Environmental Law Update – Fall 2017

On October 19, 2017, NH DES released a letter to Responsible Parties, Owners and Permittees of certain classes of properties to conduct testing for Per- and Poly-flouroalkyl substances (PFAS).  “Landfills (lined, unlined, active, and/or closed) that are subject to groundwater monitoring requirements” are identified as sites where NH DES will require the initial screening.  As noted in the letter, NH DES “strongly encourages stakeholders to sample and analyze, at a minimum, for the expanded list of nine PFAS analytes outline in the Guidance” provided by NH DES.

On October 18, 2017, the Rhode Island DEM established a 70 parts per trillion Groundwater Quality Standard for PFOA, PFOS or any combination of these compounds in groundwater classified as GAA or GA (groundwater suitable for drinking water use without treatment). Read More → “Environmental Law Update – Fall 2017”

POTUS Has Trumped WOTUS Before SCOTUS

In our Spring and Fall 2015 Newsletters, we predicted a growing morass of litigation challenging the EPA and Army Corps’ Clean Water Rule (the “Rule”). The Rule sought to codify the criteria the agencies have applied on a case-by-case basis using the three alternative tests announced by the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006) to define the jurisdictional scope of Waters of the United States (“WOTUS”) under the Clean Water Act. As we predicted, industry groups, 30 states and environmental groups challenged the extension of EPA jurisdiction in federal district and appellate courts.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a nationwide stay of the Rule, and later agreed with the federal government that the Rule was reviewable exclusively in the circuit courts of appeal.  The SCOTUS agreed to resolve the jurisdictional fights over which federal court should hear challenges to the Rule.  Thus, the Sixth Circuit stayed the litigation over the merits of the WOTUS Rule until the SCOTUS decides the narrow jurisdictional question of which courts have jurisdiction to hear substantive challenges to the Rule.  SCOTUS arguments are scheduled for April with an expected June decision.  On April 3, 2017, SCOTUS denied POTUS’ request to stay hearing on the venue for the WOTUS review.

During the campaign, Donald Trump pledged to “eliminate the unconstitutional” Rule and to “direct the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA to no longer use this unlawful rule and related guidance documents in making jurisdictional determinations.”  The SCOTUS grant of review gave the POTUS time to decide how to eliminate the Rule.  On February 28, 2017, the POTUS decried the Rule as a “massive power grab” and signed an Executive Order to direct EPA Administrator Pruitt to begin the legal process to dismantle the Rule and to Attorney General Sessions to ask the court to delay a decision until a new regulation is released.  The process for withdrawing the Rule is lengthy, will require justification, be subject to public comment, and potential challenge in new lawsuits which may end up in the SCOTUS, that will include the POTUS’ newly appointed justice, Neil Gorsuch.  The Republican Congress could also scuttle the Rule legislatively.  (A non-binding resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives that supports the Executive Order.)  Congress could also defund EPA wetlands activities.

The Pruitt EPA will likely be less aggressive in enforcing Clean Water Act violations.  Massachusetts may not be as affected because it has a strong Wetlands Protection Act and many municipalities have Home Rule Wetlands Protection laws.

Until SCOTUS addresses the new Rule years from now, EPA and the Corps presumably will make WOTUS determinations using the Rapanos tests.  A Corps’ Jurisdictional Determination will in turn be subject to judicial review as “final agency action” under the SCOTUS decision in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc., 101 S. Ct. 1807 (2016).  Lawyers for industry, public interests, conservationists and environmental organizations will be fully employed for the next decade.

The Demise of the Stream Protection Rule

The Republican Congress and the POTUS have stricken the Interior Department’s Stream Protection Rule that protected waterways from coal mining that was eight years in the making.  The rule would have imposed stronger requirements for avoiding coal mining practices that pollute streams and sources of drinking water, for restoring streams, and for reclaiming and replanting mined lands.  Testing and monitoring of streams near coal mines before, during and after mining were required.  On February 2, 2017, Congress employed a little-used tool called the Congressional Review Act to block the rule with a simple majority vote (House 228-194 and Senate 54-45).  On February 16, 2017, the POTUS became the first president in 16 years to sign a regulatory repeal resolution.  The rule would have protected 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forest in Appalachia.

