CERCLA’s Three Year Statute of Limitations for Contribution Applies To Non-CERCLA Settlements

Parties which settle environmental liability in a judicially approved settlement have three years from the date of that settlement in which to seek contribution even if the settlement is not a CERCLA settlement.  That is the holding in a recent federal case in Montana, ASARCO LLC v. Atlantic Richfield Company.  There, ASARCO had entered into a 1998 consent decree under RCRA and the Clean Water Act to remediate a contaminated site that for over a century had been used as a lead smelting facility.  In 2005 ASARCO filed for bankruptcy and in 2009 entered into a new settlement, this time said to… More

EPA Refuses to Amend Its Backup Generator Rule: Demand Response Breathes Easier

Last Friday, EPA published notice that it would not be revising its regulations on backup generators in response to three petitions for reconsideration it had received after it promulgated its final rule in January 2013. The rule had sparked controversy, because EPA allowed backup generators to operate for up to 100 hours a year, though EPA did require use of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel beginning in January 2015.

There were three major issues in the petitions. EPA’s responses addressed them as follows:

• The timing of the requirement to utilize ULSD. EPA rejected arguments that ULSD is already sufficiently available to require its use immediately.

• The timing and required information for reporting with respect to emergency engines. EPA rejected the request to move up the reporting, finding that it would be unduly burdensome.

• Criteria for operation in non-emergency situations. EPA rejected arguments that its criteria for allowing such operation were “too indistinct and expansive.”

As we had previously noted, EPA had a difficult balancing act here. It has clearly concluded that, with use of ULSD, backup engines provide sufficient benefit in assisting demand response – the very purpose of which is to reduce emissions by substituting reduced demand for increased supply – to warrant allowing increased use of these otherwise less efficient engines.

You Can’t Estop the Government — Even When It Wants to Be Estopped

Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that arguably explains everything from why the Tea Party exists to why otherwise calm and sane executives suddenly lose all their hair. Perhaps most astounding, the decision is clearly correct. Perhaps the law is an ass.

In 2008, Avenal Power submitted an application to EPA for a PSD permit to construct a new 600 MW natural gas-fired power plant in Avenal, California. Although section 165(c) of the Clean Air Act requires EPA to act on such applications within one year, EPA failed to do so.

Subsequently, and before EPA ever did issue a permit, EPA revised the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for NOx. Avenal Power apparently could demonstrate that emissions from the new plant would comply with the old NAAQS, but could not demonstrate that it would not cause an exceedance of the new NAAQS. After some waffling, EPA took the position that it could grandfather the permit application and review it under the prior NAAQS. Citizen groups appealed and the Court of Appeals held that EPA had no authority to grandfather the application.

To the Court, this was a simple application of Step 1 of Chevron. The Court concluded that sections 165(a)(3) and (4) and 110(j) of the CAA unambiguously require EPA to apply the NAAQS in effect at the time a permit is issued. Thus, EPA has no discretion to grandfather permit applications, even though EPA was required by law to issue a permit decision at a time when more lenient requirements were in effect.

I think that the Court’s decision is clearly right on the law. The statutory language seems unambiguous.  But what did the Court have to say to those who feel that the result is inequitable, because Avenal was legally entitled to a decision in one year, and would have obtained its permit if EPA had acted timely? Pretty much, tough luck:

Finally, EPA relies heavily on the argument that the equities weigh in favor of Avenal Power. In short, we agree. Avenal Power filed its application over six years ago, and endeavored to work with EPA for years, even after filing suit, to obtain a final decision. But however regrettable EPA’s treatment of Avenal Power has been, we simply cannot disregard the plain language of the Clean Air Act, or overlook the reason why an applicant must comply with revised and newly stringent standards —that is, “to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population.” Honoring the statute’s plain language and overriding purpose, we must send EPA and Avenal Power back to the drawing board.  (Emphasis added.)

In other words, EPA screwed up, and Avenal Power got screwed. Imagine having to explain that to your client.

law is an ass

EPA Publishes Final 316(b) Rule: Flexibility for Generators Means Litigation By Environmental Groups

Last Friday, EPA finally published its § 316(b) rule in the Federal Register. As we noted in May, the rule is more significant for what it does not do – require closed cycle cooling – than for what it does.  impinged_herring_732

Indeed, the rule provides a lot of flexibility for generators. It allows several different options for compliance with the impingement requirements. The entrainment requirements, which apply to facilities using 125 million gallons of water per day, will be based on site-specific analyses.

Of course, this very flexibility has… More

Importance of Judicial Approval of CERCLA Settlements

Before a Superfund settlement becomes enforceable, it must be reviewed by a federal court to confirm that it is fair, reasonable, and consistent with CERCLA’s objectives.  This judicial review is at the heart of CERCLA’s settlement process.  Since Superfund settlements provide broad protection to settling parties, judicial approval provides the necessary and exclusive procedural mechanism  to vouchsafe that a proposed settlement is in the interest of the public as well as all  other parties.

