The Conservative Case For Chevron Deference

Posted on January 30, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

With GOP control of Congress and the White House, conservatives appear to have Chevron deference in their crosshairs.  Put simply, I don’t get it.  There are at least two good reasons why conservatives should prefer Chevron deference to no deference.

First, the alternative is for courts to decide all questions of agency authority.  But haven’t conservatives railed against unelected judges for years?  Bureaucrats are unelected, but at least they work for the elected President.  Isn’t EPA more likely to be responsive to President Trump than federal judges would be?

Second, the EDFs and NRDCs of this world would laugh hysterically at the notion that they have more sway with EPA than the regulated community.  Anyone ever heard of “Regulatory Capture”?

The argument in support of Chevron was made cogently by Ed McTiernan in a recent blog post, but the strength of the argument was really brought home by the decision this past week in Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited v. EPA, in which the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals – to fairly wide surprise – reversed a district court decision that had struck down EPA’s “water transfer” rule.  

The rule was much favored by the regulated community, but there were very good jurisprudential reasons to affirm the District Court.  Indeed, the decision was 2-1 and even the majority opinion repeatedly noted that, were it writing on a blank slate, it might well prefer an interpretation that would strike down the rule.

Why, then, did the Appeals Court reverse the District Court and affirm the rule?  Chevron deference, of course.

Conservatives, be careful what you wish for.

Does the Clean Water Act Cover Discharges To Or Through Groundwater?

Posted on June 15, 2016 by David Buente

An issue that has recently come to the forefront of Clean Water Act (“CWA”) jurisprudence in numerous district courts across the country and which is currently before the Ninth Circuit is whether the discharge of pollutants into groundwater which is hydrologically connected to a surface water is regulated under the CWA.  The CWA prohibits discharges from point sources to navigable waters, defined as “waters of the United States,” unless they are in compliance with another provision of the Act, such as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permitting program.  Whether discharges to groundwater hydrologically connected to a surface water body fall under this prohibition is a question with far-reaching consequences for facilities as varied as coal ash basins, slurry pits, retention ponds, and hydraulic fracturing wastewater ponds, all of which could theoretically be deemed to be in violation of the CWA under this hydrological-connection theory if they leak into groundwater at all.

As a preliminary matter, there is no question that isolated groundwater itself is not a water of the United States regulated under the CWA.  First, multiple courts, including several circuit courts of appeals, have held that groundwater is not “waters of the United States.”  Second, the legislative history surrounding the CWA indicates clearly that Congress considered setting standards for groundwater or explicitly including it in the NPDES permitting program and decided against such an approach.  Finally, in the rule, now stayed by the Sixth Circuit, which EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers promulgated last year defining the term “waters of the United States,” the agencies explicitly stated that they had “never interpreted” groundwater “to be a ‘water of the United States’ under the CWA.”  80 Fed. Reg. 37073

The hydrological connection issue is not a new one; both the Seventh Circuit in 1994 and the Fifth Circuit in 2001 determined that discharges to groundwater which is hydrologically connected to waters of the United States are not regulated under the CWA or the Oil Pollution Act (“OPA”) (courts have typically interpreted the term “navigable waters” to have the same meaning under both acts).  In the past few years, however, the frequency of opinions on this topic has increased, and district courts have been very much split on this issue.  Some courts and commentators have dubbed this theory of regulation the “conduit theory,” with the idea being that the groundwater serves as a conduit between the point source and the water of the United States. 

Three district courts have recently rejected the conduit theory.  In 2014, in Cape Fear River Watch, Inc. v. Duke Energy Progress, Inc., the Eastern District of North Carolina confronted the issue of whether seepage from coal ash basins at one of the defendant’s power plants, alleged to contain contaminants and to carry those contaminants through groundwater into a lake, was a discharge prohibited by the CWA.  The court emphatically held that “Congress did not intend for the CWA to extend federal regulatory authority over groundwater, regardless of whether that groundwater is eventually or somehow ‘hydrologically connected’ to navigable surface waters.”  As justifications for its holding, it cited the CWA’s dearth of language actually referring to groundwater, its legislative history, and the 2006 Supreme Court case on the meaning of waters of the United States, Rapanos v. United States, in which the plurality opinion and Justice Kennedy’s concurrence appeared to reflect a limited construction of the term.  The following year, in 2015, the District of Maryland came to a similar conclusion in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Apex Oil Co., Inc.  The court held that “even if it is hydrologically connected to a body of ‘navigable water,’” groundwater is not regulated under the OPA, also citing the language of the CWA, its legislative history, and Rapanos.  Likewise, in 2013, in Tri-Realty Co. v. Ursinus College, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania concluded that “Congress did not intend either the CWA or the OPA to extend federal regulatory authority over groundwater, regardless of whether that groundwater is eventually or somehow ‘hydrologically connected’ to navigable surface waters.”

