If It Walks Like a Duck and Talks Like a Duck, It May Still Not Be Sauce for the Gander

Posted on August 23, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the “Wehrum Memo,” which reversed EPA’s longstanding policy of “once in, always in” regarding MACT jurisdiction, was not final agency action subject to judicial review.  Like Judge Rogers, I dissent. 

The majority makes much of its effort to clarify this “byzantine” area of the law.  My take is that, to the extent the court has succeeded in that effort, it is only by reducing the law to this simple rule:  If the guidance document appears to impose obligations on the regulated community, then it is a regulation and can be challenged.  If it lessens obligations on the regulated community, then it is guidance and may not be challenged.

This may benefit my clients, but seems an odd view of the law.

The majority and dissent agreed that the Wehrum Memo was the “consummation” of EPA’s decision making process.  The question thus became whether it constituted an agency action “by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.”  The Court concluded that the Wehrum Memo does not have such an effect, because parties currently subject to MACT can only take advantage of EPA’s new policy by seeking to amend their Title V permit, and states can ignore the Wehrum Memo and permits can, in any case, always be appealed.

However, as Judge Rogers’s dissent noted, the Court pretty much had to ignore the decision Appalachian Power v. EPA, in which the Court stated that “’rights’ may not be created, but ‘obligations’ certain are….  The entire Guidance … reads like a ukase.”

When one reads Appalachian Power together with Sackett v. EPA, one conclusion becomes clear – courts are not going to allow agencies to promulgate guidance that allows them to exercise coercion against regulated entities who face significant costs and risks if they ignore the enforcement implications of agency “guidance.”

On the other hand, the courts seem to have concluded, if the guidance benefits the regulated community, then there is no harm to making those who want to challenge the guidance wait until some formal appellate opportunity becomes ripe at some point in the future.  However, as Judge Rogers pointed out, “legal consequences flow” from the Wehrum Memo as soon as major sources take enforceable limits to get below MACT thresholds.

I’m very skeptical that the decision contributes towards “clarifying this somewhat gnarled field of jurisprudence,” unless the Court really does intend the law to be that regulated entities can challenge guidance, but others cannot.

Twenty Years of Waterkeeper Alliance: How the Waterkeeper Movement Shaped and Was Shaped by U.S. Environmental Law

Posted on August 6, 2019 by Karl Coplan

In the late 1980s, when I was an associate at the environmental boutique law firm of Berle, Kass, and Case in New York City, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and John Cronin came to visit the firm to discuss a new project they had started with sportswriter and Hudson River environmentalist Bob Boyle. Boyle wanted to take the British estate tradition of having a streamkeeper to protect streams from poachers and expand it to the entire estuary. Boyle’s organization, the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, had designated Cronin as the Riverkeeper for the Hudson River estuary, patrolling it for polluters and other modern-day river poachers. Thus was born the idea of having Waterkeepers – individuals acting as non-governmental environmental monitors and enforcers, supported by local, waterbody-based grassroots organizations. The Waterkeeper idea caught on – programs were started in San Francisco, Atlanta and Portland, Maine at about the same time.  And in 1999, the fledgling Waterkeepers formed an alliance to spread the Waterkeeper model and support the growing network of Waterkeeper organizations.

As Waterkeeper Alliance celebrates its twentieth anniversary, it is worth reflecting on how the movement has both shaped, and been shaped by, U.S. environmental law. In a way, the Waterkeeper movement was a natural outgrowth of mid-20th century developments in the law of judicial standing and the Congressional innovation of the environmental citizen suit. By mid-century, the Supreme Court recognized the role of public interest intervenors in agency proceedings, describing these participants as “private attorneys general.” The Riverkeeper concept sought to take this “private attorney general” idea literally and have non-governmental water monitors enforce the environmental laws.

Standing for private law enforcement was a potential hurdle, and the Storm King case on the Hudson River proved pivotal to opening up environmental enforcement standing to non-governmental plaintiffs. Bob Boyle wrote a Sports Illustrated article about the proposed Storm King pumped storage hydroelectric facility and the devastating impact it would have on the Hudson River striped bass fishery. This story led to the 1965 Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission case in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly recognized judicial standing based on non-economic recreational, environmental, and aesthetic harms.  A year later, Boyle founded the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, the predecessor organization to Riverkeeper.

The Supreme Court went on to adopt the Scenic Hudson standard for environmental standing in Sierra Club v Morton, but with an important limitation: organizational plaintiffs would have to show that some individual member of the organization personally suffered one of these environmental, recreational, or aesthetic injuries. This holding set the stage for the growth of waterbody-based grass roots membership organizations litigating to protect their waters from pollution – exactly what became the Waterkeeper model. And in the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments Congress gave such groups something to enforce and the means to enforce it, with strict permitting requirements for point source discharges, numeric permit limits, monitoring requirements, and, most importantly, specific authorization for citizen suits. Congress thus gave life to Waterkeepers as enforcers. In 1983, John Cronin became the Hudson Riverkeeper and started patrolling the river looking for cases to bring as a private attorney general.

While many of the early Clean Water Act citizen suits of the 1980s were brought by Natural Resources Defense Council, as the Riverkeepers, Baykeepers, and Soundkeepers popped up across the country, their influence on the development of US environmental law grew. The grass-roots membership model based on recreational use of rivers, lakes, sounds, and bays was a natural fit with environmental standing requirements. Not surprisingly, given their roots in the Storm King power plant fight, Waterkeepers have played an important role in ensuring regulation of power generation water intakes. John Cronin got the ball rolling when he successfully sued to force EPA to issue the long delayed cooling water intake structure regulations under Clean Water Act § 316(b). When EPA finally issued these rules, it was a Riverkeeper suit that prompted the Second Circuit to remand the rules to remove reliance on offsite restoration as “Best Technology” to reduce aquatic species impacts. It was also (less successfully for Riverkeeper) the same Riverkeeper litigation that later led the Supreme Court to graft cost-benefit analysis onto the “Best Technology” standard in Entergy v. Riverkeeper. Waterkeepers continue to play the role of regulatory watchdog over the power industry. This year, Waterkeeper Alliance won a case requiring reconsideration of the coal ash impoundment effluent limits under the Clean Water Act as well as another case requiring reconsideration of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulations governing disposal of power plant coal combustion residuals.

Waterkeepers played a key role in development of Clean Water Act regulations in other areas as well. Another one of the founding Waterkeepers, the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, helped bring combined sewer overflows to the regulatory agenda with a successful suit against the City of Atlanta for violating water quality standards. Long Island Soundkeeper brought the cases establishing that recreational trap and skeet shooting ranges required Clean Water Act permits for their discharges, and were responsible for cleaning up past lead shot and target contamination in water bodies. Waterkeeper Alliance brought one of the first cases seeking enforcement of Clean Water Act and RCRA requirements against massive hog Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Waterkeeper Alliance also brought a successful challenge to EPA’s revisions of the CAFO effluent limitations regulations.

The Waterkeeper movement has grown to over three hundred forty organizations in forty-seven countries, and Waterkeeper affiliates around the world are influencing the global development of environmental law just as the earliest Waterkeepers did in the United States.


NOTE: The author serves as outside counsel for Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, and is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance Board of Directors.

Because I Didn’t Say So!

Posted on August 5, 2019 by Brian Rosenthal

Major sources of air pollution must obtain a Clean Air Act Title V permit under their state’s EPA- approved implementation plan.  Permits, of course, can be challenged.  By petition to the EPA Administrator, the Sierra Club challenged a Utah permit in part based on a challenge to the standard used when the permit was issued in 1997! 

The challenge was denied.  The D.C. Circuit has exclusive venue for nationally applicable regulations or orders or issues of nationwide scope.  So, Sierra Club appealed to the D.C. Circuit but also filed a protective appeal in the Tenth Circuit in case the D.C. Circuit’s exclusive venue was not controlling.  Good move.  Because the issue involved a single permit from a single state, and because the Administrator used a “novel” interpretation of Title V limited to the specific circumstances presented and did not make a determination of nationwide relevance, venue was found to properly lie in the Tenth Circuit. 

It may be creative to conclude that venue is lacking because “the circumstances presented” by the federal air permit challenge are local in nature, but isn’t that always true in a decision on an air permit source with impacts in a single state?  If the Administrator had used other language intimating general application of a standard without a specific finding of a matter of nationwide effect, one has to wonder whether that would produce the same result.  So a word to the careful practitioner.  File the protective appeal in the issuing state’s circuit! 

HEY CONGRESS: PLEASE FIX THIS “JUST PLAIN NUTS” SITUATION

Posted on June 10, 2019 by Dick Stoll

Seth Jaffe’s recent ACOEL post correctly laments that the current judicial review regime for EPA’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule is “just plain nuts.”  He points to two recent (May, 2019) conflicting federal district court decisions, leaving the Obama WOTUS rule in place in one area and remanding it in another.

I similarly complained of a “whole lot of craziness going on” regarding WOTUS judicial review in my 2015 ACOEL post.  I related how inconsistent decisions coming out of various courts were leaving the rule in force in some states, yet throwing it out in other states.  Since then, we have seen even crazier situations with some counties left subject to the rule while other counties in the same State are not!

Here is a recent sad summary from the May 29, 2019 Inside EPA: “Due to a variety of district court decisions, the 2015 rule continues to apply in 23 states and 23 of New Mexico’s 33 counties, but it is blocked in 26 states and in the other 10 New Mexico Counties.”  And to make the patchwork even crazier, the 23 states where the rule remains in place are anything but contiguous – looking at a U.S. map, it appears someone threw darts.

