Death of the Malfunction Affirmative Defense (and Common Sense): Can EPA Actually Expect Facility Operators to Predict Future Malfunctions?

Posted on November 24, 2014 by John Jacus

Last September, EPA proposed to supplement a proposed SIP Call to effect the wholesale elimination of “malfunction” affirmative defense provisions in numerous states’ SIPs under the Clean Air Act (CAA).  This supplemental proposed rulemaking was a direct response to a decision of the D.C. Circuit in NRDC. v. EPAEPA’s alarming reaction to the decision in that case is unwarranted, reverses long-standing policy with regard to startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM) events that has been affirmed by multiple reviewing courts as rational, and would effectively require facility operators to predict future malfunctions and permit for them or prevent them if they are to avoid civil penalties for malfunction-derived excess emissions.  If unable to do so, operators would incur penalties intended to deter their noncompliance, arising from their failure to predict and account for future malfunctions. 

The portion of the NRDC v. EPA decision that addressed affirmative defenses only considered EPA’s authority to create them in private suits under Section 304(a) of the CAA.  The D.C. Circuit found that federal courts, not EPA, have authority under Section 304(a) to apply affirmative defenses in such private suits, on important separation of powers principles.  The court specifically limited its holding to affirmative defenses in the context of citizen suits, noting that “[w]e do not here confront the question whether an affirmative defense may be appropriate in a State Implementation Plan.”  Of course, the vast majority of enforcement actions alleging violations of emissions limits and seeking penalties for such excess emissions are brought by state permitting authorities with delegated programs established in their SIPs.  Most SIPs contain some SSM affirmative defenses, including in cases of a qualifying “malfunction,” which will insulate the operator from civil penalties (though not injunctive relief) if the affirmative defense is properly invoked.  See prior ACOEL blogs on this important topic for more background (“Partners?,” by Steve McKinney, and “5th Circuit Upholds…” by Karen Crawford). 

EPA has long interpreted the CAA to allow states to include at least a limited affirmative defense for malfunctions in their SIPs, and Circuit Courts reviewing challenges to such affirmative defenses have agreed that this is a permissible interpretation of the statute.  More recent cases have narrowed SSM affirmative defenses in response to environmental group petitions, by (1) requiring continuous compliance with permit limits for scheduled, i.e., foreseeable, startup and shutdown emissions, so as not to result in or contribute to a violation of the NAAQS, and (2) clarifying that the protections of the affirmative defense from the imposition of civil penalties for excess emissions do not preclude regulators from seeking injunctive relief in response to a malfunction.  This balance was struck by EPA in the 2013 proposed SIP Call, although many industry stakeholders and states have opposed the elimination of affirmative defenses for excess emissions during startup and shutdown.

EPA’s sole justification for now completely abandoning SSM accommodations is the conclusion that an affirmative defense for malfunctions renders any and all of the seventeen SIPs containing such provisions “substantially inadequate” in the wake of NRDC v. EPA.  Yet that decision does not extend to affirmative defense provisions in SIPs, as noted above, and is therefore not a good reason for disregarding longstanding agency SSM policy.  Indeed, EPA’s wholesale reversal of its SSM Policy is directly contrary to numerous other federal appellate courts that have squarely addressed the issue and held that SIP and Federal Implementation Plan (“FIP”) affirmative defense provisions for malfunction events are consistent with the CAA.  See Luminant Generation Co. v. EPA; Mont. Sulphur & Chemical v. EPA; Ariz. Public Service Co. v. EPA.

