Environmental Litigation

On September 11, 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed modifications to the 2016 New Source Performance Standards, a series of regulations enacted by President Barack Obama that require the oil and gas industry to take strict precautions to reduce and avoid methane leaks due to drilling. While proponents argue that the new standards would save energy companies hundreds of millions of dollars, a vocal opposition slammed the proposed changes in the law as a public health risk and a danger to a much-needed environmental protection.

When the New Source Performance Standards were enacted by the Obama administration, the fundamental goal of the regulatory provision was to end harmful methane leaking. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, methane – which is the main component of natural gas – is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It absorbs the sun’s heat and is more effective at preventing the escape of infrared radiation, potentially making it more harmful for the climate. To combat this, the New Source Performance Standards sought to require energy companies to capture methane that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere during drilling for oil on American and tribal lands. Under current regulations, energy companies are expected to inspect their drilling operations as often as every six months. If methane leaks are found, repairs must take place within 30 days. The New Source Performance Standards were projected to eliminate 175,000 tons of methane emissions, 150,000 tons of volatile organic compounds, and 1,860 tons of hazardous pollutants. Proponents of the New Source Performance Standards applauded the added protections for the environment, hopeful that the regulations would effectively reduce pollution. Opponents of the New Source Performance Standards felt it placed an undue burden on the oil and gas industry given the Environmental Protection Agency’s own estimates that energy companies would pay $530 million between 2019 and 2025.

In response to complaints about the costly effect of the New Source Performance Standards, the Trump administration seeks to modify or remove some of the regulations currently in place. For instance, the proposed changes would extend the timeline for energy companies to inspect their drilling operations from every six months to every year. Another amendment would extend the 30-day rule that required almost immediate repair of methane leaks to 60 days, allowing companies more time to remedy these leaks while still holding them accountable for repairs. The proposed revisions would also seek to diminish the federal government’s role in such regulation by allowing energy companies to follow state rules regarding methane standards rather than federal rules. It is anticipated that these revisions to the current regulations will save energy companies $484 million dollars by the end of 2025, should they be approved.

The proposed changes to the New Source Performance Standards have caused an uproar among Democratic leaders across the nation. The leading Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, called the proposal “wasteful and outrageous.” California and a number of other
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In December 2017, the EPA approved revisions to the Louisiana State Implementation Plan (“SIP”) addressing regional haze. Neither environmental groups—Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association—nor affected utility companies—Entergy and Cleco—are satisfied with the EPA’s rule, and they are now petitioning the Fifth Circuit as intervenors on behalf of the EPA. Both sides filed briefs on October 30, 2018.

By way of background, Congress added regional haze provisions to the Clean Air Act (“CAA”) in 1977. The Act requires pollution sources that emit any air pollutant that may reasonably be anticipated to cause or contribute to visibility impairment to operate with the best available retrofit technology (“BART”).

In evaluating BART, the CAA requires states to balance cost with 1) the energy and non-air quality environmental impacts of compliance; 2) existing pollution control technology in use at the source; 3) the source’s remaining useful life; and 4) the visibility improvements that may reasonably be anticipated to result from the use of such technology.

The EPA issued BART Guidelines in 2005. The Guidelines help states determine whether BART applies to a particular source of pollution. In June 2008, Louisiana submitted its first Regional Haze SIP. The EPA did not approve the plan because it relied on the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which was judicially invalidated before the EPA ruled on the plan. The EPA also found deficiencies in BART determinations for four non-electrical generating units.

Louisiana submitted a revised SIP in July 2017, which the EPA approved in December 2017. The revised SIP was based on analysis conducted by the EPA and Entergy. The Fifth Circuit litigation primarily addresses the BART for Entergy’s Nelson power plant and Cleco’s Brame Energy Center, which both emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide.
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lawjUSTICEBWThis month, attorneys working at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Justice filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense (Seeger et al v. U.S. Department of Defense et al, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, No. 17-00639), in which they allege that they have been exposed to dangerously high levels of carcinogens from working in contaminated areas. The four attorneys, who include Army Major Matthew Seeger and three civilian attorneys, represent Walid Bin Attash, a Yemeni man charged with helping to plot the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The attorneys’ complaint alleges that various environmental hazards at the Guantanamo Bay Camp Justice complex have been linked to nine cases of cancer since 2008 among individuals who worked at the camp, and that the U.S. Navy has not properly investigated these conditions. The nine individuals range between the ages of 35 and 52, and their diagnosed illnesses have included lymphoma, colon, brain, and appendix cancer. Camp Justice is located on the site of a former airfield, and includes temporary housing units, as well as offices where the attorneys both live and work while at the camp. This former airfield was at one point allegedly used to dispose of jet fuel.

