Posted on February 24, 2017
Here’s a thought exercise: I’ll give you a budget of 25 words (including conjunctions, articles, and all the other little ones). You use up a word by either deleting, adding, or replacing one in an existing federal environmental or natural resources statute. How much could you transform the field of practice with just those 25 word edits? The answer is, quite a lot.
When we think of statutory reform, we usually think big, right on up to “repeal and replace.” But after more than 25 years of very little legislative action on federal environmental and natural resources statutes—the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, Sustainable Fishing Act, and the recent Toxic Substances Control Act reforms are a few exceptions since the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments—much rides on the accumulations of judicial and agency interpretations of the meaning of a word here and a phrase there. As we enter a period of potential legislative volatility in this field, therefore, the rifle shot may be just as much in play as the nuclear bomb.
Like any statutory reform, rifle shots can make regulatory statutes either more or less regulatory. For example, one could add “including carbon dioxide” or “excluding carbon dioxide” in just the right place in the Clean Air Act and with those three words put an end to a lot of debate and litigation. Given the current political climate, however, it’s reasonable to assume any rifle shot would be aimed at reducing regulatory impacts. But even with just 25 words in the clip, one could transform the impact of several regulatory programs before running out.
For example, delete the words “harm” and “harass” from the statutory definition of “take” in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (16 U.S.C. 1532(19)) [LINK 1] and you have a very different regulatory program. Much if not most of the land use regulation impact under the ESA stems from the inclusion of those two words; without them, the ESA’s prohibition of unpermitted take would restrict actions like hunting, killing, shooting, and wounding, but could not reach indirect “harming” from habitat modification. Of course, the interagency consultation program under Section 7 (16 U.S.C. 1536(a)(2)) [LINK 2] would still be in place, prohibiting federal agencies from taking actions that “jeopardize” the continued existence of species. But just add “substantially” before “jeopardize” and the practical effect of that prohibition is greatly reduced.
I’ve managed to transform the ESA, vastly reducing its regulatory impact, with just three word tweaks. Twenty-two to go. Here are some more examples. I’ll let readers evaluate the impacts.
· Speaking of evaluating impacts, the environmental impact review process of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can really slow things down (42 U.S.C. 4332(B)). [LINK 3] To “streamline” the process, add the word “direct” before “environmental impact” in subpart (C)(1), which would eliminate the current practice of requiring analysis of indirect and cumulative impacts, and delete subpart (C)(iii), which requires agencies to evaluate “alternatives to the proposed action,” to remove a factor that bogs down much NEPA litigation. (Six more words down, sixteen to go.)
· Heard all the commotion about which “waters” are subject to the Clean Water Act? Clear that up by changing the statutory definition of “navigable waters” (33 U.S.C. 1362(7)) [LINK 4] to read “waters of the United States subject to navigation.” That would be pretty extreme—it would remove most wetlands from jurisdiction—so one could control how far jurisdiction extends over wetlands by adding and their adjacent wetlands.” This would draw the line much closer to navigable water bodies than current interpretations reflected in Supreme Court opinions and agency regulations—Rapanos and the Water of the United States Rule become history. (Seven more words down, nine to go.)
· And if you also want to put to rest the question whether the Clean Water Act applies to groundwater, edit the front end of the definition to read “surface waters.” (Another word down, eight to go.)
· The Circuits are split over whether the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s list of prohibited activities (16 U.S.C. 703(a)), [LINK 5] which includes to “take” or “kill,” sweeps within the statute’s reach any “incidental” taking or killing—injury or mortality that is not the direct purpose of the activity, such as strikes by wind turbines. Easy to solve! Add the word “purposeful” before the list of prohibited activities. (Another word down, seven to go.)
· And, while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and add “excluding carbon dioxide” to the Clean Air Act definition of “air pollutant” (42 U.S.C. 7602(g)). [LINK 6] Adios, Clean Power Plan. (Three more words down, leaving just four to go.)
I’ll leave it to readers to think about how to use the last four words. The point here is that the system of environmental and natural resources law has become quite fragile. With Congress out of the picture for so long, courts and agencies have built up an interpretation infrastructure under which a single word or phrase often carries a tremendous burden of substantive and procedural program implementation. As a consequence, a mere tweak here and there can have dramatic effects on the program.
Granted, anyone who closely follows the statutes tweaked above will quickly appreciate the impact of any of the tweaks, and I’ve chosen some powerful examples unlikely to slip by any such experts. But subtler tweaks buried deep in a larger bill could more easily fly below the radar.
It remains to be seen whether Congress takes this rifle shot approach or goes bigger. Rifle shots don’t eliminate or “gut” entire programs, which may be the current congressional appetite, but the above examples show the potency of this approach. I for one will be keeping my eyes out for rifle shots in bills every bit as much as I will be following the big bomb reform efforts. Do not underestimate the power of the tweak!
Posted on February 2, 2017
The state of Oregon has turned up the heat in Hells Canyon. The burning question, so to speak, is whether a state can require passage and reintroduction of anadromous fish as a condition of certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act for relicensing of an existing hydroelectric project. The issue gets hotter because the particular project involved -- the Hells Canyon Complex (“HCC”), owned by Idaho Power Company (“IPC”) -- is located on the Snake River, which forms the border between Oregon and Idaho. The State of Oregon has issued a draft 401 certification with detailed conditions for passage and reintroduction of anadromous fish into a tributary on the “Oregon side” of the river. Idaho is opposed to reintroduction of any fish species above Hells Canyon Dam, leaving IPC in the middle.
Making a very long and complicated story short, for more than 13 years IPC has been working with state and federal agencies and stakeholders toward relicensing of the HCC. The project consists of three developments, each with a dam, reservoir, and powerhouse. In 1955, FERC issued a 50-year license with recognition that construction of the project would block fish passage and eventually lead to extirpation of anadromous fish above the dams. As a result, the initial FERC license included mitigation conditions to offset fish impacts, and additional mitigation was provided under a subsequent settlement agreement.
After more than a decade of studies, meetings, and negotiations, it looked like IPC and the states were on track for general agreement as to the terms and conditions of compatible, but separate 401 certifications to be issued by Oregon and Idaho – except as to the issue of fish passage and reintroduction. Despite Idaho’s objections, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) issued its draft 401 certification for public comment on December 13, 2016. The draft relies on a number of existing state water quality standards as the legal basis for requiring fish passage and reintroduction, though none of the standards is directly on point.
Public comments on the proposed 401 certification are due February 13. Objections relating to the fish passage and reintroduction conditions are likely to focus on whether such conditions are generally within the scope of 401 certification for FERC-licensed hydroelectric projects, and, if so, whether Oregon’s specific water quality standards provide a sufficient regulatory basis for the proposed ODEQ action. The comments may also raise questions about the baseline for mitigation and whether impacts to fish due to construction of the project – as opposed to on-going operations -- have already been fully mitigated. And then there’s the question of Idaho’s opposition.
ODEQ will consider the comments before issuing a final 401 certification decision. If the states are unable to resolve their differences over the passage and reintroduction issue, it’s likely to get a lot hotter in Hells Canyon.
And finally, a disclosure that the HCC relicensing issues hit close to home for ACOEL: I am part of a team representing IPC, and other College members are very much involved on both sides of the issue. There’s a lot we won’t be able to talk about at the next annual meeting!
Posted on January 27, 2017
So said Mark Twain (actually, he didn’t), and now the same can be said for EPA’s rule exempting water transfers from NPDES permitting requirements. When I last addressed this topic nearly three years ago in “Ashes to Ashes; Waters to Waters – The Death of EPA’s Water Transfer Rule”, a federal district court had just vacated the rule seeking to clarify EPA’s position that transfers of water between navigable bodies of water do not require NPDES permits. See Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Inc. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency (SDNY, 3/28/2014).
