Cooperative Federalism? We Don’t Need No Stinkin Cooperative Federalism

Posted on July 31, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

On Friday, July 19, the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Oklahoma v. EPA, affirmed EPA’s rejection of Oklahoma’s state implementation plan setting forth its determination of the Best Available Retrofit Technology, or BART, to address regional haze.  The Court also affirmed EPA’s promulgation of a federal implementation plan in place of the Oklahoma SIP.  While rehearsing the Clean Air Act’s “cooperative federalism” approach, the Court seemed more focused on deference to EPA’s technical assessment of the SIP than on any obligation by EPA to cooperate with states.

"Given that the statute mandates that the EPA must ensure SIPs comply with the statute, we fail to see how the EPA would be without the authority to review BART determinations for compliance with the guidelines.
                                                            ***
While the legislative history may evidence an intent to prevent the EPA from directly making those BART decisions, it does not necessarily evidence an intent to deprive the EPA of any authority to ensure that these BART decisions comply with the statute."

Judge Kelly dissented.  As he noted, while the courts normally grant deference to EPA’s decisions, such deference is appropriately limited where “EPA rejected Oklahoma’s evidentiary support with no clear evidence of its own to support its contrary conclusion.”  Judge Kelly also noted that, even in a statute relying substantially on state implementation, the amount of power given to the states to implement the regional haze program is particularly evident.

I don’t know whether Oklahoma will seeking rehearing en banc.  (It’s difficult to imagine that the Supreme Court would be interested in hearing this case.)  I do know that cooperation is in the eye of the beholder.

Arkansas Legislature Takes Pre-Emptive Strike At New NAAQS Implementation

Posted on July 10, 2013 by Charles Nestrud

In April of 2013 the Arkansas legislature put an end to the ad hoc policy of implementing the NAAQS through stationary source permitting based upon source specific NAAQS modeling.  The Arkansas legislature did not need a crystal ball to predict the chaos that was about to occur when the new NAAQS (PM2.5, one hour SO2 and one hour NO2) were swept into the existing Arkansas regulatory program.  Arkansas’ environmental agency, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has relied upon its stationary source permitting program to implement the NAAQS for years, as opposed to relying upon state implementation plan (SIP) development.  ADEQ has required every permit applicant to submit air dispersion modeling, and thereby demonstrate that the source will not cause a NAAQS violation.  By comparison, EPA generally requires only PSD permit applicants to submit NAAQS dispersion modeling, and requires the states to otherwise address NAAQS compliance through their SIPs.

When Arkansas’ SIP permit procedures were last updated in 2000, minor (non-Title V) sources, and “minor modifications” at major sources were not required to undertake NAAQS modeling.  Arkansas’ policies regarding NAAQS modeling were generally in sync with the Clean Air Act and most other states.  Over the ensuing years regulatory creep expanded Arkansas’ NAAQS modeling program to the point that nearly every stationary source permit application was involved.  ADEQ permit engineers required NAAQS dispersion modeling for minor sources, for minor mods at major sources, and then for any permit renewal—even no change renewals, “just to make sure that the source is still OK.”  For example, a facility that had operated in full permit compliance for decades, without any modifications, could face permit renewal problems for no reason other than background conditions or recent meteorological data changed the NAAQS modeling results.  Suffice to say this development was unpopular, making permitting expensive, time consuming, and uncertain.   

The uncertainty was predicted to become chaos in September of 2012 when ADEQ proposed to drop the new NAAQS into its existing SIP. ADEQ’s “plan” was that the new NAAQS would also be implemented through stationary source permitting, including ADEQ’s expansive NAAQS modeling policies.  Of particular concern is the PM2.5 standard, which, at 12 ug/cm3, is already near or exceeded by the background levels measured at the majority of the ambient monitoring stations throughout the state—background that is rarely, if ever, the result of any stationary source activity, but more likely the result of rural road dust and other non-stationary sources.  

It became apparent to the regulated community that each permit review following adoption of the new NAAQS would generate ad hoc findings of modeled exceedances of the new NAAQS.  By implementing the NAAQS through stationary source permitting rather than SIP planning, ADEQ eliminated any evaluation of regional cause and effect, and precluded any consideration of comprehensive solutions that involve all contributing sources. Under ADEQ’s “plan,” the unwitting permit applicant is forced to stand alone and face the consequences of a failed NAAQS modeling exercise.  Concerns raised by the regulated community fell on deaf ears.

The Arkansas legislature stepped in, and in April of 2013 it enacted Act 1302, which required ADEQ to stop “protecting the NAAQS” by requiring stationary source permit applicants to undertake dispersion modeling, except in enumerated circumstances. Act 1302 prohibits ADEQ from using modeling for stationary source permit decisions or requiring retrofit pollution control technology.  With the exception of PSD and other limited situations, dispersion modeling can only be used when there is a source or pollutant-specific SIP requirement.  The Clean Air Act requires states to develop a SIP “for maintenance and protection of the NAAQS,” and Act 1302 requires ADEQ to implement the NAAQS as required by the Clean Air Act.  The legislature did not neuter the agency’s efforts to protect clean air (which was the agency’s unsuccessful lobbying position).  The legislature just said quit implementing the NAAQS through ad hoc permit decisions based on source specific air dispersion modeling.  The legislature told ADEQ to use its ambient monitoring network, area modeling, and other tools to evaluate NAAQS compliance, and where non-attainment occurs, do the comprehensive planning that is required by the Clean Air Act  to address it.  Act 1302 was carefully drafted to compliment the Clean Air Act, and serves as a good model for any state facing similar NAAQS implementation issues.    

During the two months since Act 1302 has been the law in Arkansas the agency has gone through some needed growing pains. The proposed rulemaking to enact the new NAAQS in Arkansas is being re-evaluated in light of the requirements of Act 1302.    Much of the regulatory creep that occurred over the past decade has been curtailed, such that minor sources, minor modifications and no change permit renewals are no longer being required to submit dispersion modeling or demonstrate NAAQS compliance.  

There is nothing like the heavy hand of the legislature to bring reason back into agency decision making.  It appears that ADEQ now recognizes (much like most other states) that modeling has its limitations, and these minor stationary source projects are not causing, nor are they likely to cause any NAAQS problems. There is still a lot of work to be done as the new NAAQS are adopted, and real SIP planning commences.  But sometimes it takes a pre-emptive strike to get the process started on the right track.

Taking the Fifth on the Fifth’s Taking Clause

Posted on June 26, 2013 by Robert M Olian

…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Everyone understands the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause to mean, at a minimum, the government cannot force the transfer of private property to the government even for a manifestly governmental purpose (e.g. a highway right of way, or a new airport runway), without compensating the property owner.

Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision in Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District is the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings to extend the protections of the Takings Clause beyond the obvious governmental requisitioning of private property. That’s “latest,” not “last”.

Nollan v. California Coastal Commission (1987) and Dolan v. City of Tigard (1994), combine to set forth the Court’s requirements for an “essential nexus” and “rough proportionality” between conditions on land use development and the government’s underlying objectives in the permit scheme to which the property owner is subjected. Absent either nexus or proportionality, a taking has occurred, and the Takings Clause requires that the property owner get “just compensation.” So far, so good.

The facts in Koontz are to some extent irrelevant; indeed the Court’s opinion expressly disowned any determination of the merits of his particular claim for compensation. Depending on whose brief you read, Koontz wanted to develop some wetlands property but the Water Management District refused to approve his project as proposed and put forth some mitigation options that were either “extortionate demands” or “helpful suggestions”, one of which consisted of Koontz spending money to improve public lands remote from his own property. Koontz took umbrage and sued under Florida state law.  The trial court found for Koontz on the basis of Nollan-Dolan, and the intermediate state appellate court affirmed.