Other recent district court opinions, however, have come to the opposite conclusion.  In 2014, in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, the District of Hawaii confronted the issue of whether the County would need a NPDES permit to discharge waste into underground injection wells when plaintiffs contended that some of the injected wastewater eventually finds its way to the Pacific Ocean.  The district court concluded that “liability arises even if the groundwater…is not itself protected by the Clean Water Act, as long as the groundwater is a conduit through which pollutants are reaching navigable-in-fact water.”  The district court also cited Rapanos in support of its argument.  That case is now before the Ninth Circuit on appeal, and the Department of Justice recently filed an amicus brief supporting the argument that there is CWA jurisdiction where pollutants move through groundwater to jurisdictional surface waters if there is a “direct hydrological connection” between the groundwater and surface waters.  Likewise, in 2015, in Yadkin Riverkeeper v. Duke Energy Carolinas, LLC, the Middle District of North Carolina held that it had jurisdiction over claims where “pollutants travel from a point source to navigable waters through hydrologically connected groundwater serving as a conduit between the point source and the navigable waters.”  That court based its determination in part on the idea that taking an expansive view of the types of discharges which the CWA prohibits is most in line with the statute’s purpose.  A few weeks later in Sierra Club v. Virginia Electric and Power Co., the Eastern District of Virginia, citing Yadkin Riverkeeper, held that a CWA citizen suit against Dominion Virginia Power using the conduit theory should survive a motion to dismiss.

The line of cases rejecting CWA jurisdiction over discharges to groundwater which is hydrologically connected to surface waters of the United States gets it right.  As the legislative history proves, Congress considered regulating discharges to groundwater and rejected such an approach.  This decision is reflected in the language of the statute.  Moreover, in Rapanos, the Supreme Court restricted the factual scenarios under which a wetland could be considered a water of the United States, thus revealing that a majority of the justices on the Court favored a narrower jurisdictional reach under the CWA.  Finally, to accept the “conduit theory” would be to write the “point source” requirement out of the statute.  As described above, a discharge must come from a point source, which the CWA defines as a “discernible, confined and discrete conveyance.”  Groundwater seepage seems to be about as far from a “discernible, confined and discrete” source as it gets, resembling nonpoint source pollution like stormwater runoff.

Wisconsin’s Multi-Discharger Variance for Phosphorus – A Progress Report

Posted on June 8, 2015 by Linda Bochert

On May 5, 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Administration (WDOA) released its Preliminary Determination that compliance with the Wisconsin water quality-based effluent limitations (WQBEL) for phosphorus will cause “substantial and widespread adverse social and economic impacts on a statewide basis”, thus providing the foundation for availability of a statewide multi-discharger variance (MDV).

What brought this on?

In posts in 2011 and 2013, I described Wisconsin’s phosphorus reduction rule, including its compliance options of water quality trading and adaptive management. Recognizing that these innovative compliance alternatives to traditional construction are not viable for all dischargers, in 2014 Wisconsin enacted legislation to authorize a statewide MDV for those dischargers that cannot meet the WQBEL for phosphorus without a major facility upgrade.  Under the MDV, a point source will have more time to meet its phosphorus limitations.  However, during the extended period, they will be obligated to either implement nonpoint source reductions or to provide funding to counties to implement existing, but seriously underfunded, nonpoint source reduction programs.  The expectation is that most permittees will choose to fund their local county.  At $50/pound for the difference between the actual pounds of phosphorus discharged and the target value of 0.2 mg/L, we are talking about real money.

The MDV legislation required the WDOA, in consultation with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), to conduct a study to:

“determine whether attaining the water quality standard for phosphorus . . . through compliance with water quality based effluent limitations by point sources that cannot achieve compliance without major facility upgrades is not feasible because it would cause substantial and widespread adverse social and economic impacts on a statewide basis.”

Based on work conducted by ARCADIS, The University of Massachusetts Donohue Institute, and Sycamore Advisors, consultants to WDOA and WDNR, the Preliminary Determination concludes that, without this variance:

·         “almost 600 Wisconsin businesses will be impacted as they continue to work their way out of the recession”

·         Wisconsin communities will experience a minimum cost of “$3.4 billion in capital expenditures which will rise to nearly $7 billion when accounting for interest” to meet increased capital costs

·         Annual operations and maintenance (O&M) cost of $405 million along with debt service will “equate to $708 million annually”

·         In 2025 when the full impact of the costs will be felt, statewide impacts will result in:

o   4,517 fewer jobs

o   $283.3 million in foregone wages

o   $616.6 million reduction in gross state product

o   11,000 fewer Wisconsin residents

A hearing on the Preliminary Determination was held on May 12, and written comments are due by June 11.  The next step is for WDNR to submit a request to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to approve the MDV for phosphorus for Wisconsin.   Once implementation of the MDV begins, much-needed nonpoint source funding can begin to flow.

