On January 6 the Sea Shepherd organization released video taken from its protest vessel the Steve Irwin that it claimed shows Japanese whalers illegally killing whales in a protected area off the coast of Antarctica. The video showed protected minke whales on the deck of the factory ship Nishin Maru. After protests by Sea Shepherd and the government of New Zealand, which administers the Ross Dependency where the whaling allegedly occurred, the Japanese whalers relocated 400 miles away from the protected area. Last year the International Court of Justice heard a lawsuit brought by New Zealand claiming that Japan is violating the ban on commercial whaling under the guise of “scientific research.” The Court is expected to issue a ruling in the case this year.
Hundreds of thousands of residents of West Virginia were without water as a result of a toxic chemical spill in the Elk River that contaminated public water supplies in Charleston and nine surrounding counties. The spill was caused when a tank containing thousands of gallons of a chemical used in coal processing ruptured on the morning of January 9. Little is known about the human health effects of exposure to the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. Freedom Industries, where the leak occurred, apparently did not inform authorities about the spill until its contamination of the Elk River had spread to Charleston’s public water supply. Having contaminated the water distribution system, the chemical will need to be flushed from the entire system, which may take considerable time.
On January 6 Chinese authorities made a public display of destroying six tons of confiscated ivory in Dongguan, China. The destruction of the ivory was highly publicized to respond to criticism that Chinese consumer demand for ivory has fueled illegal elephant poaching around the world. Wildlife conservation officials had high praise for the move as a sign that the Chinese government may become more aggressive in enforcing global agreements to curb the ivory trade. Bettina Wassener, Destruction of Ivory by China Wins Praise, N.Y. Times, January 7, 2013, at A4.
On January 10 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the settlement BP had reached for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. By a vote of 2-1 the court rejected BP’s effort to reinterpret the settlement to restrict the parties eligible to receive compensation under it. Judge Emilio Garza dissented from the majority’s conclusion that BP had to bear the consequences of its broad settlement even if it meant that compensation is paid to some who lack proof that the spill actually caused them harm.
On Friday the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear a case involving an unusual provision of the U.S. “Superfund” statute (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or “CERCLA”). Section 309 preempts state law to require that state statutes of limitations are tolled until a plaintiff discovers that he has been the victim of exposure to a hazardous substance. The novel question CTS Corp. v. Waldburger is whether Section 309’s preemption also applies to statutes of repose. Statutes of repose are broader than statutes of limitation because they bar lawsuits after a certain period of time has passed from a date unrelated to the act causing injury. Citing CERCLA’s broad remedial purposes, the Fourth Circuit held that North Carolina residents who did not discover chemical contamination of their wellwater until after a statute of repose had expired could still sue the company responsible for it.
On Wednesday afternoon I gave a talk on climate change to the Public Affairs Forum at Roland Park Place, a retirement community in Baltimore. I was delighted to have a sophisticated and enthusiastic audience that included my host Bill Nagle, formerly of the World Resources Institute, my former colleague Clinton Bamberger, Richard Springer, who as a State Department official helped negotiate the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, and Janet Gerber, who established an environmental litigation fund for Maryland’s Environmental Law Clinic. On Wednesday night I had dinner with my old friend Dan Guttman who is back in the U.S. this month before resuming his teaching and public interest policy work in China next month.