As previously reported, a coalition of environmental groups recently filed a petition for review in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit) challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent final rule titled, “Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System: Disposal of CCR; A Holistic Approach to Closure Part B: Alternate Demonstration for Unlined Surface Impoundments,” 85 Fed. Reg. 72,506 (Nov. 12, 2020). Commonly called “Part B,” the rule allows owners and operators to submit demonstrations showing their clay-lined impoundments are adequately protective of human health and the environment.
Climate change and environmental justice are currently dominating the conversation in the environmental legal community, but 2021 promises to be an extremely active year for one of the most challenging environmental issues of this era — the emergence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as a significant public health concern. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) demonstrated its continued commitment to implementing the national PFAS Action Plan by announcing on February 22 two important steps toward establishing federal drinking water standards for PFAS compounds under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
The Biden administration has already taken several actions that signal its intention to shift to a more federally focused environmental enforcement approach. Although the Trump administration generally adopted a “hands off” approach that afforded states broad deference in deciding when to initiate and prosecute environmental enforcement actions, the new administration appears to be moving toward a more robust federal role in environmental enforcement.
On February 11, three environmental groups — Sierra Club, Alliance for Affordable Energy, and PennEnvironment, Inc. — filed a petition for review in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit) challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent final rule titled, “Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System: Disposal of CCR; A Holistic Approach to Closure Part B: Alternate Demonstration for Unlined Surface Impoundments,” 85 Fed. Reg. 72,506 (Nov. 12, 2020). Commonly called “Part B,” the rule allows owners and operators to submit demonstrations showing their clay-lined impoundments are adequately protective of human health and the environment. Part B is the second of two rulemakings comprising EPA’s “Holistic Approach to Closure” amendments to the coal combustion residuals (CCR) rule. Environmental groups filed a similar challenge to the “Part A” rule in the D.C. Circuit in November 2020. That case, Labadie Environmental Organization v. EPA, is currently pending.
On January 28, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (Illinois EPA) announced the issuance of health advisories for four (4) per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) compounds in accordance with the Illinois Part 620 groundwater regulations (35 Ill. Adm. Code Part 620). Health advisories are issued when a chemical substance that is harmful to human health, and for which no numeric groundwater standard exists, is detected and confirmed in a community water supply well (35 Ill. Adm. Code 620.605). The four (4) PFAS compounds for which Illinois health advisories were issued are PFBS, PFHxS, PFHxA, and PFOA.
The EPA’s “Secret Science” rule establishing new standards for consideration of certain “pivotal” scientific studies, which was slated to go into effect on January 6, 2021, has been vacated and remanded by the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana. The decision follows one from a few days prior in which the court rejected EPA’s attempt to make the rule immediately effective. Notably, both decisions rely on the same basic principle — that the rule is not merely procedural, as EPA claimed, but substantive. That determination could be important for other rules that the Trump EPA viewed as procedural in nature, but that have been challenged as having substantive effect.
Originally, the so-called “Secret Science” rule was slated to go into effect immediately upon publication in the Federal Register, based on EPA’s claim that it was only an administrative rule that should be exempt from notice-and-comment under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The court rejected this argument in an initial decision issued on January 27 that delayed the rule’s implementation, granting a motion for summary judgement by environmental groups challenging the rule. In that decision, the court held that the rule is no mere housekeeping measure, but rather directed EPA how to weigh evidence, and thus had important substantive implications for future rulemaking actions.
The court’s February 1 ruling applies that same thinking — that the rule is not merely administrative in nature, but substantive — to vacate it entirely. Since the court had already held in its January 27 opinion that the rule was too substantive to fall within the exception to the APA, the court likely concluded that it exceeded EPA’s “housekeeping” authority to govern its internal affairs under 5 U.S.C. 301, which EPA had originally identified as the legal basis for the rule.
Notably, it wasn’t the challengers to the rule that asked for vacatur, but EPA itself. While the first decision in late January, which held that the rule did not qualify to go into effect immediately, granted a motion filed by challengers, the second motion to vacate the rule granted EPA’s own motion for vacatur and remand. The fact that EPA filed a motion to seek vacatur of its own rule just days after inauguration shows the Biden EPA has hit the ground running in trying to reverse highly controversial policies from the Trump administration. The district court’s decision could have implications for several EPA measures adopted to improve transparency during the Trump administration that were based on the agency’s housekeeping authority, including a rule governing the adoption and rescission of significant guidance issued in September 2020.
For more details on the substance of the “Secret Science” rule, see Troutman’s previous blog post on the rule here. For more information on the rule, or for updates on pending legal challenges, please contact Louise Dyble at email@example.com.
Dave Ross, a partner in Troutman Pepper’s Environmental and Natural Resources Practice Group, was interviewed in the InsideEPA.com article, “Ross Says Long-Term Focus Shaped Water Policies During Trump EPA.”
A California state legislator has introduced a bill that would require large corporations doing business in the state to publicly disclose their greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The bill, titled the Climate Corporate Responsibility Act, covers publicly traded domestic and foreign corporations with annual revenues in excess of $1 billion. According to state Senator Scott Weiner, who introduced the bill, it could affect up to 5,000 companies. The bill is not limited to any industry sector and would thus impact not only companies typically associated with GHG emissions, like oil and gas producers or power plants, but also would extend to other sectors, including the tech industry, for example.
On January 19, the last full day of the Trump administration, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, the Trump EPA’s replacement rule for the Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan was a cornerstone of the Obama EPA’s efforts to address climate change and would have required electric utilities to shift generation from fossil fuels to renewable resources. That aggressive rule was halted by an unprecedented stay of the rule by the Supreme Court, but a decision on the merits has never been issued because the Trump administration took office and put the litigation on hold. In its January 20 opinion, the D.C. Circuit has now issued the first decision on the merits of the legal issues underlying both ACE and the Clean Power Plan.
On January 20, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden signed an executive order titled, “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” initiating review of nearly 50 environmental rules and regulations, including 20 air-related regulations that the new administration views as insufficient or unsupported by the data.