Posted on September 30, 2016
The Environmental Protection Agency’s use of its Clean Water Act 404(c) authority has received a fair amount of attention of late. Congressional hearings, court cases, media attention and, of course, Erik Fjelstad’s recent ACOEL blog.
EPA used this authority in the Mingo Logan coal mining-related situation after a 404 permit had been issued and the permit-regulated dredge and fill activities had been underway for some time. There is no doubt, as Erik points out, that uncertainty on the durability of a permit for a continuing dredge or fill activity, whether it be for coal mining or something else, is not ideal.
That said, there should be a way to revisit a permit if the impact of a continuing dredge or fill activity is severe and was not fully appreciated at the time of permitting. This is one situation that Congress sought to address in 404(c), and, in my opinion, without it, the integrity of the Clean Water Act to achieve its purpose of protecting waters of the United States would be at risk. Indeed, without such authority, those 404(c) permits for ongoing activities would look a lot like property rights. At the same time, this is not a common situation: EPA has finalized only two post-permit 404(c) actions.
Most common, though still rare, is EPA’s use of 404(c) authority to place restrictions on a 404 permit while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is processing a 404 permit application. In this time window, permit applicants know that there is uncertainty regarding whether and how their projects might go forward. EPA initiated the 404(c) process 29 times during the Corps’ permitting process, resolved eighteen without need for final 404(c) action, and came to final 404(c) action eleven times.
The final time window in which EPA can exercise its 404(c) authority occurs before a landowner or project proponent applies for a 404 permit. In one case EPA was confronted with a landowner who had three parcels of land in the Florida Everglades which he was planning on filling. As a start, he applied to the Corps for a 404 permit for two of those parcels. Using its 404(c) authority, EPA precluded the applied-for fill activity on all three parcels. Additionally, in the Mingo Logan example first introduced above, EPA not only addressed the existing permits in its decision, but noted that no future and similar 404 permits should subsequently be issued for those waters.
There is also one pending 404(c) action covering this pre-permit time window. It concerns the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, where a mining company has explored the copper, gold and molybdenum “Pebble” ore deposit. This large ore deposit underlies the largest wild salmon fishery in the world, which has supported the subsistence activities and culture of local people for thousands of years, a commercial fishery for over 130 years (in which the 2 billionth fish was caught this summer!), and a “bucket list” sport fishery. In this instance, EPA has proposed salmon-protective restrictions for 404 permits related to the mining of this ore deposit.
Should EPA finalize the Bristol Bay-related 404(c) proposal, the mining company could expect to get a 404 permit only if it included EPA’s restrictions. In this context, the mining company would have certainty before it applies for a 404 permit as to the applicability of those restrictions to its fill activity. Some have complained that EPA is overreaching in proposing to exercise this authority in advance of a permit application. For my part, this seems like the most ideal time for all interested parties – local people and the mining company most of all – to find out about such restrictions.
For what it is further worth, EPA has revisited some of those final 404(c) actions to allow for some dredge and fill activities. And notably, eleven of the thirteen final 404(c) actions occurred during Republican administrations (Reagan – 9, Bush I – 1, Bush II – 1). So if politics was involved in the actions, it didn’t fit the stereotype.
Disclosure: Bessenyey & Van Tuyn, L.L.C. represents a client that supports EPA 404(c) action to protect Bristol Bay’s wild salmon from the proposed Pebble mine.
Posted on September 29, 2016
When RGGI was first implemented, I heard Ian Bowles, then Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs in Massachusetts, say more than once that the purpose of RGGI wasn’t really to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or jump start the clean energy economy. Instead, the goal was much more modest; it was simply to demonstrate that a trading regime could work. The RGGI states were to serve as a model, to be the laboratory of a GHG allowance system. The hope was certainly that RGGI would succeed its way into obsolescence. Surely, by 2016, there would be a federal statutory basis for GHG regulation.
It’s now September 2016 and a federal statutory basis for a GHG trading system remains a seemingly distant hope (this post is definitely not about the Clean Power Plan). We may still be waiting, but we do at least have substantial data from the laboratory that is RGGI. In fact, yesterday, RGGI released its analysis of The Investment of RGGI Proceeds through 2014. Some highlights:
- Power sector GHG emissions have decreased by more than 45% since 2005, while regional GDP has increased by about 8%.
- The total value of RGGI investments reached $1.37 billion through 2014.
- Energy efficiency has taken up 58% of RGGI investment. The report states that the expected return is $3.62 billion in lifetime energy bill savings.
- Clean and renewable energy make up 13% of investments, with an expected return of $836 million in lifetime energy bill savings.
