More Chinks in the Permit Shield Armor

Posted on September 24, 2014 by Eric Fjelstad

The history of the Clean Water Act (CWA) permit shield provision was recently addressed in a blog post by David Buente on July 31, 2014.  This post covers an update on one of the referenced cases that was pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The case Alaska Community Action on Toxics v. Aurora Energy Services, LLC (“ACAT”) involved a facility in Seward, Alaska that conveyed coal onto ships where it was exported into international markets.  The facility had been covered under the Multi-Sector General Permit (“MSGP”) since the mid-1980s.  The MSGP authorized the discharge of stormwater and also identified eleven categories of non-stormwater discharges which were authorized under the MSGP.  None of these categories covered discharges of coal.

The plaintiffs filed a CWA citizens suit in early 2010 alleging that coal was discharged from a conveyor into the ocean during ship loading operations and that these discharges were not covered under the MSGP.  The alleged discharges involved small chunks of coal falling from the underside of the conveyor belt on the “return” trip and incidental dust or chunks unintentionally released during the loading of ships.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the facility, applying the principles in  Piney Run Pres. Ass’n v. City Comm’rs, 268 F.3d 255 (4th Cir. 2001).

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the MSGP did not cover discharges of coal.  The court found that all non-stormwater discharges were prohibited except those identified in the list of eleven permissible non-stormwater discharges.  The Ninth Circuit’s decision is most striking for what it does not say.  First, there is no discussion in the opinion of the fact that the permittee had, in fact, disclosed its coal discharges during the permitting process.  Second, the court places no weight - indeed, did not even mention - the fact that EPA and its state counterpart actively oversaw the facility, including its discharges of coal.  In contrast, the district court specifically found that all the relevant parties - EPA, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (“ADEC”), and the permittee - viewed the MSGP as extending to discharges of coal.  As the district court found, “the discharges were not only ‘reasonably contemplated’ by EPA, but were actively regulated by the agencies under the General Permit.”

The Ninth Circuit’s decision in ACAT should make any MSGP permittee shudder since it suggests that many facilities may not be properly permitted.  Specifically, if a non-stormwater discharge is not identified on the list of permissible non-stormwater sources, ACAT suggests that discharge is not covered by the MSGP.  The case also reaffirms the point that reliance on agency communications and “course-of-dealing” with agencies can be a perilous exercise.

Time will tell whether the ACAT court’s analysis will be applied outside of the MSGP context to IPs and other GPs.  In the meantime, when considering permit shield issues, permittees and their counsel would be wise to carefully focus on the language of permits and what a permit purports to cover (and not cover).

You Can’t Estop the Government — Even When It Wants to Be Estopped

Posted on August 25, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

On August 12th, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that arguably explains everything from why the Tea Party exists to why otherwise calm and sane executives suddenly lose all their hair. Perhaps most astounding, the decision is clearly correct. Perhaps the law is an ass.

In 2008, Avenal Power submitted an application to EPA for a PSD permit to construct a new 600 MW natural gas-fired power plant in Avenal, California. Although section 165(c) of the Clean Air Act requires EPA to act on such applications within one year, EPA failed to do so.

Subsequently, and before EPA ever did issue a permit, EPA revised the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for NOx. Avenal Power apparently could demonstrate that emissions from the new plant would comply with the old NAAQS, but could not demonstrate that it would not cause an exceedance of the new NAAQS. After some waffling, EPA took the position that it could grandfather the permit application and review it under the prior NAAQS. Citizen groups appealed and the Court of Appeals held that EPA had no authority to grandfather the application.

To the Court, this was a simple application of Step 1 of Chevron. The Court concluded that sections 165(a)(3) and (4) and 110(j) of the CAA unambiguously require EPA to apply the NAAQS in effect at the time a permit is issued. Thus, EPA has no discretion to grandfather permit applications, even though EPA was required by law to issue a permit decision at a time when more lenient requirements were in effect.

I think that the Court’s decision is clearly right on the law. The statutory language seems unambiguous.  But what did the Court have to say to those who feel that the result is inequitable, because Avenal was legally entitled to a decision in one year, and would have obtained its permit if EPA had acted timely? Pretty much, tough luck:

Finally, EPA relies heavily on the argument that the equities weigh in favor of Avenal Power. In short, we agree. Avenal Power filed its application over six years ago, and endeavored to work with EPA for years, even after filing suit, to obtain a final decision. But however regrettable EPA’s treatment of Avenal Power has been, we simply cannot disregard the plain language of the Clean Air Act, or overlook the reason why an applicant must comply with revised and newly stringent standards —that is, “to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population.” Honoring the statute’s plain language and overriding purpose, we must send EPA and Avenal Power back to the drawing board. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, EPA screwed up, and Avenal Power got screwed. Imagine having to explain that to your client.

 

law is an ass

Engagement, Proportionality and Cooperation: Proposed Changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

Posted on July 3, 2014 by John Barkett

The Advisory Committee on Rules of Civil Procedure has taken a major rulemaking step to bring down the costs of federal court litigation.  Encouraging judges to become more engaged earlier in litigation, modifying the scope of discovery, and eliminating the circuit conflicts on the exercise of inherent authority in sanctioning the loss of electronically stored information are among the changes that will be made if the amendments are adopted.

In my October 17 2013 blog post, I described proposed changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure published for public comment by the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules (of which I am a member).  The Committee received about 2,300 pubic comments on the proposed amendments.  There were three public hearings and the Committee listened to nearly 125 commenters in what amounted to about 25 hours of oral presentations.

The Advisory Committee assimilated these comments and at its meeting on April 10-11, 2014, adopted a final set of amendments.  On May 29-30, the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure adopted the proposed amendments.  The votes of both Committees were unanimous.

The proposed reduction in the presumptive limits on depositions and interrogatories, and the proposed creation of a presumptive limit on requests for admissions (except as to authenticity of documents) received the greatest public attention.  The Committee was persuaded by the commenters to leave the existing limits in place and not to create a limit on requests for admission.

The change to Rule 1 received the least amount of public attention.  If it becomes law, it will provide that the rules will be “employed by the court and the parties” to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.  Cooperation was on the minds of the Advisory Committee as a means to help bring down the costs of litigation without compromising a lawyer’s duty of diligence in representing a client.

Slight changes were made to Rule 16 to encourage district court judges to make maximum use of the initial case management conference to develop an understanding of the claims and defenses and then to keep the parties focused on discovery that is relevant to those claims and defenses.  In addition, Rule 16(b)(3) adds to the potential list of items included in a scheduling order that directs a party to request a conference with the court before moving for an order relating to discovery—consistent with the belief that addressing discovery disputes at their incipiency will reduce costs to all parties.

The public comments also affected the change to Rule 26(b)(1), which addresses the scope of discovery.  New Rule 26(b)(1) contains these changes:

• the words “proportional to the needs of the case” have been added to provide an additional contour on discovery that is otherwise “relevant to any party’s claim or defense”;
• the limits on discovery in current Rule 26(b)(2)(C) (the importance of the issues at stake in the action, amount in controversy, importance of discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefits) were moved directly into (b)(1) as factors to be considered in evaluating proportionality;
• an additional proportionality factor has been added: “the parties’ relative access to relevant information”;
• the current sentence allowing discovery of information “relevant to the subject matter involved in an action” upon a showing of good cause has been deleted; and
• the sentence, “Relevant information need not be admissible at the trial if the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence,” has been replaced with this sentence: “Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.”

Similar to the goal of greater engagement by the court under Rule 16’s changes, the changes to the scope of discovery are designed to reduce discovery costs by encouraging courts and parties to focus more thoughtfully on what information is important to a fair resolution of a claim.

The Committee decided to replace existing Rule 37(e) with new Rule 37(e) and to leave in the limitation of Rule 37(e) to electronically stored information.  Proposed Rule 37(e) creates a uniform standard nationwide for issuance of an adverse inference instruction for the loss of electronically stored information after a duty to preserve is triggered.  The Advisory Committee chose a bad faith standard (followed in the 5th, 10th, and 11th Circuits) over the negligence standard (followed in the 2nd Circuit).  Specifically, proposed Rule 37(e) provides that, “if electronically stored information that should have been preserved in the anticipation or conduct of litigation is lost because a party failed to take reasonable steps to preserve it, and it cannot be restored or replaced through additional discovery,” then a court

(1) upon finding prejudice to another party from loss of the information, may order measures no greater than necessary to cure the prejudice; or

(2) only upon finding that the party acted with the intent to deprive another party of the information’s use in the litigation, may

(A) presume that the lost information was unfavorable to the party;

(B) instruct the jury that it may or must presume the information was unfavorable to the party; or

(C) dismiss the action or enter a default judgment.

There will be changes relating to document production.  I note two of them here.  Rule 34 will require that objections to document requests be made “with specificity” and that an objection state whether any responsive materials are being withheld on the basis of the objection.  Proposed Rule 26(d)(2) will allow delivery of a Rule 34 request more than 21 days after service but the request will not be deemed served until after the Rule 26(f) conference.

There will be changes relating to document production.  I note two of them here.  Rule 34 will require that objections to document requests be made “with specificity” and that an objection state whether any responsive materials are being withheld on the basis of the objection.  Proposed Rule 26(d)(2) will allow delivery of a Rule 34 request more than 21 days after service but the request will not be deemed served until after the Rule 26(f) conference.

