Quick Guide: AGs: The Dukes of (Environmental) Hazard

In addition to serving as consumer guardians, state AGs take their role as custodians of the environment very seriously, as exemplified by a recent action by DC AG Schwalb against electric utility Pepco. In Episode 5, Meghan Stoppel and Keturah Taylor consider the ways in which AGs hold businesses accountable for their environmental impact.

(00:23): Hosts Meghan and Keturah introduce themselves.

(00:45): Keturah explains that this week’s story relates to how state AGs directly impact the communities that they live in and serve. In this week’s news, DC Attorney General Brian Schwalb announced that his office reached a settlement with Pepco, the public utility that services Washington DC., over allegations that it had been discharging toxic chemicals into the land and waterways around DC for decades. Pepco will pay more than $47 million towards cleaning up contaminated facilities and another $10 million in penalties. It is also required to look into other potential environmental impacts from its operations under the oversight of the District. None of the associated costs may be passed along to Pepco’s customers, the ratepayers in the District.

(02:10): Meghan digs further into why she and Keturah picked this particular headline, given that electric utilities like Pepco are pretty heavily regulated at the state level by state utilities commissions, and what it tells us about how AGs operate and how they prioritize enforcement actions.

(03:53): Keturah explains that in DC, the Public Service Commission is the primary regulator of utility providers. However, attorneys general have jurisdiction over environmental violations in the same way as they have jurisdiction over consumer protection violations committed by utility or other companies operating in their state. AGs regularly bring these types of enforcement actions in partnership with state environmental agencies and partner up with public utilities regulators to investigate utility providers’ conduct. In this particular case, the DC attorney general worked with DC’s Department of Energy and Environment during the investigation, and DOEE will also be heavily involved in implementing the required cleanup.

(05:17): Meghan elucidates that the AG is acting as the primary enforcer and partnering with regulatory agencies for their subject matter expertise. She then goes on to explain how the impact of AGs acting in this way extends beyond companies whose activities directly impact the environment, including companies that misrepresent the impact of forever chemicals or vehicle emissions to regulators and the public.

(07:46): Keturah provides some examples of massive settlements involving chemicals over the last few years involving a variety of companies, from auto parts manufacturers to agricultural businesses.

(08:59): Meghan adds that improper disposal of e-waste, for example disposing of a hard drive in an unapproved manner, can also give rise to a state AG investigation. The bottom line is that AGs have this enforcement authority, it’s a priority and they’re willing to use it, which can have costly consequences for companies that don’t invest in compliance.

(11:27): Keturah brings the discussion back to the Pepco case, noting that while Pepco is the first to accept formal responsibility for pollution in DC waterways, that it may not be the last, and AG Schwalb’s office will continue to look into local companies’ environmental impact.

To listen to the full podcast, click here. To listen to a particular section, open the recording and use the time stamps provided above to navigate to the desired part.

To read more about the news story on which this podcast is based, click here.