All posts tagged 'flooding'

Negligent Operation of a Storm Sewer: A New Theory of Climate Change Liability

May 2, 2014 00:08
by J. Wylie Donald

We have written many times about the flawed design of the nation's flood maps in an era of climate change.  And spoken about the potential for claims against professionals for failure to consider the effects of climate change in what they do.  On April 16, 2014 those two ideas manifested in a 143 page lawsuit filed in Cook County, Illinois asserting that local governments are at fault for flood damage that insurance companies had to pay for.  Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. v. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (attached).  Let us explain.

Flood maps are based on the historical record. Lots and lots of data over lots and lots of years, with one major underlying assumption:  the past is a reasonable basis for predicting the future. But what if it is not?  In that case a 100-year flood plain may actually be a 50-year or 25-year flood plain, or perhaps a 200-year flood plain. One can't know, absent some effort to predict the future.

This issue is not limited to FEMA flood maps. Storm water systems are sized based on the predicted 20-year or 50-year or even 100-year storm event. We have seen that terminology before and it signifies a similar result:  culvert sizing and flood protections suffer from the same defect as flood plain mapping - a retrospective view is not enough.  One might theorize that civil engineers, planners, and others involved in the design, construction and operation of stormwater systems have a duty to recognize this state of affairs and incorporate climate change effects into their activities.

On April 18 and 19, 2013 heavy rains in Cook County and elsewhere resulted in flooding.  Insurance companies paid millions on the claims.  Now Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. and others are seeking to recover those millions in the form of a class action on behalf of other insurers and property owners against the water reclamation district and municipal and county governments.  Of itself, that would not be particularly interesting.  But the allegations vault this case, and six other similar cases, to the top of the climate change litigation pantheon. 

The central theme in the complaint is that the local governments are at fault for flooding caused by mis-operated stormwater systems:  the “common, central and fundamental issue in this action is whether the Defendants have failed to safely operate retention basins, detention basins, tributary enclosed sewer and tributary open sewers/drains for the purpose of safely conveying storm water within Defendants' territorial jurisdictions"  ¶ 27. 

The defendant governments allegedly knew their systems were undersized.  In anticipation of heavy rains, they would pump down reservoirs and tunnels.  Climate change set the context:   "During the past 40 years, climate change in Cook County has caused rains to be of greater volume, greater intensity and greater duration than pre-1970 rainfall history evidenced, rendering the rainfall frequency return tables employed by the Reclamation District and each Named Municipal Defendant inaccurate and obsolete." ¶ 48. Plaintiffs assert that the climate change effects are admitted:  "In or around 2008, the Reclamation District, the County of Cook, the City of Chicago and other Municipal Defendants adopted the scientific principle that climate change has caused increases in rain fall amount, intensity and duration during a rain in Cook County as evidenced by their adoption of the Chicago Climate Action Plan. " ¶ 49.  

Next comes the allegation of knowledge of the specific hazard:  "This defendant knew that because of climate change causing increased rainfall, this defendant had to increase stormwater storage capacity of its stormwater sewer system(s) to prevent sewer water invasions." ¶ 51.  Thus, the local governments were alleged to be on notice that their infrastructure was insufficient to prevent harm to individuals and businesses.  The final point was that, notwithstanding this notice, in the face of a heavy rain (heavy, but not out of the ordinary based on either the historical record or a climate model), the governments failed to take steps to remedy the defect (i.e., the lack of storage capacity and conveyance capacity to address the rainfall).

With that prelude, plaintiffs allege three counts:  negligent maintenance of the stormwater system by failing to utilize temporary stormwater protection systems, failure to remedy a known dangerous condition (where stormwater invasions had occurred before), and an unlawful “taking” in that the governments had (it is alleged) appropriated the property of others for diversion and retention basins, etc.

This is a complaint we knew was coming, although we will candidly admit that we did not anticipate the plaintiffs. An insurance company as the plaintiff raises an interesting question.  Is the insurance industry intent on cannibalizing itself?  If Illinois Farmers prevails, it will start to establish a standard of care for both design professionals whose work is impacted by climate change, and for those who rely on such professionals.  Third parties injured by the failure of a stormwater system may bring claims against entities responsible for the systems.  So we will have theories of liability that will trigger liability policies, errors and omissions policies, and even directors and officers policies.  If all of them subrogate, like Illinois Farmers did, it takes no imagination to see the mess that will be created.  Even without subrogation, if the theory is successful, it will cut wide and deep.  It is surprising that an insurer would advocate for it.  

 

20140416 Illinois Farmers Ins. v. Metro. Water Reclamation Dist. of Greater Chicago.pdf (4.58 mb)

Climate Change Effects | Regulation

Call for Comments on the Third National Climate Assessment

February 2, 2013 00:46
by J. Wylie Donald

The draft “National Assessment of Supply Chain and Other Developing Risks” was issued just last month. It outlined increasing threats to infrastructure, food and water supplies, air quality, national security, public health and public safety, and ecosystems. It also discussed measures to reduce those risks and to address them. In short, the Assessment should be required reading for everyone involved in planning a company's response to the things that could destroy the company. Only it won't be because of one small detail. That title, the "National Assessment of Supply Chain etc.," is a fabrication.  The real title is the draft Third National Climate Assessment Report (Assessment).  (It's 147 MB so here's the Executive Summary too.)  Thus, for many companies, the report will be shunted to the EH&S office and the C-Suite will remain oblivious. This is unfortunate.

