COURTS FRIENDLIER TO EPA IN CLEAN WATER ACT CONTEXT THAN CLEAN AIR ACT?

Posted on September 19, 2012 by Rick Glick

In his blog post of August 27, Rob Brubaker reported on three cases in which the courts refused to grant deference to EPA decisions under the agency’s Clean Air Act authority.  EPA has fared a bit better in two recent Clean Water Act cases.

In Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District v. EPA case, the issue was whether EPA properly issued a stringent NPDES permit renewal to a sanitary district to control excessive nitrogen and phosphorus loading.  The First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the district’s argument that EPA should have waited until the district could complete its modeling effort, even though the model did not seem close to ready, and that EPA did not apply the best science.  The court declined to conduct a de novo review of EPA’s scientific analysis, limiting its inquiry to whether EPA followed the appropriate administrative process, based its decision on record evidence and clearly articulated its reasoning. So long as the criteria imposed are within the “zone of reasonableness”, the court will not strike it down.

Interestingly, the Upper Blackstone court also rejected the district’s argument that the new permit is improper because even with stricter criteria, it would not be sufficient to correct the eutrophication problem in the watershed.  The court set that aside, noting that the CWA contemplates multiple sources of contamination and no one party is responsible for cleaning up the river. 

The Upper Blackstone case is consistent with the U. S. District Court’s decision in the Northwest Environmental Advocates v. EPA, which I discussed in my March 23 post.  In the latter case, the court upheld EPA’s approval of Oregon’s numeric temperature standards, deferring to the EPA’s scientific expertise.  It took issue with the narrative Natural Conditions Criteria because it was so broad that the court concluded it supplanted numeric standards.  The court left the door open for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to rewrite the narrative standard for EPA review, based on the agencies’ own review of the science and a good explanation in support of the standard. 

It appears the theme running through three Clean Air Act cases cited in the Brubaker post is that the reviewing court found no authority supporting EPA’s action, or that EPA’s interpretation defied the plain meaning of the statute.  In the Clean Water Act cases, EPA overreaching on the Upper Blackstone permit or approval of Oregon water quality standards was not at issue.  The focus instead was on whether EPA demonstrated it properly considered the best science available under the authority it had, and then explained how it got to its decision.  In that context, EPA and state regulatory agencies will win more than they lose.

Scope of the Single Source Doctrine

Posted on September 17, 2012 by Richard Horder

Companies who wrestle with whether their various air pollution-emitting operations must be grouped together for Title V permitting purposes have received some assistance from a recent Sixth Circuit opinion.  In Summit Petroleum Corporation v. U.S. EPA, 2012 FED App. 0248P (6th Cir.), the court curtailed EPA’s expansive interpretation of a “single source” under the Clean Air Act. 

By rule, operations belong to a single source if they: (1) possess the same SIC codes; (2) are located on contiguous or adjacent land; and (3) are under common control.  See 40 C.F.R. § 52.21(b)(5), (6).  In addition, by policy, EPA has expanded the definition of “single source” to include not only the facilities that meet these three criteria, but also those facilities that provide support to an adjacent central operation.  See Preamble to the August 7, 1980 final Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) regulations, 45 FR 52676; Preamble to Revised Part 51 and Part 70, Draft, February 18, 1998.  And, EPA has taken a “functional” approach to the term “adjacent,” such that these support facilities need not even physically adjoin the main facility.  For example, EPA considered two aluminum smelter facilities adjacent, despite their 3.4 mile separation, due to the extensive truck traffic between the two properties.  See Letter from Steven C. Riva, U.S. EPA, to Robert Lenney, Alcoa Inc., Mar. 9, 2009.  See also Letter from Pamela Blakely, U.S. EPA, to Don Sutton, Illinois EPA, re: General Dynamics, Ordinance & Tactical Systems, Inc., Mar. 14, 2006 (several plants considered a single source, despite their 8-mile separation, because they met a “common sense notion of a plant”).

