Posted on February 2, 2017
The state of Oregon has turned up the heat in Hells Canyon. The burning question, so to speak, is whether a state can require passage and reintroduction of anadromous fish as a condition of certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act for relicensing of an existing hydroelectric project. The issue gets hotter because the particular project involved -- the Hells Canyon Complex (“HCC”), owned by Idaho Power Company (“IPC”) -- is located on the Snake River, which forms the border between Oregon and Idaho. The State of Oregon has issued a draft 401 certification with detailed conditions for passage and reintroduction of anadromous fish into a tributary on the “Oregon side” of the river. Idaho is opposed to reintroduction of any fish species above Hells Canyon Dam, leaving IPC in the middle.
Making a very long and complicated story short, for more than 13 years IPC has been working with state and federal agencies and stakeholders toward relicensing of the HCC. The project consists of three developments, each with a dam, reservoir, and powerhouse. In 1955, FERC issued a 50-year license with recognition that construction of the project would block fish passage and eventually lead to extirpation of anadromous fish above the dams. As a result, the initial FERC license included mitigation conditions to offset fish impacts, and additional mitigation was provided under a subsequent settlement agreement.
After more than a decade of studies, meetings, and negotiations, it looked like IPC and the states were on track for general agreement as to the terms and conditions of compatible, but separate 401 certifications to be issued by Oregon and Idaho – except as to the issue of fish passage and reintroduction. Despite Idaho’s objections, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) issued its draft 401 certification for public comment on December 13, 2016. The draft relies on a number of existing state water quality standards as the legal basis for requiring fish passage and reintroduction, though none of the standards is directly on point.
Public comments on the proposed 401 certification are due February 13. Objections relating to the fish passage and reintroduction conditions are likely to focus on whether such conditions are generally within the scope of 401 certification for FERC-licensed hydroelectric projects, and, if so, whether Oregon’s specific water quality standards provide a sufficient regulatory basis for the proposed ODEQ action. The comments may also raise questions about the baseline for mitigation and whether impacts to fish due to construction of the project – as opposed to on-going operations -- have already been fully mitigated. And then there’s the question of Idaho’s opposition.
ODEQ will consider the comments before issuing a final 401 certification decision. If the states are unable to resolve their differences over the passage and reintroduction issue, it’s likely to get a lot hotter in Hells Canyon.
And finally, a disclosure that the HCC relicensing issues hit close to home for ACOEL: I am part of a team representing IPC, and other College members are very much involved on both sides of the issue. There’s a lot we won’t be able to talk about at the next annual meeting!
Posted on January 25, 2017
As I reflect on my tenure as Assistant Attorney General, I have been especially proud of the Division’s cooperation with state and local governments in matters encompassing all aspects of the Division’s work – affirmative and defensive, civil and criminal. When we combine forces with our state and local partners, we leverage the resources of multiple sovereigns and, ultimately, achieve more comprehensive results for the American people.
In 2016, we had unprecedented success in civil enforcement with states, due primarily to the record‐breaking settlement with BP in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill litigation. In April 2016, the trial court entered the final consent decree in the litigation, thereby resolving civil claims of the United States and the five Gulf Coast states against BP. The claims arose from the 2010 blowout of the Macondo well and the resulting massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP will pay the U.S. and the five Gulf States more than $20 billion under the consent decree, including: 1) a $5.5 billion civil penalty; 2) more than $8.1 billion in natural resource damages; 3) $600 million in further reimbursement of clean‐up costs and some royalty payments; and 4) up to $6 billion in economic damage payments for the Gulf States or their local units of government. This resolution is the largest settlement with a single entity in Department of Justice history; it includes the largest civil penalty ever awarded under the Clean Water Act, the largest ever natural resources damages settlement and massive economic damages payments to our state partners.
And, just this month we announced our plea agreement and civil consent decree with Volkswagen. In addition to the combined $4.3 billion penalty, corporate felony plea, and individual prosecutions, the previous civil consent decrees also provide $2.7 billion to all states for projects they select from the CD options to offset NOx pollution caused by the illegal car emissions. When the various settlements with VW are combined, and their value estimated, it approaches $20 billion.
Our state connections were vital to our criminal work. Cooperation ranged from providing training to state partners to close coordination in wildlife and pollution investigations. Prosecutors from ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section presented at several events where state investigators learned of opportunities and methods for developing wildlife and environmental crimes cases, either in concert with federal counterparts or independently. Our prosecutors also trained their counterparts on the Division’s recently acquired authority over worker safety matters.
But environmental enforcement is not where ENRD’s work with state and local partners ends. We also are working with our counterparts at the state and local level in a relatively new area of responsibility for the Division – civil and criminal enforcement of federal laws that provide for humane treatment of captive, farmed, and companion animals across the United States. In July 2016, ENRD and the Office of Justice Programs co-hosted a roundtable discussion on Animal Welfare Enforcement. We were joined by more than 100 leaders in the area, including representatives of federal agencies, states and local governments, as well as researchers, scientists and others in the animal welfare field. The roundtable allowed us to focus collectively on information sharing, organizational strategies and cooperation in animal welfare enforcement.
Finally, ENRD continued to develop and enhance relationships with our state counterparts by participating in several forums designed to share experiences and expertise. In the spring of 2016, for example, I had the honor of being the first ENRD Assistant Attorney General invited to speak to the annual meeting of the Environmental Council of the States, the national association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders. I joined colleagues from EPA, New Mexico and academia to discuss innovative ways to measure the success of environmental enforcement. ENRD attorneys also partnered with the National Association of Attorneys General to present webinars on topics of mutual interest, such as e‐discovery, and share expertise regarding federal bankruptcy law in the context of environmental cases. Finally, just this week we collaborated with the National Association of Attorneys General to publish Guidelines for Joint State/Federal Civil Environmental Enforcement Litigation, which is now available on the DOJ website.
As I depart from the Division, we are in good shape. In December, the Division accepted an award by the Partnership for Federal Service, which ranked the ENRD as the #2 best place to work in all of the federal government, as well as the best place to work in the Department of Justice. With more than 300 Federal agency subcomponents competing, our new rank places us well into the top 1% of all Federal workplaces.
Posted on December 2, 2016
Let’s face it – most seasoned bureaucrats (I confess I am one) often don’t react well to change. Over time, there just seems to be an intrinsic inertia that builds in all bureaucracies. Federal and state environmental agencies are, unfortunately, no exception. While we in government do strive to avoid this inherent danger (problem?), the comfort of a routine can sometimes be the enemy of innovation. The catchphrases getting a lot of attention, and gaining some real traction, in government circles these days are “process improvement” and “performance measurement”.
Many state environmental agencies and the US EPA have undertaken a variety of self-examination techniques which fall under the general rubric “business process improvement” (BPI), including Lean, Six Sigma, and Kaizen to name just a few. The articulated objective is to examine key functions and processes with a view towards achieving a host of goals such as reducing costs to the agency, optimizing agency resources, and realizing better value for the agency’s “customers”. BPI may also help transform an organization’s culture to help embrace change and communicate better with the regulated community, the public, and other governmental partners. The Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) recently released a report entitled “State Environmental Agency Business Process Improvement Activity 2010-2016,” which accompanied the launch of an online database describing state BPI activities.
Applying process improvement goals in a meaningful way and tracking performance measurement through metrics helps agencies answer the question, “How are we doing?” Performance metrics can track costs and time saved, and identify areas needing improvement. It is not measuring for the sake of measuring, but rather measuring progress toward achieving identified performance goals, such as issuing an air quality permit or awarding grants within a specified period of time.
While the decision to engage in BPI may come as a top-down mandate, the implementation of actual techniques used to arrive at new goals will have to be tailored to each program’s process and appears in practice to be largely collaborative and creative, encouraging a “think outside the box” mindset. There will always be challenges—that’s probably inherent in the nature of government with the prospect of new leadership every four years or so. Process improvement and performance metrics won’t automatically diffuse the inertia in an organization. Change just for the sake of changing isn’t all that appealing without seeing real progress towards a goal. Working together, however, initiatives borrowed from business may foster an institutional culture and organizational climate in government where personnel are more willing to accept change and perhaps come up with innovative ideas of their own.
(The author is Legal Counsel for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.)
Posted on October 26, 2016
ECOS – the Environmental Council of States – I suspect that most of you have heard of it, but what do you really know about ECOS? And, why should you care? As the current Past President of ECOS, I acknowledge upfront that I might be biased – but consider the following. ECOS is the national non-profit, non-partisan association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders. ECOS was founded in late 1993 at a time when the relationship between states and the EPA was strained. As Mary A. Gade, then director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, put it: “The times called for states to assume primary responsibility and leadership for environmental protection. As individual states began to articulate this new perspective, state commissioners realized the need to band together for information-sharing, strength, and support.”
