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 January 30, 2017
With GOP control of Congress and the White House, conservatives appear to have Chevron deference in their crosshairs. Put simply, I don’t get it. There are at least two good reasons why conservatives should prefer Chevron deference to no deference.
First, the alternative is for courts to decide all questions of agency authority. But haven’t conservatives railed against unelected judges for years? Bureaucrats are unelected, but at least they work for the elected President. Isn’t EPA more likely to be responsive to President Trump than federal judges would be?
Second, the EDFs and NRDCs of this world would laugh hysterically at the notion that they have more sway with EPA than the regulated community. Anyone ever heard of “Regulatory Capture”?
The argument in support of Chevron was made cogently by Ed McTiernan in a recent blog post, but the strength of the argument was really brought home by the decision this past week in Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited v. EPA, in which the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals – to fairly wide surprise – reversed a district court decision that had struck down EPA’s “water transfer” rule.
The rule was much favored by the regulated community, but there were very good jurisprudential reasons to affirm the District Court. Indeed, the decision was 2-1 and even the majority opinion repeatedly noted that, were it writing on a blank slate, it might well prefer an interpretation that would strike down the rule.
Why, then, did the Appeals Court reverse the District Court and affirm the rule? Chevron deference, of course.
Conservatives, be careful what you wish for.
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 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 January 17, 2017
Last week, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed – for the second time – a District Court decision granting summary judgment to DTE Energy in the United States’ case alleging that DTE Energy had violated EPA’s NSR regulations. According to the 6th Circuit, EPA has authority to bring an enforcement action against DTE Energy, notwithstanding that the regulations don’t provide for EPA review of DTE Energy’s emissions projections prior to construction and also notwithstanding that the project did not in fact result in a significant net emissions increase.
One might well be surprised by the result, but the result itself is not the most surprising part of the case at this point. What’s really surprising is that the United States won the case even though only one of the three judges on the panel agreed with EPA’s position.
How could such a thing happen, you might ask? Here’s the best I can do. Judge Daughtrey, author of the panel opinion, believes that EPA has the authority to second-guess DTE’s estimates if they are not adequately explained. Judge Rogers disagreed and dissented. Judge Batchelder also disagreed with Judge Daughtrey’s views, pretty much in their entirety. However, Judge Batchelder concluded that she had already been outvoted once, in the first 6th Circuit review of this case and she felt bound to follow the decision in DTE 1. The law remains an ass.
Even were Donald Trump not about to nominate a Supreme Court justice, I’d say that this case is ripe for an appeal to the Supreme Court and, if I were DTE, I’d pursue that appeal vigorously and with a fairly optimistic view of my chances.
And once again, I’ll suggest that the very fact that the NSR program can repeatedly thrust such incomprehensible cases upon us is itself reason to conclude that the entire program is ripe for a thorough overhaul – or perhaps elimination.
Posted on December 20, 2016
In July I wrote what I thought surely would be my last blog on the more than three years of legal challenges by the City of Margate, New Jersey Commissioners with their decision not to appeal the state and federal courts’ upholding the State’s and Army Corps’ authority to build dunes in Atlantic County, New Jersey. I titled the blog “Signing Off” – concluding that the fat lady had in fact sung.
Well I was wrong.
Six residents have now paraded into U.S. District Court with their expert, Chuck Dutill, a civil engineer and hydrologist, to testify before Judge Renee Marie Bumb, who had decided the earlier case. Judge Bumb called the testimony “pretty fantastic,” but confirmed that this was the gist of the testimony:
“It sounds like from your testimony the Army Corps is turning the beach into a junkyard,” she said. “You’ve described a big parade of horribles: animal feces, oils, adults being hurt. It sounds pretty fantastic. Is that in some way hyperbole if you don’t mind? Is that your testimony?”
“That is absolutely my testimony,” Dutill replied.
“What I’m hearing is what the defendant proposes to do is turn the beach of Margate into the junkyard of Margate,” the judge said. “That is what I’m hearing.”
And until she rules – and as expected rules against the residents – and they decide to appeal, the fat lady continues to stand by for yet another reprise.
Posted on October 27, 2016
In April, Judge Dana Christensen vacated the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to withdraw its proposed listing of a distinct population segment of the North American wolverine as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). Bowing to the inevitable, the Fish and Wildlife Service ("FWS") has published in the Federal Register a formal acknowledgement that the Court’s vacatur of the withdrawal of the proposed listing returns the situation to the status quo.
In other words, the proposed rule that would have listed the wolverine distinct population segment ("DPS") is back in play. Specifically, the FWS announced that
"we will be initiating an entirely new status review of the North American wolverine,to determine whether this DPS meets the definition of an endangered or threatened species under the Act, or whether the species is not warranted for listing.
FWS also reopened the comment period on the proposed listing and invited the public to provide comment, identifying nine specific areas in which it sought comments, including
"Information on the projected and reasonably likely impacts of climate change on the wolverine and its habitat, including the loss of snowpack and impacts to wolverine denning habitat.
This is all well and good and certainly required under Judge Christensen’s order, but neither Judge Christensen nor FWS has the tools necessary to address the core issue here, i.e., the unwieldy nature of the ESA. It simply wasn’t designed to solve all of the ecological problems resulting from climate change.
It would be nice if Congress weren’t completely dysfunctional.
Posted on October 13, 2016
Along with the flood of news coverage of the Flint water crisis comes the flood of litigation. So far, early indications show a wrong in search of a remedy, and for criminal defendants, just the expected plea deals. Here are some highlights.
In April, a federal district judge dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction a §1983 claim for “safe and portable water” as preempted by the Safe Drinking Water Act. The case is on appeal.
Class actions have been filed against state and municipal officials in federal court, the Michigan Court of Claims, and Genesee County Circuit Court, seeking damages for personal injuries, property damages, and relief from water bills. Along with the usual governmental immunity defense, defendants assert a statute of limitations defense, with a fair likelihood of success. The governmental immunity defense is complicated by Governor Snyder admitting fault. That admission strengthens plaintiffs’ gross negligence exception to governmental immunity.
So far, the Attorney General’s criminal charges have resulted in the usual plea deals by underlings. The Flint water quality supervisor whom I lauded in a previous post as the only principled public servant in this mess (a position with which the Attorney General agrees) pled no contest to willful neglect of duty; the plea is essentially nothing, because the court took the plea under advisement with dismissal in one year if the supervisor cooperates with the investigation. A state official reached a second plea deal, pleading no contest to willful neglect of duty regarding an outbreak of legionnaire’s disease with the usual cooperation clause.
Politics saturates the Flint legal landscape. Attorney General Bill Schuette is widely expected to run for governor in 2018 and must therefore appear to be doing something, such as filing an unusual professional negligence and public nuisance claim against the Flint outside engineering firms. And when the Flint mayor notified Michigan of intent to sue the state, the state receivership board with continuing jurisdiction over Flint removed the city’s authority to sue.