Therefore, when EPA recently considered whether Summit Petroleum Corporation’s gas wells and associated flares should be considered a single source with its gas sweetening plant, EPA did not find it dispositive that several of the wells were located over a mile from the plant and were separated by other intervening properties.  Instead, EPA noted that the wells and the plant were highly interdependent and under Summit’s common ownership.  As a result, the wells and plant met the “common sense” notion of a single facility.  See Letter from Cheryl Newton, U.S. EPA, to Scott Huber, Summit Petroleum Corporation, Oct. 18, 2010.

Summit challenged EPA’s single source determination, and the Sixth Circuit vacated that determination in Summit Petroleum Corporation v. U.S. EPA.  The court found it “unreasonable and contrary to the plain meaning of the term ‘adjacent’” that EPA equated “functional relatedness” with “physical adjacency.”  Id., at *2.  The court ordered EPA to use instead the “ordinary, i.e., physical and geographical” meaning of the word “adjacent.”  Id.

This decision will affect long-standing EPA policy and practice in making single source determinations.  As the Director of EPA’s Region VIII Air Program noted, there is “no evidence that any EPA office has ever attempted to indicate a specific distance for ‘adjacent’ on anything other than a case-by-case basis.”  See Letter from Richard Long, U.S. EPA, to Lynn Menlove, Utah Division of Air Quality, “Response to Request for Guidance in Defining Adjacent with Respect to Source Aggregation,” May 21, 1998, citing 45 Fed. Reg. 52,676, 52,695 (August 7, 1980) (“EPA is unable to say precisely at this point how far apart activities must be in order to be treated separately.  The Agency can answer that question only through case-by-case determinations.”).  Therefore, companies with “functional” single-source determinations should consider whether the recent Sixth Circuit decision could impact their status under the Title V program.

Defining a Stationary Source: How Much Aggregation is Too Much Aggregation?

Posted on September 13, 2012 by Theodore Garrett

One company may own a variety of “functionally related” facilities that are located on various contiguous and non-contiguous parcels of land, spread out over many square miles.  May all those “functionally related” facilities be considered “adjacent” and thus deemed to be one single major stationary source for Clean Air Act Title V permitting purposes?

A Court of Appeals recently weighed in on this issue.  On August 7, 2012, the Sixth Circuit vacated EPA’s determination that Summit Petroleum Corporation’s natural gas sweetening plant and gas production wells located in a 43-square mile area near the plant were “adjacent” and thus could be aggregated to determine whether they are a single major stationary source for Title V permit purposes. Summit Petroleum Corp. v. EPA, 2012 WL 3181429 (6th Cir., Aug. 7, 2012). The majority held that EPA’s position that “functionally related” facilities can be considered adjacent is contrary to the plain meaning of the term “adjacent,” which implies a physical and geographical relationship rather than a functional relationship.  The court also found EPA’s interpretation to be inconsistent with the regulatory history of Title V and prior EPA guidance.  The case was remanded to EPA for a reassessment with the instruction that Summit’s activities can be aggregated “only if they are located on physically contiguous or adjacent properties.”

Odor Regulations Stink

Posted on September 6, 2012 by Kevin Finto

Federal and state regulators have, over the years, frequently received complaints about odor.  Because the problem is a common one -- and because the origins of environmental law lie, in part, in the common law of public nuisance -- one might think we would have developed a consistent, practical way of regulating odor.  We haven’t.  No federal laws address odor, and the  various state laws and rules addressing odor are a hodge-podge of not fully-considered  ideas. 

This is likely due in part to the subjective nature of odor:  one person’s stench may be another person’s sweet smell of success.  More importantly, though, there is no commonly accepted way of quantifying or measuring odor.  If you cannot define something precisely and cannot agree on how to measure it, it necessarily follows that you will have a hard time regulating it.    There have been attempts to use odor measurement technologies including the scentometer or field olfactometer, but they ultimately rely on subjective human olfactory assessment.  While some states allow them as a guide, it does not appear that any statutory or regulatory scheme has adopted their use, and in fact, some states legislatures have adopted resolutions prohibiting their agencies from using such technologies for enforcement purposes.