One can quibble with these numbers. They don’t really provide a reliable comparison to what would have happened in the absence of RGGI. Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that RGGI does work. We can reduce GHG emissions without giving up on economic growth, and we can use the regulatory process to move our energy economy where it needs to be.
Now, if someone could just figure out a way to make RGGI obsolete, that would be true success.
Posted on September 28, 2016
On September 10, 2016, a delegation from the College returned from four days of informal meetings in Havana. These meetings laid the groundwork for further discussions with Cuban environmental organizations and environmental governmental agencies about the potential for pro bono projects in Cuba. This self-funded trip was the result of almost two years of research, U.S. governmental interactions, and planning. The delegation – including David Farer, Mary Ellen Ternes, Eileen Millett and me – found the island enchanting, its people charming, and its environment in need of help. With this blog, we begin a series of reports conveying our optimism and enthusiasm about a path towards College fellows being able to engage in potential environmental projects in Cuba.
On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced that he was rejecting the country’s Cold War-era policy towards Cuba in order to chart a new course with that country. In early January 2015, College President Pam Giblin and her fellow officers approved the initiation of the Education and Pro Bono Committee’s informal investigation and research into whether it was legal and practical to consider approaching Cuban environmental organizations and governmental agencies (potential “Sponsors”) with offers of pro bono environmental assistance. Within a year, the initial solo effort morphed into the Cuba Working Group. Throughout the ensuing year, Allan Gates, David Farer, Dennis Krumholz, Bob Whetzel, Linda Bullen, Seth Jaffe, Bob Percival, Mary Ellen Ternes, Eileen Millett, yours truly, and many others walked the College step-by-step through contacting various federal agencies for permission to approach organizations and agencies in Cuba. After filing a complex application, we successfully obtained an Office of Foreign Assets Control File Number. Throughout this trek, U.S. government regulations and practices continued to be a moving target, but they became more relaxed by the month.
After patient persistence, the College delegation was able to embark on the September 2016 trip planned by Eileen Millett and her nominated travel company, Cuban Cultural Travel. Eileen and CCT did a marvelous job. The delegation took a 45-minute air shuttle and arrived in Havana on Tuesday, September 6. We were briefed by the legal affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy. We proceeded with informal meetings with the editor of TEMA, a Cuban cultural affairs journal; with a Cuban foreign participation/investment expert; with a Cuban health care expert; with a Cuban environmental NGO (Foundacion Antonio Nunez Jiminez de la Naturaleza y Hombre); and with individuals directly and indirectly connected to the Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnologia y Medio Ambiente (CITMA), the Cuban ministry focused on the environment. We might have listened to some Cuban music, seen some Cuban dancing and sipped some Cuban rum along the way, but – believe me – we were “all business.” The meetings with our Cuban contacts generally opened with cautious curiosity, but they concluded with expressions that ranged from mild interest to enthusiastic support. The delegation is cautiously optimistic that these initial discussions and further exchanges of information will lead to a Memorandum of Understanding and subsequent projects throughout the island.
Within the week, the College will send formal expressions of interest to 7 individuals who are either connected to the environmental NGO or CITMA. We will include a draft MOU which could be approved by both the Cuban Sponsor and the College’s Executive Committee. Attached are links to exemplars of the letter and MOU.
If an MOU is mutually executed, we will promptly ask the Cuban Sponsor to provide the College with a list of potential environmental projects in Cuba. We will circulate the list to all Fellows in the College. We will ask that interested Fellows submit their current curricula vitae to me as Chair of the Cuba Working Group of the Education and Pro Bono Committee. I will send them on to the Cuban Sponsor. The Cuban Sponsor will select the Fellow or Fellows it wishes to work with. The Cuba Working Group will place the Sponsor in touch with the selected Fellow(s). The ensuing engagement will be between the individual selected Fellow(s) and the Sponsor. The College will not be a party because it does not practice law.
The MOU will provide that generally all work done by College Fellows will be done free of charge. But, if the Sponsor requests or approves travel to Cuba, the Sponsor will pay coach round trip air fare and all reasonable out-of-pocket travel expenses.
You will see in subsequent blog posts from David, Mary Ellen, and Eileen, that our delegates had the time of their lives in Havana. The establishment and execution of international pro bono work is one of the great benefits of Fellowship in the American College of Environmental Lawyers. Whether you are interested in China, Haiti, Eastern and Southern Africa or Cuba, please let us know and send us your expressions of interest when we post our Sponsors’ lists of projects. I can assure you that Eileen, Mary Ellen, David, and I can hardly wait for our next assignment.