Posted on October 4, 2016
More about that title later, but first let me set the stage. On September 27, 2016, the D.C. Circuit, sitting en banc, heard argument in West Virginia v. EPA, in which state, industry, and labor petitioners challenge EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP, the Plan, or the Rule). The Plan regulates carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants under Clean Air Act (CAA) §111(d). I will refrain from addressing issues on which the trade and mainstream press have opined at length (e.g., the judges’ frustration at being asked to make policy decisions because Congress has failed to act and that participants – judges, lawyers, parties, reporters, the public – had to sit through almost 7 hours of argument in one day, in addition to the hours many spent waiting in line). Instead, I offer an ACOEL-centric tour, in non-chronological order, of the five “segments” of the September 27 argument.
Argument Segment #2: The Battle Between CAA §§112 and 111(d). Aficionados of the College’s 2014 white paper on EPA’s §111(d) regulatory authority will recall the difference of opinion over whether – under the 1990 Amendments to the CAA – EPA is prohibited from regulating power plants under CAA §111(d) if EPA already regulates power plants under CAA §112. Plan challengers point to the plain meaning of §111(d)(1)(A) as it appears in the U.S. Code. Plan supporters point to the existence of a “conforming amendment” to §111(d)(1)(A) found in the Statutes at Large but omitted from the U.S. Code, and they argue that EPA’s approach is a valid attempt to reconcile that amendment with the U.S. Code. After listening to the judges express frustration at not being able to satisfyingly reconcile the two versions, I recalled D.C. Circuit Judge Leventhal’s concurring opinion in Citizens to Save Spencer County v. EPA, in which he concluded that contradictory CAA provisions should be viewed as “countermanding.” Quoting from Eugene Field’s poem “The Duel” – about the fight between the gingham dog and the calico cat – he summed up the irreconcilable differences as follows: “The tension between the two animals culminates in these final lines of doggerel: ‘The truth about the cat and pup is this, They ate each other up.’ ”
Argument Segment #3: Constitutional Issues. If forced at knife-point to articulate the first portion of this argument, which began at 2:35 p.m., right after the lunch break, I would be unable to do so, other than to say that the word “commandeering” cropped up a lot. More interesting was how the second advocate for petitioners on this point – Professor Laurence Tribe of Constitutional law fame – was able to expand his separation-of-powers argument into a further analysis of issues argued during the morning session.
Argument Segments #4 and #5: Notice and Record-Based Issues. At the end of a very long day, the panel heard arguments on (a) whether EPA’s standards are “achievable” and whether parts of the Plan’s approach have been “adequately demonstrated” under §111; and (b) whether the final rule is so different from what was proposed that the public lacked notice and an opportunity to comment. Petitioners arguing the former point (the unachievability of program requirements) faced a weary panel, which pondered what the options for state and source relief would be if the Rule is upheld but later turns out to be a train wreck.
A colleague describes as follows the situation that gives rise to parties complaining that they had no notice of what a final rule would require because EPA’s proposal was so different: “EPA may propose an apple and finalize an orange. That’s OK; they’re both fruits. What EPA may not do (and what petitioners argue EPA has done here) is to propose an apple and finalize a pork chop.” Dick Stoll passionately argued – in his June 7, 2016 post for ACOEL – that previous 3-judge panels in the D.C. Circuit have not properly dealt with this lack-of-notice issue. Those panels refused challengers’ attempts to overturn pork chops, saying challengers of pork chops must first file administrative petitions for review under CAA §307(d)(7)(B) and then wait (for what could be years, if ever) for EPA to act on those petitions. Dick argued that the only way the previous 3-judge panel decisions would ever be overturned was by action of the entire court, sitting en banc. I cannot promise Dick the entire court will overturn the previous panels’ reading of §307(d)(7)(B), but I can say that Tom Lorenzen teed up the issue. When asked by Judge Griffith whether this argument appeared in petitioners’ briefs, Lorenzen said it did not because when petitioners wrote their briefs, the case was going to be heard by a 3-judge panel. But said Lorenzen, looking up at Judge Griffith, “Now we are here.” To which Judge Griffith replied, “And who else to ask but an en banc court?” “Exactly,” said Lorenzen.
Argument Segment #1: Core Legal Issues. Although I visit Argument Segment #1 last, the fate of the Clean Power Plan may well rest on how the panel addresses the issue raised at the very beginning of the day: whether or not the Plan is “transformative.” The Supreme Court, in UARG v. EPA, held that EPA cannot engage in a “transformative expansion” of its regulatory authority absent “clear congressional authorization” to do so. Petitioners argue that EPA’s Clean Power Plan amounts to a transformative expansion of EPA’s explicit regulatory authority and thus is illegal. EPA argues the program is not “transformative”; indeed, says EPA, the Rule is very similar to other CAA programs that the D.C. Circuit has upheld. So, is the Rule “business as usual” or is it “transformative”?
And so we return to the title of this post. I cannot predict what the D.C. Circuit will decide, but I think its determination will revolve around how the en banc panel answers the following question about the Clean Power Plan: Is You Is or Is You Ain’t Transformative? And that question prompts me to offer these final lines of doggerel in memory (and honor) of Judge Leventhal:
To predict the end here, it’s informative
To know if C-P-P is transformative.
To prevail in this Court,
One must prove that the sort
Of change caused by that Rule is enormative.
Posted on September 23, 2016
The New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission enacted what is arguably the most comprehensive copper mine remediation rule in the country. The Copper Rule requires copper mines to uniformly implement prescriptive measures of pollution control and to protect ground water at “foreseeable places of withdrawal.” But does the Copper Rule really prevent pollution, as required by the New Mexico Water Quality Act? Not so, say the Attorney General and various NGOs, who appealed the case to the New Mexico Court of Appeals. They claimed that the Copper Rule’s uniform monitoring criteria, which require the placement of a monitoring well network as close as practicable around the perimeter of mine units, does not sufficiently protect ground water and therefore fails to satisfy the Water Quality Act’s mandate that contaminant concentrations not exceed permissible standards at places of withdrawal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s rule-making in Gila Resources Information Project v. N.M. Water Quality Control Comm’n, holding that the determination of a “place of withdrawal” has always been and remains a matter committed to the Commission’s discretion. [Link to Case.]
The New Mexico Supreme Court will now consider whether the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission has the authority, under the Water Quality Act, to adopt the regulations imposing prescriptive pollution controls and defining by rule, rather than on a case-by-case basis, the type of monitoring controls which essentially define protectable ground water as that existing on the exterior of active mine units. After a number of swings of the bat, the petitioners in the Supreme Court have refined their arguments. They now claim that the Water Quality Act requires a case-by-case determination of a place of withdrawal, based on particular aquifer characteristics, rather than a definition derived by rule. To succeed with this challenge, the petitioners must overcome the legislature’s mandate, in the 2009 amendments to the Water Quality Act, that the Commission adopt uniform monitoring requirements for the entire copper industry. The battle seems to be whether the Copper Rule is sufficiently flexible to protect all places of withdrawal – regardless of where located – or whether the rule imposes a de facto definition of a place of withdrawal based on criteria that may not be tailored specifically to the aquifer characteristics at a particular site. Oral argument is set for September 28, 2016.
