IS NOT AN ENDORSEMENT OF TARIFFS, BUT A REFLECTION OF ATTY. PHILLIPS BASED ON THIS ADMINISTRATION’S PRONOUNCEMENTS.  THIS IS NOT THE PRODUCT OF HIS LAW FIRM OR THE UNIVERSITY AT WHICH HE TEACHES.

 

The Latest Executive Order: Any Kind of Consistency Is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

Posted on March 31, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Make no mistake, the Executive Order signed by President Trump at EPA yesterday is a big deal.  Time will tell whether the Administration’s U-turn on the Obama rules currently in litigation, such as the Clean Power Plan and the rule on fracking on federal lands will make any difference to judicial review of those rules.  There are plenty of states and NGOs ready to step into EPA’s and BLM’s shoes to defend those rules.

Regardless, though, it’s important.  Social cost of carbon?  Poof.  Gone.  Climate Action Plan?  Gone.  Consideration of climate change in environmental impact reviews?  Gone.

We already know all this, though.  I’d like to focus on a few details concerning the EO that might have gone unnoticed.

  • The order states that development of domestic natural resources “is essential to ensuring the Nation’s geopolitical security.”  I found this statement interesting in light of the recent statements by Secretary of Defense Mattis, who very clearly stated that climate change is real and is itself an important security risk.
  • The order states that environmental regulations should provide “greater benefit than cost.”  I found this statement somewhat odd, given that the President’s prior EO known as the 2-for-1 order, essentially requires agencies to ignore the benefits of regulations and focus solely on the costs that they impose.
  • Similarly, the Order requires agencies, in “monetizing the value of changes in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from regulations,” ensure that their analyses are consistent with OMB Circular A-4, issued in 2003.  The Order states that Circular A-4 embodies “best practices for conducting regulatory cost-benefit analysis.”

I’d be interested in knowing if a single one of the authors or peer reviewers of Circular A-4 have anything nice to say about the 2-for-1 Order?