Today, reflected in the ECOS 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, much of ECOS’ original purpose remains: “To improve the capability of state environmental agencies and their leaders to protect and improve human health and the environment of the United States of America. Our belief is that state government agencies are the keys to delivering environmental protection afforded by both federal and state law.”
While the purpose remains consistent, how ECOS achieves it has evolved.
One example lies in the ECOS-organized forums where states and EPA meet to discuss - and often debate - environmental concerns and our respective roles in implementing and enforcing environmental programs. While the early ECOS years were not without success working with EPA, the tenor of the overall relationship with EPA was uneven. Today, ECOS has a productive relationship with EPA. We still discuss, debate, and disagree, but in a much more constructive way. EPA representatives at all levels routinely attend and engage in the spring and fall ECOS meetings, as well as other ECOS conferences. ECOS members have been invited to internal EPA budget meetings to share our budget concerns and needs. ECOS and EPA have worked on several joint-governance projects, including the creation of E-Enterprise for the Environment. Through E-Enterprise, state, EPA and tribal representatives work to streamline environmental business processes and share innovations across programs to improve environmental results, and enhance services to the regulated community and the public by making government more efficient and effective.
ECOS is fast becoming the “go-to” organization for Congress, the White House, federal agencies, national organizations, and the media to learn about state issues, concerns, positions, innovations and ideas regarding environmental matters. Through engagement with senior government officials, testimony before Congress and many position letters, ECOS has expressed state perspectives on key legislative and regulatory issues, like reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, funding for state environmental programs and water infrastructure, increased authority over coal combustion residual sites, workload flexibility in state-EPA agreements, enforcement training, expediting federal facility cleanups, and environmental justice tools.
ECOS has developed relationships with the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense: these agencies regularly participate in ECOS. ECOS’ Legal Network brings state environmental agency counsel together with EPA counsel and DOJ’s Counselor, to explore lessons learned from successful enforcement and compliance initiatives, and to discuss best practices and enhanced collaboration.
So, how about the relationship among the states themselves? ECOS has also become a venue for states to explore differences in positions and ideas. Not surprising, membership within ECOS is politically diverse. ECOS has recognized and embraced this diversity by creating a space for states to express their opinions and positions, encouraging members to learn from each other, to reach “across the aisle” to understand differing perspectives, to compromise where needed and to develop strong and lasting relationships. ECOS will pull in experts from within the states and from other organizations to provide valuable and sometimes critical perspectives and analyses on important issues, so that state environmental leaders can better understand the complexities and impacts of environmental programs and initiatives. The lawyers of ACOEL are one source of that expertise, and they have provided valuable legal analyses to ECOS and its members on the Clean Power Plan and WOTUS. ECOS is even reaching across state agency lines, as shown by this spring’s Memorandum of Agreement with ECOS, EPA, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials to advance cooperative initiatives pertaining to environmental health, acknowledging that the public health and well-being of U.S. citizens relies on the condition of their physical environment.
So, why should you care about ECOS? Because the vast majority of day-to-day environmental program adoption, implementation and enforcement is done by the states. As Mary A. Gade said when ECOS was first created: “Charged with advancing a state’s environmental agenda, state commissioners strategize daily with governors, state and national legislators, and local government officials to accomplish their goals. State environmental commissioners have political access, substantive expertise and, most importantly, legislative combat experience.” When you organize a group of battle-ready commissioners who lead state environmental programs, and who meet and work together on a regular basis, wouldn’t you want to know what they are doing? My advice: check out http://www.ecos.org and find out what you are missing.
Posted on October 13, 2016
Along with the flood of news coverage of the Flint water crisis comes the flood of litigation. So far, early indications show a wrong in search of a remedy, and for criminal defendants, just the expected plea deals. Here are some highlights.
In April, a federal district judge dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction a §1983 claim for “safe and portable water” as preempted by the Safe Drinking Water Act. The case is on appeal.
Class actions have been filed against state and municipal officials in federal court, the Michigan Court of Claims, and Genesee County Circuit Court, seeking damages for personal injuries, property damages, and relief from water bills. Along with the usual governmental immunity defense, defendants assert a statute of limitations defense, with a fair likelihood of success. The governmental immunity defense is complicated by Governor Snyder admitting fault. That admission strengthens plaintiffs’ gross negligence exception to governmental immunity.
So far, the Attorney General’s criminal charges have resulted in the usual plea deals by underlings. The Flint water quality supervisor whom I lauded in a previous post as the only principled public servant in this mess (a position with which the Attorney General agrees) pled no contest to willful neglect of duty; the plea is essentially nothing, because the court took the plea under advisement with dismissal in one year if the supervisor cooperates with the investigation. A state official reached a second plea deal, pleading no contest to willful neglect of duty regarding an outbreak of legionnaire’s disease with the usual cooperation clause.
Politics saturates the Flint legal landscape. Attorney General Bill Schuette is widely expected to run for governor in 2018 and must therefore appear to be doing something, such as filing an unusual professional negligence and public nuisance claim against the Flint outside engineering firms. And when the Flint mayor notified Michigan of intent to sue the state, the state receivership board with continuing jurisdiction over Flint removed the city’s authority to sue.
Posted on September 20, 2016
Sometimes the most extraordinary things in the world of law and government get served up in the most undramatic way. If you aren’t paying attention to the back story, and you don’t know the context, you might almost miss the action. And future generations, seeking to decipher history, might all too easily overlook the most crucial and delicate tipping points. This fact of life has been emphatically proven by the Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural juggernaut that is the Broadway musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda. In addition to telling the very personal story of one of our nation’s founding fathers, Hamilton shows, in brilliant style, that even seemingly dry and technical matters such as the origins of our nation’s financial system, and the logic underlying the complex apparatus of modern administrative agencies, are actually fueled by passion, dripping with drama, and world-changing in consequence. You just need to know whose story to tell, and how to read between the lines.
A recent case in point: On August 17, 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Engie Gas & LNG LLC v. Department of Public Utilities (Docket SJC-12051/SJC-12052). Environmental and energy lawyers readily recognized the decision as an important one, but it’s easy to see how future generations, far from the current action, might miss the excitement here. The question in Engie was whether the state utility department could approve ratepayer-backed, long-term contracts by electric distribution companies for the purchase and resale of interstate natural gas pipeline transportation capacity.
To answer that question, the Engie court addressed, among other things, (1) the propriety of the appeal in the absence of a final adjudicatory order; (2) the pertinent standard of review, (3) the canon of statutory construction reddenda singula singulis, a.k.a. the rule of the last antecedent (which might also be merely a grammar rule), (4) whether ambiguity should or could be found in statutory language that neither expressly forbids nor clearly permits the proposed departmental action, (5) the parties’ competing interpretations of the legislative history, (6) the overall statutory framework, (7) the necessity of a “distributive reading” of the terms “gas or electric,” (8) the limitations of the deference to be afforded to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of a statute it is charged with enforcing, where the interpretation represents a significant departure from the agency’s own record of administering the pertinent statute, (9) the importance of ensuring consistency with the fundamental policy embodied in the legislation at issue, and (10) the interpretive pertinence of subsequent, separate legislation. Phew!
Ultimately, the SJC rejected the utility department’s determination of the scope of its authority, and concluded that the pertinent statute forbade the imposition on electricity ratepayers of the costs of new natural gas supply infrastructure. Like many judicial opinions concerning complex environmental and energy issues, the Engie decision has a sober logic that makes it seem unsurprising, correct, and even almost easy. But wait – what just happened here?
Ladies and gentlemen, we have an affair of honor! One dueling party and its seconds, the state’s public utility department and electric distribution companies, contend that the policy choice by our state government’s executive branch to expand natural gas pipeline capacity is a sensible way of meeting our very real need for reliable electrical power. Even as we move toward a more sustainable future of renewable energy, they say, we still depend urgently on new supplies of natural gas, obtained by means of fracking, to provide the essential “bridge” fuel, and we can all get ready for price spikes and power blackouts each winter if we ignore that reality. It’s an emergency, and our future is at stake!
The other dueling party and its seconds, who include the Massachusetts Attorney General and a coalition of environmentalists, land conservationists, and consumer and taxpayer advocates, insist that we don’t need any new natural gas infrastructure at all. And if we don’t push much faster and harder for a larger-scale shift to more environmentally sustainable ways to support our energy consumption, they say, we are fiddling while Rome burns. It’s an emergency, and our future is at stake!