So what is a regulator to do?  Consider the efforts made by one state, my beloved Commonwealth.  Virginia has tried to cram the square peg of odor into the round hole of the Best Available Control Technology (“BACT”) requirement of the Clean Air Act’s prevention of significant deterioration of air quality (“PSD”) preconstruction permitting program.  Applying the BACT process to odor may have sounded like a good idea back in the day when the PSD rules were first adopted and BACT was a sexy new acronym, but implementation of the BACT approach for odor has not been easy. 

At the outset, there is the difficulty that the BACT process applies only to things that are “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act.  Not everything that regulators want to regulate under the Clean Air Act, however, is considered a “pollutant” under the Act.  (If you doubt this, recall that it took many years of agency action and litigation and decisions by the United States Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court before it was generally accepted that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.)  And so it is with odor, which is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as  “a quality of something that stimulates the olfactory nerves or the stimulation itself.  In short, odor is definitely not a “typical” Clean Air Act pollutant.  (Interestingly, certain substances that are pollutants, also carry the name “aromatic” if they also happen to be organic compounds with a cyclical structure, but I digress.) 

Even if one can accept that “odor” is a “pollutant,” though, can the BACT process be applied to it?  Not really.  ”Best available control technology” means “an emission limitation based on the maximum degree of reduction of [a pollutant . . .] which the permitting authority . . . , taking into account energy, environmental, and economic impacts and other costs, determines is achievable . . . .” Clean Air Act § 169(3).  And typically BACT is determined through a top-down approach, i.e., one starts with the most stringent emission limitation theoretically achievable and then moves down from there only if the various costs of that approach are too high.  How can such an approach work for odor, though, when we do not have a unit measure for odor, much less a quantitative scale for objectionable scent.  Without such a measure or scale, it is effectively impossible to evaluate whether the environmental, economic or energy costs of reducing odor are reasonable or cost-effective.

So, if my beloved Commonwealth doesn’t now have the answer, let me cast my net more broadly and ask if anyone knows of a good practical scheme for regulating odor.

A VIEW FROM TEXAS: FIFTH CIRCUIT VACATES EPA DISAPPROVAL OF TEXAS FLEXIBLE PERMIT PROGRAM

Posted on August 30, 2012 by Patricia Finn Braddock

On August 13, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) disapproval of the Texas Flexible Permit Program (TFPP) had been arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, and unsubstantiated by substantial evidence on the record taken as a whole.  Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit granted the petition for review, vacated EPA’s disapproval of the Texas plan and remanded the matter to EPA.

The TFPP, a Minor new source review (NSR) permit program, had been submitted to EPA in November 1994 as a revision to the Texas State Implementation Plan (SIP).  The TFPP authorized modifications to existing facilities without additional regulatory review provided the emissions increase would not exceed an aggregate limit specified in the permit.

Despite the mandate in the Clean Air Act (CAA) that EPA approve or disapprove a SIP revision within eighteen months of its submission, EPA failed to make a determination on the TFPP for more than sixteen years.  By the time that EPA announced its disapproval, the State of Texas had issued approximately 140 permits under the TFPP.  And despite the excessive delay in announcing its disapproval of the TFPP, EPA found time to promptly notify flexible permit holders in Texas that their facilities were operating without a SIP-approved air permit and that they were risking federal sanctions unless SIP-approved air permits, requiring current Best Available Control Technology, were obtained.

The State of Texas and ten industry and business groups subsequently filed suit challenging EPA’s disapproval, which had been based on three primary arguments: 1) the program might allow major sources to evade major NSR; 2) the provisions for monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting (MRR) are inadequate, and 3) the methodology for calculating permit emissions caps lacks clarity and is not replicable.  Two of the justices on the 3-judge panel court rejected each of EPA’s contentions, with the third justice dissenting.

The majority rejected EPA’s contention that the TFPP allowed major sources to evade Major NSR because the TFPP includes three rules that affirmatively require compliance with Major NSR, and EPA could not identify a single provision in the CAA or the CAA implementing regulations that empowered EPA to disapprove a SIP that did not also contain an express negative statement that the Minor NSR permit could not be used to evade Major NSR.  Further the court noted that in its briefings, EPA had conceded that language explicitly prohibiting circumvention of the Major NSR requirements is not ordinarily a minimum NSR SIP program element.  75 Fed. Reg. at 41,318-19.

