NSR Regulatory Reform—the saga continues

Posted on September 18, 2019 by William Brownell

In 2002, EPA promulgated a Clean Air Act new source review (NSR) “reform rule” to clarify the confusion created by inconsistent guidance and judicial decisions on NSR applicability.  That clarification effort had only limited success, as inconsistent interpretations of the NSR applicability rules continued to emerge as those rules were applied by state regulators and courts.  In perhaps the most extreme example of regulatory confusion, a three judge panel of the Sixth Circuit issued five opinions with three different interpretation of the same regulatory language.  DTE I, http://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/13a0080p-06.pdf.  DTE II, http://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/17a0006p-06.pdf.

The Trump Administration has embarked on a new clarification effort.  In what EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation dubbed a “singles and doubles” approach, EPA issued guidance and undertook rulemaking on key applicability issues, including emissions projections, emissions accounting, and project aggregation.  In conjunction with the Affordable Clean Energy rule, EPA then proposed a more fundamental change to the NSR applicability rules under which a project would trigger NSR only if it resulted in both an hourly and annual emissions increase.

That EPA is still struggling with clarification of its NSR rules two decades after it began a series of significant NSR enforcement initiatives illustrates how controversial this program has been and continues to be.  From an environmental standpoint, however, the NSR program has become less significant. Industrial sources are largely well-controlled for a variety of reasons other than NSR.  And in the electric utility sector, the steep drop in the price of natural gas has resulted in current or planned retirement of many coal-fired generating units.  As a result, there is little to be gained from injunctive relief even in a successful NSR enforcement action.

All of this says that there should be wide-spread support for EPA completing its NSR clarification efforts.  Regulated entities have every incentive to comply with NSR.  From the regulators standpoint, the limitations the Supreme Court put on regulatory re-interpretation in Kisor v. Wilkie, should create its own incentives for regulatory clarity.

Environmental Protection Is an Afterthought at the Environmental Protection Agency

Posted on September 17, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers promulgated the final rule repealing the 2015 rule defining the Waters of the United States. The repeal rule is 172 pages in its pre-publication version.  The word “science” is used 18 times in those 172 pages.  Almost all of them are used in quotes from the 2015 rule or characterizations of the intent of the 2015 rule.

I did not find a single sentence in the repeal rule stating that the science does not support the 2015 rule.  As I noted when the Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued, the mission of EPA and the Corps is to protect the Waters of the United States.  If they’ve concluded that the text of the Clean Water Act doesn’t give them the authority needed to do so, the Administration could certainly propose amendments to the CWA to give them that authority.

That’s what used to be called “governing.”

Vaped and Confused

Posted on September 16, 2019 by Tracy Hester

E-cigarettes have vaulted to the front pages lately, and for tragic reasons.  To date, at least six users have died from severe lung disease tied to vaping, and nearly 400 others have reported serious medical symptoms in 36 states and the Virgin Islands.  The reasons for the outbreak remain murky:  some investigators link the victims’ illnesses to bootleg or counterfeit nicotine cartridges, while others have focused on the addition of “thickeners” or THC and marijuana components.  Heavy abusive use of the devices has also come under suspicion.  But regardless of the explanation, e-cigarettes will likely remain in the spotlight until researchers either identify the cause or the pace of the illness starts to slow.

The furor, however, has distracted attention from another growing regulatory issue with e-cigarettes.  As vaping continues to expand into the workforce, employers have discovered that they now have to manage growing volumes of discarded vaping cartridges.  These cartridges contain residual amounts of nicotine – a deadly substance that figured prominently as a poison in Agatha Christie’s murder mystery Three Act Tragedy.  Nicotine is so hazardous, in fact, that EPA accorded it the dubious distinction of an acute hazardous waste (P075) listing under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act.  EPA listed nicotine originally in 1980, and EPA confirmed on Feb. 22, 2019 that unspent nicotine in discarded e-cigarette cartridges can constitute hazardous waste under its pharmaceutical waste rules.  While EPA exempted used nicotine patches and gums from the listing, e-cigarette cartridges containing unused nicotine failed to earn the same exemption.  And cigarette butts don’t pose the same challenges because their nicotine isn’t the sole active ingredient and isn’t pharmaceutical grade.

Home users, of course, needn’t worry because their discarded vaping cartridges are household hazardous wastes exempt from hazardous waste regulation.  But commercial facilities and industrial operators don’t enjoy that exemption, and as a result accumulated spent cartridges from their employees’ vaping can create big problems.  Because nicotine is a P-listed acute hazardous waste, facilities can quickly become large quantity generators if they accumulate more than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of spent cartridges in a month (although they may argue that only the residual liquid nicotine itself counts towards the waste tally).  Rinsing the cartridges may simply magnify the problem because the rinsate itself counts as a listed hazardous waste under the derived-from rule.  And other possible strategies, such as reverse distribution or reclamation, may not cleanly apply.

Many facility operators are only now realizing the scale of the problem.  Possible compliance strategies may not require any RCRA wizardry at all – for example, some facilities can simply ban on-site employee vaping, while others can require that employees take their spent cartridges home for disposal.  With the Trump Administration’s call to ban flavored e-cigarette cartridges and similar initiatives by Michigan and New York, the problem also may retreat if more states and agencies demand withdrawal of e-cigarettes from the market.  But facilities that can’t rely on these fixes may find themselves struggling for answers in a hazy and confused regulatory environment.

Climate Whack-a-Mole; or How the Trump Administration Institutionalizes Ignorance in the Endangered Species Act

Posted on August 27, 2019 by Peter Van Tuyn

Given the severity and finality of the extinction of species on this planet, and the myriad adverse impacts on human society and natural ecosystems of such extinction, Congress passed the hallmark Endangered Species Act in 1973.  Since then it has helped save myriad species from extinction and recover many species to healthy population levels.  The success of the ESA in meeting its goals, and strong public support for the law, did not stop the Trump administration from targeting the ESA to ease what it perceives as its negative impact on economic growth. 

As those familiar with the ESA know, a central duty under the law is for federal agencies to consult with the experts within the federal government before undertaking any activity that might jeopardize a species listed under the ESA or adversely modify such a species’ critical habitat.  This consultation helps both to prevent jeopardy and adverse modification and to identify ways in which the activity could proceed without having such effects. 

Among the Trump administration’s controversial proposals was to change the ESA regulations to create a climate change exemption to the ESA’s expert consultation process.  This proposal would have exempted from such consultation any proposed federal action with “effects that are manifested through global processes,” a phrase that is a clear reference to climate change. 

Not surprisingly, this proposal was met with substantial criticism from ESA supporters, who asserted that there was no legal authority to excise climate change from the ESA’s consultation requirements and that to deliberately do so was extremely foolhardy.  These people undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when the final rule came out without this proposal, which the Trump administration abandoned “in the interest of efficiency” in the face of that stinging criticism.  

That sigh, however, was certainly followed by a gasp, as those same people found that the final regulations included a wholly new regulatory approach designed to achieve the same effect.  The Trump administration did this by controlling what the expert agencies can consider as they seek to understand the effects of proposed federal action. 

Here is how it works.  First, the final rule defines “effects of the action” as

all consequences to listed species or critical habitat that are caused by the proposed action, including the consequences of other activities that are caused by the proposed action. A consequence is caused by the proposed action if it would not occur but for the proposed action and it is reasonably certain to occur. Effects of the action may occur later in time and may include consequences occurring outside the immediate area involved in the action.

(emphasis here and elsewhere added).  One layer deeper, the final rule defines the newly-added term “consequence,” in relevant part, as follows: 

Considerations for determining that a consequence to the species or critical habitat is not caused by the proposed action include, but are not limited to:  (1) The consequence is so remote in time from the action under consultation that it is not reasonably certain to occur; or (2) The consequence is so geographically remote from the immediate area involved in the action that it is not reasonably certain to occur; or (3) The consequence is only reached through a lengthy causal chain that involves so many steps as to make the consequence not reasonably certain to occur.

The final rule also defines the term “reasonably certain to occur,” which was not defined in the prior rule, to read, in relevant part, as follows:

Factors to consider when evaluating whether activities caused by the proposed action (but not part of the proposed action) or activities reviewed under cumulative effects are reasonably certain to occur include, but are not limited to:  (1) Past experiences with activities that have resulted from actions that are similar in scope, nature, and magnitude to the proposed action; (2) Existing plans for the activity; and (3) Any remaining economic, administrative, and legal requirements necessary for the activity to go forward. 

Finally, the new rule mandates that the criteria set forth in these new definitions of “consequences” and “reasonably certain to occur” “must be considered by the action agency and the [expert agencies].” 

Although the term “climate change” is not used in the text, the intention to preclude the Services from considering climate change is evident.  To begin with, the definition of “consequences” sets forth three criteria and provides that any one of these would support a non-causation finding.  These three factors – remoteness in time, geographic remoteness, and lengthy causal chain – are classic attributes of climate change.  Indeed, climate change is a global phenomenon that has taken decades to develop from multiple sources, through what may be (or perhaps in some cases may not be) complex causal chains.  Furthermore, the definition of “reasonably certain to occur” takes a retrospective stance, emphasizing “past experiences” and “existing plans,” and thus discounts the possibility of new and novel activities resulting from a proposed action in a climate-altered world. 

By providing that the criteria in these two definitions “must be considered,” the new rule makes it clear that it is creating a mandatory duty for the expert agencies to ignore climate-related impacts in their consultations under the ESA.  Indeed, the preamble to the new rule explains that, in situations where the consequences of activities resulting from a proposed action are “remote in time or location, or are only reached following a lengthy causal chain of events,” the consequences of such activities “would not be considered reasonably certain to occur,” thus removing discretion from the experts to determine the likelihood of occurrence. 

