Reading Around the Internet, January 11, 2016

Good morning — we have a beautiful, cold morning here in Cape Girardeau. It’s a welcome change to the rainy weather we had all weekend.

A few noteworthy items popped up late last week and over the weekend around the Internet that I know various readers may find interesting:

Toxic Torts

There’s an interesting discussion about a toxic tort case in The New York Times Magazine, titled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” Lawyer Rob Bilott has been working to expose a very long history of chemical pollution. Nathaniel Rich describes the history behind the case as well as some of the legal maneuverings. For those interested in groundwater issues as well as toxic tort litigation, it’s both a fascinating and frustrating read: fascinating, because of the manner in which the case came to Bilott and his commitment to it; frustrating, because there remain so many unresolved issues after years of litigating.

The Mississippi River Flood

As the flood that caused so much damage here in Missouri and in Illinois moves southward, the Army Corps of Engineers continues to activate flood works in various areas. Yesterday, they opened the gates on the Bonnet Carré spillway in Louisiana. This spillway is activated in order to allow waters from the Mississippi River to flow into Lake Pontchartrain. The goal is to keep the river below the 17 feet (the levees in New Orleans protect the city up to 20 feet). If the Morganza spillway needs to be opened, the earliest that will occur is October 13th. They expect the river to crest tomorrow. WeatherUnderground has some great coverage. If you click through, be sure to also check out their discussion of the subtropical storm that appears to be forming in the Atlantic.

Also, NASA has released images of the New Year’s Flood. For those of you particularly interested in flooding along the river the images are very interesting. If you scroll down, you’ll see that they have also provided links to various other sites that may be of interest, including the National Weather Service’s review of the event.

Huge Bushfire Creates Weather System in Western Australia

Finally, this story caught my eye. There’s a huge blaze in Yarloop, Western Australia that has (it appears), created its own weather system. Courtney Bembridge at ABC News (abc.net.au) reports on it, describing the ways in which this weather system is making it more difficult to fight the fire. Because the heat of the fire is rising to meet moisture in the atmosphere, lightning storms have formed. The story explains the process, with graphics and is well worth taking the time to read.

It’s Spring!

This week is spring break for me. And spring weather came just in time!

Here in the middle of the country, we’re enjoying sixty degree weather, and drying out after all our snow melted and a couple of days of steady, soaking, puddle-making rain. I went for a long walk around Cape Girardeau yesterday and noticed that lawns are soaked, park areas are muddy, and our creeks and rivers are leaving their banks. Indeed, according to a post on the US Army Corps of Engineers Memphis District Facebook page, the Mississippi should crest later this week (on the 19th at Cairo at 47 feet, and on the 20th at New Madrid at 35 feet).

Warm and dry sounds good to me.

There’s a few things happening out there in the world worth noting:

Cycle Pam Hits Vanuatu

Those of you watching the news the last several days know that a major cyclone has hit the island nation Vanuatu in the South Pacific. The BBC has some coverage of the damage here. Cyclone Pam was a Category 5 storm, and the worst tropical cyclone in the South Pacific since 2002. The Economist explains some of the characteristics of Pam that made it “out of the ordinary”. Relief efforts have begun, with various organizations beginning work in the area, including Australia’s Red Cross and financial assistance from Australia, New Zealand, Britain. When I have more information concerning relief efforts, I will post it.

New Madrid Quake Potential

The US Geological Survey released an update to their National Seismic Hazards Map in February. The NMSZ includes southeast Missouri, northeastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, western Kentucky, and southern Illinois. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources says that it is the most active seismic zone east of the Rockies. The new USGS hazard map is an update from their 2008 map. In line with some recent scientific studies, they’ve elevated the potential for a serious earthquake in southeast Missouri. I blogged about some of that research several months ago. The Southeast Missourian summarized the report and discussed the possible ramifications for the region here. For my readers interested Emergency Management and FEMA’s recent work to prepare communities for various hazards, the predictions and findings of this work is especially important. For the more technically minded, the USGS’s Earthquake Hazard Program  provides further information.

Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association

People who are interested in FEMA, Emergency Management and administrative procedure (including those of you who, on occasion, participate in Notice and Comment and attend public hearings on various administrative/regulatory issues) should be interested in hearing that the US Supreme Court ruled recently in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association that administrative agencies no longer have to provide notice and comment when they change an interpretive rule. So, first, what is an interpretive rule? It is an interpretation of a regulation or law, designed to clarify the law/regulation. Here’s a more detailed explanation. Under the Administrative Procedure Act, there is no requirement that interpretive (or interpretative) rules go through Notice and Comment, but past Supreme Court precedent maintained that when an agency had provided a ‘definitive interpretation’ that then, at a later date, they decide to change, they should go through Notice and Comment to provide those affected with an opportunity to receive advance notice of the change and provide public comment. In Perez, however, after citing another famous administrative law case, Vermont Yankee, the Court says that Notice and Comment for interpretive rules is not required. An agency can simply change the rule without advance notice and public comment.

Commentators around the Internet have voiced concerns about the significance of this ruling for its impact on the process to change administrative policy. Some of those concerns include pragmatic political concerns: while it may make changing administrative policies faster and make administration more flexible, a new administration will be able to reverse or change policy much more quickly as well. Along with that, changes that do not bring advance notice strike me as being problematic for stakeholders in general (because it could destabilize expectations concerning what the policy is and whether it will change suddenly); and in regulatory areas such as land use and environmental concerns, where administrative agencies must coordinate with one another as well as state and local officials, lack of advance notice — even just the potential of a lack of advance notice — is likely to create both political and legal difficulties. For a discussion of some of these issues as well as some of the other matters that seem to be looming on the Court’s horizon, see Brian Wolfman and Bradley Girard’s excellent discussion at Scotusblog. Leland Beck also provided some interesting insights here.

(And for those readers interested in administrative law issues, Beck’s blog, Federal Regulations Advisor, is an excellent resource!)