Many facilities requiring air permits to operate have complex mechanical and electronic equipment with countless components that, by their nature, may inevitably fail or malfunction at some point, despite an operator’s best efforts and regular maintenance.  Most remaining affirmative defense provisions, based on EPA’s historical direction (and the efforts of Sierra Club and other environmental groups to eliminate all SSM provisions as somehow being illegal), would now be sufficiently tailored (following the 2013 SIP Call) to balance the practical realities of unforeseen component failure and the responsibility of facility operators to minimize excess emissions through adherence to good air pollution control practices.  Indeed, a malfunction affirmative defense may only be invoked in most states when the excess emissions were caused by a sudden, unavoidable breakdown of equipment, or a sudden, unavoidable failure of a process to operate in the normal or usual manner, beyond the reasonable control of the operator. See, e.g., Colorado Air Quality Control Commission Common Provisions Regulation Sect. II.E.1.  SSM affirmative defenses also typically require that operators make repairs as expeditiously as practicable, minimize the amount and duration of excess emissions, and take all reasonably possible steps to minimize the impact of the excess emissions on ambient air quality.  These important and material qualifying pre-conditions to availing oneself of a malfunction affirmative defense ensure that air quality is being protected to the maximum extent practicable, even during malfunctions, consistent with good air pollution control practice. 

Expecting operators to predict the future and imposing stiff penalties when they can’t defies common sense, and ignores centuries of jurisprudence that recognize the need for exceptions due to circumstances beyond one’s reasonable control, such as the universally understood concept of force majeure.  It is perhaps ironic that an agency that has focused upon the use of improved emerging and available technologies to create Next Generation or “NextGen” Compliance requirements simply doesn’t “get it” when a technology or device fails to operate as designed and intended, and then gets a hammer out to whack the operator, as if that will “deter” future malfunctions…bad machine! 

Should Watersheds Have Standing? Should Corporations?

Posted on November 24, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

In his seminal essay in 1972, Christopher Stone famously asked “Should Trees Have Standing?” Apart from Justice Douglas’s dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, the idea has never gained much traction, at least in United States courts.  Now, due to the passage of a “Community Bill of Rights” ordinance by the Grant Township (Pennsylvania) Supervisors, the concept is about to get a legal test.

It appears that the ordinance was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, and the Supervisors have retained CELDF to defend the ordinance against a challenge by the Pennsylvania General Energy Company, which apparently wants to dispose of fracking wastewater in Grant Township.

According to the complaint challenging the ordinance, the ordinance does not just enshrine nature with rights; it would deprive them to corporations.  Allegedly, the ordinance states that corporations challenging the ordinance are:

not deemed to be ‘persons,’ nor possess any other legal rights, privileges, powers, or protections which would interfere with the rights or prohibitions enumerated by [the] Ordinance.

Good luck defending that one in court.  Call me an old-fashioned anthropocentric, but I prefer defending protections for natural systems and the environment on the ground that such protections are good for people.

THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT BREATHES NEW LIFE INTO THE DIVISIBILITY OF HARM

Posted on November 19, 2014 by William Hyatt

DEFENSE TO JOINT AND SEVERAL LIABILITY

On September 25, 2014, the Seventh Circuit added two more opinions to the long list of decisions arising out of the Lower Fox River and Green Bay Superfund Site (Fox River Site) in northeastern Wisconsin.   

In NCR Corp. v. George A. Whiting Paper Co., a contribution suit, the court reversed and remanded a decision by the Eastern District of Wisconsin, which had held that NCR was not entitled to any contribution from the other defendants. 

In U.S. v. P.H. Glatfelter Co. (Glatfelter), an enforcement action, the court ruled on a number of important CERCLA issues, such as whether a permanent injunction can be issued to enforce a Section 106 unilateral administrative order.  In affirming in part and reversing in part the same District Court decision, the Seventh Circuit provided the latest appellate guidance on the divisibility of harm defense to joint and several liability.  

The District Court had rejected divisibility of harm defenses raised by defendants NCR and Glatfelter, ruling, as a matter of law, that the “harm” in one of the operable units of the Fox River Site (OU-4) was not “theoretically” capable of being divided.  The District Court ruling thereby avoided the second step of the divisibility of harm analysis, the factual question of how a divisible harm might be apportioned.  That was the question resolved by the Supreme Court in Burlington N. & Santa Fe R.R. Co. v. United States (Burlington Northern), a decision which gave Superfund practitioners great hope because the apportionment approved by the Court was so imprecise. Litigation in the lower courts following Burlington Northern quickly turned to the question of what makes a harm “theoretically” capable of being divided.  The question is whether it is possible to approximate the contamination caused by each party.