Additional relevant documents are accessible via the WDNR website

FAIR OR FOUL? THE BALL IS IN THE WATER

Posted on February 25, 2015 by Richard Sherman

As a result of a change in ownership of the Pawtucket, Rhode Island Red Sox, the AAA farm team for the Boston Red Sox, there are plans to move the team to Providence to a proposed new stadium hard by the Providence River. Apparently, the proposed stadium will be designed so that home runs hit over the right field wall will land in the River - comparable to home runs hit over the right field wall at the San Francisco Giants’ ball park into McCovey Cove in San Francisco Bay.

However, there is growing opposition to the proposed stadium location, among other things.  It is not inconceivable that opponents will take whatever steps they deem necessary to stop the use of this valuable urban redevelopment land for the stadium.  And the discharge of “discarded equipment” or “solid waste” – i.e, a baseball hit over the right field wall – into the River without a permit from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) could lead to an enforcement action against the team that no one would anticipate or want.

Such a notion is not as far-fetched as one might surmise.  I was involved in a matter a few years ago concerning skeet shooting activities where the “clay” targets were sent out over the water to be shot.  RIDEM took the position that such activities – even with non-toxic shot and biodegradable targets – required a permit under the Rhode Island Pollutant Discharge Elimination System regulations. And such permit was ultimately denied for various reasons.

So the team owners might want to talk to RIDEM about a permit for home run baseballs landing in the River. Given the proposed design of the stadium, this would not be a random occurrence but could occur on a regular basis due to the stadium design. Would the stadium be viewed as a point source? Otherwise, the team (or its fans) may have to patrol the River in a boat before and during each game to retrieve the home run baseballs or even put up a net on top of the wall.

Reducing Phosphorus to Wisconsin Waters – Another Tool in the Toolkit

Posted on July 2, 2014 by Linda Bochert

Imagine a nutrient reduction program that achieves financially manageable point source reductions while generating new cash for nonpoint source reductions, has bi-partisan support and requires no new state regulatory or fee programs.  Not possible you say?  Meet the Wisconsin Clean Waters, Healthy Economy Act, now codified at Wis. Stat. s. 283.16.

 In prior postings, I have described Wisconsin’s phosphorus reduction rule, including its compliance options of water quality trading and adaptive management. These are innovative alternatives to traditional construction but, unfortunately, not viable for all dischargers.

Now Wisconsin has another tool:  a multi-discharger variance, based on a finding of statewide social and economic impact, available to dischargers that cannot meet the water quality based effluent limitation (WQBEL) for phosphorus without a major facility upgrade.   Under the variance, a point source will still be required to decrease its phosphorus discharge -- meeting interim limitations of 0.8 mg/L, 0.6 mg/L, 0.5 mg/L, and the final WQBEL over four WPDES permit terms; and while doing so will make payments to the counties within its basin, providing cost-share dollars for nonpoint source phosphorus reductions.  At $50/pound for the difference between the actual pounds of phosphorus discharged and the target value of 0.2 mg/L, this is expected to generate real money -- which the counties will use to implement existing, but seriously underfunded, nonpoint source reduction programs.

Because point sources have installed treatment and reduced their phosphorus discharges by 90% or more to meet Wisconsin’s prior technology-based limit of 1.0 mg/L, the remaining primary contributors of phosphorus to our waters are nonpoint sources.  Yet getting funding for nonpoint source controls has been an ongoing, and largely unsuccessful, effort.  For context, the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District (GBMSD) currently removes about 95% of the phosphorus it receives; while the wastewater it discharges accounts for less than 3% of the total phosphorus to the lower Green Bay.  With an investment of $200 million in capital improvements GBMSD could increase its removal to 98% -- a reduction of less than 2% of the total phosphorus load to the bay.   Redirecting significant dollars to nonpoint source programs should be a game-changer.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) has been reissuing WPDES permits with phosphorus WQBELs and compliance schedules based on the phosphorus reduction rule that went into effect in December 2010.  The variance law went into effect on April 25, 2014, but won’t become available to WPDES permit holders until approved by USEPA.  The rule package is expected to be sent to USEPA for approval in January 2015, once the statewide economic impact analysis is completed. 