Posted on September 26, 2016
For well over a decade states and stakeholders have been trying to develop water quality trading and offset programs to facilitate compliance with the Clean Water Act. The goal of “trading” is to allow a discharger who can cost-effectively reduce pollutants to a lower level than legally required to sell the resulting “credit” to another source whose per-unit cost of reducing that same pollutant is greater. The “credit” is the amount of reduction achieved by the credit generator beyond compliance. The result is more cost-effective compliance.
An “offset” involves using a “credit” to offset a new or increased discharge to a water body which is not achieving water quality standards (often referred to as “impaired”) for that pollutant. Without such an offset, any new discharge to an impaired water body is illegal, because it would exacerbate the standards violation. Typically the credit or offset is incorporated into the permit of the user, and is thereby enforceable.
Recognizing these benefits, EPA supports trading, and issued a policy and guidance memo in 2003. One of the most promising opportunities for trading is the reduction of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, which are causing water quality problems across the country. Farms typically have nonpoint source discharges of all three of these pollutants, and can reduce the volume much more cost-effectively than a municipal or industrial point source, which is the typical buyer. However, efforts to establish trading programs have run into problems, such as determining a measurable “baseline” compliance level for a nonpoint source credit generator before a credit can be generated. Nonpoint sources typically use “best management practices” (BMPs) to achieve pollution reductions representing their fair share of loading allocations for the water body to which they discharge. Before a farmer can generate a credit, his “fair share”, or baseline, must be both determined and met.
Additional problems include protecting local water quality where the credit is used, verifying the implementation of a credit, and accounting for uncertainty in the amount of pollution reduction which a BMP implemented at a non-point source will actually achieve. As a result, while many states have tried to establish such programs, including the development of regulations, very few have been successful.
To address these problems, EPA over the past 3 years has issued 8 “technical memoranda” (TMs) which set forth EPA’s “expectations” for the contents of an effective trading program within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This is, in effect, a pilot. The reason for the focus on this 64,000 square mile watershed is that in 2010 EPA published the biggest total maximum daily load (TMDL) ever issued under the CWA, which sets forth pollutant loading allocations which must be achieved throughout the watershed in order to achieve compliance with applicable water quality standards. I described this TMDL in a previous post entitled EPA Issues Biggest TMDL Ever for Chesapeake Watershed, posted on March 4, 2011. Faced with huge costs to achieve the reductions, many of the states are looking at trading.
To maximize the likelihood that such trades will be carried out in compliance with the CWA, EPA issued the TMs for use by the Bay states in designing their programs. They address baseline determination, duration of credits, components of a credit calculation, protection of local water quality, accounting for uncertainty of the water quality benefit of a BMP, representative sampling, verification and certification (including inspections and public availability of all relevant documents), and accounting for growth (including need for an “offset” program). The “credit calculation” TM addresses, among other things “additionality” (the requirement that any trade must result in a net reduction of pollution) and “leakage” (when a pollutant load reduction at one location indirectly causes an increase in pollution elsewhere). These can be accessed on EPA’s “Trading and Offsets in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” web site. They are not regulations or even “official agency guidance” (says EPA), and do not have the force of law. They do set forth EPA’s “expectations”. EPA officials have said that each state trading program will be reviewed for consistency with these TMs.
For those around the country who are trying to design and implement trading programs, these TMs can be enormously helpful. They are fairly brief (typically 6 to 12 pages), clear and concise. And who among us would not support more cost-effective reduction of pollution?
Posted on September 23, 2016
The New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission enacted what is arguably the most comprehensive copper mine remediation rule in the country. The Copper Rule requires copper mines to uniformly implement prescriptive measures of pollution control and to protect ground water at “foreseeable places of withdrawal.” But does the Copper Rule really prevent pollution, as required by the New Mexico Water Quality Act? Not so, say the Attorney General and various NGOs, who appealed the case to the New Mexico Court of Appeals. They claimed that the Copper Rule’s uniform monitoring criteria, which require the placement of a monitoring well network as close as practicable around the perimeter of mine units, does not sufficiently protect ground water and therefore fails to satisfy the Water Quality Act’s mandate that contaminant concentrations not exceed permissible standards at places of withdrawal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s rule-making in Gila Resources Information Project v. N.M. Water Quality Control Comm’n, holding that the determination of a “place of withdrawal” has always been and remains a matter committed to the Commission’s discretion. [Link to Case.]