The majority also rejected EPA’s contention that the TFPP allowed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality executive director too much discretion in determining MRR requirements in a Minor NSR permit and that this amount of discretion is contrary to EPA policy.  The court found that EPA could not identify an independent and authoritative standard in the CAA or its implementing regulations that required MRR requirements to be specified in a SIP, rather than based on the size, needs, and type of facility authorized in a Minor NSR permit.  In addition, the court found that EPA failed to identify the purported policy of disfavoring “director discretion” in any comments that EPA submitted to the State of Texas on the TFPP regulations or in EPA’s disapproval of the requested Texas SIP revision.  Thus, the court held that the purported policy is not in the record on which the court must review EPA’s disapproval under the APA.  Although not a factor in its decision, the majority also noted that “other recent EPA action tends to not only undercut the assertion of such a policy but also to give the impression that EPA invented this policy for the sole purpose of disapproving Texas’ proposal.”

Finally, the majority rejected all of the arguments EPA gave for finding the TFPP to be deficient.   Among other things, the court concluded that EPA could not identify a single provision in the CAA or EPA’s Minor NSR regulations  that requires a state to specify the method of calculating emissions caps or to demonstrate replicability in its SIP or as a condition of approval of a state’s Minor NSR program.    Similar to its comments on EPA’s second contention, the majority also noted that EPA appears to have adopted the third test solely for application to the TFPP.

Due to the uncertain status of the TFPP and the risk of federal enforcement, most flexible permit holders requested that the flexible permits be altered to reflect that the authorization meets the air permitting requirements already in the EPA-approved Texas SIP.  Thus, EPA succeeded in gutting a Minor NSR permit program that it had wrongly disapproved, but it did not achieve any substantive changes in permit requirements.  Although the majority vacated EPA’s disapproval of the TFPP and remanded the matter to the agency, EPA is not likely to act and facilities in Texas are not likely to decide on whether to pursue new flexible permits until after the November election.

Three Strikes Against Deference in the Same Month

Posted on August 27, 2012 by Robert Brubaker

In split decisions over a two-week period on entirely different Clean Air Act issues, three different Circuits refused to give deference to EPA interpretations.

The merits of the three decisions – concerning the latitude States have in designing "minor" new source permitting programs approvable in their State Implementation Plans, the attributes that make a source "major" for Clean Air Act permitting purposes, and the limits on EPA's authority to manage emissions transported from one State to another – are far reaching and significant on many levels.  One interesting common thread underlying the merits is how the three different Circuits approached the doctrine of deference.

In Texas v. EPA, No. 10-60614 (5th Cir., Aug. 13, 2012), the Fifth Circuit vacated EPA's disapproval of a State Implementation Plan revision Texas submitted to make its Minor New Source Review rules more flexible (by using a "bubble" concept for reducing the types of minor changes needing separate preconstruction permits).  The Court dismissed EPA's position that the Texas rules conflicted with EPA's policy against State Implementation Plan provisions that allow "director discretion."  The majority concluded "[t]here is, in fact, no independent and authoritative standard in the CAA or its implementing regulations requiring that a state director's discretion be cabined in the way that the EPA suggests" and "[t]therefore, the EPA's insistence on some undefined limit on a director's discretion is . . . based on a standard that the CAA does not empower EPA to enforce."

In Summit Petroleum Corp. v. U.S. EPA, Nos. 09-4348 and 10-4572 (6th Cir., Aug. 7, 2012), the Sixth Circuit vacated EPA's determination that, because they are "functionally related," natural gas production wells are "adjacent" to the gas processing plant to which the output of the wells is pipelined.  The practical consequence is that if the wells and the plant are "adjacent," their potential emissions would be aggregated and would exceed the threshold level requiring a Title V permit, whereas if they are not "adjacent," they would be separately subject to less onerous "minor" source permitting requirements.  The Court relied upon the dictionary definition, etymology, and case law on the meaning of "adjacent" to conclude that "adjacency is purely physical and geographical."  The Court wrote "we apply no deference in our review of EPA's interpretation of ['adjacent']" since the word is "unambiguous," and "we hold that the EPA has interpreted its own regulatory term in a manner unreasonably inconsistent with its plain meaning . . .."