The Florida Supreme Court reversed for two reasons: first, it held the Nollan-Dolan standard does not apply to denial of a permit; and second, it held the standard does not apply to a requirement for the payment of money, as opposed to the impairment of a specific piece of property.

Every Justice agreed that the Florida Supreme Court got the first part wrong; that is, they all agreed the Takings Clause applies to permit denials as well as permit approvals. The majority and dissent parted ways with respect to the second question, however, with the majority again holding that Florida got it wrong and that excluding monetary exactions would allow permitting agencies to improperly circumvent the Nollan-Dolan requirements.

Now, one can agree or disagree with the majority, but the decision hardly shocks the conscience. What the decision holds is far less important than what remains to be decided in future cases:

1.    How concrete and specific must a demanded concession be to give rise to liability under Nollan and Dolan?
2.    What happens if a permitting authority merely says, “Denied, come back with something better,” and makes no other demand?
3.    Where will the line be drawn to prevent countless local land use decisions from becoming federal cases?

On these points, the majority took the Fifth.

Partners?

Posted on June 25, 2013 by Steve McKinney

Congress said EPA and the States are partners in implementing the Clean Air Act.  It’s simple: EPA sets pollutant-by-pollutant standards for clean air (NAAQS) and each State develops and implements a state-specific plan to meet and maintain those NAAQS.  Each partner is well-positioned and equipped to perform its assignment and Congress included appropriate “carrots and sticks” in the Act to ensure that both do their job.  The Supreme Court has extolled Congress’s partnership approach and EPA routinely professes its deep appreciation of its State partners and their important role.  So wassup with EPA suddenly demanding that thirty-six States delete rules about excess emissions during startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM) that have been EPA-approved for 30 to 40 years?

On February 22, in response to a 2011 petition by Sierra Club, EPA proposed to “call” thirty-six state implementation plans (SIPs) because they contain affirmative defense, exemption, or director’s  discretion rules for excess emissions during periods of SSM. EPA’s previous approval of the offending rules wasn’t even a speedbump.  EPA also rejected any obligation to connect the offending rules with air pollution problems in the affected States.  EPA’s legal position on how the States should enforce their CAA permits was enough to shuck the partnership and impose the federal will.  And EPA didn’t even ask nicely.  State requests for information about EPA’s consideration of their SIPs were ignored and States were given 30 days to comment on a proposal EPA took more than a year to develop.  EPA gave its State partners another 45 days only after more than a dozen State Attorneys General jointly asked for more time and the Senate Committee considering the new Administrator’s confirmation made the same request.

When comments were filed on May 13, thirty affected States filed comments; none of them supported EPA’s proposed call of their SIP.  Not even EPA’s regular supporters on issues like tougher NAAQS thought EPA’s dictation was a good idea.  Complaints from EPA’s partners ranged from being wrongfully excluded from EPA’s evaluation of their SIP to EPA trampling on the States’ planning and implementation responsibilities to EPA creating a lot of work that could have been avoided if EPA had just talked to them.  No amount of spin can make this look good for state–federal relationships.

So why?  Well, Sierra Club did ask for it.  Maybe because an obvious compliance impact is on emission limits with continuous monitoring and short averaging times like opacity.  And maybe because coal-fired power plants always have opacity limits and deleting common excess emission rules will set those sources up for widespread enforcement litigation.  Or, maybe the States and the previous EPAs had it wrong for all these years and someone finally straightened everyone else out.  Like so many conundrums of this type, it might take some judges to give us the answer.

Pursuant to a settlement agreement with Sierra Club, EPA must finalize the SSM SIP Call by August 27, 2013.

New EPA Case Studies on Environmental Justice and Permitting

Posted on June 4, 2013 by Elliott Laws

With the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 soon approaching, EPA has been planning on extensively incorporating “environmental justice” into its permitting processes.  This executive order required all federal agencies to address disproportionately adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations in the U.S.

To that end, nearly two years ago, EPA issued “Plan EJ 2014” as a roadmap – not as a rule – to implement the executive order throughout the agency.  Specifically, Plan EJ 2014 formally introduced EPA’s priorities of promoting increased public participation in the permitting process and considering more stringent permit conditions.  In February of this year, EPA selected two case studies that highlight the agency’s approach to achieving these permitting priorities.

The first case study involved a recent Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit for the Pioneer Valley Energy Center, a power plant expected to generate up to 431 MW in Westfield, Massachusetts.  From the developers’ filing of the permit application in November 2008 through EPA’s issuing of the final permit in April 2012, Region 1 incorporated what it has described as environmental justice into this permitting process by providing enhanced public engagement opportunities and including more stringent conditions in the permit.  These stricter conditions were aimed at limiting the applicant’s ability to burn ultra-low sulfur diesel for testing of its emergency generator when air quality would already be diminished.

The second case study involved a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) general permit for oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet, Alaska.  Even as this permit has evolved over time, now with federal and state authority split, the subject conditions have been based on environmental justice considerations dating back to 2006-2007.  In the permit’s 2007 iteration, Region 10 incorporated environmental justice into this permitting process by collecting and considering tribal traditional knowledge about the effects of development and by imposing more restrictive permit conditions.  These conditions imposed new monitoring requirements, extended the area where discharges were prohibited for all sources from 1,000 to 4,000 meters from sensitive coastal areas, and explicitly did not authorize several types of drilling discharges for new sources.
 
There are two striking facets of these case studies.  First, even as EPA found no disproportionate adverse effect on minority populations, low-income populations, or tribal populations, EPA still included somewhat more restrictive permit conditions based upon environmental justice considerations.  Second, the imposed conditions do not appear to be particularly onerous – perhaps explaining why the permittees did not challenge the additional restrictions.  Opinions vary as to the impact of these “EJ conditions” on the permitting process, as EPA likely  could have imposed these restrictions under existing statutes and regulations without any reference to environmental justice. 

Nevertheless, EPA seems to be testing the limits of its authority and telegraphing its intent to continue these efforts.  Consequently, practitioners and permit applicants should be wary of EPA seeking to impose potentially unnecessary conditions based upon environmental justice.

Fifth Circuit Shuts Down Climate Tort Plaintiffs Again

Posted on May 21, 2013 by Robert Wyman

Climate tort plaintiffs cannot catch a break in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In a May 14, 2013, decision, the Fifth Circuit found—once again—that a group of Mississippi Gulf Coast property owners is barred from suing energy companies for tortiously emitting greenhouse gases (“GHGs”). 

The case, Ned Comer, et al. v. Murphy Oil USA, et al., has a long and twisting history.   At one point the case was widely viewed as in the vanguard of a handful of cases with the potential to radically realign the legal framework under which companies emit GHGs. 

Comer was originally filed in the Southern District of Mississippi in 2005.  Plaintiff coastal property owners alleged that the defendant companies’ emissions exacerbated climate change, which intensified Hurricane Katrina, which in turn damaged the plaintiffs’ property.  Invoking the federal courts’ diversity jurisdiction, the plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages, asserting state law claims of nuisance, trespass, and negligence, among other claims. The district court dismissed the claims on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the matter was not justiciable under the political question doctrine. 

In November 2009, a Fifth Circuit panel reversed, in part, the district court’s dismissal of the claims.  The Fifth Circuit panel found that plaintiffs had standing to bring the state law claims, which the court found did not present political questions. 

