Court Upholds Multi-State Chesapeake TMDL

Posted on September 25, 2013 by Ridgway Hall

On September 13, in a 99 page decision, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania upheld EPA’s multi-state Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries against a broad range of challenges brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation and six other farm industry trade associations. Six environmental organizations led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, plus four municipal water associations led by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, intervened in support of EPA.

The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is not the first to cover multiple states, but it is by far the largest, covering 64,000 square miles in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia.  It requires substantial reductions of nitrogen (25%), phosphorus (24%) and sediment (20%) by 2025 to  meet water quality standards.  Because of the interstate nature of the long-standing pollution problems, after more than two decades of collaborative but unsuccessful efforts, the states agreed in 2007 that EPA should develop the TMDL. It was issued in 2010 and included allocations for each of 92 tidal segments which, after consultation with the states, were further allocated among states, watersheds and sectors (such as agriculture, wastewater, stormwater, etc). During the process, each state developed its own Watershed Implementation Plan (“WIP”), specifying  wasteload allocations (“WLA’s”) for point sources, load allocations (“LAs”) for nonpoint sources, and identifying the regulations, programs and resources that would be used to achieve the required reductions. For more on this TMDL see "EPA Issues Biggest TMDL Ever for Chesapeake Bay Watershed" and ELI Environmental ForumThe Chesapeake Bay TMDL” (May/June 2011). 

The plaintiffs alleged that (1) the TMDL was an unauthorized “implementation” of  allocations by EPA, (2) requiring WIPs exceeded EPA’s authority, (3) EPA’s use of watershed and related models in setting the allocations was an abuse of discretion, and (4) there was insufficient public notice.  In addressing these challenges, the court first held (as several others have) that a TMDL is not self-implementing, but is an “informational tool”, developed collaboratively by EPA and the states under CWA Section 303(d), and implemented primarily by the states.

Turning to the merits, the court upheld EPA’s definition of a TMDL for a waterbody or segment as the sum of all WLAs and LAs plus natural background.  It also upheld  EPA’s authority to establish a multi-state TMDL,  when the affected states either fail to do so or ask EPA to do it (both occurred here), including limitations on sources in upstream states to achieve compliance with water quality standards in downstream states. It held that EPA’s “holistic” or “watershed-wide approach” was consistent with the broad national goals of the CWA to “restore … our Nation’s waters.” In reaching this result the court emphasized the collaborative efforts of the Bay states and EPA starting in 1983 to address the problems of interstate pollution, transported by rivers and tides, and their consensus that an EPA-led multistate effort was needed.

The court further held that the WIPs – new tools in the TMDL context – were authorized as part of the “continuing planning process” under CWA Section 303(e). This process is initiated by the states to achieve water quality goals, and is subject to review and approval by EPA. Because EPA had advised the states in letters what it expected in terms of general content and specificity in the WIPs, but left the details to the states, the court held EPA did not exceed its authority. The court also relied on CWA Section 117(g) - a Chesapeake Bay-specific provision - requiring EPA to “ensure that management plans are developed and implementation is begun by [all the affected states] to achieve and maintain…” the applicable water quality goals.

The plaintiffs also challenged EPA’s requirement that each WIP contain “reasonable assurances” of timely and effective implementation, and EPA’s use of “backstop” allocations where EPA determined that a WIP provision was deficient.  “Backstops” involved requiring NPDES permits from previously unregulated sources. The court held that EPA could properly require “reasonable assurance” under CWA 303(d)(1), which requires a TMDL must be “established at a level necessary to implement the applicable water quality standards.”  The court upheld “backstops”, which were only used in 3 instances, as a reasonable exercise of EPA’s authority under CWA 303(d)(2) to ensure that the contents of the TMDL are designed to achieve the applicable water quality goals.

The court upheld EPA’s use of models as scientifically supported and within EPA’s discretion.  It rejected the challenge to adequate notice and opportunity for public participation since (1) a 45 day public comment period had been provided, (2) there had been hundreds of public meetings during the more than 10 year development of the TMDL, and (3) plaintiffs showed no prejudice from the fact that some details of the modeling were not available until after the comment period.

The court held that TMDL establishment and implementation involves “cooperative federalism” between the states and EPA, and that the Chesapeake Bay TMDL properly reflects the shared responsibilities and necessary interactions, despite some bumps along the road. While EPA exerted strong leadership, the court held that it did not unlawfully usurp the states’ implementation functions. The court noted  the preserved authority of the states to implement nutrient trading and offsets, and to set or revise source-specific loading allocations.  In conclusion, there is a lot of thoughtful analysis, as well as precedent, in this decision, which makes it an excellent resource for CWA practitioners.

Yes, Another Blow, but not a Knockout

Posted on August 28, 2013 by Ralph Child

A recent post from Mary Ellen Ternes characterized the August 23, 2013 decision in EME Homer City Generation as another blow to EPA’s ability to enforce against long ago violations of the requirement to obtain New Source Review.

The Third Circuit’s decision certainly is a blow to EPA’s NSR enforcement initiative, but not nearly a knock-out.

First, the decision depended on the fact that neither the Clean Air Act or Pennsylvania’s EPA-enforceable State Implementation Plan expressly requires a major source to operate in compliance with the results of a New Source Review.  But some states do have that requirement in their EPA-enforceable SIPs, as the Third Circuit recognized in distinguishing other cases.  In such states, major sources that did not go through NSR as allegedly required at the time of construction or modification should still anticipate potential EPA enforcement via the SIP. 

Second, even where it is not illegal to operate in compliance with NSR, the question is still open whether the government may obtain injunctive relief anyway.  In United States v. United States Steel Company (N.D. Indiana), the Court held on August 21, 2013 that no penalties could be imposed at law because there is no federally enforceable requirement in Indiana to operate in accordance with the results of an NSR.  Yet the Court went on to  hold that the United States still can seek injunctive relief against a plant that allegedly violated the NSR requirement.  The Court reasoned that because the sovereign is not subject to laches, the government remains able to invoke the Court’s equitable powers and to seek an injunction to correct the violation.

On to the Seventh Circuit?

Another Blow to EPA’s NSR/PSD Enforcement Initiative

Posted on August 27, 2013 by Mary Ellen Ternes

Followers of this Blog will not be at all surprised with the Third Circuit’s August 22, 2013 ruling denying EPA’s requested CAA New Source Review enforcement relief against former and current owners of the grandfathered and allegedly subsequently modified power plant that has been called “one of the largest air pollution sources in the nation.”   Former and current owners of such aging power plants caught in EPA’s NSR national enforcement initiative are reassured with the Third Circuit’s finding that text of the Clean Air Act does not authorize injunctive relief for wholly past PSD violations, even if that violation causes ongoing harm.

Having lost its battle for the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, or the Transport Rule) in August 2012, EPA was dealt another blow with United States v. EME Homer City Generation, in which the Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s 2011 dismissal of the government’s claims.

In 2011, the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania agreed with the current and former owners of the power plant that EPA had no authority to hold either party liable for alleged PSD violations arising from purported modifications to their grandfathered power plant.  In reaching defendants’ bases for dismissal, the District Court reviewed the permit actions approved by air permitting authorities in 1991, 1994, 1995 and 1996, which EPA alleged with Notices of Violation in 2008 (against the current owner) and 2010  (against current and former owners), to have triggered PSD, and which caused the current Title V permit to be incomplete.   The Court’s holding that the PSD violations constituted singular, separate failures by the former owner rather than ongoing failures meant that EPA was outside the five year statute of limitations, allowing no civil penalties against the former and current owners.  Moreover, the District Court held EPA was left with no injunctive relief against the current owner because they were in no position to apply for a PSD permit prior to their acquisition of the plant in 1998, and thus could not have violated PSD.

The District Court separately addressed EPA’s claims of injunctive relief against the former owner, recognizing the ongoing higher SO2 emissions that occurred without the benefit of an historic PSD permit.  The District Court was unwilling to reach a broad conclusion regarding its authority to award injunctive relief under the PSD program, but given that the former owners no longer owned or operated the plant, and therefore no longer violate PSD, held that there was no plausible basis for granting the rare and extraordinary remedy of injunctive relief, despite the higher emissions occurring the absence of BACT, which the court characterized as a present consequence of a one-time violation.