Grappling with the fine points of utility infrastructure regulation and financing may make some people’s eyes glaze over. To which I say, are you kidding? I can’t think of another moment when our courts were faced with environmental and energy law disputes more laden with tension and drama. This is the high-stakes, heroic, dueling-on-the-ledge stuff on which our future history depends. It could practically be a Broadway musical.
Posted on September 1, 2016
Once both a paradigm of brevity in the federal code and a fertile source of work for generations of mining lawyers, the Mining Law of 1872 has been picked away at (pun intended) for many years. The romance of throwing a pack and a pick on a mule, nailing an old tobacco tin to a post with a location notice, and wresting riches from your very own mining claim is largely gone. The restrictions in federal and state law on surface disturbances from mining have made operations by individuals on mining claims more anachronistic than ever.
On August 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court knocked off another big chunk when it unanimously held that California’s ban on suction mining for gold is not preempted by the Mining Law. People v. Rinehart, No. S222620 (Aug. 22, 2016). Mr. Rinehart was convicted of engaging in suction dredge mining for gold on his mining claim in violation of a moratorium on the practice imposed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Not surprisingly, the department found that suction dredge mining has significant adverse impacts on water quality, protected species, and the environment generally.
Rinehart went ahead with suction dredge mining anyway, and when charged criminally, argued that the Mining Law preempted any state laws that would restrict his right to mine on his mining claim. He was convicted, but the California Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, agreeing with Rinehart that the Mining Law preempts any state restriction on mining on a mining claim.
The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, explaining in great detail how the Mining Law was not intended to allow mining without regard to the application of state police power on a duly located mining claim, notwithstanding that the purpose of the law is to facilitate the development of mining on public lands. The court relied heavily on precedents going back over a century, including a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions holding that in order to displace the application of state law on federal lands, Congress must act affirmatively. The court was doubtless influenced by an extensive amicus brief filed by the United States, which agreed that the state’s moratorium was not preempted by the Mining Law.
The California decision is not surprising given the increased emphasis on state and federal regulation of the environmental impacts of mining operations, which began with the major environmental legislation of the 1970s. For example, many years ago the BLM and Forest Service issued regulations requiring permits for surface disturbances on unpatented mining claims. The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the various state programs operating under delegation from that statute also regulate surface impacts of mining operations. Other environmental laws, including federal and state clean water statutes, air quality laws, and waste management requirements have been applied to mining operations without regard to whether the right to mine is based on fee simple ownership, leasehold interests, or unpatented mining claims.
Opponents of the Mining Law view the law as an anachronistic give-away of federal resources but have not succeeded in repealing it. But environmental regulations such as the suction dredge mining moratorium in California and increasingly insurmountable economic challenges in operating a small mining operation are slowly strangling the Mining Law. It is death by a thousand . . . picks.
Posted on July 15, 2016
Business groups largely supported the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Amendments recently signed into law by President Obama to address concerns about the emergence of varying state-by-state requirements regulating the chemicals used in consumer products. But for those wishing to avail themselves of California’s vast and lucrative marketplace, the TSCA Amendments and EPA’s June 29, 2016 plan to begin implementing them may prove to do little to alleviate business’s headaches. While the TSCA Amendments include a number of permanent and temporary federal preemption provisions, they are riddled with holes that may allow California’s activist requirements and plaintiffs’ lawyers to proceed largely unimpeded.
Potential Impact of the TSCA Amendments on California’s Safer Consumer Products (“Green Chemistry”) Program
The Amendment’s preemption provisions could halt or constrain the implementation of the California Safer Consumer Products (SCP) program. The statutory basis for California’s so-called “Green Chemistry Initiative” was enacted just after August 31, 2003 and its initial requirements for Priority Product-chemical pairings were not finalized prior to April 22, 2016 so at least certain types of requirements arising from the SCP program may be subject to TSCA preemption.
But whether these preemption provisions will have a meaningful effect on the future of the SCP program remains to be seen. For example, as long as EPA has not taken any regulatory action on a chemical, California will retain full authority to regulate a product that contains it. Moreover, if the use of the chemical does not fall under EPA’s TSCA jurisdiction, the SCP program’s actions concerning it will never be preempted. (For instance, TSCA does not cover personal care products or beauty products.)
Indeed, California’s requirement that manufacturers of products designated as Priority Products provide the state with data and conduct an Alternatives Analysis pursuant to the SCP program appears to be left unaltered by the new TSCA preemption provisions. Likewise certain forms of regulatory responses to an Alternatives Analysis on a Priority Product, such as mandating certain warnings or other information disclosure requirements, may well be found to survive TSCA preemption.
Potential Impact of the TSCA Amendments on California’s Proposition 65
Proposition 65 requires businesses to provide a “clear and reasonable” warning before knowingly and intentionally exposing a Californian to any detectable amount of a listed chemical unless the business can prove that the exposure level does not pose a significant risk of cancer or is at least 1,000 times below the level which causes no observable reproductive effect. Public prosecutors are meant to be the primary enforcers of Proposition 65, but the statute is most loathed because any individual claiming to act in the public interest also has the ability to enforce it by filing “bounty hunter” lawsuits against manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of consumer products.
California’s federal legislators, including retiring U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, took pains to ensure that Proposition 65, which was enacted in 1986, remained fully shielded from TSCA preemption. Thus, California can continue to update its list of Proposition 65 chemicals “known” to that State to cause cancer and reproductive harm regardless of the outcome of EPA’s TSCA evaluation on the same chemical. Proposition 65 bounty-hunter lawsuits can also continue to be filed concerning even the most de minimis exposures to chemicals that EPA determines are safe.
That said, it still remains for the courts presiding over Proposition 65 cases to determine if EPA’s risk and safety determinations made pursuant to TSCA will have a significant evidentiary role in a business’s defense of a Proposition 65 claim on grounds other than preemption. California judges may also take EPA’s TSCA determinations about a chemical into account when it comes to assessing (or reducing) Proposition 65 penalties. And, perhaps at best, TSCA’s preemption provisions may also help convince courts that it is inappropriate to allow plaintiffs to continue to use Proposition 65 to obtain chemical “reformulation” of products made for a national or international market instead of just requiring Proposition 65 warnings for them when offered for sale in California.
Posted on June 22, 2016
Wisconsin continues to be the playground of Tea-Party efforts to minimize the power of government, particularly in the environmental arena. On May 10, 2016, the Wisconsin Attorney General opined that the Department of Natural Resources (“WDNR”) does not have the authority under state law to impose monitoring wells or cumulative impact conditions on high capacity well permits. Insert A.PDF
In 2011, Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature passed “Act 21,” which contains a “limited government” provision prohibiting agencies from implementing or enforcing “any standard, requirement, or threshold” in a permit, unless the language “is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule…” Wis. Stat. § 227.10 (2m) Insert B.PDF
The Attorney General’s Opinion carefully argues that a contrary state Supreme Court opinion issued shortly after the passage of Act 21 is distinguishable. In Lake Beulah Management District v. State of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found in 2011 that the WDNR had the statutory authority under state law and a general duty to consider the impacts of a high capacity well on the nearby Lake Beulah. The Court also held that the applicable statute constituted a broad legislative grant of the public trust duty to the agency in the context of high capacity well regulation, and upheld the WDNR’s permit.
The Attorney General’s Opinion asserts that Lake Beulah is “no longer controlling.” After the oral argument in the case but before the opinion was released, the parties brought Act 21 to the Court’s attention. The Court noted in a footnote that Act 21 did not change the underlying environmental statute and stated that none of the parties argued that the new law impacted the WDNR’s authority in the Lake Beulah case. The Attorney General has seized on the footnote.
The Attorney General’s Opinion relies on the timing of Act 21’s passage, the footnote, and a difference of opinion. The Attorney General argues that the state Supreme Court relied on implicit statutory authority to allow the WDNR to condition high capacity well permits, and Act 21 now requires explicit authority. Where the underlying environmental statute allows the agency to place conditions on high capacity wells, including “location, depth, pumping capacity, rate of flow, and ultimate use,” it does not state that “monitoring” is an “explicitly permitted condition.” The Attorney General further notes that the legislature has not delegated its public trust duty to the WDNR. The Opinion has been called “a huge step backward for groundwater protection” by environmentalists and “the demise of implied agency authority” by industry.
The expanding application of Act 21 provides a developing opportunity to challenge air and water permitting decisions in Wisconsin. Although the Attorney General’s Opinion is non-binding, it reflects the administration’s push toward limited environmental regulation. It is likely to become increasingly difficult for the agency to resolve complex environmental issues that previously were addressed in negotiated permit decisions, raising the issue of whether it is always in industry’s interest for an environmental agency to be prohibited from making technical and nuanced decisions.