The Fifth Circuit panel’s decision came in the wake of the Second Circuit’s precedent-setting September 2009 decision in State of Connecticut, et al. v. American Electric Power Company Inc., et al., in which the Second Circuit recognized the validity of federal common law public nuisance claims challenging the emission of GHGs, found that a number of states and private environmental groups had standing to press such claims, and rejected the argument that the claims are nonjusticiable.  Together, these cases were viewed as potentially ushering in a new era in which companies emitting GHGs would need to contend not just with EPA’s regulations but also with common law climate tort claims seeking injunctive relief or money damages.

The new era was not to be.  As to Comer, before the panel opinion’s mandate issued, a majority of the Fifth Circuit’s active, unrecused judges voted to rehear the case en banc.  Under Fifth Circuit rules at the time, this vacated the panel opinion reversing the district court’s dismissal.  Before the Fifth Circuit reheard the case en banc, however, another Fifth Circuit judge was recused, leaving the court with only eight active, unrecused judges.  Five of the remaining eight judges then determined that, with the additional recusal, the court lacked a quorum to proceed, and the judges issued in May 2010 an order dismissing the plaintiffs’ appeal from the district court’s decision for lack of a quorum. 

Plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking review of the Fifth’s Circuit dismissal of their appeal.  The Supreme Court denied the petition in January 2011, at which point one might have expected the case to be over. 

However, the same group of property owners proceeded to file a new complaint in May 2011 alleging many of the same nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims against the same energy company defendants.  The District Court again dismissed the claims, finding them to be barred by res judicata and the applicable statute of limitations, and also to fail to establish proximate causation and be preempted by the Clean Air Act.  In addition, as it had in Comer I, the court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the claims raised nonjusticiable political questions. 

The Fifth Circuit’s May 2013 decision in Comer II upholds the district court’s dismissal of the climate tort claims.  The Fifth Circuit agreed the case is barred by res judicata, and did not address the district court’s other grounds for dismissal.  Despite the procedural quirks of Comer I, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s decision in that case to represent a final judgment, never modified on appeal.  In addition, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s final judgment to be on the merits because it adjudicated the jurisdictional issues of standing and justiciability. 

Fall of 2009 may turn out to have been an apogee of sorts for climate tort claims.  In June 2011, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power, holding that the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of GHG emissions.  Climate tort plaintiffs in a third case, Native Village of Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., et al., were also on the losing end of a September 2012 Ninth Circuit panel decision which found the plaintiffs’ claims that climate change would result in erosion and flooding of the island where they live to be a matter that should be left to the legislative and executive branches of government.  The Kivalina plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court in February for a writ of certiorari. 

As GHG levels in the atmosphere approach their highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years or longer, the prospects for new legislative or executive branch action are uncertain.  Although California recently implemented an economy-wide GHG cap and trade scheme, which began imposing compliance obligations earlier this year, that program is being challenged in the courts and there appears to be little appetite for comprehensive federal climate change legislation.  EPA proposed in April 2012 a GHG performance standard for new power plants pursuant to its Clean Air Act authority, but the timing for action with respect to existing power plants and other emitting sectors is unclear.  In light of the uncertainty on the regulatory and legislative fronts, and given the massive alleged harms involved, it may be too early to say if the climate tort is essentially finished or will in the future be resuscitated in a new and more potent guise.

EU Carbon Permits Cheaper Than A Cup of Starbuck’s Cappuccino!

Posted on May 9, 2013 by Stephen Herrmann

The world’s biggest carbon permit market was left in disarray after the European Parliament on April 16, 2013 rejected an emergency plan that would have forced companies to pay more for polluting.

Permits are a key part of the EU Bloc’s cap-and-trade plan to tackle global warming.  The European Parliament rejected a proposal to reduce the short-term supply of carbon permits as a way of pushing up the price.  At the launch of permits in 2005, the cost of a permit was nearly €30 for each ton of carbon emitted.  Following the vote on April 16, 2013, the price plummeted to a little over €2.5 a ton.

Making matters worse, following the vote, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee coordinators failed to set a date for a vote on an amended version.

Not only is the collapse of the cornerstone of its climate policy an embarrassment to the EU, but its failure resonates in other areas of the world.  Australia has fixed a carbon price of $23 a ton until moving to a floating market price following the EU model in 2015.  But, that is being reconsidered.  The EU situation, coupled with the U. S. Senate’s rejection on March 22, 2013 of a bill to impose a fee on carbon, means that the Obama Administration will have an uphill battle for any future proposals for a fee or tax on carbon emissions.

Decommissioning Power Plants: A Process Without a Standard Regulatory Framework

Posted on May 7, 2013 by Pamela Giblin

The confluence of aggressive new EPA regulations targeted at coal-fired power plants and low natural gas prices has made the decommissioning of older coal-fired plants substantially more likely in the coming years. Decommissioning a plant does not occur within a specific regulatory framework. In many cases, unless there is a suspected public health threat, potential environmental conditions at the plant do not have to be reported to government agencies. For that reason environmental remediation of a plant site is often addressed in the property sale and redevelopment process.

But the shut down and decommissioning of power plants nonetheless has significant regulatory implications, and the reality is that analysis of regulatory obligations and advance planning, including a proactive strategy for interacting with agencies and other stakeholders, is essential. Understanding obligations requires review of existing permits and the underlying regulatory landscape. And that landscape may shift under your feet – for example, new regulations for coal combustion residuals on the horizon may implicate the closure of certain waste management units.

The regulatory landscape may also provide opportunities to maximize value. There are a wide variety of emission credit programs that vary by jurisdiction. Identifying and capturing emission credits brings value to the table. Similarly, water rights, to the extent they are marketable in a particular jurisdiction, could be a source of revenue.

On the practical front, laying out a smooth decommissioning path through careful planning may help avoid stoking the fire of agency, local or public ire. The agency may have a formal role to play depending on the permit conditions or applicable regulations, but there may also be extensive agency oversight exercised through pursuit of enforcement actions. Particularly where community interest is high, local, state or federal agencies may have a heightened interest and enforcement provides them an avenue for involvement in the site that might not otherwise exist. So it is important to recognize the key stakeholders early and to understand how their interest may translate to pressure on an agency to leverage any violations.

If the site is one with good redevelopment potential, finding and working with a credible and savvy purchaser may keep the focus on the end game and allow for appropriate risk-based standards to be deployed against a more concrete vision for the future of the site. Once there is a well-developed understanding of the regulatory obligations associated with the particular plant and the overall objective for the site after decommissioning, it may be the moment to reach out to the state and federal agencies, and perhaps key stakeholders, with early, accurate and contextualized information.

Because there is not a standard regulatory framework to apply, experience over the coming years as plants come offline will be telling – it is that experience that will provide useful frameworks for up front, comprehensive analysis and strategic outreach for a smooth path through decommissioning.

“Whenever”: EPA’s Continuing Power to Withdraw Dredge-and-Fill Permits

Posted on May 1, 2013 by Lisa Heinzerling

On April 23, a panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously held in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA that the Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to withdraw permits previously granted under section 404 of the Act.  The case emerged from EPA’s determination that the discharge of mining waste from the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia into certain streams and tributaries would have an unacceptable adverse effect on environmental resources.  Based on this determination, EPA withdrew the Army Corps of Engineers’ prior specification of these streams and tributaries as disposal sites for the waste from mountaintop removal.

Several features of the case are striking.  First, the decision has obvious – and obviously important – implications for the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal and its irredeemable environmental impacts.  No longer can the argument be made that a permit, once issued, gives the permittee the power, in perpetuity, to blast the tops off of mountains and dump them into streams.