Posted on September 20, 2016
Sometimes the most extraordinary things in the world of law and government get served up in the most undramatic way. If you aren’t paying attention to the back story, and you don’t know the context, you might almost miss the action. And future generations, seeking to decipher history, might all too easily overlook the most crucial and delicate tipping points. This fact of life has been emphatically proven by the Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural juggernaut that is the Broadway musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda. In addition to telling the very personal story of one of our nation’s founding fathers, Hamilton shows, in brilliant style, that even seemingly dry and technical matters such as the origins of our nation’s financial system, and the logic underlying the complex apparatus of modern administrative agencies, are actually fueled by passion, dripping with drama, and world-changing in consequence. You just need to know whose story to tell, and how to read between the lines.
A recent case in point: On August 17, 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Engie Gas & LNG LLC v. Department of Public Utilities (Docket SJC-12051/SJC-12052). Environmental and energy lawyers readily recognized the decision as an important one, but it’s easy to see how future generations, far from the current action, might miss the excitement here. The question in Engie was whether the state utility department could approve ratepayer-backed, long-term contracts by electric distribution companies for the purchase and resale of interstate natural gas pipeline transportation capacity.
To answer that question, the Engie court addressed, among other things, (1) the propriety of the appeal in the absence of a final adjudicatory order; (2) the pertinent standard of review, (3) the canon of statutory construction reddenda singula singulis, a.k.a. the rule of the last antecedent (which might also be merely a grammar rule), (4) whether ambiguity should or could be found in statutory language that neither expressly forbids nor clearly permits the proposed departmental action, (5) the parties’ competing interpretations of the legislative history, (6) the overall statutory framework, (7) the necessity of a “distributive reading” of the terms “gas or electric,” (8) the limitations of the deference to be afforded to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of a statute it is charged with enforcing, where the interpretation represents a significant departure from the agency’s own record of administering the pertinent statute, (9) the importance of ensuring consistency with the fundamental policy embodied in the legislation at issue, and (10) the interpretive pertinence of subsequent, separate legislation. Phew!
Ultimately, the SJC rejected the utility department’s determination of the scope of its authority, and concluded that the pertinent statute forbade the imposition on electricity ratepayers of the costs of new natural gas supply infrastructure. Like many judicial opinions concerning complex environmental and energy issues, the Engie decision has a sober logic that makes it seem unsurprising, correct, and even almost easy. But wait – what just happened here?
Ladies and gentlemen, we have an affair of honor! One dueling party and its seconds, the state’s public utility department and electric distribution companies, contend that the policy choice by our state government’s executive branch to expand natural gas pipeline capacity is a sensible way of meeting our very real need for reliable electrical power. Even as we move toward a more sustainable future of renewable energy, they say, we still depend urgently on new supplies of natural gas, obtained by means of fracking, to provide the essential “bridge” fuel, and we can all get ready for price spikes and power blackouts each winter if we ignore that reality. It’s an emergency, and our future is at stake!
The other dueling party and its seconds, who include the Massachusetts Attorney General and a coalition of environmentalists, land conservationists, and consumer and taxpayer advocates, insist that we don’t need any new natural gas infrastructure at all. And if we don’t push much faster and harder for a larger-scale shift to more environmentally sustainable ways to support our energy consumption, they say, we are fiddling while Rome burns. It’s an emergency, and our future is at stake!
Grappling with the fine points of utility infrastructure regulation and financing may make some people’s eyes glaze over. To which I say, are you kidding? I can’t think of another moment when our courts were faced with environmental and energy law disputes more laden with tension and drama. This is the high-stakes, heroic, dueling-on-the-ledge stuff on which our future history depends. It could practically be a Broadway musical.
Posted on September 9, 2016
Section 101(f) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) creates a “national policy” that “to the maximum extent possible” the Act “shall” be implemented in a manner that “prevent[s] needless duplication and unnecessary delays at all levels of government.” (33 U.S.C. § 1251(f)) Although this and the other overarching goals in § 101 of the Act were “no exercise in boilerplate rhetoric,” (William Harsha, Jr. (Ohio), Congressional Record 16520 (Jun. 3, 1976)) they are typically ignored. Instead of ignoring § 101 of the CWA, however, a strong argument can be made that courts should remand or even vacate an agency’s action if it can be shown that such an action needlessly duplicates or unnecessarily delays efforts to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, [or] biological integrity of the Nation’s waters. (33 U.S.C. § 1251(a)) This would further Congress’s intent as codified in §§ 101(a) & (f) of the CWA.
Consider the ongoing controversy about the recent “Waters of the United States” rule (Rule). (80 Fed. Reg. 37,054 (Jun. 29, 2015)) Many have said much about this Rule, focusing on lofty constitutional arguments, erudite discussions of which and when Supreme Court opinions control, and the finer points of APA jurisprudence. But few have argued that the automatic implementation of its increased jurisdictional scope would contravene § 101(f). Because the Rule seeks to increase the federal government’s jurisdiction under the CWA, without more, coverage of the Act’s regulatory requirements would immediately attach to previously non-jurisdictional waters. This inextricable link of new jurisdiction and implementation could lead to disruptive delays and associated problems.
When, for example, the hundreds of ditches that form a sprawling municipal separate storm sewer system become jurisdictional, various implementation requirements would be triggered – noncompliance with which could lead to administrative and civil penalties and criminal liability. In this and many other instances, the sudden applicability of CWA requirements could have the unintended consequence of actually impeding ongoing efforts to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
The shift of focus from traditional waters of the United States to stormwater conveyances could divert and dilute scarce local government resources. This could delay meaningful water quality improvements for the lakes and rivers people actually use to swim and fish, and use for potable water could become more difficult to attain and then sustain. Such delays would serve no environmental benefit and would be especially unjustified where local governments only use those stormwater conveyances for stormwater management or for treating discharges from them into traditional waters of the United States. Indeed, until promulgation of the Waters of the United States Rule, stormwater conveyances have historically been excluded from the CWA’s jurisdictional reach.
It thus seems that the directives of §101(f) should be taken into account in litigation judging the appropriateness of the Waters of the United States Rule. This would ensure that the Rule is implementable in a fashion that satisfies §101(f)’s common sense mandate to “prevent needless duplication and unnecessary delays” in furtherance of the fundamental goal of “restor[ing] and maintain[ing] the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
William H. Green thanks Mohammad O. Jazil for his contributions to this post.
Posted on September 8, 2016
Ever since EPA began considering how BACT analysis would be applied to greenhouse gas emissions, there has been concern that EPA would use its BACT authority to “redefine the source” – with the particular concern that BACT for a coal plant would now be to burn natural gas instead. In Helping Hands Tools v. EPA, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week gave some protection to biomass plants from such redefinition of the source. However, other types of facilities will get no comfort from the decision.