So, the Trump administration reacted to the hammering of its proposed attempt to institutionalize the ignorance of climate change impacts on listed species and their habitat with an approach that appears for the first time in the final rule and is effectively the same. This may not be the end of the matter, however, as I suspect the gasps of ESA supporters will turn to anger, and then to action, as they likely head to the courtroom to challenge the final rule.

If It Walks Like a Duck and Talks Like a Duck, It May Still Not Be Sauce for the Gander

Posted on August 23, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the “Wehrum Memo,” which reversed EPA’s longstanding policy of “once in, always in” regarding MACT jurisdiction, was not final agency action subject to judicial review.  Like Judge Rogers, I dissent. 

The majority makes much of its effort to clarify this “byzantine” area of the law.  My take is that, to the extent the court has succeeded in that effort, it is only by reducing the law to this simple rule:  If the guidance document appears to impose obligations on the regulated community, then it is a regulation and can be challenged.  If it lessens obligations on the regulated community, then it is guidance and may not be challenged.

This may benefit my clients, but seems an odd view of the law.

The majority and dissent agreed that the Wehrum Memo was the “consummation” of EPA’s decision making process.  The question thus became whether it constituted an agency action “by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.”  The Court concluded that the Wehrum Memo does not have such an effect, because parties currently subject to MACT can only take advantage of EPA’s new policy by seeking to amend their Title V permit, and states can ignore the Wehrum Memo and permits can, in any case, always be appealed.

However, as Judge Rogers’s dissent noted, the Court pretty much had to ignore the decision Appalachian Power v. EPA, in which the Court stated that “’rights’ may not be created, but ‘obligations’ certain are….  The entire Guidance … reads like a ukase.”

When one reads Appalachian Power together with Sackett v. EPA, one conclusion becomes clear – courts are not going to allow agencies to promulgate guidance that allows them to exercise coercion against regulated entities who face significant costs and risks if they ignore the enforcement implications of agency “guidance.”

On the other hand, the courts seem to have concluded, if the guidance benefits the regulated community, then there is no harm to making those who want to challenge the guidance wait until some formal appellate opportunity becomes ripe at some point in the future.  However, as Judge Rogers pointed out, “legal consequences flow” from the Wehrum Memo as soon as major sources take enforceable limits to get below MACT thresholds.

I’m very skeptical that the decision contributes towards “clarifying this somewhat gnarled field of jurisprudence,” unless the Court really does intend the law to be that regulated entities can challenge guidance, but others cannot.

Trump Track: Speed Bumps on the Road to Species Protection

Posted on August 21, 2019 by Rick Glick

On August 12, 2019, the Trump Administration adopted three new rules in an attempt to rein in the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  The rules would undo a rule in place since 1978 affording protections for “threatened” species similar to those listed as “endangered”; limit “critical habitat” designations where species do not now occur; and most controversially, inject economic considerations into the listing process.

The ESA was enacted in 1973 and signed into law by President Nixon.  At that time, environmental protection was not seen as the partisan issue it is today.  The Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and formation of the EPA all came during Nixon’s watch with near-unanimous support in the Congress.  Speaking on the ESA, Nixon said:  “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”

In enacting the ESA, Congress used uncommonly crisp and unambiguous language.  For example, listing decisions must be “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”  Further, the Act directs federal agencies to “utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of this Act by carrying out programs for the conservation of endangered species and threatened species listed pursuant to section 4 of this Act.” 

The courts have given these words robust interpretations, beginning with TVA v. Hill, which halted the construction of the Tellico Dam to protect endangered snail darters.  Since then scores of ESA cases have protected listed species.  In the Pacific Northwest, these cases often focus on salmon, northern spotted owls and shore birds at the expense of hydropower and the timber industry.

The ESA still enjoys broad public support, but has been on the Republican hit list for decades due to the economic effects associated with species protection.  Of particular note for this Administration, ESA restrictions stand in the way of oil and gas extraction and pipelines.  Yet in an era when the White House and both houses of Congress were all in Republican hands, the Administration was unable to get passed any limitations on ESA jurisdiction. 

The new rules represent the Administration’s shot at reducing the scope of the ESA through policy and rulemaking.  Here is a brief summary of some key elements:

Section 4(d) Rule

Under Section 4(d) of the Act, the fish and wildlife agencies can establish protections or exemptions for certain activities, known as 4(d) rules.  Since 1978 the agencies used a “blanket rule” that treated “threatened” species the same as those designated “endangered. The new rule reverses that default position, and requires a specific 4(d) rule custom made to provide additional protection for threatened species.  This change benefits industry in that the prohibition on “take” of listed species will not automatically apply to threatened species.  Of additional importance is the fact that the new 4(d) rules will take time to develop.  In the interim, presumably development may proceed without fear of prosecution for take of a threatened species.

Critical Habitat

Historically, the agencies have on occasion elected to list as “critical habitat” areas in which listed species do not now occur, but potentially could.  In Weyerhaeuser v. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that such designations would not be available for areas that needed improvement to be good habitat, and remanded the matter back to the FWS.  The new rules require designation of areas as critical habitat where listed species currently exist before considering unoccupied areas, and then imposes new standards to demonstrate the species will benefit if the designation is extended to unoccupied areas. 

The new rule would also allow the agencies to decline designation of critical habitat if they find doing so “not prudent.”  This includes changes to habitat from climate change.  The rationale is that the government cannot control climate change, so taking steps to protect such habitat would be futile.

Section 7 Consultation

ESA Section 7 requires federal permitting or action agencies to consult with the fish and wildlife agencies about potential “jeopardy” to listed species.  The new rule would affect the “baseline” used for such determinations.  The jeopardy determination will apply only to the new activity; consultation is not required for ongoing activities that the action agencies lack discretion to change.  

Assessment of ongoing activities is particularly relevant to the continuing litigation over the application of the ESA to the Federal Columbia River Power System, a series of hydropower and flood control dams in the Snake and Columbia Rivers.  At the heart of the litigation is whether the existence of four Lower Snake River dams should be presumed, limiting evaluations for jeopardy to modifications to the projects or operations.  The agencies argued that the Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, have no discretion to modify their purpose and therefore the status quo is the proper baseline.  Courts to date have not found this argument persuasive.

Listing Determinations

Perhaps the most controversial rule change concerns consideration of economic impacts in making a listing or delisting decision.  As noted above, the ESA mandates that listing determinations must be based “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”  The previous rule added for emphasis that the listing must be made “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”  The new rule eliminates that language and would allow consideration of economic effects, but like the statute, also specifies that the designation must be based on the best available science.  The Administration has offered no plans on how this analysis will be conducted.  Environmental groups, not surprisingly, see this as a back door means of inserting economics into the decision-making.

Conclusion

There is broad scientific consensus that biodiversity among plants and animals is essential to long-term survival of life on the planet.  Species go extinct or are imperiled every day, often but not always due to human activity.  The ESA was intended address the manmade impacts to wildlife, and indeed there have been stunning successes—the bald eagle, grizzly bear and gray wolf to name a few. 

But the economic dislocations from ESA implementation in many instances have been substantial, often without concomitant species recovery.  Columbia River salmon are still in trouble after billions of dollars spent.  Protection of old growth timber for northern spotted owl habitat led to severe hardships to communities reliant on the forest products industry, only to find that the predation of spotted owls by barred owls could lead to the former’s extinction. 

There is nothing easy, or cheap, about preventing extinction.  It is hubris to suggest government can fix the problem.  But, having created much of the problem, it seems we have to try.  Our effort must extend beyond only saving the “charismatic mega fauna” that dominate media reports, like salmon and polar bears.  Although the public generally supports saving iconic species, support wanes for lesser known species. That is particularly so in rural communities with natural resource-based economies.  Yet these relatively unknown species also play essential roles in the ecosystem. 

The ESA, as well as the other major environmental statutes, is in need of reform to address the unintended consequences of the Act.  That is a task only Congress can perform, but until they do the executive and judicial branches will fill the vacuum.  In the meantime, environmental groups and some states have announced plans to challenge the new rules, which means another several years of litigation and uncertainty. 

That is not a recipe for sound policy, but is what we have until the national consensus on the environment returns.  And no, I’m not holding my breath either.

Twenty Years of Waterkeeper Alliance: How the Waterkeeper Movement Shaped and Was Shaped by U.S. Environmental Law

Posted on August 6, 2019 by Karl Coplan

In the late 1980s, when I was an associate at the environmental boutique law firm of Berle, Kass, and Case in New York City, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and John Cronin came to visit the firm to discuss a new project they had started with sportswriter and Hudson River environmentalist Bob Boyle. Boyle wanted to take the British estate tradition of having a streamkeeper to protect streams from poachers and expand it to the entire estuary. Boyle’s organization, the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, had designated Cronin as the Riverkeeper for the Hudson River estuary, patrolling it for polluters and other modern-day river poachers. Thus was born the idea of having Waterkeepers – individuals acting as non-governmental environmental monitors and enforcers, supported by local, waterbody-based grassroots organizations. The Waterkeeper idea caught on – programs were started in San Francisco, Atlanta and Portland, Maine at about the same time.  And in 1999, the fledgling Waterkeepers formed an alliance to spread the Waterkeeper model and support the growing network of Waterkeeper organizations.

As Waterkeeper Alliance celebrates its twentieth anniversary, it is worth reflecting on how the movement has both shaped, and been shaped by, U.S. environmental law. In a way, the Waterkeeper movement was a natural outgrowth of mid-20th century developments in the law of judicial standing and the Congressional innovation of the environmental citizen suit. By mid-century, the Supreme Court recognized the role of public interest intervenors in agency proceedings, describing these participants as “private attorneys general.” The Riverkeeper concept sought to take this “private attorney general” idea literally and have non-governmental water monitors enforce the environmental laws.