Upon review, the Third Circuit rejected EPA’s arguments that the current owners violated PSD by operating the plant without BACT with a simple, “no,” pursuant to the plain text of 42 USC 7475(a) which references merely “construction” and “modification,” not “operation, ” relying on U.S. v. Midwest Generation and Sierra Club v. Otter Tail Power Co.,  adopting the positions of the Seventh and Eighth Circuits that “even though the preconstruction permitting process may establish obligations which continue to govern a facility’s operation after construction, that does not necessarily mean that such parameters are enforceable independent of the permitting process,” and thoroughly refuting EPA’s arguments that PSD could somehow result in ongoing operational requirements outside the PSD permitting process.  

Likewise, the Third Circuit rejected EPA’s proposed injunctive relief, which would have required the former owners to install BACT or purchase emission credits and retire them, affirming the District Court’s decision on narrower grounds.  Specifically, the Third Circuit held that the text of the Clean Air Act does not authorize an injunction against former owners and operators for a wholly past PSD violation, even if that violation causes ongoing harm. 

Hopefully, this Third Circuit decision, along with the Seventh and Eighth Circuit decisions relied upon therein, will signal a substantive end to EPA’s NSR/PSD Enforcement Initiative for similarly situated historic grandfathered power plants and their former and current owners.  But, we may have to wait out EPA’s hard headed circuit by circuit enforcement approach.  See e.g., EPA’s December 21, 2013 enforcement memorandum, “Applicability of the Summit Decision to EPA Title V and NSR Source Determinations,” following the Sixth Circuit’s Summit Petroleum Corp. v. EPA et al.

Petroleum Refinery Enforcement Initiative 2.0

Posted on August 5, 2013 by Paul Seals

Enforcement with a Flair

EPA has seen the smoke.
This certainly is no joke.
Benzene is a neighborhood scare,
With upsets going to the flare.

On July 10, the Department of Justice and EPA announced the lodging of a consent decree with Shell Oil Company to resolve alleged Clean Air Act violations at Shell’s refinery and chemical plant in Deer Park Texas.  This agreement represents the fourth “refinery flare consent decree” in the past year.  More are expected.

Shell will spend $115 million to control emissions from flares and other processes, and will pay a $2.6 million civil penalty.  EPA alleged that Shell was improperly operating its flaring devices resulting in excessive emissions of benzene and other hazardous air pollutants.  Shell will spend $100 million to reduce flare emissions.

These flare consent decrees represent a new chapter in EPA’s national Petroleum Refinery Initiative (“PRI”), which, beginning in 2000, resulted in the entry of 31 settlements covering 107 refineries in 32 states, affecting 90% of the domestic refining capacity.  EPA did address refinery flares as one of the marquee issues in PRI consent decrees – compliance with the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) for Petroleum Refineries.

EPA is now pushing the envelope to impose “regulatory requirements plus.”  Through an enforcement alert in August of last year, EPA warned industry that there were significant issues with flare efficiency and excessive emissions.  EPA Enforcement Alert:  EPA Enforcement Targets Flaring Efficiency Violations.

What is EPA doing?  What is the basis of this Petroleum Refinery Initiative 2.0 and the imposition of “regulatory requirements plus”?

EPA bases this new initiative on the “general duty” requirements.  NSPS requires that at all times owners and operators should operate and maintain a facility or source consistent with “good air pollution control practices.”  In addition, Section 112r of the CAA requires owners and operators to maintain a safe facility by taking such steps as are necessary to prevent releases of hazardous air pollutants (“HAP”), and to minimize the consequences of accidental releases which do occur.  Accordingly, with no threshold amount, any release of a listed HAP (e.g. benzene) that could have been prevented violates this general duty.  If a flare smokes, there must be a violation.

This general duty is used to require control measures that go beyond those specified in the regulations.  The consent decrees include conditions addressing flare combustion efficiency limits incorporating automated controls with complex and expensive monitoring systems, flaring caps for individual flares and the overall refinery, and flare gas recovery systems for individual flares.

The enforcement train has left the station.  Who will be next in line?  How much will the ticket cost?  Are there rulemaking or other actions that may be taken to slowdown or stop the train?  Flares are not unique to petroleum refineries and petrochemical plants (e.g. flaring in oil and gas production facilities).  Will EPA provide other industries the opportunity to go for a train ride?

Cooperative Federalism? We Don’t Need No Stinkin Cooperative Federalism

Posted on July 31, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

On Friday, July 19, the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Oklahoma v. EPA, affirmed EPA’s rejection of Oklahoma’s state implementation plan setting forth its determination of the Best Available Retrofit Technology, or BART, to address regional haze.  The Court also affirmed EPA’s promulgation of a federal implementation plan in place of the Oklahoma SIP.  While rehearsing the Clean Air Act’s “cooperative federalism” approach, the Court seemed more focused on deference to EPA’s technical assessment of the SIP than on any obligation by EPA to cooperate with states.

"Given that the statute mandates that the EPA must ensure SIPs comply with the statute, we fail to see how the EPA would be without the authority to review BART determinations for compliance with the guidelines.
                                                            ***
While the legislative history may evidence an intent to prevent the EPA from directly making those BART decisions, it does not necessarily evidence an intent to deprive the EPA of any authority to ensure that these BART decisions comply with the statute."

Judge Kelly dissented.  As he noted, while the courts normally grant deference to EPA’s decisions, such deference is appropriately limited where “EPA rejected Oklahoma’s evidentiary support with no clear evidence of its own to support its contrary conclusion.”  Judge Kelly also noted that, even in a statute relying substantially on state implementation, the amount of power given to the states to implement the regional haze program is particularly evident.

I don’t know whether Oklahoma will seeking rehearing en banc.  (It’s difficult to imagine that the Supreme Court would be interested in hearing this case.)  I do know that cooperation is in the eye of the beholder.

Enough Is Enough!

Posted on July 3, 2013 by Michael McCauley

On June 13, 2013, U.S. EPA announced its enforcement priorities for the next three years. Among other things, the Agency decided to continue its ill-fated, 15-year old "New Source Review (NSR) Enforcement Initiative."  This effort has targeted coal-fired power plants and other large manufacturing facilities for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.  The allegations often pertain to projects which were implemented over twenty and thirty years ago.

Not surprisingly, EPA has not fared very well in the courts with cases like this.  The Agency has run into problems, including:  1) statute of limitations concerning projects completed more than five years before legal action has been commenced; 2) successor liability issues when the current owner/operator of a facility did not own or operate the facility when a targeted project was undertaken; and 3) serious evidentiary questions as to whether a decades-old project caused the requisite actual air emissions increase which triggers the requirements for NSR review under the Clean Air Act.  See generally "EPA's Utility Enforcement Initiative: The MetED Decision May Pose Problems for Plaintiffs," BNA Daily Environment Report, June 13, 2013; U.S. v. Midwest Generation, LLC, 694 F. Supp. 2d 999 (N.D. Ill. 2010), appeal pending in 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

A recent notice of violation illustrates some of the unfairness and waste of resources connected with EPA's NSR Enforcement Initiative.  EPA issued the notice in 2012.  It alleged a number of NSR violations against the owner/operator of a manufacturing facility (not a utility).  One of the allegations pertained to a change made at that facility in 1982.  Since 1982, the ownership of the facility has changed four times.  The current owner has been targeted in EPA's enforcement action.  Records regarding the 1982 project are scant, and the personnel involved in the work in 1982 are all either long-retired or deceased.

To make matters worse, EPA had received the available information about the 1982 project in 1999 from the party who owned the facility at that time.  This was done in response to a Section 114 Information Request issued by EPA.  That owner heard nothing further from EPA about any of the projects covered in the 1999 inquiry.