Posted on March 17, 2016
In a highly unusual case that has led to a near unanimous call for legislative change by environmental lawyers in Connecticut, a Superior Court judge ruled that the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (“DEEP”) can unilaterally revoke a consent order that it negotiated with a company requiring the investigation of a contaminated site. The lawsuit was initially brought by DEEP, among other reasons, to enforce the consent order. However, after the defendant filed a counterclaim against DEEP alleging that the department had not acted reasonably and breached the order, the department unilaterally revoked the order and moved to dismiss the counterclaim. The court held that the state statute that authorizes the department to issue, modify, or revoke orders, allows the department to revoke consent orders.
Although the state agency may have had good reason to revoke the consent order in this case to help it improve its position in the litigation, that decision undermines the public policy in favor of encouraging negotiated settlements in environmental matters. Most environmental consent orders are carefully negotiated, with give and take on each side. If a private party knows that the environmental agency can simply revoke a consent order at any time, why would that party make concessions to resolve a dispute through an administrative order on consent?
The U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. ITT Continental Baking Company long ago recognized that administrative consent orders and judicial consent decrees are in the nature of contracts and should be construed basically as contracts. Therefore, the federal courts typically place a heavy burden on a party seeking to modify a consent decree. Even the Connecticut court which ruled that DEEP can unilaterally revoke consent orders questioned the wisdom of such authority.
It remains to be seen whether the Connecticut state legislature will clarify that the state environmental department lacks the authority to unilaterally withdraw from an agreement that it negotiated. A bill, S.B. 431, was recently proposed by the Judiciary Committee of the State General Assembly to reverse the Superior Court decision. The general assembly has until May 4, 2016, when the session ends, to pass such legislation. If the legislation does not pass, and DEEP retains such authority, it is likely to find it much more difficult to settle administrative orders on consent in Connecticut.
Posted on February 11, 2016
There is no safe blood lead level in children.
In following the inexplicable regulatory missteps in the Flint public water supply debacle, I could not help but think of the progress that has been made in removing lead from the environment and out of our children’s blood. In spending my professional career addressing environmental issues and problems from a state, federal and private practice perspective, I often have wondered what difference does it make. In the case of lead, we can actually measure our progress and success.
As a teenager, I filled my ‘54 Ford with regular leaded gasoline. Lead was not only in gasoline, it was everywhere. Recognizing the significant and often irreversible health effects of lead, regulatory programs were initiated at the federal, state, and local levels to “get the lead out.” The implementation of these programs reduced or eliminated lead from gasoline, foods and food packaging, house paint, water pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder used in plumbing and drink cans.
Did these programs work? In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children aged 1-5 had blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood, which was until recently the level of concern recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The recommended level is now 5 ug/dL. Also, back in the 70s, the average BLL was approximately 15 ug/dL. Black children and children living in low-income families were at greater risk.
We have come a long way from the 70s. The average BLL in children dropped to 1.4 ug/dL by 2008. Below is a table graphically demonstrating this dramatic decrease in BLLs. The table is based on data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971 – 2008, taken from a CDC report, Lead in Drinking Water and Human Blood Lead Levels in the United States, August 10, 2012.
As we beat ourselves up over the mistakes in Flint, we should take a moment to reflect on and be re-energized by the demonstrable success of these regulatory programs. What we have done has made a difference! Flint reminds us that more must still be done.
Timeline of lead poisoning prevention policies and blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years, by year — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971–2008
Posted on February 4, 2016
With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water. As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014.
How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”
The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”
EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens. Even philanthropic groups are stepping in. EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.
The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight. As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.
Posted on January 11, 2016
Seth Jaffe’s recent post about the tension between Colorado’s governor and attorney general over who has the right to speak on behalf of Colorado in the Clean Power Plan litigation brought to mind the very first piece of environmental litigation I ever worked on, Village of Wilsonville v. SCA Services. In the late 1970s, SCA (which later became part of Chemical Waste Management) began operating a large hazardous waste landfill, fully permitted by Illinois EPA, in Wilsonville, Illinois, and the residents were predictably displeased. (Hint to those of you who operate similar NIMBY-ish facilities – don’t do as SCA did and disseminate marketing materials displaying the site as the “bullseye target” on a regional map showing concentric circles of distances to the facility.)
Not satisfied with some pretty effective self-help efforts (e.g. the Village dug a three-foot wide trench for “sewer repairs” across the only road into the site, thereby halting all truck traffic into and out of the facility), the Village sued SCA and Illinois EPA (the permitting agency) seeking permit revocation and a halt to operation of the facility. The case got off to an unusual start in the trial court (our firm was not retained until the unsuccessful appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court) when then-Attorney General William Scott, who had appeared in the case on behalf of Illinois EPA, stuck his finger in the air, felt which way the wind was blowing, and abandoned the defense of Illinois EPA to file his own complaint and join with the Village against the defendants, including the State agency. Perhaps unlike Colorado, Illinois law is pretty clear that the Attorney General has independent enforcement powers when it comes to environmental matters, so Scott’s volte-face didn’t cause much of a stir other than at Illinois EPA, which had never before been left hanging in the wind like this.
Bill Scott probably remains the Illinois Attorney General best known for environmental enforcement; the first line in his obituary correctly notes that he “achieved an international reputation for his battle on behalf of the environment during his four terms” as Attorney General. Scott tried but never made it to the Governor’s chair, though he clearly had what it takes. Like Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich - Illinois governors #33, 36, 39 and 40 respectively - Scott later served time in federal prison.
Over the years, notable cases of tension between disparate agencies of the same sovereign have spread from Wilsonville to Colorado to China. A recent news article notes, “Prosecutors in eastern China have filed a lawsuit against a county-level environmental protection department, accusing it of ‘failing to fulfil its regulatory duties’ in its supervision of a local sewage firm.” Apparently the United States is a successful exporter of something; I’m not sure what to call it, but it isn’t as desirable as the Fab Four or iPhones.
Posted on December 3, 2015
Now six years old, the New Jersey Site Remediation Reform Act, (“SRRA”) was intended (among other things), to privatize most site remediation in the State. To that end, it empowers private, licensed individuals called “Licensed Site Remediation Professionals” (“LSRPs”), to conduct most site remediations and issue the administrative imprimatur of remediation completion (“Response Action Outcomes” or “RAOs”), without prior New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP” or “DEP”) approval. Before SRRA was enacted, such certification was the exclusive province of the NJDEP.
The SRRA mandates LSRPs “exercise individual professional judgment”, which, in the view of LSRPs, actually empowers them to use such judgment. Underlying DEP regulations, however, require persons responsible for conducting remediations (i.e., the LSRP’s clients) to follow “any available and appropriate technical guidance concerning site remediation issued” by NJDEP, or provide a “written rationale and justification for any deviation from guidance.” In a blog posted June 20, 2013 dealing with a then-newly issued, quite prescriptive vapor instrusion guidance, I raised concerns that that guidance could indicate DEP was seeking to limit the ability of LSRPs to exercise professional judgment, by invoking the regulatory requirement to follow “guidance” (See A Case of the Vapors – Does New Jersey’s Newest Vapor Intrusion Technical Guidance Foreshadow a Return to the “Old Days” of Environmental Regulation in New Jersey?). Although detailed “guidance” is not promulgated by DEP in accordance with the same notice and comment process as are regulations – it can nonetheless constrain LSRPs from following the SRRA’s individual judgment mandate.
Unfortunately, more recent events seem to indicate NJDEP is, in fact, following such a restrictive policy. Whether it is doing so wittingly is open to question.
In fact, the DEP has found new ways to circumscribe the ability of LSRPs to perform remediations that do not follow DEP’s preferred script. For example, many remediated sites in New Jersey are subject to “restricted use” remedies which, most often, bar residential and similar uses of a site, in return for lesser cleanup standards. Such restrictions are most often accompanied by an “Institutional Control” containing a “use” prohibition and, often entail an “Engineering Control”, such as a cap. Both Institutional and Engineering Controls must be embodied in “deed notices” which must be filed in local property records. Ostensibly to ensure continuation of funding for such controls, SRRA established a requirement for obtaining Remedial Action Permits for soil, groundwater, or both, as a pre-condition to issuance of an RAO for the remedial action selected by the LSRP. Recently however, it appears that DEP has adopted a policy which holds that it must examine the entire remedy of a site for which controls are required before such permits will be issued, notwithstanding the fact that such sites will be the subject of an RAO provided by the LSRP. Such a review of remedies selected by the LSRP for RAOs on every site for which a Remedial Action Permit is required is antithetical to both the letter and spirit of the SRRA: it simply reproduces the pre-SRRA DEP way of doing things for such sites.
