On Thursday, the Trump Administration announced that it will issue a draft regulation by the end of the year placing a limit on two chemicals frequently found in drinking water. The steps to eventually regulate two types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) known as PFOA and PFOS were announced by U.S. EPA head Andrew Wheeler. Other steps outlined Thursday include the initiation of a regulatory process to list PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances under Superfund and a promise that EPA will “very soon” release interim groundwater clean-up recommendations for sites contaminated with PFAS. EPA is also looking into regulating other chemicals in the PFAS family.

PFAS are man-made chemicals that are resistant to water, grease, and stains and have thousands of consumer and industrial uses. They can be found in carpets, camping gear, fast-food wrappers, fabrics for furniture, water-repellent fabrics, cleaners, cookware, and more. Industry uses include O-rings and gaskets that prevent mechanical breakdowns, metal plating, and fire-fighting foams. Currently, many PFAS concentrated products end up in landfills which can seep into the ground in unlined landfills or pool at the bottom of lined landfills and often end up in wastewater treatment plants that are not equipped to remove PFAS.

EPA currently has a health advisory level for PFAS compounds in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion. However, EPA plans to consider setting federal maximum contaminant levels as part of its draft regulation, which would require increased monitoring and reporting efforts, and would ultimately give the agency more authority to pursue polluters. Likewise, the designation of PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances under Superfund will give communities and states the power to recover costs of cleaning up the chemicals from polluters. In its 72-page Action Plan, EPA highlighted its intention to improve PFAS cleanup strategies, prohibit environmental release, improve monitoring, and increase enforcement of those in violation of federal PFAS standards.

According to POLITICO, even Republicans in Congress are concerned that the EPA will not move forward with a rulemaking to regulate PFOS and PFOA.  It appears acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has already approved a decision, contained in the agency’s forthcoming chemical management plan, not to add the chemicals to the group of contaminants regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  The decision follows controversy over the Trump administration’s suppression of a report from the Department of Health and Human Services which suggests that Perfluoroalkyl compounds, which include PFOS and PFOA, are more prevalent, and pose a greater risk to Americans’ health, than previously known.

The question now is whether Congress will take any action.  It has rare leverage at the moment, as Mr. Wheeler’s nomination to head the EPA as its permanent Administrator is in the hands of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  A vote is scheduled for February 5th and, on a committee where the Republicans have only a one seat advantage, a defection by any one of them could potentially kill Mr. Wheeler’s prospects.  Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia has spoken out on the need to address Perfluoroalkyl contamination and may be the deciding vote.

Given the willingness of numerous elected Republicans to come out in favor of new federal regulations for PFOS and PFOA, some additional EPA action on the subject seems inevitable sooner or later.  And although EPA is likely to add PFOS and FPOA to the list of CERCLA hazardous substances, that will probably be viewed as inadequate by many, given how prevalent the chemicals are now understood to be.

But even if eventual federal regulation of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water were a certainty, further delay will likely have several significant effects.  Deferred  remediation expenditures is one obvious one.  Less straight forward, however, is the impact from parallel state action.  Some states already regulate the chemicals in groundwater and more will likely follow, particularly in the face of federal inaction.  If more of those regulatory regimes have time to be put into place and tested on a wide scale, they could indirectly shape federal regulation.  EPA may approach its regulatory role differently in a context where a contaminant is almost completely unregulated, compared to one where many states are effectively addressing a problem.  Furthermore, the Clean Drinking Water Act regulation must consider economic costs and benefits, and if states push ahead in this area they may spur the generation of substantial data on which the Agency can make that assessment.

We expect a lot more news and developments in this area and will be tracking it closely at Environmental Law Next.

The longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history continues to affect around 800,000 federal workers and major agencies, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”). Despite the shutdown, however, many EPA employees are being called into work without pay.

On January 14, 2019, EPA updated its contingency plan for shut down to increase the total number of “excepted personnel” to 891 or 6.37% of its total workforce. EPA’s contingency plan lists 486 HQ program employees as “excepted personnel” and 405 regional employees as “excepted personnel.” 22 of the excepted regional employees include those located in Chicago at Region 5.