Standing for private law enforcement was a potential hurdle, and the Storm King case on the Hudson River proved pivotal to opening up environmental enforcement standing to non-governmental plaintiffs. Bob Boyle wrote a Sports Illustrated article about the proposed Storm King pumped storage hydroelectric facility and the devastating impact it would have on the Hudson River striped bass fishery. This story led to the 1965 Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission case in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly recognized judicial standing based on non-economic recreational, environmental, and aesthetic harms.  A year later, Boyle founded the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, the predecessor organization to Riverkeeper.

The Supreme Court went on to adopt the Scenic Hudson standard for environmental standing in Sierra Club v Morton, but with an important limitation: organizational plaintiffs would have to show that some individual member of the organization personally suffered one of these environmental, recreational, or aesthetic injuries. This holding set the stage for the growth of waterbody-based grass roots membership organizations litigating to protect their waters from pollution – exactly what became the Waterkeeper model. And in the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments Congress gave such groups something to enforce and the means to enforce it, with strict permitting requirements for point source discharges, numeric permit limits, monitoring requirements, and, most importantly, specific authorization for citizen suits. Congress thus gave life to Waterkeepers as enforcers. In 1983, John Cronin became the Hudson Riverkeeper and started patrolling the river looking for cases to bring as a private attorney general.

While many of the early Clean Water Act citizen suits of the 1980s were brought by Natural Resources Defense Council, as the Riverkeepers, Baykeepers, and Soundkeepers popped up across the country, their influence on the development of US environmental law grew. The grass-roots membership model based on recreational use of rivers, lakes, sounds, and bays was a natural fit with environmental standing requirements. Not surprisingly, given their roots in the Storm King power plant fight, Waterkeepers have played an important role in ensuring regulation of power generation water intakes. John Cronin got the ball rolling when he successfully sued to force EPA to issue the long delayed cooling water intake structure regulations under Clean Water Act § 316(b). When EPA finally issued these rules, it was a Riverkeeper suit that prompted the Second Circuit to remand the rules to remove reliance on offsite restoration as “Best Technology” to reduce aquatic species impacts. It was also (less successfully for Riverkeeper) the same Riverkeeper litigation that later led the Supreme Court to graft cost-benefit analysis onto the “Best Technology” standard in Entergy v. Riverkeeper. Waterkeepers continue to play the role of regulatory watchdog over the power industry. This year, Waterkeeper Alliance won a case requiring reconsideration of the coal ash impoundment effluent limits under the Clean Water Act as well as another case requiring reconsideration of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulations governing disposal of power plant coal combustion residuals.

Waterkeepers played a key role in development of Clean Water Act regulations in other areas as well. Another one of the founding Waterkeepers, the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, helped bring combined sewer overflows to the regulatory agenda with a successful suit against the City of Atlanta for violating water quality standards. Long Island Soundkeeper brought the cases establishing that recreational trap and skeet shooting ranges required Clean Water Act permits for their discharges, and were responsible for cleaning up past lead shot and target contamination in water bodies. Waterkeeper Alliance brought one of the first cases seeking enforcement of Clean Water Act and RCRA requirements against massive hog Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Waterkeeper Alliance also brought a successful challenge to EPA’s revisions of the CAFO effluent limitations regulations.

The Waterkeeper movement has grown to over three hundred forty organizations in forty-seven countries, and Waterkeeper affiliates around the world are influencing the global development of environmental law just as the earliest Waterkeepers did in the United States.


NOTE: The author serves as outside counsel for Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, and is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance Board of Directors.

The Supreme Court’s Most Important Environmental Law Decision in 35 Years

Posted on July 30, 2019 by Robert Brubaker

As our esteemed colleague John Cruden is fond of saying, administrative law is a subset of environmental law.  My vote for the most important Supreme Court environmental law decision in 35 years goes to the administrative law case (involving not environmental rules but the interpretation of a Department of Veterans Affairs rule) handed down on June 26, Kisor v. Wilkie.

I believe Kisor will prove to be the watershed case that that marks a consensus on shifting core principles of administrative law for decades to come.  To me, it continues what I saw as Justice Scalia's project to reform reflexive deference to agency “interpretations” (with the GHG Tailoring Rule case, UARG v. EPA, being a notable milestone, and probably also the thinking behind his final vote, on the extraordinary Clean Power Plan stay).  What are the odds that Auer v. Robbins is the unnamed case that Justice Thomas was referring to in his humorous anecdote at former Justice Scalia’s memorial about “Nino’s” outrage at “one of the worst ever” decisions of the Court (that Nino wrote)?   

Kisor goes a long way toward fulfilling Justice Kennedy's 2018 recommendation in his final opinion (Pereira v. Sessions) to reconsider "the premises that underlie Chevron and how courts have implemented that decision."  And, it further cements Justice Kagan's observation, in her 2015 Scalia Lecture at Harvard that "we're all textualists now."  It clearly articulates and shines a bright and permanent light on the concern about administrative agencies pushing too far at times in combining the power to make, interpret, change, administer, and enforce binding law, with too little independent judicial oversight.

The four separate opinions in Kisor distinguish judicial review of agency interpretations of their own rules (Auer deference) from agency interpretations of statutes (Chevron deference), but there are some inevitable parallels.  Kisor establishes a three-step analysis for agency interpretations of its own rules: 1) is the rule genuinely ambiguous? 2) if so, is the agency’s interpretation of the genuine ambiguity reasonable? and 3) even if an agency interpretation of a genuine ambiguity is reasonable, is it of a “character and context” that justifies deference?  Step 1 is strikingly similar to the pre-Chevron deference analysis under Skidmore (acceptance of an agency’s interpretation is commensurate with its “persuasive power”).  As Justice Kagan put it: “serious application of these tools [of construction, such as text, structure, history] therefore has use when a regulation turns out to be truly ambiguous.  The text, structure, history and so forth at least establish the outer bounds of permissible interpretation.”  Steps two and three of the Kisor framework add specificity and rigor to the judicial inquiry not spelled out in Skidmore.  Importantly, Kisor casts a highly skeptical eye on agency interpretations that circumvent appropriate procedural safeguards, or veer outside the lane of the agency’s expertise, or conflict with a prior agency construction.

It is significant that Kisor is authored by Justice Kagan, and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer (noted for his command of administrative law), and Sotomayor, and joined in part by Chief Justice Roberts.  This is not a majority that can be characterized as anti-administrative state or as sponsors of a partisan Republican or conservative agenda.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote a short concurring opinion, expressing his view that the “distance between the majority and Justice Gorsuch is not as great as it may initially appear” because the majority’s catalog of the “prerequisites for, and limitations on” Auer deference has much in common with Justice Gorsuch’s list of the reasons that a court might be persuaded to adopt an agency’s interpretation.  Justice Gorsuch wrote a 42-page concurring opinion, joined by Justice Thomas and in parts by Justices Kavanaugh and Alito, touring the history of the Court’s deference jurisprudence and expressing a preference for overruling Auer and reverting to Skidmore deference.  Justice Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Alito, opining that “rigorously applying footnote 9” in Chevron (exhorting courts to “exhaust all the ‘traditional tools’ of construction” before concluding that an agency rule is ambiguous) should lead “in most cases to the same destination” as Justice Kagan’s majority opinion and eliminate any basis “to put a thumb on the scale in favor an agency” interpretation.

The boundaries on administrative powers and discretion are placed by Kisor in the hands of the judiciary, with paramount responsibility to judge conscientiously based on a searching and independent inquiry into the relevant legal and factual circumstances involved, and not based on some dogmatic, oversimplified, or wooden formula.  Deference cabined by a diligent judiciary is better than deference too readily or haphazardly granted or denied.  Justice Kagan's detailed instructions ("we mean it" she wrote) to judges handling administrative interpretation cases may well do more good for the opponents of Auer deference than an outright overruling of Auer.  If the Auer precedent had been overruled, instead of being "restated" and "somewhat expanded on," there would be more uncertainty and inconsistency, over a longer period of time, about exactly what replaces Auer deference.  The implicit call to legislators and administrators to pay better attention to the text and clarity of the laws they write is constructive too.  Good work Justice Kagan.

2019 WOTUS Rule Seeks to Make the Complex Simple—It Won’t Work

Posted on June 6, 2019 by Rick Glick

What is the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act?  The Act applies to “navigable waters”, which are defined as the “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” That’s all the CWA says about jurisdiction.  Congress left it to the implementing agencies—EPA and the Corps of Engineers—and the courts to define the contours of CWA jurisdiction.  In the 45 years following enactment, we are not much closer to clarity. 

The 2019 proposed “waters of the U. S.” or WOTUS rule is the latest attempt and, like all its predecessors, it has generated a lot of controversy.  Setting aside for the moment whether the rule is ultimately adopted and survives the inevitable court challenges, will it achieve the CWA’s object “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters”?  Unfortunately, the approach taken in the rule seeks an easy resolution to a complex problem as it avoids the interconnectedness of natural systems.  That approach will be of limited use in meeting the CWA’s objective.

The central strategy underlying the CWA is adoption by the states of water quality standards.  The standards would be protected through grant funding of public treatment facilities on the one hand, and on the other, a regulatory program allowing for limited discharges of pollutants or filling of wetlands to ensure attainment of standards.  Early cases looking at discharges or fills subject to the CWA stressed whether the receiving waters were “navigable in fact,” that is, capable of carrying interstate commerce.  However, regulations adopted by the Corps of Engineers extended jurisdiction to tributaries and adjacent wetlands, as degradation of these results in degradation of the navigable waters.  These regulations also included certain intermittent streams among WOTUS.