The LSRP community perceives this course of conduct by DEP as undermining LSRPs’ ability to exercise professional judgment, one of the key aspects (to them) of LSRP rights under the SRRA. Thus, there is talk of seeking the State legislature’s consideration of passage of an SRRA “2.0” that will curb these and other contrary policies initiated by the DEP. But the problem would seem to be one that cannot be addressed by legislation alone. That is, one wonders how any legislation, however mandatory or precise, can negate what is essentially an (understandable) antipathy by DEP personnel to a law that curbs their power and threatens to render many aspects of their programs superfluous.
One of the goals of the SRRA was to ameliorate the injury done to New Jersey’s image by the perception that the DEP was a rigid, unreasonable, and delay-ridden institution, constituting one reason why the State’s business climate has often been annually ranked at or near the bottom when compared to other states. Any return to the DEP’s prior “command and control” site remediation regime is contrary to that goal; but the old system is not going away gently, if it is going away at all.
Posted on September 24, 2015
Ohio statutes authorize regional sewer districts to collect and treat sewage, including combined sewer overflows, and to charge fees for those services. The regional sewer district in the Cleveland area (“NEORSD”), with a service territory encompassing nearly 60 communities of Cuyahoga County and some nearby counties, took its authority one step further. Nearly fifty years after its creation, the NEORSD added a regional storm water management program that would charge property owners fees on the basis of a formula primarily tied to the square footage of impervious surfaces like parking lots and roofs. The NEORSD envisioned the plan would address the considerable urban sprawl that had occurred since the 1970’s and that had created vast expanses of impervious spaces in the form of parking lots, large clusters of office, shopping, Big Box, commercial and industrial facilities, often in the upland suburban areas to the east and south of the core city (many suburbs’ names end with “Heights”). With the conversion of green space to impervious surfaces, many of the lower lying areas began to experience more flooding and erosion.
Not content to wait for the individual upland communities to control storm water in a decentralized fashion, the NEORSD in 2010 adopted its plan in response to the “regional” flooding that urban sprawl created and exacerbated. But there was immediate and well financed opposition to the expanded storm water program. Opposition came from several communities which maintained their own capital intensive storm water systems and from commercial property owners which feared the hefty fees they would pay as a result of the parking lots and roof structures they had constructed. And the opposition succeeded when, in 2013, the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals ruled that the statutory charter could not support regional storm water control. See my February 5, 2014 posting, “Storm Water Management by a Regional Sewer District: Was it a Power Grab or a Logical Extension of Existing Powers?”
With that decision, the NEORSD stopped collecting the estimated $35,000,000 per year in fees to implement the regional storm water prevention and abatement measures, but it did not give up. The NEORSD appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, and received considerable amicus support. [Full disclosure: I authored a supporting amicus brief.]
More than a year after oral argument, the Ohio Supreme Court announced its decision. In a 5-2 vote, the high court reversed, finding that the NEORSD possessed the statutory authority to undertake regional storm water control. But as to the collection of fees, the vote was closer, with four Justices approving of the NEORSD fee plan and three dissenting. One Justice dissented because she believed that the fees are intended to relate to services and are not for the future construction and eventual operation of the infrastructure; therefore, she concluded that the NEORSD is premature in assessing fees until it actually provides a “benefit” or “service” from “water resource projects” already in operation. The other two dissenting Justices found that the regional storm water plan exceeds the NEORSD authority and that the fees are unrelated to services, and therefore, the fees are invalid, un-voted “taxes”. Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. v. Bath Twp., Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-3705(decided September 15, 2015.
With the passage of time since the NEORSD plan’s conception in 2010, and the eventual judicial affirmation approximately five years later, a great deal of momentum was lost, with delays in the acquisition of infrastructure to abate storm water runoff and deferral in the collection of funds to implement the program. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s validation of the NEORSD regional storm water plan should “greenlight” similar strategies of other regional sewer districts that are grappling with urban-sprawl induced storm water issues.
Posted on September 15, 2015
Few recognize Ohio’s pivotal role in the development of the oil and gas industry in the United States. John D. Rockefeller amassed fortunes in Cleveland with his oil refining business (until Uncle Sam broke up the monopoly). Since then, there have been a number of different oil and gas booms in the state, for example in the mid-1960’s north of Columbus, then again in deeper sandstone formations in suburban areas of Cleveland approximately 10 years ago, and now, the whopping Utica shale play primarily in eight counties in eastern Ohio at depths over 8000 feet below ground surface and horizontal laterals extending a mile or more. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (“ODNR”) has issued over 2000 Utica drilling permits, and there are approximately 1000 wells in production or drilling (costing millions to complete). Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking” its critics pejoratively call it) has been around a long time, but only recently has it been the focus of media and regulatory scrutiny. All of these historical booms going back to the mid-1960’s have forced the Ohio General Assembly to enact and update comprehensive statutes that regulate drilling activities.
Those in the industry were successful in having the General Assembly confer “sole and exclusive authority” to the ODNR “to regulate the permitting, location, and spacing of oil and gas wells and production operations.” But what about the longstanding, traditional “home rule powers” that the Ohio Constitution conferred on municipalities to take care of health, safety and land-use matters within their jurisdictions? The juxtaposition of the two came to a head in a case that ironically does not deal with the massive Utica shale wells, but more modest gas wells in a shallower formation in a suburb in Northern Ohio.
The ODNR had issued a drilling permit to Beck Energy to drill a well in Munroe Falls in 2011. But Munroe Falls obtained a local trial court injunction prohibiting the permitted drilling until Beck Energy complied with all local ordinances, including the payment of a fee, the posting of a bond, and the holding of a public meeting. Despite having the state’s authorization to proceed, Munroe Falls prohibited the drilling until it issued its zoning certificate, which it would not do (if at all) for at least one year after Beck met the other pre-conditions.
The dispute found its way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which issued a “plurality” opinion (4-3) in favor of Beck Energy (and the ODNR). State ex rel. Morrison v. Beck Energy Corp. The City argued that the state statute regulates the technical aspects of oil and gas drilling while the municipal ordinances address traditional local zoning concerns. The majority seemed troubled by the scope of the “sole and exclusive” language, but seemed content to defer this policy question to the General Assembly. Because the traditional Home Rule powers have enjoyed longstanding and wide ranging judicial respect, the majority in the Beck Energy case limited the decision to the Munroe Falls ordinances before the Court, presumably leaving open some future role for local zoning ordinances.
The initial reaction of the bar was to focus on the separate concurring opinion of Justice O’Donnell, who was reluctant to displace local zoning authority in favor of sweeping state regulatory authority. In his view, the “sole and exclusive” authority was intended to preempt a patchwork of local laws related to the technical and safety aspects of drilling and not to divest local governments of their traditional authority to promulgate zoning regulations that ensure land-use compatibility, preserve property values, and foster long-term community development plans. The dissenting Justices, along with Justice O’Donnell, noted the troubling omission of the word “zoning” when the General Assembly spoke to “exclusivity.” That is to say, if the General Assembly really meant to displace local zoning practices, it could have clearly said so, as it has done with other licensing statutes.
The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision has not put an end to the hotly contested question of the scope of pre-emption. For example, an activist group in suburban Broadview Heights has filed a putative class action lawsuit claiming that the City’s Community Bill of Rights supersedes state laws. And recently, the Ohio Secretary of State refused to certify county-wide ballot initiatives that sought to prohibit fracking and/ or drilling in their respective jurisdictions.
So after I finish this blog tonight, I will drive down Rockefeller Drive, pass the remains of the old Standard Oil refinery, and wonder what John D would have thought of this tension between state preemption and local health and safety regulations.
Posted on September 9, 2015
California’s “Proposition 65” warning requirements have long been a major concern for businesses that want their products offered for sale in the State’s large marketplace. Businesses whose products contain even a detectable amount of any one of more than 900 chemicals often face enforcement lawsuits brought by for-profit plaintiffs unless their products contain a “clear and reasonable” Proposition 65 warning. Short of eliminating the chemical entirely, the only way for businesses to immunize themselves from such claims has been for companies to label or display their products with a generic warning based on language set forth in the original Proposition 65 regulations. It usually states: “WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
Three new developments threaten to make Proposition 65 less predictable and more difficult.