The New Mexico Supreme Court will now consider whether the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission has the authority, under the Water Quality Act, to adopt the regulations imposing prescriptive pollution controls and defining by rule, rather than on a case-by-case basis, the type of monitoring controls which essentially define protectable ground water as that existing on the exterior of active mine units. After a number of swings of the bat, the petitioners in the Supreme Court have refined their arguments. They now claim that the Water Quality Act requires a case-by-case determination of a place of withdrawal, based on particular aquifer characteristics, rather than a definition derived by rule. To succeed with this challenge, the petitioners must overcome the legislature’s mandate, in the 2009 amendments to the Water Quality Act, that the Commission adopt uniform monitoring requirements for the entire copper industry. The battle seems to be whether the Copper Rule is sufficiently flexible to protect all places of withdrawal – regardless of where located – or whether the rule imposes a de facto definition of a place of withdrawal based on criteria that may not be tailored specifically to the aquifer characteristics at a particular site. Oral argument is set for September 28, 2016.
Posted on September 21, 2016
On Monday, EPA promulgated amendments to its “Exceptional Events” Rule. The rule is important, particularly in the Western states, and most particularly in connection with EPA’s latest iteration of the ozone NAAQS. EPA’s most significant revision was to eliminate the requirement that state air agencies demonstrate that, “but for” the exceptional event, the state or relevant area would have complied with the applicable NAAQS. The change is important for two reasons. First, on the merits, EPA noted that:
"the “but for” criterion has often been interpreted as implying the need for a strict quantitative analysis to show a single value … of the estimated air quality impact from the event. As a result, some air agencies began using burdensome approaches to provide quantitative analyses in their exceptional events demonstrations to show that the event in question was a “but for” cause of a NAAQS exceedance or violation in the sense that without the event, the exceedance or violation would not have occurred. In many cases, the “but for” role of a single source or event is difficult to determine with certainty and it is more often the case that the impact of emissions from events and other sources cannot be separately quantified and distinguished."
I think that EPA got this exactly right. As tort professors have always known, how a burden of proof is allocated is often outcome-determinative.
Which brings me to the second reason why the change is important – at least to me. Just hearing the words “but for” causation triggers an uncontrollable wave of nostalgia. In 1996, my client, New England Telephone, was awarded summary judgment in a CERCLA contribution case. It was then the first – and may still be the only – case in which a defendant who admittedly sent hazardous substances to a site was awarded summary judgment on the ground that its wastes had not caused the incurrence of any response costs.
I like to think that NET prevailed due to the fine lawyering of its counsel, but I have always known in my heart of hearts that the identity of the judge may have had something to do with the result. The case was heard by Robert Keeton, distinguished judge, Harvard Law professor and – importantly – one of the authors of Prosser and Keeton on Torts.
At the summary judgment hearing, Judge Keeton did not want to hear from me, even though it was my motion. He did not really even want to hear from the plaintiffs’ counsel. Instead, he launched into an approximately 30-minute lecture on the role of causation in tort law, including, of course, a discussion of “but for” causation. When he finished the discussion from Prosser and Keeton about the so-called “Minnesota fire cases”, Judge Keeton paused, looked up, smiled broadly, and said: “I wrote that part.”
It was the best summary judgment argument I ever gave. I never said a word.
Posted on September 20, 2016
Sometimes the most extraordinary things in the world of law and government get served up in the most undramatic way. If you aren’t paying attention to the back story, and you don’t know the context, you might almost miss the action. And future generations, seeking to decipher history, might all too easily overlook the most crucial and delicate tipping points. This fact of life has been emphatically proven by the Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural juggernaut that is the Broadway musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda. In addition to telling the very personal story of one of our nation’s founding fathers, Hamilton shows, in brilliant style, that even seemingly dry and technical matters such as the origins of our nation’s financial system, and the logic underlying the complex apparatus of modern administrative agencies, are actually fueled by passion, dripping with drama, and world-changing in consequence. You just need to know whose story to tell, and how to read between the lines.
A recent case in point: On August 17, 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Engie Gas & LNG LLC v. Department of Public Utilities (Docket SJC-12051/SJC-12052). Environmental and energy lawyers readily recognized the decision as an important one, but it’s easy to see how future generations, far from the current action, might miss the excitement here. The question in Engie was whether the state utility department could approve ratepayer-backed, long-term contracts by electric distribution companies for the purchase and resale of interstate natural gas pipeline transportation capacity.
