Author: Jordan M. Asch

(State) Settlors Beware, Too: In Reversal, Third Circuit Declares that State Settlement Does Not Protect Against Federal Claims under CERCLA

Previously, the District of New Jersey ruled that a polluting party’s settlement agreement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) provided contribution protection from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) claims based on costs incurred by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) at the same site, even though USEPA was not a party to the settlement. In a prior blog post discussing that decision, we noted that the District Court’s decision was likely to be appealed. It was. On appeal, the Third Circuit considered the inquiry of “[w]hether a polluting party’s settlement with the State of New Jersey protects it from lawsuits seeking contributions toward expenditures made by the Federal Government on the same site,” and determined in a precedential opinion that, “the answer here is no.” CERCLA section 113(f)(2) provides that “[a] person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State in an administrative or judicially approved settlement shall not be liable for claims for contribution regarding matters addressed in the settlement.” The District Court applied the analysis commonly adopted by other federal courts to determine the “matters addressed” of the previous settlement where the scope is not made explicit by the agreement itself. This analysis includes factors such as the location, time frame,...

New Jersey Files Six Lawsuits as Part of Its Environmental Justice Initiative

Last week, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe announced jointly the state’s filing of six environmental enforcement actions against alleged polluters in minority and low-income communities in various locations throughout the state. The filings are this administration’s latest action in its environmental justice initiative, as Gibbons has previously covered on this blog. The six lawsuits involve sites in Newark, East Orange, Camden, and two sites in Trenton. In these suits, the state brings claims under various New Jersey environmental statutes, including the Spill Compensation and Control Act, the Water Pollution Control Act, the Air Pollution Control Act, the Solid Waste Management Act, the Industrial Site Recovery Act, and the Brownfield and Contaminated Site Remediation Act. Per the joint press release, the lawsuits in Newark and Trenton “involve companies that released hazardous substances at their properties and refused to clean them up.” In Newark, the state seeks to require the defendants to investigate the extent of the contamination, to clean up the site, and to reimburse the state for over $500,000. For one of the Trenton sites, the state similarly seeks to compel the defendants to clean up the site and to reimburse the state for over $400,000. At the other Trenton site, the state...

U.S. Supreme Court Remands Clean Water Act Case to the Fourth Circuit for Further Consideration in Light of “Functional Equivalent” Test from County of Maui

The effects of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund have begun to ripple out. In County of Maui, the Court held that the Clean Water Act requires a permit where there is a “functional equivalent of a direct discharge” from a “point source” into “navigable waters.” The Court acknowledged the “difficulty with this approach” in dealing with the “middle instances,” and provided a non-exhaustive list of seven factors that may be considered in determining whether a “functional equivalent of a direct discharge” exists in a particular circumstance. “Time and distance will be the most important factors in most cases, but not necessarily in every case,” the Court guided. In Kinder Morgan Energy v. Upstate Forever, a Clean Water Act case seeking certiorari of a decision from the Fourth Circuit, the Supreme Court followed County of Maui by issuing an Order granting certiorari, vacating the Fourth Circuit’s decision, and remanding the case to the Court of Appeals for “further consideration in light of County of Maui.” In Kinder Morgan Energy, two environmental groups argued that Kinder Morgan was illegally discharging pollutants into navigable waters without a permit under the Clean Water Act. Similar to the facts of the Maui case, the discharge by Kinder Morgan was alleged to...

SCOTUS Creates “Functional Equivalent” Test to Determine Whether Point Source Dischargers Are Subject to the Clean Water Act

The U.S. Supreme Court recently handed down a decision in the most prominent Clean Water Act (CWA) case since its 2006 plurality decision in Rapanos v. United States. In County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the Court interpreted the landmark statute to require a permit where there is a “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge from a “point source” into “navigable waters.” The likely impact of this holding for the parties is to subject the County of Maui to the statute’s permitting requirements for its discharges of treated wastewater through wells to groundwater that eventually reach the ocean. Beyond the parties, environmental groups are likely to cheer this decision while the regulated community, and lower courts, will likely be wary of the Court’s multifactor test. The CWA prohibits the “addition” of any pollutant from a “point source” to “navigable waters” without a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The County of Maui came before the Court as the operator of a wastewater reclamation facility in Maui, Hawaii. That facility collects sewage, partially treats it, then pumps that water into four underground wells. The effluent then travels about a half mile through groundwater to the Pacific Ocean. For nearly five decades the facility operated in this manner with the knowledge of the EPA, and...

U.S. EPA and New York ESD Provide Updated Guidance Regarding Environmental Work Permitted for During COVID-19 Pandemic

Within the past several days, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York Empire State Development Corporation (ESD) have provided updated guidance clarifying the standards for deciding what types of work may proceed at hazardous waste sites during the COVID-19 pandemic. EPA Interim Guidance on Site Field Work Due to Impacts of COVID-19 EPA’s April 10, 2020 interim guidance supplements the previously-issued March 19, 2020 guidance from the Office of Land and Emergency Management. It applies to response actions at cleanup and emergency response sites where EPA is the lead agency or has direct oversight or responsibility for the work, including response action work that may be conducted by states, tribes, other federal agencies, and potentially responsible parties (PRPs). At these sites, EPA will continue to make decisions on a case-by-case basis regarding ongoing site activities, with top priority given to protecting the health and safety of the public and maintaining the health and safety of EPA personnel and other on-site cleanup partners. The guidance also directs Regions to consider other important priorities, such as whether local officials have made specific requests to suspend work, whether on-site workers have tested positive or shown symptoms of COVID-19, and whether social distancing at specific sites is possible. In making decisions to reduce or suspend...