1) New Proposition 65 Warning Regulations Proposed for Adoption: Earlier this year, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (“OEHHA”) formally proposed an extensive set of new rules concerning the requirements for Proposition 65 warnings to be deemed “clear and reasonable.” While Proposition 65’s current regulations allow for compliance with its warning requirements through the type of generic, one sentence statement appearing above, the proposed regulations will, among other things, require:
a. use of a yellow triangle pictogram containing an exclamation point;
b. a more unequivocal warning statement indicating that the product “can expose” a user to chemicals known to the State to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm;
c. listing particular chemicals if they are among a group of twelve which are the most frequent targets of Proposition 65 litigation;
d. adding a URL to all warnings linking a public website that OEHHA will operate to provide information supplementing the warning for those so interested (see below); and
e. presentation of the warning in languages in addition to English if the product label otherwise uses languages other than English.
The proposed new Proposition 65 warning regulations specify alternative and additional requirements for certain types of products, including for food, restaurants, and several products or facilities that have previously been the subject of enforcement litigation. They also adopt revised and more onerous requirements for warnings for “environmental exposures,” such as for air emissions that arise from the operation of facilities or equipment within the State. As proposed, businesses will have two years from the adoption of a final rule to transition their warnings to meet the requirements of the new regulation, after which they can face enforcement actions and citizen’s suits for products in the California market that still bear the old (or no) warnings.
2) New Proposition 65 Website-Related Requirements Proposed for Adoption: Although not contemplated by the voters when they approved Proposition 65 over twenty-five years ago, OEHHA is also proposing that it operate a website to provide information to the public to supplement and explain the basis for the Proposition 65 warnings given by businesses. Information to be provided on this website may include the routes or pathways by which exposure to a chemical from a product may occur, OEHHA’s quantification of the level of exposure to a chemical presented by a product, and other information that may be of interest to plaintiffs as well as to sensitive consumers and other members of the public.
Significantly, in addition to its potential public education function, the proposed website regulations also empower OEHHA to require that manufacturers, importers, and distributors of products bearing a Proposition 65 warning provide the agency with information if so requested. Such information may include the identities of the chemicals in the product for which a warning is being given, the location or components of a product in which such chemicals are present, the concentration of those chemicals, and “any other information the lead agency deems necessary.” While trade secret protection may be asserted in some circumstances, the requirement to provide information to OEHHA will be enforceable by public prosecutors, including the California Attorney General and District Attorneys.
3) Potential Changes Relative to Proposition 65’s “Safe Harbor” Levels for Chemicals Listed for Reproductive Effects: Lead has been the focus of the vast majority of all Proposition 65 enforcement actions to date and resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of settlements with national and international implications over the past two decades. Cases have included those concerning trace levels of lead in ceramic tableware, water faucets, candy, mini-blinds, toys, and a wide array of other consumer products and foods. However, in 2013, a trial concerning lead in 100% fruit juices, packaged fruits, and baby foods resulted in a highly significant Proposition 65 defense verdict based on a judge’s finding that the trace levels of lead exposure presented by each of these products was less that the State’s published “safe harbor” warning threshold for lead of 0.5 “micrograms/day.” A California Court of Appeal decision published earlier this year sustained, among other things, the trial court’s finding that it was permissible for defendants’ experts to construct a daily average level of exposure based on real world data concerning the frequency of the consumption of the products at issue over a fourteen day time period. Environmental Law Foundation v. Beech-Nut Corporation, et al., 325 Cal.App.4th 307 (2015).
In anticipation of this type of appellate decision, earlier this year, one of the most historically active Proposition 65 plaintiff’s groups, the Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation, filed a lawsuit seeking a writ of mandate and declaratory relief challenging the 0.5 microgram/day “safe harbor” for lead. Mateel contends that California’s published threshold for lead was not set consistently with Proposition 65’s 1,000-fold safety factor requirement for reproductive toxicants. It therefore argues that this longstanding Proposition 65 safe harbor threshold should be declared illegal and inoperative despite it having been published more than 25 years ago and relied on for thousands of settlements and warning decisions. Mateel further argues in its case that OEHHA should be ordered to promptly establish a dramatically more stringent safe harbor level for lead based on updated science concerning trace level exposures to lead. It also seeks to have OEHHA ordered to adopt a rule precluding the averaging of exposure across multiple days in relation to the lead safe harbor level. A second prominent citizen’s group, the Center for Environmental Health, which also focuses on Proposition 65 enforcement, submitted an administrative petition to OEHHA in early July seeking relief parallel to that sought by Mateel, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.
OEHHA has just announced that, in response to this petition, it will soon initiate a rulemaking to update the existing Proposition 65 safe harbor for lead and several related Proposition 65 regulations. The proposals include several major changes in the way the extent of exposure is calculated and how Proposition 65’s regulatory exemption for “naturally occurring” exemption for foods is determined. OEHHA’s new proposals essentially seek to nullify the important Beech-Nut precedents and will likely make it even more difficult for businesses to defend Proposition 65 claims about lead and the nearly 300 other chemicals listed for reproductive effects, especially those that may be present as trace contaminants in food products. OEHHA’s proposals include the following four elements:
A. Revised Safe Harbor for Lead and Other Chemicals. OEHHA proposes to repeal the current safe harbor level for lead (the Maximum Allowable Dose Level or MADL). In its place, OEHHA proposes multiple levels that depend on the frequency of exposure, from exposure once per day to once every 116 or more days. OEHHA asserts that the once-per-day figure should be reduced from 0.5 to 0.2 micrograms/day and that the existing 0.5 microgram/day level should instead apply only to exposures that occur no more than once every third day. For exposures that would occur only once every 6 to 9 days, the lead safe harbor figure would rise to 1.0 microgram/day and to higher amounts as exposure intervals become more infrequent. Plaintiffs’ groups contend that the lead safe harbor should be an order of magnitude lower at 0.03 micrograms per single day and do not want any alternative levels based on frequency of exposure over time. Despite its proposal for lead, as to all other chemicals listed for reproductive effects OEHHA proposes to eliminate any consideration of the frequency of exposure when safe harbor levels are applied.
B. Naturally Occurring Allowances for Lead and Arsenic in Some Foods. OEHHA also proposes to adopt specific naturally occurring allowances for lead and arsenic (but not other chemicals such as cadmium) in some specific types of food ingredients/products. The allowances for arsenic are 60 ppb and 130 ppb for white and brown rice respectively. For lead, they are 8.8 ppb for raw leafy vegetables and 6.2 ppb for raw non-leafy vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, eggs, and fresh milk. The agency bases its proposal on data regarding background levels of lead in soil in California as well as rates of uptake by relevant plants.
C. Averaging of Product Samples. OEHHA further proposes to expressly prohibit averaging lead or other contaminant levels across different lots of a food product in the final form it will be purchased by a consumer. It would instead require that the level of a contaminant in a lot of food be determined by “representative sampling” from within a particular lot. OEHHA also would define a “lot” on a production basis, apparently by reference to date or production codes, which could significantly increase the amount of testing required. Testing on this scale may be infeasible for most businesses.
D. Average Rate of Exposure. Finally, OEHHA proposes to dictate that, as to any Proposition 65-listed chemical (lead or otherwise), the “average rate of exposure” must always be calculated based on the arithmetic mean and not a geometric mean or some other measure of the central tendency of a data set. OEHHA’s proposal flies directly in the face of the scientific testimony that prevailed in Beech-Nut and the prior position of the California Attorney General’s office on this issue.
OEHHA has scheduled public hearings to further discuss its new proposals on October 14 and 19, 2015. It is also inviting written public comment on the lead safe harbor issue until October 28, 2015, and on the averaging issues until November 2, 2015.
Posted on August 5, 2015
On June 23, 2015, a Superior Court judge in Seattle ordered the Washington State Department of Ecology to reconsider its decision denying a petition for rulemaking on climate change issues. Ecology had earlier decided to deny the petition and instead wait to see if the international community makes progress at the upcoming Paris climate talks. The judge, however, found Ecology’s reasoning inadequate and was especially put off by Ecology’s decision to wait for the outcome of the conference of the parties scheduled to take place in December, 2015 in Paris. The judge ordered Ecology to reconsider its decision, and to report back to the court by August 7. The court presumably hopes the parties will engage in settlement negotiations in the meantime.
A group of eight young people filed the petition for rulemaking in 2014. As the judge noted, they are “[f]rustrated by an historical lack of political will to respond adequately to the increasingly urgent and dire acceleration of global warming.” Their petition asked Ecology to adopt a proposed rule recommending to the Legislature that it update the state’s existing 2007 climate change statute to reflect the most recent science on greenhouse gas reductions. (The most recent science calls for larger reductions than does the statute.)