As Rick Glick recently reminded us, we will soon have a brand new WOTUS from the Trump EPA folks.  This will inevitably trigger a slew of new judicial review actions in numerous federal district courts, with another crazy-quilt patch of inconsistent results sure to follow.

Seth appears to blame this situation on the Supreme Court, which ruled last year that initial judicial review of the WOTUS rule must lie in the federal district courts – not, as the federal government had urged, in a U.S. Court of Appeals.  Seth notes that “the Supreme Court had the luxury of ignoring the chaos that would ensue” from its decision.

I blame this situation squarely on Congress, however.  Given the way the Clean Water Act is drafted, I just don’t see how the Supreme Court could have ruled otherwise.  And it is telling that the Court’s opinion was unanimous.  That’s right, a unanimous opinion from this Supreme Court! 

The heart of the problem is straightforward.  Under the federal APA, direct judicial review of final agency rules lies in federal district courts except where Congress has provided that certain types of rules are to be reviewed directly in a Court of Appeals.  As I outlined in my 2015 “craziness” post, Congress has provided that all sorts of national rules under the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and many other statutes, shall be directly reviewed by a Court of Appeals.

But in 1972 Congress took a different approach in the Clean Water Act, and specified that only seven types of final EPA actions would be directly reviewed in a Court of Appeals.  As the Supreme Court unanimously ruled last year, the WOTUS rule does not fit within any of these seven types of actions.  As a matter of pure (and unfortunate) logic, this means the district courts have initial jurisdiction over the WOTUS rule.

The federal government argued before the Supreme Court that the policy arguments in favor of direct Court of Appeals review are overwhelming.  The crazy-quilt patchwork that would take years (probably decades) to resolve would be avoided, as federal rules would require challenges filed in various Court of Appeals circuits to be consolidated in one Court. 

I wholly agree with these policy arguments, and I believe it is up to Congress to fix this mess. Just a few words added to the CWA would do it.  For example, Congress could simply provide that final rules defining the extent of “waters of the United States” would be the eighth type of action subject to direct Court of Appeals review.  Or many other formulations with just a few words could do the trick.

I know we live in polarized political times, and it is hard to secure Congressional consensus on major issues like reproductive rights, immigration, etc.   But should it be polarizing to provide direct Court of Appeals review of a critical EPA rule to avoid “just plain nuts” and “whole lot of craziness” inconsistencies throughout the nation?  If it is, I think that is just plain nuts.

Woe is WOTUS

Posted on June 7, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

When the Supreme Court decided that the district courts had jurisdiction over challenges to the Obama administration WOTUS rule, I described it as a victory of the “give me a break” doctrine of statutory interpretation over the “just plain nuts” theory.  I also noted that the Supreme Court had the luxury of ignoring the chaos that would ensue.

Whatever one may think of the merits of the competing theories, two district court decisions in the past week have made clear that it is, indeed, just plain nuts to have these cases before the district courts.

First up, Texas v. EPA, in which Judge George Hanks (an Obama appointee, no less) ruled that EPA and the Corps of Engineers had violated the Administrative Procedure Act in two ways by promulgating the 2015 Rule.  First, while the proposed rule had defined “adjacent waters” based hydrogeological criteria, the final rule used specific numerical distance criteria instead.  The Court concluded that the use of distance criteria was not sufficiently anticipated in the proposed rule and thus EPA violated the APA when it failed to take comment on the new approach.  Judge Hanks also concluded that the 2015 Rule violated the APA because the Agencies relied on what is known as the “Final Connectivity Report,” even though the comment period closed before the Final Connectivity Report was available.  As a result, Judge Hanks remanded the 2015 Rule to the Agencies “for proceedings consistent with this order.”  Of course, the Agencies have already announced that they intend to replace the 2015 Rule, so I think we all know what those proceedings will be.

Next up, Oklahoma v. EPA, in which Judge Claire Eagan (a Bush appointee, no less!), refused to issue a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of the 2015 Rule.  Simply put, Judge Eagan was not persuaded by any of the declarations submitted by the plaintiffs that they would suffer irreparable harm if the 2015 Rule were to remain in effect in Oklahoma.  She described them as “speculative.”  This was particularly troubling because:

the 2015 Rule has been in effect for varying periods of time since this case was filed, and the State can identify no evidence of an aggressive expansion of federal regulation of Oklahoma waters. … This case has been pending for nearly four years, and the Court would have anticipated a showing of substantial, actual harm in support of a motion for preliminary injunction.

We now have a situation where an Obama appointee has remanded the 2015 Rule and a Bush appointee has refused to enjoin its enforcement.  I do get some pleasure from these two judges upsetting preconceived notions in this partisan age about what judges do and how they decide.

Beyond that, however, I have no idea what these cases mean for the enforcement of the 2015 Rule.  I understand that this may all soon be moot, but in the meantime, it’s hard to defend this as a logical system of judicial review of agency action.  Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that it’s just plain nuts.

A Rational Counter to the Green New Deal

Posted on May 15, 2019 by Dick Stoll

For anyone serious about climate policy, I highly recommend Bob Sussman’s Comment in the May 2019 Environmental Law Reporter. Sussman, a former high-ranking EPA official in the Clinton and Obama Administrations, has produced an amazingly comprehensive review of where we have been and where – in his view – we should be going with climate policy and law in the U.S.

He recommends a detailed mix of legislative and regulatory proposals covering all sectors of the economy.  His proposals are based (necessarily) on the assumption that Democrats will control both the White House and Congress beginning in 2021.  If this happens, he says, the Democrats “will need to be ready with a fully developed and actionable climate policy agenda . . . building this agenda will take time and must begin now.”

So is Sussman – like many Democratic Presidential candidates – endorsing the Green New Deal (GND)?  Hardly!  His baseline is to seek “economically responsible and realistic” measures.  And when he says “realistic,” he means politically as well as technically.

Sussman criticizes the GND as a “wild card” formulated by “idealistic newcomers” who could “unwittingly torpedo their own efforts.”  He urges those formulating new proposals to account seriously for concerns about (1) economic disruption, (2) an expansive federal bureaucracy, (3) picking winners and losers among energy technologies, and (4) the U.S. competitive position internationally.  Democrats, he writes, “need to acknowledge these political realities.” 

These are concerns and realities, of course, that the GND essentially flaunts.  He warns that the GND “will polarize the electorate and alienate the political center,” which would lead to “yet another policymaking failure that allows GHG emissions and global temperatures to continue to rise unchecked.”

Sussman’s detailed proposals are summarized neatly in Table I to his Comment.  He is realistic in dividing proposals that will need new legislation as opposed to beefed up regulations.  For instance, he is careful to note that cap-and-trade or “beyond the fenceline” approaches would need new legislation.  In this regard, he recognizes that anything like the ambitious Obama Clean Power Plan would be unlikely to survive judicial review given the current composition of the Supreme Court.

For the power and manufacturing sectors, he endorses legislation providing an integrated cap-and-trade system.  I have one caution in this regard.  I would hope that such legislation would not look very much like the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House in June, 2009 (and was never brought to the floor of the Senate).

As I wrote in a piece for BNA that year, the House bill contained short deadlines for dozens of new EPA regulations – deadlines that could never have been responsibly met. This would have set up an inevitable round of citizens suits forcing new deadlines coupled with massive judicial review opportunities.  All this in turn would produce tons of work for lawyers accompanied by very few tons of emission reductions.   Hopefully any new cap and trade legislation can be sufficiently specific on programmatic elements and numeric details so the program could get off the ground without suffering through years of judicial process.

North to the Future: Alaska and the Risks of Pursuing a Trump Legacy

Posted on April 5, 2019 by Peter Van Tuyn

On the last Friday in March, Judge Sharon Gleason of the Federal District Court for the District of Alaska issued two opinions in closely-watched cases* concerning federal public lands and waters in and offshore of Alaska.  In both cases, the Trump administration’s actions were overturned by the court, having immediate impact on two State of Alaska priorities and potential impact on a number of other State and private development efforts. 

The first case concerns a land trade approved by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in which the United States agreed to transfer formal Wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to an Alaska Native Corporation.  Izembek Refuge is internationally significant and of critical importance to many species of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl.  For example, virtually the entire global populations of Pacific Brant and Emperor Geese migrate through Izembek.  The land trade was intended to enable the construction of a road between the Alaska communities of Cold Bay and King Cove.  In multiple analyses since the 1980s the Interior Department had found that such a road would harm wildlife in the Refuge.  In 2013 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formally rejected a land trade due to harm it would cause to “irreplaceable ecological resources,” and because “reasonable and viable transportation alternatives” exist between the communities.  In 2018, Secretary Zinke reversed course and approved the land trade.  A coalition of conservation groups then sued.

In rejecting the land trade, Judge Gleason found that Secretary Zinke had not addressed anywhere in the record his reasons for reversing course; indeed, he had not even acknowledged the change in agency position. Relying on the seminal U.S. Supreme Court administrative law cases of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers v. State Farm and FCC v. Fox, which require an acknowledgement and reasoned explanation for such a change of course, Judge Gleason invalidated the land trade, writing that while a court should “‘uphold a decision of less than ideal clarity if the agency’s path may reasonably be discerned,’ a court may not ‘supply a reasoned basis for the agency’s action that the agency itself has not given.’”