SCOTUS Provides Clarity to Charterers in Oil Spill Case and All Parties Subject to OPA Should Take Note

On March 30, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that will directly affect those in the maritime charter industry, and may ripple out to anyone performing a cleanup or defending a claim under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA). The case began with a 1,900-mile voyage by the M/T Athos I, which was a 748-foot single-hulled oil tanker, from Venezuela to Paulsboro, New Jersey in November 2004. Only 900 feet from the ship’s intended destination, it struck a nine ton anchor that was abandoned in the Delaware River. The anchor pierced the hull of the vessel and caused over 250,000 gallons of crude oil to spill into the river, which resulted in a $133 million cleanup. Frescati Shipping Company, the owner of the ship, together with the United States, paid for the cleanup as required under OPA, and then sought its cleanup costs from the charterer, CITGO Asphalt Refining Company (“CARCO”). The question before the High Court was “whether the safe-berth clause is a warranty of safety, imposing liability for an unsafe berth regardless of CARCO’s diligence in selecting the berth.” Frescati and the U.S. argued that CARCO breached the charter-contract’s “safe-berth” clause, which obligated CARCO to designate a safe-berth where the ship would be able to come and go “always safely afloat.” CARCO,...

New York City and State Close Down All “Non-Essential” Construction

As noted in our blog published on March 24, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s March 20, 2020 Executive Order 202.8 directed all “non-essential” businesses to implement remote work policies for 100% of their workforces, effective March 22 through April 19, 2020. The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) issued initial guidance on March 24, 2020, whereby it interpreted the Order to allow, as a category of “essential business,” “construction,” “including skilled trades such as electricians and plumbers,” and “for essential infrastructure or for emergency repairs and safety purposes.” ESDC updated and clarified its guidance on March 27, stating that “[a]ll non-essential construction must be shut down, except for emergency construction” and certain types of “essential construction.” Per the updated guidance, “emergency construction” includes “a project necessary to protect health and safety of the occupants, or to continue a project if it would be unsafe to allow to remain undone until it is safe to shut the site.” “Essential construction” includes “roads, bridges, transit facilities, utilities, hospitals or health care facilities, affordable housing and homeless shelters.” Even at emergency or essential construction sites, social distancing must be able to be maintained, or the site must shut down. Violations are punishable by fines of up to $10,000. On March 30, the New York City Office of Environmental Remediation (OER) and...

Environmental Obligations for Businesses in New York During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has slowed business—and activity in general in many areas of the United States—to a crawl. New York State is one of the places hit hardest by this pandemic. Indeed, at the time of this writing, New York has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country. Unfortunately, the spread of the virus shows no signs of relenting. Nonetheless, manufacturing, the real estate industry, and other regulated businesses continue to face environmental reporting obligations, regulatory deadlines, and potential penalties for non-compliance. Businesses and other property owners are dealing with remediation deadlines, as well as operation and maintenance obligations of environmental controls. Businesses are also rightly concerned about reporting requirements under various permits, including under such federal permitting programs as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and others. Meeting these obligations has become significantly complicated by the pandemic and the ancillary issues it has brought on, such as the illness of key personnel, inaccessible facilities, and other impediments. On March 20, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order 202.8, which directs that all “non-essential” businesses implement remote work policies for 100 percent of their respective workforces, effective March 22 through April 19, 2020. The Executive Order further states that businesses that provide “essential services or functions...

Governor Murphy Continues to Develop Climate Change Resiliency Strategy for New Jersey

Building on his vision to develop a Statewide Climate Change Resiliency Strategy launched last year by signing Executive Order 89, on January 27, 2020, Governor Murphy signed Executive Order 100 (EO 100), which the Governor’s office described in a press release as directing the “most sweeping set of climate change reforms in the nation.” The EO labels the reforms as the “Protecting Against Climate Threats” regulations, or “PACT.” EO 100 references the State’s Global Warming Response Act (“GWRA”), N.J.S.A. 26:2C-37, et seq., and the updated Energy Master Plan, which outlines seven “key strategies and includes an implementation plan that lays out next steps and timelines.” The seven key strategies are: 1) reducing energy consumption and emissions from the transportation sector; 2) accelerating deployment of renewable energy and distributed energy resources; 3) maximizing energy efficiency and conservation, and reducing peak demand; 4) reducing energy consumption and emissions from the building sector; 5) decarbonizing and modernizing New Jersey’s energy systems; 6) supporting community energy planning and action in underserved communities; and, 7) expanding the clean energy innovation economy. It is in furtherance of these “key strategies” that EO 100 directs DEP to draft and implement “the sweeping suite of climate change regulations.” Most prominently, these regulations will include the establishment of a greenhouse gas monitoring and reporting...

Governor Murphy Signs Executive Order Addressing Climate Change Resiliency for New Jersey

As storms like Superstorm Sandy continue to grow more devastating and frequent, communities, governments, businesses, and industries of all sizes and varieties must face the challenge of adapting to a changing climate. October 29, 2019 marked the seventh anniversary of Sandy hitting New Jersey. Governor Murphy marked this occasion by signing Executive Order 89, which calls on the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to establish a Statewide Climate Change Resilience Strategy, among other initiatives related to climate change adaptation. “New Jersey is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of sea-level rise and global warming, and [this] Executive Order outlines a bold and comprehensive set of actions to ensure that our communities and infrastructure are more resilient against future storms,” said Government Murphy about the signing. The preamble to the Executive Order notes that New Jersey is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as a coastal state. Picking up on this administration’s Environmental Justice efforts, the Order acknowledges that minority and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. Climate change of course is an issue that also impacts all communities, including the business community, industry, and government. The preamble also notes that “studies show that each dollar spent to mitigate hazards, including those associated with climate change impacts, results in a...