Legal

Wed, 2014-03-19 12:41Farron Cousins
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Coal Exporter United Bulk Sued For Polluting Mississippi River

A coalition of environmental advocacy groups filed a lawsuit earlier this week against United Bulk, alleging that the company is responsible for numerous violations of the Clean Water Act for polluting the Mississippi River.  United Bulk operates coal export terminals along the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.

The suit alleges — along with plenty of photographic evidence to back up the allegations — that United Bulk has left piles of coal debris and petroleum coke (petcoke) along the banks of the river for the last five years.  These piles are left unattended, unsecured, and uncovered in the elements, allowing wind and rain to easily sweep these pollutants into the Mississippi River and nearby marshes. 

A press release from the Clean Gulf Commerce Coalition lays out the basics:

The suit contends that United Bulk has illegally discharged coal and petcoke into the river every day that it has operated for at least five years. It points out that coal and petcoke—an oil-refining byproduct with high levels of arsenic, mercury and other toxins hazardous to human health and aquatic life—have been discharged into the river in enough quantities to produce visible spills on a regular basis. The suit also cites the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s determination that stormwater runoff from coal piles “can flush heavy metals from the coal, such as arsenic and lead, into nearby bodies of water.”

As mentioned above, the Gulf Restoration Project and the Sierra Club have released photographs of United Bulk’s contamination of the Mississippi River:

 photo UnitedBulk2.jpg

Fri, 2014-02-14 11:00Farron Cousins
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Oil Industry Profited Off Polluting Oil Spills, Fraud Investigation Underway

When an oil company’s negligence leads to an oil spill, the financial costs incurred by the company can be crippling.  They have to pay clean up costs, federal fines, and, in many cases, settlements to victims who have been affected by the spill.  Since these costs can be such a burden to the multi-billion dollar industry, they’ve figured out a way to recoup some of their losses by deceiving all the players involved.

Of course, these aren’t the massive oil spills that we’ve seen from Exxon and BP; these are the smaller ones that most people don’t hear about that typically occur when storage containers leak.  That’s where the industry has learned that oil spills can actually be good for their bottom line.

The scheme is known as “double dipping,” and it involves oil companies receiving both insurance funds for spill cleanup along with state funds to clean up oil leaks from underground tankers.  This allows the company to use funds for cleanup, and usually have a little left over to put in their pockets.

A new report by Reuters succinctly captures the essence of what’s happening in a single quote:  “When I first saw these cases, I thought this is kind of incredible,” said New Mexico assistant attorney general Seth Cohen, who handled the lawsuit for the state. “The oil companies have, in effect, profited off polluting.”

Tue, 2013-10-15 11:00Farron Cousins
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Justice Delayed For Mayflower Oil Spill Victims

As the government shutdown enters its third week, new and disturbing side effects are beginning to surface.  These adverse affects are arising from the U.S. court system, where federal prosecutors are unable to perform their day-to-day activities in many cases due to a lack of federal funding.

While this is bad news for American citizens, it is great news to oil giant ExxonMobil.  The federal prosecutors handling the case against Exxon for their Pegasus pipeline tar sands spill have been forced to request that the judge overseeing the lawsuits against Exxon delay the suit until government operations resume.

The U.S. attorneys and environmental investigators from the Justice Department and EPA are unable to work on the case due to the lack of funding.  According to the Associated Press, these workers are not even able to work on the case on their own time without pay, since it is a federal, not civil, suit.

In addition to the federal lawsuit, Exxon is currently facing at least $1.7 million in federal fines for the tar sands spill.  But again, as long as the government remains partially shut down, there is not enough staff to go around, and those fines will remain unpaid.  It is estimated that at least 94% of the entire EPA staff is currently furloughed as a result of the government shutdown.

This news is particularly disturbing for the residents of Mayflower, Arkansas, as they had worked very hard to get the lawsuit fast-tracked in the wake of the spill earlier this year.  The longer the shutdown lasts, the longer it will take for justice to be served against Exxon.  It also means that residents will go even longer without relief from the dangers affects of the diluted bitumen.

Mon, 2013-08-26 05:00Farron Cousins
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BP Launches Massive PR Campaign To Demonize Oil Spill Victims

BP, the oil giant that, along with Halliburton and Transocean, was responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, is crying foul in the claims process of settlements for the victims of the spill.  The company has launched a massive public relations offensive to paint themselves as the victims in this situation.

According to The Hill, BP CEO Bob Dudley said recently that the entire claims process has been “absurd,” and that his company has been more than generous with their payments.  BP spokesperson Geoff Morrell said:  “While we remain committed to paying legitimate claims, we did not agree to pay for fictitious losses, or for claims that are based on fraud or tainted by corruption.”

While the overall PR war may appear to be aimed at the victims along the Gulf Coast, the real targets of BP’s campaign are trial lawyers.  They have even enlisted the help of the largest business lobby and strongest advocates for “tort reform”, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Hill reports that a recent ad placed by BP in The Washington Post quoted National Association of Manufacturers CEO Jay Timmons, saying, “Too often these days, the tort system is nothing more than a trial-lawyer bonanza, and that’s not fair to individuals seeking redress and no way to encourage investment in manufacturing to create tomorrow’s high-paying jobs.”

The reason that the company is trying to paint the claims process as plagued with fraud is that they had underestimated the amount of claims that they would have to pay out, and their settlement fund is quickly running dry.  This means that subsequent payments will have to come directly out of the company’s profits, a move that is not sitting well with shareholders who were promised that the price tag would not exceed $8 billion

Mon, 2013-08-12 12:18Farron Cousins
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Could Lead Paint Lawsuit Pave Way For Class Action Against Coal Industry?

Coal industry executives ought to pay attention to the lead paint lawsuit currently happening in the California court system.