We have an opportunity for creative and meaningful point source and nonpoint source participation in reducing phosphorus discharges to our waters.  But time is of the essence.  Note to USEPA:  there is much to like here – please don’t let the moment pass us by.

EPA’s RDA Math: 3 + 9 ≠ 1

Posted on June 20, 2014 by David Van Slyke

In a surprising turn of events, on March 12, 2014 EPA Regions 1, 3 and 9 each simultaneously but separately responded, and each in a somewhat different way, to three virtually identical NGO petitions asking those Regions to use their Clean Water Act (“CWA”) Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require that stormwater discharges from impervious surfaces at existing commercial, industrial and institutional (“CII”) sites be permitted under CWA Section 402.  The three petitions were filed in July 2013 by several different and somewhat overlapping consortia of environmental organizations.

The three Regions’ responses were all signed by their respective Regional administrators, each was worded differently, and each included a somewhat similar -- yet somewhat different --explanatory enclosure that detailed the basis of each respective Region’s response.

EPA Region 3’s response is a flat out denial of the petition, citing existing tools and programs already in place to address stormwater pollution (e.g., MS4 permits, TMDL implementation and strong state programs).  The enclosure with the Regional Administrator’s letter denying the petition also states that “Region III declines to begin a process for categorical designation of discharges from CII sites to impaired waters since … the data supplied by the Petitioners to support the exercise of RDA is insufficient.”  The enclosure does note that if the existing programs ultimately do not meet their objectives, alternate tools, including RDA, will need to be considered.

Similarly, EPA Region 9’s response “declines to make a Region-wide designation of the sources” in the petition specific to Region 9.  That response also concludes in the enclosure that “we currently have insufficient information to support a Region-wide designation” of the CII sites specified in the petition, “that effective programs are already in place that address the majority of the sites identified in the petition,” and that the Region will keep designation in their toolbag as they “continue to evaluate currently unregulated sources of stormwater runoff.”

However, Region 1’s response states that it “is neither granting the petition … nor is it denying the petition.”  Instead, the Region is going to evaluate individual watersheds in its six states to look at the nature and extent of impairment caused by stormwater, and then “to determine whether and the extent to which exercise of RDA is appropriate.”

Given the identical language in certain portions of all three of the Regional response enclosures (e.g., Statutory and Regulatory Background; Petition Review Criteria), it is clear that EPA Headquarters was in the thick of the discussions regarding the responses to these three RDA petitions.  However, the apparent autonomy afforded each Region in determining how to deal with the issue is remarkable, and the discussions ultimately may have centered (as they often do at EPA HQ) on resource allocations nationally and within each Region. 

The responses of Regions 3 and 9 imply that their current respective paths, with time, will get results without diverting resources.  EPA Region 1 appears to more fully embrace RDA as a near-term viable tool to more aggressively control stormwater runoff from CII sites.  Apparently, the New England regulators’ successful experience with the Long Creek Watershed RDA and their efforts relative to the RDA process for the Charles River has only whetted their appetite for further candidate areas at which to employ this model to address impaired stormwater. 

Whether the NGOs will seek judicial relief from the denial of their Petitions, whether the states in the USA’s upper right hand corner will be supportive of EPA New England’s continued utilization of this tool, as well as how this issue ultimately will be played by EPA HQ, is fuzzy math.

Retroactive Stormwater Permitting – Coming to a Parking Lot Near You?

Posted on September 18, 2013 by David Van Slyke

On July 10, 2013, several different consortia of environmental organizations simultaneously filed petitions with three EPA Regional Offices asking the respective Regional Administrators to make determinations under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) that unpermitted stormwater discharges from impervious surfaces at existing commercial, industrial, and institutional sites be required to obtain stormwater permits and to conduct remedial actions.  The three petitions (Region 1, Region 3, Region 9), jointly filed by American Rivers, Conservation Law Foundation (“CLF”) and Natural Resources Defense Council (along with different regional NGOs on each petition), ask EPA to use its CWA Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require property owners in EPA Regions 1, 3 and 9 to capture and treat their stormwater runoff, which the petitioners allege is impairing waterbodies in those parts of the U.S.

Currently, in the absence of residual designation, only new construction projects, industrial sites falling within certain limited categories, and municipal stormwater sewer systems are required to obtain stormwater permits and manage stormwater runoff.  The Petitioners allege that stormwater discharged from impervious surfaces on commercial, industrial, and institutional sites are significant sources of pollutants – specifically, metals (lead, copper and zinc), sediments, phosphorus, nitrogen, and oxygen-demanding compounds that cause water body impairments – and therefore should be regulated.   