More important, the petition does not specify particular actions Ecology should take. Instead, it tells Ecology to achieve the reductions science calls for by using all its statutory authorities. This might include new rulemaking under the Clean Air Act, new permits under all Ecology’s programs, broader use of Ecology’s land use and EIS authorities, and perhaps more.
It’s notable that this decision came just two days before a similar one in the Netherlands that John Dernbach discussed July 21 in his blog post.
Looks as though judges all over the world are getting tired of waiting on the other branches of government.
Posted on July 28, 2015
ACOEL Fellow John Cruden, head of DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, recently gave this speech to the ABA Litigation Section on the current direction of federal environmental enforcement efforts. The speech focuses on efforts to coordinate with and leverage local, state, regional and international partners.
Posted on May 6, 2015
When selecting best management practices (BMPs) to protect streams during and following construction, riparian buffers are often considered the most effective option. These permanently vegetated areas alongside waterbodies can capture, infiltrate and control stormwater flow, filter contaminants, stabilize stream banks and otherwise help protect and restore waterbodies and the ecological functions they support. Recognizing the particular importance of riparian buffers located adjacent to exceptional value and high quality waters designated for special protection, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), like many other state environmental regulatory agencies, adopted regulations prohibiting earth disturbance activity within 150 feet of a special protection waterbody. The regulations further required a property developer to protect or establish a riparian forest buffer under certain circumstances where waters in the project’s watershed fail to attain their designated uses.
And then along came the Pennsylvania legislature. Faced with objections from homebuilders and other developers to restrictions on use of their properties, the legislature enacted Act 162 of 2014 to provide developers with additional options. Under Act 162, a developer who requires an NPDES stormwater construction permit may disturb land within 150 feet of a special protection waterbody if it implements BMPs “substantially equivalent” to a riparian buffer or a riparian forest buffer. If the earth disturbance would occur in a special protection watershed within 100 feet of a surface water, the developer must also offset any reduction of the total square footage of the buffer zone that would have been utilized as a BMP with a replacement buffer. The replacement buffer must be created in the same drainage area as the disturbed buffer and be as close as feasible to the area of disturbance at a ratio of one-to-one.
In response to the passage of Act 162, PADEP recently published interim final guidances on equivalency demonstration and offsetting. The equivalency demonstration guidance requires each developer disturbing earth within 150 feet of a special protection water to implement BMPs that reduce loadings of pollutants including total suspended solids, total phosphorous and nitrate. In addition, the developer must show that its BMPs are functionally equivalent to a riparian buffer or forested buffer by providing, among others, habit for wildlife and vegetation, flood attenuation, channel stability and support of aquatic food webs. Under the buffer offsetting guidance, a replacement buffer should be composed of native, diverse tree and shrub vegetation and preferably be installed at a location that receives runoff with characteristics similar to or more degraded than the runoff that the replaced buffer would have encountered.
While many regulatory regimes afford environmental agencies discretion to grant waivers and exceptions to buffer protection requirements, Pennsylvania has by statute granted developers the option of using substantially equivalent BMPs, supplemented where necessary by offsetting. PADEP has drafted guidances with stringent criteria for demonstrating equivalency and offsetting, but the guidances have yet to be finalized let alone judicially reviewed. Experience in administering Act 162 will reveal whether, under PADEP’s watchful eye, equivalency and offsetting can uniformly serve as effective substitutes for a prohibition on development near special protection waters. In the meanwhile, some healthy skepticism is in order.
Posted on February 12, 2015
When one thinks of New York’s late Governor Mario Cuomo, some remember an eloquent and gifted orator, a complex man of integrity and vision, or the erudite son of Italian immigrants who ran a grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens, NY. Others may remember him for his ideological “Tale of Two Cities” keynote address at the 1984 Democratic Convention, which highlighted his “progressive pragmatism” governing philosophy. Yet others will recall his staunch opposition to the death penalty or his investments in public infrastructure, including convention centers, stadiums, industrial parks and his controversial prison building program. Or perhaps he will be remembered for his aggressive and strategic skills on a basketball court. It was no secret that basketball was the Governor’s great passion and it was widely known that he was ferocious on the basketball court.
But not too many think of Mario Cuomo for his environmental legacy. Upon the Governor’s death on January 1, 2015, however, many memorials, tributes and articles poured in from Buffalo to the Adirondacks to the Hudson Valley to Long Island, from environmentalists and environmental organizations such as the New York League of Conservation Voters, the Adirondack Council and Scenic Hudson, all spotlighting a rather impressive environmental legacy.
Here are some notable examples of Mario Cuomo’s environmental accomplishments during his 12 years as Governor (1983-1994):
- He pressed for the passage of the Hudson River Valley Greenway Act of 1991, which established the Greenway Conservancy for the Hudson River Valley and the beginnings of the Hudson River Greenway Trail System and scenic byways which now exist as a necklace of parks, hiking trails and open space on both sides of the Hudson River running the length of the Hudson Valley. The Greenway trails have expanded from Westchester to Albany.
- He signed the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act in 1994, which protected over 100,000 acres of Long Island’s premier ecosystems in the pine barrens of Suffolk County. Many believed that without the Act a large portion of these ecologically diverse pine barrens would have been sold off by the state for industrial or residential development.
- He worked to gain passage of the 1986 Environmental Quality Bond Act, which funded a $1 billion hazardous waste clean-up program to address more than 1,000 sites throughout the State. It also enabled programs such as the Estuary Program to restore the Hudson River and provided $200 million for land acquisition and historic preservation.
- In response to urging by Governor Mario Cuomo’s administration, the U.S. EPA reopened its “no action” determination against GE and commenced a lengthy CERCLA enforcement battle against GE that led to GE’s on-going remediation of the PCB-contaminated Hudson River.
- The Governor is also credited with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), following a failed effort in 1990 for another bond act. The EPF has provided billions of dollars for farmland conservation, wastewater treatment plant upgrades, parks creation, waterfront revitalization, invasive species controls, development of recycling programs and the restoration of historic sites. Since its 1993 enactment, the EPF has invested more than $2.7 billion to conserve some of the State’s most important scenic and ecological lands and been used to buy development rights on hundreds of thousands of acres of commercial timberland in the Adirondacks.
- Mario Cuomo also signed legislation establishing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund for water and wastewater infrastructure, which provides low interest loans for this critical infrastructure.
The current New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner, Joe Martens, (who was an environmental adviser to Governor Mario Cuomo in the early 1990s), recently observed that Mario Cuomo “was never comfortable” as a hiker or a canoeist. “He was more comfortable in a suit or in sweat pants than he was in hiking clothes.” Nevertheless, Commissioner Martens noted, Mario Cuomo “regarded protection of the environment as almost a religious belief”, and “he talked about it in spiritual terms all the time.” Mario Cuomo will be missed, but his environmental legacy will live on.
Posted on January 30, 2015
On Monday, January 26, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its opinion in Morristown Associates, a closely watched case on the potential applicability of the state’s general 6-year limitations period to actions by contribution plaintiffs under the state’s strict, joint and several liability cleanup law, the Spill Compensation and Control Act (commonly referred to as the “Spill Act”).
The Court found no such applicability, and declined to impose a limitations period for commencement of Spill Act contribution actions.
The Spill Act itself expressly provides private parties with a powerful statutory cause of action to seek recompense from others (known as “contribution defendants”) for costs incurred in cleaning up and removing discharges of hazardous substances. Defenses are statutorily limited to those set forth in the Spill Act, such as acts of war, sabotage and God. The Spill Act does not articulate a limitations period within which aggrieved parties must commence contribution actions.
Lower state courts had differed on the question of imposing a Spill Act limitations period, and decisions of the federal district court in New Jersey had applied New Jersey’s general 6-year statute, noting that this would be consistent with the approach under CERCLA -- the federal Superfund law -- which does impose limitations periods. In the trial court and appeals court decisions in Morristown Associates, both of the lower courts had found the state’s general 6-year period to be applicable. The trial court further held that the 6-year limitation period commenced at the point when the contribution plaintiff should have discovered through investigation that it had the basis for a Spill Act claim, another point that the Appellate Division affirmed.
Focusing on the plain language of the Spill Act, and the legislature’s express statements of intent as set forth in the law, the Supreme Court rejected application of any limitation period. The Court particularly looked to the restricted set of defenses under the law, and the verbiage that contribution defendants are to be afforded “only” those defenses.
The Court found that the plain text of the Spill Act supports the legislature’s intention to include no statute of limitations defense, noting that “the Spill Act is remedial legislation designed to cast a wide net over those responsible for hazardous substances and their discharge on the land and waters of this state.”