Later that same day Judge Gleason issued an opinion in a challenge to a 2017 President Trump executive order concerning areas where offshore oil and gas leasing can take place.  In that case, conservation organizations and an Alaska Native-focused NGO challenged Trump’s  revocation of President Obama’s earlier withdrawals from oil and gas leasing of most of the United States’ Arctic Ocean and a number of canyons within the Atlantic Ocean. 

This lawsuit turned on an interpretation of presidential withdrawal authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Section 12(a) of OCSLA provides the president with the clear authority to withdraw certain areas of the Outer Continental Shelf from oil and gas leasing, and the central question in the lawsuit was whether it also provides authority for a president to undo existing  withdrawals that were intended, like Obama’s Arctic and Atlantic actions, to be of unlimited duration.  Judge Gleason found that section 12(a) authority works only in the direction of presidential withdrawals, and not the undoing (or “revocation”) of such withdrawals.

Looking to the future, should Acting (and likely soon-to-be-confirmed) Secretary David Bernhardt revisit the Izembek land trade, he will need to either win on appeal during his tenure (should he take one) or directly confront the agency’s previous rejection of a land trade and the reasons for that rejection.  Furthermore, Trump’s “energy dominance” effort to expand offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is dealt a blow.  Notably, the OCSLA issue is similar to one raised in litigation over Trump’s revocation of National Monument designations under the Antiquities Act and Judge Gleason’s treatment of the issue thus may influence other courts. 

More broadly than even these implications, the two Gleason decisions may portend the result of other Alaska-related federal policy and decision-making.  For example, the Corps of Engineers is fast-tracking Clean Water Act section 404 permitting for the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska.  And the proposed mine’s developers are trying to get EPA to reverse course on its intended use of its Clean Water Act section 404(c) authority to restrict or prevent any Corps’ permit for the mining of the Pebble ore deposit.  EPA’s proposed restrictions were based on a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which the developer had waived challenging in settling a previous lawsuit with EPA.  Given the clarity of Judge Gleason’s Izembek opinion on what it would take for the agency to reverse course, and the settled science of EPA’s watershed assessment, securing a 404 permit won’t be as simple for proponents as winning a policy argument, which appeared to be the case with the Izembek land trade. 

Looking back to the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with oil and gas lease sales on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge.  Critics of that effort, including a former Interior official, say the legal process is being illegally shortcut, which is an attribute it may thus share with the Izembek land trade.  Interior is also speedily-redoing a 2013 management plan for the 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve with a goal of expanding oil and gas leasing in the Reserve starting in 2020.    

Ironically, on Thursday, March 28, the day before Judge Gleason issued her decisions, Interior Secretary-nominee David Bernhardt had his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  This committee is chaired by Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is a supporter of expanded oil and gas development on federal lands in and offshore of Alaska.  The judicial smackdown the next day, however, is sure to complicate Bernhardt’s efforts to implement such an agenda before the next presidential term, which is the timeframe which appears to underly Interior’s and other agencies’ efforts on Alaska issues.  And if the rush to secure more decisions in this presidential term leads to more losses in court, Alaska development interests could face complicated bureaucratic and legal landscapes, and strong political backlash, well into the future.

* Izembek case:  Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, et al, v. Bernhardt, 3:18-cv-00029-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak).

* Arctic OCS case:  League of Conservation Voters, et al, v. Trump, 3:17-cv-00101-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak)

 

Down the Rabbit Hole: Injection Wells and Subsurface "Trespass"

Posted on March 29, 2019 by G. Alan Perkins

When an oil and gas operator obtains all proper permits for a saltwater disposal well and responsibly injects fluids into the approved deep subsurface formation, and some of the injected fluid ultimately migrates laterally within the permitted injection formation beneath the lands of another, has the operator committed an actionable trespass?  And if so, what should the measure of damages be?  Despite widespread use of injection wells under strict state and federal regulation, the law concerning subsurface “trespass” by fluids injected into disposal wells is spotty.  Many states have yet to directly address the issue.  Perhaps due to the proliferation of oil and gas production in regions of the country not accustomed to petroleum production, such cases are becoming more frequent.

Nearly all formations that contain oil or natural gas also contain saltwater.  So, it should come as no surprise that the process of producing oil and gas also produces saltwater – a lot of saltwater.  In 2007, the estimated volume of produced water from U.S. onshore oil and gas production was 21 billion barrels, or about 2.4 billion gallons per day.  Produced water that cannot be reused or recycled must be disposed of in a safe and effective manner.

Injection wells (often called “disposal wells” or “saltwater disposal wells”) that inject fluids associated with oil and gas production are considered “Class II” injection wells in the Underground Injection Control program.  Disposal wells typically inject produced water into zones depleted of oil and natural gas and that also naturally contain saltwater similar to the fluids being injected.  Such wells have been common in oil and gas producing states since the 1930s.  U.S. EPA reports that approximately 180,000 Class II injection wells operate in the United States. 

The industry, along with state and federal regulators, determined decades ago that the safest and most environmentally responsible way to dispose of produced water was through the proper use of injection wells.  Injection wells dispose of produced water in deep geological formations, isolated from underground sources of drinking water, to prevent soil and water contamination.  U.S. EPA regulates injection wells in accordance with stringent regulations pursuant to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and 33 states have delegated authority to be the primary enforcer (with a few others having joint authority with EPA).

Common law trespass can be described generally as “any entry on land that is in the peaceable possession of another, regardless of the willfulness of the entry, the degree of force used, the duration of the intruding presence, and the absence of damage to the land.”  Under the common law, an invasion alone was sufficient to sustain a trespass action, regardless of whether any damages could be proven.  This formulation may be adequate when applied to a pasture, home, or driveway.  But troublesome issues immediately arise when the focus turns to fluids moving unseen through geological formations thousands of feet below the ground surface.  Simply confirming whether the fluids in question are present in the deep subsurface of a particular tract of land is problematic, much less discovering how much is there and how long it has been there.

The common law cause of action for trespass was created before significant technological advances existed, such as the advent of aircraft and deep subsurface injection wells. Common law trespass typically involves the disturbance of the “peaceable possession” of property by another.  Surely, injecting produced water into a confined deep formation that already contains saltwater does not, in reality, disturb a landowner’s “peaceable possession” of his “property,” and thus should not give rise to an actionable trespass.  Just as a landowner does not “possess” the heavens, so neither should a property owner be considered to “possess” the deep subsurface unless he or she has at a minimum drilled a well or opened a mine to exploit it.

Over 70 years ago, in the well-known case of United States v. Causby, 328 U.S. 256 (1946), the common law yielded to societal needs to accommodate modern air travel so long as the use is regulated and does not unreasonably intrude on the owner’s use and enjoyment of the surface.  Class II commercial disposal wells are also highly regulated and serve an important societal purpose – the necessary, safe and environmentally protective disposal of vast amounts of produced water. The Ohio Supreme Court explicitly adopted this reasoning in expressing the law in Ohio with regard to migration of injected fluids from a disposal well, stating:

[O]wnership rights in today’s world are not as clear-cut as they were before the advent of airplanes and injection wells.  Consequently, we do not accept appellants’ assertion of absolute ownership of everything below the surface of their properties.  Just as a property owner must accept some limitations on the ownership rights extending above the surface of the property, we find that there are also limitations on the property owners’ subsurface rights.

Chance v. BP Chems., Inc., 670 N.E.2d 985, 992 (Ohio 1996).

Disposal of produced water is an essential part of the production of oil and gas, and it is impossible to accurately predict or restrict the movement of injected fluid through the injection zone.  Of course, some might advocate simply eliminating oil and gas production as a happy solution.  But realistically that is not going to happen anytime soon, and we should all agree that produced water should be handled in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.  Given the vital need for safe disposal of produced water, and the pervasive regulatory scheme governing such wells, the operator of a permitted injection well should not be subject to trespass liability for lateral movement through the permitted injection zone absent any damage.  Recognizing a per se trespass liability without any actual injury could impact many thousands of currently operating permitted injection wells, and essentially create a new strict liability tort.

Any Press Is Good Press

Posted on March 25, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, the Washington Post (subscription required) published an article about the Trump Administration’s inability to defend many of its policies in court. Yours truly was among those quoted. I liked the story and it was largely accurate, including its quotes from me, except that Fred Barbash stated that I had “been looking forward to deregulation under Trump.”  On that issue, I can only say that Fred and I had a misunderstanding, because I was never looking forward to deregulation under Trump.

Aside from the relatively unimportant and mildly humorous issue related to me maintaining credibility with a number of people whom I respect, I’m doing this post because that line highlights an important issue – there’s a significant difference between deregulation and regulatory reform. I think much of our environmental regulatory structure could benefit from reform, but I don’t question the benefits of environmental regulation and I don’t support “deregulation.”

Indeed, as the article demonstrates quite well, President Trump has shown no interest in regulatory reform.  He just wants to kill as many regulations as possible – or at least persuade his supporters that that’s what he wants to do.  Like so many things about this President, he doesn’t actually care about results as much as he cares what his supporters think about him – that’s one reason why the article is a valuable piece of reporting.

And that's also part of the reason why, as I said in the article, Trump has set regulatory reform back for years.  If we want widespread public support for regulation, we have to persuade people that regulations benefit them.  That’s why environmentalists shouldn't fear cost benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis; we need economic analysis to demonstrate the benefits of regulation.  We have a President who thinks all regulations are bad, but who cares only about the cost of regulations, not their benefits.  As a result,  cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis get a bad name.