Helping Hands Tools involved a challenge to a PSD permit issued to Sierra Pacific for a cogeneration plant to be located at one of its existing lumber mills. Under EPA’s BACT Guidance, Sierra Pacific stated that the purpose of the CoGen plant was to use wood waste from the mill and nearby facilities to generate electricity and heat. Relying in part on the 7th Circuit decision in Sierra Club v. EPA, which held that it would impermissibly redefine the source to require a mine-mouth coal generating plant to consider different fuels in its BACT analysis, the 9th Circuit found that EPA was reasonable in determining that, because a fundamental purpose of the CoGen plant was to burn wood waste, it would impermissibly redefine the source to require Sierra Pacific to consider solar power as part of its BACT analysis.
Importantly, the Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ request that Sierra Pacific consider greater use of natural gas. The Court concluded that very limited use of natural gas for the purposes of startup, shutdown, and flame stabilization did not undermine the fundamental purpose to burn wood waste. This is critical to source-located biomass facilities, because EPA’s GHG Permitting Guidance specifically says that greater use of an existing fuel should be considered in the BACT analysis:
"unless it can be demonstrated that such an option would disrupt the applicant’s basic business purpose for the proposed facility."
Unfortunately, the language of the decision appears to me to give EPA substantial leeway in future BACT analyses to redefine the source in other cases. It seems to me that, building on the 7th Circuit decision, the Court has simply created an exception to potential source redefinition in circumstances where the location of the facility justifies a very narrow fuel selection. If a coal plant intends to burn coal from the mine next door, ok. If a lumber mill intends to burn its own wood waste, ok. Otherwise, however, all bets are off.
What is particularly troubling was the Court’s acknowledgement that the GHG BACT guidance is vague, and its deference to EPA’s application of its own vague guidance. This is precisely the concern I noted when the Guidance was first issued. Time will tell, but I foresee some fairly extreme BACT determinations being blessed by some very deferential courts.
Posted on September 2, 2016
Do air emissions of pollutants constitute a “disposal” under the federal hazardous waste laws? The Ninth Circuit said “no” in Pakootas, et al. v. Teck Cominco Metals, Ltd. based upon its reading of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund). The decision both sets important precedent and showcases the judicial process to discern legislative intent when a statute’s plain language is stressed by an unusual fact pattern. If air pollutants can create CERCLA disposals, then emissions from any stationary or mobile source, including animal emissions of methane (which is considered a pollutant subject to CERCLA by EPA), may be the basis of cleanup liability.
The decision involves a smelter located just north of the border with British Columbia. An earlier decision in that case held that a foreign-based facility can be liable under CERCLA for slag discharges into a river running to the United States. Plaintiffs then alleged the facility arranged for disposal by emitting hazardous air contaminants which were carried by the wind and deposited in Washington State. The district court denied a motion to dismiss and certified the matter for immediate appellate review.
Reading the plain language of CERCLA, the Ninth Circuit found that “a reasonable enough construction” of the law would be that the facility “arranged for disposal” of its air pollutants. No legislative history or EPA rules shed light on this subject. However, the Court concluded it was not writing on a blank slate. Noting that CERCLA incorporates the definition of “disposal” from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Court cited its prior decision in Ctr. for Cmty. Action and Envtl. Justice v. BNSF Rwy. Co., which held that diesel particulate emissions “transported by wind and air currents onto the land and water” did not constitute “disposal” of waste within the meaning of RCRA. To be a disposal, the solid or hazardous waste must first be placed into or on any land or water and thereafter be emitted into the air. The Court also cited its en banc decision in Carson Harbor Vill., Ltd. v. Unocal Corp., holding that passive migration was not a disposal under CERCLA.
The Court thereby found that arranging for “disposal” did not include arranging for air “emissions.” This interpretation of “disposal” was largely consistent with CERCLA’s overall statutory scheme. The Court expressed concern that plaintiffs’ more expansive reading would stretch CERCLA liability beyond the bounds of reason. “[I]f ‘aerial depositions’ are accepted as ‘disposals,’” the Court said, “‘disposal’ would be a never-ending process, essentially eliminating the innocent landowner defense.”
The Court did not discuss in detail the statutory interplay with the Clean Air Act, which regulates air emissions under a complex regulatory and permit scheme. Under CERCLA, federally permitted releases are excluded from liability. But because air permits often specify the control equipment parameters rather than an emission limit, a CERCLA plaintiff may allege that the mere existence of a permit does not provide a blanket immunity from liability and the facility would remain liable for any releases that were not expressly permitted, exceeded the limitations of the permit, or occurred at a time when there was no permit. The Court in passing did note its skepticism that the federally permitted “release” exception evidenced any Congressional intent regarding the meaning of “disposal.”
The Ninth Circuit is the highest court to exclude air emissions from the reach of CERCLA and RCRA. The Court’s citation to Carson Harbor does not provide an exact analogy since a passive landowner has not “arranged” for the initial release of hazardous substances, as compared to the smelter operations which result in air emissions. But the Court’s unwillingness to create potentially unlimited CERCLA liability for air emissions is compelling. Under CERCLA, liability is strict, joint and several and retroactive. Air emissions are widely transported and dispersed in relatively small concentrations by large numbers of potential sources, making CERCLA liability findings and allocations difficult if not impossible.
The Court thereby divined Congress’ intent to make CERCLA’s scheme workable, apart from a literal reading of its text. For judges to “repair” statutory language in this way is controversial. The decision is reminiscent of the U.S. Supreme Court holding that the Obama health care plan provides tax credits to millions of people who purchase insurance from a federal marketplace, even though the statute only provides credits for those who purchase from marketplaces “established by the state.” According to Justice Roberts, that was the only way the law would work, and despite the plain wording in the statute, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.” CERCLA also is not a model of clarity, and the Ninth Circuit similarly incorporated practicality as a factor in discerning Congress’ intent to avoid overreaching in assigning liability for the cleanup of toxic chemical releases.
Posted on August 4, 2016
This post started as a piece about a recent Fifth Circuit decision: Texas v. EPA. In that case, the state of Texas (and others) challenge EPA’s disapproval of Texas’s (and Oklahoma’s) plans for controlling regional haze and EPA’s decision to impose its own haze-control program instead. To make my drafting process more entertaining (and the task of posting more challenging for our official poster, Colin Gipson-Tansil), I set a goal for myself: to include within my post at least 25 valid links to others’ posts during the past year. Fortunately for me, there is almost nothing in Texas v. EPA that doesn’t link to one or more recent posts.
Jurisdiction and Venue. Many of the past year’s posts point out problems caused by the failure of the Clean Water Act to state unambiguously which federal court has jurisdiction to hear a specific challenge to an EPA action under that statute. Stoll’s 9/2/2015 post, Glick’s 10/9/2015 post, Horder’s 11/3/2015 post, Perdue’s 2/5/2016 post, and Uram’s 4/5/2016 post. Texas v. EPA demonstrates that choice-of-court problems also exist under the Clean Air Act’s judicial review provision, §307(b)(1).
