On Tuesday October 12, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar lifted the moratorium on deepwater oil drilling that had been imposed in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The move was criticized both by environmentalists, who believed that it was too hasty, and by the oil industry who complained that new regulations they must comply with would delay their receipt of permits.
The chaotic state of U.S. energy policy in the wake of the failure of U.S. cap-and-trade legislation may be illustrated by the current dispute between Constellation Energy Group and its partner Electricité de France (EDF) over whether to abandon a project to build an additional nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland. After U.S.-based Constellation announced that it was canceling the project, EDF offered last week to buy out the joint venture on the condition that Constellation not force it to take over 12 of its other powerplants that use fossil fuels. Clearly the foreign firm places a much higher value on generation assets with a lower carbon footprint than its U.S. partner does.
Last week Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced that the Canadian government was adding the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) to its register of toxic substances under the country’s Chemical Management Plan. BPA is widely used to harden plastics, and some jurisdictions have limited its use in products likely to be used by children, such as baby bottles, due to test data raising toxicity concerns. Environment Canada based its decision on test data linking the chemical to harmful neurodevelopmental and behavioral effects in rodents. Based on this data, the agency stated it was “considered appropriate to apply a precautionary approach” to protect public health and the environment.
The 184 million gallons of toxic sludge released by the October 4th collapse of a containment reservoir at a plant that converts bauxite into alumina in Hungary has now killed 9 people and caused major damage to two villages. Despite initial assurances from Hungarian officials and the company that owned the plant that the sludge was not toxic, it contains high concentrations of arsenic and in undiluted form is a caustic as lye. Nonetheless, Zoltan Nakoyni, the chief executive of the company (MAL Hungarian Aluminum Productiona and Trade) that owned the plant was released by order of a judge who rejected demands that he be prosecuted for negligence. Hungary’s state minister for the environment Zoltan Illes warned that there are many other similar sites in central and eastern Europe where containment structures for toxic wastes have not been adequately maintained. Dan Bilefsky, Hungary Sludge a Warning for Other Sites in Europe, N.Y. Times, Oct. 15, 2010, at A10.
On Friday October 15, EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin announced that he was recommending that the agency veto a permit for the largest mountaintop coal mining project in West Virginia. The permit, which had been approved by the George W. Bush administration, would allow dynamiting of 2,278 acres of land with the spoil to be dumped into nearby valleys. EPA found that the spoil would bury seven miles of streams, destroying all aquatic life and spreading toxic contaminants downstream. The company seeking the permit, Arch Coal, stated that it would vigorously contest any veto. John M. Broder, EPA Official Seeks to Block West Virginia Mine, N.Y. Times, October 16, 2010. An indication of how unpopular climate change legislation in West Virginia was provided last week when the state’s Democratic governor Joe Manchin released a campaign ad where he literally fires a bullet through the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. A video of the ad can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIJORBRpOPM. As another blogger noticed, Manchin’s bullet actually hits the “s” in “to create clean energy jobs” in the preamble describing the bill’s purpose.
My wife, daughter and I were glued to the TV last week to watch the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for 69 days. My daughter is Chilean and my wife and I will be visiting Chile next week where I will speak at an environmental conference at the University of Chile Law School’s Center for Environmental Law. The rescue was an inspiration to the entire world and it demonstrated how global publicity can create support for enhanced safety standards. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera stated that “If Chile wants to be a developed country it’s not just about sitting at the table with European countries but about treating workers as if we were a developed country.” He vowed to upgrade health and safety standards to respect the “life, health, integrity and dignity” of workers. Jude Webber, Chilean President Pledges “New Deal”, Financial Times, October 14, 2010. Editorial cartoonist Jeff Danziger portrayed officials in China, where more than 2,600 coal miners were killed in 2009 (down from 7,000 deaths in 2003), as asking whether this means that they will have to rescue trapped Chinese miners. See the fifth cartoon in the slideshow at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/gallery/2010/10/15/GA2010101505085.html?referrer=emaillink
On Thursday October 14 a federal judge in New Orleans approved a settlement between homeowners, importers, manufacturers and distributors of drywall manufactured by a Chinese company, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin. The drywall was linked to sulfur fumes that corroded metal and wiring and allegedly caused health problems for occupants of homes in which it was used. The companies agreed to remove and replace the drywall and electric wiring, gas tubing and appliances in 300 homes in 4 states at a cost estimated at $150,000 per home. It is believed that the settlement, which does not resolve claims of harm to health, could serve as a model for future settlements of similar lawsuits. M.P. McQueen, Deal in Drywall Case, Wall St. J., Oct. 15, 2010, at A5.
On Tuesday October 12 I was the luncheon speaker for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Law of the Sea Convention Working Group at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. The topic of my talk was “Liability for Transboundary Environmental Harm and Emerging Global Environmental Law.” After the talk I had lunch with a group of NOAA attorneys and interns, including a Maryland law student who is interning at the agency.