Recently, a lawsuit was filed against the makers of lead paint, alleging that the industry knew about the toxicity of their product and yet still promoted it as “safe” to the public.  The industry has faced many lawsuits over their products in the past, most of which were unsuccessful for the victims, due to the fact that the industry was often up front about the dangers of their products, and they funded public studies to determine the health effects.

But things have changed in the American legal system, and attorneys are now taking a page out of the tobacco litigation playbook.  By unearthing documents that detail the lead paint industry’s attempted cover-up of the dangers, they avoid the “buyer beware” caveat that the tobacco industry used for so long. 

And just like the tobacco industry, lead paint manufacturers were specifically targeting children with their ads.  The California lawsuit is making that a central part of the trial.  Also reminiscent of the tobacco litigation, the suit was filed by cities and municipalities, not individual victims, greatly increasing the chance for success.

The coal industry should be paying very close attention to the progress of this litigation, as their activities could become the next target of skilled attorneys.  For decades, the coal industry has been poisoning American citizens with their coal-mining, -burning and -dumping activities.  Additionally, the dismal working conditions for miners has cost many families an unnecessary loss of life.

Sun, 2013-06-02 08:04Farron Cousins
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Legal Headaches Begin For Exxon Over Pegasus Pipeline Rupture

Residents in Mayflower, Arkansas, the site of the recent Pegasus tar sands pipeline rupture, have filed suit against pipeline operator Exxon for health issues and property damage that have arisen since the spill.

Those affected by the pipeline’s spill have complained of numerous, though mild, health problems including headaches, nausea, and breathing difficulties.  While these symptoms are relatively mild, it should be noted that it has only been a month since the spill, and more severe problems are likely to creep up in the coming months.

The main concern is that the neurotoxins and carcinogens within the tar sands, particularly those contained in the diluted bitumen (dilbit), will plague the residents for years to come.

Thu, 2013-01-31 15:26Farron Cousins
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Record Fines For BP In Gulf Disaster Deal

After a ruling earlier this week by a federal judge in New Orleans, BP now holds the record for the largest criminal penalty in U.S. history.  The penalty, totaling $4 billion, is strictly related to the criminal conduct of the company that led to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico.

As part of the deal, BP agreed to plead guilty to a total of 14 counts of criminal conduct, which includes charges of felony manslaughter. However, as CNN.com points out, the charges are against the company, not any individuals involved, so prison time for those responsible will not be part of the deal.

The $4 billion criminal penalty does not affect the settlement deals for the victims along the Gulf Coast, nor does it include any environmental fines for the company. Those are separate cases that are still being worked out, and will result in several billions more in financial penalties for the company.

Wed, 2012-12-19 10:16Farron Cousins
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Group Sues Obama Administration Over Offshore Oil And Gas Leasing Program

A lawsuit has been filed against the Obama administration over the economic claims that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) made in their 5-year plan to open up new areas around the United States to offshore oil and gas leasing.  The suit, filed by the Center for Sustainable Economy (CSE), says that the administration not only grossly exaggerated the economic benefits of increased energy exploration, but also that they failed to take all costs into account.

BOEM’s plan would lease a total of 15 new areas for exploration, including areas within the Gulf of Mexico, the Cook Inlet, Alaskan waters, and the Beaufort Sea.  But rather than focusing strictly on the environmental impact of the projects, CSE took an approach that tends to have better results in Washington – Economics.

The economic argument is very powerful, as CSE explains that the increased oil and gas exploration will cost the United States more than it will gain.  And according to federal laws (specifically Section 18 of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act), in order to grant permission for projects such as the leasing program, there must be a net public gain. 

For example, the best estimates for the amount of money to be made from oil and gas in these areas ranges from $1 to $2 billion per year.  However, these areas currently provide an economic boost of as much as $70 billion a year from fishing, tourism, and other activities, all of which could be decimated in the event of an oil spill.

Thu, 2012-11-15 17:55Farron Cousins
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Patriot Coal To Stop Destructive Mountaintop Removal Mining In Appalachia

Patriot Coal, one of the largest coal companies in America, recently announced its decision to end mountaintop removal mining (MTR) in the Appalachian Mountains. 

To date, Patriot Coal is the only major coal company in America to pledge to stop mountaintop removal mining. On the surface, it might appear that the company has had a genuine change of heart, but the reality is that this decision was more out of economic necessity than concern for the environment and human health.

Several conservation groups, led by the Sierra Club, have pressured the company to end their destructive MTR practices for years, which resulted in numerous lawsuits filed against the company for environmental abuses.  Those lawsuits have led to millions of dollars worth of fines and verdicts against the coal giant, which in turn gave us its new, anti-MTR platform.

The company released the following statement regarding its decision:

Fri, 2012-10-05 06:00Farron Cousins
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BP Settlement Deal Could Put Taxpayers On The Hook For Spill Costs

A proposed settlement deal between the federal government and BP over their involvement in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent oil leak could shift the burden of cleanup costs away from the oil giant and onto U.S. taxpayers.

The current settlement option is just one of several being negotiated between the federal government and BP.  But this settlement option would route fine and settlement money through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), rather than fining the company directly via the Clean Water Act.

Not only could this reduce the total amount of money that the company pays in fines, but it would shift the burden of cost onto U.S. taxpayers.  While the company would still be paying out of pocket, the NRDA allows the company to write off their fines and deduct that from their yearly taxes.  Paying through the Clean Water Act would not allow the costs to be tax deductible. 

But the cost shift is just one of the problems with the proposed deal.  The provision that has residents of the Gulf Coast up in arms is the fact that the NRDA would route the money through the U.S. Treasury, instead of directly sending it to local and state governments.  This means that the Treasury, not the affected areas, would be in charge of determining how the money is spent.

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