Displaying a prescience that would make Carnac the Magnificent proud, I closed that earlier post with the assertion that “the only certainty is that litigation over the Water Transfer Rule will continue to flow.” I am therefore personally pleased to report that flow it has, the Second Circuit having now overturned the district court decision in a 2-1 opinion issued on January 18, 2017. The majority opinion upheld EPA's interpretation of the Clean Water Act to exempt water transfers, finding it was a “reasonable construction of the Clean Water Act supported by a reasoned explanation” and was entitled to deferential review under the Supreme Court’s Chevron doctrine.
Not content to rest on my laurels, I’m going to make another prediction. The Second Circuit won’t agree to rehear en banc and, if certiorari is sought, the Supreme Court won’t take the case. All of which means that, except perhaps for one last post to gloat yet again about my ability to see into the future, this is the last you’ll hear about litigation over the water transfer rule.
Posted on January 26, 2017
President Trump wasted no time making good on his promise to reverse President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move U.S. energy policy towards cleaner energy sources. On January 24 Trump signed two executive memoranda, one inviting TransCanada to resubmit its application to build the 800,000 barrel a day Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast; the other directing the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the review and approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to carry approximately 500,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to oil markets in the United States. But a close reading raises some sticky legal and economic issues that will have to be resolved before the oil starts flowing. [LINKS to Keystone and DAPL Memos]
In announcing the Keystone Memo, Trump said that approval was contingent on TransCanada’s willingness to “renegotiate some of the terms” – including perhaps a commitment to use US steel and a share in any profits. The problem is that tar sands oil is not only the dirtiest fuel on the planet, it’s also the most expensive to extract. To be profitable oil prices need to be above $80 per barrel; today they sit around $52, and it is unlikely they will rise much higher in the foreseeable future given the competition from shale oil and the fracking boom that is flooding the market in the US. The break-even point for Bakken shale oil is $29 per barrel. Seventeen major oil sands projects were canceled after oil prices crashed in 2014, as companies took major losses. Major investors in the oil sands have begun to leave, including Norway-based Statoil, which pulled out of the oil sands in December 2016. So cutting a deal to the President’s liking may be harder than it looks.
Assuming the deal goes down, the Keystone Memo issues several directives to clear the way for the project. It directs the State Department to make a final decision within 60 days of the date TransCanada re-submits its application, and it further specifies that “to the maximum extent permitted by law” the final supplemental EIS issued in 2014 shall satisfy the requirements of NEPA as well as the consultation requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and “any other provision of law that requires executive department consultation or review.” The Keystone Memo also directs the Corps of Engineers to use Nationwide Permit 12 to summarily authorize the stream crossings needed to complete the project. These fast track measures are sure to be tested in court by the opponents who are not about to let their hard won victory be snatched away without a furious fight—in the courts as well as in the streets. While courts have ruled that the presidential permit itself is not reviewable, there is presumably no bar to challenging the decisions of the Corps and the Department of Interior that are necessary to complete the project.
The DAPL Memo directs the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of the Corps of Engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL, including easements or rights-of-way to cross Federal areas under section 28 of the Mineral Leasing Act.” The Memo also instructs the Secretary to consider whether to rescind the memorandum issued by the Obama administration requiring preparation of an EIS on DAPL’s request for an easement to cross Lake Oahe, and to deem the previously-issued Environmental Assessment sufficient to satisfy NEPA.
The Standing Rock protest over DAPL has become an historic confrontation that has united an Indigenous land-and-water movement and climate activism to confront a fossil-fuel corporation protected by a militarized police force. At one point in December thousands of veterans arrived to provide a safe space for the protesters who call themselves “water protectors.” Litigation filed by the Standing Rock Tribe and other tribes challenging the Corps’ issuance of permits under the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act is pending in federal district court in the District of Columbia. Judge Boasberg denied a preliminary injunction but has yet to rule on the merits of the case. At the moment, the court is considering DAPL’s motion for summary judgment to declare that the project already has all of the approvals it needs and the Corps should not be able to reverse its earlier decision that an EIS was not required. Though the Justice Department has vigorously opposed this move, it will be interesting to see whether the Trump administration adopts a different posture. In any event, the Tribe has raised serious questions about whether the Corps properly evaluated threats to its water supply intake and alternative routes that would lessen the risk. One of the allegations invokes environmental justice concerns arguing that the project was re-routed away from Bismarck in response to concerns about threats to its water supply. The Tribe has also raised novel questions about whether granting the easement would violate treaty rights under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
At the hearing on DAPL’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Boasberg acknowledged the uncertainty about what the new administration might do but observed that “It’s not my business to guess.” For now the rest of us will have to guess at what the final outcome of this epic confrontation that has galvanized indigenous peoples from all over the world will be.
Posted on January 25, 2017
As I reflect on my tenure as Assistant Attorney General, I have been especially proud of the Division’s cooperation with state and local governments in matters encompassing all aspects of the Division’s work – affirmative and defensive, civil and criminal. When we combine forces with our state and local partners, we leverage the resources of multiple sovereigns and, ultimately, achieve more comprehensive results for the American people.
In 2016, we had unprecedented success in civil enforcement with states, due primarily to the record‐breaking settlement with BP in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill litigation. In April 2016, the trial court entered the final consent decree in the litigation, thereby resolving civil claims of the United States and the five Gulf Coast states against BP. The claims arose from the 2010 blowout of the Macondo well and the resulting massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP will pay the U.S. and the five Gulf States more than $20 billion under the consent decree, including: 1) a $5.5 billion civil penalty; 2) more than $8.1 billion in natural resource damages; 3) $600 million in further reimbursement of clean‐up costs and some royalty payments; and 4) up to $6 billion in economic damage payments for the Gulf States or their local units of government. This resolution is the largest settlement with a single entity in Department of Justice history; it includes the largest civil penalty ever awarded under the Clean Water Act, the largest ever natural resources damages settlement and massive economic damages payments to our state partners.
And, just this month we announced our plea agreement and civil consent decree with Volkswagen. In addition to the combined $4.3 billion penalty, corporate felony plea, and individual prosecutions, the previous civil consent decrees also provide $2.7 billion to all states for projects they select from the CD options to offset NOx pollution caused by the illegal car emissions. When the various settlements with VW are combined, and their value estimated, it approaches $20 billion.
Our state connections were vital to our criminal work. Cooperation ranged from providing training to state partners to close coordination in wildlife and pollution investigations. Prosecutors from ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section presented at several events where state investigators learned of opportunities and methods for developing wildlife and environmental crimes cases, either in concert with federal counterparts or independently. Our prosecutors also trained their counterparts on the Division’s recently acquired authority over worker safety matters.
But environmental enforcement is not where ENRD’s work with state and local partners ends. We also are working with our counterparts at the state and local level in a relatively new area of responsibility for the Division – civil and criminal enforcement of federal laws that provide for humane treatment of captive, farmed, and companion animals across the United States. In July 2016, ENRD and the Office of Justice Programs co-hosted a roundtable discussion on Animal Welfare Enforcement. We were joined by more than 100 leaders in the area, including representatives of federal agencies, states and local governments, as well as researchers, scientists and others in the animal welfare field. The roundtable allowed us to focus collectively on information sharing, organizational strategies and cooperation in animal welfare enforcement.
Finally, ENRD continued to develop and enhance relationships with our state counterparts by participating in several forums designed to share experiences and expertise. In the spring of 2016, for example, I had the honor of being the first ENRD Assistant Attorney General invited to speak to the annual meeting of the Environmental Council of the States, the national association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders. I joined colleagues from EPA, New Mexico and academia to discuss innovative ways to measure the success of environmental enforcement. ENRD attorneys also partnered with the National Association of Attorneys General to present webinars on topics of mutual interest, such as e‐discovery, and share expertise regarding federal bankruptcy law in the context of environmental cases. Finally, just this week we collaborated with the National Association of Attorneys General to publish Guidelines for Joint State/Federal Civil Environmental Enforcement Litigation, which is now available on the DOJ website.
As I depart from the Division, we are in good shape. In December, the Division accepted an award by the Partnership for Federal Service, which ranked the ENRD as the #2 best place to work in all of the federal government, as well as the best place to work in the Department of Justice. With more than 300 Federal agency subcomponents competing, our new rank places us well into the top 1% of all Federal workplaces.