And that’s bad for everyone.

Does the Clean Water Act Cover Discharges to or Through Groundwater, Part III?

Posted on March 7, 2019 by David Buente

In both 2016 and 2017, I blogged to discuss a key Clean Water Act (“CWA”) jurisdictional issue:  whether the indirect discharge of pollutants into groundwater which is hydrologically connected to a surface water of the United States is regulated under the CWA.  At the time, the district courts were split on this issue, and the only courts of appeals to rule on this point (a Fifth Circuit opinion from 2001 and a Seventh Circuit opinion from 1994) got the issue right by rejecting CWA or Oil Pollution Act jurisdiction over such discharges.  Since then, the landscape has shifted dramatically.  In 2018 alone, three circuit courts weighed in on this topic in five decisions.  And, as noted on this blog last month, the Supreme Court recently granted a petition for certiorari in one of these cases, meaning that years of confusion will finally be resolved, in some fashion, by 2020. 

The first circuit court to issue an opinion in 2018 was the Ninth Circuit in February 2018, in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui (the opinion was amended in March 2018).  That case addressed whether treated wastewater effluent which traveled from the County’s underground injection wells, through groundwater, into the nearby Pacific Ocean constituted discharges regulated under the CWA.  The Ninth Circuit held that the wastewater was a covered discharge since it came from a point source (the wells) and was “fairly traceable from the point source,” even if it did not make its way directly from the wells to the ocean. 

The next circuit to weigh in was the Fourth Circuit, in April 2018 in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P.  This decision held that the movement of gasoline which resulted from a pipeline spill in 2014 and was allegedly still seeping through groundwater approximately 1000 feet into surface waters constituted a CWA discharge, since it originated from a point source (the pipeline rupture) and there was evidence of a “direct hydrological connection between [the] ground water and navigable waters….”  This decision in fact expands the CWA even further than the Maui opinion, because it held that the CWA covered discharges when the original release of pollutants from the point source has ceased, but the pollutants continue to travel diffusely through groundwater.  In a September 2018 decision, a different Fourth Circuit panel in Sierra Club v. Virginia Electric & Power Company acknowledged the Upstate Forever panel’s adoption of the direct hydrological connection theory but rejected liability on the grounds that the coal ash landfills and basins at issue were not point sources.   

Finally, on the same day in September 2018, the Sixth Circuit issued decisions in Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Company and in Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority.  Both cases dealt with alleged discharges through groundwater from coal ash basins to navigable waterways.  Contrary to the Fourth and Ninth Circuits (and in line with the earlier circuit court case law), the Sixth Circuit held that groundwater was not a point source and that these discharges are not regulated since they must be directly from the point source to a water of the United States.

Petitions for writs of certiorari before the Supreme Court have proceeded on similar timeframes in the Maui and Upstate Forever cases.  In each case, the petitioners filed their petitions in August 2018.  The Maui petition addressed the indirect discharge via groundwater issue and a fair notice question.  The Upstate Forever petition raised both the indirect discharge through groundwater issue and whether an ongoing violation for purposes of a CWA citizen suit occurs when the point source ceased discharging but pollutants are still reaching navigable waters via groundwater.  In December 2018, the Supreme Court, signaling interest in the cases, requested the Solicitor General to file an amicus brief in both cases by January 4, 2019, expressing the view of the United States.  In that amicus brief, the United States urged the Supreme Court only to accept the Maui case, and only on the groundwater discharge issue.  The United States’ rationale was that Maui presented the groundwater discharge issue more squarely, since the ongoing violation issue in Upstate Forever was a threshold concern.  The brief separately observed that EPA was planning to take action shortly in response to its February 2018 request for comment on the groundwater discharge issue. 

On February 19, 2019, the Supreme Court, adhering to the United States’ request, accepted only the Maui petition and only on the groundwater discharge question.  The Maui case will likely be the Supreme Court’s most seminal CWA decision in over a decade, since the split decision in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  Industry should track this case closely, as its resolution will have an effect on everything from federal and citizen suit enforcement to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit requirements.   

Deadlines For Permit Issuance Are Double-Edged Swords

Posted on January 29, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

On Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that applicants for licenses under the Federal Power Act may not reach private agreements with states to circumvent the FPA requirement that states act on water quality certification requests under § 401 of the Clean Water Act within one year.

The facts are important here and somewhat convoluted.  The short version is that PacifiCorp operates a number of dams on the Klamath River.  In 2010, PacifiCorp reached a settlement with California, Oregon, and a number of private parties – not including the Hoopa Valley Tribe, the plaintiff here – to decommission certain dams and relicense others.  However, the decommissioning was dependent on certain third party actions, including, apparently, federal funding.  Part of the settlement required California and Oregon to “hold in abeyance” their § 401 certificate reviews.  Specifically, each year, PacifiCorp:

sent a letter indicating withdrawal of its water quality certification request and resubmission of the very same . . . in the same one-page letter . . . for more than a decade.

The Court was not pleased.

Such an arrangement does not exploit a statutory loophole; it serves to circumvent a congressionally granted authority over the licensing, conditioning, and developing of a hydropower project. … There is no legal basis for recognition of an exception for an individual request made pursuant to a coordinated withdrawal-and-resubmission scheme, and we decline to recognize one that would so readily consume Congress’s generally applicable statutory limit.

The Court limited its holding to the facts of this case; it does not apply, for example, to applications that are substantively amended and resubmitted.  It only applies to what PacifiCorp and the states unabashedly did here – reach a private agreement to get around the explicit provisions of the statute.

Nonetheless, it’s an important decision.  Based on data reported in the opinion, it may have a significant impact on a number of FERC licensing proceedings, where similar agreements may also be in place.

The decision also highlights an issue with these types of permitting deadlines.  These provisions follow a fairly well-trod path.  Some agency is slow in responding to permit applications.  A legislature responds by demanding that approvals be issued within a certain period of time.  The regulated community is happy.  Then, life moves on and, in the real world, parties realize that, for one reason or another, strict adherence to the statutory deadline is infeasible, impractical, or just plain not in anyone’s best interest.  They thus do what creative people do – they find a way around the deadline that was supposed to be protecting them.  Or, they try to do so until a court says no, no, no.

Be careful what you wish for.

A Diverse Chorus of Voices Seek to Be Heard in Utah Monuments Cases

Posted on January 7, 2019 by Brenda Mallory

December 4, 2018 was the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s proclamation disaggregating the boundaries and reducing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments, with Bears Ears being reduced by 85% and Grand Staircase by half, a total reduction of nearly two million acres. As we enter the second year of what many believe are illegal reductions, the litigation challenging the President’s actions continues to inspire broad public interest and controversy. 

On October 1, 2018, shortly after the D.C. federal district court refused the federal government’s request to transfer the lawsuits to the Utah federal court, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed sweeping motions to dismiss the five pending complaints, three associated with Bears Ears and two with Grand Staircase.  Among the plaintiffs were the coalition of Sovereign Tribes that spearheaded the monument designation of Bears Ears, local businesses, scientists, and environmental organizations. On November 15, the plaintiffs filed their briefs in opposition to the DOJ motions to dismiss. 

On or about November 19, amicus briefs were filed by a diverse array of parties in support of the plaintiffs, including state Attorneys General, members of Congress, natural resources law professors, archaeological associations, Tribal organizations, outdoor user groups, and locally elected officials in Utah. The amicus briefs, if accepted by the court, would provide important context about the impact of monument designations on the resources being protected by those designations and on the user communities. On November 27, DOJ asked the court to deny all amicus briefs other than that filed by the Attorneys General, including the brief filed on behalf of 118 members of Congress. At the time this blog was finalized, the court has not yet ruled on the motion. DOJ filed its reply to the plaintiffs’ opposition briefs on December 13.

The core of the litigation is whether the President has the authority under the Antiquities Act to revoke or substantially modify a predecessor President’s monument designation. The Antiquities Act gives the President the authority to “declare” as national monuments landmarks, historic and pre-historic structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interest and to “reserve” parcels that are “confined to the smallest area compatible” with protection of the objects. All five groups of plaintiffs argue that Congress did not delegate the authority to revoke or modify monuments to the President. The federal government’s motion to dismiss is based in part on traditional arguments about the lack of standing and ripeness. DOJ also makes more sweeping arguments that go to the heart of the case, asserting that plaintiffs’ claims fail as a matter of law, with its brief pointing to legislative history, the text of the statute, actions by previous Presidents, and the lack of action by Congress. Plaintiffs argue each factor the other way.

One highly consequential point on which the parties differ starkly is the impact of monument designations and the practical consequences for resource protection that flow from the Presidential act. DOJ asserts that other federal law provides sufficient protection absent such designation, and that any potential harm from President Trumps’ “UN-designation” will only occur if future activities, subject to future process, are authorized. DOJ further argues that the President has an ongoing, affirmative obligation to shrink the designated area if he believes it is not “the smallest area compatible” with protection of the objects, a key statutory term, as noted above.

The plaintiffs offer a compelling view of the weaker legal protections, imminent threats, and uncertainty that monument objects would face if monument boundaries could be redrawn to exclude them. On this point, in particular, amicus supporters offer context and experience to support Plaintiffs’ position. For example, the brief submitted by 118 Democratic members of Congress explains that the authority Congress delegated to the President under the Antiquities Act was intended to be “one-way” and constituted a logical choice since risks to objects require quick protective action while the removal of protections is better suited to the legislative process retained by Congress. The natural resource law professors offer a detailed description of how the Antiquities Act works in combination with other resource management statutes, including the Mining Law of 1872. Absent the monument designation, this law permits a wide range of ground-disturbing activities on public lands with minimal or no notice and generally with no prior approval.