The Court also saw “no reason to interpose in these factually complex cases a new requirement to determine when one knew of a discharge in order to afford the remediating party the contribution right that the Spill Act confers as against all other responsible parties. We decline to handicap the Spill Act’s intentionally broad effect in such manner.”
The Appellate Division’s judgment was reversed, and the case remanded.
Posted on January 27, 2015
On December 17, 2014, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced that high volume hydraulic fracturing to recover natural gas (a/k/a “fracking”) will be banned on a state-wide basis. Is this good law, good science, good policy (or politics)? Perhaps the most important question is who should decide – states or local governments?
The DEC’s decision to ban fracking is based on the recommendation of the state’s Department of Health (DOH), which just completed a two-year study of the state of the science on the environmental and public health risks posed by fracking. DEC requested this study after it received over 13,000 public comments on its 2009 draft programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) for a proposed fracking permit program in New York State.
The DOH study concluded that the cumulative body of scientific information demonstrates that there are “significant uncertainties” about the environmental and public health risks of fracking --- including air pollution, drinking water contamination, surface water contamination, earthquakes, and community impacts such as increased vehicle traffic, noise and odor problems. The DOH concluded that “it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done.”
In accepting DOH’s recommendation, DEC noted that its own review had identified dozens of potentially significant adverse impacts from fracking, and concluded that “the risks substantially outweigh any potential economic benefits” from fracking. The Commissioner of DEC directed staff to complete the final programmatic EIS for fracking early this year, after which the fracking ban will be put into place. (No fracking has been permitted in New York State in the interim.)
The DEC decision follows a June 2014 ruling by the New York’s highest court affirming local governments’ authority under the state’s constitution and statutes to use zoning laws to ban fracking in their jurisdictions.
There are good policy reasons for leaving the decision of whether to allow fracking up to local communities. After all, they bear most of the environmental and potential public health risks that fracking poses. Local communities may be in the best position to decide whether those risks, or even perceived risks, are worth the economic benefits that fracking development can bring to local economies. The Town of Dryden and Cooperstown cases make it clear that citizens and neighbors do not always agree on the right outcome for their communities.
But many of the local controversies seem to be based, at least in part, on citizens’ differing perceptions of the nature and level of risk that fracking poses to their environment and health. Surely, the scientists in the state departments of health and environmental conservation are in a better position to evaluate that risk than local governments or individual citizens. By making this science-based decision on behalf of all its citizens (whether you agree with it or not), New York State should be given credit for stepping up to perform one of the most basic responsibilities of state government – protecting the public health.
Posted on January 9, 2015
While Congress designed CERCLA to enhance EPA’s ability to respond to hazardous contamination, the statute requires a level of cooperation between federal and state authorities for certain CERCLA activities, including the NPL listing process. But like parents forcing middle-schoolers to dance in etiquette class, Congress’s efforts to make EPA coordinate with States often begins with squabbles over who leads and ends with squashed toes.
So how much state involvement is required under CERCLA? More than you might think. For example, CERCLA section 121(f) states that EPA must provide “for substantial and meaningful involvement” by each State in the “initiation, development, and selection of remedial actions to be undertaken in that State.” This includes state involvement in decisions whether to perform preliminary assessments and site inspections, allocation of responsibility for hazardous ranking system scoring, negotiations with potentially responsible parties, and participation in long-term planning processes for sites within the State. CERCLA section 104(c)(3) mandates that before EPA can provide a Superfund remedial action in a particular State, the State must provide EPA with specified assurances in writing. Those assurances include the State’s agreeing to undertake “all future maintenance of the removal and remedial actions provided for the expected life of such actions” and paying “10 per centum of the costs of the remedial action, including all future maintenance.” These statutory provisions are confirmed and enhanced by EPA’s own regulations. See, e.g., 40 C.F.R. 300.500; id. at 300.510. Further, two EPA guidance memoranda outline a process “to include State input in NPL listing decisions” and to resolve disputes “in cases where [an EPA] Regional Office . . . recommends proposing or placing a site on the [NPL], but the State . . . opposes listing the site.” See Memo. from Elliot P. Laws, Asst. Admin. EPA Off. of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (“OSWER”), to EPA Reg. Admins., at 1 (Nov 14, 1996); Memo. from Timothy Fields, Jr., Asst. Admin. OSWER, to EPA Reg. Admins., at 1 (July 5, 1997) (Fields Memo.). This policy requires EPA regional offices to “determine the position of the State on sites that EPA is considering for NPL listing . . . as early in the site assessment process as practical,” to “work closely with the State to try to resolve [any] issue[s],” and to provide the State with “the opportunity to present its opposing position in writing” before EPA Headquarters “decide[s] whether to pursue NPL listing.” Fields Memo. at 2.
EPA has historically taken these laws, rules, and guidance to heart, consciously trying to avoid stepping on state feet in the NPL listing process. Of the over 200 sites that EPA has proposed for listing since 1995, only the Fox River Site in Wisconsin was proposed over state opposition—and that listing was never finalized. EPA’s deference makes sense considering that a failure to obtain state assurances generally means EPA cannot access the Superfund to finance its remedial activities. Unfortunately, there are signs EPA’s cooperative approach may be changing. EPA recently proposed the 35th Avenue site in Birmingham, Alabama, for NPL listing without Alabama’s concurrence. While EPA claims state support for the listing (79 Fed. Reg. 56,538, 56,544 (Sept. 22, 2014)), the rulemaking docket contains letters of opposition from both the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Alabama Attorney General. Alabama has made clear that it has no ability to fund any remedial efforts at the site, and has no intention of providing any of the required assurances. Moreover, EPA did not follow its own guidance regarding the “nonconcurrence” dispute. In short, while EPA and Alabama are facing one another, EPA may have shown up to this dance wearing jackboots.
Posted on December 11, 2014
A thought occurred to me recently, and not for the first time, about the decisions of the New Jersey state judiciary, including our Supreme Court, in the area of environmental law generally and site remediation particularly. My realization was that those decisions are driven as much by a desire to facilitate the remediation of contaminated sites as they are by principled interpretation of statutes, regulations, canons of construction and the like.
Such an approach, of course, is understandable on one level, as New Jersey environmental statutes are ameliorative in nature, a cleaner environment is in the interest of everyone, and our fair state has suffered environmentally from its industrial legacy more than most jurisdictions. But on a deeper level, courts are supposed to decide cases in accordance with law, and deciding cases with a particular goal in mind may result in an injustice to the litigants. Moreover, fuzzy reasoning could provide inaccurate guidance to the bar and public.
In one recent case, for example, the Supreme Court of New Jersey was called upon to determine the degree of causation that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) needed to establish in order to impose liability on a discharger of hazardous materials. Rather than simply requiring proximate cause, the court hemmed and hawed its way along, formulating the appropriate standard at various points as a “real, not hypothetical” connection, and as a “reasonable nexus or connection” between the alleged discharger and the discharge.
The Court ultimately held that the standard of causation needed to establish liability varies with the form of relief requested. Unfortunately, the Court provided no support for this approach, which conflates the proof needed to establish liability with what is necessary to impose damages. This leads to the conclusion that the Court was reluctant to impose a difficult burden of proof on the state and, presumably, private litigants which could result in judgments for defendants and hence, in the Court’s view, deter remediation of contaminated sites.
In another recent case, the Supreme Court had to determine the interplay between the jurisdiction of a state agency and state trial courts in adjudicating liability for site remediation. The Court reversed the trial and appellate courts and held that a litigant could seek relief in court before the contours of the remediation had been firmly established.
Undergirding the Court’s reasoning was pragmatism – the earlier we allow a contribution plaintiff to pursue other responsible parties, the more the defendants will be encouraged to participate in the remediation process, thereby facilitating more and faster cleanups. While the result was correct as a matter of existing law, the reasoning was weighted far too heavily with an eye towards the result.
Finally, in a case that recently was argued and awaits adjudication, the Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a statute of limitations exists under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act, our state’s CERCLA analog, and, if so, how long it is and when it begins to run. Implicit in many of the questions the Court asked the advocates was which resolution would facilitate the faster remediation of more sites – no statute of limitations at all, which would allow remedial claims to be brought at any time and not foreclose an action, or a limitations period which would incentivize the plaintiff and defendants to move forward more quickly to clean up sites.
Remediating the environment, and making sure responsible parties are held to their obligations, are plainly laudable goals. But a little less focus on the ultimate environmental outcome and greater adherence to the principles of adjudication, statutory interpretation and the like would improve the quality of justice without sacrificing environmental protection.