Environmental Law Update – Summer 2016

In June, President Obama signed into law a revised version of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Originally passed in 1976, TSCA was designed to have EPA evaluate chemicals to determine if their use required further regulatory control.  As TSCA was implemented it came under considerable criticism because it required the government to have evidence that a chemical posed a risk before it could require testing which could result in greater regulatory control. The new TSCA changes this approach and mandates a review of chemicals in commerce and a requirement that all new chemicals must be assessed against health-based standards – rather than under a cost-benefit standard in the original legislation.  On June 29, 2016, EPA released its First Year Implementation Plan under the revised TSCA.  The aggressive plan includes a timeline for establishing new rules under the legislation including regulations for setting criteria to identify high priority chemicals and an “Inventory Rule”, that would require industry to report the chemicals it manufactured or processed in the previous ten years.  The First Year Implementation Plan also set a schedule for the continuation of on-going projects to identify risks from TCE and chemicals involved in paint removing applications, especially the chemicals methylene chloride (MC) and methylpyrrolidone (NMP).

One of the few times that the Obama administration and Congress were able to find common ground last year resulted in a dramatic increase in fines under federal environmental statutes.  The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 included a provision to amend the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act of 1990 (Sec. 701 of Public Law 114-70).  The amendment included a “catch-up” provision that enabled agencies to adjust their penalties to account for inflation since the date the specific penalty was enacted or previously adjusted.  There was a 150% cap placed on the rate of increase, but many of the penalties under the environmental statutes administered by EPA increased dramatically.  For example, penalties under the Clean Water Act for permit violations under § 1319(d) increased from $25,000 per day of violation to $51,570.  Similarly, administrative penalties under CERCLA increased from $25,000 to $53,907 and from $75,000 to $161,721 respectively.  On July 1, 2016, EPA released the Interim Final Rule that includes the Table that will be incorporated in 40 C.F.R. § 19.4 with a complete rundown of the environmental statutes and fees.  Going forward we will likely see continued increases because the Act implements annual reviews of statutory civil penalties and allows agencies to make annual adjustments without going through the rulemaking protocols of the Administrative Procedures Act.  We will also see settlements demands dramatically increase in NPDES citizen suits under the CWA.

This Spring, Governor Baker announced that he is directing MassDEP to proceed with the steps to have the state administer the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).  Massachusetts is one of just four remaining states that do not administer the federal NPDES program at the state level.  Taking over the local administration of the NPDES program will be a multi-year process, but MassDEP has started the process.  Hopefully more local control will lead to more responsive interactions between the regulators and the regulated community, as the state and industry work together to implement best stormwater management practices for the benefit of our water resources.

In May, the Supreme Judicial Court reviewed the state’s compliance with the requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) in Kain v. DEP.  The SJC held that MassDEP failed to implement the GWSA because the agency did not “promulgate regulations that address multiple sources or categories of sources of greenhouse gas emissions, impose a limit on emissions that may be released, limit the aggregate emissions released from each group of regulated sources or category of sources, set emissions limits for each year, and set limits that decline on an annual basis.”

In August, MassDEP released proposed draft revisions of the Air Regulations at 310 CMR 7.00.  The topics addressed by these proposed regulations include: (a) establishing thresholds for greenhouse gas emissions that will require a Plan Approval; (b) requiring Plan Approvals for non-major modifications of existing Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permits; (c) updates to Reasonably Available Control Technology (RACT) requirements for volatile organic compounds; and (d) revised procedures for administrative review of an air permit issued by MassDEP.  The comment period on the proposed regulations closes on Monday, September 26, 2016.

Environmental Law Update – Fall 2015

In our Spring 2015 Environmental Law Update we predicted that there would be judicial and legislative challenges to the EPA and Army Corps’ new Clean Water Rule expanding the scope of jurisdictional waters of the United States.  The Rule seeks to codify existing criteria that EPA and the Corps have been applying on a case-by-case basis using the three alternative tests announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Rapanos v. United StatesEven before the Rule was to take effect on August 28, 2015, 27 states filed federal lawsuits challenging the regulation.

On October 9, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit stayed the Rule nationwide.  The morass of litigation prompted EPA to move to centralize pretrial proceedings in the District of Columbia.  On October 13, 2015, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation issued an Order denying transfer because the various lawsuits will involve very limited pretrial discovery as the cases will be decided on the administrative record and will turn on questions of law on alleged exceedances of statutory and constitutional authority in promulgating the rule.  The EPA and the Corps have resumed nationwide use of the prior regulations by applying case law, policy and the best science and technical data on a case-by-case basis in determining which waters and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act.  On the legislative front, on November 4, 2015, over the threat of a Presidential veto, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution to nullify the Clean Water Rule.  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Stay tuned.