In its 2006 decision in Rapanos v. U. S., a majority of the Supreme Court found the regulations too broad, but did not quite agree as to why.  Writing for the plurality, Justice Scalia criticized the Corps for regulatory overreach and argued for a common sense, dictionary understanding of WOTUS:

In sum, on its only plausible interpretation, the phrase “the waters of the United States” includes only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water “forming geographic features” that are described in ordinary parlance as “streams[,] … oceans, rivers, [and] lakes.” See Webster’s Second 2882. The phrase does not include channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall. 

In other words, if you can see it and your feet get wet when you stand on it, the CWA applies.  Applying his usual strict constructionist approach, Justice Scalia found no statutory justification for a nuanced approach to jurisdiction.  By Executive Order, President Trump directed EPA and the Corps to replace the Obama WOTUS rule with one based on Justice Scalia’s interpretation, and the proposed rules do just that.

Will this approach serve the stated objective of the CWA to protect our waters?  Justice Kennedy, in his concurring opinion in Rapanos, thought not.  He chastised both the plurality and the dissent for not applying the test established by the Court just five years earlier in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook Cty. v. Army Corps of Engineers.  That case pegged jurisdiction to whether there is a “significant nexus” between the wetland in question and a navigable waterway.  In SWANCC, the Court rejected Corps regulations that imposed jurisdiction over isolated wetlands because they served as habitat for migratory birds.  That was not, per the Court, enough to show a significant nexus between those wetlands and a navigable waterway. 

However, in Rapanos, Justice Kennedy argued that the Court must do the SWANCC analysis, with all its inherent complexity, before simply concluding there is no jurisdiction:

Taken together [prior Court opinions show that], the connection between a nonnavigable water or wetland and a navigable water may be so close, or potentially so close, that the Corps may deem the water or wetland a “navigable water” under the Act. In other instances, as exemplified by SWANCC, there may be little or no connection. Absent a significant nexus, jurisdiction under the Act is lacking.

* * *

The required nexus must be assessed in terms of the statute’s goals and purposes. Congress enacted the law to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters,” 33 U. S. C. §1251(a), and it pursued that objective by restricting dumping and filling in “navigable waters,” §§1311(a), 1362(12). With respect to wetlands, the rationale for Clean Water Act regulation is, as the Corps has recognized, that wetlands can perform critical functions related to the integrity of other waters—functions such as pollutant trapping, flood control, and runoff storage. 33 CFR §320.4(b)(2). Accordingly, wetlands possess the requisite nexus, and thus come within the statutory phrase “navigable waters,” if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as “navigable.” When, in contrast, wetlands’ effects on water quality are speculative or insubstantial, they fall outside the zone fairly encompassed by the statutory term “navigable waters.”

The analysis called for by Justice Kennedy is complex and requires professional judgment.  Granting agencies the discretion to exercise that judgment makes many uncomfortable, but such discretion is inherent in our current framework in which Congress provides vague direction that agencies must implement.  There is much talk about the Supreme Court eviscerating Auer and Chevron deference to agency interpretations of their own rules or statute, but surely there must be some leeway for agencies that courts can find acceptable.  If not, already ponderous and glacially slow regulatory processes will get only more so. 

The Obama WOTUS rule took the Kennedy approach and then tried to put certain sideboards around it to determine CWA jurisdiction, which played to mixed reviews—a million comments and scores of legal challenges were filed.  The Trump WOTUS rule swings the pendulum toward the simplistic Scalia approach, which will also draw broad opposition.

Getting clarity on the scope of CWA jurisdiction has proved elusive.  However, in our zeal for clarity and preventing overly aggressive federal regulation, we must not lose sight of the clarion purpose Congress gave in enacting the CWA in the first place.

North to the Future: Alaska and the Risks of Pursuing a Trump Legacy

Posted on April 5, 2019 by Peter Van Tuyn

On the last Friday in March, Judge Sharon Gleason of the Federal District Court for the District of Alaska issued two opinions in closely-watched cases* concerning federal public lands and waters in and offshore of Alaska.  In both cases, the Trump administration’s actions were overturned by the court, having immediate impact on two State of Alaska priorities and potential impact on a number of other State and private development efforts. 

The first case concerns a land trade approved by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in which the United States agreed to transfer formal Wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to an Alaska Native Corporation.  Izembek Refuge is internationally significant and of critical importance to many species of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl.  For example, virtually the entire global populations of Pacific Brant and Emperor Geese migrate through Izembek.  The land trade was intended to enable the construction of a road between the Alaska communities of Cold Bay and King Cove.  In multiple analyses since the 1980s the Interior Department had found that such a road would harm wildlife in the Refuge.  In 2013 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formally rejected a land trade due to harm it would cause to “irreplaceable ecological resources,” and because “reasonable and viable transportation alternatives” exist between the communities.  In 2018, Secretary Zinke reversed course and approved the land trade.  A coalition of conservation groups then sued.

In rejecting the land trade, Judge Gleason found that Secretary Zinke had not addressed anywhere in the record his reasons for reversing course; indeed, he had not even acknowledged the change in agency position. Relying on the seminal U.S. Supreme Court administrative law cases of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers v. State Farm and FCC v. Fox, which require an acknowledgement and reasoned explanation for such a change of course, Judge Gleason invalidated the land trade, writing that while a court should “‘uphold a decision of less than ideal clarity if the agency’s path may reasonably be discerned,’ a court may not ‘supply a reasoned basis for the agency’s action that the agency itself has not given.’”

Later that same day Judge Gleason issued an opinion in a challenge to a 2017 President Trump executive order concerning areas where offshore oil and gas leasing can take place.  In that case, conservation organizations and an Alaska Native-focused NGO challenged Trump’s  revocation of President Obama’s earlier withdrawals from oil and gas leasing of most of the United States’ Arctic Ocean and a number of canyons within the Atlantic Ocean. 

This lawsuit turned on an interpretation of presidential withdrawal authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Section 12(a) of OCSLA provides the president with the clear authority to withdraw certain areas of the Outer Continental Shelf from oil and gas leasing, and the central question in the lawsuit was whether it also provides authority for a president to undo existing  withdrawals that were intended, like Obama’s Arctic and Atlantic actions, to be of unlimited duration.  Judge Gleason found that section 12(a) authority works only in the direction of presidential withdrawals, and not the undoing (or “revocation”) of such withdrawals.

Looking to the future, should Acting (and likely soon-to-be-confirmed) Secretary David Bernhardt revisit the Izembek land trade, he will need to either win on appeal during his tenure (should he take one) or directly confront the agency’s previous rejection of a land trade and the reasons for that rejection.  Furthermore, Trump’s “energy dominance” effort to expand offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is dealt a blow.  Notably, the OCSLA issue is similar to one raised in litigation over Trump’s revocation of National Monument designations under the Antiquities Act and Judge Gleason’s treatment of the issue thus may influence other courts. 

More broadly than even these implications, the two Gleason decisions may portend the result of other Alaska-related federal policy and decision-making.  For example, the Corps of Engineers is fast-tracking Clean Water Act section 404 permitting for the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska.  And the proposed mine’s developers are trying to get EPA to reverse course on its intended use of its Clean Water Act section 404(c) authority to restrict or prevent any Corps’ permit for the mining of the Pebble ore deposit.  EPA’s proposed restrictions were based on a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which the developer had waived challenging in settling a previous lawsuit with EPA.  Given the clarity of Judge Gleason’s Izembek opinion on what it would take for the agency to reverse course, and the settled science of EPA’s watershed assessment, securing a 404 permit won’t be as simple for proponents as winning a policy argument, which appeared to be the case with the Izembek land trade. 

Looking back to the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with oil and gas lease sales on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge.  Critics of that effort, including a former Interior official, say the legal process is being illegally shortcut, which is an attribute it may thus share with the Izembek land trade.  Interior is also speedily-redoing a 2013 management plan for the 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve with a goal of expanding oil and gas leasing in the Reserve starting in 2020.    

Ironically, on Thursday, March 28, the day before Judge Gleason issued her decisions, Interior Secretary-nominee David Bernhardt had his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  This committee is chaired by Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is a supporter of expanded oil and gas development on federal lands in and offshore of Alaska.  The judicial smackdown the next day, however, is sure to complicate Bernhardt’s efforts to implement such an agenda before the next presidential term, which is the timeframe which appears to underly Interior’s and other agencies’ efforts on Alaska issues.  And if the rush to secure more decisions in this presidential term leads to more losses in court, Alaska development interests could face complicated bureaucratic and legal landscapes, and strong political backlash, well into the future.

* Izembek case:  Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, et al, v. Bernhardt, 3:18-cv-00029-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak).

* Arctic OCS case:  League of Conservation Voters, et al, v. Trump, 3:17-cv-00101-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak)

 

New Jersey PFAS Directive

Posted on March 28, 2019 by John A. McKinney Jr

Co-authored by Robert H. Crespi – First published on the CSG Environmental Law Blog.

On March 25, 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) issued a Statewide PFAS Directive to a number of companies associated with the manufacture of poly- and perfluoroalkyl chemicals (“PFAS” which includes PFNA, PFOA and PFOS and other substances) and their replacement compounds.  Pursuant to the Directive, these companies are to reimburse DEP’s past and future costs of investigating, monitoring, testing, treating, and remediating New Jersey’s drinking water and waste systems, private drinking water wells and natural resources including groundwater, surface water, soil, sediments and biota.  The Directive requires certain information from these companies as to future costs and information related to the historic uses of PFAS and replacement chemicals including “information ranging from use and discharge of the chemicals through wastewater treatment plants, air emissions, and sales of products containing the chemicals to current development, manufacture, use and release of newer chemicals in the state.”  The Directive notes that failure to comply will increase Respondents’ potential liability to the DEP in an amount equal to three times the cost of arranging for the cleanup and removal of the discharges, which the Directive deems a “statewide public nuisance.”