Posted on November 18, 2016
Q: What two things do Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and George Pataki have in common?
A: (1) None of them ever claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax; and
(2) Every one of them promised to revoke the Obama Clean Power Plan (CPP) if elected.
How Bad Is Bad?
I’ll come back to the CPP. But first, the question so many are asking: how terrible is Mr. Trump’s election going to be for the environment? Let me begin by reminiscing. In 1980, I was in EPA’s Office of General Counsel when the “killer trees” President was elected. I don’t remember actual tears in the office the next day, but people were pretty distressed and many were threatening to leave the agency.
Things really did look bad for a while. Remember Anne Gorsuch Burford, Rita Lavelle, James Watt and many others with similar agendas? But then remember the intense and angry public reaction when it appeared that core environmental protections for clean air and clean water were in jeopardy. These people were forced out of office. William Ruckelshaus returned at the top of EPA, and the ship was essentially righted.
With that history as a guide, I don’t think the Trump Administration (disclosure: I neither supported nor voted for him) will try to make any significant changes to the vast bulk of protective air, water, waste, etc. rules now on the books. I once calculated there are over 20,000 pages of EPA regulations in the C.F.R. That’s millions of words. I think that after four years of a Trump Administration, fewer than 1% of those words will be deleted or amended.
Now back to the CPP. I am pretty sure that will fall into the 1%. Others have written about what might happen to the CPP on judicial review and I won’t try to add to that guessing game. The key thing to remember is that the CPP is currently stayed by the Supreme Court, and that stay will remain in effect until any final Supreme Court disposition – which will be many months from now.
There is a good chance that the Trump EPA will not wait for any final judicial review but rather will soon undertake a rulemaking to revoke at least the more far-reaching and controversial elements of the CPP (i.e., the provisions “going beyond the fence-line” to force wind and solar in place of coal). As explained in one of my recent blogs, there would be no need to develop a new factual record in such a rulemaking. So this process may take a couple of years, but for much of that time the CPP will remain blocked by the Supreme Court stay and the earliest CPP standards aren’t scheduled to take effect until 2022.
As also explained in my blog, thanks to a recent 3-0 D.C. Circuit opinion authored by Judge Merrick Garland (and the Supreme Court precedent that he relied upon), those in the Trump EPA should have smooth sailing on judicial review if they take the time to clearly articulate their policy and legal rationale.
And what would public reaction be to such actions? Cutting the most controversial parts out of the CPP would not jeopardize the legal basis for core clean air and water protections as the early Reagan cutbacks were perceived to do. So even if revisions to the CPP provoke lots of noise from traditional public interest groups opposing any cut-backs in GHG regulation, that noise may not resonate much with a general public much more interested in jobs, health care, and public safety.
Public reaction could be far different, though, if – as indicated in some press reports -- the Trump EPA were to go beyond significantly cutting back on the CPP and deploy a nuclear option: reversing the Obama EPA’s 2009 GHG “endangerment finding.” By doing this EPA would be trying to free itself of any obligation to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. (Note: I am not addressing the more limited August 2016 aircraft emission endangerment finding.)
I think such a reversal would be extremely unwise. First, I think it would be far more vulnerable on judicial review than a significant CPP cutback. Reversing the finding would require the building of a massive new factual record. And with the growing scientific consensus that man-made GHGs are causing at least some adverse effects, even conservative judges may have difficulty upholding such a decision.
Second, having EPA in effect deny there is any climate problem from air emissions could more easily foment the kind of intense and angry public reaction that the early Reagan EPA suffered. Recall from the above that none of the other Republican candidates gunning for the CPP ever said global climate was a Chinese hoax.
Finally, I believe such a reversal is entirely unnecessary as a legal matter. As long as EPA keeps some form of GHG controls on the books, it will have carried out its legal obligations stemming from the endangerment finding. Nothing in the CAA or any judicial decision requires that the degree of GHG regulation be driven by an endangerment finding. There is nothing remotely like the MACT mandate to achieve limits being met by the best 12% in a source’s category. In short, EPA does not need to touch the endangerment finding to accomplish the goal of amending the CPP to remove its more far-reaching and controversial provisions.
More Targets and Concerns
Getting back to the basic question of how much the Trump EPA may change things, there will certainly be more rules targeted in the 1% -- the Obama Clean Water Rule for almost sure. And there are valid concerns about how much EPA’s funding and enforcement efforts may be cut back even if most rules stay on the books. Spoiler alert: I may do blogs on these topics soon.
But my main concern for people at the Trump EPA now is that they remember what happened when the Reagan EPA tried to de-regulate in a manner that was perceived as threatening core values of clean air and clean water.
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 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 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 August 5, 2016
In Mingo Logan Coal Company v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit recently upheld EPA’s use of its “veto” authority over an Army Corps of Engineers permit to fill jurisdictional waters for the Spruce Mine in West Virginia. Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act provides EPA authority to “deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification).” This authority was described by the court in Mingo Logan as “a mighty power and its exercise will perhaps inevitably leave a permittee feeling as if the rug has been pulled out from under it.”
The salient facts in Mingo Logan involved a Section 404 permit for a “mountaintop removal” coal mine. After a 7-year EIS, the Corps issued the permit in 2006. EPA expressed reservations with the permit, but communicated to the Corps that it “had no intention of taking [its] Spruce Mine concerns any further from a Section 404 standpoint.” But times change – and so do administrations – and in 2009 EPA asked the Corps to suspend, revoke, or modify the permit. After the Corps refused to do so, EPA began the 404(c) process, which led to a final decision in January 2011 to withdraw the specification for two (of three) disposal sites covered under the permit.
On appeal, Mingo Logan argued that EPA did not consider the company’s sunk reliance costs (a point EPA conceded). Even though 404(c) does not explicitly denote costs as a factor in EPA’s decision-making, the court stated that an agency “should generally weigh the costs of its action against its benefits.” Unfortunately for Mingo Logan, the court found that the company had not appropriately raised the issue of reliance costs before EPA or the district court.
The Mingo Logan decision is a bitter pill for developers, interjecting an additional element of uncertainty into a Section 404 regulatory process that is already challenging and subject to shifting political winds. As noted at this site, the agencies and courts have struggled with the jurisdictional reach of Section 404 and when a party can challenge the government’s actions. Key take-aways from Mingo Logan include:
First, 404(c) battles are not for the faint of heart. EPA has successfully used the authority twelve times since the passage of the CWA. Every attempt to stop EPA through litigation has ultimately failed.
Second, Mingo Logan clarifies that a Section 404 permit can be withdrawn years after its issuance. The decision will serve to undermine confidence in the integrity of the permitting process in the United States.
Last, Mingo Logan highlights the inherent problems of shared EPA/Corps responsibility. Defenders of 404(c) will note that this “mighty authority” is rarely used. Although true, it misses the point that the effects of 404(c) are, in fact, regularly felt by the regulated community. The ability to say “no” gives EPA significant leverage – behind the scenes -- in the permitting process.
Query whether we would have a better, and more effective, Section 404 permitting process if all of the authority and responsibility for permitting were vested in a single agency – either the Corps or EPA.
Posted on July 18, 2016
In June 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers released a rule to define “waters of the United States,” affectionately referred to as WOTUS. This definition goes to the scope of federal jurisdiction over wetlands and other waters that are not obviously free flowing and navigable. An in-depth analysis of the rule can be found here.
The rule hasn’t exactly played to rave reviews. It attracted over one million comments. Many complained the rule represents gross government overreach. Others criticize the rule for not being protective enough. The rule is also the subject of multiple challenges around the country, some filed before the rule was officially released. The lead case is now pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Court of Appeals accepted original jurisdiction over a challenge to the rule based, in part, on the failure of the rule’s “distance limitations” to comport with good science, and on the inconsistency of the final rule with the proposed rule. The Court of Appeals thought enough of petitioners’ arguments that it stayed implementation of the new rule.