In 2011, EPA issued a new Section 114 Information Request to the current owner who had acquired the facility in 2006.  The request covered projects that occurred after 1999, but it also covered projects which were done prior to 1999, including the 1982 project discussed above.

A reasonable person could ask:  1) Why did EPA wait for 13 years to allege a NSR violation regarding the 1982 project when the Agency was given information about it in 1999?  2) Why is EPA taking action now on a change made at the facility over thirty years ago?  3)  Why is EPA targeting the owner who acquired the facility in 2006 -- some seven years after EPA was first given information about the 1982 project?  4)  Has EPA considered that the current owner/operator of the facility is four times removed from the owner/operator who implemented the change in 1982?

Substantial amounts of money and countless hours of valuable employee time have been expended by the current owner in dealing with EPA on this case.  Both the money and the time could have been better utilized in helping to keep the facility competitive in a very challenging global marketplace.

EPA should consider whether the continuation of the NSR Enforcement Initiative is justified with respect to projects that occurred decades ago.  With most of these cases, fair-minded decision-makers at EPA will find that "Enough is Enough!"

Partners?

Posted on June 25, 2013 by Steve McKinney

Congress said EPA and the States are partners in implementing the Clean Air Act.  It’s simple: EPA sets pollutant-by-pollutant standards for clean air (NAAQS) and each State develops and implements a state-specific plan to meet and maintain those NAAQS.  Each partner is well-positioned and equipped to perform its assignment and Congress included appropriate “carrots and sticks” in the Act to ensure that both do their job.  The Supreme Court has extolled Congress’s partnership approach and EPA routinely professes its deep appreciation of its State partners and their important role.  So wassup with EPA suddenly demanding that thirty-six States delete rules about excess emissions during startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM) that have been EPA-approved for 30 to 40 years?

On February 22, in response to a 2011 petition by Sierra Club, EPA proposed to “call” thirty-six state implementation plans (SIPs) because they contain affirmative defense, exemption, or director’s  discretion rules for excess emissions during periods of SSM. EPA’s previous approval of the offending rules wasn’t even a speedbump.  EPA also rejected any obligation to connect the offending rules with air pollution problems in the affected States.  EPA’s legal position on how the States should enforce their CAA permits was enough to shuck the partnership and impose the federal will.  And EPA didn’t even ask nicely.  State requests for information about EPA’s consideration of their SIPs were ignored and States were given 30 days to comment on a proposal EPA took more than a year to develop.  EPA gave its State partners another 45 days only after more than a dozen State Attorneys General jointly asked for more time and the Senate Committee considering the new Administrator’s confirmation made the same request.

When comments were filed on May 13, thirty affected States filed comments; none of them supported EPA’s proposed call of their SIP.  Not even EPA’s regular supporters on issues like tougher NAAQS thought EPA’s dictation was a good idea.  Complaints from EPA’s partners ranged from being wrongfully excluded from EPA’s evaluation of their SIP to EPA trampling on the States’ planning and implementation responsibilities to EPA creating a lot of work that could have been avoided if EPA had just talked to them.  No amount of spin can make this look good for state–federal relationships.

So why?  Well, Sierra Club did ask for it.  Maybe because an obvious compliance impact is on emission limits with continuous monitoring and short averaging times like opacity.  And maybe because coal-fired power plants always have opacity limits and deleting common excess emission rules will set those sources up for widespread enforcement litigation.  Or, maybe the States and the previous EPAs had it wrong for all these years and someone finally straightened everyone else out.  Like so many conundrums of this type, it might take some judges to give us the answer.

Pursuant to a settlement agreement with Sierra Club, EPA must finalize the SSM SIP Call by August 27, 2013.

I Believe in Environmental Regulation, But….

Posted on June 10, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

I believe in governmental environmental regulation.  We have a complicated world and it is not surprising that many activities, including those generating greenhouse gases, cause negative externalities.  At the same time, however, I have spent more than 25 years representing regulated entities in negotiations with government regulators and it is impossible to do such work without obtaining an appreciation for the very significant costs that bureaucracies impose.

With all due respect – cue the upcoming diss – to my many friends in government, the absence of market discipline or the ability to fire nonpolitical bureaucrats often leads to street level bureaucrats operating under a law of their own devising.  Moreover, if a complex economy causes externalities requiring regulation, that same complexity should cause regulators to pause before imposing or revising complicated regulatory regimes.  Unintended consequences abound.

The genesis of these musings was the confluence of a number of otherwise unrelated recent regulatory developments.  The most significant was headline in the Daily Environment Report earlier this week noting that “EPA [is] Still Unable to Provide Time Frame For Revising Definition of Solid Waste Rule.”  RCRA is the perfect example. No one can really quarrel with the need for hazardous waste regulation, in order to prevent the creation of more Superfund sites.  However, if we’re still fighting over the definition of something as basic as solid waste more than 30 years after the inception of the program and EPA’s most recent efforts to update the definition remain fruitless after about five years of effort, then we have to acknowledge some serious implementation problems where the rubber is trying to hit the road.

I’ll also provide two recent examples from my home state of Massachusetts.  MassDEP has been engaged in a serious regulatory reform effort, which has earned deserved praise.  However, as NAIOP has recently noted in comments on the draft proposal to revise the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, MassDEP’s proposed Active Existing Pathway Elimination Measure Permit is “so cumbersome that it is not clear that a PRP or redeveloper would want to seek such a permit.”  This calls to mind MassDEP’s reclaimed water regulations, which were intended to encourage water reuse, but are so cumbersome that no one is applying for the permits.

Thus, the final caution.  The MassDEP example is extremely common – and extremely troubling.  Regulator gets great idea for innovative program. Prior to implementation, concerns are raised about what happens if….  More effort is put into avoiding the perceived downsides than in actually making the program work.  Program ends up being worse than nothing.

I believe in environmental regulation, but…

New EPA Case Studies on Environmental Justice and Permitting

Posted on June 4, 2013 by Elliott Laws

With the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 soon approaching, EPA has been planning on extensively incorporating “environmental justice” into its permitting processes.  This executive order required all federal agencies to address disproportionately adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations in the U.S.

To that end, nearly two years ago, EPA issued “Plan EJ 2014” as a roadmap – not as a rule – to implement the executive order throughout the agency.  Specifically, Plan EJ 2014 formally introduced EPA’s priorities of promoting increased public participation in the permitting process and considering more stringent permit conditions.  In February of this year, EPA selected two case studies that highlight the agency’s approach to achieving these permitting priorities.

The first case study involved a recent Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit for the Pioneer Valley Energy Center, a power plant expected to generate up to 431 MW in Westfield, Massachusetts.  From the developers’ filing of the permit application in November 2008 through EPA’s issuing of the final permit in April 2012, Region 1 incorporated what it has described as environmental justice into this permitting process by providing enhanced public engagement opportunities and including more stringent conditions in the permit.  These stricter conditions were aimed at limiting the applicant’s ability to burn ultra-low sulfur diesel for testing of its emergency generator when air quality would already be diminished.

The second case study involved a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) general permit for oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet, Alaska.  Even as this permit has evolved over time, now with federal and state authority split, the subject conditions have been based on environmental justice considerations dating back to 2006-2007.  In the permit’s 2007 iteration, Region 10 incorporated environmental justice into this permitting process by collecting and considering tribal traditional knowledge about the effects of development and by imposing more restrictive permit conditions.  These conditions imposed new monitoring requirements, extended the area where discharges were prohibited for all sources from 1,000 to 4,000 meters from sensitive coastal areas, and explicitly did not authorize several types of drilling discharges for new sources.
 
There are two striking facets of these case studies.  First, even as EPA found no disproportionate adverse effect on minority populations, low-income populations, or tribal populations, EPA still included somewhat more restrictive permit conditions based upon environmental justice considerations.  Second, the imposed conditions do not appear to be particularly onerous – perhaps explaining why the permittees did not challenge the additional restrictions.  Opinions vary as to the impact of these “EJ conditions” on the permitting process, as EPA likely  could have imposed these restrictions under existing statutes and regulations without any reference to environmental justice. 