“Excepted personnel” are those that are necessary to perform excepted activities and are excluded from furlough during the shutdown, but only for the hours/days it takes them to perform their excepted activities. “Excepted activities” include activities such as providing for homeland and national security or personal services necessary to respond to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, where the threat to human life or property is imminent. Such personal services include legal counseling, litigation, and law enforcement activities designed to protect human life and property from imminent threat. EPA has also stated that work in preparing for a congressional hearing is “excepted,” and, as such, EPA “excepted a limited number of employees” to help Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler prepare for his confirmation hearing, which the Senate held Wednesday.

As the partial government shutdown continues, it is expected that EPA functions and personnel responsibilities will continue to be limited to activities that are necessary to protect public health and safety. According to EPA’s contingency plan, once EPA receives notification that an appropriation has been approved or is imminent, it will contact EPA regional offices to begin resuming orderly operations.

The Chicago-Naperville, IL-IN-WI ozone nonattainment area failed to attain the 2008 ozone NAAQS by the attainment date of July 20, 2018.   The area, which is currently classified as “Moderate” for the 2008 ozone NAAQS, will automatically be bumped-up to a “Serious” classification upon the effective date of the final reclassification notice.  The Chicago area joins six (6) other Moderate areas that likewise failed to attain the standard, including Dallas-Fort Worth, TX; Greater Connecticut, CT; Houston-Galveston-Brazoria, TX; Nevada County (Western part), CA; New York-North New Jersey-Long Island, CT-NY-NJ; and San Diego County, CA.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) published a proposed rule of the reclassification on November 14, 2018.  The reclassification is based on ozone monitoring data for the years 2015-2017.  The bump-up to a Serious classification will give Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana until July 20, 2021 to attain the standard.  These states will be required to submit to USEPA the SIP revisions for these areas that meet the requirements applicable to “Serious” areas under Section 182(c) of the Clean Air Act.  USEPA is proposing in the rule to allow the states up to 12 months after the effective date of the final reclassification notice to submit SIP revisions for non-RACT requirements and until August 3, 2020 to submit RACT SIP revisions.

The effect of failing to attain the standard is significant for owners or operators of sources in the area that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or nitrogen oxides (NOx).  The main impacts of the reclassification include:  (a) the Title V major source threshold will be going from 100 tpy to 50 tpy; (b) the new source review major modification threshold will be going from 40 tpy to 25 tpy aggregated over 5 years; (c) the emissions offset requirements will be going from 1.15 to 1, to 1.2 to 1; and (d) new RACT requirements may be implemented to control sources emitting between 50 to 100 tpy.

With the lowering of the Title V major source threshold, sources should begin to seek emission reductions and permit revisions to stay below the new 50 tpy threshold.  Sources that cannot stay below the major source threshold will need to apply for and obtain a Title V permit.  Sources should also be considering the new source review and major source threshold changes when planning upcoming projects at your facility.

USEPA is accepting comments on the proposed rule by December 14, 2018.  Assuming no public hearing is held, the automatic bump-up could happen as early as February 2019.  We will continue to keep you apprised of developments as they occur.

Continuing on our discussion of the electronic manifest (e-Manifest) system, EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, signed the e-Manifest User Fee Final Rule on December 20, 2017.  EPA expects the final rule to be published in the Federal Register in the coming weeks.  The pre-publication version of the final rule is attached here.

Under the final rule, user fees are only being assessed on the hazardous waste and state-only regulated waste receiving facilities.  The “billable event” is the submission of the final manifest copy signed by the receiving facilities.  In assessing the user fee on the receiving facilities only, EPA stated that it was simplifying the billing process and assuming that the receiving facilities will pass on the fees through to the generators by service agreements.

The users will pay different fees depending on the type of manifest submitted.  Given that the user fee is based on cost recovery and that paper manifests are expected to cost more to process, paper manifest fees will be considerably higher than electronic manifests.  EPA is projecting that an electronic manifest will cost $4/manifest, while a mailed copy of a paper manifest will cost $20/manifest.  Image uploads are projected to cost $13/manifest and data file uploads $7/manifest.  These fees are estimates only, based on projections of project costs.  Final user fees will be forthcoming when EPA has a final budget and contracts in place for the system.  EPA will also be publishing revised user fee schedules at two-year intervals.  Based on these estimated numbers, there is a significant incentive for receiving facilities to submit manifests electronically.