On this first anniversary of the rule, we thought a brief summary of the controversies surrounding the rule and current status might be helpful. The attached article, newly published in The Water Report, attempts to do just that. Many thanks to Diego Atencio, a third year law student at the University of Oregon and a summer associate at DWT, for his assistance in writing the article.
Posted on June 15, 2016
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.
Posted on June 2, 2016
The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) fairly boasts that it lived up to its tag line “Rescuing Liberty from Coast to Coast” by following its 2012 Supreme Court victory in Sackett v. EPA with its May 31, 2016 victory in United States Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc. In both Clean Water Act cases the PLF represented the property owners on appeal, arguing that the particular agency action was final, subject to judicial review. The Supreme Court agreed both times. Some boasting is due.
The particulars of each case flow from disputes about the scope of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act. Neither case resolved the merits issue. Both cases considered only whether the dispute may be brought to court by challenging a pre-enforcement agency action.
The Sacketts filled in a half acre of their 2/3-acre residential lot near Priest Lake, Idaho with dirt and rock in preparation for building a home. EPA served a compliance order advising the Sacketts that they violated the Clean Water Act by filling in waters of the United States without a Section 404 dredge and fill permit. The Order unilaterally prevented further construction and required the Sacketts to remove the fill material then restore the wetland pursuant to an EPA Restoration Work Plan.
The Sacketts tried to challenge EPA’s order, but were told by EPA, then by the District Court, that they had no right to challenge the order until EPA attempted to enforce it. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, setting the Sacketts squarely on the horns of their dilemma. Disregarding the unilateral compliance order subjected the Sacketts to potential fines of up to $75,000 per day. Complying with the order meant spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to carry out the EPA’s Restoration Work Plan, and never getting to build on their property.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert, and Justice Scalia, authoring the decision concluded that the compliance order met the Bennett two-prong test for reviewability: (1) no adequate remedy other than review under the Administrative Procedures Act, and (2) no statute, in this case the Clean Water Act, precluded that review. Justice Alito, concurring, declared: “The position taken in this case by the Federal Government -- a position that the Court now squarely rejects -- would have put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees.” And later: “In a nation that values due process, not to mention private property, such treatment is unthinkable.”
The Hawkes case, four years later, is the same song, second verse. This time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued the offending decision -- a jurisdictional determination (JD) that waters of the United States existed on 530 acres from which Hawkes Co., Inc. (Hawkes) and its affiliated companies planned to mine for peat. Hawkes provides peat for golf courses and sports fields, and mining peat on the 530 acres would extend the life of its peat mining business by ten to fifteen years. The USACE concluded that the property was connected by a “relatively permanent water” (a series of culverts and unnamed streams) that flowed into the Middle River and then into the Red River of the North, a “traditional navigable waterway” about 120 miles away. With the USACE determination, Hawkes needed a permit to harvest peat. Moreover, USACE advised that before it issued a permit, it would require additional hydrological and functional resource assessments and an evaluation of upstream potential impacts, the cost of which would exceed $100,000.
Using an analysis, discussed in my colleague’s post Sending a Message on WOTUS, the Court concluded that a JD satisfied both prongs of Bennett, and affirmed the Eighth Circuit, remanding the Hawkes companies to District Court of Minnesota - Minneapolis with the right to litigate the jurisdictional determination, same as the Sacketts. When the Supreme Court ruled favorably on their case the Sacketts were remanded to the Idaho District Court, where their court battle continues. Presumably, the battle will continue with the Hawkes’ companies as well.
At the heart of each battle is whether or not the property actually contains “Waters of the United States.” Following the procedural “yellow brick road” won’t get anyone out of Oz -- not until a clear definition of waters of the United States emerges.
Posted on June 2, 2016
The May 31 decision in Hawkes may be less important for what it says about the reviewability of jurisdictional determinations (JDs) under the Clean Water Act than for what is says about the far more consequential stakes in the pending challenges to EPA’s Clean Water Rule (aka WOTUS), which will undoubtedly find its way to the Court following a decision by the Sixth Circuit which is expected before the end of the year.
Contrary to my prediction the Court did rule (unanimously) that JDs are final agency actions subject to review under the APA. In an opinion penned by Chief Justice Roberts the Court upheld the conclusion of the Eighth Circuit but substituted a different test for finality, one that emerged during oral argument and one that introduces a novel and perhaps questionable rationale. The key question was whether JDs have legal consequences. In roundabout fashion, Roberts concluded they did because a positive finding of jurisdiction meant that the applicant was denied the advantage of a negative determination (or NJD). That had the effect of denying the applicant the benefit of what Roberts called a “safe harbor” provision contained, not in the statute or implementing regulations, but in a 2015 Memorandum of Agreement between by EPA and the Corps. Roberts read the MOA as creating a legal right – similar to a covenant not to sue – binding the government to a five year commitment not to revisit the NJD, an interpretation the government vigorously disputed as pointed out by Justice Ginsburg in her concurrence.
This ruling could have significant practical effects. Since 2008 the Corps and EPA have issued over 400,000 JDs of which approximately 40% were approved JD’s. Under the MOA, the process has become more formal, giving it at least the appearance if not the reality of adjudication. The formality of the process convinced a number of the Justices, particularly Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan, that JDs should be considered final actions under the Abbott Labs test. They emphasized the fact that under the MOA the agencies were not simply giving advice to the public. This raises the question whether the agencies may want to rethink the MOA and consider revising the safe harbor provision to make clear it is not binding. The Solicitor raised this possibility during the oral argument (transcript at p 16 lines 16-25).
Pursuing that route, however, runs the risk of further alienating Justice Kennedy and the government can ill afford to lose his potentially crucial vote if and when the Clean Water Rule reaches the Court. In his concurring opinion, joined not surprisingly by Justices Alito and Thomas, Kennedy went out of his way to take several pot shots at the Clean Water Act and the agencies implementation of it. Referring to “the Act’s ominous reach” Kennedy said it “continues to raise troubling questions regarding the Government’s power to cast doubt on the full use and enjoyment of private property throughout the Nation.” During oral argument Kennedy offered the view that the CWA is “arguably unconstitutionally vague, and certainly harsh in the civil and criminal penalties it puts into practice.”
It is too soon to write the obituary for the Clean Water Rule. But Kennedy’s vote is more in doubt now than when he authored the concurring opinion in Rapanos showing a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of both the values enshrined in the CWA and the constitutional issues it raises. Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test, widely accepted as controlling by the lower courts, was the blueprint EPA and the Corps used to write the rule. Given these more recent statements, that may not be enough to win his approval. The fate of the rule may well depend on how soon and by whom the vacancy on the Court is filled.
Posted on May 26, 2016
Until recently I thought state water quality agencies with oversight from EPA were in charge of setting water quality standards, establishing mixing zones and similar activities. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has recently served notice that they are the new water quality sheriffs in the Northwest.
It is well known that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a comprehensive statute designed to protect and recover species that are listed as threatened or endangered by the USFWS and the NMFS (collectively referred to as "Services"). One of the key provisions in the ESA is 16 USC § 1636 (or Section 7) which requires federal agencies to utilize their authority to conserve endangered species and "consult" with the Services whenever any discretionary action by the acting federal agency has the potential to negatively affect listed species. Many no doubt recall the decision in TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153 (1978), in which the Court determined that Section 7 required the acting federal agency to halt construction of an almost completed major federal dam in Tennessee (Tellico Dam) because it would undisputedly eradicate the listed species ("snail darter" or perch), destroy its critical habitat and therefore completion of the dam would clearly violate Section 7.
What constitutes "jeopardy" and destruction of critical habitat under the ESA has come a long way since TVA v. Hill. The ESA gets a lot of play in the Northwest principally because there are large tracts of undeveloped federal land, human population is relatively sparse and pristine waters combine to provide habitat for many listed aquatic species such as various species of salmon. In one of the latest iterations of what constitutes "jeopardy" the Services recently determined in lengthy biological opinions that EPA's approval (some twenty years ago) of Idaho's Water Quality Standards for certain toxic metals would jeopardize the continued existence of listed species and destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.