Rule 84 relating to the forms that appear at the end of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure has been abrogated.  There were very few public comments on this proposal consistent with the sentiment expressed by many to the Committee that the forms were not used enough to subject them to change through the rulemaking process.  Instead, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts will post forms on its website.  The time limit for service in Rule 4 has also been reduced from 120 days to 90 days.

The next stop for the proposed amendments is the Judicial Conference in September 2014.  Assuming a favorable vote there, the amendments will be transmitted to the Supreme Court and then the Congress.  Assuming no action by either body, they will become part of the Rules of Civil Procedure December 1, 2015.

MY PRACTICE IN TRUST?

Posted on June 24, 2014 by George von Stamwitz

The $5.15 billion Tronox environmental settlement in April impressed many of us with the challenge of monetizing decades of real and perceived environmental risk.  It called to mind the even larger $9 billion ASARCO bankruptcy in 2009.  With almost $15 billion in trust between just two environmental bankruptcies, it seems that environmental practitioners are putting on their bankruptcy hats with increasing frequency.  What has flown under the radar is growing importance of trusts to the life of an environmental lawyer dealing with remediation.

These massive bankruptcy cases monetizing future environmental risk merely shed light on the fact that mergers, acquisitions and real estate transactions have increasingly been utilizing trusts to deal with long term liability.  Virtually every liability assumption (a/k/s risk transfer) transaction results in a trust or escrow account.  The environmental lawyer may be reasonably inquiring at this point, “Why does this matter to me; we have trust lawyers, after all?” The answer is that the language of the trust is really like a state of the art consent decree governing a remediation.  The critical questions of remediation goals, cessation of active remedy, dispute resolution, default, insurance, remedy takeover, penalties, bonus payments for success etc., need to be designed into the trust.

In addition to the environmental design issues, there are a host of related legal issues to consider: May our client write off financial reserves after creation of the trust?  Are payments to the trust deductible when made?  How should trust assets be invested? How much control of disbursement is allowable to a donor and still reap tax and accounting benefits?

The tax code recognizes two types of trusts: (1) a Qualified Settlement Fund (QSF)and (2) an Environmental Remediation Trust (ERT).  While QSFs are limited to claims that involve settlements with regulators, ERTs provide many of the same tax advantages as QSFs but apply to a broader set of circumstances.  

One of the joys of the environmental practice is the intersection between environmental practice and many other areas of law.  The intersection of remediation projects with the law of trusts is large and growing.

Imposing Repose: The Supreme Court Limits CERCLA § 309

Posted on June 19, 2014 by Michael Wall

On June 9th, the Supreme Court ruled, in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, that § 309 of CERCLA does not preempt state statutes of repose. Section 309 requires state statutes of limitations for injuries from hazardous substances releases to run from the date the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury caused by the release. But in CTS, the Court held that state statutes of repose are not statutes of limitations, and are not governed by section 309.

That conclusion was hardly self-evident. While section 309 explicitly applies to statutes of limitation, and does not specifically mention statutes of repose, the later have often been understood as a species of the former. When section 309 was enacted, Black’s Law Dictionary explained that “Statutes of limitations are statutes of repose.” Congress itself often referred to statutes of repose as “statutes of limitation.” And the very year after Congress enacted section 309, the Supreme Court itself described application of a two-year state statute of limitations as “wholly consistent with . . . the general purposes of statutes of repose.” The meaning of these terms has diverged in more recent years, but that divergence was not well-established when Congress enacted section 309.

The Court’s conclusion that Congress recognized a clear distinction between statutes of limitation and statutes of repose thus required the Court to assume that Congress used these terms with more precision in section 309 than Congress had done on other occasions, with more precision than (and in conflict with) the then-current edition of Black’s, and with more precision then the Supreme Court itself used the terms a year later. It is not often that this Court holds Congress’s legal acumen in such high regard.

The Court’s lead argument for why Congress did understand this distinction was that page 256 of the Section 301(e) Study Group Report—an expert report submitted to Congress and referenced in the Conference Committee Report—distinguished between these terms. This is surprising analysis. The CTS majority includes avowed skeptics of relying on traditional legislative history. Those justices might previously have been expected to be even more skeptical of attempts to discern congressional intent from statements buried in expert reports referenced by traditional legislative history. Not so, it seems—or at least, not so for this one opinion.

But does the Study Group Report even make the same distinction as the Court? The report recommends that:

"states . . . remove unreasonable procedural and other barriers to recovery in court action for personal injuries resulting from exposure to hazardous waste, including rules relating to the time of accrual of actions."

The Report then recommends that “all states that have not already done so, clearly adopt the rule that an action accrues when the plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the injury or disease and its cause.” That is what Congress effectively did—albeit for the states—in section 309. The Report then states: “This Recommendation is intended also to cover the repeal of statutes of repose which, in a number of states have the same effect as some statutes of limitation.”

This sentence, the Court concludes, shows that Congress must have known that a law that preempts state statutes of limitation would not also preempt state statutes of repose. But is it not at least as likely that any Member of Congress who actually read page 256 of the Study Group Report would have thought that adopting the discovery rule for all states would “also … cover the repeal of statutes of repose”?

Justice Scalia once wrote that “Congress can enact foolish statutes as well as wise ones, and it is not for the courts to decide which is which and rewrite the former.” Reading CTS Corp., one cannot escape the notion that the Court was willing to stretch its usual interpretive rules in order to apply what it considered a wise result to an arguably ambiguous statute. It did so in the apparent service of the policy of repose. But the holding will bring little peace in a state with a statute of repose to individuals who learn, years too late, that they or their children have been sickened by contaminants that a government agency or business released long ago.

Government Bullies? Not So Much

Posted on June 18, 2014 by David Uhlmann

It has been more than 30 years since EPA hired its first criminal investigators, but questions remain about when environmental violations will result in criminal charges.  Critics frequently portray environmental crime as a poster child of “over-criminalization” with a recent example Senator Rand Paul in his book Government Bullies:  How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds.

To address these concerns, I have suggested that prosecutors should limit criminal charges to violations that involve one or more of the following aggravating factors: (1) significant environmental harm or public health effects; (2) deceptive or misleading conduct; (3) operating outside the regulatory system; or (4) repetitive violations. By doing so, prosecutors would focus on violations that undermine pollution prevention efforts and avoid targeting defendants who committed technical violations or were acting in good faith.

I subsequently developed the Environmental Crimes Project to determine how often the aggravating factors I identified were present in criminal prosecutions. With the assistance of 120 students at the University of Michigan Law School, I analyzed all defendants charged in federal court with pollution crime or related Title 18 offenses from 2005-2010. We examined court documents for over 600 cases involving nearly 900 defendants to create a comprehensive database of environmental prosecutions.

Our research revealed that prosecutors charged violations involving aggravating factors in 96% of environmental criminal prosecutions from 2005-2010. More than three-quarters of the violations involved repetitive conduct, and nearly two-thirds involved deceptive or misleading conduct. Moreover, we found that 74% of the defendants engaged in conduct that involved multiple aggravating factors. And, for 96% of the defendants with multiple aggravating factors, one of the first three factors (harm, deceptive conduct, or operating outside the regulatory system) was present along with repetitiveness.

These findings support at least three significant conclusions. First, in exercising their charging discretion, prosecutors almost always focus on violations that include one or more of the aggravating factors. Second, violations that do not include one of those aggravating factors are not likely to be prosecuted criminally. Third, prosecutors are most likely to bring criminal charges for violations that involve both one of the first three factors and repetitiveness—and are less likely to bring criminal charges if that relationship is absent.

I plan to update my research with data from 2011-2012 and to examine a representative sample of civil cases using the same criteria. But my research already should provide greater clarity about the role of environmental criminal enforcement and reduce uncertainty in the regulated community about which environmental violations might lead to criminal charges.  My research also suggests that prosecutors are exercising their discretion reasonably under the environmental laws and should lessen concerns about over-criminalization of environmental violations.

For more, please see David M. Uhlmann, Prosecutorial Discretion and Environmental Crime, 38 HARV. ENVTL. L. REV. 159 (2014).

If what goes underground doesn’t stay underground, what then?

Posted on June 13, 2014 by Todd D. True

If it’s wastewater from a treatment plant pumped into injection wells and it ends up in the ocean, you need an NPDES permit under the Clean Water Act.  At least that’s the conclusion from the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, decided May 30, 2014.

            In Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, a case in which my colleague David Henkin in our Honolulu office represented the plaintiffs, the Court considered the following facts:  The County of Maui operates a wastewater treatment plant located about a half mile from the ocean that pumps millions of gallons of treated wastewater into several injection wells each day.  Within the last few years, EPA and others performed a tracer dye study because of concern that much of this wastewater was migrating through a groundwater aquifer and emerging in the ocean off the coast of Maui through seeps and springs.  The results of this study confirmed that, for a number of the injection wells, this was the case, even though it took several weeks for the dye to move from the wells into the ocean through the groundwater aquifer.  Based on other information, the County apparently had been aware since 1991 that its wastewater discharges were reaching the ocean.  Plaintiffs, Hawai’i Wildlife Fund and others, brought a citizens suit under the Clean Water Act asserting that because the County wastewater treatment facility had no NPDES permit, the discharge of wastewater into the ocean via the injection wells and groundwater was an illegal, unpermitted discharge.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Mollway agreed and granted the plaintiffs summary judgment.  The Court was not deterred by the County’s argument that it had an application for an NPDES permit pending with the State or other preliminary matters.  Instead the Court observed that “the only area of dispute between the parties is whether the discharges into the aquifer beneath the facility constitute a discharge into ‘navigable waters[,]’” the operative language of the Clean Water Act in this case.