In EME Homer City Generation v. EPA, No. 11-1302 (D.C. Cir., August 21, 2012), the D.C. Circuit vacated EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), also known as the Transport Rule, requiring 28 States to curtail sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from one State deemed by EPA to "contribute significantly to nonattainment" of National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone or fine particulate matter in another State, or to "interfere with maintenance" of such standards in another State.  The Court held that the way in which EPA quantified allowable emissions from the various States exceeded the Agency's statutory authority, and that EPA's preemptive implementation of State Implementation Plan requirements was "incompatible with the basic text and structure of the Clean Air Act" and contrary to the "first-implementer role" reserved for the States by the Act.  The Court concluded that EPA's interpretation of the "good neighbor" provision – one of more than 20 State Implementation Plan requirements in Section 110(a)(2) of the Act – offended the principle that Congress does not "hide elephants in mouseholes" (citing the Supreme Court's 2001 decision in Whitman v. American Trucking Ass'ns).  EPA's interpretation of its authority to promulgate Federal Implementation Plans before giving the States an opportunity to submit State Implementation Plans after EPA determined the level of "good neighbor" emission reductions required was rejected on both step 1 and step 2 Chevron grounds.

Three swallows do not a summer make, but if Courts continue to delve more deeply into the merits of EPA decisionmaking under the Clean Air Act and similar statutes in this era of Congressional gridlock, the consequences could be profound for supporters and opponents of EPA actions.

Judicial Activism and Judicial Restraint: The 5th Circuit Vacates EPA's Disapproval of Texas SIP Revisions Concerning Minor Sources

Posted on August 14, 2012 by Seth Jaffe

On Friday, in Texas v. EPA, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated EPA’s decision rejecting Texas’s SIP revisions that would have implemented (and did implement, for 16 years) a Flexible Permit Program for minor NSR sources. While genuflecting at the altar of deference to agency decisionmaking, the Court concluded that EPA’s rejection was not based on either EPA factual determinations or on its interpretation of federal, as opposed to state, law.  The Court also concluded that EPA had not in fact relied on the reasons given in its briefs, and refused to defer to EPA’s “post hoc rationalizations.” The Court thus gave essentially no deference to EPA’s decision.

The interesting part of the decision was the dissent by Judge Patrick Higginbotham, a Reagan appointee. Judge Higginbotham took the majority to task for “not faithfully applying the deferential arbitrary and capricious standard.” He then persuasively demonstrated why the Texas program, as written, did violate the Clean Air Act.

After dismantling the majority’s logic, he then addressed the practical heart of the case – EPA’s 16-year delay in rejecting the SIP revisions. While criticizing EPA for the delay, Judge Higginbotham pointed out that there is a statutory remedy for EPA’s failure to rule on the revisions – a suit under section 7604(a)(2) of the CAA – a remedy never pursued by Texas.

What’s important about this case is that is an excellent example of why judicial restraint is so often “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.” (It’s been a while since I’ve quoted Shakespeare.) When a federal agency unwinds state policy after a sixteen-year delay, it’s very tempting for courts to engage in judicial activism, if that’s what it takes to go upside the agency’s head. The harder course, requiring more discipline, is to remain true the ideal of judicial restraint – that a court is not to substitute its judgment for an agency acting pursuant to an act of Congress. Therefore, Judge Higginbotham’s conclusion seemed worth note:

"As so often with political debate in search of a legal forum, its utility lies largely in pleasure of expression. Angst over perceived federal intrusion into state affairs ought be eased by the reality that laws enacted by Congress are laws of the States. Congress passed the Clean Air Act and made it enforceable by the EPA. The State was represented in that decision by two senators and its thirty-two other elected members of Congress. It also bears mentioning that its former governor was resident in the White House for eight of the years in passage here. The Clean Air Act is not foreign law. I dissent."