This Directive states New Jersey’s resolve that these companies, and not New Jersey residents, pay the costs necessary to protect “public health and safety and the state’s environment.”  The DEP contends that this Directive will require these companies to “fund millions of dollars in assessment and cleanup efforts” pursuant to the state’s Spill Compensation and Control Act, the Water Pollution Control Act and other state environmental laws.

New Jersey has been in the forefront of states acting to address PFAS.  At the time of the Directive’s issuance, DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe referenced the “near daily” finding of PFAs in New Jersey’s environment. As noted in the press release announcing the Directive’s issuance, New Jersey was “the first state to adopt a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 13 parts per trillion for PFNA in drinking water, the strictest such standard in the nation. New Jersey's standards supersede those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which does not regulate the chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other illnesses … Earlier this month, the DEP established interim specific groundwater quality standards for both PFOA and PFOS, at 10 parts per trillion. New Jersey is among the first states to pursue regulation of these compounds.”

Of course, the Directive is only the opening salvo.  More is sure to come.

Any Press Is Good Press

Posted on March 25, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the Washington Post (subscription required) published an article about the Trump Administration’s inability to defend many of its policies in court. Yours truly was among those quoted. I liked the story and it was largely accurate, including its quotes from me, except that Fred Barbash stated that I had “been looking forward to deregulation under Trump.”  On that issue, I can only say that Fred and I had a misunderstanding, because I was never looking forward to deregulation under Trump.

Aside from the relatively unimportant and mildly humorous issue related to me maintaining credibility with a number of people whom I respect, I’m doing this post because that line highlights an important issue – there’s a significant difference between deregulation and regulatory reform. I think much of our environmental regulatory structure could benefit from reform, but I don’t question the benefits of environmental regulation and I don’t support “deregulation.”

Indeed, as the article demonstrates quite well, President Trump has shown no interest in regulatory reform.  He just wants to kill as many regulations as possible – or at least persuade his supporters that that’s what he wants to do.  Like so many things about this President, he doesn’t actually care about results as much as he cares what his supporters think about him – that’s one reason why the article is a valuable piece of reporting.

And that's also part of the reason why, as I said in the article, Trump has set regulatory reform back for years.  If we want widespread public support for regulation, we have to persuade people that regulations benefit them.  That’s why environmentalists shouldn't fear cost benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis; we need economic analysis to demonstrate the benefits of regulation.  We have a President who thinks all regulations are bad, but who cares only about the cost of regulations, not their benefits.  As a result,  cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis get a bad name.

And that’s bad for everyone.

Loving that PFAS: Does EPA’s Valentine’s Day PFAS Action Plan Portend a Change of Heart?

Posted on March 6, 2019 by Tom Burack

In a February 13 blog, I focused on the substantial role that states are playing in addressing PFAS compounds, in no small measure because EPA has not to date fully asserted itself in the arena, making the acronym as much one about a “Problem for All States” as about Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances.  The following day, with only limited advance notice, EPA released its “PFAS Action Plan,” a Valentine’s Day gift to all of those who have been waiting to see if EPA has much interest in spending more time, let alone falling in love, with these ubiquitous contaminants.

EPA’s plan, while comprehensive in scope, has met with mixed reviews, in no small measure because it remains unclear where this is all leading or how fast anything will happen, and whether EPA will ultimately embrace a substantial and decisive leadership role in addressing PFAS contamination across the country, or whether, in this age of cooperative federalism, it will stick more to developing the background science and largely leave the standard-setting, regulatory and enforcement actions to the States. The Plan itself includes a number of major components that focus variously on reducing future PFAS exposures, understanding PFAS toxicity as a basis for developing groundwater cleanup and drinking water standards, identifying and mitigating exposures, providing a regulatory and liability framework for cleanups (including possible Maximum Contaminant Level (“MCLs”), as well as TRI and CERCLA hazardous substance listings for PFOA and PFOS), furthering research on PFAS health effects, and improving risk communication and engagement capabilities.  Most of the planned actions are described as the next steps in various processes, not as end results or guaranteed outcomes.

For example, the Plan states that EPA will take the next step in deciding whether to issue MCL regulations for PFOA and PFOS by proposing a “regulatory determination,” which EPA says “provides the opportunity for the public to contribute to the information the EPA will consider relating to the regulation of PFAS in drinking water.”  EPA will publish a preliminary regulatory determination in the Federal Register, obtain public comment, and then decide whether or not to issue a National Public Drinking Water Regulation for either PFOA or PFOS.  In so doing, EPA will need to weigh three criteria: Whether PFOA or PFOS have an adverse effect on the health of persons; whether PFOA or PFOS occur or have a chance to occur in public water systems often enough and at levels of public health concern; and, whether, in the EPA Administrator’s sole judgment, regulation of PFOA or PFOS presents a meaningful opportunity for health risk reductions for persons served by public water systems.  (See https://www.epa.gov/dwregdev/how-epa-regulates-drinking-water-contaminants.)  While the answer to the first criterion is likely “yes,” to date the available data on occurrence have not been so compelling as to drive rapid EPA action and, accordingly, the Administrator’s ultimate judgment under the third criterion is far from predictable, and likely at least a year away.  The trade press reports a range of statements having been made by EPA leadership in recent weeks that may intimate where the agency’s heart will ultimately be on the subject, but until the next phase of the process has run its course, uncertainty will remain and states will, accordingly, continue to individually proceed to take their own responsive regulatory actions. 

And maybe this is just the way that things will or even should play out, because while EPA’s on-line cover page for its PFAS Action Plan asserts that the Agency is “taking a proactive, cross-agency approach to addressing PFAS,” it also acknowledges that the “key actions” will “help provide the necessary tools to assist states, tribes, and communities in addressing PFAS …”  Yes, EPA loves PFAS, but maybe its heart isn’t so committed that it would not also expect the states, tribes and communities to profess at least an equivalent fondness, if not an even greater passion, for regulating these chemicals and seeing to their cleanup.  Put differently, invoking the spirit of cooperative federalism, EPA’s message seems to be that the states and EPA have complementary ways of showing their love for emerging contaminants like PFAS, so there should be plenty of love to go around.

Acronymic Acrobatics: Why Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are becoming a Problem For All States

Posted on February 13, 2019 by Tom Burack

In an age in which the names of chemicals are so complicated that even scientists refer to them by acronyms, an entire class of manmade chemicals created to improve human lives is now in the midst of performing an acrobatic stunt, back-flipping from being the darling of industrial and consumer products to being the contaminants that are now the nemesis of many communities: Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances -- commonly referred to as “PFAS” – are also coming to be recognized as something else with the same acronym, namely a “Problem For All States”.  Due to their unique chemical properties and the growing public demands for timely regulatory response actions at the local level in the absence of definitive federal leadership, PFAS compounds can be expected to remain a Problem For All States for many decades to come.

Chemical engineers, starting in the 1940s, made some remarkable discoveries: the combination of carbon and fluorine atoms into long-chained synthetic organic molecules results in compounds that variously can repel oil, water, grease or stains, resist high temperatures, and reduce friction.  These properties, combined with high durability, made these newfound PFAS compounds ideal for innumerable industrial and consumer purposes. For example, some of the most commonly used PFAS are: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), as a repellent coating for textiles, paper products and cookware; and, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), in fire-fighting foams, carpet treatments, and mist suppressants in metal plating operations.  As a broad class, there are approximately 3,000 different PFAS compounds, some of which are precursors to other PFAS compounds, and various of which may co-occur with each other. Commonly known household products containing or made with PFAS compounds have included DuPont’s Teflon®, 3M’s ScotchGard®, and Gore’s Gore-Tex®, to name but a few. Unfortunately, some of the most commonly used PFAS compounds are also highly persistent, mobile, and non-biodegradable.  Consequently, worldwide production and uses of PFAS have resulted in their nearly ubiquitous presence throughout the environment, including in soils, sediments, surface and groundwater.

Moreover, because they can also bioaccumulate, PFAS compounds can be found in animals and humans in parts per billion (ppb) concentrations. Laboratory studies of PFAS health impacts on animals point toward elevated cholesterol levels, low infant birth weights, immune system effects, cancer (PFOA), and thyroid hormone disruption (PFOS).  While peer-reviewed human epidemiological studies of PFAS exposure have been less numerous or definitive to date, when combined with the laboratory animal studies there have been sufficient data to support the establishment of Lifetime Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS by the US EPA in 2016 and the promulgation of regulatory limits to protect drinking water supplies by a growing number of states.

