The Supremes Weigh in on Superfund and the Clean Water Act

Margaret Anne Hill, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

Notwithstanding that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (more commonly known as “Superfund”) has been around for 40 years, and the fact that numerous cases have made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court analyzing liability under the Act, debates continue as to who can be a Superfund “potentially responsible party” or a “PRP.” For those who still do not get the scope and reach of Superfund liability, the Supreme Court has, once again, provided a clear response with respect to liability under the Act in an April 20, 2020, decision, Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian et al. In that case, the Court reaffirmed its position set forth in a 2007 case, United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U. S. 128, 136 (2007), that even parties whose property has been contaminated by others, and who are innocent with respect to the contamination, fall within the broad definition of liable parties under Section 107(a) of Superfund (which uses the term “covered persons”), subject to the third-party defense set forth in Section 107 (b).

Atlantic Richfield involved a group of 98 property owners who filed claims against Atlantic Richfield in Montana state court in connection with the Anaconda Copper Smelter Superfund Site in Butte, Montana, a 300-square-mile site contaminated with arsenic and lead. The property owners’ claims included trespass, nuisance, and strict liability claims under state common law. The landowners sought restoration damages, among other forms of relief, which was the issue before the Court since Atlantic Richfield conceded that Superfund preserves claims for other types of compensatory damages under state law, including loss of use and enjoyment of property, diminution of value, incidental and consequential damages, and annoyance and discomfort. The property owners sought to implement a remedial restoration plan that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) selected remedial actions. The question regarding their PRP status was before the Court in the context of determining if they were prohibited from taking further remedial action without EPA’s approval under Section 122(e)(6). Continue reading “The Supremes Weigh in on Superfund and the Clean Water Act”

EPA Reverses Course with the Mercury and Air Toxics Regulations for Power Plants

Margaret Anne Hill, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

The saga for regulating mercury and air toxics from coal- and oil-fired power plants continues with a final rule promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) on April 16, 2020. EPA initially determined that it was “appropriate and necessary” under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act to regulate hazardous air pollutants (“HAPs”)—including mercury—for these types of power plants, commonly referred to as electric utility steam generating units (“EGUs”).[1] In a change of policy, EPA has now decided that the “appropriate and necessary” determination to regulate HAPs for these power plants—after two decades of additional EPA rules, and corresponding litigation—is no longer correct.[2]

A significant part of the backstory here is related to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2015 in Michigan v. EPA.[3] Briefly, the Court held that the EPA needed to consider costs in evaluating whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate HAP emissions from coal- and oil-fired EGUs, especially the costs associated with compliance. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, EPA, under the Obama Administration, conducted a study in 2016 to evaluate these costs and concluded that it was still “appropriate and necessary” to regulate HAPs emitted from these sources.[4] The Trump Administration has now reversed course in issuing the April 16 final rule, effectively concluding that the EPA’s decision in 2016 was wrong. Continue reading “EPA Reverses Course with the Mercury and Air Toxics Regulations for Power Plants”

FERC Issues Penalty Assessment in Vitol CAISO Market Manipulation Proceeding

Mark R. Haskell, George D. Billinson, and Lamiya N. Rahman

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an Order Assessing Civil Penalties, imposing approximately $1.5 million in civil penalties on Vitol Inc. and one million dollars in penalties on a Vitol trader. In a departure from prior cases, the Commission assessed penalties well below Enforcement Staff’s recommended six-million-dollar penalty for the company, in light of the individual trader’s significant involvement in the alleged scheme. The next step for Respondents wishing to challenge the Order will be de novo review in federal district court.

On October 25, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) issued an Order Assessing Civil Penalties (“Order”), imposing civil penalties of $1,515,738 against Vitol Inc. (“Vitol”) and one million dollars against Federico Corteggiano, a Vitol trader, in connection with an alleged market manipulation scheme in the California Independent System Operator Corporation’s (“CAISO”) markets.[i] Additionally, the Commission ordered Vitol to disgorge unjust profits, plus interest, of $1,227,143.