In the District Court, defendants NCR and Glatfelter argued for divisibility of harm on different theories.  NCR admitted that it had contributed to the contamination in OU-4, but argued that the harm was capable of apportionment and that it should be liable only for its apportioned share of the costs.  Glatfelter argued that it did not cause any of the contamination in OU-4 and therefore was not liable for the costs of cleaning up OU-4. 

As to NCR, the Seventh Circuit first addressed the question of what the appropriate metric should be for measuring the contamination caused by each party.  The District Court, after a lengthy trial, had viewed the harm as “binary,” in the sense that contamination in concentrations above EPA’s maximum safety threshold of 1.0 ppm of PCBs was harmful; whereas, concentrations below that level were not.  The Seventh Circuit rejected that “on-off switch” approach on the ground that the evidence at trial had shown that the dividing line between “harmfulness and geniality” was much more subtle.  The Seventh Circuit reviewed the various metrics used by EPA to measure harm and settled on “surface weighted average concentrations” (SWAC) of 0.25 ppm throughout OU-4 as the appropriate value.  Even that value, however, could not be viewed as “binary,” according to the Seventh Circuit , because lesser concentrations still could pose risks of harm.  

This analysis led the Seventh Circuit to reconsider whether remediation costs can be a useful approximation of the contamination caused by each party.  The District Court had concluded that, like contamination levels, remediation costs were “binary” in the sense that “sediment with PCB concentrations below 1.0 ppm would impose no remediation costs, while sediment with PCB concentrations above 1.0 ppm would always impose about the same remediation costs.”  The Seventh Circuit said “[w]e think the district court got this wrong as well.”  Instead, “remediation costs increase with the degree of contamination above 1.0 ppm.  As a result, remediation costs are still a useful approximation of the degree of contamination caused by each party.”  As the Seventh Circuit explained, that is so because “the cost of the remedial approach in a particular area is positively correlated with the level of contamination near the surface of that area, which contributes to the operable unit’s SWAC, and consequently, the harm.”

The Seventh Circuit concluded:

As a result, we think the harm would be theoretically capable of apportionment if NCR could show the extent to which it contributed to PCB concentrations in OU4.  And if NCR cleared that hurdle, we think a reasonable basis for apportionment could be found in the remediation costs necessitated by each party.

The Seventh Circuit then went on to agree with the District Court’s critique of  expert opinion offered by NCR to estimate the percentage of mass it contributed to OU-4, but faulted the District Court for failing to explain why it rejected an alternative approach to estimating mass-percentages.  The Seventh Circuit did not say whether the estimated mass-percentages, if properly done, would have proven that the harm in OU-4 was “theoretically” capable of apportionment.  Instead, the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s rejection of the divisibility defense and remanded for further fact finding.

As to Glatfelter, the Seventh Circuit characterized its divisibility argument as an “all-or-nothing game,” in the sense that Glatfelter argued that none of its PCBs made their way into OU-4, obviating the need, in Glatfelter’s view, to approximate its share of the PCB contamination in OU-4.  The Seventh Circuit thoroughly analyzed the testimony of Glatfelter’s expert (to the point of proposing complex algebraic formulas to demonstrate his testimony was unsound), concluding “Glatfelter failed to prove that the PCB discharges for which it is responsible were not a sufficient, or at least a necessary cause of at least some of the contamination in OU-4.  Therefore, the district court correctly ruled against Glatfelter on its all-or-nothing divisibility defense.”

So what do Superfund practitioners learn from Glatfelter?  Some things we already understood are confirmed.  Divisibility analysis is a two step process; the initial and far more challenging step is to prove that the harm is “theoretically” capable of apportionment.  The burden of proof on that issue rests with a defendant advancing a divisibility of harm defense.  Glatfelter now instructs that the test to determine whether a harm is theoretically capable of apportionment depends upon the extent to which the defendant contributed to concentrations of contaminants at the site, an obvious subject for expert testimony.  The battle on that issue can be expected to resume in the District Court.  To the extent the first step is cleared, a reasonable basis for apportionment could be found in the remediation costs necessitated by each party.  