On this point, the Court turned to the Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision and concluded that waters regulated by the CWA are broader than waters that are “navigable-in-fact,” hardly a controversial conclusion.  The Court then went on to conclude that “liability [for an unpermitted discharge] arises [under the CWA] even if the groundwater . . . is not itself protected by the [Act] as long as the groundwater is a conduit through which the pollutants are reaching [the ocean].”  As the Court observed, “[t]here is nothing inherent about groundwater conveyances and surface water conveyances that requires distinguishing between these conduits under the [CWA].”  In the Court’s view, as long as the groundwater served as a conveyance for pollutants that reached navigable waters, liability for an unpermitted discharge would attach.

The Court also concluded that liability for an unpermitted discharge arose under an alternative test which the parties drew from the Ninth Circuit’s post-Rapanos decision in Northern Cal. River Watch v. City of Healdsburg, even though the Court expressed skepticism about the applicability of this test where groundwater is involved.  Under this alternative test, because there was a clearly discernible nexus, i.e., the groundwater aquifer, between the County’s discharge of pollutants into injection wells and its subsequent emergence in the ocean, and because the discharge of pollutants to the ocean significantly affected the “physical, biological, and chemical integrity” of the ocean in the area of the seeps and springs through which the discharge emerged, liability for an unpermitted discharge also would attach.

Next up: civil penalties and remedy.

BP Tightens its Grip on the Deepwater Horizon Checkbook

Posted on June 9, 2014 by Jarred Taylor

BP Exploration and Production, Inc. (“BP”) was recently dealt another blow in its fight to reinterpret its multibillion dollar settlement for economic and property losses arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster when the Fifth Circuit refused to rehear BP’s appeal of a prior district court ruling on “causation nexus” requirements in the agreement.  In December 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier ruled that individuals and businesses do not have to prove that they were directly harmed by the oil spill in order to get paid under the terms of the settlement agreement.

In 2012, nearly two years after the spill, BP reached a settlement with the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (which acts on behalf of individual and business plaintiffs in the multi-district litigation proceedings) to resolve hundreds of thousands of private economic, property damage, and medical claims stemming from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.  BP has disputed many of the economic and property damage claims brought pursuant to the settlement agreement.  BP argues that the claims administrator was incorrectly interpreting the meaning of the settlement agreement, particularly with respect to whether or not a claimant must submit evidence that its losses were directly caused by the spill.

Judge Barbier, who is presiding over the multidistrict litigation stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, ruled that the settlement agreement did not contain a causation requirement beyond the revenue and related tests set out in the agreement, opening BP’s checkbook to economic loss claimants who may not be able to trace the cause of their damages back to the 2010 disaster.  BP already had revised its original $7.8 billion estimate of its potential costs under the settlement agreement up to about $9.2 billion.  Later, as it began challenging economic loss claims, BP proclaimed it could no longer provide a reliable estimate of the ultimate cost of the deal.   

BP appealed the district court’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming in December that it had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to businesses and individuals that exaggerated losses from the disaster.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling in March 2014, and on May 19, declined to rehear BP’s appeal. In a strongly worded dissent joined by two other justices, though, Judge Edith Clement argued that the district court’s rulings would “funnel BP’s cash into the pockets of undeserving non-victims” of the 2010 spill, adding that the appeals court had made itself “party to this fraud” by rejecting BP’s arguments. Judge Clement concluded that “another court surely must resolve this.” BP clearly agrees and has vowed to appeal its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that “no company would agree to pay for losses that it did not cause, and BP certainly did not when it entered into this settlement.” 

Ted Olsen, BP’s lead attorney, said in a 60 Minutes segment in May that the company would take its argument “as far as it is necessary to go to make sure that this settlement agreement is construed properly.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that some experts following the case expect that the Supreme Court will not take up the case, but suspect that BP’s true motive may not be to win on appeal, but to simply prolong the litigation and delay paying claims. The Fifth Circuit lifted its stay on payout of settlement claims, and the Supreme Court just rejected BP’s request that the Supreme Court reimpose the stay pending filing and disposition of its petition for writ of certiorari. 

Meanwhile, in the midst of its attempt to walk back from the economic and property loss settlement it negotiated and—at the time—happily agreed to, BP rejected a $147 million claim from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) demanding additional funds to conduct its ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment (“NRDA”) activities related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. NRDA is the process created by the Oil Pollution Act (“OPA”) and its implementing regulations that authorizes natural resources Trustees to assess injuries to natural resources caused by oil spills and spill response activities, and to restore the injured resources. OPA requires that the party or parties responsible for the oil spill pay for the reasonable costs incurred by the Trustees to carry out the NRDA and restoration. 

Last July, NOAA submitted a claim to BP for the estimated costs of NRDA activities that NOAA planned to implement in 2014. NOAA’s claim includes $2.2 million for research on the recovery of coastal wetlands, more than $10 million to remedy damage to dolphin and whale habitat, and $22 million for oyster habitat restoration. The Financial Times (free subscription required) reports that BP rejected the majority of NOAA’s requests, saying it was concerned by “the lack of visibility and accountability” in the process, and the unwillingness of the Deepwater Horizon NRDA Trustees (a handful of U.S. federal agencies and five Gulf Coast state governments) “to engage in technical discussions of the substantive issues.” The Financial Times reports that “BP said it had paid for work that was not done or done properly, been double-billed for the same study, and not been allowed to see research findings that it had been told would be shared”—evidence BP argues could be used at the trial over civil penalties to show that ecological damages from the spill are much less than once feared. 

According to an April 30 report on BP’s website, BP has already paid nearly $1.5 billion to federal and state government agencies for spill response, NRDA activities, and other claims related to the Deepwater Horizon spill, and over $11 billion to individuals and businesses. I need to disclose, too, that my firm is assisting several claimants to the BP settlement fund.

EPA Meets Regional Uniformity Requirement – the Hard Way

Posted on June 3, 2014 by Robert Wyman

On Friday, in a case argued by my colleague, Greg Garre and briefed by Leslie Ritts, the D.C. Circuit decided a closely watched case construing the EPA’s “regional uniformity” requirement under the Clean Air Act (CAA.)  The court declared the agency’s directive to regional offices outside the Sixth Circuit to ignore a 2012 Sixth Circuit decision interpreting the CAA’s “single source” requirements as inconsistent with EPA’s uniformity requirement. The decision brings to light an important component of the CAA’s nationwide scheme.

Under the CAA, any “major source” of pollution is subject to certain heightened requirements.  EPA regulations provide that multiple pollutant-emitting activities will be considered together for purposes of the “major source” analysis if they are—among other things—“adjacent.”  But EPA has, in recent years at least, given “adjacent” an expansive and atextual meaning, concluding that even facilities separated by considerable physical distance should be deemed “adjacent” as long as they are “functionally interrelated.” 

In 2012, the Sixth Circuit in Summit Petroleum Corp. v. EPA held that EPA’s interpretation was “unreasonable and contrary to the plain meaning of the term ‘adjacent.’”  The EPA opted not to seek Supreme Court review of the Sixth Circuit’s ruling.  A few months after the Summit decision, however, EPA circulated a directive to the Regional Air Directors informing them that the agency would abide by the Sixth Circuit’s decision within the Sixth Circuit, but that “[o]utside the [Sixth] Circuit, at this time, the EPA does not intend to change its longstanding practice of considering interrelatedness in the EPA permitting actions.”

The National Environmental Development Association’s Clean Air Project (NEDA/CAP), an industry group, filed a petition for review in the D.C. Circuit, challenging the EPA’s “Summit Directive” as contrary to the statute and EPA’s own regulations.  NEDA/CAP explained that EPA’s Directive would impermissibly place NEDA/CAP members operating outside of the Sixth Circuit at a competitive disadvantage, subject to a more onerous permitting regime than their peers operating within the Sixth Circuit’s jurisdiction.  That disparity between regions, NEDA/CAP explained, was inconsistent with the CAA’s requirement that EPA assure “uniformity in the criteria, procedures, and policies applied by the various regions,” 42 U. S. C. § 7601(a)(2), as well as EPA regulations that similarly require inter-regional uniformity.

On Friday, the D.C. Circuit issued a decision agreeing with NEDA/CAP in National Environmental Development Association’s Clean Air Project v. EPA. Rejecting EPA arguments that the policy could only be challenged in the context of a discrete stationary source permit application, the Court held that NEDA/CAP’s blanket challenge to the EPA’s creation of two different permitting regimes across the country could be challenged today because of the competitive disadvantages it created for companies operating in different parts of the country.  