Nevertheless, EPA seems to be testing the limits of its authority and telegraphing its intent to continue these efforts.  Consequently, practitioners and permit applicants should be wary of EPA seeking to impose potentially unnecessary conditions based upon environmental justice.

Will Supreme Court Accept Challenges to Obama Climate Change Authority?

Posted on June 3, 2013 by Richard Lazarus

Four votes.  That is the number of votes required to grant a Supreme Court petition for a writ of certiorari.  And because that is the same number of Justices who dissented from the Court’s landmark 2007 ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, EPA has reason to worry over the summer.

Pending before the Court are nine petitions seeking review of a wide ranging set of challenges to EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles and new stationary sources.  Petitioners include most every significant part of American industry, 14 States, and numerous political leaders.  Some petitions, consistent with Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent from the D.C. Circuit’s denial of rehearing en banc in Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. U.S. EPA, are strategically narrow; they ask the Court to review only a relatively narrow issue regarding the applicability of the Clean Air Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration Program to greenhouse gas emissions. Others, by asking the Court to overturn EPA’s determination that greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles endanger public health and welfare seek, as a practical matter, to topple   the Obama Administration’s effort to address global climate change in the absence of new federal legislation.  But a few of the petitions jettison even any pretense of modesty by directly asking, consistent with D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown’s blistering dissent from en banc denial, the Court to do no less than overrule Massachusetts v. EPA.

The Solicitor General and other respondents (including 18 States) will no doubt oppose cert on all issues in their responsive filings this summer.  They have nontrivial arguments, especially given the serious questions they can raise concerning the Article III standing of petitioners to raise the particular legal claims that would likely otherwise have the most force on the merits.  But EPA is likely to be less concerned with whether review is granted than, if granted, on what issues.  The legal stakes for some issues raised are far less consequential than they are for others, which are quite enormous.

Any cert grants will likely be announced in late September, shortly before October’s “First Monday” to allow for expedited briefing and argument as early as January 2014 and more likely in February. Otherwise, all petitions will be denied on that First Monday.  It will be a long summer’s wait for all parties.

Decommissioning Power Plants: A Process Without a Standard Regulatory Framework

Posted on May 7, 2013 by Pamela Giblin

The confluence of aggressive new EPA regulations targeted at coal-fired power plants and low natural gas prices has made the decommissioning of older coal-fired plants substantially more likely in the coming years. Decommissioning a plant does not occur within a specific regulatory framework. In many cases, unless there is a suspected public health threat, potential environmental conditions at the plant do not have to be reported to government agencies. For that reason environmental remediation of a plant site is often addressed in the property sale and redevelopment process.

But the shut down and decommissioning of power plants nonetheless has significant regulatory implications, and the reality is that analysis of regulatory obligations and advance planning, including a proactive strategy for interacting with agencies and other stakeholders, is essential. Understanding obligations requires review of existing permits and the underlying regulatory landscape. And that landscape may shift under your feet – for example, new regulations for coal combustion residuals on the horizon may implicate the closure of certain waste management units.

The regulatory landscape may also provide opportunities to maximize value. There are a wide variety of emission credit programs that vary by jurisdiction. Identifying and capturing emission credits brings value to the table. Similarly, water rights, to the extent they are marketable in a particular jurisdiction, could be a source of revenue.

On the practical front, laying out a smooth decommissioning path through careful planning may help avoid stoking the fire of agency, local or public ire. The agency may have a formal role to play depending on the permit conditions or applicable regulations, but there may also be extensive agency oversight exercised through pursuit of enforcement actions. Particularly where community interest is high, local, state or federal agencies may have a heightened interest and enforcement provides them an avenue for involvement in the site that might not otherwise exist. So it is important to recognize the key stakeholders early and to understand how their interest may translate to pressure on an agency to leverage any violations.

If the site is one with good redevelopment potential, finding and working with a credible and savvy purchaser may keep the focus on the end game and allow for appropriate risk-based standards to be deployed against a more concrete vision for the future of the site. Once there is a well-developed understanding of the regulatory obligations associated with the particular plant and the overall objective for the site after decommissioning, it may be the moment to reach out to the state and federal agencies, and perhaps key stakeholders, with early, accurate and contextualized information.

Because there is not a standard regulatory framework to apply, experience over the coming years as plants come offline will be telling – it is that experience that will provide useful frameworks for up front, comprehensive analysis and strategic outreach for a smooth path through decommissioning.

Vapor Intrusion -- EPA Offers Guidance for Comment, but Now More Issues than Ever

Posted on May 3, 2013 by Kenneth Gray

After being taken to task by states and its own Inspector General for lack of final guidance on Vapor Intrusion, EPA has just released draft guidance documents for hazardous substances and petroleum products for comment.  The guidance documents are already generating discussion on the blogosphere, with comments due to EPA by May 24th.  Below are some of the issues EPA will have to address for its guidance for hazardous substances, and those of us addressing vapor intrusion for our clients.

Will the guidance collapse under its own weight?  EPA’s recommended framework relies upon collecting and evaluating multiple lines of evidence to support risk management decisions, detailed investigation of vapor intrusion including rigorous data quality objectives and recognition of seasonal/temporal variability in levels, consideration of options for building mitigation and subsurface remediation, decisions on how institutional controls can be crafted and monitored, and how the public will be involved.  The practical question is how much evidence and process is enough for a rational decision, and how costly and time-consuming an evaluation effort is justified?  Rarely are actions taken quickly in the CERCLA or RCRA world, but if there are risks, then they should be acted upon, and applying the guidance in other contexts will be challenging.  There already appears to be a consensus that EPA’s approach will be costly, and give vapor intrusion a life of its own in remedial decision-making.  EPA will have to address this issue, or find its guidance bypassed or ignored, given the need for timely decisions.

Should we all buy stock in fan manufacturers and makers of synthetic vapor barriers?  EPA offers (only on page 125 of 143) the question of weighing relative costs of characterization vs. engineered exposure controls.  If EPA guidance is followed, the cost of implementing the guidance will at times greatly exceed the cost of engineering controls.  Clients want the deal “done” and are not likely to wait for a lengthy deliberative process.

What role will EPA acknowledge for OSHA standards?  EPA proposes guidance for residential and non-residential buildings, but as a practical daily matter, there are separate standards and approaches for workplace and non-workplace scenarios.  EPA doesn’t directly address that issue in the 2013 guidance, even though the Agency had helpful statements in its 2002 proposal.  The issue gets even more complicated given the unsurprising obligation to consider potential future land uses.  If the default scenario is residential use, will the workplace vs. non-workplace distinction disappear?    

Déjà vu all over again?  Yogi Berra may have been commenting on repeats of the Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris back-to-back home runs, but it is pretty clear we will be reopening sites that may have had vapor intrusion issues, and assessing old sites at which the issue was never raised, or addressed following different procedures.  EPA settled the question in November 2012 for CERCLA five-year reviews by declaring vapor intrusion a mandatory topic, and plans to adopt final Hazard Ranking System amendments for vapor intrusion.  The guidance document applies to RCRA sites as well, but EPA knows that the guidance will surely find application at many types of sites where volatile chemicals may have been present.  Although the document is limited to CERCLA/RCRA guidance, its general purpose is to be helpful, and EPA should probably re-emphasize that not only are all sites different, the recommended framework may not even be practical when applied through other state programs.  At risk of over-generalizing, practitioners have learned to recognize the advantages of not following CERCLA and RCRA approaches. 

EPA will receive many comments, and there is some cleanup work to be done on the guidance documents, but look for the final documents to be completed in months, not years. 

Thanks to Jeff Carnahan, LPG, EnviroForensics, for sharing with me his expertise on vapor intrusion.  However, the thoughts expressed here are solely mine.

“Whenever”: EPA’s Continuing Power to Withdraw Dredge-and-Fill Permits

Posted on May 1, 2013 by Lisa Heinzerling

On April 23, a panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously held in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA that the Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to withdraw permits previously granted under section 404 of the Act.  The case emerged from EPA’s determination that the discharge of mining waste from the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia into certain streams and tributaries would have an unacceptable adverse effect on environmental resources.  Based on this determination, EPA withdrew the Army Corps of Engineers’ prior specification of these streams and tributaries as disposal sites for the waste from mountaintop removal.

