Category: Environmental and Green Issues

New Jersey Publishes Formal Stringent Drinking Water Standards for PFOA and PFOS

On June 1, 2020, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officially published health-based drinking water standards for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). These chemicals have received serious attention from the environmental community in the last several years due to increasing science that has confirmed the harmful impact of PFOA/PFOS on human health and the environment. These new more stringent rules, published in the New Jersey Register, set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) at: 14 parts per trillion for PFOA and 13 parts per trillion for PFOS. The DEP also added PFOA and PFOS to the state’s list of hazardous substances. Site remediation activities and regulated discharges to groundwater of PFOA and PFOS will now have to comply with these new standards. These new formal standards establish a regulatory framework that will provide consistency in remediation activities statewide. It is important to note that PFOA and PFOS are just two of potentially thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS). To date Vermont and New Hampshire are the only other two states to set MCLs for PFAS. New York is working on similar standards. New Jersey issued a standard of 13 parts per trillion for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) in 2018. The federal government has not yet established MCLs for PFAS. While there...

Recent CERCLA Decision Allows Divisibility of Comingled Groundwater Plume

In Burlington Northern, when the United States Supreme Court decided that joint and several liability under section 107 of CERCLA could be ameliorated in cases where the harm was theoretically capable of apportionment, potentially responsible parties (PRPs) hailed the decision outlining the test for divisibility as a great breakthrough. In practice, however, the availability of the divisibility defense that PRPs hoped would flow from the Burlington Northern decision has been limited, particularly in complex, comingled groundwater plume cases. In March 2020, however, the District Court in Von Duprin LLC v. Moran Electric Service, Inc. et al. (United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana – Indianapolis Division. Case No. 1:16-cv-01942-TWP-DML) issued the first CERCLA decision finding that a comingled groundwater plume was capable of apportionment because there was a reasonable basis to divide the harm. The District Court relied on the findings of one of the technical experts, who analyzed substantial groundwater monitoring results from four different source areas and demonstrated that the magnitude of the concentrations and chemical characteristics of the Chlorinated Volatile Organic Compounds (CVOCs) were different in the four source areas. The Von Duprin case involved the release of hazardous substances at four properties located in Indianapolis, Indiana, including property previously owned by Von Duprin (the “Von Duprin Facility”) and three upgradient...

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...

Who’s in Charge Here?: Third Circuit Holds That Government Was Not an “Operator” of Jersey City Chromium Facility for Purposes of Superfund Liability

Federal courts have long struggled to determine the shape and boundaries of the wide liability net cast by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund law. In its recent decision in PPG Industries Inc. v. United States, the Third Circuit applied circuit and Supreme Court precedent to hold that the government’s influence over a chromite ore processing plant in Jersey City during World War I and World War II was not pervasive or intrusive enough to make the government a past “operator” of the plant and thus liable for cleanup costs. Prior to PPG’s 1954 acquisition of the plant (which it continued to operate until 1963), Natural Products Refining Corporation (NPRC) operated the plant, which processed chromite ore into various chromium chemicals, including sodium bichromate. During both World War I and World War II (when it designated the plant’s output as critical war materials, i.e., products manufactured for direct military use), the government regulated the production of chromium chemicals. Through a variety of price, labor, and production controls, the government sought to encourage increased production of these key chemicals. Those efforts, however, did not extend to direct control over day-to-day operations or to the use of government employees to run the facility. Moreover, while the government was aware...

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...

“Cooperative Federalism” or “Paternalistic Central Planning”?: U.S. Supreme Court Agrees That State Courts Can Hear Claims Over Adequacy of CERCLA Cleanups Under Certain Circumstances, But Limits Plaintiffs’ Options

The federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund law, prescribes a careful process for making decisions on how to remediate contaminated sites. To avoid delay, the statute also divests federal courts of jurisdiction to hear most challenges to the selected remedy. In its recent opinion in Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that CERCLA does not bar state courts from hearing claims grounded in state law that go beyond claims for money damages and seek a cleanup that goes beyond what EPA requires. The case arose in Montana, where the Anaconda Copper Smelter operated for over a century and contaminated an area of over 300 square miles with arsenic and lead. Atlantic Richfield Company acquired the financially troubled smelter in the 1970s but could not reverse its decline, and closed it by 1980. Three years later, EPA named it one of its first official Superfund sites, and since then Atlantic Richfield has spent over $450 million on a cleanup that is expected to continue until 2025. The Superfund site that Atlantic Richfield has been remediating includes numerous residential properties. The owners of 98 of those properties sued Atlantic Richfield in Montana state court in 2008, asserting state common law claims. In addition to traditional...

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,...

A Refinery Is Not a Gas Station: N.J. Court Says Former Oil Operation Was Abnormally Dangerous Activity

The 1976 Spill Compensation and Control Act (“Spill Act”) gave New Jersey a wide variety of new powers to address, and seek reimbursement for, environmental contamination. Despite its broad new remedies, however, it did not pre-empt or “subsume” common-law theories such as strict liability for abnormally dangerous activities. Moreover, the historical operations at an oil refinery and terminal that resulted in substantial discharges and pollution of nearby waterways could constitute an abnormally dangerous activity. So held the Appellate Division in its recent opinion in New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection v. Hess Corporation. Hess involves a property in the Port Reading section of Woodbridge historically operated as an oil refinery and terminal. In its 2018 complaint against Hess (which developed the property in 1958 when it was known as Amerada Hess Corporation) and Buckeye Partners, LP (which acquired the property from Hess in 2013), the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) alleged discharges of oil affecting the nearby Smith Creek and Arthur Kill during Hess’s period of ownership.  The NJDEP asserted claims under the Spill Act, the Water Pollution Control Act, strict liability, trespass, and public nuisance, seeking both injunctive relief and money damages in connection with the defendants’ failure to assess injuries to natural resources and to restore the injured resources. Hess and Buckeye...

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...