Overnight Energy & Environment

Overnight Energy & Environment — ‘Forever chemical’ suits face time crunch

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Welcome to Tuesday’s Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

Today we’re looking at ways in which legal deadlines can hamper “forever chemical” lawsuits, energy preparations in case Russia invades Ukraine and a confirmation hearing for a former Trump official.

For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk. Write to us with tips rfrazin@thehill.com and zbudryk@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @RachelFrazin and @BudrykZack.

Let’s jump in.

Seeking justice after exposure to toxins 

This is from Part 1 of a four-part series this week. Check TheHill.com for more throughout the week.

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Brenda Hampton says the heart attack she endured last month might be a blessing in disguise — a second chance at challenging a complex legal system that barred her from seeking compensation for years of renal failure.

“I’m thinking God is opening the door for me. I’ve got a feeling of that,” Hampton, the founder of Concerned Citizens of WMEL (West Morgan and East Lawrence) Water Authority, told The Hill. 

Through her organization, also known as Concerned Citizens of North Alabama Grassroots, Hampton has been raising awareness about the severe contamination from “forever chemicals” — per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — that have for decades plagued portions of Alabama’s Lawrence County, where Hampton lives.

PFAS are sometimes called forever chemicals because they can accumulate in the body over time, instead of breaking down, and also linger in the environment for decades on end.  

Hampton, 66, has been investigating the northern Alabama contamination personally since 2015, as well as bringing bottled water to impacted residents and championing local legal battles involving impacted water agencies and residents. Her grandparents both died of renal failure, as did her mother in 2001, just four years after Hampton gave her a kidney. 

But despite suffering from renal failure herself since 2015, Hampton had long ago abandoned the idea of pursuing a lawsuit — with the understanding that from a legal perspective, it was simply too late. The state-level statute of limitations dictates a two-year limit for filing contamination claims.

IN THE LEGAL WEEDS

Alabama has among the strictest statutes nationwide: Plaintiffs in the state can sue only within two years after they become sick, rather than after the cause of the illness is known.   

That’s because Alabama, as well as Michigan and Idaho, lack or have very limited versions of what’s called a “discovery rule” when it comes to toxic exposures, setting them apart from most states.

While statutes of limitations in many other states pose significant restrictions, most at least enable plaintiffs to delay suing until they have a clear causal link for their illness. 

Without a discovery rule, experts told The Hill, plaintiffs seeking compensation face a nearly insurmountable hurdle, even though they may have never even heard of PFAS by the time the statute of limitations passes, let alone known they were being harmed by them.  

And while in Alabama, the clock starts ticking when injury occurs, in Michigan it starts even earlier — when the pollution occurs, even if the affected people don’t know it’s happening.  

Some pushback: Statutes of limitations are facing increasing scrutiny from activists, who say that people should get more time to sue.

“How can you have a statute of limitations on something that people didn’t even know existed — that they were being exposed to?” asked environmental advocate Erin Brockovich, who gained fame suing the utility company PG&E over contamination involving a different chemical in California.  

“That doesn’t make any sense to me,” Brockovich said. “Who are these laws really protecting?”  

But Hampton has some renewed optimism following her heart attack. She is hoping she might now have a second chance — that the heart attack might be considered a new injury, distinct from the renal failure, that could potentially start a new clock ticking. 

Read more about the situation — and others facing similar legal hurdles — here. 

Energy ‘contingency planning’ for Europe

The Biden administration is engaged with European countries and major energy companies to prepare for a scenario in which a Russian invasion of Ukraine leads to a natural gas shortage in Europe, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

The official described the discussions as “contingency planning” if a Russian invasion damages natural gas infrastructure or Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliates against sanctions triggered by an incursion by deliberately cutting off supply to European countries.

“We’re working with countries and companies around the world to ensure the security of supply, to mitigate against price shocks affecting both the American people and the global economy,” the official said, adding that the talks have been ongoing for several weeks. 

The Biden administration is working to identify existing non-Russian natural gas stockpiles from North Africa, Middle East, Asia and the United States and engaging with major natural gas producers about potentially surging supplies to Europe if needed. 

The official declined to name the specific countries or companies with whom the Biden administration is in talks about alternative supplies. 

