NELC Advances, While EPA Retreats

NELC Attorney Heather Govern speaks at a press conference in Florida regarding the Pilgrim’s Pride case settlement.

In the past year, the news on the environment out of Washington, D.C., has been relentlessly bleak:

  • President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement and pledging to scrap the Clean Power Plan;
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt naming industry lobbyists and climate deniers to crucial regulatory and scientific posts, even as proposed budget cuts threaten to cripple EPA’s core staff and functions;
  • Rollbacks of environmental and public health protections; and
  • A steep drop in EPA enforcement to stop illegal pollution.

As President Trump’s EPA moves to abdicate its primary role in enforcement of our cornerstone environmental laws, the need for citizen enforcement has never been greater. And NELC’s small but hardworking staff is stepping up to fill the gap.

We told you recently about NELC’s precedent-setting judgment against ExxonMobil Corporation in Houston, Texas, where a federal judge fined Exxon a record $19.95 million for violating the federal Clean Air Act more than 16,000 times and releasing over 10 million pounds of illegal pollution into surrounding neighborhoods.

Now, three major NELC lawsuits, filed in three different states, target three more of the biggest companies in the world for illegal pollution of our air and water.

As we prepare to defend the Exxon judgment against the company’s appeal, each of these other cases is moving rapidly toward settlement—settlements that would benefit public health and the environment, and send a clear and a desperately needed message to corporate polluters elsewhere.

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NELC Settles Clean Water Suit Against The World’s Largest Chicken Producer

Consulting Engineer Wane Schneiter, NELC Cooperating Attorney Dave Nicholas and NELC Attorney Heather Govern get “suited up” for a tour of the Pilgrim’s Pride Plant in Live Oak, Fla.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—On Nov. 13, on behalf of Environment Florida and the Sierra Club, NELC attorneys garnered what is believed to be the largest citizen suit penalty of its kind in Florida history. This is just one of the notable results of the settlement with chicken producer Pilgrim’s Pride, and concludes the federal Clean Water Act lawsuit filed earlier this year for violations occurring at the company’s poultry processing plant in Live Oak, Fla.

The groups filed the lawsuit to stop the discharge of toxic pollutants into the Suwannee River, an “Outstanding Florida Water” that is home to 62 freshwater springs and several state parks. The suit alleged that the company had committed 1,377 days of Clean Water Act violations since 2012, exceeding pollution standards by as much as three times the legal limits.

The settlement terms include:

  • A $1.43 million civil penalty, of which $1.3 million will be allocated to a Sustainable Farming Fund designed to improve soil, groundwater, and surface water quality in the Suwannee Basin, and $130,000 will be allocated to the U.S. Treasury;
  • Significant stipulated penalties for any wastewater violations and for any failures to implement a series of far-reaching environmental upgrades at the plant;
  • A comprehensive study on eliminating the plant’s wastewater discharge to the Suwannee River, including the evaluation of alternative means of disposal like constructed wetlands and land application;

A toxicity identification evaluation to determine the cause(s) of the plant’s toxicity violations;

A water use and reuse study, an analysis of the plant’s water supply system, and various upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant.

“Our state and federal officials were not doing enough to protect one of Florida’s most beautiful rivers so we stepped in as citizen enforcers of the Clean Water Act,” said Jennifer Rubiello, state director of Environment Florida, a state affiliate of Environment America. “This great outcome demonstrates the importance of citizen lawsuits.”

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NELC Holds World’s Largest Steel Company Accountable For Air Pollution

ArcelorMittal’s coke plant in Monessen, outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

PITTSBURG, Pa.— NELC attorneys have finalized, and submitted for public comment and court approval, a comprehensive consent decree with ArcelorMittal in settlement of hundreds of air pollution violations at the company’s Monessen, Pa. coal refining facility (coke plant). The federal Clean Air Act lawsuit was filed in 2015, on behalf of PennEnvironment, to prevent illegal air pollution from raining down on residents who live in the nearby neighborhoods of Monessen, Donora, Monongahela and Carroll Township. Individuals and their homes have been showered with soot, acidic gases and noxious odors from the day that Arcelor re-started the decades-old facility in 2014.

“This settlement agreement will be a critical step in helping to protect residents of the Mon Valley from dangerous air pollution,” stated PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur. “Having clean air is a right, not a privilege, and we’re glad to do our part to help protect local residents in and around Monessen from illegal pollution.”

NELC, ArcelorMittal, and state and federal agencies have negotiated a $1.5 million penalty (the largest in state history) for past violations of the facility’s pollution limits for hydrogen sulfide (a toxic gas with a foul odor), sulfur dioxide (a respiratory irritant and contributor to acid rain), and particulate matter (which can lodge in the lungs and exacerbate respiratory problems).Other settlement terms include plant-wide environmental upgrades, improved communications with the public, enhanced monitoring of emissions, and a $300,000 clean vehicle program for surrounding communities.

“When I was working with NELC and PennEnvironment, I felt like they truly understood what I was going through and experiencing. And that I wasn’t alone,” said local resident Viktoryia Maroz, who participated in the lawsuit. “I look forward to seeing a difference in the air quality after this historic settlement.”

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NELC Reins In Another Polluter On The Texas Gulf Coast

HOUSTON, Texas—Back in March, NELC attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Environment Texas and Sierra Club against Pasadena Refining System, Inc. (PRSI) for thousands of violations of the federal Clean Air Act at its Pasadena, Texas, refinery. This marks the fourth lawsuit in our campaign to clean the air on Texas’s Gulf Coast.

PRSI is owned by one of the largest energy companies in the world, Petróleo Brasileiro S.A., or Petrobras, which has been linked to a bribery and kickbacks scandal known as “Operation Car Wash,” the largest corruption scandal in the history of Brazil.

It is perhaps no coincidence that for years the Pasadena refinery paid little attention to compliance with U.S. environmental laws, as it has illegally emitted particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other air pollutants in amounts that greatly exceed hourly and annual pollution limits. The pollutants emitted by the Pasadena refinery pose real health risks. Small particulate matter, for example, can cause or exacerbate asthma and other lung damage, can contrib- ute to lung cancer, and can contribute to heart disease.

After initial settlement discussions, PRSI did an about-face in May by filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, PRSI has now reversed course again, and is seeking to settle.

Although the details of settlement negotiations are confidential, NELC attorneys will seek to obtain binding commitments from the company to upgrade equipment and procedures to reduce emissions, achieve sustained compliance with its pollution limits, and pay a substantial penalty for its past violations.

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First Court Hearing Held In Southbridge Landfill Case

Attorneys Kevin Budris, Dave Nicholas, Heather Govern and Josh Kratka outside the federal courthouse in Worcester, Mass., after oral argument.

WORCESTER, Mass.—On Oct. 20, NELC Attorney Kevin Budris appeared in federal court to present arguments against the motion filed by Casella Waste Systems to dismiss the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act lawsuit filed by NELC attorneys to address ongoing pollution of surface waters and drinking water by the company’s massive solid waste landfill in Southbridge, Mass.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman announced after the hearing that he would take the matter under advisement, and issue an opinion at a later date.

Since the lawsuit was filed in June, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has tested sediment samples collected from wetlands and a stream near the landfill. These sediment samples contain many of the same pollutants discharged by the landfill, and are further evidence that the landfill is contaminating surface waters. Among these pollutants, arsenic, lead, manganese, iron and barium were detected in concentrations above risk levels recognized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as posing a threat to aquatic life. This new information further underscores the environmental risk posed by the landfill.

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