In 2008, CLF successfully petitioned EPA to use RDA to require stormwater discharge permits for existing impervious surfaces in an urban/mall area near Portland, Maine.  Property owners with an acre of more of impervious surface in that watershed are now required to control their stormwater runoff either on an individual basis (by retrofitting their property to control pollutants in runoff) or by obtaining coverage under a general permit and paying an annual fee per acre of impervious cover.  A similar NGO petition was granted by EPA Region I with regard to limited areas within the Charles River watershed near Boston.

The current petitions represent an effort to force expansion of EPA stormwater runoff control regulation in New England, the Mid-Atlantic States and California/Nevada/Arizona.  The petitioners recommend remedial actions such as conservation of natural areas, reducing hard surface cover, and retrofitting urban areas with features that detain stormwater runoff and treat pollutants in stormwater. 

EPA has 90 days to act on the petition, although action within this time frame is doubtful given the scope of the requests and the pace at which EPA has acted upon other much more limited RDA petitions.  With the very recent U.S. District Court decision in American Farm Bureau v. EPA upholding the Agency’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, however, EPA may feel somewhat more emboldened to embrace these broad-reaching petitions.  To date, however, the Agency has been mum regarding the petitions.

Logging Road Runoff Does Not Require an NPDES Permit: The Supreme Court (For Now) Defers to EPA’s Interpretation of Its Own Regulations

Posted on March 22, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

On Wednesday, in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the Supreme Court ruled that runoff from logging roads does not constitute a discharge from a point source that requires an NPDES permit.  The decision upholds EPA’s interpretation of its own regulations and overturns – what a surprise! – a 9th Circuit decision which had held that permits were necessary for logging runoff.

While EPA got the result that it wanted here, the decision may come back to haunt it in the long run.  The decision was largely based on what is commonly known as Auer deference, the rule that courts will defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations unless that interpretation is “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” After a thorough review of the various relevant regulations and a dip or two into the Oxford American Dictionary, and after noting that the agency’s interpretation need not be “the best one”, the Court found EPA’s interpretation “permissible.”

So, why should EPA be concerned?  Justice Scalia, at his most curmudgeonly, dissented on the ground that Auer should be overturned because it grants too much authority to agencies.  Justice Scalia rejected out of hand what I would have thought would be the simplest and most obvious defense of Auer:  that if courts defer to agency interpretation of statutes under Chevron, shouldn’t they, a fortiori, defer to agency interpretation of the agency’s own rules?  Apparently not.  To Justice Scalia, Chevron deference merely allocates to agencies, rather than courts, the primary duty of interpreting statutes, but allowing agencies to interpret their own regulations has the dangerous result of concentrating both the writing and interpretation function in one branch of government.

I don’t buy it, but it’s important to note that, while Justice Scalia was the sole dissenter, Justice Roberts wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Alito, stating that, while Decker was not the proper case to reassess Auer (a cynic might say that Justice Roberts reached that conclusion because EPA was aligned with industrial interests, rather than the environmental NGOs, in Decker), they were both open to reviewing Auer in the proper case.

Sounds like three votes to me.  Somewhat surprisingly, Justice Thomas joined neither the concurrence nor the dissent.  Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, so he clearly still believes in Auer.  Without Kennedy and with Thomas a cypher at this point, the votes to revisit Auer may not be there.  In any case, it is worth noting that Justice Breyer, who is Justice Scalia’s frequent sparring partner on administrative law issues, took no part in the decision.  I look forward to his spirited defense of Auer when the time comes.

What the Cluck?! Wastewater Discharge Permits for Air Pollutants?!

Posted on February 1, 2013 by Patricia Finn Braddock

Rose Acre Farms, Inc. et al. vs. NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, et al., decided January 4, 2013

On January 4, 2013, a North Carolina court held that an egg production facility could be required to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit solely on the basis that feathers and dust carrying ammonia nitrogen and fecal coliform, expelled from henhouses by ventilation fans, can be “pollutants” from a point source for which an NPDES permit is required if those pollutants reach waters of the State.  This is a case of first impression in which a court held that the impact of air emissions on water bodies could be regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

North Carolina egg producer Rose Acre Farms (RAF) appealed a decision by the NC Department of Water Quality (DWQ) that an NPDES Permit renewal required stringent new BMPs on the grounds that: 1) the DWQ had no authority to require an NPDES permit for a “no discharge” facility; and 2) even if DWQ had authority to require an NPDES permit, the DWQ had no authority to impose new BMPs because: a) the feathers, dust and litter expelled into the air from ventilation fans are not “pollutants” as defined in 33 U.S.C. §1362(6); and b) even if ammonia nitrogen, total inorganic nitrogen, total phosphorus and fecal coliform associated with the feathers, dust and litter are “pollutants” that enter waters of the State, that activity would be exempt under the agricultural storm water discharge exemption in 33 U.S.C. §1362(14).