On the merits, the Court concluded that maintaining a standard in the Sixth Circuit different from the one applied elsewhere in the country was inconsistent with the agency’s regulatory commitment to national uniformity.  The Court recognized that an agency is ordinarily free, under the doctrine of “intercircuit nonacquiescence,” to refuse to follow a circuit court’s holding outside that court’s jurisdiction.  Here, however, the Court held that EPA’s own regulations required it to “respond to the Summit Petroleum decision in a manner that eliminated regional inconsistency, not preserved it.”  Finding that the agency’s “current regulations preclude EPA’s inter-circuit nonacquiescence in this instance,” the Court vacated the directive.

The decision is noteworthy in a number of respects.  Not only does the decision roundly reject EPA’s threshold objections to NEDA/CAP’s petition (standing, finality, and ripeness), but it appears to represent the first time a court has applied EPA’s uniformity regulations to invalidate a rule.  The decision therefore puts a light on an important component of the CAA’s nationwide enforcement scheme—the “regional uniformity” requirement.    

Virgin Petroleum Product Quandary in Rhode Island

Posted on May 22, 2014 by Richard Sherman

A case working its way through the Rhode Island state court system, Power Test Realty Co. Ltd. Partnership v. Sullivan, No. PC 10-0404 (R.I. Super. Ct. Feb. 19, 2013), poses a dilemma regarding the obligation to remediate releases of virgin petroleum product.

Under the Rhode Island equivalent of CERCLA, virgin petroleum product is exempt from the definition of hazardous substances. R.I.G.L. 23-19.14-3(c), (i). Releases of virgin petroleum product are therefore not subject to the imposition of joint, several, strict and retroactive liability. One would accordingly expect that any obligation to remediate virgin petroleum product releases would be based on causation. Rhode Island oil pollution statutes and regulations appear to impose liability based on causation only.

Nevertheless, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Superior Court have taken the position that (1) the obligation of a current landowner to remediate a release of virgin petroleum product that occurred before acquisition of title arises on the theory that the term “discharge” under the state oil pollution statute includes “leaching” and (2) leaching of pre-acquisition petroleum product into the groundwater constitutes a passive and continuing discharge for which the current landowner is liable to remediate.

The Superior Court held that causation is irrelevant under the state oil pollution control statute and regulations. This ruling clearly contradicts the intent of the legislature to carve out virgin petroleum product from a no-fault liability scheme.

This case of first impression is now before the Rhode Island Supreme Court on a writ of certiorari, Docket No. SU-13-0076. Practitioners await with interest how the Court will work its way through this issue. Stand by for some tortured reasoning if the Superior Court ruling is upheld.

Welcome to the Mad-Hatter’s Tea Party: Resource Economics and Ground Water Contamination

Posted on May 20, 2014 by Donald Stever

The old adage, jokingly told by my college Economics 101 prof, that “economics is not a science but rather a black art”, is amply borne out by disputes between warring factions of resource economists that are playing out in ground water contamination natural resource damages litigation in New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. The issue:  how to value contaminated ground water. So far, the few courts that have actually looked at this issue have been skeptical of the “creative” economics propounded largely by the plaintiff bar.

In one corner, we have the classical economists, usually retained by the defendants’ bar, who argue that ground water must be valued based on the impairment of an economic use, such as potable fresh water that could otherwise be consumed or ground water that could otherwise be used for crop irrigation or for industrial process uses. They call this “use value.” Let’s say that we have a facility that contaminates ground water that is naturally salty, does not meet the federal SDWA secondary drinking water standards, and is not migrating beneath anybody else’s property, or generally any ground water that is not impacting any offsite user. These economists argue that this water should not be valued for its loss as potential drinking water or other uses and thus the cost of replacing it should not be considered, leaving the monetary resource value of this water to be zero. 

In the other corner we have the “creative” guys, typically retained by plaintiffs. They advance several theories upon which to predicate large monetary values for contaminated, but unused and unusable, ground water. Here are three:

Benefits Transfer: Under this theory, clean ground water has an inherent “value” to people, called by its proponents “existence value” and thus whether it is used or not, or anybody suffers actual harm or not, is irrelevant. The proponents of this theory rely on several, mostly old, studies in which groups of people were asked what they would pay to have assurance that their own ground water supply would be free of contamination. For example, would they contribute to the cost to construct a treatment facility? These economists then use an algorithm to calculate a per-gallon “value” of the contaminated ground water using the monetary values derived from those studies. This approach ignores real-world concepts of economic value, substituting for it a sort of fictional “gestalt” value.

Resource Equivalency Analysis: This approach borrows from techniques appropriately used to value damaged wetlands or plant or animal habitat. Its proponents also assume that ground water has inherent economic (“existence”) value. They first calculate the volume of contaminated groundwater over time, and attempt to determine what it would cost to purchase an amount of land sufficient to “protect” an equivalent volume of ground water elsewhere in perpetuity. Although this approach works for habitats, it has all kinds of problems when applied to ground water. For example, in one recent case the economist’s “equivalent” resource was a fresh water aquifer, which he was projecting as equivalent to a saline portion of the same aquifer, ignoring the fundamental meaning of the word “equivalency.”  Additionally, protecting ground water resources by preserving land also provides extraneous environmental benefits — such as providing habitat — which the theory seems to ignore. Furthermore, it is very difficult to determine appropriate land values.

Wasteful Use:  This is my favorite. In a pending litigation, a plaintiff economist named Kevin Boyle asserted that extracting contaminated seaside ground water from beneath an industrial facility, treating it to remove contaminants pursuant to a RCRA corrective action permit, and discharging the treated water to the ocean, constitutes a “wasteful use” of the extracted ground water. His argument was premised on returning the treated water to the aquifer and thus making it available for use, instead of discharging the water to the ocean. But the aquifer in question was naturally salty, on the edge of the ocean, naturally flowed out under the ocean, and the recharge area would have been entirely within the property of the industrial defendant.  He calculated his “wasteful use” value as the per gallon rack price of an equivalent volume of desalinated water sold to the public by the local water utility.

Stay tuned, sports fans. Surely more to come.

Beware the Specter of Debarment

Posted on May 8, 2014 by Tom Sansonetti

Debarment is the process whereby the federal government can permanently prevent a company from doing business with the federal government or suspend a company from doing business with the federal government for a period of years.  The debarment process has been available for decades to the United States to be used against companies or persons whom the government believes are untrustworthy. For instance, removal from EPA’s list of violating facilities requires agency evaluation of corporate attitude. But the Obama Administration has broadened the scope of the process to potentially ensnare many an unsuspecting entity.

The debarment process as it currently exists has resulted in the following scenarios:

A. An oil company in the Rocky Mountain region settled a regulatory violation with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and as part of the agreement paid a substantial seven figure fine and adopted new procedures designed to prevent a reoccurrence of the violation and a two-year period of probation.  Imagine the surprise of the company’s managers and in-house lawyers when eighteen months after the settlement was executed, they received a Notice of Debarment for a three-year period preventing the use of their federal leases requiring new permits.

B. A wind farm owner that was convicted for killing bald eagles discovered that the company could not sell future electricity production to a federal facility.

C. An oil and gas company that pleaded guilty to a Clean Water Act spill faced debarment from being able to bid on federal oil and gas leases for five years.

Companies or persons found to be in violation of civil or criminal statutes or departmental regulations are subject to debarment.  While in egregious cases debarments can be perpetual, most debarments are for a period of three to nine years.  Debarments do not affect a company’s current government contracts, but do affect renewals of those contracts or the need for new permits on federal lands.  The debarments are company-wide.  Consequently, the above-mentioned wind farm owner also could not sell its electricity produced from its coal fired power plants to federal facilities.

Debarment proceedings are administered by the various Offices of Debarment, located within each cabinet department, with the closest responsibility for enforcing the law that was violated.  Thus, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Debarment (staffed by the Inspector General’s personnel) handles violations of fish and wildlife, public lands and Indian law.  Environmental Protection Agency lawyers in the grants and debarment program handle debarment proceedings authorized by Section 508 of the Clean Water Act or Section 306 of the Clean Air Act.

Upon the entry of a federal court judgment or consent decree a representative of the Department of Justice, often an Assistant United States Attorney, forwards the document to the appropriate cabinet department’s Office of Debarment.  The government deems debarment proceedings to be separate from the underlying litigation.  Agreements to avoid debarment may not be a condition of any plea bargain or consent decree.  Adverse outcomes after executive branch debarment hearings may be appealed to a federal district court under deferential Administrative Procedures Act standards. 

Anadarko Petroleum Agrees to $5.15 Billion Settlement for Environmental Cleanup Claims

Posted on May 7, 2014 by Donald Shandy

Anadarko Petroleum Corporation (“Anadarko”) and its Kerr-McGee unit, which Anadarko purchased in 2006, has entered into a settlement agreement with the United States, whereby Anadarko/Kerr-McGee agreed to pay $5.15 billion for a vast array of environmental clean-ups around the country.  The settlement represents the largest environmental enforcement recovery on record by the Department of Justice.  