More than theoretical is the fact the Fox River Site will produce more opinions for guidance to Superfund practitioners in this confusing and difficult area of the law. 

DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED…OR PAST

Posted on November 17, 2014 by Jeff Thaler

November 1967: The Moody Blues release their second album, Days of Future Passed, said to be an influential work of the countercultural, psychedelic era. May 2014: Wolverine goes back in time to rally the X-Men against the Sentinels in Days of Future Past. In between: Ed Muskie and Leon Billings roamed the Earth, particularly the U.S. Senate, and modern-day environmental law was born and thrives.

2014 also is the centennial of the birth of Muskie in the old mill town of Rumford, Maine. On November 15, almost exactly 47 years after release of Future Passed, Harvard Law Professor Richard Lazarus and Leon Billings, Senator Muskie’s former chief of staff, spoke on a panel looking back and to the future of laws like the Clean Air and Water Acts that were unanimously passed by the Senate through the guidance of Muskie and Billings.

Billings spoke of how what Muskie was able to shepherd through Congress and into law involved concepts still pervasive and taken for granted today—such as private attorneys general, nondegradation, open decision-making, the public’s right to breathe healthy air and removal of the right to pollute. He described Muskie’s insistence of and ability to achieve bipartisanship, with allies for the CAA and CWA efforts including such Senators as Baker, Eagleton, Cooper, Bayh, Boggs and Dole, as well as the exhaustive efforts to fully vet and document the need for legislation. For example, for the CWA the Senate Committee held 33 days of hearings with 1721 witnesses, 470 statements and 6,400 pages of testimony, followed by 45 sub-or-full-Committee markup sessions and 39 Conference meetings. 

Billings then focused on two concepts that he said demonstrate Muskie’s ability over 40 years ago to look to the future. The first, “waters of the Unites States” grew out of the Senator’s knowledge of the 1899 Refuse Act; he successfully convinced his colleagues that the Act supported a broad view of “waters of the US” to include, for example, wetlands. Since then, the Supreme Court has gone “at least as far as we had expected, and more broadly than we could have hoped”, said Billings.

The second concept is that of climate change and the Clean Air Act. Billings was very clear: Section 111(d) was no accident, is not being misinterpreted, and Muskie intended there to be a legislative basis for then-unknown or undefined pollution problems like CO2, what Billings now calls the “epitome of the precautionary principle”.  The phrase “selected air pollution agents” almost never made it out of the House-Senate Conference in December 1970, but a compromise was struck so late at night it never made it into the Conference reports. And while no one then envisioned CO2 and climate change, Billings said that if Muskie were alive when the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v EPA that CO2 is a pollutant, he would have said, “Why do you think I put that provision in there in the first place?”

Richard Lazarus then spoke of Senator Muskie’s enduring legacy in the courts as the font of legislative intent underlying many environmental laws, including frequent references to Muskie in court opinions and during oral arguments at the Supreme Court. He also demonstrated that while President Nixon did sign the bills authored by Muskie and had the label of being an environmental President, in fact he was largely using the issue for a short time as a defensive measure to cut off Muskie’s prospects as a potential 1972 Presidential candidate. Richard then showed slides of handwritten notes made by Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman of three discussions with the President: in February 1971, even when they thought environmental protection “has to be done”, at the same time they thought it “is not worth a damn”; in June “should take on environment—it’s not a sacred cow”;  and by July 1971 they wanted to put the “brakes on pollution bills…when we can without getting caught”, and to “reexamine all pollution bills in terms of current economic impact”.

Richard also discussed the current EPA rulemaking under 111, especially referencing the term “best system of emission reduction”; EPA’s June 2014 legal memorandum in support of its rulemaking proposal used Senator Muskie’s own words concerning “system” as encompassing the potential for emission reductions to occur outside the fence, and to include more than just controls. He said that for EPA, Muskie is its “Mr. Clean”.