The Court held that ammonia nitrogen and fecal coliform carried by feathers and dust expelled by ventilation fans in the henhouses are “biological materials”, a term included in the definition of a “pollutant” in the CWA.  In addition, the Court relied on EPA guidance letters to determine that feathers, dust and litter expelled from a henhouse by ventilation fans are discharges from a point source that could reach waters of the State.  Finally, the Court held that the agricultural storm water discharge exemption in 33 U.S.C. §1362(14) applies only to land application in accordance with site specific nutrient management practices and does not apply to pollutants from feathers, manure, litter or dust that are expelled from the RAF henhouses but are not entrained in irrigation water.

If courts in other jurisdictions follow suit, other sources of air emissions with the potential to reach a receiving water, such as power plants and industrial facilities, may be required to address the impacts of their emissions on those receiving waters in future NPDES permits, independent of required air permits.

SUPREMES CONFIRM NO DISCHARGE PERMIT NEEDED FOR POLLUTED WATER TRANSFERS WITHIN SAME RIVER

Posted on January 10, 2013 by Richard Glick

On January 8, 2013, the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously held that flow from an improved portion of a waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway—even if polluted—does not qualify as “discharge of pollutants” under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Although this case arises in the context of a municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4), it has major implications for dam owners everywhere.  The case reaffirms evolving doctrine that dams are not point sources requiring National Pollutant Discharge Elimination (NPDES) permits per Section 402 of the CWA.

In Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, environmental groups brought a CWA citizen suit against the District for violating the terms of the District’s NPDES permit to operate the MS4 facilities.  It was undisputed that water quality standards had repeatedly been exceeded for a range of pollutants, as measured at the District’s monitoring stations in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers.  The District collected storm water in concrete channels before discharging back to the river, and the monitoring stations were within the concrete channels.  It was also undisputed that many other upstream parties contributed to the contamination.  

Plaintiffs argued that since the monitoring stations were within the control of the District, the District had responsibility for meeting standards.  But that was not the issue for the Court.  Instead, the Court focused on whether a “discharge of pollutants” occurs when polluted water flows from one portion of a river, through an engineered improvement, and then back again to the same river.  The Court answered in the negative, citing its 2004 decision in South Fla. Water Management Dist., v Miccosukee Tribe.  In Miccosukee, the Court held that pumping polluted water from one part of a water body to another part of the same water body is not a discharge of pollutants.

This decision should come as welcome news to dam and hydroelectric plant owners.  Prior to Miccosukee and now LA County, the federal Courts of Appeal simply deferred to EPA judgment as to whether a dam could be said to “add” pollutants originating upstream when it passes them through penstocks or spillways to the river below.  The Supreme Court, however, has firmly established a rule of law that CWA Section 402 is implicated only where the upstream and downstream river segments are “meaningfully distinct water bodies,” a condition that will rarely exist for in-river dams.

Here's a Suprise -- A Cap-and-Trade System For Nutrients Would Substantially Decrease the Cost of Nutrient Reductions in Chesapeake Bay

Posted on May 8, 2012 by Seth Jaffe

Yesterday, the Chesapeake Bay Commission released a study showing that implementation of a nutrient trading system would dramatically reduce the cost to achieve nutrient reductions in Chesapeake Bay. Pardon me if I seem to be posting a lot of dog bites man stories recently.

Although it should not come as a surprise that a trading system would permit nutrient reductions to be attained most cost-effectively, the scope of the benefit is worth noting. If trading were allowed basin-wide, and among both point and agricultural non-point sources, costs are projected to decrease by about 50% of the non-trading compliance costs.

Since I have faced this issue in Massachusetts, I found it even more noteworthy that, if trading were expanded to include regulated urban stormwater sources, compliance costs are expected to be reduced by about 80% over the non-trading scenario. The report’s explanation is both simple and cogent:

Implementing urban stormwater BMPs tends to be a much less cost-effective way of reducing nutrient loads than agricultural BMPs.

To which I say, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I just hope that EPA does not limit its review of this report to the Chesapeake Bay itself, but considers its implications more broadly in the context of stormwater regulation in other areas.