There is a question whether EPA approval of state water quality standards pursuant to § 303 of the CWA is the type of discretionary action that even triggers ESA consultation. See National Association of Homebuilders v. Defenders of Wildlife, 551 U.S. 644 (2007) (Section 7 consultation not required when EPA authorizes state to take over the NPDES permit program under § 402 of the CWA). Assuming consultation is required, certainly there had been a lengthy delay in EPA and the Services completing consultation on Idaho Water Quality Standards (over twenty years). This delay gave rise to a lawsuit brought by regional environmental groups to force completion of the consultation. See Northwest Environmental Advocates v. The National Marine Fisheries Service, USDC Idaho, Case No. 1:13-cv-00263-EJL.
But, how can a water quality criteria jeopardize the existence of an endangered species? Water quality standards under the CWA are goals set by each state for state surface waters. NPDES Permits must meet state water quality standards and if a waterbody is not meeting standards then states must adopt pollution control plans (known as "TMDLs") to bring a waterbody into compliance also subject to EPA approval. Adoption of criteria itself cannot jeopardize endangered species or for that matter save a species.
If one has the fortitude to power through the Services lengthy biological opinions, which were not subject to public comment, there is no finding that state standards at or below the current criteria are actually harming any fish in the thousands of miles of streams and rivers affected by the opinions. Rather the Services take exception to the somewhat esoteric process by which EPA develops national recommended water quality criteria (which most states ultimately follow). The Services found EPA should have relied on different laboratory studies in developing and approving criteria. Many of the laboratory studies the Services relied upon do not even involve listed species.
The Services then suggested that EPA must adopt replacement criteria (or force the state to do so) over the next few years via reasonable and prudent alternatives (or RPAs) to avoid the alleged jeopardy. An RPA are measures "suggested" by the Services under Section 7 to the action agency (EPA) to avoid jeopardy which are within the discretion of the action agency and are economically and technically feasible. In the meantime the Services suggested as an interim measure how EPA should regulate point source dischargers into waters containing listed species by meeting certain prescribed mixing zones.
While the Services’ jeopardy determinations on Idaho's standards are a far cry from jeopardy to the snail darter caused by the construction to the Tellico Dam many years ago, the Services’ findings may go unchallenged. It is likely EPA will follow the RPA's (or force the state to do so) for fear of another lawsuit that EPA is violating its obligations under Section 7. Likely the only remedy to question the Services’ jeopardy determinations may be a judicial challenge to the Biological Opinions. However in such a challenge a court would be forced to evaluate the "science" behind the Services’ jeopardy determinations which is an area the courts generally will defer to the expertise of the agency. One would think that EPA or state water quality agencies would be the experts on setting water quality standards and establishing mixing zones, but the Services will no doubt claim they are now the experts. Sometimes it is difficult to figure out who is in charge.
Posted on May 20, 2016
August 25, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The many planned celebrations and observances provide an opportunity for everyone to become reacquainted with these great outdoor spaces and reflect on the world around us. As your summer plans take shape, be sure to visit FindYourPark.com and try to visit at least one national park. I invite you to share photos of your travels in the comments section of this post, and perhaps ACOEL can find a place for the collection of images of its members enjoying these national treasures.
As I reflect on the Park Service’s anniversary, I observe that it presents a chance for me – and for all environmental lawyers – to take stock of where we have been as a profession. Why – and how – we do what we do? What challenges will the next 100 years hold?
I issue this charge, in part, to carry on the conservation legacy of Henry L. Diamond. Henry was a founder of my firm, Beveridge & Diamond, and a great environmental lawyer and mentor to many (including myself). Sadly, we lost Henry earlier this year.
Henry and many others like him paved the way for our generation to be stewards of the planet and the environmental laws that govern our interactions with it. We have made progress, but new challenges have emerged. Easy answers, if they ever existed, are fewer and farther between. So what, then, does the future hold for the next generation of environmental lawyers?
Future generations of lawyers would do well to focus on the funding mechanisms that are critical but often overlooked components to achieving our most important environmental and sustainability goals. As an example, we can look to the past. Early in his career, Henry Diamond assisted the Chairman of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, Laurance Rockefeller, in editing the Commission’s seminal report, Outdoor Recreation for America, that was delivered to President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Among the Commission’s more significant recommendations was the idea to use revenues from oil and gas leasing to pay for the acquisition and conservation of public lands. Congress took action on this recommendation, creating the Land & Water Conservation Fund in 1965 as the primary funding vehicle for acquiring land for parks and national wildlife refuges. While the fund has been by all accounts a success in achieving its goals, much work remains to be done and the fund is regularly the target of budgetary battles and attempts to reallocate its resources to other priorities. Today, the four federal land management agencies estimate the accumulated backlog of deferred federal acquisition needs is around $30 billion.
I expect climate change will dominate the agenda for the young lawyers of our current era. They will need to tackle challenges not only relating to controlling emissions of greenhouse gases, but also adaptation resulting from climate change. Sea level rise, altered agricultural growing seasons, drought and water management, and other issues will increase in prominence for this next generation.
We can expect our infrastructure needs to continue to evolve – not only replacing aging roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, ports, and airports, but also the move to urban centers and the redevelopment of former industrial properties. Autonomous vehicles and drones also pose novel environmental and land use issues. These trends will require us to apply “old” environmental tools in new ways, and certainly to innovate. As my colleague Fred Wagner recently observed on his EnviroStructure blog, laws often lag developments, with benefits and detractions. Hopefully the environmental lawyers of the future will not see – or be seen – as a discrete area of practice so much as an integrated resource for planners and other professions. Only in this way can the environmental bar forge new solutions to emerging challenges.
The global production and movement of products creates issues throughout the supply chain, some of which are just coming to the fore. From raw material sourcing through product end-of-life considerations, environmental, natural resource, human rights, and cultural issues necessitate an environmental bar that can nimbly balance progress with protection. As sustainability continues its evolution from an abstract ideal to something that is ever more firmly imbedded in every aspect of business, products, services, construction, policymaking and more, environmental lawyers need to stay with their counterparts in other sectors that are setting new standards and definitions. This area in particular is one in which non-governmental organizations and industry leaders often “set the market,” with major consequences for individuals, businesses, and the planet.
Finally, as technology moves ever faster, so do the tools with which to observe our environment, to share information about potential environmental risks, and to mobilize in response. With limited resources, government enforcers are already taking a page from the playbooks of environmental activists, who themselves are bringing new pressures for disclosures and changes to companies worldwide. With every trend noted above, companies must not underestimate the power of individual consumers in the age of instantaneous global communication, when even one or two individuals can alter the plans and policies of government and industry.
Before Henry Diamond passed away, he penned an eloquent call to action that appeared in the March/April edition of the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Forum (“Lessons Learned for Today”). I commend that article to you. It shares the story of the 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty and how a diverse and committed group of businesspeople, policymakers, and conservationists (some of whom were all of those things) at that event influenced the evolution of environmental law and regulation for the decades to come. Laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and others have their roots in that Conference. In recognition of his lifetime of leadership, Henry received the ELI Environmental Achievement Award in October 2015. The tribute video shown during the award ceremony underscores Henry’s vision and commitment to advancing environmental law. I hope it may inspire ACOEL members and others to follow Henry’s lead.
These are just a few things I think the future holds for environmental lawyers. What trends do you predict? How should the environmental bar and ACOEL respond?
Posted on April 5, 2016
More than 40 years after the Corps and EPA first adopted regulations to define their jurisdiction over the discharge of dredged and fill materials into waters of the United States under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the agencies find themselves mired in litigation over the Clean Water Rule, their most recent attempt at rulemaking on the issue. 80 Fed. Reg. 37054 (June 29, 2015). The Clean Water Rule seeks to address issues raised by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Rapanos case. Challenges to the Clean Water Rule have been filed in eight Courts of Appeal and ten District Courts. Not only is there disagreement over the substance of the rule, there is disagreement over which court or courts have jurisdiction to review challenges to the rule. This disagreement pushes the resolution of the substantive issue far to the future.