Second, the decision rested, for the most part, on a single word: “whenever.”  The Clean Water Act states that the Administrator of the EPA may withdraw the specification of a disposal site for dredge-and-fill material “whenever” she determines that it will have an “unacceptable adverse impact” on certain environmental resources.  The court took Congress, literally, at its word, and held that “whenever” means whenever – that is, even if EPA finds unacceptable adverse impacts after a permit has issued, the agency has the authority to pull the permit.

Third, as if to make certain its own holding is unambiguous, too, the court five times stated that the Clean Water Act unambiguously authorizes EPA to withdraw permits after they are issued.  EPA’s current interpretation of the Act is thus not changeable by a future administration.

Should permittees fear that “whenever” will become wherever?  It is worth remembering that EPA’s decision on the Spruce No. 1 mine was the first time EPA had – ever! – withdrawn a previously issued permit, in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act.  Whether EPA will be emboldened by this decision, or will continue to mostly allow existing permits to stand, remains to be seen.

Game, Set, Match

Posted on April 29, 2013 by Michael Hardy

On September 14, 2011, I posted a blog piece that was entitled “A Tug of War: How Can the State Satisfy Its Burden of Proof?” This posting discussed the diametrically opposed decisions of an Ohio trial court and an appeals court on the important issue of the kind of evidence necessary to prove a violation of an air emission limitation in an operating permit.  This closely watched case in Ohio eventually reached the Ohio Supreme Court, which finally announced its decision on December 6, 2012.

In State ex rel. Ohio Attorney General v. Shelly Holding Co. the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the appellate court and ruled that the civil penalty calculation started on the date of the violation, as demonstrated by the failure of a stack test, and continued until the permitted source demonstrated compliance with the emission limitations.  Over the objections of Shelly and several industry amicus filings, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that the state enforcement agency need not prove that the facility was operating out of compliance for each intervening day; such noncompliance can be presumed.

The issue arose, in part, because Shelly failed stack tests that were conducted under unrealistic, maximum-possible conditions when in fact day-to-day operations were likely to generate lower emissions.  The state argued that Shelly should have discontinued operations until a subsequent stack test successfully demonstrated adherence to the permit’s emission limitations.  Alternatively, the air pollution source could apply for and receive a new permit with different limits, or it could make intervening facility modifications that would enable it to pass the stack test.  Shelly felt that it was improper to presume that the facility would exceed its emission limits unless the state makes a prima facie showing that the violation is likely to be ongoing or continuing.

After concluding that the burden is on the violator to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that there were intervening days on which no violation occurred or that the violation was not continuing in nature, the Ohio Supreme Court found no constitutional problem with extending the penalty to those subsequent days after the failed stack test.  Thus, in Ohio, the beginning date for calculating a civil penalty for an air pollution control violation is the first date of demonstrated non-compliance (the failed stack test) and continues, even at lower operating rates, until the facility demonstrates a return to compliance.

While this decision arose in the context of an air permit, the State of Ohio is likely to cite it in other programs, such as NPDES permits.

EPA Loses Another Battle in the War Over Guidance: The Eighth Circuit Vacates EPA Policies on Mixing Zones and Bypasses

Posted on March 26, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

On Monday, EPA lost another battle in the war over guidance.  In Iowa League of Cities v. EPA, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated two letters that EPA had sent to Senator Charles Grassley concerning biological mixing zones and bypass of secondary treatment units at POTWs (also referred to as “blending”, because the POTWs blend wastewater that has not be subject to biological secondary treatment with wastewater that has, prior to discharge).  The Court concluded that both letters constituted promulgation by EPA of effluent limits under the Clean Water Act and that they constituted legislative, rather than interpretive rules (I refuse to refer to “interpretative” rules; sorry).  As a result, the Court vacated the letters due to EPA’s failure to follow notice and comment requirements applicable to promulgation of legislative rules.  Finally, the Court concluded that a duly promulgated rule concerning biological mixing zones might be valid under Chevron, but that a rule barring bypasses of secondary treatment would exceed EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act.

In first determining whether the letters constituted “promulgation” of an effluent standard, the Court looked to whether the letters were binding on the regulated community.  Relying in part on Appalachian Power Co., the Court concluded that the letters were binding:

If an agency acts as if a document issued at headquarters is controlling in the field, if it treats the document in the same manner as it treats a legislative rule, if it bases enforcement actions on the policies or interpretations formulated in the document, if it leads private parties or State permitting authorities to believe that it will declare permits invalid unless they comply with the terms of the document, then the agency’s document is for all practical purposes “binding.”

As the Court noted with respect to the mixing zone issue, the “letter instructs state permitting authorities to reject certain permit applications, regardless of the state’s water quality standards.”  With respect to the bypass issue, EPA stated that “it will insist State and local authorities comply with” a never-issued policy that precludes the types of bypass at issue.  To try to suggest that words such as “insist” are not binding did not go over well with the Court.  “Just as it did in Appalachian Power, the EPA dissembles by describing the contested policy as subject to change.”

After concluding that the letters constituted promulgation of effluent standards, the Court went on to conclude that the letters constituted legislative, rather than interpretive, rules, and thus were subject to notice and comment rulemaking.  The following is the key paragraph for those of us attempting to beat back the kudzu that is EPA’s reliance on such informal guidance as a substitute for notice and comment rulemaking:

Identifying where a contested rule lies on the sometimes murky spectrum between legislative rules and interpretative rules can be a difficult task, but it is not just an exercise in hair-splitting formalism. As agencies expand on the often broad language of their enabling statutes by issuing layer upon layer of guidance documents and interpretive memoranda, formerly flexible strata may ossify into rule-like rigidity. An agency potentially can avoid judicial review through the tyranny of small decisions. Notice and comment procedures secure the values of government transparency and public participation, compelling us to agree with the suggestion that “[t]he APA’s notice and comment exemptions must be narrowly construed.”

“Layer upon layer of guidance.”  The “tyranny of small decisions.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Logging Road Runoff Does Not Require an NPDES Permit: The Supreme Court (For Now) Defers to EPA’s Interpretation of Its Own Regulations

Posted on March 22, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

On Wednesday, in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the Supreme Court ruled that runoff from logging roads does not constitute a discharge from a point source that requires an NPDES permit.  The decision upholds EPA’s interpretation of its own regulations and overturns – what a surprise! – a 9th Circuit decision which had held that permits were necessary for logging runoff.

While EPA got the result that it wanted here, the decision may come back to haunt it in the long run.  The decision was largely based on what is commonly known as Auer deference, the rule that courts will defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations unless that interpretation is “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” After a thorough review of the various relevant regulations and a dip or two into the Oxford American Dictionary, and after noting that the agency’s interpretation need not be “the best one”, the Court found EPA’s interpretation “permissible.”

So, why should EPA be concerned?  Justice Scalia, at his most curmudgeonly, dissented on the ground that Auer should be overturned because it grants too much authority to agencies.  Justice Scalia rejected out of hand what I would have thought would be the simplest and most obvious defense of Auer:  that if courts defer to agency interpretation of statutes under Chevron, shouldn’t they, a fortiori, defer to agency interpretation of the agency’s own rules?  Apparently not.  To Justice Scalia, Chevron deference merely allocates to agencies, rather than courts, the primary duty of interpreting statutes, but allowing agencies to interpret their own regulations has the dangerous result of concentrating both the writing and interpretation function in one branch of government.

I don’t buy it, but it’s important to note that, while Justice Scalia was the sole dissenter, Justice Roberts wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Alito, stating that, while Decker was not the proper case to reassess Auer (a cynic might say that Justice Roberts reached that conclusion because EPA was aligned with industrial interests, rather than the environmental NGOs, in Decker), they were both open to reviewing Auer in the proper case.