In the United States, the first health and environmental concerns arose in connection with PFAS manufacturing facilities and their waste disposal practices in West Virginia and Ohio in the late 1990’s and in Minnesota in the early 2000’s.  Between 2000 and 2002, 3M voluntarily agreed to phase out the further manufacture of most long-chain PFAS compounds, and DuPont and other US manufacturers followed suit. Today, under a set of Significant New Use Rules (SNURs) promulgated by the US EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), most long-chain PFAS are allowed to be used or imported only for limited purposes and in select industries or applications.  Further restrictions have been proposed and shorter chain PFAS compounds are increasingly being used as substitutes, but even these may present significant environmental and public health concerns, as illustrated by the ongoing GenX contamination situation in the Cape Fear Watershed of North Carolina. (See, e.g., https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2017/08/17/genx-pollution-what-happened-when/)

Ever-more sensitive laboratory technology can now detect PFAS at parts per trillion (ppt) concentrations, and it’s become evident that the more than five decades of unregulated use of PFAS has left an indelible signature in landfills, wastewater, waterways, and communities far and wide. To date, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has amassed perhaps the largest single dataset on PFAS contamination in groundwater, surface water and soils of any state: roughly 6,000 samples from some 3,500 locations.  This continuously growing dataset already shows some noteworthy trends: sampling of 429 public water supply wells found that 7 (1.6%) contained PFOA or PFOS above 70 ppt (the US EPA LHA value which NH adopted as its groundwater cleanup standard); but NH has now proposed to lower its standard for PFOA to 38 ppt, which once all of NH’s public water systems have been sampled is likely to put another 16 or so in noncompliance.  More than 50% of the existing known contaminated industrial sites sampled so far in NH contain elevated levels of PFAS.  Every NH landfill leachate system sampled to date has a PFAS signature, and the monitoring wells around the older closed but unlined landfills indicate 46% exceed the groundwater standards.  Fire stations and training sites are also potential sources, as are municipal wastewater treatment plants, biosolids storage and application sites, car washes, airports (military and civilian), and a wide variety of other operations. Typical contamination vectors include not only historical releases directly to soils, groundwater or surface waters, but also atmospheric deposition resulting from airborne emissions of PFAS that subsequently contaminate other media, including groundwater.

Due to the combination of their durability, persistence, mobility, multiple possible release mechanisms, and extremely low detection limits, the simple reality is that if you look for PFAS in the environment you will find them.  The corollary is that if you haven’t found them, you’re probably not looking in the right places. While some public officials may believe that PFAS are not a problem in their states or regions, the public and elected officials – sensitized by the story of lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Michigan – are asking questions, demanding answers, and expecting action. In 2018, the US EPA held a “national summit” on PFAS contamination and announced that it would consider whether to establish public drinking water standards, Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), for some PFAS, and whether to list certain PFAS compounds as hazardous substances under CERCLA.  More recently, EPA officials have indicated that MCLs for PFAS are unlikely, but that EPA is considering broader use of its emergency administrative order authority under Section 1431(a) of the Safe Drinking Water Act to address PFAS contamination situations on a site-by-site basis. In the meantime, members of Congress have introduced bipartisan legislation to require US EPA to list all PFAS compounds as CERCLA hazardous substances and a growing number are joining a bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force.

The most consequential regulatory action, however, has been at the state level, which is where considerably more future action should be expected.  As of January 2019, at least eight states had adopted or proposed guidance values or regulations setting acceptable concentrations of various PFAS compounds in groundwater, drinking water, surface water, or soil, including Alaska, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont.  This list is expanding rapidly, as is the list of state legislatures that have regulated or are considering regulating the use of PFAS compounds, including California, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.  The Environmental Council of States (ECOS), the national, nonpartisan, nonprofit association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders, has established a PFAS workgroup, and its research arm, the Environmental Research Institute of the States (ERIS) has a large and active technical team that has published a number of fact sheets on PFAS through the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council (ITRC). 

Regulatory strategies and cleanup standards for the same compounds often differ from state to state: for example, in Vermont the groundwater standard is 20 ppt for PFOA and PFOS individually or in combination, while in New Hampshire the standard for PFOA and PFOS individually or in combination is 70 ppt, and a proposed rule would lower the individual standard for PFOA to 38 ppt.  The process of setting health-based regulatory standards varies greatly by jurisdiction, and different standards are typically attributable to differences in which toxicity data are selected and how they are interpreted, differences in toxicity factors (i.e., multipliers or margins of safety), how animal test results are extrapolated to humans, exposure assumptions, life stage used, and sources of exposure (drinking water versus non-drinking water).  Should EPA choose not to adopt MCLs for PFAS compounds, it’s likely that more and more states will find themselves weighing these and other variables as they set their own regulatory standards and seek to explain why they may be either higher or lower than those of their neighboring states.

Because they are ubiquitous, PFAS compounds present a set of challenges that every state will ultimately need to quantify and regulate, all the while communicating with the public, the regulated community and elected officials about the steps they’re taking and why their approach is an appropriately protective risk management strategy.  The lack of a comprehensive national regulatory approach and federal standards for PFAS compounds makes the problem all the more challenging for states, as they will forever need to justify their own approach in comparison with those of other states.  All of which suggests that PFAS are, and for the foreseeable future will remain, a Problem For All States.

Deadlines For Permit Issuance Are Double-Edged Swords

Posted on January 29, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

On Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that applicants for licenses under the Federal Power Act may not reach private agreements with states to circumvent the FPA requirement that states act on water quality certification requests under § 401 of the Clean Water Act within one year.

The facts are important here and somewhat convoluted.  The short version is that PacifiCorp operates a number of dams on the Klamath River.  In 2010, PacifiCorp reached a settlement with California, Oregon, and a number of private parties – not including the Hoopa Valley Tribe, the plaintiff here – to decommission certain dams and relicense others.  However, the decommissioning was dependent on certain third party actions, including, apparently, federal funding.  Part of the settlement required California and Oregon to “hold in abeyance” their § 401 certificate reviews.  Specifically, each year, PacifiCorp:

sent a letter indicating withdrawal of its water quality certification request and resubmission of the very same . . . in the same one-page letter . . . for more than a decade.

The Court was not pleased.

Such an arrangement does not exploit a statutory loophole; it serves to circumvent a congressionally granted authority over the licensing, conditioning, and developing of a hydropower project. … There is no legal basis for recognition of an exception for an individual request made pursuant to a coordinated withdrawal-and-resubmission scheme, and we decline to recognize one that would so readily consume Congress’s generally applicable statutory limit.

The Court limited its holding to the facts of this case; it does not apply, for example, to applications that are substantively amended and resubmitted.  It only applies to what PacifiCorp and the states unabashedly did here – reach a private agreement to get around the explicit provisions of the statute.

Nonetheless, it’s an important decision.  Based on data reported in the opinion, it may have a significant impact on a number of FERC licensing proceedings, where similar agreements may also be in place.

The decision also highlights an issue with these types of permitting deadlines.  These provisions follow a fairly well-trod path.  Some agency is slow in responding to permit applications.  A legislature responds by demanding that approvals be issued within a certain period of time.  The regulated community is happy.  Then, life moves on and, in the real world, parties realize that, for one reason or another, strict adherence to the statutory deadline is infeasible, impractical, or just plain not in anyone’s best interest.  They thus do what creative people do – they find a way around the deadline that was supposed to be protecting them.  Or, they try to do so until a court says no, no, no.

Be careful what you wish for.

Ode to Angus: The Macbeth Report

Posted on January 17, 2019 by Scott Fulton

In the Summer of 2017, ELI undertook a special project in memory of our dear departed colleague Angus Macbeth. We did so with support, encouragement, and input from across the ELI and ACOEL communities and in cooperation with the Environmental Council of States (ECOS). Angus was the friend of many, but was also one of the great leaders in environmental law, a former president of the college, and a long-time supporter of ELI. As Angus played no small role in the construction of the system of environmental protection as it exists today, and was also relentlessly committed to the pursuit of new ways to deliver environmental quality, we settled on cooperative federalism as the project topic. The Macbeth Dialogues sought to bring together leading experts to discuss the federal-state relationship in the environmental sphere, in hopes of shining a light on law and policy solutions for optimizing the configuration of governmental roles.

Under this project, we convened a Chatham House Rules gathering of current and former senior state and federal officials, many of whom had worn both state and federal hats. We also convened several dialogues with a broader array of stakeholders and did some rather extensive surveying. The resulting report, The MacBeth Report: Cooperative Federalism in the Modern Era, is, I believe, one of the more thoughtful pieces on cooperative federalism that has been rendered. Let me highlight some of the report’s key contributions.  

As the report reflects, there is considerable support at this juncture for giving states with demonstrated capabilities greater independence and flexibility in running delegated environmental protection programs; but even enthusiasts for greater state primacy consistently agree that EPA must continue its leading role in developing national standards, conducting scientific research, and governing on interstate issues.

The report reveals broad support for flexibility for states in meeting minimum national standards, setting more stringent standards, and in enforcing delegated programs. Experts were more evenly split on state discretion to depart from national technology standards and compliance strategies as well as on primacy for criminal enforcement and environmental justice cases. But over 70 percent of those surveyed felt that the federal government should defer where states can do a better, or as good of a, job, and over 50 percent of respondents felt that EPA intervention in delegated states should be limited to circumstances of documented failure or when the state has provided inadequate resources.

With the traction of sustainability policies in the private sector, driven in part by shareholder and customer demand, the report also explores whether a parallel flexibility in government oversight of high-performing companies might be possible under the rubric of public-private parallelism. The report also considers the role that a citizenry — equipped with unprecedented amounts of environmental information and operating in a socially networked world — can play as a driver of environmental behavior going forward.

In terms of opportunities for adjustment or realignment, The Macbeth Report points to a number of options, including:

· Possible recalibration of compliance expectations under a concept of actionable noncompliance, which could serve to shift the threshold for enforcement intervention from an absolute compliance expectation to one that would allow certain types of exceedances to be timely self-corrected without enforcement implications.

· ECOS has recommended that EPA move to an audit system for oversight in lieu of matter-by-matter reviews. The report advises that auditing be first piloted in a few EPA regions and programs before broader deployment, so that the mechanics can tuned. Permitting decisions may a good place to focus such pilot projects.

· Recognizing the importance of the interstate dimension in defining the federal role, the report recommends that a formal structure be created to give downwind/downstream states a more meaningful voice in implementation decisions.

· The report generally recommends greater use of protocols designed to provide aggrieved states with a time-limited elevation opportunity prior to federal intervention.

· Given technology’s advance toward much more comprehensive, real-time understanding of environmental conditions, the report recommends that EPA and the states experiment with new approaches for framing compliance expectations, for example by using sophisticated fence-line monitoring systems to allow for considerably more within-the-plant flexibility.