The final rule is effective June 30, 2018, which coincides with the launch of the e-Manifest system.  EPA will begin collecting fees on that date.   Receiving facilities will receive an invoice each month and will be directed to the Department of Treasury’s Pay.gov website to submit electronic payments.

We will continue to follow and provide updates from EPA on the e-Manifest system.

 

 

 

The New York Times published a report over the weekend detailing a fall-off in the EPA’s enforcement activities during Scott Pruitt’s tenure as EPA Administrator.  The changes are driven by top down directives from Washington to the regional offices.

The Times found that Scott Pruitt’s EPA started about 1,900 enforcement actions in the nine months since he was confirmed,  around a third fewer than the equivalent period during the Obama administration and a quarter fewer than during the same stretch of the George W. Bush administration.  The analysis found that the civil penalties the current EPA has sought are also less than they were under Pruitt’s predecessors.

Perhaps most significant has been the drop in demands for injunctive relief against alleged violators.  The $1.2 billion of requests made under Pruitt is just 12% of what was sought by the Obama administration in its first nine months.

Data of this kind over the relativity small time period of nine months can be misleading because enforcement actions take time to develop.  Final outcomes – penalties collected and compliance investments compelled – are a better gauge of how aggressive and effective an administration’s enforcement activities are. Nevertheless, several parameters strongly suggest a fundamental shift to a more lax approach to enforcement under Scott Pruitt.

The Times found evidence in addition to enforcement data that shows a purposeful decision by the Agency’s political appointees to rein in enforcement.  For example, it has moved to curtail some of its regional offices’ operating autonomy with respect to issuing information requests to regulated entities.  A confidential May 31, 2017 memorandum from the Director of the Office of Civil Enforcement instituted a new policy.  Now “HQ review is required prior to issuance of information requests under CAA § 114, RCRA § 3007 and CWA §308.”

In response to the New York Times article, EPA issued a release accusing the newspaper of distorting facts about enforcement under the current administration, although the statement does not dispute any specific factual statements in the article.  EPA’s response also asserts that, to date, “no request to gather enforcement information has been denied.”

The article did not include aggregate data on the number of information requests issued since the memorandum was delivered to each of the regional offices.  The Times did, however, discover that, in Region V, requests for information that include a monitoring or testing requirement fell from an average of 4.2 per month to only 1 since May 31st of this year.  It is probably too early, however, to tell if this is indicative of future levels or just a temporary slow-down due to new procedures.

How much control over information requests EPA exercises from Washington is something we will be watching very closely.  They are an essential tool for discovering violations and building enforcement actions.  Which individual information requests, if any, Pruitt’s administration declines to permit might also give an indication of what industries are likely to avoid enforcement generally.  Check back with Environmental Law Next in coming months for more information on this subject.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) e-Manifest system is anticipated to officially launch in June 2018.   The e-Manifest is a nationwide system for tracking hazardous waste shipments electronically and will establish the first national repository of manifest data.  This is a much overdue modernization and consolidation of the current paper system.  The anticipated benefits of the e-Manifest are many, including (1) a reduction of paperwork that is expected to save approximately $75 million annually; (2) nearly real-time shipping tracking capabilities; (3) higher quality data due to better legibility; (4) immediate notice of problems or discrepancies; (5) a unified data system for state and federal wastes; and (6) a single method for reporting manifest data to EPA and states.

Under this new system, EPA is required to collect manifests from any entity required to submit a manifest under federal or state law.  Tens of thousands of generators, transporters, and treatment, storage and disposal facilities will be required to register for the e-Manifest system to submit manifests directly to EPA.  EPA is authorized to collect reasonable fees to pay for the system.  The final rule establishing the user fee methodology is expected later this month. The program will become effective on the same date in all states.