Sounds like three votes to me.  Somewhat surprisingly, Justice Thomas joined neither the concurrence nor the dissent.  Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, so he clearly still believes in Auer.  Without Kennedy and with Thomas a cypher at this point, the votes to revisit Auer may not be there.  In any case, it is worth noting that Justice Breyer, who is Justice Scalia’s frequent sparring partner on administrative law issues, took no part in the decision.  I look forward to his spirited defense of Auer when the time comes.

Adaptive Management -- Wisconsin’s Innovative Approach to Phosphorus Discharges

Posted on February 12, 2013 by Linda Bochert

In December 2010, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) put into place new rules to control phosphorus discharges.  Adaptive management is one of  four compliance options allowed under these new rules.  But what is “adaptive management”?

WDNR developed adaptive management to provide permittees with a less expensive, more flexible compliance option, and describes adaptive management this way:

 “a phosphorus compliance option that allows point and nonpoint sources (e.g., agricultural producers, storm water utilities, developers) to work together to improve water quality in those waters not meeting phosphorus water quality standards.  This option recognizes that the excess phosphorus accumulating in our lakes and rivers comes from a variety of sources, and that reductions in both point and nonpoint sources are frequently needed to achieve water quality goals.  By working in their watershed with landowners, municipalities, and counties to target sources of phosphorus runoff, point sources can minimize their overall investment while helping achieve compliance with water quality-based criteria and improve water quality.”

To be “eligible” to use adaptive management, a permittee must discharge to a water body that is exceeding its in-stream phosphorus criteria on which at least 50% of the total phosphorus loading comes from nonpoint sources, and would have to implement filtration or an equivalent technology to meet the new phosphorus limit.  Unlike water quality trading, which measures compliance with an end-of-pipe effluent limitation, the adaptive management permittee must meet an in-stream concentration of acceptable phosphorus.  Under adaptive management, the phosphorus in the effluent may be reduced over a longer period of time – in some instances, up to several WPDES Permit cycles – as compared to water quality trading which requires the credits to be generated before the permit is issued.  The job of identifying and finding partners falls to the permittee; WDNR does not intend to act as a broker to identify and bring prospective partners together.

An innovative alternative that seeks a watershed approach to control phosphorus, encourages nontraditional partnerships and cooperation between point and nonpoint sources, tries to provide flexibility in timing and doesn’t rely on the traditional and expensive construction of new treatment facilities – how’s it going so far?

For much of industry, forging such partnerships with other regulated and unregulated sources is unfamiliar territory and relying on those other entities to fulfill their commitments when the industrial permittee is the one that must demonstrate compliance is too uncertain to be acceptable.  Many municipalities are more comfortable with partnerships of this sort, but the early experience of one environmentally proactive municipality has demonstrated the enormous amount of time and effort required to take on the role of “champion”, educate and engage other partners in the watershed.  Agricultural interests are initially skeptical – concerned with the potential of taking land out of production.  The environmental advocacy community reaction is mixed.  One ENGO is actively working with the municipality to educate and engage partners and has written a guidance document on how to do adaptive management.  Another ENGO has filed suit against WDNR over WPDES Permits issued with adaptive management compliance schedules in them, reinforcing the reluctance of industrial and municipal permittees to commit to this approach.  And after approving WDNR’s rules in the first instance, EPA now takes such a strict reading of the rules that the intended flexibility may become illusory.

WDNR management is listening to all of this and seeking ways to adjust the implementation of “adaptive management” to respond to these very practical concerns.  No good deed goes unpunished. 

Would You Like Some Unintended Consequences With That Tea?

Posted on February 6, 2013 by Linda Benfield

Wisconsin has a proud tradition of strong political opinions.  Recent Tea-Party backed legislation in Wisconsin limiting the power of government will be interesting to follow as the consequences play out, particularly in the environmental arena. 

In March 2011, Wisconsin’s then-new Republican Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature passed the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, the state law that famously limits the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Following that, the legislature passed 2011 Wisconsin Act 21, which includes a “limited government” provision that prohibits any “agency [from] implement[ing] or enforc[ing] any standard, requirement, or threshold, including as a term or condition of any license issued by the agency, unless that standard, requirement, or threshold is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule that has been promulgated in accordance with [state law].” 

This will play out in a number of ways.  Like other state environmental agencies, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (“WDNR”) relies significantly on guidance documents to implement otherwise complex programs. A number of issues are addressed only in WDNR guidance, not in explicit regulations.  These include sediment cleanup standards; references to “sediment” were intentionally removed from the state soil cleanup standards.  This not only affects state cleanup programs, but also raises issues as to whether the state sediment cleanup standards can be “applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.  Similarly, the WDNR’s vapor intrusion sampling, analysis and remediation protocols are contained only in state and federal guidance documents. 

Recently, the U.S. EPA chose language in a proposed SIP denial that adds fuel to some permitting arguments.  In 2008, U.S. EPA required revisions to State Implementation Plans (“SIPs”) with respect to PM2.5 permitting; Wisconsin made regulatory changes, and requested SIP approval in 2011.  On December 18, 2012, the U.S. EPA proposed disapproval of the SIP revision.  77 Fed. Reg. 74817 (2012).  According to U.S. EPA, Wisconsin’s submission is deficient because the Wisconsin regulations do not “explicitly” define the condensable component of PM10 and PM2.5 emissions, and do not “explicitly” identify SO2 and NOx as precursors to PM2.5.  The U.S. EPA’s disapproval language gives the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources the usual additional work to propose and finalize regulatory changes to address the deficiency, but it also gives regulated sources an additional argument that the WDNR lacks the authority to regulate condensable particulate matter and PM2.5  precursors.

The Georgia Court of Appeals clarifies the antidegradation rule, at least in Georgia

Posted on February 5, 2013 by Patricia Barmeyer

The Clean Water Act’s antidegradation rule has been a fertile ground for dispute and litigation in Georgia, as elsewhere.  A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. v. Forsyth County, 734 S.E 2d 242 (Ga. App. 2012), has interpreted the Georgia version of the Rule and provided some clarity for POTWs and others seeking NPDES effluent limits. 

Georgia’s Antideg Rule is identical to the federal rule and provides that in the case of a proposed discharge to high quality waters, that quality shall be maintained unless allowing lower water quality is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development,” and water quality to protect existing uses is assured.

The Rule is not a model of clarity, to say the least, and has been subject to varying interpretations.  EPA has chosen not to provide more specific direction and has, on multiple occasions, reiterated that it is up to the States to decide how to interpret and apply the Antideg Rule, through each State’s implementation procedures.  

Georgia EPD’s implementation procedures interpret the rule to require a determination whether the proposed new or expanded discharge is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development….”  If it is determined the discharge is “necessary,” that is, that a no-discharge alternative is not economically feasible, then EPD proceeds to consider the application and to impose permit conditions based on the applicable technology-based standards and in-stream water quality standards. 

In contrast, the environmental groups, and an Administrative Law Judge, have taken the position that the Antideg Rule requires EPD to consider whether “allowing the lower water quality resulting from the permitted discharge is actually necessary.”  That reading led the ALJ to conclude that, without regard to cost or benefit, the permit limits for the POTW must be set at the lowest level that is technologically feasible, so long as the permittee can afford it.  As interpreted by the ALJ, the antidegradation analysis would be not just the beginning of the analysis of a proposed new discharge, but also the end point.  According to that view, the antideg analysis would ask, not just whether the discharge is justified, but also, what is the lowest limit that is feasible.  Application of the Antideg Rule in this fashion would short-circuit all considerations of in-stream water quality standards and technology-based limits.  It would eliminate any distinction between POTWs and industrial facilities -- they both would have to meet the lowest limit that is technologically feasible that they can afford.