This gives you a flavor, but there is considerably more there, so please give The Macbeth Report a look. Be sure to read again Steve Ramsey’s wonderful tribute to Angus, which we have embedded in the report. Many thanks to all who contributed to the thinking in the report, and, of course, a special thanks to you, Angus. 

Two Strikes Against the Administration’s WOTUS Suspension Rule

Posted on December 10, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

In August, a judge in South Carolina issued a nationwide injunction against the “Suspension Rule,” which delayed the effective date of the 2015 Waters of the United States rule.  Now, a judge in Washington has gone even further.  Judge John Coughenour has vacated the rule.

The core of the new decision is the same as that in South Carolina.  By refusing to take comment on the impact of the delay in the effective date of the WOTUS rule, the Administration acted arbitrarily and capriciously and thus violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

For my non-lawyer readers wondering what the difference is between a nationwide injunction against the Suspension Rule and vacatur of the Rule, I’m picturing a petulant President Trump, sitting in a corner.  First, his teacher tells him that he can’t play with his shiny new toy – that’s an injunction.  Then, still not satisfied, another teacher comes by and takes the toy away completely.  That’s vacatur.

The Rubber Begins to Hit the Road on Adaptation

Posted on November 6, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

I gave up some time ago on the idea that focusing on adaption was just a means of weaseling out of necessary measures to mitigate climate change.  As the extraordinary becomes commonplace, it’s evident that we’ve ignored the externalities of carbon longer than was prudent.

It’s thus great to see Boston’s Mayor Walsh release Resilient Boston Harbor.  Even for those who follow these issues for a living (and I have a personal stake, since my wife and I are about to move to Fort Point Channel, ground zero for climate change flooding impacts in Boston), what’s really amazing is the granularity of both the analysis and the recommendations.

If you want to understand just how granular the analysis must be in order to develop specific recommendations, you might take a look at this figure from the full Climate Ready South Boston report.  Don’t just skim the Executive Summary on this one.

I find this work both inspiring and discouraging.  There is so much to do.  Among other tasks, environmental lawyers have to figure out how to make these recommendations feasible in light of existing environmental regulations that would actually prevent implementation of some of the recommended adaptation measures.

I had thought of closing with a nice climate-inspired haiku.  Instead, I think I’ll leave you with this:

It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.

A Sliver of Hope for the Government’s Remaining NSR Enforcement Cases?

Posted on October 16, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this month, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted something of a reprieve to EPA’s New Source Review enforcement initiative.  The Court first confirmed what everyone other than EPA and DOJ already knew – that failure to get a pre-construction permit is a one-time offense, so that penalty claims for alleged violations more than five years prior to filing are barred by the statute of limitations.

However, the Court then surprised most observers by holding that expiration of penalty claims did not doom the government’s claim for injunctive relief.  Specifically, the Court ruled that the “concurrent remedies doctrine,” which bars equitable remedies when no legal remedy is available, cannot be applied to a sovereign.

I’m not going to provide an exegesis of the doctrine, which carries more than a whiff of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.  I’ll settle for three points.  First, it may not be a legal doctrine, but I’d apply the doctrine of common sense, rather than the doctrine of concurrent remedies.  Given that all courts agree that NSR does not impose ongoing operational requirements, it doesn’t even make sense to me to think of ongoing forward-looking injunctive relief with respect to a one-time violation that may have occurred twenty years or more ago.

I’ll add to that a related point.  As other NSR cases have noted, many of these facilities have changed hands since the projects at issue were constructed.  In those cases, the former owners aren’t subject to injunctive relief, because they don’t own the facilities and thus have no ability to install BACT.  The new owners aren’t subject to injunctive relief, because they did not violate the Clean Air Act.  In these circumstances, are we really going to make the availability of injunctive relief subject to the random circumstance of which facilities have been sold and which have not?  That just seems nuts.

Finally, I’ll emphasize that EPA and DOJ shouldn’t get too excited over this decision.  The Court was very clear that it was not deciding whether injunctive relief was appropriate, only that it wasn’t barred by the statute of limitations.  The Court’s language was unlike any I’ve ever seen before and is worth a read:

On remand, the district court must further consider whether any equitable relief is appropriate and proper under the legal and factual circumstances of this case in which the legal relief has been time barred. We recognize that we are not giving the district court much guidance in this task. … Perhaps the answer to this knotty question of injunctive relief will reveal itself after a full hearing and the presentations of the parties. And we hope that we are not being too cowardly when we sincerely wish the district court good luck.

And I’m sure that the District Court will appreciate the 5th Circuit’s good wishes.

PFAS Compounds vs. Legionella -- Which is the bigger threat?

Posted on October 2, 2018 by Kenneth Gray

 

Recently, Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substance (PFAS) compounds have been dominating the national environmental news.  U.S. E.P.A. has named them as a priority for action.  In the several areas where the substances are found in groundwater, PFAS compounds dominate the local headlines.  The levels of detection and possible concern are extremely low, and the chemicals are almost ubiquitous in the environment, having been used for decades.  As manufactured chemicals, they suffer the usual popular and misguided presumption that they must therefore be bad, and there are manufacturers, industrial users, and water suppliers that have been the targets of anger and lawsuits. 

EPA’s national drinking water monitoring program for “unregulated contaminants” captured PFAS compounds several years ago, and significantly more testing is being undertaken. The former “emerging contaminants” have emerged with a vengeance.  https://bit.ly/2xnGi89  EPA soon will be providing additional guidance on risk levels for some PFAS compounds, and has recently committed to consider a national drinking water standard, among other possible regulatory actions.

Legionella pneumophila (Legionella) is a common bacteria that is found in nature, but can proliferate in certain human environments including hot water systems, shower heads and sinks, cooling towers, and hot tubs, among others, despite central treatment of drinking water.  Legionnaires Disease (LD) can and does kill, especially attacking those with weaker immune systems.  It is the most significant waterborne disease (about 60% of the outbreaks causing disease, and it is the only one causing death).  Data indicate that the disease is significantly on the rise around the country (only partly due to increased detection).   Where LD is discovered and results in illness and deaths, the disease has gotten significant press.  However, U.S. E.P.A. hasn’t yet called for national monitoring for Legionella, and there is no EPA-approved test method.  Although central treatment for bacteria and viruses is addressed in part by public water system disinfection, post-treatment testing and proliferation of Legionella hasn’t been formally addressed.

Scientists would agree that there are risks from PFAS compounds, but the toxicology is still developing and the most robust epidemiological data available do not indicate some of the risks suggested by some animal studies.  There is no such debate on Legionella – it is documented as a serious human health threat and has caused many deaths. The U.S.C.D.C. has indicated 90% of LD cases could have been prevented with better water safety management. While PFAS compounds can be tricky to test for and drinking water levels are being set in lower and lower parts per trillion, Legionella is easy and inexpensive to test for, and accurate, easy and cost-effective methods already exist.

Despite all this, PFAS compounds get more attention from media and regulators, and employ more laboratories and plaintiffs’ lawyers.  Like some current and former drinking water officials I know, I fear we are not focusing on the bigger health threat. 

Your thoughts? Let the informed debate begin.

 

We May Not Always Have Paris, But Perhaps We Can Do Better Than Paris

Posted on September 20, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the Climate Leadership Council released an analysis demonstrating that the “Baker Shultz Carbon Dividends Plan” would result in greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than the US committed to attaining under the 2015 Paris agreement.  (And a shout out to ACOEL fellow Pam Giblin, who is a Senior Policy Advisor at the CLC.) 

I don’t doubt that the CLC analysis is right.  If I had to guess, I’d predict that they probably underestimate the reductions that would be reached with a robust carbon tax.

I understand the difficulty in convincing what passes for the GOP base at this point – and the GOP members of Congress – to endorse the carbon tax.  Oops, I meant dividend.  I’m hopeful that enough members will come around at some point.  My real worry is that the environmental movement will reject the plan because it calls for elimination of current regulations concerning carbon.

Years ago, Gina McCarthy used to say quite freely that the Obama administration would get most of its carbon reductions, not from direct regulation of GHG emissions, but instead from all of the other air regulations it was promulgating, such as the power plant MACT standards.

What environmentalists have to remember is that the reverse is also true – any robust program to reduce carbon emissions will also lower emissions of conventional pollutants.  Indeed, in defending the Clean Power Plan, environmentalists have made that very argument.  Why not acknowledge the same point in connection with a carbon tax and give up on a set of regulations that have always been clunky at best, are nowhere near as efficient a regulatory tool as a carbon tax, and which, as compared to a carbon tax, really benefit no one other than environmental lawyers and consultants?

God, wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air to see Congress actually get something big done for the American people?  Let’s not screw this one up.

How Much Does Trump Even Care About Deregulation?

Posted on September 13, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Rick Glick’s September 11 post discusses Judge David Norton’s August 2018 decision to issue a nationwide injunction against the Trump Administration’s “Suspension Rule,” which delayed implementation of the Obama Waters of the United States RuleAs noted in Rick's post, that case was not about the merits of the WOTUS rule.  It was simply about the Trump administration’s failure to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act in promulgating the Suspension Rule.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

The Administration’s failure to comply seems so obvious that one has to wonder whether the Administration even cared whether the Suspension Rule could survive judicial review.  Indeed, this case seems part of a clear pattern.  The Court noted as much in quoting a summary of such cases from the plaintiffs’ brief:

Clean Air Council v. Pruitt (vacating the EPA’s attempt to temporarily stay a Clean Air Act regulation without “comply[ing] with the … APA”); Open Communities All. v. Carson, (enjoining the defendant agency’s attempt, “without notice and comment or particularized evidentiary findings, … [to] delay[] almost entirely by two years implementation of a rule” adopted by the previous administration); Pennsylvania v. Trump (enjoining two new “Interim Final Rules” based on the defendant agencies’ attempt to “bypass notice and comment rule making”); Nat’l Venture Capital Ass’n v. Duke (vacating the defendant agency’s “decision to delay the implementation of an Obama-era immigration rule … without providing notice or soliciting comment from the public”); California v. U.S. Bureau of Land Mgmt. (holding that the defendant agency’s attempt to postpone a regulation’s compliance dates “after the rule’s effective date had already passed … violated the APA’s notice and comment requirements by effectively repealing the [r]ule without engaging in the process for obtaining comment from the public”); Becerra v. U.S. Dep’t of the Interior, (holding that the defendant agency violated the APA in “fail[ing] to give the public an opportunity to weigh in with comments” before attempting to postpone a rule that had already taken effect).