Clean Air Act §307(b)(1) – said the Fifth Circuit – is a two-fold provision: first, it confers jurisdiction on the courts of appeals, and then it delineates whether the appropriate venue for challenges will be the regional circuits (if the challenged action is locally or regionally applicable) or the D.C. Circuit (if the action is nationally applicable). Believing EPA’s disapproval of its regional haze program to be locally or regionally applicable, Texas filed its challenge in the Fifth Circuit. EPA moved to dismiss or transfer the case to the D.C. Circuit based on a separate, not-as-well-known prong of §307(b)(1), which directs that a petition for review of what seems like a non-national action may be filed only in the D.C. Circuit if the action is “based on a determination of nationwide scope or effect and if in taking such action [EPA] finds and publishes that such action is based on such a determination.” After an exhaustive de novo evaluation of that portion of §307(b)(1), the Fifth Circuit determined that because the challenged EPA actions are locally or regionally applicable and because they are not based on any determinations that have nationwide scope or effect, the Fifth Circuit is the appropriate court to hear the case.
But wait. There are other link-worthy aspects of Texas v. EPA, including the following.
Explanations of Decisions to Stay Challenged Actions. During the past year, posts have discussed whether and how much a court needs to explain the basis on which it stays a challenged rule pending completion of litigation concerning that rule’s validity. Jaffe’s 2/10/2016 post, Gerrard’s 2/10/2016 post. If it is a lengthy explanation you seek for when and why a court should stay an EPA action pending completion of litigation, the Fifth Circuit provides that in Texas v. EPA.
Deference. Other recent posts have addressed when deference to an agency interpretation is – or is not – appropriate. Kovar (12/10/2015); Percival (1/27/2016); Field (2/11/2016); Haynes (2/19/2016); May (6/9/2016); Civins (7/5/2016); Jaffe (8/2/2016). In Texas, the Fifth Circuit put clear limits on deference, holding that the level of deference owed to an agency’s conclusions is “substantially diminished when the subject matter in question lies beyond the agency’s expertise.” Thus, while the Fifth Circuit was prepared to defer substantially to EPA’s views on environmental science, it declined to defer to EPA’s views on whether its actions would impair the reliability of the electricity grid. Since “EPA has no expertise on grid reliability” (that is FERC’s domain), the “deference owed to EPA’s assertions about grid reliability [is] diminished and the agency must support its arguments more thoroughly than in those areas in which it has considerable expertise and knowledge.”
That limitation on deference could have an impact on the most talked-about case by ACOEL members this past year: West Virginia v. EPA, in which more than two dozen states and many other parties challenge EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Jaffe’s 9/10/2015 post, Gerrard’s 2/10/2016 post, Jaffe’s 10/23/2015 post, Jaffe’s 12/9/2015 post, Percival’s 12/16/2015 post, Stoll’s 12/21/2015 post, Perdue’s 2/5/2016 post, Jaffe’s 2/10/2016 post, Field’s 2/11/2016 post, Session’s 2/17/2016 post, and Freeman’s 3/2/2016 post. The Fifth Circuit’s limit on deference is the basis of a recent Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure 28(j) letter sent to the D.C. Circuit by the petitioning states in West Virginia. According to those states, the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Texas v. EPA supports, among other things, the petitioning states’ argument that EPA has failed to show that the Clean Power Plan will not detrimentally affect grid reliability.
Perhaps the link in which I take the most pride, though, is this last link – to Seth Jaffe’s October 2, 2015 Brief Rant on Cost-Effectiveness Analysis. In that post, Seth argues that if the purpose of a rule is to improve visibility, EPA should use a measurement of visibility – a deciview (dv) – to assess visibility improvement. Well, in Texas v. EPA, the Fifth Circuit seemed to be heading in the direction of agreeing that in considering the cost of a regional haze program, EPA should use the $/dv metric. Alas, at the last minute, the court pulled back on a complete endorsement of the $/dv metric: because the petitioners had a “strong likelihood of establishing other flaws” in EPA’s actions, the court said it did not need to decide whether EPA “fell short of its obligation to consider the costs of its regulations” by failing to use $/dv metrics. So, Seth may have to wait a while longer before seeing a court mandate for EPA’s use of $/dv metrics to evaluate visibility improvements. I, however, achieved my goal of including a record number of links in this post.
Posted on August 2, 2016
On Friday, the D.C. Circuit largely upheld EPA’s Boiler MACT rule. The industry challenges were a complete washout. The environmental petitioners won one significant victory and a number of smaller ones.
The environmental petitioners’ one significant victory is important. EPA included within relevant subcategories any source that burns a fuel containing at least 10% of the “subcategory-defining fuel.” However, for defining MACT, EPA included only those sources that burn fuel containing at 90% of the subcategory-defining fuel for existing sources, and 100% for new sources. The Court rejected this approach.
"The CAA, however, demands that source subcategories take the bitter with the sweet. Section 7412 mandates, without ambiguity, that the EPA set the MACT floor at the level achieved by the best performing source, or the average of the best performing sources, in a subcategory. It thus follows that if the EPA includes a source in a subcategory, it must take into account that source’s emissions levels in setting the MACT floor."
Which brings me to my big take-away from this decision. Chevron lives. By my count, The Court cited Chevron 30 times. Chevron pervades the decision. Even in the one big issue that EPA lost, the Court’s decision was based not on a rejection of EPA’s interpretation of an ambiguous provision under step 2 of Chevron, but on a plain meaning interpretation of § 112. EPA defined what a source is, but it then refused to calculate MACT based upon the performance of all of the sources in a given subcategory. The statute simply did not allow EPA that leeway.
Other than EPA’s attempt to avoid taking “the bitter with the sweet”, however, the Court’s deference – by three Republican appointees – to EPA’s technical decisions was notable. Not every case is the Clean Power Plan. Where EPA is not really pushing the boundaries, I don’t see the Supreme Court weakening Chevron any time soon.
Posted on June 17, 2016
If you needed any further proof that energylaw is very complicated, Wednesday’s decision in North Dakota v. Heydinger should convince you. The judgment is simple – the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Minnesota statute which provides in part that:
"no person shall . . . (2) import or commit to import from outside the state power from a new large energy facility that would contribute to statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions; or (3) enter into a new long-term power purchase agreement that would increase statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions."
Why, you ask?
- The panel opinion, by Judge Loken, stated that the Minnesota statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, by regulating purely “extraterritorial” economic activity.
- Judge Murphy, in the first concurrence, disagreed with Judge Loken’s conclusion that the statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, but joined the judgment, because she concluded that the statute is preempted by the Federal Power Act.
- Judge Colloton, in the second concurrence, agreed with Judge Murphy that the statute does not violate the dormant clause, but also concurred in the judgment. Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the “statute bans wholesale sales of electric energy in interstate commerce,” it is preempted by the Federal Power Act. However, Judge Colloton wrote separately, because he at least partially disagrees with Judge Murphy (as well as with Judge Loken) and does not believe that the Minnesota statute constitutes a complete ban on wholesale sales of energy that increase CO2 emissions. However, Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the statute is not preempted by the Federal Power Act, it is preempted by the Clean Air Act.
