On May 19, 2020, President Trump issued an Executive Order (EO) intended to combat the unprecedented effect COVID-19 has had on the American economy, by directing agencies to remove or ease regulatory barriers to spur economic growth.  In general, the EO directs agencies to ease regulatory and enforcement burdens that may inhibit economic recovery, provide guidance on what the law requires, recognize the efforts of regulated industries to comply with the law, and ensure fairness in administrative enforcement and adjudication. Perhaps most notably, the EO is written broadly enough that agencies may look beyond COVID-19-related impacts when considering how to implement the EO.
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EPA is attempting to thread the needle in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic: offering clarity about ongoing federal environmental obligations to the broad swath of regulated entities faced with the threat of significant disruptions and other challenges, while contending with intense opposition from others who perceive its temporary enforcement policy as a “free pass to pollute” and a failure to enforce legal requirements. Notwithstanding the mounting scrutiny from U.S. Senators, states, and citizens groups, and now a legal challenge, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) has continued implementing its temporary policy regarding the exercise of enforcement discretion due to the COVID-19 pandemic via issuance of additional guidance on National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) reporting. Other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Railroad Commission of Texas, and the California Environmental Protection Agency have followed EPA’s lead in issuing their own temporary policies related to the pandemic.
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Today, April 10, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its anticipated interim guidance on impacts to operations at cleanup sites due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The guidance memorandum, issued jointly by the heads of EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM) and Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) and directed to Regional EPA Administrators, focuses on adjusting response activities at cleanup sites under a number of EPA administered programs and emergency responses due to the COVID-19 situation and the myriad of state and local shelter-in-place and business curtailment orders.
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Commentary regarding the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) memorandum articulating a temporary policy applying enforcement discretion in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has been significant this week. Proponents and critics alike have misinterpreted the scope of the policy as reaching far beyond what OECA’s memorandum actually stated. As we stated in Deciphering EPA’s Temporary Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 and as the EPA has now confirmed, the “temporary policy” of exercising enforcement discretion for noncompliance “resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic” is not a free pass to pollute, despite opponent’s musings to the contrary.

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Regulated industry has been expressing significant concern about disruption as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and seeking assurance from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the extraordinary circumstances across the United States would be taken into account in the event of any unanticipated noncompliance. Yesterday, March 26, 2020, EPA’s (EPA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) Assistant Administrator Susan Parker Bodine responded to these concerns with the issuance of a memorandum addressing the impact of the current global COVID-19 pandemic on EPA’s enforcement program. In it, OECA commits EPA to a “temporary policy” of exercising enforcement discretion for noncompliance “resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” provided that regulated entities follow the steps required in the policy.

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As the country responds and adapts to unprecedented change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are, understandably, attempting to sort out what these shifts mean for operations now and in the near future. One operational aspect that companies must address is management of environmental compliance programs and responsibilities. Although it can be challenging to maintain compliance with environmental requirements during periods of uncertain or disrupted operations, doing so remains necessary as environmental regulatory requirements remain in force, despite disruptions to government functions. The current operational and regulatory climate is fluid and changing daily (at least), making it incumbent upon companies to remain vigilant in monitoring for updates and understanding the status of rules and requirements at any given moment. The keys to successfully navigating compliance challenges during the pandemic are preparedness, situational awareness, and early and frequent communication with regulatory agencies as appropriate, with the assistance of counsel as needed.

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EPA’s National Compliance Initiatives for fiscal years 2020 through 2023, recently released, replace the former National Enforcement Initiatives and aim to help regulated entities understand their compliance obligations. Additionally, the Agency plans to focus on returning to compliance through information actions, building state capacity, supporting state actions, bringing Federal civil administrative actions and bringing civil or criminal judicial enforcement actions.
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Standing may seem like an arcane concept, but, as lawyers, we know that this term has special legal meaning—and that it affects whether our clients or our clients’ opponents can successfully bring a lawsuit. Understanding standing is no easy task. In a decision by the DC Circuit last week, the Sierra Club was reminded just how important standing can be when challenging, or more to the point attempting to challenge, environmental laws, and the DC Circuit has not just singled out environmental groups in requiring a showing of standing.
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Last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its annual enforcement results for the 2018 fiscal year (ranging from October 1, 2017, to September 30, 2018). The report, prepared by EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), highlights the results of the agency’s civil and criminal enforcement of the nation’s federal environmental laws over the past year.
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in July issued a long-awaited decision in the case Cooling Water Intake Structure Coalition v. U.S. EPA, upholding the EPA’s 2014 Rule establishing requirements pursuant to Clean Water Act section 316(b) for cooling water intake structures at existing facilities. The court also upheld the biological opinion and incidental take statement issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service on the 2014 Rule.
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