During Q&A, both panelists discussed the partisanship of the past 10-20 years contrasted with during Muskie’s era. Billings mentioned how during Muskie’s opening presentation of the Clean Air Act on the Senate floor, the presiding officer was Senator Barry Goldwater, who sent down a note (now lost to history) saying, “Ed, that is the finest speech I think I have ever heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Turning to NEPA, the concept of an” environmental impact statement” developed through a personal compromise Muskie struck with Senator Jackson.

Afterwards I asked Billings, “If Ed Muskie and you were in the Senate now, what would you be doing?” He said, “If we were the majority party, holding a lot of oversight hearings to bring in all the scientists and evidence; if the minority party, writing speeches.”

And that is how the Past (or Days Passed) in Environmental Law still have major force in today’s many controversies. Oh, by the way: The Moody Blues recently released a new box set, “Timeless Flight”, and are still touring. Long live rock and environmental laws!

Superfund Rant For a New Congress

Posted on November 13, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

So the new Congress will be controlled by the GOP.  The House and Senate will consider various bills to rein in EPA authority.  Here’s one relatively modest suggestion for congressional consideration:  amend CERCLA to limit EPA’s authority to recover oversight costs.

How many of us in the private sector have been in meetings with EPA where EPA had more technical people in attendance than the PRPs who were performing the remedy?  How many of us have had clients receive oversight cost bills where the total amount of the oversight costs approached the amount spent on actually performing the remedy?  How many us have had oversight requests that have turned response actions into research projects?  All of this for a program that EPA’s own analyses always show to be at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to actual risks to the public.

Here’s the proposal.  I’m not suggesting that EPA have no authority to recover oversight costs.  Just limit it to 10% of the response costs incurred to actually design and implement the remedy.  Make it 15% if you want to be generous.

Mitch McConnell, are you listening? 

ESA Unconstitutional? Maybe, maybe not

Posted on November 11, 2014 by Margaret (Peggy) N. Strand

Bucking the trend of five Circuit Courts of Appeal, the U.S. District Court for Utah decided the Endangered Species Act (ESA) cannot be applied on private property for a wholly intrastate species.  The threatened Utah prairie dog, found exclusively in Southwestern Utah, apparently has insufficient connection to interstate commerce to support federal protection when found on privately owned land.

In the aptly named People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO) v. US Fish and Wildlife Service, PETPO sued the government when it modified its regulations establishing limitations on “take” (death, injury) of the Utah prairie dog, a species found only within Utah.  Because the species was not found interstate and finding no other relationship between the species and interstate commerce, the court looked at and rejected all of the government’s arguments that the ESA take limitations on the Utah prairie dog were authorized by the Congressional power to regulate activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce.

The government’s arguments were the same as have been made in multiple court decisions, each of which finding regulation of wholly intrastate species under the ESA supported by the Commerce Clause, including in the 9th, 11th, 5th, 4th and DC Circuits (respectively, see San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority v. Salazar; Alabama-Tombigbee Rivers Coalition v. Kempthorne; GDF Realty Investments, LTD. v. Norton; Gibbs v. Babbitt; Nat’l Ass’n of Home Builders v. Babbitt.)  The PETPO decision is contrary to this precedent, which, if upheld by the Tenth Circuit, may lead to a split in the Circuits and a shot at Supreme Court review.

Constitutional law groupies will recall the Supreme Court seemed to establish more strict limitations on the federal Commerce Clause power when it struck down the “Gun-Free School Zones” law in United States v. Lopez and overturned parts of the Violence Against Women Act in United States v. Morrison.  At that time, folks questioned whether the ESA would survive a constitutional challenge involving a wholly intrastate species.  For a number of years in a number of courts, the government has prevailed.  Now there is a decision to the contrary to be watched as it makes its way through appeals.