To answer that question, the Engie court addressed, among other things, (1) the propriety of the appeal in the absence of a final adjudicatory order; (2) the pertinent standard of review, (3) the canon of statutory construction reddenda singula singulis, a.k.a. the rule of the last antecedent (which might also be merely a grammar rule), (4) whether ambiguity should or could be found in statutory language that neither expressly forbids nor clearly permits the proposed departmental action, (5) the parties’ competing interpretations of the legislative history, (6) the overall statutory framework, (7) the necessity of a “distributive reading” of the terms “gas or electric,” (8) the limitations of the deference to be afforded to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of a statute it is charged with enforcing, where the interpretation represents a significant departure from the agency’s own record of administering the pertinent statute, (9) the importance of ensuring consistency with the fundamental policy embodied in the legislation at issue, and (10) the interpretive pertinence of subsequent, separate legislation. Phew!
Ultimately, the SJC rejected the utility department’s determination of the scope of its authority, and concluded that the pertinent statute forbade the imposition on electricity ratepayers of the costs of new natural gas supply infrastructure. Like many judicial opinions concerning complex environmental and energy issues, the Engie decision has a sober logic that makes it seem unsurprising, correct, and even almost easy. But wait – what just happened here?
Ladies and gentlemen, we have an affair of honor! One dueling party and its seconds, the state’s public utility department and electric distribution companies, contend that the policy choice by our state government’s executive branch to expand natural gas pipeline capacity is a sensible way of meeting our very real need for reliable electrical power. Even as we move toward a more sustainable future of renewable energy, they say, we still depend urgently on new supplies of natural gas, obtained by means of fracking, to provide the essential “bridge” fuel, and we can all get ready for price spikes and power blackouts each winter if we ignore that reality. It’s an emergency, and our future is at stake!
The other dueling party and its seconds, who include the Massachusetts Attorney General and a coalition of environmentalists, land conservationists, and consumer and taxpayer advocates, insist that we don’t need any new natural gas infrastructure at all. And if we don’t push much faster and harder for a larger-scale shift to more environmentally sustainable ways to support our energy consumption, they say, we are fiddling while Rome burns. It’s an emergency, and our future is at stake!
Grappling with the fine points of utility infrastructure regulation and financing may make some people’s eyes glaze over. To which I say, are you kidding? I can’t think of another moment when our courts were faced with environmental and energy law disputes more laden with tension and drama. This is the high-stakes, heroic, dueling-on-the-ledge stuff on which our future history depends. It could practically be a Broadway musical.
Posted on September 16, 2016
Usually we associate uniqueness, grandeur, history, and pleasure with our National Monuments and National Parks. With President Obama’s August 24, 2016 Declaration of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument…not so much.
The controversial designation comes after a decades-long campaign by Roxanne Quimby, founder of Burt’s Bees natural cosmetics company, who was unabashed in making it clear that she saw this as a personal legacy. Through her efforts and expense, more than 87,000 acres were obtained over the years and then donated to the U.S. on August 23rd. The President acted the next day.
In acquiring the overwhelming underdeveloped land accessible only by dirt roads, Quimby had already restricted or limited the traditional logging, snowmobiling and hunting activities on much of the property, which did not endear her to locals or some visitors. Further, logging groups and others concerned with increased federal restrictions raised concerns about road safety for the additional visitors expected to travel on the private logging roads providing access to the new National Monument and the loss of timberlands, especially if a national park were ultimately created. (A number of national parks started as national monuments.)
Although the Department of Interior photos of the Monument show Mount Katahdin, a truly spectacular mountain in the Maine’s Baxter State Park, the National Monument lands only provide distant views of the mountain, not access to the state park or the mountain. Critics point out that there are no developed roads or camping sites on the National Monument lands, and local towns gain little advantage from the designation because traffic doesn’t flow through them to the remote location. Undeveloped Maine woods are beautiful but remote. Few people would go (way) out of the way or buy a “high clearance vehicle” to reach them -- and there are vast, undeveloped state and private forests at least as picturesque, more accessible and offering similar or better recreational opportunities. Ever heard of the Allagash Wilderness?
Most believe a majority of Mainers did not support the national park proposal, but no state-wide poll was conducted Many Mainers, three-quarters of Maine’s congressional delegation, Maine’s governor and the state legislature had opposed the concept, and the majority of the congressional delegation had opposed even designation as a national monument. With no wave of support for the national park and lacking the congressional support required for a park, the option left to the President to lift his pen.
Maine is a wonderful place to visit, live and work, and has legitimate claims to its self-proclaimed moniker “Vacationland.” But unless you are truly seeking generic backcountry experience (and competing with logging trucks on unpaved roads to get there), my recommendation is that you visit Baxter State Park and climb Mt. Katahdin (the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail), or explore Acadia National Park on Mt Desert Island. At least I can promise you won’t be disappointed.
