On August 26, 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced significant changes to the disclosure requirements for publicly traded companies under Regulation S-K. Businesses that receive monetary sanctions from the EPA and other governmental authorities involving violations of environmental laws will want to carefully review the new Item 103 Legal Proceedings rules as it may substantially alter disclosure obligations.
Environmental Compliance & Enforcement Defense
Accidental chemical releases in the workplace and offsite into the environment continue to be a high-priority enforcement area for both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA, including releases of anhydrous ammonia and other toxic and flammable substances under the agencies’ RMP and PSM programs.
On April 21, 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) and the Environmental Protection Agency published the finalized Navigable Waters Protection Rule in the Federal Register, ushering in significant changes to the definition of Waters of the United States (“WOTUS”), those waters federally regulated under the Clean Water Act. The rule affects multiple Clean Water Act programs, including Section 404 (wetlands), Section 402 (end-of-the-pipe discharges), and Section 311 (oil and hazardous substance spills). The rule is available here, and an EPA fact sheet regarding the rule is available here. For more background information, our latest article regarding the WOTUS saga is available here.
Companies nationwide that sell foods containing the chemical acrylamide to California consumers may find their regulatory burden lightened in the future. On October 7, 2019, the California Chamber of Commerce (CalChamber) filed suit against the California Attorney General in the Eastern District of California to prevent the state from enforcing Proposition 65 warning requirements for foods containing acrylamide. CalChamber’s Complaint asks the court to declare that the Proposition 65 requirement of carcinogen warnings for foods containing acrylamide constitutes false and misleading compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment, arguing that acrylamide in food has not been shown to be a human carcinogen. The Complaint also seeks an order prohibiting the State of California and private citizen enforcers from enforcing Proposition 65 warning requirements for foods containing acrylamide.
All companies in supply chains for products sold in California need to be aware of the law known as California’s Proposition 65. This is especially true because significant changes to Proposition 65 requirements go into effect on August 30, 2018, increasing potential liability.
Recently, EPA issued an Interim OECA Guidance on EPA and state roles on managing enforcement and compliance assistance. See, Interim OECA Guidance on Enhancing Regional—State Planning and Communication on Compliance Assurance Work in Authorized States. While EPA is seeking to emphasize cooperative federalism in modifying the emphasis of the 1986 revised policy on state/EPA enforcement agreements, as provided in the first footnote of the Guidance, the policy issued on January 22, 2018, appears to make the states the primary enforcer of environmental laws and provides a secondary role for EPA in that regard.
In January 2018, both EPA and OSHA increased civil penalties for new enforcement cases. These increases are required by the Federal Civil Penalty Inflation Adjustment Act of 2015 (Inflationary Adjustment Act), which directs federal agencies to annually adjust civil penalties for inflation by January 15 of each new calendar year in order to “maintain the deterrent effect of civil penalties by translating originally enacted statutory civil penalty amounts to today’s dollars.” 83 Fed. Reg. 1190, at 1191 (January 10, 2018).
A high-ranking Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcement official in the Trump Administration recently cited a 1994 memorandum by Earl Devaney, then Director of EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, as presenting guiding principles to select cases for criminal enforcement of environmental violations. The January 12, 1994, memorandum, “Exercise of Enforcement Discretion,” is often referred to as the “Devaney Memorandum,” and it is available at this link: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/exercise.pdf. This may signal that criminal enforcement of environmental laws under the Trump Administration will be limited to situations in which there has been significant actual or threatened environmental harm and truly culpable conduct.
On October 16, 2017, EPA Administrator Pruitt issued a directive, requiring EPA to immediately cease a practice known as “sue and settle,” in response to concerns that EPA has lately been defending against suits brought by environmental organizations with insufficient vigor. The “sue and settle” concept is not defined in relation to a specific political party or view of environmental protection. Rather, it is the concept that political parties in power sometimes half-heartedly defend against lawsuits, when the relief sought by such suits is actually favored by the party in power.
OSHA recently published a guidance document to help petroleum refineries comply with OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard, 29 CFR 1910.119, distilling lessons learned by OSHA over the past ten years from the Petroleum Refinery PSM National Emphasis Program (NEP). The OSHA guidance serves as a road map for process safety professionals to understand specific areas that OSHA will focus on during a PSM audit and areas most likely for OSHA to find gaps in PSM programs.