News

Nashville Lawyer to Lead ABA’s Environmental Law Section

Stites & Harbison attorney William L. Penny is the new chair of the ABA Section of Environment, Energy and Resources, the Herald Online reports. A longtime Nashville resident, Penny is the first Tennessean to lead the group though he has served as vice chair, chair-elect and budget officer. Penny has practiced environmental law and litigation for more than 30 years and has served as general counsel for the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation. He also was the first chair of the TBA’s Environmental Law Section and the first chair of the Nashville Bar Association’s Environmental Law Committee.

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BP Tries Again to Block Spill Claims

BP has once again asked a federal judge to halt payments from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement fund, citing what it called fresh evidence of fraud in the claims process. According to the National Law Journal, the company said it learned within the past week about a potential conflict involving two members of the claims administrator’s appeals panel who were reviewing payments while their law firms were submitting claims. BP also asserted potential fraud, citing a July 15 tip from its recently established fraud hotline that an employee at the claims center in Mobile, Ala., had been assisting family members in submitting “fraudulent subsistence claims” in exchange for a share of the payments.

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Halliburton to Plead Guilty in Gulf Spill

Oilfield services giant Halliburton will plead guilty to destroying computer test results that had been sought as evidence in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, WCYB reports. Company officials threw out test results that showed "little difference" between the number of devices Halliburton said was needed to center the cement casing in the well at the heart of the disaster and the number well owner BP installed, according to court papers. Halliburton has agreed to pay the maximum fines available, be put on probation for three years and cooperate with federal agencies that are still investigating the spill, the Justice Department said in a statement announcing Thursday's agreement. Halliburton is the last of the three major players to admit criminal wrongdoing in the 2010 blowout and resulting oil spill. BP has admitted to manslaughter and 13 other criminal counts and agreed to pay $4 billion in fines, while Transocean admitted to violating the Clean Water Act and paid $1.4 billion in civil and criminal penalties.

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Court Strikes Key Part of Voting Rights Act

The U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that established a formula used to determine which jurisdictions must get clearance before making changes to their voting practices. In a 5-4 decision, the court said the formula is unconstitutional given the advances in voting rights in the covered states. The justices said Congress needs to revisit the issue, Scotusblog reports, and if it wants to single out certain states for extra scrutiny, it must do so "on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions."

• The court also ruled in an adoption case involving the Indian Child Welfare Act finding that the biological father, who is part Cherokee, did not have an automatic right his child because he was estranged from the biological mother, provided no support during the pregnancy and disclaimed any interest in raising the girl. The court ruled 5-4 that the law was intended to protect Native American children from abusive adoption or foster care practices that removed them from existing families, not every removal proceeding involving an Indian child.

• Finally, the court today rejected a Florida Supreme Court decision to dismiss a case from a landowner seeking to develop a portion of his wetlands property. When officials refused to approve Coy Koontz's project unless he made certain concessions -- including spending money to improve public lands elsewhere -- Koontz sued under a state law permitting him to seek damages. The state Supreme Court held that he did not have a claim based on two previous U.S. Supreme Court cases. The high court rejected the state’s interpretation of those cases but did not rule on whether Koontz’s claim had merit.

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Jury Finds Y-12 Protesters Guilty

The Y-12 protesters accused of interfering with national security when they broke into the nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge in July have been found guilty, the Johnson City Press reports. An 83-year-old nun and two fellow protesters were charged with sabotaging the plant and damaging federal property.

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Vanderbilt Law Student Wins 2013 Hastings Competition

Wyatt Sassman, a third-year student at Vanderbilt University Law School, has won first place in the TBA Environmental Law Section’s 2013 Jon E. Hastings Memorial Award Writing Competition. His article “Administrative Compliance Orders and Due Process after Sackett” looks at the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which allowed an Idaho couple to challenge an EPA order requiring restoration of a wetland before the agency enforced the order with penalties. Sassman argues three points: that the court disregarded precedent and legislative history in finding for the Sacketts, that administrative orders do not violate due process rights, and that federal agencies should be free to use such orders without judicial interference. He will collect a cash award and his article will be published in an upcoming section newsletter.

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Water Border Fight Makes National News

The ongoing fight over the border between Tennessee and Georgia near the edge of the Tennessee River, is making national news. An article streaming on the Wall Street Journal website looks at the history of the dispute and the Georgia lobbyist who is making the border fight his own personal crusade.