Similarly, the archaeologists’ brief provides detailed examples of recorded historic sites that are no longer subject to the protections offered by a monument designation, with about half (1,910) of the 4,000 documented sites located within the original boundaries of Grand Staircase no longer having monument protection and approximately 73% of documented archaeological sites having been removed from the Bears Ears monument. The brief filed by the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments and their citizens, underscores the importance of the original Bears Ears designation to Native American history and culture and the harm associated with eliminating the Commission of Tribal Sovereigns which was established to ensure that the Tribes had enhanced participation opportunities in the long-term management of their heritage.

Communities and users dependent on monument designations, both in Utah and elsewhere, share how they rely on the monuments and have built systems and infrastructure around them based on an understanding of their permanence. The Attorneys General from Washington, California, Oregon, New Mexico, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New York describe how states enter cooperative management agreements, provide investments in infrastructure, change state rules and regulations, conduct state university research and preservation within monuments, and promote economic and health benefits for citizens. The Mayor of Salt Lake City and other affected officials emphasize the importance and economic reliance of gateway communities on monument designations, as well as the failure of the Trump Administration to hear all the local voices in reaching its decision on the monuments. The Outdoor Alliance describes how the monument designation changes the management of these resources and therefore the user experience. The Outdoor Alliance also counters the government’s suggestion that the lands would be similarly protected without monument status.

I find these points and other arguments made by the plaintiffs and amici supporting the plaintiffs very persuasive as they illustrate the complex array of interests harmed by President Trump’s proclamation. The federal government and its supporters from the State of Utah and the Farm Bureau took the opportunity to present their views in the December 13 filing. That may be a topic for discussion in later blogs.

Two Strikes Against the Administration’s WOTUS Suspension Rule

Posted on December 10, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

In August, a judge in South Carolina issued a nationwide injunction against the “Suspension Rule,” which delayed the effective date of the 2015 Waters of the United States rule.  Now, a judge in Washington has gone even further.  Judge John Coughenour has vacated the rule.

The core of the new decision is the same as that in South Carolina.  By refusing to take comment on the impact of the delay in the effective date of the WOTUS rule, the Administration acted arbitrarily and capriciously and thus violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

For my non-lawyer readers wondering what the difference is between a nationwide injunction against the Suspension Rule and vacatur of the Rule, I’m picturing a petulant President Trump, sitting in a corner.  First, his teacher tells him that he can’t play with his shiny new toy – that’s an injunction.  Then, still not satisfied, another teacher comes by and takes the toy away completely.  That’s vacatur.

A Sliver of Hope for the Government’s Remaining NSR Enforcement Cases?

Posted on October 16, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this month, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted something of a reprieve to EPA’s New Source Review enforcement initiative.  The Court first confirmed what everyone other than EPA and DOJ already knew – that failure to get a pre-construction permit is a one-time offense, so that penalty claims for alleged violations more than five years prior to filing are barred by the statute of limitations.

However, the Court then surprised most observers by holding that expiration of penalty claims did not doom the government’s claim for injunctive relief.  Specifically, the Court ruled that the “concurrent remedies doctrine,” which bars equitable remedies when no legal remedy is available, cannot be applied to a sovereign.

I’m not going to provide an exegesis of the doctrine, which carries more than a whiff of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.  I’ll settle for three points.  First, it may not be a legal doctrine, but I’d apply the doctrine of common sense, rather than the doctrine of concurrent remedies.  Given that all courts agree that NSR does not impose ongoing operational requirements, it doesn’t even make sense to me to think of ongoing forward-looking injunctive relief with respect to a one-time violation that may have occurred twenty years or more ago.

I’ll add to that a related point.  As other NSR cases have noted, many of these facilities have changed hands since the projects at issue were constructed.  In those cases, the former owners aren’t subject to injunctive relief, because they don’t own the facilities and thus have no ability to install BACT.  The new owners aren’t subject to injunctive relief, because they did not violate the Clean Air Act.  In these circumstances, are we really going to make the availability of injunctive relief subject to the random circumstance of which facilities have been sold and which have not?  That just seems nuts.

Finally, I’ll emphasize that EPA and DOJ shouldn’t get too excited over this decision.  The Court was very clear that it was not deciding whether injunctive relief was appropriate, only that it wasn’t barred by the statute of limitations.  The Court’s language was unlike any I’ve ever seen before and is worth a read:

On remand, the district court must further consider whether any equitable relief is appropriate and proper under the legal and factual circumstances of this case in which the legal relief has been time barred. We recognize that we are not giving the district court much guidance in this task. … Perhaps the answer to this knotty question of injunctive relief will reveal itself after a full hearing and the presentations of the parties. And we hope that we are not being too cowardly when we sincerely wish the district court good luck.

And I’m sure that the District Court will appreciate the 5th Circuit’s good wishes.

PFAS Compounds vs. Legionella -- Which is the bigger threat?

Posted on October 2, 2018 by Kenneth Gray

 

Recently, Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substance (PFAS) compounds have been dominating the national environmental news.  U.S. E.P.A. has named them as a priority for action.  In the several areas where the substances are found in groundwater, PFAS compounds dominate the local headlines.  The levels of detection and possible concern are extremely low, and the chemicals are almost ubiquitous in the environment, having been used for decades.  As manufactured chemicals, they suffer the usual popular and misguided presumption that they must therefore be bad, and there are manufacturers, industrial users, and water suppliers that have been the targets of anger and lawsuits. 

EPA’s national drinking water monitoring program for “unregulated contaminants” captured PFAS compounds several years ago, and significantly more testing is being undertaken. The former “emerging contaminants” have emerged with a vengeance.  https://bit.ly/2xnGi89  EPA soon will be providing additional guidance on risk levels for some PFAS compounds, and has recently committed to consider a national drinking water standard, among other possible regulatory actions.

Legionella pneumophila (Legionella) is a common bacteria that is found in nature, but can proliferate in certain human environments including hot water systems, shower heads and sinks, cooling towers, and hot tubs, among others, despite central treatment of drinking water.  Legionnaires Disease (LD) can and does kill, especially attacking those with weaker immune systems.  It is the most significant waterborne disease (about 60% of the outbreaks causing disease, and it is the only one causing death).  Data indicate that the disease is significantly on the rise around the country (only partly due to increased detection).   Where LD is discovered and results in illness and deaths, the disease has gotten significant press.  However, U.S. E.P.A. hasn’t yet called for national monitoring for Legionella, and there is no EPA-approved test method.  Although central treatment for bacteria and viruses is addressed in part by public water system disinfection, post-treatment testing and proliferation of Legionella hasn’t been formally addressed.

Scientists would agree that there are risks from PFAS compounds, but the toxicology is still developing and the most robust epidemiological data available do not indicate some of the risks suggested by some animal studies.  There is no such debate on Legionella – it is documented as a serious human health threat and has caused many deaths. The U.S.C.D.C. has indicated 90% of LD cases could have been prevented with better water safety management. While PFAS compounds can be tricky to test for and drinking water levels are being set in lower and lower parts per trillion, Legionella is easy and inexpensive to test for, and accurate, easy and cost-effective methods already exist.

Despite all this, PFAS compounds get more attention from media and regulators, and employ more laboratories and plaintiffs’ lawyers.  Like some current and former drinking water officials I know, I fear we are not focusing on the bigger health threat. 

Your thoughts? Let the informed debate begin.

 

How Much Does Trump Even Care About Deregulation?

Posted on September 13, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Rick Glick’s September 11 post discusses Judge David Norton’s August 2018 decision to issue a nationwide injunction against the Trump Administration’s “Suspension Rule,” which delayed implementation of the Obama Waters of the United States RuleAs noted in Rick's post, that case was not about the merits of the WOTUS rule.  It was simply about the Trump administration’s failure to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act in promulgating the Suspension Rule.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

The Administration’s failure to comply seems so obvious that one has to wonder whether the Administration even cared whether the Suspension Rule could survive judicial review.  Indeed, this case seems part of a clear pattern.  The Court noted as much in quoting a summary of such cases from the plaintiffs’ brief:

Clean Air Council v. Pruitt (vacating the EPA’s attempt to temporarily stay a Clean Air Act regulation without “comply[ing] with the … APA”); Open Communities All. v. Carson, (enjoining the defendant agency’s attempt, “without notice and comment or particularized evidentiary findings, … [to] delay[] almost entirely by two years implementation of a rule” adopted by the previous administration); Pennsylvania v. Trump (enjoining two new “Interim Final Rules” based on the defendant agencies’ attempt to “bypass notice and comment rule making”); Nat’l Venture Capital Ass’n v. Duke (vacating the defendant agency’s “decision to delay the implementation of an Obama-era immigration rule … without providing notice or soliciting comment from the public”); California v. U.S. Bureau of Land Mgmt. (holding that the defendant agency’s attempt to postpone a regulation’s compliance dates “after the rule’s effective date had already passed … violated the APA’s notice and comment requirements by effectively repealing the [r]ule without engaging in the process for obtaining comment from the public”); Becerra v. U.S. Dep’t of the Interior, (holding that the defendant agency violated the APA in “fail[ing] to give the public an opportunity to weigh in with comments” before attempting to postpone a rule that had already taken effect).