EPA is authorized to develop and implement the e-Manifest system under the Hazardous Waste Electronic Manifest Establishment Act, which was adopted in 2012.  EPA issued a final rule in February 2014, implementing certain provisions of that Act.  We will post an update on the user fee rule as soon as it is available.

A federal district court in Oklahoma has held that CERCLA may not be used as a regulatory standard to state a claim for negligence per se. The plaintiffs in Bristow First Assembly of God, et al. v. BP, p.l.c., et al., N.D. Okla., No. 15-CV-523, brought a series of claims against a group of oil and pipeline companies that were alleged to have a prior interest in the Church’s property, which they had been advised by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality was contaminated and no longer safe to use.  Among them was a count brought under a theory that the defendants’ failure to clean up the site was a violation of a continuing duty to remediate damages from their operations under CERCLA and therefore constituted negligence per se.

Judge Terence Kern dismissed the claim, finding that “Plaintiffs have failed to establish that CERCLA sets a standard of conduct on which a negligence per se claim can be based.” The specific issue was apparently one of first impression in the 10th Circuit.  The Court, however, relied on decisions of district courts elsewhere in the country to support its decision.  Most convincingly, the court in W. Greenhouses v. United States, 878 F. Supp. 917 (N.D. Tex. 1995), reasoned that violations of neither CERCLA nor RCRA can support a negligence per se allegation because they are strict liability statutes.  They therefore set no standard of care.  Negligence per se relies on borrowing a standard of care from statute in lieu of applying one established by common law.  No strict liability regime can serve that function.

The decision in Trinity Indus., Inc. v. Greenlease Holding Co., 35 F. Supp. 3d 698 (W.D. Pa. 2014), also relied on by the court in Bristow First, applied somewhat different logic. In that court’s opinion, CERCLA is an environmental statute that is not “tailored to protect a particular class of individuals,” and therefore “does not establish the applicable standard of care for purposes of negligence law.”  This reasoning is easier to quibble with.  The statute requires the remediation of contaminated property, so the occupants of those sites are at least among the group of individuals CERCLA sets out to protect.  Negligence per se claims that attempt to drag CERCLA liability into the realm of tort are likely best challenged not on that ground, but for the absence of a fault-based standard of care in that statute.

We will be following this issue and other legal developments related to the intersection of statutory and common law environmental claims.  Check Environmental Law Next in the future for more information and analysis.

Ever since the EPA’s 1985 rulemaking on the Definition of Solid Waste, 50 Fed. Reg. 614 (1985), the question of how one distinguishes legitimate recycling from sham recycling has puzzled both regulators and recyclers. The question is vital because sham recycling is equivalent to illegal disposal and exposes the perpetrator to enforcement and significant penalties. In contrast, legitimate recycling is highly encouraged and satisfies the central purposes of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. So telling the two apart is important.

In 1989, Sylvia Lowrance, the then-Director of Solid Waste for EPA, signed a memorandum, entitled, “FOO6 Recycling,” that drew from earlier rulemakings and set forth a summary of the criteria for distinguishing between sham and legitimate recycling. Among these criteria was a comparison between the chemical composition of the purported recyclable material (or “secondary material”) and the analogous raw material or product. Included in her discussion was the question, “Are the toxic constituents actually necessary (or of sufficient use) to the product or are they just “along for the ride?” This “along for the ride” concept has since greatly influenced the question of sham vs. legitimate recycling because it raises the specter that the recycler is actually surreptitiously disposing of hazardous waste under the cover of beneficial recycling. But a lingering question for the last several decades has been how much toxics can actually be “along for the ride” and still be legitimate?

Fast forwarding to 2015, EPA addressed head-on the sham recycling question and set forth four criteria to tell a sham from the real thing. Importantly, the fourth criterion effectively replaced the old “along for the ride” criterion. See 40 C.F.R. 260.43(a)(4); 80 Fed. Reg. at 1725-28. This new criterion requires that the “product of the recycling process must be comparable to a legitimate product or intermediate,” and gives a recycler three options for satisfying it.