Several features of the case are striking.  First, the decision has obvious – and obviously important – implications for the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal and its irredeemable environmental impacts.  No longer can the argument be made that a permit, once issued, gives the permittee the power, in perpetuity, to blast the tops off of mountains and dump them into streams.

Second, the decision rested, for the most part, on a single word: “whenever.”  The Clean Water Act states that the Administrator of the EPA may withdraw the specification of a disposal site for dredge-and-fill material “whenever” she determines that it will have an “unacceptable adverse impact” on certain environmental resources.  The court took Congress, literally, at its word, and held that “whenever” means whenever – that is, even if EPA finds unacceptable adverse impacts after a permit has issued, the agency has the authority to pull the permit.

Third, as if to make certain its own holding is unambiguous, too, the court five times stated that the Clean Water Act unambiguously authorizes EPA to withdraw permits after they are issued.  EPA’s current interpretation of the Act is thus not changeable by a future administration.

Should permittees fear that “whenever” will become wherever?  It is worth remembering that EPA’s decision on the Spruce No. 1 mine was the first time EPA had – ever! – withdrawn a previously issued permit, in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act.  Whether EPA will be emboldened by this decision, or will continue to mostly allow existing permits to stand, remains to be seen.

Court Rules EPA Cannot Set TMDL For Stormwater

Posted on April 30, 2013 by Ridgway Hall

On January 3, 2013, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that EPA lacks the statutory authority to set a Clean Water Act (“CWA”) total maximum daily load (“TMDL”) for “stormwater flow rates” as a surrogate for sediment deposition. Virginia Dep’t of Transportation et al v EPA et al.  EPA has decided not to appeal.  The case has received national attention because of its implications for other TMDLs that use surrogates. This article will discuss the decision and its significance for the TMDL and water quality regulatory regime.

The relevant statutory framework is CWA Section 303, under which each state establishes water quality standards for waters within its boundaries.  These consist of a designated use (trout fishing, contact recreation, etc.) and numerical or narrative “water quality criteria” necessary to support that use.  For “impaired waters” where the criteria are not being met, the state must set a TMDL (think “pollution budget”) for each pollutant for which the criteria are exceeded, and implement a “planning process” leading to achievement.  Where the state fails to act, or sets a TMDL which EPA regards as insufficient, CWA Section 303(d)(2) directs EPA to set the TMDL.

Accotink Creek is a 25 mile tributary to the Potomac River in Virginia, in which the benthic organisms were impaired, primarily because of sediment deposited by stormwater running off impervious urban and suburban areas.  In April 2011, after Virginia failed to set a TMDL, EPA set one which limited the flow rate of stormwater into Accotink Creek to 681.8 cu ft/ acre-day.  The court said that the parties agreed that “sediment is a pollutant, and that stormwater is not” (Slip op. 3). While EPA’s brief contains a fallback argument that stormwater can be viewed as a “pollutant”, it did not dispute that stormwater flow was being used as a surrogate for sediment.  Thus the question addressed by the court was whether EPA has the statutory authority to set a TMDL for a “surrogate” which is not itself a “pollutant”. 

EPA has used surrogates in a number of circumstances where, in its view, the surrogate would provide appropriate reduction of pollutants, and would be either easier to measure or provide other benefits (such as, in this case, reduction of stream bank scouring caused by heavy stormwater discharges), or both. The court rejected EPA’s argument that since the CWA does not expressly address the use of surrogates, EPA’s use of them should be upheld as reasonable “gap-filling”, consistent with the broad remedial objectives of the CWA, and entitled to substantial Chevron step 2 deference. The court held instead that because the CWA instructed EPA to set TMDLs for “pollutants”, not “surrogates”, the statute was clear.  The court distinguished EPA’s use of surrogates in this case from other instances  in which surrogates have been used under other CWA provisions (notably Sections 301, 304 and 402) where EPA appears to have greater latitude.

EPA and states have used stormwater surrogates in TMDLs in Connecticut, Missouri and North Carolina. They have also used other types of surrogates, such as impervious surface area limits and secchi disc readings.  Some of those have been challenged, and this decision will no doubt provide ammunition for those who oppose their use.  Nationally, however, this amounts to a very small percentage of the TMDLs that are in place, even if one focuses only on sediment (for which, the court noted, EPA has issued approximately 3700 TMDLs).

In addition, this ruling will have no effect whatever on EPA’s permitting of  industrial and municipal stormwater  discharges, including municipal separate storm sewer systems (“MS4s”), or its ongoing development of stormwater regulations, because these activities are expressly authorized under CWA Section 402(p).  This is especially important, because EPA and many states now recognize stormwater as a major source of contamination and water quality impairment.  For a thoughtful article on this subject and emerging approaches, see Dave Owen, Urbanization, Water Quality, and the Regulated Landscape82 U. of Colo. L. Rev.  431 (April 2011).

Can We Please Talk About Outcomes For A Change???

Posted on April 22, 2013 by Rick Glick

I get it that environmental groups place strict compliance with regulatory controls at a premium.  After all, the standards are designed to be protective of the resource, and they are The Law, which must be obeyed. 

But I sometimes find it dismaying when people conflate immediate, measured, and guaranteed compliance with ecological outcomes.  They are not the same.  I have been in settlement discussions in which I propose that we first come to agreement on what’s best for the resource, and then figure out how to make that fit into the regulatory framework, but have had few takers.  The number is the number is the number.

A recent example arises in the context of water quality trading.  EPA policy promotes alternative means of achieving regulatory compliance that promise environmental results at least as good as conventional, engineered approaches, and at lower cost.  For example, if discharge water temperatures are the problem, riparian shade tree planting could substitute for mechanical chillers.  Of course, measureable cooling would be deferred by many years while the trees grow, but the ancillary benefits of watershed restoration to habitat and ecosystem function are intuitive and compelling.  This approach is supported by academia, government, and many in the NGO community.  Some though are skeptical.

The City of Medford, Oregon, is embarking on a riparian vegetation approach to reduce temperatures at its wastewater treatment outfall, in full cooperation with Oregon DEQ.  A regional NGO, Northwest Environmental Advocates, however, has raised objections.  In a letter dated March 15, 2013, NEA asks EPA to examine DEQ’s implementation of the water quality trading policy with reference to Medford.  NEA questions allowance of “credits” for watershed restoration work that upstream nonpoint sources would have to do anyway, and asserts that no credits should be allowed until the new trees actually yield shade.

The problem is that the upstream nonpoint sources are not obligated by law to restore riparian vegetation; they just need to adopt best management practices to avoid further degradation.  More to the point, restoration of the watershed will simply not occur without the funding provided by a point source with a regulatory problem to solve, such as Medford.  By denying the City credits, the incentive to use a watershed approach disappears.  Similarly, if no credits are awarded until the trees are grown, funds that could go toward watershed restoration will be diverted to engineered controls on temperature.  As DEQ Director Dick Pedersen so aptly puts it, “[i]f we ever build a chiller at the expense of ecosystems, we’ve failed.”

Interstate Air Transport - The Next Steps

Posted on April 12, 2013 by David Flannery

The August 21, 2012 decision of the D.C. Circuit Court in EME Homer City Generation LP v. EPA, Case No. 11-1302, not only vacated the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), it also provided a detailed framework (including the math) for how future plans should be developed by States to implement national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) through the “good neighbor” provisions of the Clean Air Act.  This case has already been the subject of various posts to this Blog.  This article will provide an update of activities that have occurred in recent weeks as state and federal agencies, NGOs and the regulated community respond to the decision and its implications for implementing the various NAAQS (past, present and future). 

Let me begin by noting that on March 29, 2013, EPA and various environmental organizations filed for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. Even as EPA was filing for such a writ, EPA has scheduled two meetings this month with states to obtain input on technical and policy decisions. In these meetings, EPA is offering its interpretation of the court decision and its views about various options that exist for conducting the required analyses through the shared responsibility of EPA and the states. 