The complaint alleges that the attorneys first approached authorities with complaints in July, 2015 and requested an investigation into whether conditions at Camp Justice had contributed to several cancer cases among employees who worked at the camp. The suit further alleges that the U.S. Navy conducted a flawed investigation of the alleged environmental hazards, failing to determine what kind of a risk they posed to personnel and further failing to determine appropriate measures to remedy the situation.

The Navy’s preliminary investigation included an industrial hygiene and habitability survey of Camp Justice’s buildings where personnel live and work. The investigation documented the presence of multiple environmental hazards, including poorly-maintained asbestos-containing floor tile, lead-based paint chips, air samples that tested positive for mercury and formaldehyde, and soil samples that tested positive for benzopryene. All of these substances have been found to be carcinogenic. The Navy’s report acknowledged that their environmental and historical investigations were limited, but nevertheless found that there was insufficient evidence to address potential exposures to carcinogens. With that, they deemed the property’s buildings to be habitable. Additionally, following a review of military health records, they concluded that the number and types of cancer cases did not meet the Center for Disease Control’s definition of a “cancer cluster” and therefore did not warrant a formal cancer cluster investigation. These and additional findings were detailed in a risk assessment report published in February, 2016, which ultimately found that the potential cancer risk cannot be determined and identified the need for further sampling in response to the carcinogens documented during the investigation.

While none of the Plaintiffs have been diagnosed with cancer at this time, they allege that they face an increased risk of developing cancer or other serious diseases, and suffer from emotional distress, upper respiratory symptoms and infections, migraine headaches, itching
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House Bill 4123 makes two changes to Massachusetts Superior Court procedure, both of which favor plaintiffs.  The first, addressed by Section 1 of the bill, allows plaintiffs’ attorneys to request a specific monetary amount of damages at trial.  The second, addressed by Section 2 of the bill, allows attorneys to conduct voir dire.

The Language of the Bill

Section 1 of the bill states that “[i]n civil actions in the superior court, parties, through their counsel, may suggest a specific monetary amount for damages at trial.”

Section 2 of the bill requires the court, upon the request of any party or any party’s attorney, to permit “the party or the party’s attorney to conduct, under the direction of the court, an oral examination of the jury venire.”  This examination is not unlimited, however.  Instead, “[t]he court may impose reasonable limitations upon the questions allowed during such examination.”  The court may provide additional time to the parties at its discretion.

Examination by a party or a party’s counsel does not replace voir dire conducted by the court.  Instead, such examination is “[i]n addition to whatever jury voir dire of the jury venire [that] is conducted by the court.”  Also, the bill does “not limit the number of peremptory challenges a party is entitled to by statute or court rule.”

Massachusetts’s Jury Trial Statistics

 

In a 2005 study, the Department of Justice analyzed plaintiff success rates in the United States’ seventy-five most populous counties.  Four Massachusetts counties were included in this study: Essex, Middlesex, Suffolk, and Worcester.  The study revealed that plaintiffs prevailed approximately 53.2 percent of the time nationwide.  However, in the four Massachusetts counties, plaintiffs prevailed in only 79 of the 321 jury trials, for a success rate of approximately 24.6 percent.

 

Potential Impact of the Bill

 

The Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, an organization of Massachusetts plaintiffs’ attorneys, believes that the implementation of House Bill 4123 will make Massachusetts a more plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction.  After the governor signed the bill into law, the Academy’s president posted a letter to the group’s website calling the bill “a cultural shift in Massachusetts.”  The letter further stated that “the ability to state a dollar amount at trial is also a huge advance” for plaintiffs’ attorneys.

If the Academy is correct, House Bill 4123 could make Massachusetts a particularly problematic jurisdiction for toxic tort and products liability defendants.  According to the Department of Justice’s 2005 study of nationwide trial statistics, plaintiffs prevailed in jury trials less than half as frequently in Massachusetts as they do throughout the country.  If plaintiffs in Massachusetts jury trial begin winning more often because House Bill 4123 (1) gives their attorneys a better chance to influence the jury through attorney-conducted voir dire and (2) strengthens their attorneys’ presentation to the jury by authorizing them to request a specific amount of monetary damages, then Massachusetts could become an appealing jurisdiction for plaintiffs, and plaintiffs’ attorney might be emboldened to push cases to the
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