Where there is an “analogous” product, the recycled product is comparable if (a) it does not exhibit a hazardous characteristic not exhibited by the “legitimate” product; and (b) the two products have comparable levels of hazardous constituents. Where there is no “analogous” product, the two products are comparable if the product of the recycling process meets “widely recognized commodity standards and specifications[.]” Last, even if the product has high levels of hazardous constituents as compared to the raw material, the recycling can still be legitimate if recycler carries out certain health and environmental studies to show the toxic constituents are not harmful. 40 C.F.R. 260.43(a)(4)(iii).

But Factor 4 is no longer part of EPA’s regulations. In the just-published case of American Petroleum Institute v. EPA, (No. 09-1038), the D.C. Court of Appeals vacated Factor 4, finding that EPA failed to articulate a concrete standard for determining at what contaminant level a recyclable material was “significant in terms of health and environmental risks.” EPA’s “comparable to or lower than” standard, the court said, does not adequately determine when a recycling is a sham: levels can be high and still be part of a legitimate recycling process. Further, the court noted, this standard does not “reasonably focus on items that are part of the waste disposal problem.” It therefore vacated Factor 4 as it applies to all hazardous material recycling.

The court pinpointed the inherent flaw in the “toxics along for the ride” metaphor: at what concentration level does the presence of these toxics signal a sham? The court also criticized EPA for an over-reliance upon recycling horror stories, rather than actual instances of environmental harm. Unfortunately for EPA, it is back to the drawing board on this 30-year old conundrum of defining legitimate recycling. Meanwhile, those seeking to demonstrate the legitimacy of a recycling process (at least as a matter of federal law), will only need to satisfy the remaining three legitimacy criteria: (a)the secondary material must provide a useful contribution to product; (b) the recycling process must produce a valuable product; and (c) the generator and recycler must manage the secondary material as valuable product. In the end, this all might be a good thing, as it may open up opportunities to fulfill the underlying purposes of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, rather than become entangled in “labyrinthine maze” that is the definition of solid waste.

For more on this topic, read my article, “Understanding a Sham: When is Recycling, Treatment?,” published in the Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review here.

Several environmental organizations have petitioned the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and moved to block EPA from implementing a 90-day administrative stay of the New Source Performance Standards covering methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure.  A group of states, plus the District of Columbia and the City of Chicago, have since moved to intervene in favor of petitioners.  Industry groups and conservative leaning states have lined up to support the agency’s action.  The rule, which focuses on detecting and repairing methane leaks, would have required oil and gas well owners and operators to complete initial monitoring by June 3, 2017.

Petitioners ague that EPA lacks the authority to issue a stay of finalized regulations under the Clean Air Act other than pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 7607(d)(7)(B), which requires identification of an objection of central relevance to the rule that could not have been raised during the initial public comment period.  The groups claim that these conditions are not satisfied, as all the issues relied on by EPA were extensively deliberated during the public comment period, or at least could have been, and in any event are not centrally relevant.  For example, petitioners attack EPA’s claim that its rationale for including low producing well sites in the leak detection and repair program was not presented to the public, noting that EPA explicitly sought comment on this issue in its 2015 proposal.

Petitioners also contend that the stay is overboard and that the EPA’s failure to narrowly tailor it to the specific issues under reconsideration, or balance the equities involved, is arbitrary and capricious.

In response, EPA submits that 42 U.S.C. § 7607(d)(7)(B) establishes only when the agency must reconsider a rule, but that it has inherent authority to reconsider its decisions.  Its argument runs into a bit of trouble because the authority for the three month stay EPA initiated appears to be tied to a reconsideration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 7607(d)(7)(B).  Only secondarily does it defend its decision on the grounds that the conditions required by that section are satisfied.

This legal fight is part of a larger battle between the EPA and the environmental community over the rule.  On June 13, 2017, the EPA proposed an additional 2-year stay of portions of the regulations.  In particular, the agency has proposed to stay the fugitive emissions requirements, the well site pneumatic pump standards, and the requirements for certification of closed vent system by professional engineers.  Even if petitioners are successful before the D.C. Circuit, they will still have an uphill battle to maintain the rules indefinitely.  They do not dispute that the agency can initiate a separate rulemaking and likely permanently eliminate as much of the rule as it would like.