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Georgia May Sue for Access to Tennessee River

Georgia legislators passed a resolution authorizing the state’s attorney general to sue Tennessee if it does not voluntarily give up a 1.5-square-mile parcel of land along the Nickajack Reservoir in order to access water from the Tennessee River. The debate over the land has been an issue since 1818 when surveyors incorrectly mapped out the border between the states and placed it too far south, according to Georgia lawmakers. The Tennessean has the story.

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New CLE Covers Zoning, Planning, Land Use

A new CLE course scheduled for Thursday will cover a broad range of municipal land use issues, including zoning, planning and boards of zoning appeal. The course, presented by private and government lawyers, emphasizes the importance of understanding Tennessee case law and statutes that govern the frequently difficult and lengthy development process. In many cases, politics also plays a role in this practice area as clients, communities and various levels of government are involved or impacted. Speakers will offer perspectives from both sides of the fence. Learn more or register online.

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Haslam, Others Reject Georgia Effort to Access Water

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam quickly rejected Georgia’s latest effort to move the state border and gain access to water from the Tennessee River, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. Haslam, through a spokesman, said he has no interest in going along with Georgia’s latest legislative attempt to access the river. Bill Johnson, the new CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority, also weighed in saying the TVA board of directors would have considerable input on the issue since federal law gives the agency authority over the river. He also raised the specter of years of environmental litigation over permits. And at least one state lawmaker from Chattanooga indicated his willingness to let Georgia sue. "Well, they've threatened to take us to court, so I guess we'll let the AG's office take care of it and go to court with them," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick.

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Georgia Offers Tennessee a Deal on Water Access

Georgia lawmakers are moving closer to final passage of a resolution seeking to redraw the state line with Tennessee in hopes of gaining access to water from the Tennessee River. The Georgia Senate voted 48-2 on Monday to ask Tennessee to transfer a thin strip of land leading to the river southwest of Chattanooga as a compromise. But it also approved a provision directing the Georgia attorney general to sue for the entire area in dispute if no agreement is reached with Tennessee by the last day of next year’s General Assembly session. The Georgia House approved a similar bill last month but now must take up the Senate-passed version, the Nashville Business Journal reports. The May 2008 edition of the Tennessee Bar Journal took an extensive look at the issue.

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Vandy Law Hosts Fracking Lecture

Leading energy law and land use expert Hannah Wiseman will speak Thursday about fracking at Vanderbilt Law School. The talk is titled “Natural Gas Fracturing, Federalism Debates and the Regulatory Divide” and will explore the recent, rapid expansion of oil and gas development in the United Sates, driven large hydraulic fracturing and drilling in shale formations, and the legal issues that arise in its wake. The event is free and open to the public.

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Deadline Near for Environmental Law Writing Competition

April 1 is the deadline for entering the TBA Environmental Law Section's Jon E. Hastings Memorial Award writing competition for law students. Entries may be submitted by law students enrolled in a Tennessee law school in 2012 or 2013. The competition is held in memory of one of the section’s outstanding founding members and has a cash prize pool of $1,200. This writing contest is a juried competition for the best legal writing on a topic of Tennessee or federal environmental law. Rules and announcement are available online. For more information contact Lynn Pointer.

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Captured Oil in BP Spill Not Part of Penalties

BP and the federal government have agreed that 34 million gallons of oil captured before it could enter Gulf waters during the massive 2010 spill will not count toward the oil giant’s civil penalties. While the Justice Department settled criminal charges in November, the first phase of the trial regarding the government’s civil claims will begin Feb. 25 to determine the cause of the well blowout and assign percentage fault to the companies involved in the drilling project that went wrong. WMC News Channel 5 has the story.

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Judge Approves Transocean Guilty Plea

A federal judge has approved Transocean Deepwater Ltd’s criminal plea as part of a $1.4 billion settlement with the Justice Department over liability for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the National Law Journal reports. The company pleaded guilty on Jan. 3 to one misdemeanor count of violating the U.S. Clean Water Act by contributing to the discharge of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and agreed to pay $400 million in criminal penalties.

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Judge Accepts BP Plea Deal

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance of New Orleans approved a plea deal in which BP agreed to pay $4 billion to resolve criminal charges regarding the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill, despite emotional testimony and letters from dozens of people who objected to the deal. The guilty plea includes 11 counts of manslaughter for the deaths of several workers. The ABA Journal reports that BP still may face pollution fines of up to $21 billion as litigation continues over whether spilled oil collected in the cleanup efforts should count toward the barrel count used to assess Clean Water Act fines.