CNN recently reported that the talks involve Norway and Qatar, in addition to other countries. 

Russia supplies upward of 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas, a sizable fraction of which flows through Ukraine. Germany in particular is very reliant on Russian gas and crude oil. That dependence has triggered concerns about the impact a Russian invasion would have on the European market. 

A second senior administration official stressed that any action by Russia to cut off energy supplies to Europe would also have negative consequences on Moscow’s economy. 

“This is not an asymmetric advantage for Putin. It is an interdependency,” the official said. 

Read more about the situation from The Hill’s Morgan Chalfant here.

GM INVESTS IN EV PLANTS

General Motors is making a $7 billion investment in four new Michigan electric vehicle manufacturing plants in an effort to “be the market leader” in electric vehicles by 2025, CEO Mary Barra announced on Tuesday.

GM will co-invest $2.6 billion with LG Energy to build a new facility near Lansing, Mich. to turn out GM’s Ultium battery and engine platform — the base for a diverse array of electric pickups and SUVs. 

It will also spend $4 billion to adapt an existing facility in Orion Township to turn out electric Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, pushing GM’s total output to “about 600,000 trucks a year,” Barra said. 

GM will also invest $510 million to upgrade two other Lansing-area plants “for near term projects,” Barra added.  

President Biden called the deal “the latest sign that my economic strategy is helping power an historic American manufacturing comeback,” pointing to $100 billion in investment in electric vehicle manufacturing over the past year. 

In total, GM expects to create 4,000 jobs — which will result in $35 billion in spillover economic opportunity over the next 20 years, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) told reporters. 

Read more from The Hill’s Saul Elbein here.  

Wheeler questioned on time in Trump admin 

Andrew Wheeler, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) nominee for state secretary of natural resources, was questioned by state lawmakers Tuesday over his time serving as former President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head.

During the confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Virginia Senate’s Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, state Sen. Joseph Morrissey (D) asked Wheeler why he could not convince Trump climate change is real.

Morrissey complimented Wheeler as a “very articulate and persuasive individual.” In light of that, he asked, “Why do you think you weren’t able to persuade your former boss President Trump … that climate change is real and has potentially devastating impacts on the environment?” 

Wheeler’s response: Wheeler responded that specific climate actions on Trump’s part, such a the announcement to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement in 2017, occurred before Wheeler joined the EPA in 2018. He went on to say his discussions with Trump focused more on issues like vehicle fuel economy standards and power plant regulations.  

What else did he talk about? During the hearing, Wheeler also addressed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an 11-state carbon market Virginia entered in 2021. While Youngkin pledged to withdraw from the compact, environmentalists and advocates have said he lacks the authority, as the legislature voted to join it. In an executive order Sunday, Youngkin instead called on the State Air Pollution Control Board to vote on whether to leave. 

Asked if he agreed that “RGGI cannot be adjusted or modified or eliminated by edict of the governor and it has to be done by the General Assembly,” Wheeler responded “I think that will be part of the assessment that [the state Department of Environmental Quality] is undertaking, but from where I stand right now RGGI is the law of the state.” 

Read more about the hearing here.

 

NEW WARNING ON GRID THREATS

Domestic extremists have been developing plans to attack U.S. electric power infrastructure, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned in a bulletin obtained by several media outlets. 

The department said both domestic violent extremists and extremists more specifically motivated by racial animus are among those eyeing the power system as a target for attack.  

“DVEs have developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020, identifying the electric grid as a particularly attractive target given its interdependency with other infrastructure sectors,” the bulletin says, according to The Daily Beast, which first reported the memo. 

Read more from The Hill’s Rebecca Beitsch here. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • Mountain Valley Pipeline loses permit to cross through Jefferson National Forest (The Roanoke Times) 
  • Europe’s Coal Giants Lag in Effort to Reach Net-Zero, Says Study (Bloomberg) 
  • High levels of PFAS chemicals found in 34 NJ drinking water systems affecting 500K+ people (NorthJersey.com) 
  • Which Drugs Will Survive Climate Change? We Investigated (Vice News)

 

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s energy & environment page for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you Wednesday. 

Tags Andrew Wheeler Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin Gretchen Whitmer Joe Biden Vladimir Putin

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