IS IT SOMETHING IN THE AIR OR INSTEAD IN THE WATER? THE ROSE ACRE CASE

Posted on February 7, 2012 by Susan M. Franzetti

A rather surprising turn of events occurred recently in North Carolina, but the underlying reasons still remain unclear.  On January 11, 2012, the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (“EMC”), by a 4-3 vote, vacated an Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision on summary judgment that the Rose Acre egg farm’s airborne ammonia emissions are not subject to regulation under, and do not require, a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit.  The ALJ’s Decision and the parties’ pleadings are available here.The EMC remanded the matter back to the ALJ, August B. Elkins II, for a full evidentiary hearing.  Thus, the case raises anew the question of whether a discharge to air can constitute a point source discharge to navigable waters of the United States which requires a NPDES permit under the Clean Water Act,.  The answer may depend on whether such a discharge is found to remain “in the air” and not make its way by land “into the water.” 

On October 17, 2011, ALJ Elkin found that the Rose Acre facility does not discharge or have the potential to discharge process wastewater (or manure, litter) to navigable waters of the United States.  Judge Elkin’s relied on the March 2011 decision by the Firth Circuit Court of Appeals in National Pork Producers Council v. EPA, in which it held that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lacked the authority to require a NPDES permit for a facility that “proposes to discharge” or any facility that has not yet discharged into a navigable water of the United States.  Judge Elkin held that the DENR has no authority to require Rose Acre to obtain an NPDES Permit. 

Rose Acre is the site of 14 high-rise hen houses with a total of four million egg laying hens, located within the Tar-Pamlico River Basin in North Carolina.  Rose Acre operates what is called a “dry-litter facility” that does not directly discharge into any waters.  In 2009, before the Fifth Circuit’s decision in National Pork Producers Council that only CAFOs that actually discharge were required to secure a NPDES permit, Rose Acre applied for a NPDES permit.  The Division of Water Quality of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (“DENR”) issued a NPDES permit to Rose Acre, which included conditions requiring amendment of the facility’s Best Management Plan (“BMP”).  Rose Acre appealed, contending that it no longer needed an NPDES permit as well as challenging a number of the BMP conditions on the grounds that they exceeded the DENR’s regulatory authority.  The ALJ granted Rose Acre summary judgment.

Existing precedent supports the ALJ’s decision.  Both the Second and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that air emissions, even where there is atmospheric deposition into navigable waters, are not regulated by the Clean Water Act.  The Second Circuit so held in its 2000 decision in No Spray Coalition, Inc. v. City of New York, dealing with insecticide spray to eradicate mosquitoes.  In No Spray Coalition, the Second Circuit found that:
       While the trucks and helicopters used to spray insecticides may be point sources…they discharge the    insecticides into the atmosphere and not into navigable waters.  It would be stretching the language of the [Clean Water Act] well beyond the intent of Congress to hold that the de minimus incidental drift over navigable waters of a pesticide is a discharge from a point source into those waters. The fact that a pollutant might ultimately end up in navigable  waters as it courses through the environment does not make its use a violation of the Clean Water Act…To so hold would bring within the purview of the Clean Water Act every emission of smoke, exhaust fumes, or pesticides in New York City.

In 1997, the Tenth Circuit, in Chemical Weapons Working Group v. U.S. Department of the Army, refused to apply the Clean Water Act § 301(f) prohibition against disposal of chemical weapons into waters to smokestack emissions from a chemical weapons incinerator.  The Tenth Circuit emphasized the potential duplication of regulation by the Clean Air Act as well as finding that under § 301(f), Congress clearly intended to authorize the incineration of chemical weapons.  The Tenth Circuit also viewed the attempt to regulate stack emission under the Clean Water Act as contrary to plain old common sense.  (“Although Plaintiffs may be correct in arguing that an object may fly through the air and still be ‘discharged…into the navigable waters’ under the Clean Water Act, common sense dictates that [the] stack emission constitute discharges into the air – not water- are therefore beyond § 301(f) reach.”). 

Similarly, in American Canoe Assn. v. D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected allegations that the D.C. Sewer Authority violated its NPDES permit by failing to install odor controlling carbon filters on sewer vents.  The court found that attempts to control sewer gas or hydrogen sulfide fumes emanating from sewers in a NPDES permit are “unrelated to the general purposes of the CWA” and unenforceable obligations. 

During oral argument on its challenge to the ALJ Elkin’s Rose Acre decision before a panel of the EMC, the DENR’s counsel appears to have successfully changed the focus of the legal inquiry from what’s in the air to what’s in the water?  In its Exceptions to the ALJ’s Entry of Summary Judgment, the DENR contended that it had not attempted to regulate airborne emissions of ammonia.  Instead, it now contends that Rose Acre does discharge to navigable waters, citing the fact that “with a rain event the feathers and dust from the ventilations fans at [Rose Acre] are flushed into a stormwater pond and then into waters of the State.  The DENR further relied upon the comparative results of surface water monitoring taken before and the Rose Acre hens were stocked, which showed higher levels of ammonia nitrogen, total inorganic nitrogen, phosphorus and fecal coliform in surface water.  Thus, the DENR took the position that although pollutants may initially be discharged “into the air,” if they wind up on the ground and then make their way to a regulated surface water, there is a “point source” discharge that is subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act. 