The court soundly rejected all of the government’s arguments supporting the regulation.  The government argued the “activities” prohibited by the rule are commercial or economic in nature; for example, limitations on farming and construction.  This position was rejected because the regulation applied whether or not linked to an economic activity.  More significantly, the court said the government was looking at the wrong thing for a nexus to commerce: the proper focus of the “substantial effect” test is the “regulated activity.” “In other words, the question in the present case is whether take of the Utah prairie dog has a substantial effect on interstate commerce, not whether the regulation preventing the take has such an effect.”  The fact that property owners would have to stop farming or otherwise engage in some commercial activities did not, on its own, provide sufficient nexus to interstate commerce to support species protection.

The government also argued the Utah prairie dog has biological and commercial value, so that any takes of the animal have a substantial effect on interstate commerce.  The Utah prairie dog is not a commercial species, and the court concluded, “any takes of Utah prairie dogs on non-federal land–even to the point of extinction–would not substantially affect the national market for any commodity regulated by the ESA.”

As far as biological value, Defendants argue prairie dogs perform many functions contributing to the ecosystem.  This point was also rejected in strong language:

If Congress could use the Commerce Clause to regulate anything that might affect the ecosystem (to say nothing about its effect on commerce), there would be no logical stopping point to congressional power under the Commerce Clause. Accordingly, the asserted biological value of the Utah prairie dog is inconsequential in this case.

Finally, intervenor Friends of the Earth argued an interstate commerce connection based on the fact the prairie dog has been the subject of scientific studies and commercially published books.  The court said lots of books had been published about both guns and women, but that was not sufficient under Lopez or Morrison.

Although no Clean Water Act decisions are cited, the PETPO opinion may be of interest to those following the constitutionality of federal regulation over wetlands.  Pending proposed regulations defining waters of the United States for Clean Water Act jurisdiction rely in part on the connectivity of ecosystems dependent on clean water. (See here, here and here.)  Rejecting the argument that the Utah prairie dog warranted federal protection as part of an integrated ecosystem, the Utah decision quotes Chief Judge Sentelle, in dissent in National Ass’n of Home Builders v. Babbitt, “The Commerce Clause empowers Congress ‘to regulate commerce’ not ‘ecosystems.’”

Stay tuned.

Ozone, Oil and the Uintah Basin

Posted on November 6, 2014 by James Holtkamp

Ozone is the quintessential ambient pollutant.  It is the result of complicated chemical reactions involving NOx and VOCs, sunlight, humidity and temperature.  It is primarily an urban pollutant, because that is where most of the NOx and VOCs are emitted, but it is also a regional challenge particularly in the eastern U.S. 

The Uintah Basin of eastern Utah is the quintessential Western U.S. Empty Quarter.  It is sparsely populated and windswept, and is a high-altitude desert.  It is home to the Ute Indian Tribe, and the greater part of the Basin is Indian Country for purposes of environmental regulation, meaning EPA – not the State of Utah – has regulatory authority.  The Basin is home to extensive reserves of oil, gas, oil shale and oil sands.

If the Basin is a dry, windy environment, then why have ambient ozone levels spiked dramatically in the Basin the last few years, during the winter, no less?  It turns out that ozone is not only created during hot muggy summer days, but when VOCs build up during winter inversions with a lot of sun and snow.  Periodic winter high pressure systems trap the VOCs and the ozone appears.  EPA has classified the Basin as “unclassifiable” for ozone and has denied an administrative petition to classify the area as nonattainment.  That denial is currently under review at the D.C. Circuit.

So where is this aberrant ozone coming from?  Although oil and gas has been produced in the Basin for decades, the fracking boom has swept into Eastern Utah with a vengeance, and the number of wells and associated facilities has mushroomed.  Utah DEQ, EPA Region 8, the counties, the Tribe, NGOs and the operators are jointly working on strategies to mitigate the problem, including newly promulgated state rules requiring retrofit of existing wells with equipment to reduce VOCs.  These efforts are complicated, however, by the jurisdictional differences over air issues as between Utah DEQ and EPA and the results are sometimes a bit clumsy.  But all of the stakeholders see the need to address the ozone issue proactively, and the end result will hopefully be a model for addressing similar issues in North Dakota, western Wyoming and Western Colorado.

