Court Upholds Multi-State Chesapeake TMDL

Posted on September 25, 2013 by Ridgway Hall

On September 13, in a 99 page decision, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania upheld EPA’s multi-state Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries against a broad range of challenges brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation and six other farm industry trade associations. Six environmental organizations led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, plus four municipal water associations led by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, intervened in support of EPA.

The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is not the first to cover multiple states, but it is by far the largest, covering 64,000 square miles in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia.  It requires substantial reductions of nitrogen (25%), phosphorus (24%) and sediment (20%) by 2025 to  meet water quality standards.  Because of the interstate nature of the long-standing pollution problems, after more than two decades of collaborative but unsuccessful efforts, the states agreed in 2007 that EPA should develop the TMDL. It was issued in 2010 and included allocations for each of 92 tidal segments which, after consultation with the states, were further allocated among states, watersheds and sectors (such as agriculture, wastewater, stormwater, etc). During the process, each state developed its own Watershed Implementation Plan (“WIP”), specifying  wasteload allocations (“WLA’s”) for point sources, load allocations (“LAs”) for nonpoint sources, and identifying the regulations, programs and resources that would be used to achieve the required reductions. For more on this TMDL see "EPA Issues Biggest TMDL Ever for Chesapeake Bay Watershed" and ELI Environmental ForumThe Chesapeake Bay TMDL” (May/June 2011). 

The plaintiffs alleged that (1) the TMDL was an unauthorized “implementation” of  allocations by EPA, (2) requiring WIPs exceeded EPA’s authority, (3) EPA’s use of watershed and related models in setting the allocations was an abuse of discretion, and (4) there was insufficient public notice.  In addressing these challenges, the court first held (as several others have) that a TMDL is not self-implementing, but is an “informational tool”, developed collaboratively by EPA and the states under CWA Section 303(d), and implemented primarily by the states.

Turning to the merits, the court upheld EPA’s definition of a TMDL for a waterbody or segment as the sum of all WLAs and LAs plus natural background.  It also upheld  EPA’s authority to establish a multi-state TMDL,  when the affected states either fail to do so or ask EPA to do it (both occurred here), including limitations on sources in upstream states to achieve compliance with water quality standards in downstream states. It held that EPA’s “holistic” or “watershed-wide approach” was consistent with the broad national goals of the CWA to “restore … our Nation’s waters.” In reaching this result the court emphasized the collaborative efforts of the Bay states and EPA starting in 1983 to address the problems of interstate pollution, transported by rivers and tides, and their consensus that an EPA-led multistate effort was needed.

The court further held that the WIPs – new tools in the TMDL context – were authorized as part of the “continuing planning process” under CWA Section 303(e). This process is initiated by the states to achieve water quality goals, and is subject to review and approval by EPA. Because EPA had advised the states in letters what it expected in terms of general content and specificity in the WIPs, but left the details to the states, the court held EPA did not exceed its authority. The court also relied on CWA Section 117(g) - a Chesapeake Bay-specific provision - requiring EPA to “ensure that management plans are developed and implementation is begun by [all the affected states] to achieve and maintain…” the applicable water quality goals.

The plaintiffs also challenged EPA’s requirement that each WIP contain “reasonable assurances” of timely and effective implementation, and EPA’s use of “backstop” allocations where EPA determined that a WIP provision was deficient.  “Backstops” involved requiring NPDES permits from previously unregulated sources. The court held that EPA could properly require “reasonable assurance” under CWA 303(d)(1), which requires a TMDL must be “established at a level necessary to implement the applicable water quality standards.”  The court upheld “backstops”, which were only used in 3 instances, as a reasonable exercise of EPA’s authority under CWA 303(d)(2) to ensure that the contents of the TMDL are designed to achieve the applicable water quality goals.

The court upheld EPA’s use of models as scientifically supported and within EPA’s discretion.  It rejected the challenge to adequate notice and opportunity for public participation since (1) a 45 day public comment period had been provided, (2) there had been hundreds of public meetings during the more than 10 year development of the TMDL, and (3) plaintiffs showed no prejudice from the fact that some details of the modeling were not available until after the comment period.

The court held that TMDL establishment and implementation involves “cooperative federalism” between the states and EPA, and that the Chesapeake Bay TMDL properly reflects the shared responsibilities and necessary interactions, despite some bumps along the road. While EPA exerted strong leadership, the court held that it did not unlawfully usurp the states’ implementation functions. The court noted  the preserved authority of the states to implement nutrient trading and offsets, and to set or revise source-specific loading allocations.  In conclusion, there is a lot of thoughtful analysis, as well as precedent, in this decision, which makes it an excellent resource for CWA practitioners.