To which the Court added its own footnote:

To this litany of cases, the court adds two more from the last several months— Nat. Res. Def. Council v. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and Children’s Hosp. of the King’s Daughters, Inc. v. AzarAs these cases make clear, this court is but the latest in a series to recently find that an agency’s delay of a properly promulgated final rule circumvented the APA.  (My emphasis.)

I find it hard to believe that numerous smart lawyers, across a range of agencies, all suddenly forgot what the APA requires.  Isn’t it more likely that the Administration simply doesn’t care about the outcome?  The government of the most powerful nation on earth, that likes to think that it taught the world about democracy, doesn’t care about governing.  All it cares about is having Twitter material, to feed to its adoring fans and, equally importantly, to bait its many critics.

CAFO Odors and the Ghost of William Aldred

Posted on July 10, 2018 by Susan Cooke

The number and size of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have increased in recent years.  These operations keep large numbers of animals in a confined space and provide them with feed from offsite sources prior to their slaughter.  While generally viewed as cost efficient, CAFOs raise concerns about animal welfare and about their environmental impacts and effect on the health and quality of life for those living or working nearby.  Such concerns include the foul odors associated with the substantial quantities of animal waste that are generated, especially where such waste is discharged into pits and then flushed into open air lagoons.  The sludge in those lagoons sinks to the bottom and is periodically removed for land application and the liquid waste remaining at the top is sprayed as fertilizer onto adjacent fields.

The anaerobic reaction that occurs during pit and lagoon storage of the waste over an extended time period is the primary generator of such odor, the primary constituents being ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.  Anaerobic digesters and other technologies can be employed to reduce odor generation, with some also producing gases for fuel.  However, the costs of installing and operating such equipment can be substantial, and there are no specific requirements at the federal level mandating odor control or limiting ammonia or hydrogen sulfide emissions from CAFO operations.  Indeed, even the reporting of animal waste air emissions under the federal Superfund law and under EPCRA (as interpreted by EPA) is precluded under the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method (FARM) Act signed into law by Congress in March 2018

While there is little regulation at the federal level, some states have imposed limits on hydrogen sulfide.  For example, California has a one hour average standard and Minnesota has a 30 minute standard for H2S.  In addition, a few states have instituted odor standards covering some CAFOs, including Colorado’s odor standard, which is based on an odor dilution factor, for swine CAFOs above a certain size (i.e., the odor must be eliminated by a specified amount of dilution).  While most local ordinances covering odors enjoin nuisances in general, some have adopted a dilution factor standard that is generally applicable, such as the ordinance adopted in Denver, Colorado and that adopted in South St. Paul, Minnesota.

Even where CAFOs are singled out for specific regulation by state, the dilution factor standard is not often used, probably because it is in essence subjective in nature and thus quite different from most environmental emission standards.  Instead, states have generally adopted a management plan approach coupled with registration and periodic inspections.  For example, the environmental regulations covering odor control at CAFOs in North Carolina, which has a number of swine CAFOs in the southeastern portion of the state, do not include a specific standard covering odor.  Instead, those regulations impose setback requirements and provide for state agency inspections, and they empower that agency to require preparation and modification of a best management plan if it determines that odor control is necessary.

Given the absence of a specific standard for judging CAFO emissions, some neighbors of CAFO operations have brought tort suits for nuisance to address odor concerns.  In one case decided this past April, a jury awarded $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 10 neighbors of a North Carolina hog farm.  The plaintiffs claimed that the truck noise associated with farm operations and the odor associated with lagoon storage of waste from its 4700 hogs and the spraying of lagoon liquid onto nearby fields created a nuisance.

Although the federal court reduced recovery to $3.25 million under punitive damage limits imposed under the North Carolina Right to Farm Law, agribusiness interests raised strong concerns about the damage award and within weeks the North Carolina legislature had passed amendments to the state Right to Farm Law to further restrict tort recovery for alleged nuisances from agricultural and forestry operations.  Although those amendments (in Senate Bill 711) were vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper on June 25, the veto was overridden by both houses before their month-end adjournment.

The amendments, which are similar to statutory language already enacted in Missouri for facilities engaged in crop and animal production, would limit compensation to property located within one half mile of the alleged source of a nuisance at an agricultural or forestry operation.  In addition, the suit would have to be filed within one year of the operation’s establishment or of a fundamental change (which wouldn’t include, among other things, a change in ownership or size) to that operation, with compensatory damages limited to a reduction in fair market value of the plaintiff’s property for a permanent nuisance and to diminution in fair rental value for a temporary nuisance.  While punitive damages are already capped at a specified multiple of compensatory damages, the amendments would limit them to instances where, during the previous three years, the operation had been the subject of a criminal conviction or civil enforcement action or of regulatory action taken by the state or federal government pursuant to a notice of violation.

Such limits on monetary recovery for nuisance may encourage plaintiffs to seek injunctive relief to abate odors from CAFO operations.  And tort suits for nuisance animal odors have a long history, as evidenced by William Aldred’s Case dating back to 1610 where the Court of King’s Bench held that Mr. Aldred, whose house was situated within 30 feet of a later constructed hog sty, had a right to obtain abatement of the foul odor emanating from that hog sty.

In recent years the injunction remedy in a nuisance action has sometimes been disfavored, as illustrated in the Boomer v. Atlantic Cement decision where monetary damages were awarded rather than injunctive relief for operation of a cement plant.  There the court weighed the (lower) cost of compensatory damages versus the (significantly higher) cost associated with installing abatement equipment or requiring plant shutdown.  However, it now appears that determining “entitlements” under an economic efficiency analysis, such as that described in the oft-cited Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, is undergoing more critical academic scrutiny.

Moreover, animal welfare advocates, as well as those concerned about environmental justice or greenhouse gas emissions, and perhaps even property rights advocates, may add their own voices in support of the injunctive remedy option for stopping or curtailing CAFO operations.  If so, then the right of a landowner to quiet (and unscented) enjoyment of his or her property through an injunction, as enunciated by the King’s Bench more than 400 years ago, may prove to be the most effective remedy for those seeking to curtail CAFO odor emissions.

Still No Judicial Remedy For Climate Change — Don’t Expect Advocates To Stop Trying

Posted on July 3, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

On June 25th, Judge William Alsup dismissed the public nuisance case brought by the City of Oakland and the State of California against five major oil companies.  The suit sought payment of damages into a fund to be used for necessary adaptation expenditures to deal with sea level rise.  

Why did he dismiss the case?  Simple.  The courts are not the right forum in which to address the problems of climate change.  The more complicated answer?  Because AEP v. Connecticut held that the Clean Air Act displaces federal common law claims for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and because claims with respect to sales by the defendants outside of the United States could not be addressed by a U.S. court without violating the presumption against giving extraterritorial effect to U.S. laws.

Here, plaintiffs seek to impose liability on five companies for their production and sale of fossil fuels worldwide. These claims — through which plaintiffs request billions of dollars to abate the localized effects of an inherently global phenomenon — undoubtedly implicate the interests of countless governments, both foreign and domestic. The challenged conduct is, as far as the complaints allege, lawful in every nation. And, as the United States aptly notes, many foreign governments actively support the very activities targeted by plaintiffs’ claims. Nevertheless, plaintiffs would have a single judge or jury in California impose an abatement fund as a result of such overseas behavior. Because this relief would effectively allow plaintiffs to govern conduct and control energy policy on foreign soil, we must exercise great caution.

This order fully accepts the vast scientific consensus that the combustion of fossil fuels has materially increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which in turn has increased the median temperature of the planet and accelerated sea level rise. But questions of how to appropriately balance these worldwide negatives against the worldwide positives of the energy itself, and of how to allocate the pluses and minuses among the nations of the world, demand the expertise of our environmental agencies, our diplomats, our Executive, and at least the Senate.  Nuisance suits in various United States judicial districts regarding conduct worldwide are far less likely to solve the problem and, indeed, could interfere with reaching a worldwide consensus.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  I’ve always thought that these types of suits are not the way to address climate change.  I’ve recently acknowledged that, if the current administration continues to rely on fake news to formulate its position on climate change, courts at some point might conclude that the exigencies of the situation require them to act.  For now, we haven’t reached that point, and I hope we never do.

The Dutch Government Also Doesn’t Like Citizen Climate Litigation

Posted on July 3, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

As a follow-up to my earlier post about the dismissal of public nuisance claims brought by the City of Oakland and the State of California against five oil majors concerning their contribution to climate change, I note that ClimateWire (subscription required) is reporting that the Dutch government is appealing a court order that would require it to cut carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2030. 

The Dutch case is more similar to the Oregon children’s suit than Oakland litigation, because the Oregon case, like the Dutch case, is against the government, seeking further regulation, rather than against private parties, seeking damages.  All of these cases, though, present some of the same concerns regarding whether courts are the right place to make climate policy, as noted by the Dutch government spokesman, quoted in ClimateWire:

We also believe that renewable energy should be increased and CO2 emissions should be reduced, so this is really about something else: It’s about how the judge has intervened in something that’s [called] democracy, and actually democracy has been sidelined.

It would be nice if democracy could show a greater capacity for addressing climate change, but I still agree that sidelining democracy is rarely a good thing.  Of course, there are good scientific reasons why democracies don’t do so well at dealing with climate change.  Appeals to the courts may be unavoidable.