It is discouraging to have this kind of uncertainty over a major piece of environmental legislation. While some people may see benefit in uncertainty, the lack of clarity on which court has jurisdiction needlessly wastes time and money that could be put to better use. Especially if the eventual ruling is that District Courts have jurisdiction, questions about the validity of the Clean Water Rule will linger for years.
To address the procedural issue, the Congress should pass legislation to specify a single court to hear all challenges to the Clean Water Rule. Under other laws, such as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Congress had the wisdom to specify clearly a single court with authority to review agency regulations--the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. Similarly, Section 307(b) of the Clean Air Act gives the Court of [Appeals for the District of Columbia exclusive jurisdiction over challenges to regulations of national effect. Judicial review using a single court to review all challenges is orderly and efficient. By contrast, the flurry of lawsuits challenging the EPA and Corps new Clean Water Act regulations is costing the parties millions of dollars just to figure out which court (or courts) should review the challenges to the regulations. Is it too much to ask to have the Congress end the procedural jousting and specify a single court for judicial review?
Posted on February 8, 2016
The ecosystem services framework focuses on the economic values humans derive from functioning ecosystems in the form of services—such as water filtration, pollination, flood control, and groundwater recharge—rather than commodities—such as crops, timber, and mineral resources. Because many of these services exhibit qualities similar to public goods, ecologists and economists began forging the concept of ecosystem services valuation in the 1990s as a way of improving land use and resource development decision making by ensuring that all relevant economic values were being taken into account when making decisions about the conservation or development of “natural capital” resources. Research on ecosystem services exploded onto the scene in ecology, economics, and other disciplines bearing on environmental and natural resources management.
The policy world quickly picked up on the ecosystem services idea as well. In 1998 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report emphasizing the importance of the nation’s natural capital. The United Nations embraced the concept at the global scale with its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, in which it explicitly tied ecosystem services to human prosperity.
By contrast, uptake in law has been slow to come. Almost two decades after the PCAST report, it is fair to say that the ecosystem services concept has made few inroads into achieving “law to apply” status in the form of legislative and regulatory text. In one prominent example, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint regulation in 2008 overhauling their policies on compensatory mitigation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the agencies adopted a watershed-scale focus and declared that compensatory mitigation decisions would take losses to ecosystem services into account. See 33 C.F.R. 332.3(d)(1). This and the few other federal initiatives to use ecosystem services in decision making, while on the rise, have been ad hoc and uncoordinated. But a more coherent federal ecosystem services policy appears on the horizon.
On October 7, 2015, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and Office of Science and Technology (OST) issued their Memorandum for Executive Departments and Agencies on Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making (the Memorandum). The Memorandum “directs agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investments, and regulatory contexts.” The goal of doing so is “to better integrate in Federal decision making due consideration of the full range of benefits and tradeoffs among ecosystem services associated with potential Federal Actions.” The scope of the policy goal is broadly stated to include all federal programmatic and planning activities including “natural-resource management and land-use planning, climate-adaptation planning and risk-reduction efforts, and, where appropriate, environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other analyses of Federally-assisted programs, policies, projects, and regulatory proposals.” To facilitate agencies in achieving its policy goals, CEQ will prepare a guidance document outlining best practices for: (1) describing the action; (2) identifying and classifying key ecosystem services in the location of interest; (3) assessing the impact of the action on ecosystem services relative to baseline; (4) assessing the effect of the changes in ecosystem services associated with the action; and (5) integrating ecosystem services analyses into decision making. In the interim, agencies have until March 30, 2016 to submit documentation describing their current incorporation of ecosystem services in decision making and establishing a work plan for moving toward the goals of the policy directive. Id. at 4. Meanwhile, CEQ has assembled a task force of experts from relevant agencies to craft a best practices implementation guidance, which will be subject to interagency review, public comment, and, by November 2016, to external peer review consistent with OMB’s information quality procedures and standards. Once the guidance is released, agencies will adjust their work plans as needed. The Memorandum also acknowledges that “ultimately, successful implementation of the concepts in this directive may require Federal agencies to modify certain practices, policies, or existing regulations to address evolving understanding of the value of ecosystem services.”
ACOEL Fellows should watch the Memorandum’s implementation over the next year closely. In particular, incorporation of best practices for ecosystem services impact assessments under NEPA would project the ecosystem services framework into state, local, and private actions receiving federal agency funding or approval. To be sure, there is plenty of work to be done before one can evaluate the Memorandum’s impact on the mainstreaming of the ecosystem services framework into environmental law. Significantly, the timeline of the Memorandum directives will deliver the best practices implementation guidance in the final months of the Obama Administration, leaving it to the incoming administration to determine where to take it. Nevertheless, simply by declaring the incorporation of ecosystem services into federal agency decision making as an Executive policy and laying out the tasks and timelines for doing so, the issuance of the Memorandum has done more to advance the ecosystem services framework as a legal concept than has any previous initiative.
Posted on December 22, 2015
Mark Twain once wisely warned:
We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it -- and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits on a hot stove‑lid. She will never sit on a hot stove-lid again -- and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.
While trying to clear the collapsed entrance to the inactive Gold King Mine in Colorado, EPA contractors in August 2015 inadvertently released over 3 million gallons of metal-laden wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River. Partly because of EPA’s involvement, and partly because high iron levels turned the Animas River orange for several days, the incident generated considerable controversy and attention.
Subsequent views about what we should learn and do as a result of this spill have been quite divergent and, in this writer’s view, off the mark.
As might be expected during this election season, one response was protracted administration-bashing Congressional hearings, aimed at the heads of both EPA (criticizing the Agency for not better controlling its contractor at this remote mountain site) and the Department of the Interior (which has no responsibility for the site but issued a requested report on the spill). Not surprisingly, these blame-and-shame hearings were not focused on, and did not produce, constructive information or plans for preventing such events in the future. However, they did cause EPA remedial efforts and related U.S. transactions at inactive mine sites to be put on hold, which was counter-productive for dealing with this problem.
At the other extreme, some environmental advocates have asserted that this wastewater release from an inactive mine supports their view that U.S. mining law should be fundamentally overhauled, including to provide for substantial royalty payments to the government and imposition of major financial assurance requirements on miners under CERCLA Section 108. Those calls ignore the fact that this historic site pre-dates subsequently adopted mine reclamation and bonding requirements imposed on current mines under state and federal law. They also represent a sea-change in mining law that goes far beyond this inactive mine issue, would occur at a difficult economic time for the mining industry, and is unlikely to gain traction in this polarized political climate.
Congressional reactions reflect those widely disparate positions, with new proposed bills ranging from a narrow proposal for grants to mining colleges to study the problem (H.R. 3734) to a broad mining reform act that imposes substantial new fees and royalties (H.R. 963). One other proposed bill would freeze DOI’s Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Program at $17 million per year and institute a “Good Samaritan” program to encourage third-party volunteer clean-ups at AMLs (H.R. 3843), and another would create a foundation to accept donations for AML cleanups, with one-time matches from the federal government of up to $3 million per year (H.R. 3844).
Many of these proposals are either political posturing or over-reaching, and others do not focus on or effectively address the problem of abandoned mines. Moreover, they either are unlikely to go anywhere in Congress, or would accomplish little if they do.
However, there are effective steps we should take if we learn the following key lessons provided by the Gold King spill:
· There are tens of thousands of abandoned mines like Gold King that are already discharging polluted wastewater to thousands of miles of streams. If we do nothing, such discharges will continue and worsen, and occasional blow-out releases like Gold King are inevitable.
· The damage and economic impacts caused by these abandoned mine sites are real and will increase.
· These mine sites are very complex and expensive to fix.
· Some states and volunteer entities are willing to address these sites if existing liability disincentives can be removed.