Finally, the Midwest Ozone Group (MOG), a coalition of electric power generation interests, has developed a position statement on how the court opinion might be implemented including the identification of the following seven rules taken from the court opinion. 

1.    Basic rule - An upwind State’s obligation is limited to its own significant contribution and it cannot be directed to reduce emissions to account for any other factors impacting a downwind State’s nonattainment.
2.    Proportionality of Downwind States - A downwind State is responsible for above-NAAQS amounts that are not attributable to significant contributions from upwind States.
3.    Proportionality of Upwind States - The ratio of an individual upwind State contribution to the total contribution of all upwind States should be used as scalar to determine how the total upwind contribution is allocated among upwind States.
4.    The Role of Costs - EPA may reduce some or all of the obligations of upwind States to avoid the imposition of unreasonable costs.
5.    Insignificance - Once contributions are determined, a State is not required to address more than that contribution amount minus the significance threshold. 
6.    NAAQS Attainment - Once an area meets the NAAQS, no additional upwind emission reductions are required.
7.    Over-Control - When multiple downwind areas are concerned, reductions associated with one downwind area should be reviewed in other areas to ensure unnecessary over control is not achieved

The full position statement can be found here.

The MOG position statement is accompanied by a presentation prepared by Alpine Geophysics which applies an example set of modeling data to these rules to illustrate how the rules might be applied as well as the significant technical and policy questions that remain.  The Alpine Geophysics presentation can be found here.

Alaska Courts Clarify Application of Antidegradation Procedures

Posted on April 8, 2013 by Eric Fjelstad

Courts in Alaska issued two decisions upholding agency practice in carrying out antidegradation review under the Clean Water Act.  The federal court concluded that adoption of water quality standards does not, itself, require antidegradation review.  In the second case, a state court concluded that guidance may be developed to implement antidegradation regulations and need not be promulgated as a regulation provided it does not contain substantive criteria.

In Native Village of Point Hope v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alaska native and environmental organizations challenged EPA's approval of the State of Alaska's adoption of a site-specific water quality criterion ("SSC") for total dissolved solids ("TDS").  The SSC was challenged on a number of grounds, including on the basis that neither the State of Alaska nor EPA analyzed the SSC under the relevant antidegradation policy.  The issue before the U.S. District Court for Alaska was whether antidegradation review applied to the adoption of water quality standards ("WQS") or, conversely, only when WQS are translated into permits through effluent limitations.  In a case of first impression in the federal courts, the court ruled for EPA, holding that agencies are not required to undertake antidegradation review for the adoption of WQS; the obligation is only triggered when a WQS is incorporated into a permit through effluent limitations.

In Alaska Center for the Environment v. State of Alaska, environmental organizations challenged the State of Alaska's adoption of antidegradation implementation procedures through guidance, arguing that the procedures should have been promulgated as regulations.  As background, several NPDES permits in Alaska were withdrawn by EPA in the face of arguments from environmental organizations that the State of Alaska lacked antidegradation implementation procedures.  To address this alleged deficiency, the State of Alaska developed a guidance document  which EPA found was consistent with EPA's own antidegradation regulation.  The primary issue in the litigation was whether the State of Alaska was required to promulgate the guidance in the form of a regulation or whether it was permissible rely upon guidance to implement its regulations.  In a decision that turned largely on the State of Alaska's Administration Procedures Act, the court held that it was appropriate for the State to develop the guidance to implement its regulatory program, reasoning that the guidance did not add substantive requirements to existing regulations.

EPA Loses Another Battle in the War Over Guidance: The Eighth Circuit Vacates EPA Policies on Mixing Zones and Bypasses

Posted on March 26, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

On Monday, EPA lost another battle in the war over guidance.  In Iowa League of Cities v. EPA, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated two letters that EPA had sent to Senator Charles Grassley concerning biological mixing zones and bypass of secondary treatment units at POTWs (also referred to as “blending”, because the POTWs blend wastewater that has not be subject to biological secondary treatment with wastewater that has, prior to discharge).  The Court concluded that both letters constituted promulgation by EPA of effluent limits under the Clean Water Act and that they constituted legislative, rather than interpretive rules (I refuse to refer to “interpretative” rules; sorry).  As a result, the Court vacated the letters due to EPA’s failure to follow notice and comment requirements applicable to promulgation of legislative rules.  Finally, the Court concluded that a duly promulgated rule concerning biological mixing zones might be valid under Chevron, but that a rule barring bypasses of secondary treatment would exceed EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act.

In first determining whether the letters constituted “promulgation” of an effluent standard, the Court looked to whether the letters were binding on the regulated community.  Relying in part on Appalachian Power Co., the Court concluded that the letters were binding:

If an agency acts as if a document issued at headquarters is controlling in the field, if it treats the document in the same manner as it treats a legislative rule, if it bases enforcement actions on the policies or interpretations formulated in the document, if it leads private parties or State permitting authorities to believe that it will declare permits invalid unless they comply with the terms of the document, then the agency’s document is for all practical purposes “binding.”

As the Court noted with respect to the mixing zone issue, the “letter instructs state permitting authorities to reject certain permit applications, regardless of the state’s water quality standards.”  With respect to the bypass issue, EPA stated that “it will insist State and local authorities comply with” a never-issued policy that precludes the types of bypass at issue.  To try to suggest that words such as “insist” are not binding did not go over well with the Court.  “Just as it did in Appalachian Power, the EPA dissembles by describing the contested policy as subject to change.”

After concluding that the letters constituted promulgation of effluent standards, the Court went on to conclude that the letters constituted legislative, rather than interpretive, rules, and thus were subject to notice and comment rulemaking.  The following is the key paragraph for those of us attempting to beat back the kudzu that is EPA’s reliance on such informal guidance as a substitute for notice and comment rulemaking:

Identifying where a contested rule lies on the sometimes murky spectrum between legislative rules and interpretative rules can be a difficult task, but it is not just an exercise in hair-splitting formalism. As agencies expand on the often broad language of their enabling statutes by issuing layer upon layer of guidance documents and interpretive memoranda, formerly flexible strata may ossify into rule-like rigidity. An agency potentially can avoid judicial review through the tyranny of small decisions. Notice and comment procedures secure the values of government transparency and public participation, compelling us to agree with the suggestion that “[t]he APA’s notice and comment exemptions must be narrowly construed.”

“Layer upon layer of guidance.”  The “tyranny of small decisions.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Logging Road Runoff Does Not Require an NPDES Permit: The Supreme Court (For Now) Defers to EPA’s Interpretation of Its Own Regulations

Posted on March 22, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

On Wednesday, in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the Supreme Court ruled that runoff from logging roads does not constitute a discharge from a point source that requires an NPDES permit.  The decision upholds EPA’s interpretation of its own regulations and overturns – what a surprise! – a 9th Circuit decision which had held that permits were necessary for logging runoff.

While EPA got the result that it wanted here, the decision may come back to haunt it in the long run.  The decision was largely based on what is commonly known as Auer deference, the rule that courts will defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations unless that interpretation is “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” After a thorough review of the various relevant regulations and a dip or two into the Oxford American Dictionary, and after noting that the agency’s interpretation need not be “the best one”, the Court found EPA’s interpretation “permissible.”

So, why should EPA be concerned?  Justice Scalia, at his most curmudgeonly, dissented on the ground that Auer should be overturned because it grants too much authority to agencies.  Justice Scalia rejected out of hand what I would have thought would be the simplest and most obvious defense of Auer:  that if courts defer to agency interpretation of statutes under Chevron, shouldn’t they, a fortiori, defer to agency interpretation of the agency’s own rules?  Apparently not.  To Justice Scalia, Chevron deference merely allocates to agencies, rather than courts, the primary duty of interpreting statutes, but allowing agencies to interpret their own regulations has the dangerous result of concentrating both the writing and interpretation function in one branch of government.