Florida Gets A “Do-Over”

Posted on July 2, 2018 by Karen Crawford

Florida v. Georgia, 585 U.S. ____ (2018), Slip Opinion No. 142, June 27, 2018

On June 27, in a 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS or the Court) rejected the Special Master’s conclusion that the Court could provide no relief to Florida for its claims of harm from Georgia’s upstream water usage from the Flint River, ultimately affecting downstream flow in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, a basin affected by operations of a dam and lake by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps).  SCOTUS reserved judgement on the ultimate outcome of the case, and sent the case back to the Special Master for further consideration with specific direction as to the additional factual findings it considered necessary to decide this case.

Citing several historical decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in equitable apportionment disputes over water rights between neighboring states, the Court characterizes the following guiding principles to be used in deciding such cases:

1.    The states possess an equal right to make a reasonable use of the waters in question.

2.    When confronted with competing claims to interstate water, the Court’s effort is to secure equitable apportionment, without quibbling over formulas.

3.    Given sovereign status and equal dignity, a complaining state’s burden is much greater than the burden ordinarily shouldered by a private party seeking an injunction, requiring a demonstration by “a clear and convincing evidence” that it has suffered a “threatened invasion of rights” that is “of serious magnitude.”

Once the Court finds the complaining State has met this burden, the Court must determine whether the State has shown it has not only some “technical right,” but a right with a “corresponding benefit” as a precondition to any equitable apportionment.  If so, then the Court will seek to arrive at a  just and equitable apportionment of an interstate stream, by considering all relevant factors, because equitable apportionment is flexible and should weigh all relevant factors by examining extensive and specific factual findings to properly apply the doctrine of equitable apportionment.  To do this, the Court has observed it must consider physical and climatic conditions, the consumptive uses in the several sections of the rivers at issue, the character of return flows, the extent of established uses, the availability of storage water/capacity, the practical effect of wasteful uses on downstream area, and the benefit to downstream areas against the damage to upstream areas if a limitation is imposed. 

In this case, however, the Court stated the Master instead made several assumptions regarding what should be key findings of fact, including that 1) Florida has suffered harm from decreased water flow into the subject basin, 2) Florida had shown that Georgia has taken too much water, and 3) inequitable use by Georgia had caused injury to Florida.  These assumptions were found by the Court to stop short of providing the necessary findings of fact required to decide the case.  As a result, all Parties agreed that the recommendation of the Special Master turned on one single, discrete issue --whether Florida has shown that a cap on Georgia’s consumption would address its injury if the decree did not bind the Corps as well.

The Court determined that the Master’s conclusion that Florida failed to meet its burden because it did not present “clear and convincing evidence” that its injuries could be redressed by a decree capping Georgia’s upstream water consumption if that decree does not also bind the Corps, was too strict a standard to apply to redressability at this point in the case.  The Court determined that the Special Master had not defined the approximate amount of water that must flow into the Apalachicola River in order for Florida to receive a significant benefit from a cap on Georgia’s use of the Flint River waters, and that unless and until that necessary fact was established, Florida needed only to show that, applying the principles of “flexibility” and “approximation”, it is likely to prove it is possible for the Court to fashion such a decree. 

The Court determined that further findings are needed on all of the evidentiary issues underlying the Master’s assumptions before the Master’s conclusion that Florida failed to meet its initial burden of demonstrating that the Court can eventually fashion an effective equitable decree could be reached and supported.  The Court stated that “to require “clear and convincing evidence” about the workability of a decree before the Court or a Special Master has a view about likely harms and likely amelioration is, at least in this case, to put the cart before the horse.”  The Court addressed here only that Florida had made a legally sufficient showing as to the possibility of fashioning an effective remedial decree, thereby meeting its burden.

The lengthy dissent ultimately agreed with the Special Master’s conclusion that the Corps would not change its operations during droughts if the Court capped Georgia’s water use, and thus Florida would not benefit during droughts.  Further, the dissent argued there was no need to remand the case for further findings by the Special Master as the evidentiary findings ultimately rest with the Court.  But the majority opinion discusses the differences of view as to interpretation of the facts related to estimated water flows, further emphasizing the complex nature of these cases.  The dissent suggests that giving Florida another bite at the apple was unlikely to produce additional evidence to affect the outcome and would be unfair to Georgia.  Ultimately, the dissent appears to agree that the Master’s ordinary balance-of-harms analysis was sufficient, and he applied that test. 

Also, this blogger found the majority’s “Chevron-like” discussion of the deference that should be given to the Special Master’s findings interesting but a bit disturbing in that the Court cited a precedent that those findings “deserve respect and a tacit presumption of correctness.”   The Court’s division over today’s decision turned on both the correctness of the findings by the Special Master and whether he had correctly applied the applicable precedents to sufficient findings.  A clear disagreement is articulated by the majority and dissenting opinions surrounding the factual evidence related to whether the amount of water that would flow to Florida during drought conditions would ultimately be increased by a cap on Georgia’s water use from the Flint River.  The answer to this question turns on the behavior of the Corps in both storing the resulting additional water, then releasing that additional stored water from Lake Seminole during drought conditions.

Interestingly, in addressing Florida’s exceptions to the Master’s evidentiary determinations, the Court discussed the consequences of the United States’ declining to waive sovereign immunity from suit in this case at its outset.  An early motion by Georgia to dismiss Florida’s complaint on the grounds that the United States was a necessary party was denied as the Special Master concluded at that time that a decree binding the Corps might not prove necessary.  Ultimately, however, the Report of the Special Master was based on the conclusion that a decree binding the Corps was necessary to redress the injury to Florida.  The Court’s analysis of the evidence indicated that, since the cap on Georgia’s consumption was upstream of the Corps-operated dam and lake, the cap could effectively result in more water storage and more water that could be released to the Apalachicola River reaching Florida in both non-drought and drought conditions.  It also disagreed with the Master’s conclusion that effective relief was rendered impermissibly “uncertain” given the Corps’ revised Master Manual and its documented commitment that it will “work to accommodate any determinations or obligations the Court sets forth if a final decree equitably apportioning the basin’s waters proves justified in this case” and take such a decree into consideration in appropriate operational adjustments to the Master Manual, if applicable. 

Again, the Supreme Court stressed that Florida will ultimately be entitled to a decree only if it is shown that “the benefits of the [apportionment] substantially outweigh the harm that might result.”

For those keeping score on certain of these issues and looking for clues as to “life after Kennedy”, Justice Breyer penned the majority opinion, joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Sotomayor.  Justice Thomas wrote the dissent, joined by Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch.

AND NOW FOR SOME GOOD NEWS

Posted on June 27, 2018 by Leslie Carothers

ACOEL blog readers sorry to see the U.S. retreat from international leadership on the environment may be encouraged to learn that, on the other side of the world, the government of China is determined to copy some signature U.S. strategies to accelerate pollution control in their country.  Specifically, the National People’s Congress enacted comprehensive revisions to its Environmental Protection Law in 2015, including provisions to increase public reporting of pollution releases to accompany many existing regulatory laws. The revisions, along with other recent legislation, also empowered public interest plaintiffs from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) registered with the government, as well as prosecutors to engage in aggressive public interest litigation, to enforce anti-pollution and clean up requirements.

Many countries have strong environmental laws, but most struggle to build and maintain effective programs to implement and enforce them.  For many years, China has stressed the overriding importance of economic and employment growth.  Provincial governments with major responsibility for enforcement have been measured on economic indicators and not by success in abating pollution.  But the growing level of public protest over worsening pollution and waste disposal practices has compelled the national government to add environmental performance to the priorities of provincial and local governments and to experiment with new legal tools to improve it.

The Environmental Law Institute is playing an important role with a Chinese partner, the China Environmental Protection Foundation (CEPF), in providing training to environmental lawyers and others from NGOs, as well as prosecutors and judges, to help educate them on the new Chinese laws and to share the U.S. experience with public interest litigation and statutory citizen suit provisions in environmental cases.  The impact of NGO and other citizen plaintiffs on implementing U.S. environmental law has been immense.  During the 1970s and 1980s, suits against companies where government had not acted against permit violations and suits against government for failure to meet statutory deadlines for other requirements channeled strong public pressure and achieved significant results. The most notable recent example is the petition by environmental NGOs, renewable energy firms, and states to require the U.S. EPA to make a finding that motor vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases could be “reasonably anticipated to endanger public health and welfare” under Title II of the Clean Air Act.   This lawsuit produced the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), requiring EPA to make a finding whether or not an endangerment was presented.  The evidence, most people would agree, supported only one answer. The endangerment finding was made, upheld by the D.C. Circuit, Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc. v. EPA, 684 F. 3d 102 (D.C. Cir. 2012), and left standing by the Supreme Court, which declined to review the finding.

The five workshops on public interest lawsuits organized by Tianjin University Law School, CEPF, and ELI have each assembled around 50 NGO staff, prosecutors, judges and other lawyers for three days of teaching on Chinese law by Chinese experts and officials and one day by ELI lawyers, including volunteers like me, and ELI’s Chinese- and U.S.-trained lawyer, Zhuoshi Liu, who also coordinates the planning.  Language challenges notwithstanding, I can attest that the Chinese participants show keen interest in the presentations and ask many thoughtful questions of the speakers.  It is too soon to know whether this new initiative to take more problems to court will succeed. Certainly, the Chinese plaintiffs do not yet have the body of public reports disclosing violations that made U.S. cases easier to develop, and they and China’s well-educated judges need greater access to scientific and technical support to find violations and order appropriate relief.  The NGOs could also use the help of private law firm lawyers in China willing to undertake cases pro bono as some do in the U.S.  In any case, it is exciting and encouraging to be able to work with dedicated Chinese lawyers and other professionals in the early stages of a serious drive in China to rank environmental protection much higher on the nation’s agenda and to gain clearer skies and cleaner land and water for its people.