Is that sufficiently clear?
I do feel compelled to add two final notes. First, I don’t understand why Judge Loken wrote the panel opinion, when his rationale did not command a majority. Indeed, as Judge Colloton pointed out, the Court should not even have reached the constitutional issue, since a panel majority existed that was prepared to strike down the Minnesota statute on statutory grounds. (Preemption is considered a statutory, not a constitutional, rationale.)
Second, don’t analogize the electric energy transmission to the flow of water in a pipe, at least before Judge Murphy. Here’s your electricity and magnetism primer for the day, courtesy of the Judge.
"In the electricity transmission system, individual electrons do not actually “flow” in the same sense as water in a pipe. Rather, the electrons oscillate in place, and it is electric energy which is transmitted through the propagation of an electromagnetic wave.
Certainly brought me back to course 8.02 at MIT. Not one of my favorites.
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 7, 2016
Clean Power Plan (CPP) groupies are beside themselves over the D.C. Circuit’s surprise “straight-to-en banc” move for CPP judicial review. The buzz is mostly over the survivability of the CPP’s interpretations of Clean Air Act (CAA) §111(d) in light of the nine judges’ dispositions.
I won’t weigh in on that issue here. My target is another issue, one that has been lurking in the background and has bugged me greatly for the last couple of years. Now that the issue is before an en banc panel, I am fervently hoping the Court will do what only en banc panels can do: declare that a few recent D.C. Circuit rulings are wrong.
The issue involves garden variety adlaw: should the CPP be vacated because EPA failed to propose or adequately foreshadow key elements of the final rule? Parties attacking the CPP have advanced this argument, and EPA has defended on numerous grounds that its notice was adequate.
I won’t opine here on whether EPA’s notice was adequate. My beef is with EPA’s fall-back defense: EPA’s argument that even if there were wholly insufficient notice of the CPP’s final provisions, the Court has no authority to vacate the CPP on those grounds.
EPA’s theory is that since CAA §307(d)(7)(B) provides that only an issue raised in public comments can be raised on judicial review, a final rule that was never proposed cannot be challenged on judicial review because there were no public comments on that provision. Yep, read on.
EPA argues that parties claiming a final rule was never proposed must instead file administrative petitions for review under CAA §307(d)(7)(B) and wait (usually for a few years, if ever) for EPA to act on those petitions. In the meantime, under EPA’s position, regulatory provisions that were never proposed or foreshadowed must go into full force and effect.
This means that EPA can get away with murder, at least in the adlaw context. Just forget the bedrock principle that an agency can impose and enforce only those rules that have first been proposed. Under EPA’s position, the bedrock is blown away by a Richter 8.8 otherwise known as CAA §307(d)(7)(B).
In the last two years, EPA has managed to convince D.C. Circuit panels to accede to this unfair and baseless approach. See my 2015 ACOEL post discussing these opinions. In a piece I published in Bloomberg BNA in 2014, I showed how the D.C. Circuit had never previously interpreted CAA §307(d)(7)(B) in this fashion , and had on many occasions vacated final rule provisions that had never been proposed.
As explained in the above-cited pieces, the absurdity of EPA’s position is that final rules will go into full force and effect against parties because they failed to object to something they could not object to. This just can’t be right. The en banc CPP panel should do the right thing and declare the three most recent decisions to be wrong.
[Mr. Stoll is not representing any party in the pending D.C. Circuit CPP judicial review proceedings.]
Posted on May 19, 2016
Three companion decisions in Atlantic Richfield Co. v. U.S. et. al., Case No. 1:15-cv-00056, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, provide insight on the CERCLA statute of limitations, potential pitfalls in pleading CERCLA claims, and the defense of sovereign immunity by an Indian Pueblo in the context of CERCLA and contract claims. The case remains pending.
In the 1940s, when the war was over, the federal government was in the market for uranium concentrate for bombs, and it encouraged private entities to mine and mill uranium for sale to the government at prices set by the government. Much of the country’s uranium reserves were in the Grants Uranium Belt in western New Mexico, an area that includes the Laguna Pueblo.
Uranium was discovered on Laguna Pueblo lands in 1952, and Anaconda Copper Mining Company entered into mining leases with Laguna, which were approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, acting pursuant to its trust responsibility to the Pueblo. Much uranium was mined there from the Jackpile Paguate mine beginning in 1952, and operations continued until 1982. In 1986, the Pueblo and Anaconda’s successor, Atlantic Richfield Co. (“ARCO”), entered into an agreement to terminate the leases and perform remediation. ARCO agreed to pay the Pueblo to perform remediation, and the Pueblo agreed to assume all liability and release ARCO regarding it. The Department of the Interior approved the agreement and, following the preparation of an EIS, BLM and BIA issued a ROD that established requirements for the remediation. ARCO paid $43.6 million to the Pueblo to perform the remediation and release ARCO.
All defendants were involved in varying degrees with the remediation. BIA had responsibility to determine the extent of remediation required and approve key remediation decisions according to a cooperative agreement with the Pueblo. But BIA and the Pueblo saw in ARCO’s $43.6 million payment an economic development opportunity. The Pueblo formed Laguna Construction Company (“LCC”) to conduct the remediation, and BIA ceded certain oversight to the relatively inexperienced LCC as well. Work on the initial remediation ended in 1985. Beginning in 2007 the Pueblo, and then EPA, investigated the adequacy of mine reclamation at the mine site and found problems. In 2012 EPA proposed listing on the NPL, and in 2014 it asserted that ARCO should fund the RI/FS, but EPA has brought no litigation.
ARCO claims that the remediation was mishandled and brought CERCLA claims against the United States, the Pueblo and LCC, seeking cost recovery, contribution, and declaratory relief. The United States moved to dismiss. In detailed decision by Senior United States District Judge, James A. Parker, all of ARCO’s claims against the United States were dismissed. In companion decisions, some claims against the Pueblo and LCC were dismissed and some survived motions to dismiss. Dismissals were based in part on the CERCLA statute of limitations, the court’s determination that the ARCO pleadings were deficient and sovereign immunity.
ARCO sought to recover two categories of response costs: (1) the $43.6 million it paid to the Pueblo in 1986 in exchange for the Pueblo’s agreeing to be responsible for the remediation and to release ARCO from all responsibility for it; and (2) the significant costs ARCO incurred in responding to EPA’s more recent efforts to shift responsibility to ARCO. The Court dismissed ARCO’s claims for cost recovery and contribution for the 1986 settlement payment as time barred. The Court dismissed ARCO’s claim to recover the costs in responding to EPA and associated investigation as inadequately pled to establish that the expenditure constitutes “necessary costs of response.” Claims for contribution under 113(f)(1) (referenced by the court as “post judgment contribution claim”) were dismissed as premature because ARCO had not been sued. Finally, the claims against the United States for declaratory judgement were dismissed; the court ruled that ARCO cannot bring a claim for declaratory relief because it has failed to establish a valid underlying contribution or cost recovery claim.
