On March 15, 2019, the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change held a hearing titled, “Protecting Americans at Risk of PFAS Contamination & Exposure.” The hearing examined approaches to eliminate or reduce environmental and health risks to workers and the public from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). At the hearing, there was discussion of proposed PFAS Legislation.
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The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly referred to as the Superfund law, directed the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a list of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. Sites are proposed to be placed on this “National Priorities List” (or NPL as it is known to environmental law professionals) if they exceed a certain risk score, or Hazard Ranking, and added to the List if the ranking is confirmed after a formal notice-and-comment process. A detailed set of regulations called the National Contingency Plan (NCP) governs how sites placed on the NPL will be investigated, alternative remedies evaluated, and a final remedy selected and then implemented. The NPL, the NCP, and various EPA guidance memoranda have established what practitioners acknowledge is an imperfect but generally workable process in which EPA and states work with potentially liable parties to manage cleanups at NPL sites.
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The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded a series of eight Superfund Listening Sessions between May 21 and June 18 to explain a number of initiatives to reform the Superfund program and promote the cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated sites. The PowerPoint presentations used in these sessions can be accessed here. While informative, the sessions and PowerPoint slides used by the speakers also raise some interesting questions about potential changes in the remedy selection process and the restoration of damaged natural resources.
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On May 18, the DC Circuit vacated a decision by EPA to place an Indianapolis site on the National Priorities List because the agency had ignored evidence contradicting facts underlying its listing decision. Although it is rare for a court to overturn an NPL listing, the case is a reminder that an administrative rulemaking must be based on substantial evidence, even when the agency has substantial discretion to evaluate the factual record.
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New chemicals of concern, new scientific and technical developments, newly discovered wastes, or natural disasters can add up to new CERCLA liabilities. When the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”) was passed in 1980, it did not address the finality of judgments and settlements for the cleanup of contaminated sites. Some early settlements with EPA provided a complete release from all future CERCLA liability, but that later changed when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) began to limit the scope of covenants not to sue to specified “matters covered” by the settlement. The 1986 CERCLA amendments in section 122(f)(6), 42 U.S.C. § 9622(f)(6)(1) permanently made the change to require “reopeners” in all but a few limited circumstances.
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The stakes are high for anyone facing environmental liability in the wake of superstorms like Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, and Maria. If you are among the parties potentially liable for the costs to clean up a release of oil or hazardous substances caused by a major storm event, you may be thinking about a possible “act of God” defense.  You may want to think again. In practice, the availability of this defense has proved elusive.  It is still a good idea, however,  to minimize risk in planning for the next “big one.”  Ultimately, advance actions taken to avoid or mitigate the impacts of natural disasters may be the difference between being excused from or being saddled with cleanup liability.
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The Superfund program is much criticized for good reason on many grounds. It takes too long to investigate sites and decide on the appropriate cleanup. The costs for investigation and cleanup actions are excessive. The process is seemingly never-ending as contaminated sites languish on the National Priorities List for decades.

Streamlining the process is a worthwhile goal, but equally important would be reforms to promote remedy decisions that take account of the fact the resources are not unlimited. Money spent on cleanup is not available for another purpose. Unfortunately, because of its single-minded focus on often remote human health and ecological risks associated with exposures to chemical contaminants (usually based on highly conservative exposure assumptions), the Superfund program drives a lot of resources to cleanup that likely would be better allocated to another use.


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In 1980, a lame duck Congress passed the nation’s first legislation, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, 42 U.S.C. §9601 et seq. (CERCLA), to address the cleanup of toxic waste disposal sites. Comprehensive amendments were passed six years later. Over the next 30 years, EPA’s enforcement powers were used with increasing regularity and consistency to study, begin, and often complete cleanups at hundreds of the nation’s contaminated waste sites. The program has always had its critics, but not until the current administration has there been a fundamental reassessment of its basic cost-benefit structure, just as is being done with many other federal programs.
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The application of economic principles to environmental law decisions has come a long way. Today’s conflicts over cost-benefit analysis and the value of mitigation projects and trading markets are more a sign of the important and well-accepted role that economics has come to play in environmental decision-making than a fight over the threshold question of whether economics matters at all. The battle lines have shifted. Economic concepts must be taken into account. The turf on which we now fight concerns to what extent economics should drive environmental decisions.
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