In its ruling today in Atlantic Richfield Company v. Christian, the Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Montana Supreme Court allowing owners of contaminated residential properties at one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites to pursue state law claims for damages in the form of restoration of their properties beyond the cleanup mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rejecting claims by the defendant in the state court action that these claims were barred by the terms of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The Court also held that the property owners, although never pursued by EPA to contribute to any of the CERCLA response costs at the site, nonetheless were “potentially responsible parties” within the meaning of the statute, and therefore would be required to obtain approval from EPA for any additional cleanup arising under state law.
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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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All three branches of the federal government are currently considering the question of whether the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) prohibits the take of protected birds that is incidental to some otherwise lawful activity. The latest development is a proposal by US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS or Service) to issue a regulation expressly defining the scope of the MBTA to exclude take “that results from, but is not the purpose of, an action (i.e., incidental taking or killing).” 85 Fed. Reg. 5915 (Feb. 3, 2020). This proposal is the latest effort by the USFWS to bring clarity and certainty to a question that has been the subject of dispute for years and is currently both the subject of pending lawsuits and proposed legislation before Congress. If adopted, the rule should bolster the current administration’s effort to defend its interpretation of the statute, but the question is likely to be litigated further, assuming Congress does not intervene (seemingly unlikely for now).
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On December 20, 2019, the Supreme Court of The Netherlands ruled in a climate case brought against the state by Urgenda, a non-governmental organization for “a fast transition towards a sustainable society.” The Court of Appeal and the Court of The Hague had previously ruled on Urgenda’s claims. In both instances, the courts granted Urgenda’s claim that the Dutch state should reduce emissions of CO2 from its territory by at least 25% by the end of 2020. The Supreme Court rejected the state’s appeal and confirmed the ruling.
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Texas policymakers continue to focus on produced water beneficial reuse. On January 22, 2020, the Texas Senate Committees on Natural Resources and Economic Development and Water and Rural Affairs held a joint hearing to consider Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s 2019 interim legislative charge related to one of the most pressing matters facing the state—future water supply issues. This interim charge requires that these legislative committees make recommendations to promote the state’s water supply, including the development of new sources.
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Grocery shopping, you stand in the dairy section. The milk in front is dated three days out, but you see the milk toward the back is dated ten days out. You push aside the “three-day” milk and grab a half-gallon of the organic, one-percent “ten-day” milk. You may have just contributed to “food waste.” If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, behind only China and the United States.

While food waste has been an issue for some time (the statistic above has been circulating since at least 2011), the last 18 months have seen the United States government taking a more active role in the subject. In October 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), (collectively, the Agencies) signed a formal agreement increasing their collaboration and coordination regarding the reduction of food waste as part of a newly announced Winning on Reducing Food Waste initiative (Federal Agreement).
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How can sitting still in the Northeast potentially land you in a world of trouble under the Federal Clean Air Act (CAA) and corresponding state laws? Quite easily, if you happen to be in or leave a vehicle with its engine on and the vehicle itself is not in motion for more than a few minutes. That is the definition of “unnecessary vehicle idling” in many jurisdictions.

Across the Northeast and elsewhere, unnecessary vehicle idling is, subject to certain nuances and exceptions, generally prohibited. Recently, violators have come under attack by non-governmental organizations. State penalties vary, but the potential exposure can be severe, especially when the statutory maximum available penalties are calculated pursuant to the Federal CAA and compounded on a per-violation/per-day basis. Accordingly, owners and operators of all forms of trucking and transit companies should not sit still and should take proactive measures to educate or reeducate vehicle schedulers and operators alike on these anti-idling requirements.
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