The Georgia Court of Appeals has now agreed with EPD’s reading of the Antideg Rule.  The  court held the rule requires only a determination whether lower water quality generally is necessary to accommodate economic or social development, not a permit-specific analysis of whether the exact effluent limits in the permit are necessary.  The opponents to the permit have asked the Georgia Supreme Court to take up the issue; a decision on the petition for certiorari is expected by mid-2013.

What the Cluck?! Wastewater Discharge Permits for Air Pollutants?!

Posted on February 1, 2013 by Patricia Finn Braddock

Rose Acre Farms, Inc. et al. vs. NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, et al., decided January 4, 2013

On January 4, 2013, a North Carolina court held that an egg production facility could be required to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit solely on the basis that feathers and dust carrying ammonia nitrogen and fecal coliform, expelled from henhouses by ventilation fans, can be “pollutants” from a point source for which an NPDES permit is required if those pollutants reach waters of the State.  This is a case of first impression in which a court held that the impact of air emissions on water bodies could be regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

North Carolina egg producer Rose Acre Farms (RAF) appealed a decision by the NC Department of Water Quality (DWQ) that an NPDES Permit renewal required stringent new BMPs on the grounds that: 1) the DWQ had no authority to require an NPDES permit for a “no discharge” facility; and 2) even if DWQ had authority to require an NPDES permit, the DWQ had no authority to impose new BMPs because: a) the feathers, dust and litter expelled into the air from ventilation fans are not “pollutants” as defined in 33 U.S.C. §1362(6); and b) even if ammonia nitrogen, total inorganic nitrogen, total phosphorus and fecal coliform associated with the feathers, dust and litter are “pollutants” that enter waters of the State, that activity would be exempt under the agricultural storm water discharge exemption in 33 U.S.C. §1362(14).

The Court held that ammonia nitrogen and fecal coliform carried by feathers and dust expelled by ventilation fans in the henhouses are “biological materials”, a term included in the definition of a “pollutant” in the CWA.  In addition, the Court relied on EPA guidance letters to determine that feathers, dust and litter expelled from a henhouse by ventilation fans are discharges from a point source that could reach waters of the State.  Finally, the Court held that the agricultural storm water discharge exemption in 33 U.S.C. §1362(14) applies only to land application in accordance with site specific nutrient management practices and does not apply to pollutants from feathers, manure, litter or dust that are expelled from the RAF henhouses but are not entrained in irrigation water.

If courts in other jurisdictions follow suit, other sources of air emissions with the potential to reach a receiving water, such as power plants and industrial facilities, may be required to address the impacts of their emissions on those receiving waters in future NPDES permits, independent of required air permits.

NJDEP’S WAIVER RULE

Posted on January 16, 2013 by William L. Warren

Introduction

The concept of a “Waiver Rule” to be promulgated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP” or “Department”) created both excitement within the New Jersey regulated community and consternation among environmental groups.  Business and development interests saw a Waiver Rule as a long overdue attempt by NJDEP to bring some flexibility into the State’s environmental regulatory experience.  Environmentalists were convinced the Waiver Rule concept would open the door for polluters and greedy developers to complete an end run around New Jersey’s complex environmental statutory and regulatory scheme.  A coalition of environmental and conservation groups initiated litigation challenging the adoption of the Waiver Rule.  The environmentalists argued their case against the validity of the Waiver Rule before a three-judge appellate panel on January 14.  In response to this argument, representatives of the business community told the court that a common sense approach to environmental regulation in New Jersey, as embodied in the Waiver Rule, is needed to spur economic development.  It is likely this issue will end up before the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The Waiver Rule, N.J.A.C. 7:1B, became reality in response to Governor Chris Christie’s Executive Order No. 2, which attempted to instill “common sense principles” into the governing of New Jersey.  Executive Order No. 2 and the Waiver Rule promised a better environmental regulatory climate to improve the State’s economy. 

Will the Waiver Rule, effective as of August 1, 2012, actually make a difference?  In its first five months, the Waiver Rule does not yet seem worthy of the regulated community’s early enthusiasm or the trepidation of the environmental groups.  To date, NJDEP has still not approved a waiver under the Waiver Rule and, according to NJDEP’s Office of Permit Coordination & Environmental Review, only fourteen waiver applications have been accepted for review by NJDEP since August 1st.

NJDEP’s philosophy on the implementation of the Waiver Rule may well be embodied in N.J.A.C. 7:1B-1.1(b) which states:  “[i]t is not the purpose of this chapter to allow for the routine circumvention of any Department rule.”  The NJDEP guidance makes clear that application of the Waiver Rule will be limited.  Only NJDEP (and not any Licensed Site Remediation Professional) is allowed to grant a waiver under the Waiver Rule.  Will NJDEP ever get to “yes” on a waiver application?  Time will tell.

CLICK HERE TO READ FULL ARTICLE

SUPREMES CONFIRM NO DISCHARGE PERMIT NEEDED FOR POLLUTED WATER TRANSFERS WITHIN SAME RIVER

Posted on January 10, 2013 by Richard Glick

On January 8, 2013, the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously held that flow from an improved portion of a waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway—even if polluted—does not qualify as “discharge of pollutants” under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Although this case arises in the context of a municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4), it has major implications for dam owners everywhere.  The case reaffirms evolving doctrine that dams are not point sources requiring National Pollutant Discharge Elimination (NPDES) permits per Section 402 of the CWA.

In Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, environmental groups brought a CWA citizen suit against the District for violating the terms of the District’s NPDES permit to operate the MS4 facilities.  It was undisputed that water quality standards had repeatedly been exceeded for a range of pollutants, as measured at the District’s monitoring stations in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers.  The District collected storm water in concrete channels before discharging back to the river, and the monitoring stations were within the concrete channels.  It was also undisputed that many other upstream parties contributed to the contamination.  

Plaintiffs argued that since the monitoring stations were within the control of the District, the District had responsibility for meeting standards.  But that was not the issue for the Court.  Instead, the Court focused on whether a “discharge of pollutants” occurs when polluted water flows from one portion of a river, through an engineered improvement, and then back again to the same river.  The Court answered in the negative, citing its 2004 decision in South Fla. Water Management Dist., v Miccosukee Tribe.  In Miccosukee, the Court held that pumping polluted water from one part of a water body to another part of the same water body is not a discharge of pollutants.

This decision should come as welcome news to dam and hydroelectric plant owners.  Prior to Miccosukee and now LA County, the federal Courts of Appeal simply deferred to EPA judgment as to whether a dam could be said to “add” pollutants originating upstream when it passes them through penstocks or spillways to the river below.  The Supreme Court, however, has firmly established a rule of law that CWA Section 402 is implicated only where the upstream and downstream river segments are “meaningfully distinct water bodies,” a condition that will rarely exist for in-river dams.

MONTANA SUPREME COURT REJECTS CONSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGE TO LARGE STATE COAL LEASE

Posted on January 2, 2013 by Stephen R. Brown

Montana’s state constitution contains what is arguably the most stringent environmental protection clause of any state.  Article II, Section 3 of the Montana Constitution guarantees all persons “the right to a clean and healthful environment.”  This provision is paired with Article IX, Section 1, which says the “state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”  Although these clauses have been in the state constitution since 1972, they rarely have been applied by the Montana Supreme Court to invalidate legislation, overturn state action or to provide a private remedy.  In October, 2012, the Montana Supreme Court rejected the latest attempt to apply these provisions.