Posted on September 15, 2016
Congress in recent years has not really been in the business of solving core public welfare problems like safe drinking water. Today the Senate, however, has taken a major step forward by passing the 2016 Water Resources and Development Act, S. 2848. WRDA bills are the annual appropriations bills to shore up the nation’s water service infrastructure. The Senate bill would provide $9.4 billion for water projects, hydrology and flood control, including $4.9 billion to address aging municipal water systems.
By and large, Americans take for granted that their municipal water supply systems deliver abundant, wholesome and safe drinking water. Water borne illnesses are rare in this country, and the professionals I know that operate these systems take their jobs seriously and feel the weight of the responsibility. And yet, there are colossal failures putting public health at risk—like Flint.
The Flint debacle reflects a complete absence of professional water management. The problem there was a change in water supply, and the failure to add commonly available corrosion inhibiting chemicals to the water to prevent lead pipelines from leaching lead into Flint homes. What should have been an inexpensive operational measure became a billion dollar pipe replacement project. And that figure doesn’t include the long-term costs to address health effects of drinking the water, not to mention the cost of a different kind of corrosion, that of the public trust.
But even well-managed municipal water systems, including those that tout the high quality of the supply, can have serious lead problems. My town of Portland, Oregon, has one of the purest water sources in the country, the Bull Run water shed on Mt. Hood. The water is so soft, however, that it has a corrosive effect. Luckily Portland doesn’t have lead service pipes like Flint, but many older homes have lead solder in their plumbing, resulting in Portland exceeding lead drinking water standardsin high risk households and schools.
The Portland Water Bureauis taking steps to address the lead problem, like raising the pH level in the water to minimize lead leaching. But Portland’s water rates are among the highest in the country, and the cost of maintaining safe water supplies is only going up. There is a practical limit to how high water rates can go, and communities with fewer resources than Portland struggle to keep up.
This is where the federal government is supposed to step in, to address problems that exceed local capacities to protect the public. Although a little late in coming, S. 2848 is a mostly bipartisan bill, which if enacted could move the needle in the right direction. Let’s hope this bill gets through the House and to the President for signing without further delay.
Posted on September 9, 2016
Section 101(f) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) creates a “national policy” that “to the maximum extent possible” the Act “shall” be implemented in a manner that “prevent[s] needless duplication and unnecessary delays at all levels of government.” (33 U.S.C. § 1251(f)) Although this and the other overarching goals in § 101 of the Act were “no exercise in boilerplate rhetoric,” (William Harsha, Jr. (Ohio), Congressional Record 16520 (Jun. 3, 1976)) they are typically ignored. Instead of ignoring § 101 of the CWA, however, a strong argument can be made that courts should remand or even vacate an agency’s action if it can be shown that such an action needlessly duplicates or unnecessarily delays efforts to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, [or] biological integrity of the Nation’s waters. (33 U.S.C. § 1251(a)) This would further Congress’s intent as codified in §§ 101(a) & (f) of the CWA.
Consider the ongoing controversy about the recent “Waters of the United States” rule (Rule). (80 Fed. Reg. 37,054 (Jun. 29, 2015)) Many have said much about this Rule, focusing on lofty constitutional arguments, erudite discussions of which and when Supreme Court opinions control, and the finer points of APA jurisprudence. But few have argued that the automatic implementation of its increased jurisdictional scope would contravene § 101(f). Because the Rule seeks to increase the federal government’s jurisdiction under the CWA, without more, coverage of the Act’s regulatory requirements would immediately attach to previously non-jurisdictional waters. This inextricable link of new jurisdiction and implementation could lead to disruptive delays and associated problems.
When, for example, the hundreds of ditches that form a sprawling municipal separate storm sewer system become jurisdictional, various implementation requirements would be triggered – noncompliance with which could lead to administrative and civil penalties and criminal liability. In this and many other instances, the sudden applicability of CWA requirements could have the unintended consequence of actually impeding ongoing efforts to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
The shift of focus from traditional waters of the United States to stormwater conveyances could divert and dilute scarce local government resources. This could delay meaningful water quality improvements for the lakes and rivers people actually use to swim and fish, and use for potable water could become more difficult to attain and then sustain. Such delays would serve no environmental benefit and would be especially unjustified where local governments only use those stormwater conveyances for stormwater management or for treating discharges from them into traditional waters of the United States. Indeed, until promulgation of the Waters of the United States Rule, stormwater conveyances have historically been excluded from the CWA’s jurisdictional reach.