I don’t buy it, but it’s important to note that, while Justice Scalia was the sole dissenter, Justice Roberts wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Alito, stating that, while Decker was not the proper case to reassess Auer (a cynic might say that Justice Roberts reached that conclusion because EPA was aligned with industrial interests, rather than the environmental NGOs, in Decker), they were both open to reviewing Auer in the proper case.

Sounds like three votes to me.  Somewhat surprisingly, Justice Thomas joined neither the concurrence nor the dissent.  Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, so he clearly still believes in Auer.  Without Kennedy and with Thomas a cypher at this point, the votes to revisit Auer may not be there.  In any case, it is worth noting that Justice Breyer, who is Justice Scalia’s frequent sparring partner on administrative law issues, took no part in the decision.  I look forward to his spirited defense of Auer when the time comes.

New Changes to CISWI Final Rule Reflect EPA’s Response to Comments from the Regulated Community

Posted on March 21, 2013 by Karen Crawford

The EPA issued its long-awaited CISWI Rule in the Federal Register on February 7, 2013.  78 FR 9112.  The final rule, entitled “Commercial and Industrial Solid Waste Incineration Units; Reconsideration and Final Amendments; Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials That Are Solid Waste,” contains the provisions in EPA’s 2011 rule, vacated in January 2012, that EPA agreed to reconsider.  The 2011 final rule in turn superseded EPA’s 2000 CISWI rule.  The new CISWI Rule amends 40 CFR part 60 subparts CCCC and DDDD and part 241.  The amendments to 40 CFR part 60 subpart DDDD, along with certain incorporations by reference, were effective on the promulgation date; amendments to part 60 subpart CCCC are effective August 7, 2013, and those to 40 CFR part 241 are effective April 8, 2013.

In response to both the court’s vacatur of a Notice of Delay issued in 2011 and the numerous petitions for reconsideration and comments submitted by the regulated community and the public, the final rule includes three subcategories of ERUs (energy recovery units) and two subcategories for waste-burning kilns based on design-type differences, with separate carbon monoxide (CO) limits for the latter.  Certain limits were also revised based on comments regarding the CO span methodology and on incorporation of additional data.  The rule establishes stack testing and continuous monitoring requirements and allows for the use of  continuous emissions monitoring systems (CEMS), setting levels based on a 3 hour block or 30-day rolling average (depending on the parameter and subcategory of CISWI). 

The rule addresses and preserves a source’s choice to cease or start combusting solid waste at any time due to market conditions or other reasons, and to switch from one set of applicable emission standards to another pursuant to CAA section 112, thereby amending the original "once in always in" approach reflected in the earlier versions of this rule. This in turn will provide an incentive to the regulated community to continue operating incinerators.

The deadline for compliance with the CISWI Rule by existing sources depends primarily on when the state implementation plan incorporating the final rule is approved, with such approval required no later than five years after the February 7, 2013 Federal Register publication date.  The effective date for new source compliance is August 7, 2013 or the date of startup, whichever date is later.  New sources are defined as sources that began construction on or after June 4, 2010, or commenced reconstruction or modification after August 7, 2013.

Less Lessee Liability – A Critique of EPA’s New Superfund BFPP Guidance

Posted on March 14, 2013 by Jeff Civins

In December 2012, EPA issued revised enforcement guidance to assist agency personnel in exercising enforcement discretion regarding the treatment of tenants under Superfund’s bona fide prospective purchaser (BFPP) defense.  This guidance expands some of the protections provided by the prior, 2009 guidance. Though recognizing that “[l]easehold interests play an important role in facilitating the cleanup and reuse of contaminated properties,” the agency chose a relatively ineffectual tool for addressing prospective tenant liability and encouraging re-use of Brownfield properties.  The agency could have better encouraged Brownfield development by providing tenants with guidance on how to avoid Superfund liability in the first place.

Under Superfund, a tenant's status and activities may give rise to "owner or operator" liability -- for the costs of investigating and remediating a contaminated site and for natural resource damages.  The guidance does not flesh out the contours of tenant liability as an owner or operator, but instead assumes that tenant liability exists and explains how the BFPP defense under section 107(r) of Superfund might then be available. 

To take advantage of the BFPP defense, an owner or operator of contaminated property must satisfy three statutory prerequisites. It must show: (1) it conducted all appropriate inquiry or AAI, e.g., by having conducted a phase I environmental assessment; (2) it has no affiliation with a potentially responsible party or PRP; and (3) it is satisfying specified continuing obligations, including, among other things, complying with applicable regulatory requirements and not impeding remedial actions.

In brief, the December 2012 guidance confirms that a tenant may receive protection as a BFPP derivatively from its landlord if the landlord conducted AAI, provided that all disposal occurred prior to the landlord’s acquisition of the property and the tenant satisfies the continuing obligations requirement.  It also expands EPA's use of enforcement discretion for a tenant who relied upon its landlord for the BFPP defense to include situations in which the landlord loses the BFPP defense, provided the tenant meets the requirements of the BFPP defense other than having performed AAI.   In addition, it makes clear that a lease will not disqualify a tenant from the BFPP defense for failure to have satisfied the "no affiliation" prerequisite.  Furthermore, it confirms that EPA will use its enforcement discretion for a tenant who independently meets the BFPP prerequisites, including having performed AAI prior to execution of the lease.

The new guidance notes the obvious: all bets are off if the tenant itself engages in an activity that independently creates liability, e.g., by creating or exacerbating contamination.  It also notes that, except as otherwise provided, the tenant itself must satisfy the BFPP prerequisites. 

The agency explains that it generally will not proactively make determinations as to the availability of the BFPP defense in connection with any particular transaction, e.g., by issuing a comfort letter, though there may be limited circumstances where it might do so.  And, of course, the agency’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion provides no comfort where the Superfund claim is brought by a third party, though the agency’s guidance may be persuasive to the court in which the claim is brought.

The problem with the BFPP defense is that it’s a defense, which must be asserted in response to a Superfund claim, and the tenant has burden of proof.  Moreover, as far as defenses go, it’s not even the best.  The third party defense, which doesn’t require AAI, generally should be available as long as the lease does not relate to the act or omission giving rise to the contamination.  SeeThe Third Party and Transaction-Related Defenses,” J. Civins, M. Mendoza, and C. Fernandez, ABA-SEER Environmental Litigation and Toxic Torts Committee Newsletter, July 2005.

More significantly, as EPA recognizes, “the mere execution of a lease does not necessarily make a tenant liable as an owner or operator,” and the agency and the regulated community would have been better served had the agency issued guidance establishing safe harbors for tenants.  A tenant’s first line of defense to Superfund liability should not be a defense, BFPP or other, but rather should be an assertion that it is not a Superfund owner or operator, placing the burden of proof on the plaintiff rather than on the tenant.  And case law provides a good basis for EPA issuance of such guidance.

Arguably, a tenant should not be liable and have need of a defense as an owner unless it virtually stands in the shoes of its owner, e.g., by entering into a 99-year lease or by subleasing the property to one who contaminates it.  Similarly, a tenant should not be liable as an operator, unless its action caused or exacerbated contamination.  Regardless of whether case law adequately fleshes out the contours of a tenant’s owner or operator liability under Superfund, it would have been more useful for the agency to have issued guidance with respect to such liability rather than on the BFPP defense.

Expanded Access to Environmental Information – The New Era of Transparency and Its Risks and Opportunities

Posted on March 11, 2013 by Dean Calland

Over the past several years, EPA has created or upgraded a number of new informational tools that enable the public to gain access to environmental data.  This is part of the agency’s efforts to increase “transparency” regarding private and public sector environmental compliance and enforcement efforts.  As expressed in a recent press release, EPA believes that “transparency and access to information at all levels help to drive improvements in environmental performance.” 

A couple of very recent examples are worth noting.  Earlier this year, EPA announced the creation of new interactive state dashboards and comparative maps.  These online tools are components of EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) website, and contain air, water and hazardous waste data for the previous five years.  According to EPA, such information includes “the number of completed inspections, types of violations found, enforcement actions taken, and penalties assessed by state.”  Users of the site can customize their searches to view just state activity, EPA activity, or both.  