As we have previously discussed, the Commission began this proceeding by issuing an Order to Show Cause and Notice of Proposed Penalty to Respondents on July 10, 2019. In that order, the Commission directed Vitol and Corteggiano to show cause why they should not be assessed civil penalties of six million dollars and $800,000, respectively, and why Vitol should not be required to disgorge unjust profits of $1,227,143, plus interest. Respondents elected to have the Commission assess an immediate penalty if it finds a violation and then proceed with de novo review before a federal district court.

In the instant Order, the Commission found that Vitol and Corteggiano (collectively, “Respondents”) violated the anti-manipulation prohibitions in the Federal Power Act (“FPA”) and FERC’s Anti-Manipulation Rule[ii] through a cross-market scheme in which Respondents sold power at a loss in the CAISO wholesale electric market to avoid greater losses in Vitol’s positions in a separate financial product—congestion revenue rights (“CRRs”).[iii]

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[i] Vitol Inc., Order Assessing Civil Penalties, 169 FERC ¶ 61,070 (2019).

[ii] FPA § 222 (2012); 18 C.F.R. § 1c.2 (2019).

[iii] Specifically, the Commission found Respondents intentionally engaged in fraudulent physical energy imports during the period October 28-November 1, 2013, at the Cascade intertie to relieve congestion at Cragview, which in turn lowered the Cragview locational marginal price (“LMP”) and economically benefitted Vitol’s CRRs sourced at that location. Order at P 34.

FERC Issues Show Cause Order Proposing $6.8M in Civil Penalties to Vitol Inc. and Individual Trader and $1.2M Disgorgement for Alleged CAISO Market Manipulation

Mark R. Haskell, George D. Billinson, and Lamiya N. Rahman

Recently, FERC issued an Order to Show Cause why Vitol Inc. and its co-director of financial transmission rights trading should not be found to have engaged in market manipulation by selling physical power in CAISO at a loss to eliminate expected losses on Vitol’s Congestion Revenue Rights. Within 30 days of the date of the Order, Respondents must show cause why they should not be found to have committed market manipulation, pay civil penalties, and disgorgement, as well as make an election under FPA § 31(d)(1) whether to proceed before an Administrative Law Judge or opt to have FERC assess a penalty and then proceed with de novo review by a federal district court.

On July 10, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) issued an Order to Show Cause and Notice of Proposed Penalty[1] to Vitol Inc. (“Vitol”) and Vitol’s co-head of financial transmission rights (“FTR”) trading, Federico Corteggiano (“Corteggiano”), (together, “Respondents”), directing the Respondents to show cause why they should not be found to have violated the anti-manipulation provisions of the Federal Power Act (“FPA”)[2] and the Commission’s regulations.[3]

The Order arises from allegations by FERC’s Office of Enforcement (“Enforcement”) that Respondents engaged in a “cross-product market manipulation scheme” by selling physical power at a loss in the California Independent System Operator (“CAISO”) day-ahead market to avoid even greater losses on their positions in a separate financial product—congestion revenue rights (“CRRs”). Enforcement’s factual allegations and legal analysis, resulting from an investigation into Respondents’ trading, are detailed in the Enforcement Staff Report and Recommendation included with the Order.[4] The investigation was prompted by a report from a CAISO market participant regarding Vitol’s activity.

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Leveling the Playing Field against Federal Agency Regulatory Interpretation: The Supreme Court’s Kisor Decision and the U.S. Attorney General’s 2018 Memorandum

Margaret Anne Hill, Brett A. Snyder, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

Last month, the Supreme Court in Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S.Ct. 2400 (2019) upheld what is known in administrative law as Auer deference: the age-old principle that a court should defer to an agency when the agency is interpreting its own ambiguous language in a regulation. See Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997); see also Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410 (1945). Deference to an agency’s regulatory interpretation has long been a challenge to industry and the broader regulated community. In any situation where an agency is on the other side of an issue—whether negotiations or a lawsuit—the agencies always had the upper hand when regulatory language was ambiguous. And this interpretation could often be the deciding factor between a party being in compliance with or in violation of a regulation.

But, with the Kisor decision the Court attempted to respect decades of precedent in this area yet rein in the frequency of Auer deference’s use and assuage naysayers by establishing clear standards for when a court should defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations. Continue reading “Leveling the Playing Field against Federal Agency Regulatory Interpretation: The Supreme Court’s Kisor Decision and the U.S. Attorney General’s 2018 Memorandum”