“Let No Man Put Asunder:” The Act of God Defense and Climate Change

Posted on November 2, 2017 by Peter Hsiao

Following the punishing hurricanes in the gulf coast and island regions of the United States, concern immediately turned to the environmental impacts of toxic releases from damaged chemical facilities.  EPA reports that 13 of the 41 Superfund sites in the area were flooded by Hurricane Harvey.  High winds and rain damaged the protective cap at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, risking the escape of dioxin contaminated sediments, and EPA ordered the responsible companies to take immediate action.  Even without an order, facility owners will often act as quickly as possible to contain any spills and mitigate their impacts. 

But as a matter of law, would there be a basis to defend against the EPA order or claims for response costs by asserting the Act of God defense?  CERCLA and the Oil Pollution Act both provide a complete defense to liability if the party can show that the release of hazardous substances (or petroleum under the OPA) was caused solely by an act of God.  The defense is severely limited by the requirement that a natural disaster must be “unanticipated” and an “exceptional” event.  For example, CERCLA’s legislative history says a major hurricane may be an act of God, but may not qualify as unanticipated or exceptional in an area where hurricanes are common.  Reportedly there are no cases where the defense has been successfully raised.

A superstorm such as Hurricane Harvey may present a more compelling case for this defense.  While hurricanes are expected in the area, an event that unleashed an estimated 19 trillion gallons of water can be considered exceptional and arguably unforeseeable, even with the recent history of other superstorms (e.g., Sandy, Katrina).  Successfully asserting the defense will likely depend upon expert testimony showing the facility implemented enhanced protective measures before the storm, probably true for most major industrial facilities in the affected area, and that exceptional circumstances overwhelmed those measures, which circumstances could not have been anticipated or prevented even by the exercise of due care or foresight.  

Comparing the precautions taken by other similarly situated facilities will also be important to establish the standard of care.  For example, the Texas environmental agencies worked with chemical facilities before the storm to protect hazardous waste containers from damage and flooding, and any facility asserting the defense will likely need to have undertaken similar precautions to have any chance of success.  For a toxic tort case, there is no statutory Act of God defense, but the same types of arguments will be used to show the facility exercised due care and reasonable foresight in taking protective measures. These issues will also be presented in insurance claims and litigation regarding coverage disputes. 

The defense however has an additional requirement, that the Act of God not be the result of human action, such as from greenhouse gas emissions.  While the relationship between climate change and these superstorms may not be known until years of further study, there is preliminary evidence that global warming made the storms worse by increasing ocean temperatures and raising the sea level, intensifying the impacts of its wind speed, rainfall and storm surges. 

So the Act of God defense may become impossible to win for a superstorm if man-made contributions were a factor – but is this meaningful?  The defense has never been successfully asserted in any event.  But if an alternative causation for a superstorm can be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, there is a potential basis for the responsible party under CERCLA or a tort theory to seek contribution or otherwise allocate a proportionate share of liability to others.  And the large number of “other” potential defendants who contributed to global warming will raise difficult issues of justiciablity.  The recent superstorms may produce a test case with the right combination of circumstances to squarely present these issues to a court. 

That is, while not a complete defense, climate change may provide new theories for defendants.  When a door closes, a window may blow open.

Harvey and Hindsight

Posted on October 10, 2017 by Tracy Hester

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

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

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

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

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