Big Tribal Victory in Culvert Case, Big Implications for Taxpayers

Posted on June 13, 2018 by Rick Glick

On June 11, the Supreme Court issued a one-sentence order affirming the Ninth Circuit’s 2016 judgment in United States v. State of Washington. In that case, the government sued Washington on behalf of several Indian tribes, asserting that culverts constructed by the state over decades blocked salmon runs for which the tribes held treaty fishing rights. The Court of Appeals ordered Washington to repair or replace the offending culverts. The Supreme Court split 4-4, with Justice Kennedy recusing himself, which allows the Ninth Circuit ruling to stand.

The ruling is a major victory for Indian treaty rights. The historical tradeoff for acceding to white settlement throughout the West was preservation of hunting and fishing rights dating from time immemorial. These rights were to ensure tribal sustenance and to preserve religious and cultural practices. The Court of Appeals held that inherent in fishing rights is a duty to maintain viable salmon habitat and migration corridors.

The justice for the tribes in the outcome cannot be denied. However, compliance with the ruling carries an enormous price tag, in the many billions of dollars. Further, culverts aren’t the only sources of degradation of salmon habitat. Settlement of the West entailed construction of hundreds of dams and other stream obstructions. More than a century of agriculture, mining and industrial activities have denuded riparian zones, straightened meandering streams, filled spawning gravels with sediments, and added nutrients and other pollutants to waterways. Most, if not all, streams listed by Western states as water quality impaired under Clean Water Act section 303(d), are on the list for temperature, suspended solids, dissolved oxygen and other pollutants related to development.

A great deal of litigation and regulatory activity is ongoing to address these concerns, but does the U.S. v. Washington case add the potential for accelerated court mandated corrections? How will state and local government budgets cope with aggressive timelines for compliance? Will the Administration and Congress step up to help?

The latter question raises justice issues of its own. Washington argued that the culverts it installed were in accordance with federal designs. In a statement, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said, "It is unfortunate that Washington state taxpayers will be shouldering all the responsibility for the federal government's faulty culvert design."

Interestingly, other Washington State officials do not appear to share AG Ferguson’s sense of outrage. As reported in the New York Times, Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz did not support petitioning the Supreme Court for review: "For some time now I've hoped that instead of litigation we could focus together on our ongoing work to restore salmon habitat," Inslee said. Franz added, "It is time to stop fighting over who should do what." And indeed, the state has been actively working on the culverts.

The courts were not moved by Ferguson’s argument that the federal government is to blame for bad culvert design. Still, it does seem that the issue of salmon habitat restoration is not for Washington State to resolve by itself, but is a national problem resulting in significant part from national policies, and thus requires a national solution.

EPA Must Produce Any Agency Records Supporting Administrator Pruitt’s Statement that Human Activity Is Not the Largest Contributor to Climate Change

Posted on June 8, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last Friday, EPA was ordered to produce documents, in response to a FOIA request, on which Administrator Pruitt relied in stating on CNBC that: “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” and “there’s a tremendous disagreement about of [sic] the impact” of “human activity on the climate.”

I’ve done a fair number of FOIA requests in my time.  The request here was about as plain and simple – and clear – as it is possible to be.  The extent to which the government contorted the request in order to make it seem impossible to answer did not sit well with the Court.  Here’s the request as modified by the plaintiffs.  They sought:

(1) agency records that Administrator Pruitt relied upon to support his statements in his CNBC interview,” and “(2) any EPA documents, studies, reports, or guidance material that support the conclusion that human activity is not the largest factor driving global climate change.

EPA objected to the request in part on the basis that it was an improper interrogatory that required the EPA to take a position on the climate change debate.  To which the Court stated that “this hyperbolic objection strays far afield from the actual text of both parts of the FOIA request.”

EPA also argued that the request was vague, asking “how is one to even know precisely what documents one relies on forming one’s beliefs.”  Yikes.  And what is the definition of “is,” Mr. Administrator?

I loved the Court’s response.

Particularly troubling is the apparent premise of this agency challenge to the FOIA request, namely: that the evidentiary basis for a policy or factual statement by an agency head, including about the scientific factors contributing to climate change, is inherently unknowable. Such a premise runs directly counter to “an axiom of administrative law that an agency’s explanation of the basis for its decision must include ‘a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.  EPA’s strained attempt to raise an epistemological smokescreen will not work here to evade its obligations under the FOIA.”

Epistemological smokescreen.  Humph.

Nor was the Court done.  Responding to EPA’s objection to having to take a position on climate change, the Court trenchantly noted that:

EPA’s apparent concern about taking a position on climate change is puzzling since EPA has already taken a public position on the causes of climate change.

The bottom line?  EPA must complete a search for responsive documents by July 2, 2018, promptly disclose responsive documents, and explain any withholding by July 11, 2018.

This is not the first case under this Administration where I’ve thought how blessed I am that I’m not at DOJ and in the position of having to defend the indefensible from EPA.

Just How Arbitrary Does EPA Have to Be to Be Arbitrary and Capricious?

Posted on May 29, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

Last Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated EPA’s rule adding the West Vermont Drinking Water Contamination Site to the National Priorities List, finding EPA’s decision to be arbitrary and capricious and not supported by substantial evidence.  As the opinion makes clear, EPA has to work pretty hard to lose these cases.

Why did EPA lose?

The critical issue was whether the overburden and bedrock aquifers beneath the site were directly connected.  EPA said that they were.  However, the petitioners pointed to cross-sections in the record that showed a confining layer existed between the bedrock and overburden aquifers.  More importantly, the record showed that EPA did not even attempt to explain why the cross-sections did not undermine its determination.  That’s a no-no.  As the Court noted:

It was arbitrary and capricious for EPA to rely on portions of studies in the record that support its position, while ignoring cross sections in those studies that do not. … Although EPA ‘is not required to discuss every item of fact or opinion included in the submissions it receives in response to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, it must respond to those comments which, if true, would require a change in the proposed rule.’

Counsel from DOJ tried to repair the damage in the litigation, to which the Court replied that:

These arguments come too late. We may only uphold a rule “on the basis articulated by the agency” in the rule making record.

Lesson for EPA?  Don’t ignore comments in the record – and don’t count on your lawyers to fill in the gaps.

Lesson for potential petitioners?  Make sure that the record looks as good as possible – and focus like a laser beam on EPA failures to respond to your evidence.

And who knew that there was a band called The Substantial Evidence?

Hoping All Your Consequences Are Happy Ones

Posted on May 3, 2018 by Kenneth Warren

Those of us who remember Bob Barker’s years as host of the game show Truth or Consequences recognize the title of this blog as his customary closing line.  His desire to limit the ramifications of bad decisions has a corollary in Pennsylvania law.  As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held, statutory provisions may be construed narrowly “substantially in consideration of the consequences of a particular interpretation.” 

In EQT Production Co. v. Pa. Dep’t. of Envtl. Prot., an energy company operated an impoundment to contain hydraulic fracturing wastewater.  Wastewater leaked through holes in the impoundment’s liner into the underlying base layers, soils and “waters of the Commonwealth” which include “underground waters, or parts thereof.”    

The release from the impoundment into groundwater clearly violated the prohibition in the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law on discharging or permitting the discharge of industrial wastes into the waters of the Commonwealth.  Anticipating that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) would seek a penalty for each day that contaminants remained present in the environment, EQT sought a judicial declaration that civil penalties may be imposed only for days that pollutants were actually discharged from the impoundment.   

As the declaratory judgment action progressed, PADEP acknowledged that the mere presence of contaminants in groundwater would not alone support the imposition of penalties.  But it contended that a violation occurred on each day that the contaminants initially released from the impoundment passively migrated from soil to groundwater (the “soil-to-groundwater” theory) or moved from one part of the waters of the Commonwealth to another (the “water-to-water” theory).   

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the language of the Clean Streams Law, which prohibits any discharge of an industrial waste “into” a water of the Commonwealth, is ambiguous.  The language could be interpreted to cover only movement of a pollutant from outside the waters of the Commonwealth into these waters, but could also be read to include movement of a previously released contaminant from one part of the Commonwealth’s waters into another part.   

In resolving the ambiguity, the Court noted that even after remediation occurs, a small quantity of contaminants may remain present in groundwater and continue to migrate.  If each day constitutes a violation, massive civil penalties would result.  Principally because it believed this consequence to be unreasonable, the Court rejected the water-to-water theory.  By excluding water-to-water mitigation from the ambit of the Clean Streams Law’s prohibitions, the Court created Pennsylvania’s version of the “unified waters” approach.  At least in this context, it makes good sense.    

But EQT still suffered serious liabilities.  It was required to remediate the contamination that it caused.  And the soil-to-groundwater theory remains in play; the Court chose not to rule on its validity because EQT’s pleadings and application for summary relief did not raise that challenge.  Penalties in excess of $1 million were assessed against EQT and will be reviewed on appeal.  In a fictional game show world, all consequences are happy ones.  In real life, even a solicitous state Supreme Court will not guarantee an entirely happy ending for a party who has violated environmental laws.