The settlement stems from the bankruptcy of Tronox, a spinoff company created by Kerr-McGee for its chemical operations in 2006.  When Tronox declared bankruptcy in 2009, the United States and co-plaintiff Anadarko Litigation Trust (a litigation trust created to pursue Tronox’s claims on behalf of its environmental and torts creditors) asserted fraudulent conveyance allegations against Anadarko and Kerr-McGee, along with certain of its affiliates.  In December 2013, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York found that the historic Kerr-McGee fraudulently conveyed assets to the “new” Kerr-McGee (a new corporate entity with the same name), leaving its legacy environmental liabilities behind in the old company (renamed Tronox and spun off as a separate company), with the intent to evade its debts —including liabilities for environmental clean-up at numerous sites across the country.   The court stated that “there can be no dispute that Kerr–McGee acted to free substantially all its assets … from 85 years of environmental and tort liabilities.”  In re Tronox Inc., 503 B.R. 239, 280 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2013).  

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the litigation trust and Anadarko/Kerr-McGee mutually agree to release all claims against each other.  Additionally, the United States government and Anadarko/Kerr-McGee have provided mutual covenants not to sue. 

  As a result of the settlement agreement, it is anticipated that the funds will be allocated to a number of clean-ups, which will include:

$1.1 billion paid to a trust charged with cleaning up contaminated sites around the county, including the Kerr- McGee Superfund Site in Columbus, Mississippi

$1.1 billion paid to a trust responsible for cleaning up a former chemical manufacturing site in Nevada that contaminated Lake Mead

Approximately $985 million paid to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fund the clean-up of approximately 50 abandoned uranium mines on land of the Navajo Nation 

Around $224 million paid to the EPA for clean-up of thorium contamination at the Welsbach Superfund Site in Gloucester, New Jersey

Pioneering Environmental Law: Remembering David Sive (1922-2014)

Posted on May 2, 2014 by Nicholas Robinson

Before environmental law existed, David Sive knew that the law could protect forests and fields, abate pollution of air and water, and restore the quality that humans expected from their ambient environments.  He fashioned legal arguments and remedies where others saw none.  His commitment to building a field of environmental law is exemplary, not just historically, but because we shall all need to emulate his approach as we cope with the legal challenges accompanying the disruptions accompanying climate change.

David Sive learned to love nature by hiking and rambling from parks in New York City to the wilderness of the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains.  He carried Thoreau’s Walden into battle in World War II in Europe, and read William Wordsworth and the Lake poets while recuperating from wounds in hospitals in England.  He had a mature concept of the ethics of nature long before he began to practice environmental law.

His early cases were defensive.  He defended Central Park in Manhattan from the incursion of a restaurant. He rallied the Sierra Club to support a motley citizens’ movement that sought to protect Storm King Mountain from becoming a massive site for generating hydro-electricity on the Hudson River.  Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission [FPC] (2d Cir. 1965), would become the bell-weather decision that inaugurated contemporary environmental law.  The case was based on the multiple use concepts of the Progressive Era’s Federal Power Act.  The FPC (now FERC), had ignored all multiple uses but the one Con Edison advanced.  When the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that citizens had the right to judicial review to require the FPC to study alternative ways to obtain electricity, as well as competing uses for the site, the court laid the basis for what would become Section 102(2)(c) of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

When Consolidated Edison Company decided to build a huge hydroelectric power plant on Storm King, the northern portal to the great fiord of the Hudson River Highlands, citizens and local governments were appalled.  This was no “NIMBY” response.  Con Ed had forgotten that these fabled Highlands inspired the Hudson River School of landscape painting.  This artistic rendering of nature in turn inspired the birth of America’s conservation movement of the late 19th century.  The Hudson also instrumental to the historic birth of this nation; here the patriots’ control of the Highlands had kept the British from uniting their forces, and here soldiers from across the colonies assembled above Storm King for their final encampment as George Washington demobilized his victorious Army.  The Army’s West Point Military Academy overlooks the River and Storm King.  

David Sive and Alfred Forsythe formed the Atlantic Chapter in the early 1960s, despite heated opposition from Californians who worried the Club would be stretched too thin by allowing a chapter on the eastern seaboard.  David Sive chaired the Chapter, whose Conservation Committee debated issues from Maine to Florida.  He represented the Sierra Club, pro bono, in its intervention in the Storm King case, and other citizens brought their worries about misguided government projects or decisions to him. 

David Sive represented similar grassroots community interests in Citizens Committee for the Hudson Valley v. Volpe (SDNY 1969), affirmed (2d Cir. 1970).  Transportation Secretary Volpe had approved siting a super-highway in the Hudson River adjacent to the shore in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, to accommodate Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s proposal to connect his Hudson estate to the nearby Tappan Zee Bridge.  Without the benefit of NEPA or any other environmental statutes, which would be enacted beginning in the 1970s, and relying upon a slender but critical provision of a late 19th century navigation law, after a full trial in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, David Sive prevailed against the State and federal defendants.  He won major victories on procedure, granting standing to sue, and on substance, a ruling that the government acted ultra vires.  David Sive saved the beaches, parks and marinas of the Hudson shore.

Public interest litigation to safeguard the environment was born in these cases.  Public outrage about pollution and degradation of nature was widespread.  In September 1969, the Conservation Foundation convened a conference on “Law and the Environment,” at Airlie House near Warrenton, Virginia.  David Sive was prominent among participants.  His essential argument was that “environmental law” needed to exist. 

On December 1, 1970, Congress enacted the NEPA, creating the world’s first Environmental Impact Assessment procedures and establishing the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).  The CEQ named a Legal Advisory Committee to recommend how agencies should implement NEPA chaired by US Attorney Whitney North Seymour, Jr. (SDNY).  This Committee persuaded CEQ to issue its NEPA “guidelines” on the recommendation of this Committee.  That year launched the “golden age” of NEPA litigation.  Courts everywhere began to hear citizen suits to protect the environment.

David Sive went on to represent citizens in several NEPA cases, winning rulings of first impression.  In 1984, he reorganized his law firm, Sive Paget & Riesel, to specialize in the practice of environmental law.  From the 1970s forward, NEPA allowed proactive suits, no longer the primarily defensive ones of the 1960s. “Citizen suits” were authorized in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other statutes. 

David Sive knew that without widespread support among the bar and public, these pioneering legal measures might not suffice.  He became a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which became one of the nation’s pre-eminent champions of public environmental rights before the courts.  To continue the Airlie House conference precedent, he institutionalized the established professional study of environmental law, as a discipline, through creation of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI).  With ALI-ABA (now ALI-CLE) he launched nationwide continuing legal education courses to education thousands of lawyers in environmental law, a field that did not exist when they attended law school.  He devoted an active decade to teaching law students in environmental law, as a professor at Pace Law School in New York.

This month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second part of its Fifth Assessment Report.  The IPCC summaries of peer-reviewed scientific investigation suggest that law will confront problems even more challenging than those that David Sive addressed.  New legal theories and remedial initiatives will be needed that do not exist today.  The wisdom of ecologist Aldo Leopold can inform the next generation.  Globally, others carry on David Sive’s role, such Attorney Tony Oposa in the Philippines or M. C. Mehta in India.  The law can cope with rising sea levels, adaptation to new rainfall patterns, and other indices of climate change, but it will take individual commitment to think deeply about environmental justice in order to muster the courage to think and act tomorrow as David Sive did yesterday.

Is the NSR Enforcement Initiative Dead Yet? Injunctive Relief Claims Dismissed Against U.S. Steel

Posted on April 29, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

On April 18, EPA lost another NSR enforcement case. Not only that, but this was a case EPA had previously won. As we noted last August, Chief Judge Philip Simon of the Northern District of Indiana, had previously ruled that the United States could pursue injunctive relief claims against United States Steel with respect to allegations by EPA that US Steel had made major modifications to its plant in Gary, Indiana, in 1990 without complying with NSR requirements.

Having reread the 7th Circuit opinion in United States v. Midwest Generation, Judge Simon has had a change of heart and now has concluded that injunctive relief claims (as well as damages) are barred by the statute of limitations, even where the same entity that allegedly caused the original violation still owns the facility. Judge Simon concluded that the Court of Appeals had spoken with sufficient clarity to bind him. The language he cited was this:

"Midwest cannot be liable when its predecessor in interest would not have been liable had it owned the plants continuously. (Italics supplied by Judge Simon.)"

Judge Simon seems to have felt more compelled than persuaded.

"Candidly, it is a little difficult to understand the basis for the statements in Midwest Generation that even claims for injunctions have to be brought within five years. But that is what Midwest Generation appears to mandate. And in a hierarchical system of courts, my job as a trial judge is to do as my superiors tell me.

So while the basis for applying a limitations period to the EPA’s injunction claim under §§ 7475 and 7503 is thinly explained in Midwest Generation, upon reconsideration I do think that’s the outcome required of me here."

One final note. In his original opinion, Judge Simon ruled against US Steel, in part, because the concurrent remedy doctrine, which US Steel argued barred injunctive relief where damages were not available, could not be applied against the United States. As Judge Simon noted, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals did not discuss the concurrent remedy doctrine, so we don’t know the basis of its holding that a party continuously owning a facility that is alleged to have violated the NSR provisions of the CAA more than five years ago is not subject to injunctive relief. However, it is worth pointing out, as we discussed last month, that Judge James Payne, of the Eastern District of Oklahoma, dismissed injunctive relief claims brought by the Sierra Club (not the government, of course), relying on the concurrent remedy doctrine.

Something tells me that the United States isn’t quite ready to give up on these cases, notwithstanding a string of recent defeats. The NSR enforcement initiative may be in trouble, but it’s not quite dead yet.

 

Climate Change Litigation – Will Property Insurers Take the Lead?