"National climate assessments act as status reports about climate change science and impacts."  Their legal basis is the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (codified at 15 USC §§ 2921-61), which mandates periodic reports to the President and Congress evaluating the findings of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).  Under the USGCRP the effects of global change (not just climate change) on all facets of the nation (including agriculture, energy, water resources, human health and ecoystems) are analyzed.  Trends are reviewed and projected for up to 100 years.  “The NCA aims to incorporate advances in the understanding of climate science into larger social, ecological, and policy systems, and with this provide integrated analyses of impacts and vulnerability.”  The last National Climate Change Assessment was in 2000.

What is particularly rewarding in the Assessment is that it gets right down to the nitty-gritty.  We have picked only one topic to focus on, Transportation, but one could take a deep dive in over a dozen.  Ports are obviously at risk from sea level rise, but some might think that is manageable because sea level is only changing gradually, even if the worst predictions are accepted.  If it were only that simple.  "When sea level rise is coupled with intense storms, the resulting storm surges will be greater, extend farther inland, and cause more extensive damage."  Draft at 200.  Even without sea level rise, the increase in extreme weather and flooding will result in increased sedimentation.  "Channels that are not well maintained and have less sedimentation storage volume will thus be more vulnerable to significant, abrupt losses in navigation service levels."  Id

Climate change predictions also include increasing temperatures, but so what?  The Assessment offers the following:  "expansion joints on bridges and highways are stressed and asphalt pavements deteriorate more rapidly at higher temperatures.  Rail track stresses and track buckling will increase.  Lift-off limits at hot-weather and high-altitude airports will reduce aircraft operations."  Draft at 197.  Each of these conclusions is referenced to research.  Airports too are not out of harm's way.  Thirteen of the nation's largest airports have at least one runway within 12 feet of current sea level.  Draft at 201.  Readers will remember that the storm surge from Sandy was 14 feet in New York.  Draft at 203.  They may not remember that the storm surge from Katrina was 15 feet along the entire Mississippi coast, and much higher in some places (like an "astonishing 27.8 feet at Pass Christian, Mississippi").  Our business is not freight forwarding or overnight delivery but we bet that those running such businesses pay close attention to the reliability of their transportation routes.  If supply chains matter, one needs to be looking at roads, rails, ports and airports, and we mean locally, as well as abroad.

The Assessment is a trove of information and provides citations to the vulnerability studies of numerous cities and states, including Boston and New York City, California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin, which have already begun assessing their transportation vulnerabilities.  Draft at 209.  Although there is a lot of information out there, the Assessment also sounds a note of caution in preparing:  "Impacts of climate on transportation system operations, including safety and congestion, both on road systems and in aviation, have been little studied to date."  Draft at 213.  "[E]xisting models used for snow and ice removal procedures are no longer reliable, requiring better monitoring and new models, as well as better roadway condition detection systems."  Draft at 211.  This uncertainty, however, should not be a reason to do nothing.  As the Assessment states, preparation helps a lot:  " the vulnerability analyses prepared by the metropolitan New York authorities [prior to Sandy] provided a framework for efforts to control the damage and restore service more rapidly."  Draft at 204.

Another approach taken by the Assessment is to comment on the impacts from climate change that can be expected in various areas of the country such as more hot days, or more heavy precipitation (or more drought depending on location). For businesses that don't include weather considerations in their planning, the Assessment won't change anything:  heavy rains have come since the dawn of time and humans have responded. But for those that do any sort of weather preparation and planning, the Assessment points out what extreme weather means, and thus suggests what steps might be worth taking.

For example, torrential rains from Hurricane Irene in Vermont damaged over 500 miles of state-owned roadways and 200 bridges. Draft at 554.  Some communities were isolated for days. Id. Why should people in the Northeast take notice?  Because "between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast saw a 74% increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events." Draft at 551. In other words, the fate of Vermont is increasingly likely to be the fate of others.

And this is a fundamental feature of climate change.   "Climate change is statistical weather, and manifests itself as a change in the frequency of events that would still occur (but with lower frequency) in the absence of climate change."  Draft at 218. The risk of untoward events is increasing. No one will be able to point to a flood or a hurricane or a heat wave and say this is climate change-related. But that is not necessary, or even relevant. As the risk increases, prudence requires that one spend more time and expense thinking about and countering the risk.  The Assessment is a good place to start.  And a good first step to start one's thinking would be to submit comments on the report.  The deadline is April 12.

Climate Change | Climate Change Effects | Rising Sea Levels | Weather


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