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New Study in the Journal Science Affirms Underground Injection from Fracking Causes Earthquakes, While Industry Cautions Reserving Judgment

According to a new study in the journal, Science, an increase in the number of earthquakes in central Oklahoma likely arises from the use of underground injection wells to dispose of treated wastewater from oil and gas fracking operations. The study, funded in part by the U.S. Geological Survey (“USGS”)and the National Science Foundation (“NSF”), focused on Oklahoma earthquakes and injection well practices. The research was led by Cornell University and included researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Aspects of EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulations, But Upholds Other Provisions

Earlier today, June 23, 2014, the United States Supreme Court dealt a blow to EPA’s current approach to regulating greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) through its air permitting program for new or expanding stationary sources. Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency. No. 12-1146, ___ U.S. ___, June 23, 1014. The Court said it left intact EPA’s ability to regulate 83 percent of such GHG emissions, compared to the 86 percent EPA championed under its approach. Nevertheless, in its ruling the Court undercut key foundations of EPA’s current GHG regulatory approach. This ruling will require EPA to re-think many aspects of its approach to GHGs and will give opponents increased leverage in the upcoming discussions.

California Modifies Proposed Fracking Regulations, Mandating Seismic Monitoring

The Ventura County Star reported on June 17th that the California Department of  Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (the “Division”), has modified its proposed hydraulic fracturing regulations mandated by last year’s Senate Bill 4, requiring well operators to conduct real-time seismic monitoring. The modified regulations specify that they apply both to offshore and on shore oil drilling operations. Most drilling off the California coast, however, occurs in federal waters that are beyond the reach of state regulations.

2005 Phase I ESA Will No Longer Satisfy All Appropriate Inquiries Under EPA Proposed Rule

On June 17, 2014, EPA issued a proposed rule in the Federal Register, 79 Fed. Reg. 34480, proposing to amend the standards and practices for satisfying All Appropriate Inquiries (AAI) under CERCLA. In particular, EPA is proposing to remove references to the 2005 Phase I ESA Standard ASTM E1527-05 as satisfying AAI.

CERCLA Will Not Save a Toxic Tort Claim which is Barred by a State Statute of Repose

Earlier today, June 9, 2014, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, et al., slip op. No. 13–339 (U.S., 6-9-2014). Reversing the Fourth Circuit, the Supreme Court held that the Superfund law’s preemption of state statutes of limitation for personal injury or property damage claims does not apply to state statutes of repose. Not every state has such a statute on the books, but for those that do, this may provide an additional shield for defendants, and an additional hurdle for plaintiffs.

Environmental Indemnity or Waste of Words?

On November 12, 2013, the First Circuit Court of Appeals handed down its decision in VFC Partners 26, LLC v. Cadlerocks Centennial Drive, LLC, slip op. (1st Cir., 2013). This decision serves as a reminder that courts will look carefully at the words used in a loan agreement’s environmental indemnity provisions to decide whether or how they apply. If the actual wording chosen (likely many years earlier) does not fit the environmental costs sought to be indemnified, the party pursuing indemnity may be greatly disappointed.

The Fourth Circuit’s Ashley II Decision – Property Redevelopers and Superfund Liability Defenses

On April 4, 2013, the Fourth Circuit handed down its much-awaited decision about what a bona fide prospective purchaser (BFPP) of contaminated property must do to retain the Brownfields defense to Superfund liability. In PCS Nitrogen Inc. v. Ashley II of Charleston LLC, No. 11-2087, slip op. at 31 (4th Cir. April 4, 2013), the Court held that a property redeveloper, Ashley II, was liable as a current owner potentially responsible party (PRP) for soil contamination at the former phosphate fertilizer plant despite its “all appropriate inquiry” pre-purchase investigation of past environmental conditions at the facility. Ashley II knew that old sumps at the property contained contaminated water, yet for years did nothing to clean out or close the sumps. This failure to stop a continuing release violated the post-purchase “due care” or “reasonable steps” requirements of the BFPP defense, and negated its applicability to Ashley II.

EPA Issues New Guidance to Assist Tenants in Avoiding Cleanup Liability at Contaminated Sites

In an effort to encourage brownfield site redevelopment and renewable energy development on contaminated sites, on December 5, 2012, EPA issued a guidance document designed to clarify the scope of enforcement discretion the agency will provide to tenants who undertake steps to avoid liability under CERCLA’s Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser (“BFPP”) provisions. In conjunction with the guidance memorandum, EPA also issued three new model comfort/status letters for lessees involved in renewable energy development on contaminated property.

Missouri Revises its Model Environmental Covenant for Activity and Use Limitations on Contaminated Sites

Businesses that own contaminated property in Missouri, such as brownfield sites and former industrial locations, can avail themselves of Missouri’s Environmental Covenant Act (MoECA), RSMo Section 260.1000 et seq., 10 CSR 25-18.010(18), to expedite cleanup and, if site conditions allow, beneficial reuse of those properties. In particular, property owners can record an environmental covenant on their property that restricts certain land uses and site activities to minimize exposure to impacted soils and groundwater.

When coupled with a risk-based cleanup approach, an environmental covenant can present significant advantages to a property owner. Most notably, a company can clean up a site based on human health and environmental risks associated with appropriately tailored uses of the property, such as cleaning up an industrial property to satisfy industrial standards as opposed to residential standards.

The most common types of activity and use limitations found in environmental covenants include:

  • residential use restrictions;
  • prohibitions on drilling of groundwater wells and the use of groundwater for domestic purposes; and
  • limitations on disturbance of surface and subsurface soils.

Environmental covenants like other property interests are recorded in a property’s chain of title to provide notice to prospective buyers of the specific activity and use limitations imposed by the restrictions.

Missouri, along with more than 20 other states, has adopted a version of the Uniform Environmental Covenants Act. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) has a “model” environmental covenant used by the agency in situations where MDNR is the sole overseeing Department and a second model covenant in which both EPA and MDNR are the overseeing agencies.

The provisions in the new model Environmental Covenant differ only somewhat from the provisions in the prior model Environmental Covenant, but the new model serves as a reminder that Missouri has a robust risk-based cleanup program when it is neither pragmatic nor cost-effective to clean up sites to residential levels.  The use of Missouri’s risk-based program should be carefully evaluated considering site-specific circumstances.

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