Posted on April 24, 2014 by Ralph Child

Common law litigation seeking relief from petrochemical companies for causing climate change has been much touted but little successful.

The insurance industry has been warning of huge coming losses due to climate change, but has not taken aggressive action to force change.

Until now? 

In a lawsuit filed in Illinois state court on April 16, 2014, some property insurers sued the City of Chicago and a host of regional and municipal water managers for failure to provide adequate stormwater storage.  The class action suit alleges that the plaintiffs’ insureds would not have suffered so much flood damage from a 2013 storm had the defendants exercised better planning and construction to deal with foreseeable storms. 

Notably, the plaintiff insurers rely heavily on the 2008 Chicago Climate Action Plan.  The plan recognized that climate change would cause increased amounts, durations and intensities of rainfall.  Plaintiffs allege that despite the foreseen problem and having had adequate time and opportunity, the defendants failed to make the recommended and necessary improvements, leading to the injuries to the insureds’ properties.

Certainly this suit faces many challenges.  Courts are slow to override state and local governments’ complicated budgeting choices.  Moreover, courts may be ill-equipped to oversee projects such as Chicago’s Deep Tunnel Project, which was commissioned in the 1970s to address metropolitan flooding, stormwater and sewage.  After more than $3 billion so far, itwill not be completed until at least 2029.

Also, query whether such litigation will help or hurt state and local efforts to adapt to climate change.  It could deter honest forecasting of what it will take.

Still, this lawsuit could augur a new wave of common law climate change litigation – a category involving well-funded plaintiffs with provable arguments for proximate cause of real damages.

Navigating “Navigable” Waters

Posted on April 21, 2014 by Earl Phillips

Whether a wetland or modest stream is subject to Clean Water Act regulation as a “navigable water” of the United States (navigable in law) remains a muddy question. In Rapanos v. United States, the Supreme Court established a two-part test for determining CWA jurisdiction: the body of water must be “relatively permanent” and it must be adjacent (have a continuous surface connection) to navigable waters. Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion says waters or wetlands sharing a “significant nexus” with traditionally navigable waters are subject to CWA jurisdiction.

In 2011, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) released draft guidance on “waters of the United States” which expanded the waters over which the agencies planned to assert CWA jurisdiction, compared to pre-Rapanos. Then, in September 2013, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board released a draft scientific report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters,” for public comment, stating that the final version of the report would be the basis for a joint EPA and ACOE rule on CWA jurisdiction.  On March 25, 2014, the two agencies released a proposed rule stating that all tributaries of traditional navigable waters and interstate waters, and adjacent water bodies, are automatically jurisdictional because they share a “significant nexus” with navigable waters. The proposed rule appears to assert default jurisdiction over many seasonal and rain-dependent streams and wetlands near rivers and streams, provided they are “tributaries.” Beyond this, the proposed rule states that jurisdiction over other types of waters with more uncertain connections to downstream waters—such as unidirectional waters, non-adjacent wetlands, and other waters outside of flood zones and riparian areas—will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The official version of the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register yesterday with public comments due in ninety days.

Parties understandably confused can petition for case-specific jurisdictional determinations. While a decision on such a petition may be definitive, courts have refused to allow judicial review of such decisions because they are not “final decisions” under the Administrative Procedure Act. In Belle Co., LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal district court noted that jurisdictional determinations do not impose any new or additional legal rights or obligations, but merely remind the party of existing duties under the CWA. By contrast, the Supreme Court determined in Sackett v. EPA that compliance orders issued by the ACOE or EPA following or flowing from jurisdictional determinations are subject to judicial review. 

Adding to the challenge of navigating these uncertain legal waters, many states and municipalities have expanded their statutory definitions of “waters” (e.g. artificial features and groundwater) and “wetlands” (e.g. soil types and buffers) to increase the breadth and depth of state and local regulation. So, update your navigational charts and prepare for some challenging sailing! 

A Tenuous Truce In Oregon’s Water Wars

Posted on April 11, 2014 by Martha Pagel

A year ago, this blog contribution described the latest battle in a nearly 40-year old water war in Oregon’s Klamath Basin. Now, there is a tenuous peace agreement in place – but it may be short-lived.  With substantial leadership from Senator Ron Wyden and Governor John Kitzhaber, a “Proposed Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement” was negotiated among the Klamath Tribes, State of Oregon, and a large group of independent farmers and ranchers who hold water rights to surface waters in the Klamath Basin, above Upper Klamath Lake.  The underlying war has to do with who gets how much water in an on-going “general stream adjudication” of water diversions that began in the late 1800s to early 1900s, along with quantification of federally reserved water rights. 

In March, 2013, the Oregon Water Resources Department (“OWRD”) issued its “Findings of Fact and Final Order of Determination” (“FFOD”), which approved the federally reserved claims of the Klamath Tribes for substantial instream flows in the Klamath River and tributaries above Upper Klamath Lake, and for specified lake levels.  The Tribal water rights were granted a priority date of “time immemorial.”  When the FFOD took effect last year, the Tribes were legally entitled to make a “call” for water – requiring the OWRD to take immediate action to curtail water use by junior appropriators until the Tribes’ instream flow allocations were satisfied.  As a result, thousands of acres of irrigated farm and pasture lands were dry.  

The impact of the call was economically, socially and politically devastating, leading Senator Wyden and Governor Kitzhaber to convene a fast-moving settlement process that began late last fall and resulted in conceptual agreement before the end of 2013.  Further work in early 2014 resulted in a comprehensive agreement for the Upper Basin -- but the deal is fragile.  Implementation of key settlement terms depends on securing substantial federal funding and state agency support, with no guarantees of either. 

The settlement includes two key components:  a Water Use Plan and a Riparian Program.  Under the Water Use Plan, irrigators will voluntarily retire or reduce historic diversions by up to 30,000 acre-feet.  Under the Riparian Program, landowners will commit to voluntary habitat restoration actions.  The two components are to be implemented over a five year period, subject to the availability of federal funding.  An additional $40 million of federal funding is to be provided for Tribal economic development. 

This settlement agreement complements another agreement, reached several years ago, among the Tribes, state and federal agencies, and lower basin irrigators who receive water from Upper Klamath Lake under contracts with the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation.  That agreement also requires substantial federal funding that has not yet been committed, due at least in part to political pressures stemming from the fact that it addressed only half of the basin – leaving upper basin irrigators to bear the brunt of a Tribal call.  With the upper basin interests now addressed through this second settlement agreement, the basin is now fully covered with strategies to help recover instream flows to meet Tribal water needs while maintaining a sustainable level of economic use for farmers and ranchers. 

Optimists are hopeful the region will now be able to move forward with a united front to seek needed support from Congress.  Pessimists say the deal will crumble beneath the political weight and budget pressures of Washington DC.  One thing is for sure – the Klamath Basin water wars will not be ended soon.  Stay tuned for next year’s update.

Causation and Tarballs: Two Things That Just Won't Go Away

Posted on April 10, 2014 by Steve McKinney

In the Spring of 2012, just before trial on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP and the plaintiffs reached a class action settlement.  This settlement created a business claims process that required no direct causation beyond a showing that the business was located in a certain geographic area and had experienced a certain decline in revenue during the relevant period.  The settlement included claims from throughout Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, and certain coastal counties of Florida and Texas.  In November, 2012, the district court held a fairness hearing where BP argued for approval.  In December, 2012, with the support of BP, the court certified the class and approved the settlement. 

Over time, estimates of BP’s claims exposure under the settlement agreement grew.  Frustrated by attorney advertising that getting paid by BP did not require showing that your losses were caused by the oil spill, BP returned to the district court and objected to the claims administrator’s interpretation of the settlement agreement.  BP argued for the first time that claims should be evaluated on an accrual basis accounting method rather than a cash basis.  This could have reduced BP’s exposure, but most small businesses maintain their books on a cash basis and the district court upheld the claims administrator’s interpretation.  BP appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

In the Summer of 2013, a 3-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit heard this first appeal and remanded the case for further development of the record on the parties’ intent. (link to decision)  One judge questioned sua sponte whether a causation standard that did not require proof of a connection to the oil spill undermined the parties’ legal ability to enter into a class action settlement.  The panel also instructed the district court to stay the payment of claims pending resolution of these issues.

Meanwhile, parties who had objected at the fairness hearing took a second appeal to the Fifth Circuit that challenged class certification.  BP joined in this appeal, notwithstanding having argued for certification before the district court.  BP argued that because the settlement agreement was being interpreted to pay claims that were not connected to the oil spill, the class was not properly certified.  In January, 2014, a 3-judge panel hearing the second appeal affirmed class certification based on the panel’s understanding of the injury alleged on behalf of potential class members and the panel’s view of Article III standing requirements and Rule 23 class certification requirements applicable at the settlement stage of the case. (link to decision)

Back to the first appeal. On remand, the district court ruled in December, 2013 that the revenue-based causation standard agreed to by the parties was sufficient for class certification and met the requirements of Rule 23 and other federal laws regarding class actions.  Predictably, BP asked the first Fifth Circuit panel to review this ruling.  On March 3, 2014, that first panel affirmed the district court’s ruling and ordered that the stay on payments be lifted. (link to decision)  Focusing more on the Claims Administrator’s interpretations of the Settlement Agreement, this panel determined that the agreed-upon claims process included elements sufficient to establish traceability of the claimed damage to the spill.  In a sense, the earlier panel decision reviewed the Settlement Agreement as a matter of principle and the later decision reviewed it in application.  On March 17, 2014, BP sought rehearing en banc.  As a result, the panel’s mandate will not issue and the stay will remain in place pending resolution of BP’s request for rehearing.  Is the gravity-challenged opera person warming up? 