Rose Acre contends that the DENR’s argument is a post hoc rationalization, without any supporting, credible evidence, to defend its decision to issue the NPDES permit.  In this regard, Rose Acre notes that the ventilation fans in question “are pointed at a ninety degree angle away from a storm water retention pond that is located over one-fifth of a mile away.”  Judge Elkin found that the stormwater pond point source theory was unsupported by the record.  Relying on the holding in National Pork Producers Council that a CAFO is not required to apply for a NPDES permit until there is an “actual discharge into navigable waters to trigger the CWA’s requirements”, Rose Acre contends that the DENR has failed to present any proof of such a discharge. 

If the Rose Acre case proceeds to ruling after the ordered full evidentiary hearing, it will be worth watching to see whether the ultimate decision is based on what’s in the air or what’s in the water (and how it got there). 

The Deck is Still Stacked in the Government's Favor -- Is This A Good Thing?

Posted on July 22, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, in City of Pittsfield v. EPA, the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed denial of a petition by the City of Pittsfield seeking review of an NPDES permit issued by EPA. The case makes no new law and, by itself, is not particularly remarkable.  Cases on NPDES permit appeals have held for some time that a permittee appealing an NPDES permit must set forth in detail in its petition basically every conceivable claim or argument that they might want to assert. Pretty much no detail is too small. The City of Pittsfield failed to do this, instead relying on their prior comments on the draft permit. Not good enough, said the Court. 

For some reason, reading the decision brought to mind another recent appellate decision, General Electric v. Jackson, in which the D.C. Circuit laid to rest arguments that EPA’s unilateral order authority under § 106 of CERCLA is unconstitutional. As I noted in commenting on that decision, it too was unremarkable by itself and fully consistent with prior case law on the subject.

What do these two cases have in common? To me, they are evidence that, while the government can over-reach and does lose some cases, the deck remains stacked overwhelmingly in the government’s favor. The power of the government as regulator is awesome to behold. Looking at the GE case first, does anyone really deny that EPA’s § 106 order authority is extremely coercive? Looking at the Pittsfield case, doesn’t it seem odd that a party appealing a permit has to identify with particularity every single nit that they might want to pick with the permit? Even after the Supreme Court’s recent decisions tightening pleading standards, the pleading burden on a permit appellant remains much more substantial than on any other type of litigant.

Why should this be so? Why is it that the government doesn’t lose when it’s wrong, but only when it’s crazy wrong? 

Just askin’.

A Combined Superfund and Stormwater Rant

Posted on July 7, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

Sometimes, the practice of environmental law just takes my breath away. A decision issued earlier last month in United States v. Washington DOT was about as stunning as it gets. Ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Robert Bryan held that the Washington State Department of Transportation had “arranged” for the disposal of hazardous substances within the meaning of CERCLA by designing state highways with stormwater collection and drainage structures, where those drainage structures ultimately deposited stormwater containing hazardous substances into Commencement Bay -- now, a Superfund site -- in Tacoma, Washington.  

I’m sorry, but if that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, then you’re just too jaded. Under this logic, isn’t everyone who constructs a parking lot potentially liable for the hazardous substances that run off in stormwater sheet flow? 

For those who aren’t aware, phosphorus, the stormwater contaminant du jour, is a listed hazardous substance under Superfund. Maybe EPA doesn’t need to bother with new stormwater regulatory programs. Instead, it can just issue notices of responsibility to everyone whose discharge of phosphorus has contributed to contamination of a river or lake.

The Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment regarding whether the discharges of contaminated stormwater were federally permitted releases. Since the Washington DOT had an NPDES permit, it argued that it was not liable under § 107(j) of CERCLA. However, as the Court noted, even if the DOT might otherwise have a defense, if any of the releases occurred before the permit issued – almost certain, except in the case of newer roads – or if any discharges violated the permit, then the Washington DOT would still be liable and would have the burden of establishing a divisibility defense. 

If one were a conspiracy theorist, one might wonder if EPA were using this case to gently encourage the regulated community to support its recent efforts to expand its stormwater regulatory program. Certainly, few members of the regulated community would rather defend Superfund litigation than comply with a stormwater permit.

You can’t make this stuff up.