It thus seems that the directives of §101(f) should be taken into account in litigation judging the appropriateness of the Waters of the United States Rule. This would ensure that the Rule is implementable in a fashion that satisfies §101(f)’s common sense mandate to “prevent needless duplication and unnecessary delays” in furtherance of the fundamental goal of “restor[ing] and maintain[ing] the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
William H. Green thanks Mohammad O. Jazil for his contributions to this post.
Posted on September 8, 2016
Ever since EPA began considering how BACT analysis would be applied to greenhouse gas emissions, there has been concern that EPA would use its BACT authority to “redefine the source” – with the particular concern that BACT for a coal plant would now be to burn natural gas instead. In Helping Hands Tools v. EPA, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week gave some protection to biomass plants from such redefinition of the source. However, other types of facilities will get no comfort from the decision.
Helping Hands Tools involved a challenge to a PSD permit issued to Sierra Pacific for a cogeneration plant to be located at one of its existing lumber mills. Under EPA’s BACT Guidance, Sierra Pacific stated that the purpose of the CoGen plant was to use wood waste from the mill and nearby facilities to generate electricity and heat. Relying in part on the 7th Circuit decision in Sierra Club v. EPA, which held that it would impermissibly redefine the source to require a mine-mouth coal generating plant to consider different fuels in its BACT analysis, the 9th Circuit found that EPA was reasonable in determining that, because a fundamental purpose of the CoGen plant was to burn wood waste, it would impermissibly redefine the source to require Sierra Pacific to consider solar power as part of its BACT analysis.
Importantly, the Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ request that Sierra Pacific consider greater use of natural gas. The Court concluded that very limited use of natural gas for the purposes of startup, shutdown, and flame stabilization did not undermine the fundamental purpose to burn wood waste. This is critical to source-located biomass facilities, because EPA’s GHG Permitting Guidance specifically says that greater use of an existing fuel should be considered in the BACT analysis:
"unless it can be demonstrated that such an option would disrupt the applicant’s basic business purpose for the proposed facility."
Unfortunately, the language of the decision appears to me to give EPA substantial leeway in future BACT analyses to redefine the source in other cases. It seems to me that, building on the 7th Circuit decision, the Court has simply created an exception to potential source redefinition in circumstances where the location of the facility justifies a very narrow fuel selection. If a coal plant intends to burn coal from the mine next door, ok. If a lumber mill intends to burn its own wood waste, ok. Otherwise, however, all bets are off.
What is particularly troubling was the Court’s acknowledgement that the GHG BACT guidance is vague, and its deference to EPA’s application of its own vague guidance. This is precisely the concern I noted when the Guidance was first issued. Time will tell, but I foresee some fairly extreme BACT determinations being blessed by some very deferential courts.
Posted on September 2, 2016
Do air emissions of pollutants constitute a “disposal” under the federal hazardous waste laws? The Ninth Circuit said “no” in Pakootas, et al. v. Teck Cominco Metals, Ltd. based upon its reading of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund). The decision both sets important precedent and showcases the judicial process to discern legislative intent when a statute’s plain language is stressed by an unusual fact pattern. If air pollutants can create CERCLA disposals, then emissions from any stationary or mobile source, including animal emissions of methane (which is considered a pollutant subject to CERCLA by EPA), may be the basis of cleanup liability.
The decision involves a smelter located just north of the border with British Columbia. An earlier decision in that case held that a foreign-based facility can be liable under CERCLA for slag discharges into a river running to the United States. Plaintiffs then alleged the facility arranged for disposal by emitting hazardous air contaminants which were carried by the wind and deposited in Washington State. The district court denied a motion to dismiss and certified the matter for immediate appellate review.
Reading the plain language of CERCLA, the Ninth Circuit found that “a reasonable enough construction” of the law would be that the facility “arranged for disposal” of its air pollutants. No legislative history or EPA rules shed light on this subject. However, the Court concluded it was not writing on a blank slate. Noting that CERCLA incorporates the definition of “disposal” from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Court cited its prior decision in Ctr. for Cmty. Action and Envtl. Justice v. BNSF Rwy. Co., which held that diesel particulate emissions “transported by wind and air currents onto the land and water” did not constitute “disposal” of waste within the meaning of RCRA. To be a disposal, the solid or hazardous waste must first be placed into or on any land or water and thereafter be emitted into the air. The Court also cited its en banc decision in Carson Harbor Vill., Ltd. v. Unocal Corp., holding that passive migration was not a disposal under CERCLA.