Ashes to Ashes; Waters to Waters – The Death of EPA’s Water Transfer Rule?

Posted on April 8, 2014 by Robert M Olian

On March 28, 2014, a federal district court vacated EPA’s “Water Transfer Rule,” which had sought to clarify EPA’s position that transfers of water between navigable bodies of water do not require NPDES permits. See Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Inc. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency (SDNY, 3/28/2014). The Water Transfer Rule, codified at 40 CFR  § 122.3(i), was the presumptive culmination of a long and meandering trail of EPA regulatory interpretation, guidance memoranda and judicial opinions, including a trip to the United States Supreme Court in the case of South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, 541 U.S. 95 (2004).

The Catskill ruling is notable in several respects. First, it came from a district court. After the Supreme Court ruled, in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, that district courts, rather than appellate courts, have jurisdiction in certain situations to review such regulations -- even if the suits are brought years after the rules were promulgated, the Eleventh Circuit held in Friends of the Everglades v. EPA that it lacked original jurisdiction over a challenge to the water transfer rulemaking, a ruling that the Supreme Court declined to review.

Second, the district court did not stay its ruling pending appeal, though appeal is a virtual certainty. Thus, the permit status of various water transferors who relied on the rule (irrigation districts, dam operators, water utilities, etc.) is now in limbo until a higher court reviews the Catskill decision or EPA promulgates a temporary fix. Any such fix, by the way, may be hard to come by in light of the district court’s expressed views about EPA’s misinterpretation of Congressional intent.

Third, the opinion contains language about the definition of “navigable waters” that does not quite align with EPA’s and the Corps’ imminent release of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing that very definition.

At this time, then, the only certainty is that litigation over the Water Transfer Rule will continue to flow. 

Massachusetts High Court Upholds Environmental Agency’s “Improvement” Of Statute: Will The Us Supreme Court Follow Suit?

Posted on March 17, 2014 by Stephen Leonard

How far can an agency deviate from a statutory scheme in order to achieve what it sees as the goals of that scheme? Can the regulatory structure “improve on” the statute?  These issues are currently playing out in two closely watched cases.

Last year these pages described a then-undecided Massachusetts state court case that had attracted a surprising degree of national attention. Pepin v. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife began as a relatively straightforward challenge to an agency determination that the plaintiffs’ land provided habitat for the Eastern Box Turtle and that construction of their planned retirement home was therefore subject to regulation under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). In the course of judicial appeals of the agency decision, the plaintiffs, with new counsel, shifted the focus of their argument to a challenge to the regulations themselves. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (Mass SJC), acting sua sponte, transferred the case to its own docket, interest in the case spiked dramatically. Amicus curiae briefs were filed not only by state-based groups, on both sides of the issue (Massachusetts Audubon Society, Development Council of Western Massachusetts, Home Builders Association of Massachusetts), but also by those from farther afield (Pacific Legal Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, National Association of Homebuilders, The Nature Conservancy). Clearly, something was at stake. And now, just as the Mass SJC has reached a decision in Pepin, very similar arguments are being made, with even more at stake, in this year’s most closely watched environmental case, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, the United States Supreme Court’s review of the Obama Administration’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources. 

To understand these issues, some background on the Massachusetts endangered species regulatory scheme and the challenge to it is necessary. (These are described in more detail in the earlier posting.) The challenged regulations established a process for mapping “priority habitats,” areas that are important for species that fall into any of the three categories established under MESA – in descending order of the peril that they face, endangered species, threatened species, and species of special concern. These Priority Habitat regulations require that before a project is undertaken in such an area, it must be reviewed by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to determine whether it will result in a “take” of a species falling into any of the three categories.  (“Take” is very broadly defined in the statute and includes habitat alteration.) If a take will occur, the regulations provide, the project may nevertheless proceed if it can be conditioned in such a way as to avoid that result or, in more difficult cases, if the project proponent takes other steps that will result in “a long-term net benefit to the conservation of the impacted species.”   

In practice, the evidence showed, 75% of projects proposed in Priority Habitat have been approved without conditions, 22% have proceeded with conditions, and 3% have required that other measures, resulting in a “long-term net benefit,” be taken in order to permit the project to proceed. Because of this history, at least parts of the development community in Massachusetts had accepted the Priority Habitat regulations as a reasonable way of accommodating both developers’ interests and the purposes of MESA.  

This acceptance was likely based on something else as well: As a practical matter, the Priority Habitat regulations were promulgated in lieu of regulations under another scheme, specifically set out in the legislation but never put into effect by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. MESA authorizes the Division to designate as “Significant Habitat” areas that are important to the survival of endangered and threatened species (but not species of special concern). And MESA severely constrains development in areas that the Division has so designated. But, because of the severity of the constraint, the Act also establishes substantial procedural protections before a particular property can be designated as Significant Habitat.  

Rather than designating any Significant Habitat, the Division, relying on a general grant of authority to adopt regulations, created the Priority Habitat scheme, with its less severe restrictions on development and its less burdensome (for the agency) procedural requirements. In short, the Division chose not to adopt regulations specifically contemplated in the enabling legislation and  adopted instead regulations that were easier to administer, less intrusive for those in the regulated community who would have fallen under the legislatively-contemplated scheme and, as a consequence, arguably more effective at protecting at-risk species in Massachusetts. Doing that, though, made the Priority Habitat regulations subject to challenge by those who might prefer that there be no regulation of land use in the interest of protecting at-risk species at all.

The challenge in the Pepin case to the Massachusetts wildlife agency’s rulemaking power is very like the industry challenge to EPA’s rulemaking in Utility Air Regulatory Group. On February 18 of this year, the Mass SJC upheld the validity of the Priority Habitat regulations. On February 24, the United States Supreme Court heard argument on the challenge by industry and certain states to the Environmental Protection Agency greenhouse gas regulations. (Other states intervened in support of the regulations, and there was extensive amicus participation.) At the heart of the challenge in the Supreme Court is an attack on EPA’s determination that it would raise very substantially the threshold at which emitters of greenhouse gases would be regulated; the emission levels specified in the Clean Air Act are much lower, but they were intended for “conventional” pollutants, not greenhouse gases. Using the Congressionally-specified levels would have been an administrative nightmare for EPA. And it would have been enormously burdensome for businesses and even individuals.  EPA therefore determined to use higher thresholds.  This presumably benefits the industry petitioners and the states that support them. But that is not the point. EPA’s action leaves it subject to the accusation leveled at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife: That it re-wrote a statute in order, in its view, to make it work better, and that an administrative agency may not do that.

The Mass SJC had little difficulty rejecting this claim. The unanimous opinion begins its discussion of the validity of the Priority Habitat regulations by noting that “[d]uly promulgated regulations . . . are presumptively valid and ‘must be accorded all the deference due to a statute.’” And in analyzing whether the plaintiffs had overcome that presumption, the court “look[ed] to the statute as a whole to determine the scope of the agency’s power.” In the recent United States Supreme Court argument, EPA sought to invoke these principles in defense of its greenhouse gas regulations.  And it received some support from the Court. Justice Elena Kagan, according to the New York Times, acknowledged that what the agency did “was true to the law’s larger purpose.” But other Justices were less comfortable: Justice Anthony Kennedy “couldn’t find a single precedent that strongly supports [EPA’s] position.” And Justice Samuel Alito insisted that the agency’s use of its own threshold numbers, rather than those in the Clean Air Act, was unprecedented “in the entire history of federal regulation.”

The two cases are not the same, of course: the statutes are different; the agencies’ actions and choices were different; and the governing administrative law principles may be different in some respects. But it seems likely that the outcomes in the cases turned and will turn less on any of those factors and more on the views of the judges deciding them about the appropriateness of administrative agencies  making their own judgments about how best to accomplish broadly-stated legislative objectives.

One could easily argue that the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife took a more dramatic step, in declining to promulgate regulations that the enabling legislation called for and instead promulgating regulations that were not specifically contemplated by that legislation, than EPA did in adopting the regulatory model that Congress had called for but limiting its reach when it was clear that not doing that would be havoc-making. Perhaps if the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had reviewed EPA’s actions and the United States Supreme Court had reviewed the Priority Habitat regulations, the results would reflect that distinction. But they didn’t. And what we got, and likely will get, are decisions that reflect as much the views of the members of those courts as they do the substantive nuances of the cases themselves.

Getting the Lead Out?

Posted on February 21, 2014 by Craig Johnston

There is a very interesting case pending in the Ninth Circuit regarding lead ammunition and its impact on raptors and scavenger birds, including California condors, in and around the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona. In Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Forest Service, the Center is pursuing a citizen suit alleging that the Forest Service is contributing to an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to wildlife under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by allowing the continued use of lead by hunters in the National Forest.