Texas Railroad Commission finalizes proposal to require seismic surveys

Posted on November 4, 2014 by Jeff Civins

Over 30 earthquakes jolted the area in and around the City of Azle, Texas —20 miles north of Fort Worth—last November through January. In response to citizen concerns, the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources created a Subcommittee on Seismic Activity to investigate whether there was a link between earthquakes and increased oil and gas production and disposal wells.  On August 12, the Railroad Commission of Texas, with support from both  the Texas oil and gas industry and environmental groups, proposed rules that would require companies to do a seismic survey before obtaining permits for new oil and gas disposal wells—so-called Class II injection wells.  On October 28, 2014, the Railroad Commission unanimously voted to finalize that proposal.

Presently, the state has more than 3600 active commercial injection wells used for the disposal of oil and gas wastes. The rules require applicants for new oil and gas disposal wells to provide additional information, including logs, geologic cross-sections, and structure maps for injection well in an area where conditions exist that may increase the risk that fluids will not be confined to the injection interval. Those conditions include, among other things, complex geology, proximity of the base rock to the injection interval, transmissive faults, and a history of seismic events in the area as demonstrated by information available from the USGS. The rules also clarify that the Railroad Commission may modify, suspend, or terminate a permit if fluids are not confined to the injection interval, that is, if it poses a risk of seismic activity. The effect of these rules will be not only to regulate oil and gas disposal activities to address potential seismic effects, but also to generate data that may be useful in determining whether and to what extent to further regulate those activities.  The rules also may serve as a model for other states concerned about the seismic effects of oil and gas waste disposal.

Gradient of Connectivity: Coming to a 404 Process Near You!

Posted on November 3, 2014 by Rick Glick

The Science Advisory Board has at last released its peer review of EPA’s draft report on Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis, the technical support for the proposed rule on definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.  The SAB paper is generally supportive of EPA’s analysis.

The proposed rule has generated a great deal of controversy, causing EPA and the Corps to extend the comment period twice (November 14 is the current deadline).  Part of the controversy relates to EPA’s analysis of the technical literature supporting the proposed rule, particularly the effect of tributaries, intermittent and ephemeral streams on navigable waters.  A detailed explanation of the proposed rule, case law leading up to it, and prior agency guidance can be found here.

The SAB paper confirms EPA’s science, but recommends more nuance in some instances.  For example, the paper agrees that tributaries, intermittent and ephemeral streams can have a significant effect on the physical, biological and chemical integrity of receiving waters, but notes that the question is not simply whether there is a connection between upstream sources and navigable waters.  The SAB chides EPA for taking a “binary” view of connectivity—either  a water body is connected to a navigable water or it is not.  Rather, the paper urges EPA to acknowledge there is a “gradient of connectivity.” 

That there is a gradient of connectivity seems obvious, even from a lay standpoint; everything is connected at some level.  But that observation by itself is not terribly helpful, as EPA and the Corps have a regulatory function that is binary in nature—either there is Clean Water Act jurisdiction or there is not.  What would be helpful is guidance on where on the gradient government intervention matters; that is, how the agencies can recognize a truly “significant nexus” as prescribed by Justice Kennedy in Rapanos.

The SAB also makes recommendations to improve the clarity of the EPA report and  make more definitive statements.  For example, the SAB states that the literature supports a firmer statement on downstream functions of “unidirectional,” non-floodplain wetlands.  The SAB also recommended that EPA expand the discussion of approaches to quantifying connectivity, which would increase the utility of the document for regulators.

The SAB paper certainly is a necessary element of the scientific support for EPA’s and the Corps’ proposed rule for determining jurisdiction.  But it is unfortunate that the agencies reached their policy choices in the proposed rule without first having the benefit of the SAB’s input.  That opens the door to criticism that the SAB paper is just window dressing.

Whether that reversed sequence matters in the long term remains to be seen.  Even if EPA and the Corps had waited until the SAB completed its peer review, the rule would probably have come out roughly the same and attracted as much comment.