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Court Won’t Hear Challenge to Clean Air Regs

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear a challenge to new clean air requirements limiting sulfur dioxide emissions, The Memphis Daily News reports. Several corporations, industrial associations and state governments have complained that the Environmental Protection Agency’s required emission levels are lower than mandated by law to protect public health. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia refused to overturn the EPA's decision and the high court justices refused to reconsider that ruling.

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Environmental Law CLE on Tap Thursday

The TBA Environmental Law Section is hosting it annual CLE on Thursday beginning at 9 a.m. Registration opens at 8 a.m. The seminar -- titled Environmental Considerations in Mergers and Acquisitions – is designed for corporate and commercial practitioners as well as environment lawyers, who focus on environmental issues associated with the merger or consolidation of entities, and/or asset transfers that include real estate. The seminar will address applicable environmental challenges from the perspectives of the surviving entity, seller and buyer. Speakers include Catherine Anglin, David L. Henry, Rick L. Hitchcock, Darlene T. Marsh, G Scott Thomas, Devin Wells and Randy Womack. Learn more or register here.

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DOJ Reaches $1.4 Billion Gulf Spill Settlement

The Justice Department has reached a $1.4 billion settlement with Transocean Ltd., the owner of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded in 2010, killing 11 workers and spawning a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the $1 billion in civil penalties and $400 million in criminal penalties, the Switzerland-based company must plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Clean Water Act and implement a series of operational safety and emergency response improvements to its rigs.

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Reeves, Max to Mediate TVA Ash-Spill Case

Knoxville attorney and former Tennessee Bar Association President Pamela Reeves has been appointed by U.S District Judge Tom Varlan to jointly mediate the class-action lawsuit linked to the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal ash spill at Kingston Fossil Plant. Some 872 plaintiffs are suing TVA over damages that are allegedly related to the spill, which fouled the Emory River and the surrounding Roane County countryside with 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash. Reeves and Florida lawyer Rodney Max, who will serve as joint mediator, were both recommended by the parties in the case, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports.

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Judge Dismisses Suit Against NFS

A federal judge dismissed an 18-month old class action lawsuit against Erwin-based Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) and other defendants, the Johnson City Press reports. Filed in June 2011, the suit alleged injuries, property damage and emotional distress suffered by 19 plaintiffs caused by “repeated releases of hazardous and radioactive substances” by NFS.

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Environmental Groups Prepare to Sue TVA

According to the Tennessean, several environmental advocacy groups are preparing a federal lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for planning to replace an endangered fish nursery at the Gallatin Fossil Plant with a pollution control facility. The TVA last month announced its plan to remove the Cumberland River Aquatic Center from the Gallatin site to make room for a 15-story coal-ash dump as part of a $1 billion plan to overhaul the plant’s pollution equipment. The Sierra Club, Tennessee Environmental Council and other groups allege the move will harm endangered fish and mussels, violating the Endangered Species Act. 

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BP to Pay $4.5 billion in Gulf Oil Spill Settlement

BP will pay $4.5 billion to resolve federal criminal and securities allegations in connection with the Gild oil spill, the ABA Journal reports. As part of the plea deal, BP will plead guilty to 14 criminal charges, including 11 felony counts related to loss of life in the oil spill and one felony count for obstruction of Congress. According to the Wall Street Journal, the settlement includes $1.26 billion in criminal fines, and for BP to pay $2.394 billion to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and $350 million to the National Academy of the Sciences.

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Fillers' Finances to be Reviewed by Court

Don Fillers, who was sentenced to a four-year prison sentence in a well-publicized asbestos case, still has a court-appointed attorney although documents presented to the court show he purchased more than $2 million in property and valued his home at $403,000, the Chattanoogan reports. Federal Magistrate Judge Bill Carter said there were still unanswered questions about Fillers' finances, and set another hearing for Tuesday. Fillers is scheduled to go into federal prison Friday.

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EPA Approves TVA’s Plan for Coal Ash Cleanup

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) plan for the final cleanup phase of the 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant ash spill. According to Knoxnews, officials from the TVA, EPA, and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation will make a presentation and answer questions at a public meeting next Thursday in Kingston.

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