Montana is a coal-rich state.  The State of Montana owns significant quantities of this coal.  The State Land Board controls the leasing of state-owned coal.  In 2010, the land board approved a massive lease to Arch Coal.  Montana received an $85 million bonus payment for this lease. 

In addition to the environmental-protection provisions of the state constitution, Montana has a state environmental policy act, structured similarly to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  The Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) contains a number of exemptions from environmental review that would otherwise be required.  One of these provisions exempts the land board from the obligation to undertake environmental review at the leasing stage, so long as a lease contains a provision stating that actual mining is subject to further environmental permitting.  The land board relied on this exemption to issue leases to Arch Coal without first undertaking MEPA review.

Several environmental groups challenged the land board’s leasing action, arguing that the application of the MEPA exemption violated the Montana Constitution on an as applied basis.  They argued that the leasing decision opened the door to the mining and burning of large quantities of coal without environmental review.  A state district court found that mining and burning coal could exacerbate global climate change, which in turn could adversely affect water, air and agriculture in Montana.  Based on this finding, the district court declined to dismiss the case, but it also refused to grant summary judgment to the NGO plaintiffs on the constitutional claim.  The district court concluded that the State retained sufficient environmental protection mechanisms at the mine permitting stage to meet its constitutional obligations.

The NGO plaintiffs appealed the case to the Montana Supreme Court.  In Northern Plains Resource Council v. Montana Board of Land Commissioners,  the Supreme Court upheld the district court and rejected the constitutional challenge.  Although the Supreme Court confirmed the fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment and acknowledged potential global climate change implications of further coal development, the Court held that it was not required to apply a strict scrutiny analysis to the statutory exemption from MEPA.  The Court concluded that “the act of leasing” did not interfere with the exercise of a fundamental right requiring “demonstration of a compelling State interest.”  Instead, the Court applied a “rational basis” test to conclude that the potential for additional environmental review at the permitting stage was sufficient.  On that basis, the Supreme Court held that the exemption from MEPA review did not violate the Montana Constitution.

New Hampshire's Great Bay, Nitrogen, and the Limits of Technology

Posted on December 26, 2012 by Gregory H. Smith

As the Clean Water Act celebrates its 40th anniversary, it has ignited a controversy in New Hampshire with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.  In the law’s early days,  publicly owned treatment works (“POTWs”), mandated and financed in large part with federal funds, were viewed as the “good guys” in the national effort to restore quality in receiving water bodies into which raw sewage was being discharged.  That view of POTWs seems to have changed in New Hampshire, at least as relates to the State’s largest saltwater estuary; the Great Bay.  Faced with the potential need to finance significant POTW upgrades or reconstruction, New Hampshire POTWs are challenging EPA’s permitting decisions in the courts, through administrative channels and in the press.

As we know, POTWs are regulated through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permits that monitor and control a variety of effluent criteria.  Interestingly, however, New Hampshire was and remains one of the few states that has not obtained authority to issue new and renewed NPDES permits.  Because of this status as a non-delegated state, dischargers in New Hampshire with expiring permits must apply to the federal government for renewal.  As environmental regulation has progressed, however, and as federal funds have diminished or disappeared, POTWs and the towns and sewer districts that operate them have found themselves opposed to the EPA’s efforts to impose stricter standards  to address pollutants that were not of primary concern when the POTWs were constructed and initially permitted.

In New Hampshire, this is seen vividly in NPDES renewal efforts EPA is undertaking for several POTWs that discharge under expired and expiring permits, directly or indirectly, into the Great Bay estuary located on the State’s coast.  Once a rich habitat for oysters, eel grass and other sea life, Great Bay is now stressed by a variety of factors including both point and non-point discharges as well as other environmental factors.   At the heart of the controversy  in New Hampshire is EPA’s intention to reduce effluent limitations for nitrogen to as low as three parts per million (the limits of technology) in order to ameliorate nitrogen related problems in Great Bay.  From the municipalities and POTWs perspective, the costs to comply with these new lower limits are exorbitant.  One widely cited study estimates that, for the Great Bay estuary POTWs to comply with the new nitrogen limit, it will cost in excess of one half billion dollars in capital,operation and maintenance expenses.  Those costs will, of course, be passed along to a relatively small population of ratepayers. 

A coalition of communities with affected POTWs has joined forces in response, proposing “adaptive management programs” combining somewhat lower discharge limits with comprehensive non-point controls aimed together at achieving EPA’s stated goals.  It is unclear at this time whether those efforts will be successful.  The coalition communities certainly have in mind the experiences in Chesapeake Bay, or closer to home in neighboring and similarly non-delegated Massachusetts, where EPA is using its  Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require permits in the Charles River watershed.  EPA has been public with its view that the Charles River RDA program may become a model for watersheds elsewhere in New England and nationwide.  It is thought that an adaptive management program as proposed by New Hampshire’s coalition communities would obviate the need to utilize RDA for Great Bay, but that issue remains to be addressed in the future.

Getting serious on climate change and reforming regulatory review of clean energy projects

Posted on December 19, 2012 by Jeff Thaler

The attached article will be published in the upcoming issue of the Lewis & Clark Law School Environmental Law Review.  The article is among the first to integrate current climate change science, particularly ongoing impacts and predicted impacts, with a detailed roadmap for substantial reform of our environmental processes for reviewing proposed renewable energy projects.
 
Most existing articles either focus only on climate science or on minor modifications to the regulatory system. Using offshore wind power as a case study, this article demonstrates how, in an increasingly carbon-constrained world, our existing environmental laws and regulatory process no longer achieve their underlying goals of long-term ecosystem conservation. To the contrary, these laws and regulations are supporting a system with increasing greenhouse gas emissions that is annually costing trillions of dollars.

We have little time left to create a practical path to achieving an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050—with failure resulting in average global temperatures rising more than the internationally-agreed targeted ceiling of 2°C. After examining the obstacles confronting a potential developer of offshore wind, this article clearly lays out why and how the existing regulatory process should be quickly reformed so that offshore wind and other clean renewable energy sources can help us escape the escalating consequences of our carbon-intensive economic system.

EPA Notches Another NSR Settlement: Is This The Most Successful Program That Shouldn’t Exist?

Posted on November 30, 2012 by Seth Jaffe

The following post is essentially a sequel to this morning’s post, which was originally intended to be posted in September.

Last week, EPA announced that it had reached yet one more – its 24th – settlement under as a result of its NSR enforcement initiative.  This time, it was Louisiana Generating’s Big Cajun II plant, in New Roads, Louisiana.  By now, the contours are familiar, including a penalty of $14 million and injunctive relief estimated to cost approximately $250 million.  Changes will include:

    - Installation of SNCR (not SCR) on all units to control NOx.
    - Installation of dry sorbent injection as a short term SO2 reduction measure
    - Retirement, refueling, repowering, or retrofitting of Unit 1 in the long-term
    - Refueling of Unit 2 to natural gas
    - Limitations on sulfur content
    - Plant-wide limits on SO2 emissions
    - Installation of electrostatic precipitators to control PM on units 1 and 3

It sure sounds great.  EPA estimates reductions of 20,000 tpy in SO2 emissions and 3,000 tpy in NOx emissions.  Still, I question the value of this settlement in the big picture.  I sense some double-counting here.  EPA is predicting significant reductions in emissions as a result of its industry-wide rules, including the transport rule (last known as CSAPR, but presumably awaiting a new acronym for its replacement) and the air toxics rule.