Given these circumstances, we should focus on practical approaches that will achieve real, near-term, on-the-ground remedial actions. Furthermore, the approaches must be backed by meaningful sources of funding, and be politically achievable in the current, polarized political climate.
A good start would be adopting an effective “Good Samaritan” law addressing the existing disincentives for third parties to remediate abandoned and inactive mine sites, coupled with meaningful federal funding initiatives. The Keystone Policy Center is currently working to achieve consensus on such an approach.
A second practical approach would be to use CERCLA National Priority List (NPL) designation at select sites to provide funding where no viable mine operators remain. The Gold King incident has served as a catalyst for removing past local opposition to NPL listing for the upper Animas River drainage. That’s a good beginning.
We should heed Twain’s advice and use the real lessons of Gold King to move beyond politics and take practical steps like those noted above to start fixing these old mine sites. And we should stop getting mired in the same, currently dead-end debates that lead to doing nothing and can be put aside for another day – lest we be like the cat that will never sit on a cold stove-lid.
Posted on December 17, 2015
As Annette Kovar recently predicted in her blog, the Supreme Court granted cert in United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Construction., Inc. (15-290) to resolve a split in the circuit courts on the question whether a jurisdictional determination (JD) under the Clean Water Act constitutes “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in a court" and is therefore subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act.
In Hawkes , the Eighth Circuit held that the JD was a final agency action subject to the APA. The case arose after a company sought to mine peat from wetland property owned by two affiliated companies in northwestern Minnesota. The Corps’ JD found that the wetlands onsite were "waters of the United States" and were therefore subject to the permit requirements of section 404 of the CWA. This decision runs counter to the Fifth Circuit decision in Belle Co., LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs.
Both courts evaluated the reviewability of JD’s in light of Sackett v. EPA, which held that property owners may bring a civil action under the APA to challenge EPA's issuance of a CWA §309 compliance order directing them to restore their property immediately pursuant to an EPA work plan and assessing penalties of $37, 500 per day for failure to comply. The Fifth Circuit in Belle declined to apply Sackett on the ground that a JD does not have the same legal consequences as a 309 compliance order. The Eighth Circuit disagreed and held that a JD presents landowners with a Hobson’s choice requiring them “either to incur substantial compliance costs (the permitting process), forego what they assert is lawful use of their property, or risk substantial enforcement penalties.”
In my view the Fifth Circuit has the better reading of Sackett and the governing law on what constitutes final agency action. The Supreme Court uses a two prong test to determine finality: first the action must “mark the consummation of the agency’s decision making process;” and second “the action “must be one by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.” Bennett v. Spear There is no question that a JD satisfies the first prong. But a JD does not meet the second prong for at least three reasons. First, a JD does not determine the rights and obligations of the landowner for the simple reason that the statute has already done that. Section 301 of the CWA prohibits any discharge by any person to a water of the US without a permit. The landowner’s legal obligations are exactly the same with or without the JD.
Second, unlike the compliance order in Sackett, a JD does not compel the landowner to take any action at all. Nor does it expose the landowner to penalties, let alone the double penalties at issue in Sackett. The JD notifies the landowner that a permit may be required for discharging dredge or fill material into the wetland unless one of the statutory exclusions such as prior converted cropland apply. However as the Fifth Circuit said, “even if Belle had never requested the JD and instead had begun to fill, it would not have been immune to enforcement action by the Corps or EPA.”
Third, the Eighth Circuit was simply wrong to equate the practical consequences of a JD putting the landowner on notice that a permit was required with Bennett’s requirement that the action must have legal consequences. In Bennett the action at issue was a biological opinion issued under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. The Court found that under the ESA “the Biological Opinion at issue here has direct and appreciable legal consequences;” namely, that it curtailed the authority of the Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for irrigators from federal reservoirs in order to protect endangered fish. Nothing remotely similar to that follows from the issuance of a JD.
Finally the Court ought to be leery of broadening the reach of the APA to include actions having practical effects but not actual legal consequences. That could sweep in a large number of federal actions that have never been thought of as justiciable controversies—for example notices of violations which arguably trigger even more immediate and serious consequences than JD’s. Regulated entities are not the only ones who might benefit from a relaxation of the APA’s finality requirement. Environmental plaintiffs would gain increased access to the courts as well.
Posted on December 10, 2015
The U.S. Supreme Court will likely agree to review the decision of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hawkes Co. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. So said John Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources and College Fellow, to the 2015 National Clean Water Law Seminar. He described the Hawkes case as the second generation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Sackett v. EPA decision in 2012.
As noted here, the Hawkes case is another wetlands case, this time about a Minnesota peat farming company that applied for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act to expand its peat mining operation. The Corps advised Hawkes that it had made a preliminary jurisdictional determination (JD) that the property on which the expansion was planned included regulated wetlands requiring a more extensive environmental assessment. Despite Corps staff attempts to dissuade continuing with the permitting process, Hawkes challenged the preliminary JD. The Corps subsequently prepared an Approved JD and ultimately issued a Revised JD after its own internal review raised issues of concern. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Corps JD was a judicially reviewable final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Previously, the Fifth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal had ruled that a Corps JD was not a judicially reviewable final agency action. The Hawkes case sets up a split in the Circuit Courts making Supreme Court review more likely.
One might recall that the Supreme Court’s unanimous Sackett v. EPA decision held an EPA compliance order, alleging the Sacketts had violated the Clean Water Act by placing fill material on their property without a permit and requiring restoration of the property, was a final agency action and subject to judicial review under the APA. The Supreme Court concluded the Sacketts had no other adequate remedy at law and further stated that the APA creates a “presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action.” Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, said this “presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all.” He continued that nothing in the CWA can be read to enable or condone “the strong-arming of regulated parties into ‘voluntary compliance’ without the opportunity for judicial review—even judicial review of the question whether the regulated party is within EPA’s jurisdiction.” Clearly, principles of fundamental fairness and due process underlie the Sackett decision.
If one goes back to the Hawkes case, note that the Corps describes its preliminary and Approved JDs as tools-- i.e. guidance, to help implement the Clean Water Act, and not orders. JDs probably do streamline the permitting process because an applicant will know what the Corps’ position is before investing heavily in a permit process and may decide to abandon the project. But, there is a hint of “strong-arming” tactics in the Hawkes case that does not bode well for a deferential decision by the Supreme Court to the Corps. However, even if Corps’ JDs become subject to judicial review in the future, won’t a reviewing court still ascribe a certain amount of deference to the Corps’ expertise under APA standard of review precedents? Wouldn’t the Corps have to defend its JD at some point if challenged? Will the Corps really lose much by defending its JD sooner rather than later?
Posted on November 3, 2015
The Clean Water Act’s judicial review provision is bizarrely phrased and at times impenetrable. It can force litigants into lengthy threshold battles over jurisdiction that delay and sideline the actual challenges to EPA’s action. Nowhere is this better showcased than in the recent litigation over EPA’s new definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”). Companies, industry groups and public interest organizations have filed dozens of suits in district and circuit courts across the country to cover all the possible jurisdictional possibilities. The circuit court cases were filed under the Clean Water Act’s judicial review provision that automatically centralizes the cases in a randomly selected circuit court (here, the Sixth Circuit). The district court cases were filed under the Administrative Procedure Act, which contains no mechanism for consolidating the numerous cases.
In a heroic attempt to combine the district court cases and litigate in only one court, EPA looked to the multidistrict litigation process designed for coordinated discovery among cases sharing common facts. The circus that ensued was a mini-caricature of the WOTUS litigation and highlighted the intrinsic problems with the Clean Water Act’s judicial review process. The hearing before the multidistrict litigation panel began at 8:00 a.m. in a large courtroom filled beyond capacity with hundreds of lawyers representing the litigants in the fifteen matters scheduled for oral argument that day. Clerks of the court spread across the room calling each matter, and lawyers fought through the crowd to form a bunch in front of their clerk, struggling to hear over the noise. The clerks doled out oral argument time in minute increments, giving some lawyers as few as two minutes of argument time. Once the schedule was set and after a brief recess, the panel called each of the thirteen cases preceding the WOTUS matter on the docket – the Amtrak derailment, airline anti-trust, various medical device and product liability matters, etc. – moving from one matter to the next with seamless agility.