Two recent appellate decisions underscore the central role of judicial review in Superfund settlements.   In ASARCO, LLC v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, the Eighth Circuit ruled that the owner of a contaminated site which… More

It’s Really Difficult to Site a Highway in a Refuge

In an important decision last week, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals made clear just how high the hurdles are in the way of building highways in wildlife refuges. The decision in Defenders of Wildlife v. North Carolina DOT sent the Federal Highway Administration and the North Carolina DOT back to the drawing board in their efforts to find a solution to transportation problems on Hatteras Island.  bonner-4

After a multi-year planning process that reviewed multiple options, FHWA and NCDOT together decided on a plan to replace the Bonner Bridge, which… More

How Much Deference Do States Get in Entering CERCLA Consent Decrees? Probably A Lot, But Perhaps Not As Much as You Thought

In Cannons Engineering, the First Circuit Court of Appeals famously stated that, when CERCLA consent decrees arrive at the courts of appeal for review, they do so “encased in a double layer of swaddling,” because both the EPA decision to enter into the decree and the district court review of the EPA decision are entitled to significant deference. Last week, in Arizona v. City of Tucson, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that, where a state consent decree is concerned, the first layer of swaddling is somewhat thinner than where EPA is concerned. The Court also made… More

The SJC Gives “Great Deference” to the Energy Facilities Siting Board. That’s An Understatement

In two related decisions last week, the Supreme Judicial Court issued three important rulings, and handed the Brockton Power Company one major problem in its long-running effort to build a combined-cycle gas plant in Brockton.

First, in City of Brockton v. EFSB, the SJC rejected all of the challenges by the City of Brockton and certain citizens to the Energy Facilities Siting Board approval of the Brockton Power project.

In a holding that will cheer environmental advocates but strike fear into developers of all stripes, the SJC found that the EFSB’s application of the Commonwealth’s Environmental Justice policy is… More

More on the Reach of Sackett: Corps Jurisdictional Determinations Are Not Final Agency Action

Early last month, we noted that the decision in Luminant v. EPA suggested that the reach of the Supreme Court decision in Sackett is not unlimited. The Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit agrees. In Belle Company v. Corps of Engineers, the Court ruled that a Corps Jurisdictional Determination, or JD, is not final agency action subject to judicial review.

That had always been the law, but the plaintiffs argued that Sackett changed the landscape. Not so, said the Court. The Court agreed that the JD was the “consummation of the Corps’s decisionmaking process.” However,… More

Who Gets to Review EPA Actions? The Court of Appeals? The District Court? (Hint: The Answer Is Not “Neither One”)

The general rule under the Clean Air Act is that any:

person may bring suit in district court against the EPA Administrator for an alleged failure to perform a nondiscretionary act or duty, and the district court has jurisdiction “to order the Administrator to perform such act or duty,” as well as to “compel . . . agency action unreasonably delayed.” By contrast, “judicial review of final action by the EPA Administrator rests exclusively in the appellate courts.

The subject of the decision last Friday by the District Court for the District of Columbia in Sierra Club v. McCarthyMore

Is Selenium the Coal Industry’s Kryptonite? Citizen Groups Obtain Summary Judgment Based on Water Quality Criteria Exceedances

Earlier this week, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other NGOs obtained summary judgment that Alex Energy had violated both its NPDES permit and its Surface Mining Permits due to exceedances of the West Virginia water quality standard for selenium. The permit did not contain effluent limitations for selenium. Nonetheless, the state NPDES permits incorporate by reference regulations stating that:

discharges covered by a WV/NPDES permit are to be of such quality so as not to cause violation of applicable water quality standards promulgated by [West Virginia Code of State Rules § 47-2].

Similarly, the West Virginia surface mine… More

An Update On Standing — Some Specifics Really Are Required

Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed EPA’s approval of Nevada’s State Implementation Plan for regional haze against a challenge by WildEarth Guardians. The decision isn’t earthshaking.  However, because it found that WildEarth Guardians did not have standing to challenge EPA’s reasonable further progress determination for measuring visibility improvements, but did have standing to challenge EPA’s determination regarding the Best Available Retrofit Technology for the Reid Gardner Generating Station in northeast Nevada, it provides a handy way to compare and contrast what must be alleged by citizen groups to establish standing.

First, the reasonable further progress determination…. More

Settling Parties In Government Consent Orders Have CERCLA Claims For Contribution Not Cost Recovery

To the extent there was any remaining uncertainty, the Sixth Circuit has now made crystalline that a party settling some or all of its liability under CERCLA with the United States or a state has a contribution claim under Section 113 and not a cost recovery action under Section 107. Additionally, that contribution claim must be brought within three years of the date of any judgment entering the settlement or of any administrative order memorializing the settlement. No “if, ands, or buts.”

The Sixth Circuit decision was Hobart Corporation v. Waste Management of Ohio, Inc. It involved three PRPs… More

EPA Wins Two Clean Water Cases in One Day: The Fourth Circuit Affirms a Narrow Construction of the Permit Shield Defense

Yesterday, I noted that the D.C. Circuit rejected challenges to EPA’s Enhanced Coordination Process and Final Guidance on Clean Water Act permitting for mining activities. It was not EPA’s only CWA victory. On the same day, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision narrowly construing the CWA’s permit shield defense.

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards sued A&G Coal over discharges of selenium from A&G’s Kelly Branch Surface Mine in Virginia. The case was not really difficult and was only ever going to have one outcome.

According to the record, at the time of A&G’s NPDES permit… More

The D.C. Circuit Rejects Challenge to EPA’s Final Guidance on CWA Coal Mining Permits: EPA Action Has to Be Really, Really, Final to Be Appealable

On Friday, the D.C. Circuit reversed Judge Reggie Walton’s decision from 2012 and affirmed EPA’s authority to adopt the “Enhanced Coordination Process” governing coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers in the processing of Clean Water Act permits. The Court also rejected challenges to its 2012 Final Guidance document regarding appropriate conditions on such permits.

The decision on the Enhanced Coordination Process seems rather obvious. As the Court noted:

this kind of inter-agency consultation and coordination is commonplace and often desirable. Indeed, restricting such consultation and coordination would raise significant constitutional concerns.

***

Indeed, one of… More