Claims against the Pueblo and LCC are somewhat more complicated as a result of sovereign immunity defenses they raised. The court considered the sovereign immunity defense asserted by both Laguna Pueblo and LLC, its federally-chartered Tribal Corporation. The Court concluded that both the Pueblo and LCC are entitled to assert sovereign immunity as a bar to ARCO’s CERCLA claims because the language of existing waivers of sovereign immunity was not unequivocal enough to cover CERCLA claims. The Court therefore dismissed those CERCLA claims. However, the court found that the Pueblo and LCC waived sovereign immunity with regard to ARCO’s breach of contract claims. The source of this waiver for the Pueblo is in the 1986 Agreement to Terminate Leases. The court found that this agreement served to waive sovereign immunity from claims brought under that contract. Regarding LCC, the source of the waiver of sovereign immunity for breach of contract claims was in the Articles of Merger associated with the merger of LCC from a New Mexico corporation to a federal LCC formed under 25 USC §477, which may assert sovereign immunity. A motion for reconsideration by LCC is pending.
Although the facts of Atlantic Richfield are unique, its lessons are broader. First, in pleading a CERCLA claim for cost recovery, care should be taken to allege in some detail facts which support all elements of the claim, including facts showing that necessary response costs within CERCLA were incurred. Second, without adequate waiver of sovereign immunity, the settlement and payment in exchange for a release and commitment by a tribe or tribal corporation to assume full responsibility for clean-up may leave the door open for CERCLA liability in the future without recourse through CERCLA-based contribution and cost recovery claims. Finally, although the court’s decision confirmed that the defense of sovereign immunity applies to CERCLA contribution and cost recovery claims brought by private parties against sovereign Indian tribes and their federally chartered corporations, the court’s analysis confirms that under the right circumstances, a tribe may waive its sovereign immunity protections.
Posted on April 26, 2016
Two legal rules frequently come into play in environmental tort cases that are difficult to reconcile: the rule allowing recovery for emotional distress damages without physical injury if someone is found to be in the “zone of danger,” and the rule not allowing recovery for mere fear of a future injury.
Normally, recovery for emotional distress (sometimes called mental anguish) requires the plaintiff to suffer some actual physical injury, however slight. But one exception allows someone who is in the “zone of danger” to recover despite the lack of any physical injury. Usually, the danger must be an immediate physical injury. For example, one case allowed recovery for emotional distress under a “zone of danger” theory for the driver at whom a gun was pointed, but not for the passenger in the same car. Another case allowed recovery to someone who had to escape his burning home, and then watched it burn to the ground, but not for someone who merely saw his house burning when he returned from work. Yet another case allowed recovery for floodwaters entering a home because the floodwaters were infested with snakes. Presumably, without the snakes, there could have been no recovery for emotional distress for the flood.
How does this “zone of danger” rule square with claims in environmental tort cases? Many courts do not allow recovery for a mere fear of an injury in the future, or so-called “cancerphobia” cases. Despite this rule, can one recover for emotional distress in, for example, an air pollution case, arguing that the plaintiff is in the “zone of danger” despite no present physical injury?
Plaintiffs in environmental tort cases, such as flooding, air pollution, and others, have indeed been asserting “zone of danger” theories to avoid the physical injury rule, and are asking juries to award them emotional distress or mental anguish damages. These claims must walk a fine line, since most courts do not allow recovery for mere fear of future injury. Where is that line drawn in an environmental tort case? For example, since presumably any amount of air pollution is bad for one’s lungs, is mere exposure to air pollution enough to recover for mental anguish for worrying about one’s self or one’s children? Or is this argument simply an end run around the ban on recovery for fear of future injury? Courts will have to draw lines in these environmental tort cases, and the lines they draw may not all be bright or easy to see.
Posted on April 18, 2016
As reported by Seth Jaffe in this space, a federal magistrate judge in Oregon has kept alive the dreams of a group of young plaintiffs—aided by environmental advocacy groups—to compel government action against climate change. Like a similar case brought by the same plaintiffs a few years ago in state court, discussed below, the federal case seeks a declaration that government inaction violates the public trust. But in the federal case, plaintiffs added claims that their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property also are being violated.
The judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the matter is a political question better left to Congress. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin reasoned that the pleadings were adequate on their face and that the substantive issues raised by the defendants should await motions for summary judgment or trial. Still, the judge gave hope to the plaintiffs, which, I think will be short lived. Climate change is simply too big, diffuse and complex an issue for the courts to try to fashion a remedy around.
This same group of plaintiffs has had mixed success in pursuing its objectives at the state level. In June 2014 I posted about the Oregon Court of Appeals reversing and remanding a trial court’s dismissal of a similar claim against the state. The appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to a determination whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource and whether Oregon state government had breached its fiduciary responsibility by not adequately protecting it. On remand, Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten H. Rasmussen granted the state summary judgment and dismissed the suit with prejudice. The case is now again pending before the Court of Appeals.
In his 19-page opinion, Judge Rasmussen concluded that the public trust does not extend to the atmosphere. The contours of the public trust are a matter of state common law, and Oregon law ties the public trust to title and restraints on alienation. The court concluded that there could be no title in the atmosphere and therefore public trust fiduciary obligations do not exist. The court also noted that traditional public trust resources, such as submerged lands, are exhaustible, which under Oregon law confers a fiduciary responsibility on the state. While the atmosphere may be altered or even damaged, the court found that it is not exhaustible.
The court added the following thought, which I think will guide the U.S. District Court when it hears the current case:
The Plaintiffs effectively ask the Court to do away with the Legislature entirely on the issue of GHG emissions on the theory that the Legislature is not doing enough. If "not doing enough" were the standard for judicial action, individual judges would regularly be asked to substitute their individual judgment for the collective judgment of the Legislature, which strikes this Court as a singularly bad and undemocratic idea.
Watch this space for further developments in Oregon state and federal courts.
Posted on April 13, 2016
Late last week, Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin concluded that the most recent public trust case, which seeks an injunction requiring the United States to take actions to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 parts per million by 2100, should not be dismissed.
The complaint here is similar to, but broader than, others of its ilk. As we noted previously, at least one federal court has already held that there is no public trust in the atmosphere. Perhaps in response to that case, the plaintiffs here appear to have focused their arguments on the government’s public trust responsibilities with respect to various waters of the United States, though the opinion does not make clear precisely what the complaint alleges to be the subject of the public trust obligation.
The plaintiffs not only allege that the United States has violated its public trust obligations, but that that violation in turn constitutes a violation of the plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights. Magistrate Judge Coffin takes pains to make clear that this is only about a motion to dismiss, but I still think he got it wrong.
Indeed, I think that Magistrate Judge Coffin ignored that well known latin maxim: “Oportet te quasi ludens loqui.” (Which is how the on-line translator I used translated “You must be joking.” I hereby disclaim any warranty that this is even close to correct.)