Add to that the cost pressures on coal resulting from the lower natural gas prices caused by the fracking boom, and it is quite possible that Louisiana Generating would have ended up in the same place even absent a settlement.  Throw in concerns about whether individual units were in fact violating the rather ambiguous NSR provisions or were engaging in what they truly considered routine maintenance, and the obvious economic issues raised by trying to implement command and control regulations on a plant-by-plant basis pursuant to litigation, rather than through nationwide market-based caps, and I say again that, to me, the NSR program is still spinach, and I say, to heck with it.

EPA Wins an NSR Case: “Routine” Pretty Much Means Routine for the Unit

Posted on November 30, 2012 by Seth Jaffe

This past September, in United States v. Louisiana Generating, EPA won a ruling regarding what type of projects fall within the routine maintenance, repair or replacement exception from the rule that facility modifications are subject to PSD/NSR requirements.  The decision is thorough in that it carefully reviews the so-called “WEPCO Factors” – the nature, extent, purpose, frequency, and cost of the work, and applied them to the work at issue in this case, i.e., reheater replacements.

Notwithstanding the thoroughness of the court’s analysis, I don’t find it completely convincing.  As the court acknowledged, while all of the WEPCO factors are relevant, the crux of the issue is whether, in order to qualify for the exception, maintenance work must be routine for the units at issue, or only routine in the industry.  In other words, should the question be whether all similar generating units at some point in their life undergo reheater replacement, or whether each individual unit in question must undergo reheater replacement multiple times in order for such work to be considered routine. 

Personally, I think that the former is probably the better interpretation.  Of course, as the decision discussed, since the regulations are not crystal-clear, EPA has significant discretion in interpreting its own regulations, and EPA takes the position that maintenance work must be routine with respect to individual units to qualify for the exception.  End of story, no?  No.  The problem is that EPA does not have discretion to change its interpretation whenever it feels like doing so.  In 1992, EPA stated, in a preamble to NSR regulation revisions, that

EPA is today clarifying that the determination of whether the repair or replacement of a particular item of equipment is “routine” under the NSR regulations, while made on a case-by-case basis, must be based on the evaluation of whether that type of equipment has been repaired or replaced by sources within the relevant industrial category.

The court in Louisiana Generating acknowledged that this language favored Louisiana Generating’s position that one must look to whether a maintenance activity is routine in the industry, rather than routine with respect to the individual units in question.  However, the court then did not discuss this issue in evaluating the WEPCO factors, and separately found that no reasonable jury could conclude that the project was routine.

I don’t think that this issue is going to be finally resolved at least until a number of appellate courts have had an opportunity to review it and I could imagine it ultimately making its way to the Supreme Court. 

As I have previously noted, while I tend to side with the defendants in these cases, I think that the larger point is that these types of arguments are borderline silly.  More than anything else, they illustrate that the entire NSR/PSD program is fundamentally flawed.  Instead of such outdated technology-based regulation, power plant emissions should be regulated pursuant to trading programs that allow needed emissions reductions to be attained in the most cost-effective way possible.  I still dream of a grand bargain which would lower emissions limits, utilize trading to attain them, and completely eliminate the NSR/PSD program.  Where is the radical center in Congress when one needs it?

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

Posted on September 19, 2012 by Rick Glick

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

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

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

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

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

Themes in Recent Changes to Offshore Oil and Gas Regulations

Posted on September 18, 2012 by Pamela Giblin

By Pam Giblin and Amber MacIver, Baker Botts L.L.P.

The regulatory landscape for the offshore oil and gas industry has been subject to rapid change in the two years following the Macondo Incident in the Gulf of Mexico.1   Two primary themes have emerged in the new and revised regulations:  (1) increased agency oversight, and (2) requirements for third party certification.  The regulations are relatively recent, but operators can expect to feel the impacts over the next year.

Increase Agency Involvement
The Mineral Management Service (MMS) oversaw many of the revenue collection, leasing, permitting and enforcement functions for the offshore industry prior to the Macondo Incident.  Following that event, the MMS was restructured into separate agencies in part to enable increased agency involvement and oversight.2  The three new agencies are:

(i)    the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which has the leasing functions;
(ii)    the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which has responsibilities for permitting and enforcement; and
(iii)    the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR), which has revenue collection.

The new agencies, and in particular BSEE and ONRR, have demonstrated a trend of increased agency involvement.  With respect to the ONRR, in just the past year, it has issued penalties that represent an increase in excess of three times the previous yearly average under MMS.3   This increased enforcement is a trend we expect to continue.
 
BSEE’s increased oversight is seen in the numerous regulations it has issued in the past two years.  Many of those new rules require additional agency intervention in offshore oil and gas operations.  For example, Section 250.456(j) of the Drilling Safety Rule requires that before an operator may switch from heavy to light drilling fluid, the operator must receive approval from BSEE.  The Workplace Safety on Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) rule requires operators to submit their self-audit plans to BSEE for review, BSEE may make changes to the plan, and it has the option to participate in the audit.4   In addition to formal changes in the regulations, both the former director of BSEE and the current director have indicated a potential shift in enforcement policy that would add contractors to the scope of BSEE’s enforcement actions, contrary to former MMS policy, further expanding the agency’s oversight of the industry.  We have not seen an example of this yet, but would expect that contractors could see enforcement in the near future.

These changes, among others, illustrate a trend of increased agency oversight of the offshore oil and gas industry.  It is a trend we expect to see continue at least during the next year.

Third Party Certification
BSEE has issued new regulations and amended others, adding dozens of new rules and requirements for offshore oil and gas operations.  The trend that runs through many of these changes is a requirement for certification by a third party.  For example, the Drilling Safety Rule requires that operators have a professional engineer independently certify that the casing and cementing program is appropriate for the purpose for which it is intended under expected wellbore pressure.5    Although the current SEMS rule allows for self-audits to be conducted either by designated qualified personnel (DQP) or third party auditors, the proposed SEMS II rule would eliminate the option to use DQP, requiring all self-audits to be performed by independent third party auditors.6

The likely outcome of the changes that result from these two overarching themes, increased agency involvement and third party certification, is additional enforcement and red tape.  Operators may face difficulty in scheduling operations when they have to rely on outside parties to certify their work or agency approval to make changes.  Enforcement actions are likely to increase as agency oversight increases.  Operations that have not been subject to scrutiny in the past are likely to face additional hurdles and possibly enforcement under the new regulations.  Offshore oil and gas operators need to closely follow the evolving regulatory scheme to stay in compliance with the rules and avoid costly enforcement actions.

      1The “Macondo Incident” refers to the April 20, 2010 explosion from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, in the Macondo prospect, Mississippi Canyon Block 252. 
      2See DOI Secretarial Order No. 3299 (May 19, 2010) (issued in May 2010 and gave the Assistant Secretary- Land and Minerals Management and the Assistant Secretary -- Policy, Management and Budget 30 days to develop a schedule to implement the Order).
     3See, e.g. ONRR Press Release, April 30, 2012, http://www.onrr.gov/about/pdfdocs/20120430.pdf, last visited July 9, 2012 ($1.9 million civil penalty against Cabot alleging inaccurate records); ONRR Press Release, March 29, 2012, http://www.onrr.gov/about/pdfdocs/20120329.pdf, last visited July 9, 2012 ($1.7 million civil penalty against Merrion for late royalty payments); ONRR Press Release, July 11, 2012, http://www.onrr.gov/about/pdfdocs/20120711.pdf, last visited August 30, 2012 ($1.2 million civil penalty against QEP resources for  maintenance of inaccurate reports).
     430 C.F.R. § 250.1920(b).
     530 C.F.R. §§ 250.418(h), 250.420(a)(6).
     676 Fed. Reg. 56683 (Sept. 14, 2011).