Factually, the allegations in the case are straightforward. Despite the existence of a “voluntary” program designed to reduce the use of lead ammunition in the Kaibab, hunters are still using it and the wildlife are still suffering the consequences, including mortality. Condors and other wildlife species are exposed to spent lead ammunition when they consume animals that have been shot but not retrieved or when they feed on the remains of field-dressed animals (also known as “gut piles”) that have been killed with lead ammunition. When lead-core rifle bullets strike an animal, they often fragment into hundreds of small pieces of lead that can be found several inches from the site of the wound in large game animals. A very small lead fragment is enough to severely poison or kill a bird, even one as large as a California condor, North America’s largest flying bird. Wildlife that ingest spent lead ammunition, even in minute amounts, experience many adverse behavioral, physiological and biochemical health effects, including seizures, lethargy, progressive weakness, reluctance to fly or inability to sustain flight, weight loss leading to emaciation, and death. In turn, wildlife experiencing these effects are far more susceptible to other forms of mortality, such as predation.

Nowhere is the threat of spent lead ammunition more apparent than on the Kaibab National Forest, an approximately 1.6 million-acre parcel of federal property in northern Arizona, bordering both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon. Lead ingestion and poisoning from ammunition has been documented in many avian predators and scavengers that inhabit the Kaibab, including bald and golden eagles, northern goshawks, and ferruginous hawks. The most acute threats in the Kaibab are those posed to the condors. There are currently only approximately 75 free-flying condors in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Lead poisoning from exposure to spent lead ammunition is the primary cause of mortality in this fragile population. Even the surviving condors frequently need to have their blood treated for lead contamination; one female condor recently received 16 life-saving treatments over a 16-year period, before she ultimately died of lead poisoning.

The legal issues currently pending before the Ninth Circuit involve standing. The district court found that the Center lacks standing, relying both on its view that the Government would need to undertake a rulemaking in order to ban the use of lead ammunition in the Kaibab and on the fact that the condors’ range extends beyond the Kaibab itself, and thus that they might ingest lead elsewhere even were the Center to prevail. On appeal, the United States relies primarily on the latter of these two theories, which is interesting given that the condors’ lead exposure levels correlate strongly with the deer-hunting season on the Kaibab. As Alan Zufelt of the Arizona Department of Game and Fish put it: “We can put it on the calendar that every year right after the deer hunt there’s going to be a huge spike in condor lead poisoning.”

If the Ninth Circuit holds that the Center has standing, which, in this author’s view, it should, the case will then proceed to the merits, where the key legal question will be whether a landowner that knowingly allows visitors to engage in activities that result in the spread of poisons on its property may be deemed to be “contributing” to any resulting endangerment to wildlife. This issue could have implications not only for condors and the other wildlife on the Kaibab, but ultimately in other land-management contexts as well.

The National Environmental Policy Act: What Constitutes Segmentation and a “Direct” Environmental Impact?

Posted on February 14, 2014 by Thomas Hnasko

On February 11, 2013, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico denied a Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed by the Village of Logan, seeking to compel the Bureau of Reclamation (“BOR”) to perform an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) for the Ute Lake Diversion Project in eastern New Mexico. The BOR issued an environmental assessment (“EA”), which failed to analyze the foreseeable impacts to Ute Lake based on the design capacity of the intake structure to withdraw 24,000 acre-feet per year (“af/yr”). The BOR contended that, while contracts had been issued to deliver the full 24,000 af/yr of water, the project which it funded was limited to withdrawals from the lake of only 16,450 af/yr. Significantly, the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of 16,450 af/yr paled in comparison to the projected impacts resulting from withdrawals of 24,000 af/yr.

The briefs in the Tenth Circuit present an issue of first impression under NEPA. That is, can the BOR defer an analysis of certain impacts it knows will occur in the future, and summarily discuss those deleterious impacts under the rubric of “cumulative” rather than “direct” effects? According to the Department of Justice, Logan’s complaint about the matter is only one of “nomenclature,” and it should not matter whether the effects are deemed “direct” or “cumulative.” In response, Logan argues that the difference is one of substance, as an analysis of “cumulative” effects of a project does not require a comparison of the project to reasonably available alternatives, whereas an analysis of foreseeable “direct” effects, i.e., withdrawals up to the capacity of the intake structure, would require a vigorous comparison to available alternatives. These alternatives, which received only a one-half page discussion in the EA’s section on cumulative effects, include retirement of wasteful irrigation groundwater rights to augment municipal water supplies in eastern New Mexico. According to Logan, allowing the BOR to analyze a plainly foreseeable “direct” effect as merely “cumulative” would result in the illegal segmentation of the project. If such a result were sanctioned, there would be no NEPA analysis ever undertaken of the effects between 16,450 af/yr and 24,000 af/yr.

Oral argument is scheduled for March 17, 2014.

Fines for Environmental Violations may be an Ordinary Cost of Business-Tell that to the Budget Committee!

Posted on February 3, 2014 by Richard Horder

Courts have long wrestled both with the survival of environmental claims in bankruptcy and with the proper prioritization of environmental claims within bankruptcy.  In Munce’s Superior Petroleum Prods. v. N.H. Dep’t of Envtl. Servs., the First Circuit split with the Third Circuit over the prioritization of punitive fines for a company’s post-petition violation of environmental laws.  In Pa. Dep’t of Envtl. Res. v. Tri-State Clinical Labs., Inc., the Third Circuit determined these to be general unsecured claims, but the First Circuit disagreed and gave the fines administrative expense priority ahead of unsecured creditors.

Tri-State Clinical Labs. involved a company that violated solid waste disposal laws by disposing of biological materials into the general trash.  The company engaged in this conduct both before and after filing for bankruptcy, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER) assessed criminal fines for both the pre- and post-petition conduct.  The parties agreed that the fines for the pre-petition violations were general unsecured claims, but DER contended the fines for the post-petition violations should be given administrative priority pursuant to 11 USCS § 503(b)(1)(A) (i.e., as “the actual, necessary costs and expenses of preserving the estate”).  The court disagreed.  First, the court looked to the specifically-itemized administrative expenses set forth in the statute, and determined, with the exception of fines related to taxes, they were all “compensation for services that are necessarily incident to the operation of a business.”  The fines, being punitive in nature, were not compensation for services, and a company’s unlawful conduct is not a “necessary cost of doing business.”   In addition, the specific inclusion of tax fines suggested Congress’ intent not to include any other type of “non-compensatory” penalties.  Finally, the end result of granting a punitive fine administrative priority status would be the payment of that fine by innocent third parties (the unsecured creditors), not the debtor.  The court contrasted its decision with a situation involving compensatory payments to the state for its work in cleaning up a contaminated site, which would have received administrative priority. 

The court in Munce’s Superior Petroleum Prods. disagreed with this analysis.  Munce’s Superior Petroleum Prods (MSPP) violated state environmental laws requiring secondary containment around its aboveground storage tanks.  The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) filed an action in court, seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties, and the court entered a consent preliminary injunction requiring MSPP to bring its tanks up to code or take them out of service.  MSPP did not comply with the injunction, and DES filed a motion for contempt.  MSPP then filed for bankruptcy.  The state court stayed the DES action, but then lifted the stay on a finding that DES was “protecting public health and safety and the environment.”   The state court then granted DES’ motion for contempt, ordered MSPP to take its tanks out of service and fined MSPP $1000 per day of noncompliance.  MSPP still did not comply, and the court ultimately granted DES’ motion for $192,000 in fines.

The bankruptcy court assigned the $192,000 in fines administrative expense priority, and the First Circuit affirmed.  The court first determined that the fines were for post-petition conduct (not complying with the contempt order), not for the pre-petition environmental violations that originally triggered DES’ lawsuit.  Next, the court decided that “in light of today’s extensive environmental regulations, the payment of a fine for failing to comply with those regulations is a cost ordinarily incident to operation of a business.”  Therefore, “fines for noncompliance post-petition with state environmental law” fall within 11 USCS § 503(b)(1)(A) and should be granted administrative expense priority. 

Is Standing a Fantasy, or not?

Posted on January 30, 2014 by Thomas Lavender

In a matter brought in the Original Jurisdiction of the South Carolina Supreme Court, the Court opined in its January 22, 2014 decision that the citizen group plaintiffs lacked standing.  The plaintiffs asserted public nuisance and zoning claims related to Carnival cruise ship Fantasy’s operations at the Union Pier Terminal near Charleston’s Old and Historic District.  The Court granted Carnival Cruise Lines’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit. 

The Court cited its previous decision in Sea Pines, a challenge by animal rights groups to the issuance of a depravation permit to reduce the deer population on Hilton Head Island, where many children’s vacation fantasies of seeing Bambi are often fulfilled.  The citizen groups attempted to emphasize their “particularized injury” caused by the Fantasy docking in Charleston Harbor.  Specifically, these groups asserted, among other things, the Fantasy “visually disrupts the historic skyline” and emits “noise pollution, including broadcast announcements and music” that have injured these groups and their members by “reducing their use and enjoyment of the local environmental and Charleston’s historic assets.”

Having pondered all of the alleged egregious conduct resulting from the presence of the Fantasy, the Court found “all members of the public suffer from and are inconvenienced by traffic congestion, pollution, noises and obstructed views.”  Thus, it concluded the citizen group plaintiffs lacked standing, a fundamental prerequisite for instituting a legal action.