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in judicial restraint. And that applies to everyone. Traditionally, conservatives have accused liberals of judicial activism. To my totally objective mind, in recent years at least, it is the conservative judges who could more fairly be called activist. For one case, at least, the shoe seems to be back on its original foot. I just cannot see this decision standing. The District Judge should reject Magistrate Judge Coffin’s Findings and Recommendation. If he or she doesn’t, this case is sufficiently novel and important to warrant interlocutory appeal, and the 9th Circuit should reverse. And if that doesn’t happen, it will be up to the eight (oops, I meant nine) members of the Supreme Court to get it right. One of them surely will.
Posted on March 10, 2016
The law is full of fine distinctions. Today’s example? A divided 10th Circuit panel affirmed dismissal of the Sierra Club’s citizen suit claims against Oklahoma Gas and Electric concerning alleged PSD violations at OG&E’s Muskogee plant because the Sierra Club did not sue within five years of the commencement of construction – even though Sierra Club did sue within five years of the completion of construction.
I have not seen any other cases present this issue so squarely. For the majority, the decision was relatively easy. Because the CAA has no limitations provisions, the default five-year limitations period set forth at 28 USC § 2462 applies. Section 2462 provides that suits must be brought “within five years from the date when the claim first accrued.” That “first accrued” language was Sierra Club’s downfall. The court decided that a claim “first accrues” when a plaintiff has a right to bring a claim. In the PSD context, that is when a defendant commences construction or modification without a permit. Because the Sierra Club did not file within five years after OG&E commenced construction, the complaint was late.
Not so fast, argued the dissent. As the dissent rightly noted, the CAA does not make commencing construction or modification without a required PSD permit a violation; it makes “the construction or modification of any source” without a permit a violation. Thus, the dissent argued, OG&E was still “constructing” its project without a permit during a period less than five years before Sierra Club brought suit and was still in violation, so the suit was timely.
I should note that, whether the dissent is correct or not, it did rightly distinguish two other cases, United States v. Midwest Generation and United States v. EME Homer City Generation, which have been cited in opposition to “continuing violation” theories. As the dissent emphasized, those cases concerned whether operation of the modified facility, after construction was complete, constituted continuing violations. The dissent agreed that post-construction operations cannot effectively toll the statute of limitations. However, that is a different question than whether continuing construction keeps the limitations period open. Indeed, the EME Homer City decision specifically contemplated the possibility that:
"the maximum daily fine accrues each day the owner or operator spends modifying or constructing the facility – from the beginning of construction to the end of construction."
That sounds like a basis for new claims accruing each day, thus triggering a new limitations period. I think that this case is a close question. However, as interested as the Supreme Court seems to be in the CAA these days, I don’t see it taking this case, and certainly not before there is a circuit split on the issue.
What is impossible to determine is what caused the Sierra Club to wait. Why take the chance? It does seem a self-inflicted wound either way.
(Very quickly, I’ll note that the majority also dismissed Sierra Club’s injunctive relief claims under the concurrent remedies doctrine. That’s an important issue, but not a difficult or interesting one, at least where the government is not a party.)
Posted on February 24, 2016
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has promulgated new regulations involving the original procurement and renewal of Right-of-Ways (ROW) on tribal and allottee lands which take effect on March 22, 2016. These new rules will replace those in place since 1947, creating a series of significant problems. This post lists the problems and suggests a legislative solution.
1) Majority Consent of Life Estate Heirs is Needed for ROW to be Granted or Renewed
The new rules limit the length of a ROW to 20 years. The ROWs are not subject to state or local laws, and the new rules impose consent and approval requirements that do not appear in the current regulations. Under the current law, voluntary agreements could be struck between tribes, allottees, and a company, so long as the BIA Regional Director approved the deal. The BIA would approve if a majority of the allottee landowners consented and the amounts of money paid for the ROW were not less than the fair market value (FMV) of the allotment parcel. Under the new rules, however, the company must obtain a majority consent for the original ROW or renewal thereof, not only from the living life estate allottees, but from their heirs as well. This presents a huge obstacle, as companies will now have to find each of the heirs and then attempt to bargain with them individually. Under the current rules, if agreement could not be reached, then the company was free to use a 1907 statute to condemn the allottee land but never the tribal land.
2) Life Estate Holders Can Withdraw Previously Granted Consents
In two separate New Mexico ROW cases involving Western Refining’s pipeline and Public Service of New Mexico’s (PNM) overhead wires, the companies both originally obtained the written consent of a majority of the life estate holders who were paid fair market value for their consent. However, upon the BIA Regional Director finding a lack of a majority of heirs consenting, certain life estate holders informed the BIA that they were “unconsenting” in order to hold out for better compensation, even though they had cashed the original checks. Because the BIA allowed the holdouts’ action of “unconsenting” to stand, the companies lost their majority consent of life estate holders. Attorneys for the life estate holders are now suing PNM for trespass in federal court in Albuquerque.
3) Fair Market Value Has Become a Floor in Negotiations Rather Than an Appraisal Standard
Since the 1947 statute came into existence, the fair market value (FMV), as determined by BIA-qualified appraisers, of the allotment acreage to be crossed by the pipeline served as the negotiation basis between the company and individual allottees. The allottees, knowing that their land could be condemned under the 1907 statute dealing with ROWs, often bargained for a payment that was two or three times FMV. However, under the new regulations, FMV is a starting point, non-binding and irrelevant to an allottee who believes that the sky is the limit when dealing with large corporations.
4) The Condemnation Alternative is Under Attack Due to Tribal Ownership of Undivided Interests in Allotments
In the Public Service of New Mexico federal district court litigation, PNM sued the allottees of several allotments under the New Mexico condemnation statutes after failing to obtain the consent of a majority of life estate heirs for a 20-year renewal. The federal judge dismissed the condemnation lawsuit, because recently deceased allottees left their interests to the Navajo Nation. Even though those interests amounted to less than 1% of the entire allotment, the court labeled that interest tribal land, recognized the Navajo Nation’s sovereign immunity from suit, declared the Navajo Nation an indispensable party, and dismissed the lawsuit. PNM is appealing the dismissal to the Tenth Circuit. Without the ability to condemn, pipelines will be left only with choice of either paying ransom under the 1947 statute or facing allottee trespass actions.
Western Refining has also filed a condemnation suit against the unconsenting allottees under the New Mexico condemnation statutes. The case is before a different judge than the PNM case and is currently stayed pending a decision from the Interior Board of Indian Appeals on the majority consent of heirs issue.
The best solution to the four problems above requires the active involvement of the Legislative Branch.
Utilizing its plenary authority concerning tribal issues, Congress should pass amendments to the 1907 and 1947 statutes or create new legislation supplanting the current law that:
- Eliminates the need for heirs to consent
- Eliminates the ability of consenters to unconsent once consideration is paid
- Re-establishes the sufficiency of fair market value as the basis for the compensation to be paid
- Guarantees the right of pipeline owners to condemn allottee land regardless of partial tribal ownership
Nothing less than the free flow of energy-oriented interstate commerce is at stake.