To which the Court added its own footnote:

To this litany of cases, the court adds two more from the last several months— Nat. Res. Def. Council v. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and Children’s Hosp. of the King’s Daughters, Inc. v. AzarAs these cases make clear, this court is but the latest in a series to recently find that an agency’s delay of a properly promulgated final rule circumvented the APA.  (My emphasis.)

I find it hard to believe that numerous smart lawyers, across a range of agencies, all suddenly forgot what the APA requires.  Isn’t it more likely that the Administration simply doesn’t care about the outcome?  The government of the most powerful nation on earth, that likes to think that it taught the world about democracy, doesn’t care about governing.  All it cares about is having Twitter material, to feed to its adoring fans and, equally importantly, to bait its many critics.

WOTUS: Legal Issue or Scientific Issue?

Posted on August 1, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, EPA and the Army Corps issued a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in support of their efforts to get rid of the Obama WOTUS rule.  It’s a shrewd but cynical document.  It’s shrewd, because it fairly effectively shifts the focus from the scientific question to the legal question.  Instead of asking what waters must be regulated to ensure that waters of the United States are protected, it asks what are the jurisdictional limits in the Clean Water Act.

It’s cynical, because, by failing to take on the science behind the 2015 rule, which seemed fairly persuasive to me, EPA and the Corps avoid the hard regulations necessary to protect our waters while clothing themselves in feel-good words about the integrity of the statute and the important role given to states under the Clean Water Act.

Part of the beauty of the SNPR is the way it carefully navigates between whether the broader jurisdictional interpretation taken by the 2015 rule is prohibited under the Clean Water Act or simply not required under the Clean Water Act.

The agencies are also concerned that the 2015 Rule lacks sufficient statutory basis. The agencies are proposing to conclude in the alternative that, at a minimum, the interpretation of the statute adopted in the 2015 Rule is not compelled, and a different policy balance can be appropriate.

I’m not sure I agree with the administration’s interpretation of the scope of the CWA, but it’s not crazy.  If I had to bet, I’d assume that it would survive judicial review.

The problem is that this simplistic legal approach ignores the science and ignores the missions of both EPA and the Corps.  If the 2015 rule is more protective of the nation’s waters, and if there are questions about the scope of jurisdiction under the CWA, then shouldn’t the administration be asking Congress to clarify EPA’s and the Corps’ authority so that they can regulate in a manner consistent with what good science says is necessary to protect the waters of the United States?

I’m not holding my breath.

CAFO Odors and the Ghost of William Aldred

Posted on July 10, 2018 by Susan Cooke

The number and size of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have increased in recent years.  These operations keep large numbers of animals in a confined space and provide them with feed from offsite sources prior to their slaughter.  While generally viewed as cost efficient, CAFOs raise concerns about animal welfare and about their environmental impacts and effect on the health and quality of life for those living or working nearby.  Such concerns include the foul odors associated with the substantial quantities of animal waste that are generated, especially where such waste is discharged into pits and then flushed into open air lagoons.  The sludge in those lagoons sinks to the bottom and is periodically removed for land application and the liquid waste remaining at the top is sprayed as fertilizer onto adjacent fields.

The anaerobic reaction that occurs during pit and lagoon storage of the waste over an extended time period is the primary generator of such odor, the primary constituents being ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.  Anaerobic digesters and other technologies can be employed to reduce odor generation, with some also producing gases for fuel.  However, the costs of installing and operating such equipment can be substantial, and there are no specific requirements at the federal level mandating odor control or limiting ammonia or hydrogen sulfide emissions from CAFO operations.  Indeed, even the reporting of animal waste air emissions under the federal Superfund law and under EPCRA (as interpreted by EPA) is precluded under the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method (FARM) Act signed into law by Congress in March 2018

While there is little regulation at the federal level, some states have imposed limits on hydrogen sulfide.  For example, California has a one hour average standard and Minnesota has a 30 minute standard for H2S.  In addition, a few states have instituted odor standards covering some CAFOs, including Colorado’s odor standard, which is based on an odor dilution factor, for swine CAFOs above a certain size (i.e., the odor must be eliminated by a specified amount of dilution).  While most local ordinances covering odors enjoin nuisances in general, some have adopted a dilution factor standard that is generally applicable, such as the ordinance adopted in Denver, Colorado and that adopted in South St. Paul, Minnesota.

Even where CAFOs are singled out for specific regulation by state, the dilution factor standard is not often used, probably because it is in essence subjective in nature and thus quite different from most environmental emission standards.  Instead, states have generally adopted a management plan approach coupled with registration and periodic inspections.  For example, the environmental regulations covering odor control at CAFOs in North Carolina, which has a number of swine CAFOs in the southeastern portion of the state, do not include a specific standard covering odor.  Instead, those regulations impose setback requirements and provide for state agency inspections, and they empower that agency to require preparation and modification of a best management plan if it determines that odor control is necessary.

Given the absence of a specific standard for judging CAFO emissions, some neighbors of CAFO operations have brought tort suits for nuisance to address odor concerns.  In one case decided this past April, a jury awarded $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 10 neighbors of a North Carolina hog farm.  The plaintiffs claimed that the truck noise associated with farm operations and the odor associated with lagoon storage of waste from its 4700 hogs and the spraying of lagoon liquid onto nearby fields created a nuisance.

Although the federal court reduced recovery to $3.25 million under punitive damage limits imposed under the North Carolina Right to Farm Law, agribusiness interests raised strong concerns about the damage award and within weeks the North Carolina legislature had passed amendments to the state Right to Farm Law to further restrict tort recovery for alleged nuisances from agricultural and forestry operations.  Although those amendments (in Senate Bill 711) were vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper on June 25, the veto was overridden by both houses before their month-end adjournment.

The amendments, which are similar to statutory language already enacted in Missouri for facilities engaged in crop and animal production, would limit compensation to property located within one half mile of the alleged source of a nuisance at an agricultural or forestry operation.  In addition, the suit would have to be filed within one year of the operation’s establishment or of a fundamental change (which wouldn’t include, among other things, a change in ownership or size) to that operation, with compensatory damages limited to a reduction in fair market value of the plaintiff’s property for a permanent nuisance and to diminution in fair rental value for a temporary nuisance.  While punitive damages are already capped at a specified multiple of compensatory damages, the amendments would limit them to instances where, during the previous three years, the operation had been the subject of a criminal conviction or civil enforcement action or of regulatory action taken by the state or federal government pursuant to a notice of violation.

Such limits on monetary recovery for nuisance may encourage plaintiffs to seek injunctive relief to abate odors from CAFO operations.  And tort suits for nuisance animal odors have a long history, as evidenced by William Aldred’s Case dating back to 1610 where the Court of King’s Bench held that Mr. Aldred, whose house was situated within 30 feet of a later constructed hog sty, had a right to obtain abatement of the foul odor emanating from that hog sty.

In recent years the injunction remedy in a nuisance action has sometimes been disfavored, as illustrated in the Boomer v. Atlantic Cement decision where monetary damages were awarded rather than injunctive relief for operation of a cement plant.  There the court weighed the (lower) cost of compensatory damages versus the (significantly higher) cost associated with installing abatement equipment or requiring plant shutdown.  However, it now appears that determining “entitlements” under an economic efficiency analysis, such as that described in the oft-cited Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, is undergoing more critical academic scrutiny.

Moreover, animal welfare advocates, as well as those concerned about environmental justice or greenhouse gas emissions, and perhaps even property rights advocates, may add their own voices in support of the injunctive remedy option for stopping or curtailing CAFO operations.  If so, then the right of a landowner to quiet (and unscented) enjoyment of his or her property through an injunction, as enunciated by the King’s Bench more than 400 years ago, may prove to be the most effective remedy for those seeking to curtail CAFO odor emissions.

The Dutch Government Also Doesn’t Like Citizen Climate Litigation

Posted on July 3, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

As a follow-up to my earlier post about the dismissal of public nuisance claims brought by the City of Oakland and the State of California against five oil majors concerning their contribution to climate change, I note that ClimateWire (subscription required) is reporting that the Dutch government is appealing a court order that would require it to cut carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2030. 

The Dutch case is more similar to the Oregon children’s suit than Oakland litigation, because the Oregon case, like the Dutch case, is against the government, seeking further regulation, rather than against private parties, seeking damages.  All of these cases, though, present some of the same concerns regarding whether courts are the right place to make climate policy, as noted by the Dutch government spokesman, quoted in ClimateWire:

We also believe that renewable energy should be increased and CO2 emissions should be reduced, so this is really about something else: It’s about how the judge has intervened in something that’s [called] democracy, and actually democracy has been sidelined.

It would be nice if democracy could show a greater capacity for addressing climate change, but I still agree that sidelining democracy is rarely a good thing.  Of course, there are good scientific reasons why democracies don’t do so well at dealing with climate change.  Appeals to the courts may be unavoidable.