DOJ (Martha Mann) presented oral argument for EPA, and met with stiff resistance from the panel. The panel challenged EPA’s attempt to fit an APA case, to be decided on the record and the law with minimal discovery, into the MDL process designed mostly for coordinated discovery. Ultimately the panel commended Ms. Mann for a noble effort in an exceptionally uphill battle. Elbert Lin, the Solicitor General of West Virginia, presented argument for the plaintiffs and, sensing the favorable persuasion of the panel, highlighted only the diverse procedural postures of the various matters. The various jurisdictional and preliminary injunction rulings in the district courts and an appeal already before the 11th Circuit would all greatly complicate any attempted consolidation.
On October 13th, the panel issued its ruling, deciding not to consolidate the district court cases. The panel agreed that not only was the MDL process not applicable to the predominantly legal WOTUS challenges, but consolidation would only further complicate the already chaotic litigation.
Jurisdictional questions are now pending before the 6th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals. The 6th Circuit offers EPA its last hope of litigating the WOTUS challenges in one court. If the 11th Circuit were to disagree, the jurisdictional issues could continue to eclipse the merits of the litigation for months, if not years, pending final resolution by the Supreme Court.
Posted on October 9, 2015
Does this make sense to you? Eighteen states petitioned the Sixth Circuit to challenge the new rule adopted by EPA and the Corps of Engineers defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Then the petitioners move the court to dismiss their own petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but at the same time request a stay of the rule. And then, the court acknowledges it may not have jurisdiction but issues the stay anyway! That is exactly what Sixth Circuit did in the case published today.
This case is among many seeking to block the rule. The Clean Water Act confers original jurisdiction upon the circuit courts for challenges to “effluent limitations or other limitations.” But as reported earlier in this space, thirteen states convinced a federal district judge in North Dakota that he had jurisdiction because the WOTUS rule is merely definitional, and neither an effluent nor other limitation.
The court concluded that petitioners have a good chance at prevailing on the merits, that the rule exceeds “guidance” given by the Supreme Court in extending CWA jurisdiction too broadly. The court also indicated that the final rule may have strayed too far from the notice given in the proposed rule in its definitions of jurisdictional waters.
The majority was not troubled by the fact the parties are still briefing subject matter jurisdiction, finding that it had plenty of authority to preserve the status quo pending a jurisdictional determination. The dissent took the view that the proper sequence is to first decide jurisdiction, then decide on a national stay of a rule years in the making. Pants first, then shoes.
Did the majority consider the situation an emergency that required immediate action? No, the court found that petitioners were not persuasive that irreparable harm would occur without a stay, but neither could the court find any harm with freezing implementation of the rule. The reasoning seems to be that we’ve muddled through so far, let’s take a step back and consider all the implications before implementation.
Why do the states prefer to go after the rule in the district courts instead of the circuit courts of appeal? Maybe they believe they can forum shop to find conservative judges and build a favorable body of case law before appealing. Or maybe they believe they can more directly attack the science underlying the rule or otherwise augment the administrative record. Whatever the reasons, the ultimate return of this issue to the Supreme Court will be delayed and the law dealing with regulation of wetland fills will remain as confused as ever.
Posted on September 2, 2015
A whole lot of craziness is going on in federal district and appellate courts all over the country right now. About what? About judicial review of EPA’s recent “WOTUS” rule under the Clean Water Act (CWA). So I can avoid wheel re-invention, see the very recent ACOEL blogs by Seth Jaffe and Rick Glick.
So what’s the problem? You might find a lot to hate about the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and I could name a few others, but at least they all have one good thing going for them: they all provide in a crystal clear manner that judicial review of EPA’s national rules under those statutes will lie exclusively with the D.C. Circuit. No ifs, ands, buts, or maybes.
For reasons I have never understood (and I have been trying since the 1970s), Congress in its infinite wisdom chose a different path in the CWA. In Section 509, they listed seven types of actions that must be reviewed in a federal Court of Appeal (not necessarily the D.C. Circuit) and left any other type of action to be reviewed initially in federal district court.
Over the years, a lot of mixed case law has developed regarding EPA’s CWA rules that don’t fit neatly within one of the seven types of actions Section 509 has specified for Court of Appeals review. Quite predictably, as reflected in Seth’s and Rick’s recent blogs, three district courts last week reached conflicting results over whether WOTUS fits within the seven types. In its WOTUS preamble, EPA included a discussion about confusion in the courts over the issue and took no position on whether WOTUS should initially be reviewed in a district court or Court of Appeals.
So how crazy is this: right now, we have (1) a ruling from one district court judge in North Dakota finding he has jurisdiction and enjoining EPA from enforcing WOTUS; (2) a statement from EPA saying the agency will honor his injunction only in the 13 States that were plaintiffs in that action; (3) an order from that judge directing the parties to brief the issue of whether EPA has authority to honor his ruling in only those states; (4) decisions from two other federal district judges holding WOTUS judicial review must be brought only in a Court of Appeals; (5) numerous cases filed in several circuit Courts of Appeals that have been transferred (at least for now) to the 6th Circuit; (6) an almost certain EPA appeal to the 8th Circuit in attempt to reverse the North Dakota judge’s injunction; and (7) WOTUS review cases filed in numerous other federal district courts by lots of parties with various motions still pending.
This is early September, and I can’t imagine how this won’t get a lot crazier over the next few months. Congress in its infinite wisdom!
Posted on August 31, 2015
With so many challenges filed in so many venues to EPA’s Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule, it seemed inevitable that some plaintiffs somewhere would find a sympathetic court. And so it is that thirteen states found U. S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson to preliminarily enjoin the “exceptionally expansive view” of the government’s reach under the Clean Water Act.
This case is interesting from a couple of perspectives. First, Congress conferred original jurisdiction for challenges to EPA “effluent limitations or other limitations” and for permit decisions upon the Circuit Courts of Appeal. In the past two days, district court judges in West Virginiaand Georgiaconcluded they lacked jurisdiction over challenges to the WOTUS rule on that basis. Judge Erickson, however, did not feel so constrained.
The judge found that the WOTUS rule is simply definitional, and neither an effluent limitation nor an “other limitation” on states’ discretion. Further, the judge found that the rule “has at best an attenuated connection to any permitting process.” The conclusion states’ discretion is not affected is a bit odd in that the judge later concludes that the state plaintiffs satisfied all the criteria for a preliminary injunction, including irreparable harm caused by the rule.
Second, Judge Erickson plays on an internecine dispute between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in an unusual way. In my first sentence I refer to the WOTUS rule as EPA’s, although the rule was jointly adopted by EPA and the Corps. However, recently leaked internal government memorandaindicate that the Corps disavows much of the technical support and policy choices underlying the rule. Judge Erickson obliquely references these memoranda and seems to rely on them to conclude that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their challenge.
Typically, courts are loathe to rely on internal documents of uncertain provenance, as they prefer to leave the government room to openly discuss policies under development without fear its deliberations would be disclosed. But in this case, Judge Erickson notes that he has not been presented with the full record for the WOTUS rulemaking, and so felt justified in citing the Corps memos.
As Seth Jaffe has observed, it seems likely that Judge Erickson’s jurisdictional determination will not stand, and his reliance on the confidential exchanges between the Corps and EPA is a little disturbing. However, his order highlights EPA’s poor management of this rulemaking, which has led to challenges from states, property rights advocates and environmentalists—a kind of anti-EPA trifecta.
As previously noted, EPA released its draft WOTUS rule before the work of the Science Advisory Board was complete, thus raising questions as to the rule’s scientific objectivity. Then EPA seemingly disregarded the technical concerns raised by its rulemaking partner, the Corps. Any WOTUS rulemaking would be controversial, but EPA has unnecessarily raised the bar for public acceptance.