A second example is EPA’s program to increase the transparency of chemical information under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Just last month, EPA released the 2012 Chemical Data Reporting (CDR) information for more than 7,600 chemicals.  The data can be used to identify important trends and analyses, such as determining the number of workers exposed to a particular chemical, the top 20 chemicals used in children’s products, the top 20 chemicals used in consumer products and the top industrial sectors that processed and used reportable chemicals.  EPA modified the CDR rule (formerly known as the Inventory Update Reporting rule) in 2011 to require that manufacturers and importers submit CDR information electronically.  Accordingly, the CDR information is added to the agency database and made publicly available much faster than ever before.  Stakeholders such as the American Chemistry Council and the Environmental Defense Fund applauded the recent changes to the CDR rule to increase the amount of information available to the public and thereby improve public understanding and confidence.

With appropriate controls, greater transparency is laudable for a variety of readily apparent reasons, and there is little doubt that federal and state agencies will increase both the number of tools available to the public and the usability of these tools to interpret data in the coming years.  Environmental stakeholders should evaluate these new tools and determine the risks and opportunities presented by them. 

For example, industry practitioners are quite familiar with the increasing scrutiny that has been placed on corporate decision-making in recent years by major investors and shareholders regarding such matters as the impact of the corporation’s activities on issues like greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability.  Some of these entities are using the new information tools and others like them to identify trends and determine how the corporation “measures up” against industry norms and political or governmental expectations.  Similarly, corporations are finding that their outside financial auditors are reviewing environmental databases to “check on” the environmental and safety disclosures that the companies are putting forth during the audit period.  Indeed, company management and counsel have sometimes been surprised by their auditors’ independently-gathered information that one or more of the company’s plants are listed on EPA or state databases as “non-compliant” with environmental requirements. 

In the same way, increased access to environmental and safety information brings with it new opportunities to gather meaningful information that can be extremely useful in preparing business plans for future activities and for claims and litigation related to environmental exposures.  Manufacturers and suppliers of environmental products and services, plaintiffs’ counsel, expert witnesses, environmental groups, public and governmental relations firms and insurance companies are just a small subset of the universe of interested parties for whom easier access to environmental and safety information can be helpful.  And now such data can be gathered more quickly and at a fraction of the costs that would have been required in the past.  Environmental stakeholders would do well to monitor the development of these transparency tools and to assess the risks and opportunities that they present.

Will EPA Expand TRI to the Oil and Gas Extraction Sector?

Posted on March 1, 2013 by Molly Cagle

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning a rulemaking to expand its Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program in March 2013. Will the oil and gas extraction sector be included in the program’s expansion?

As part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), the TRI program gathers and makes public information about chemical and waste management activities at a wide variety of facilities. EPA touts TRI reporting as one mechanism to reduce the release of chemicals into the environment. It claims that the information gathered helps companies keep up with competitors’ efforts to reduce and recycle waste, and that the public dissemination of information can lead to citizen and EPA enforcement.

EPA considered including the oil and gas extraction sector in TRI in 1997, but decided against it due to technical issues in determining whether individual wells spread out over large geographic areas would be considered a “facility” under EPCRA. A petition filed by environmental groups claims these technical issues are resolved and points to the basin-level definition of facility in EPA’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reporting rule as an example of how oil and gas production operations can be aggregated. Meanwhile, the GHG reporting rule is still under administrative reconsideration and the definition of facility under that rule is a key point of contention between EPA and industry.

As recently as last week, EPA’s Inspector General “recommend[ed] that EPA develop and implement a comprehensive strategy for improving air emissions data for the oil and gas production sector.” If oil and gas production is included in TRI, how will it affect the sector? Will it be a way to get at chemical ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing that are otherwise protected from disclosure as trade secrets? Will the aggregation of data for TRI purposes spill over into air and waste permitting decisions? At a minimum, TRI would require industry to gather more information on chemicals, wastes and emissions and make it publicly available. Thus, industry should prepare for the corresponding public attention and regulation that may accompany TRI expansion.

Coal Ash Rulemaking

Posted on February 21, 2013 by Andrew Brown

In December 2008, a surface impoundment maintained by the Tennessee Valley Authority in Kingston, Tennessee failed and the coal combustion residuals (CCRs) stored in those impoundment flooded more than 300 acres of land and flowed into Emory and Clinch Rivers.  CCRs, often referred to as coal ash, are residues from the combustion of coal in power plants that are captured by scrubbers and other pollution control equipment.  CCRs are currently exempt wastes under RCRA but following the TVA spill EPA proposed to regulate coal ash for the first time. 
 
On June 21, 2010, EPA issued its proposed CCR rule.  The proposed regulation considers two options for the regulation of CCRs.  Under the first option, CCRs would be regulated as special wastes subject to nearly full regulation as hazardous wastes under RCRA Subtitle C.  If CCRs are regulated as “hazardous waste,” disposal will likely be required at specially-permitted, off-site hazardous waste disposal facilities.  Under the second option, CCRs would be regulated as solid waste under Subtitle D of RCRA.  Under this option, EPA is likely to establish national standards for surface impoundments and landfills.   If CCRs are regulated under Subtitle D, it is likely a composite liner, a leachate collection and removal system, and a leak detection system will need to be installed at existing ash ponds.
 
EPA has not yet taken final action on the proposed CCR rule and has been sued by an environmental group who seeks the issuance of the final rule.   In that case, Appalachian Voices v. Jackson, the Agency stated “EPA cannot at this time provide a well-informed judgment as to the specific amount of time that is needed to conclude its review and any necessary revisions of these regulations, and EPA therefore requests an opportunity, following further administrative proceedings, to provide this Court with supplemental briefing at a later date regarding final remedy.”  Two actions (I, II) were consolidated in the Appalachian Voices case. EPA has indicated that the final CCR rule is not likely to be issued before the fourth quarter 2013. 

Would You Like Some Unintended Consequences With That Tea?

Posted on February 6, 2013 by Linda Benfield

Wisconsin has a proud tradition of strong political opinions.  Recent Tea-Party backed legislation in Wisconsin limiting the power of government will be interesting to follow as the consequences play out, particularly in the environmental arena. 

In March 2011, Wisconsin’s then-new Republican Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature passed the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, the state law that famously limits the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Following that, the legislature passed 2011 Wisconsin Act 21, which includes a “limited government” provision that prohibits any “agency [from] implement[ing] or enforc[ing] any standard, requirement, or threshold, including as a term or condition of any license issued by the agency, unless that standard, requirement, or threshold is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule that has been promulgated in accordance with [state law].” 

This will play out in a number of ways.  Like other state environmental agencies, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (“WDNR”) relies significantly on guidance documents to implement otherwise complex programs. A number of issues are addressed only in WDNR guidance, not in explicit regulations.  These include sediment cleanup standards; references to “sediment” were intentionally removed from the state soil cleanup standards.  This not only affects state cleanup programs, but also raises issues as to whether the state sediment cleanup standards can be “applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.  Similarly, the WDNR’s vapor intrusion sampling, analysis and remediation protocols are contained only in state and federal guidance documents. 

Recently, the U.S. EPA chose language in a proposed SIP denial that adds fuel to some permitting arguments.  In 2008, U.S. EPA required revisions to State Implementation Plans (“SIPs”) with respect to PM2.5 permitting; Wisconsin made regulatory changes, and requested SIP approval in 2011.  On December 18, 2012, the U.S. EPA proposed disapproval of the SIP revision.  77 Fed. Reg. 74817 (2012).  According to U.S. EPA, Wisconsin’s submission is deficient because the Wisconsin regulations do not “explicitly” define the condensable component of PM10 and PM2.5 emissions, and do not “explicitly” identify SO2 and NOx as precursors to PM2.5.  The U.S. EPA’s disapproval language gives the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources the usual additional work to propose and finalize regulatory changes to address the deficiency, but it also gives regulated sources an additional argument that the WDNR lacks the authority to regulate condensable particulate matter and PM2.5  precursors.