The Court thereby found that arranging for “disposal” did not include arranging for air “emissions.” This interpretation of “disposal” was largely consistent with CERCLA’s overall statutory scheme. The Court expressed concern that plaintiffs’ more expansive reading would stretch CERCLA liability beyond the bounds of reason. “[I]f ‘aerial depositions’ are accepted as ‘disposals,’” the Court said, “‘disposal’ would be a never-ending process, essentially eliminating the innocent landowner defense.”
The Court did not discuss in detail the statutory interplay with the Clean Air Act, which regulates air emissions under a complex regulatory and permit scheme. Under CERCLA, federally permitted releases are excluded from liability. But because air permits often specify the control equipment parameters rather than an emission limit, a CERCLA plaintiff may allege that the mere existence of a permit does not provide a blanket immunity from liability and the facility would remain liable for any releases that were not expressly permitted, exceeded the limitations of the permit, or occurred at a time when there was no permit. The Court in passing did note its skepticism that the federally permitted “release” exception evidenced any Congressional intent regarding the meaning of “disposal.”
The Ninth Circuit is the highest court to exclude air emissions from the reach of CERCLA and RCRA. The Court’s citation to Carson Harbor does not provide an exact analogy since a passive landowner has not “arranged” for the initial release of hazardous substances, as compared to the smelter operations which result in air emissions. But the Court’s unwillingness to create potentially unlimited CERCLA liability for air emissions is compelling. Under CERCLA, liability is strict, joint and several and retroactive. Air emissions are widely transported and dispersed in relatively small concentrations by large numbers of potential sources, making CERCLA liability findings and allocations difficult if not impossible.
The Court thereby divined Congress’ intent to make CERCLA’s scheme workable, apart from a literal reading of its text. For judges to “repair” statutory language in this way is controversial. The decision is reminiscent of the U.S. Supreme Court holding that the Obama health care plan provides tax credits to millions of people who purchase insurance from a federal marketplace, even though the statute only provides credits for those who purchase from marketplaces “established by the state.” According to Justice Roberts, that was the only way the law would work, and despite the plain wording in the statute, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.” CERCLA also is not a model of clarity, and the Ninth Circuit similarly incorporated practicality as a factor in discerning Congress’ intent to avoid overreaching in assigning liability for the cleanup of toxic chemical releases.
Posted on September 1, 2016
Once both a paradigm of brevity in the federal code and a fertile source of work for generations of mining lawyers, the Mining Law of 1872 has been picked away at (pun intended) for many years. The romance of throwing a pack and a pick on a mule, nailing an old tobacco tin to a post with a location notice, and wresting riches from your very own mining claim is largely gone. The restrictions in federal and state law on surface disturbances from mining have made operations by individuals on mining claims more anachronistic than ever.
On August 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court knocked off another big chunk when it unanimously held that California’s ban on suction mining for gold is not preempted by the Mining Law. People v. Rinehart, No. S222620 (Aug. 22, 2016). Mr. Rinehart was convicted of engaging in suction dredge mining for gold on his mining claim in violation of a moratorium on the practice imposed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Not surprisingly, the department found that suction dredge mining has significant adverse impacts on water quality, protected species, and the environment generally.
Rinehart went ahead with suction dredge mining anyway, and when charged criminally, argued that the Mining Law preempted any state laws that would restrict his right to mine on his mining claim. He was convicted, but the California Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, agreeing with Rinehart that the Mining Law preempts any state restriction on mining on a mining claim.
The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, explaining in great detail how the Mining Law was not intended to allow mining without regard to the application of state police power on a duly located mining claim, notwithstanding that the purpose of the law is to facilitate the development of mining on public lands. The court relied heavily on precedents going back over a century, including a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions holding that in order to displace the application of state law on federal lands, Congress must act affirmatively. The court was doubtless influenced by an extensive amicus brief filed by the United States, which agreed that the state’s moratorium was not preempted by the Mining Law.
The California decision is not surprising given the increased emphasis on state and federal regulation of the environmental impacts of mining operations, which began with the major environmental legislation of the 1970s. For example, many years ago the BLM and Forest Service issued regulations requiring permits for surface disturbances on unpatented mining claims. The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the various state programs operating under delegation from that statute also regulate surface impacts of mining operations. Other environmental laws, including federal and state clean water statutes, air quality laws, and waste management requirements have been applied to mining operations without regard to whether the right to mine is based on fee simple ownership, leasehold interests, or unpatented mining claims.
Opponents of the Mining Law view the law as an anachronistic give-away of federal resources but have not succeeded in repealing it. But environmental regulations such as the suction dredge mining moratorium in California and increasingly insurmountable economic challenges in operating a small mining operation are slowly strangling the Mining Law. It is death by a thousand . . . picks.