Posted on February 26, 2015
The internet and social media have changed our lives in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Many of these changes are good. Agencies offer an amazing array of information about their work and achievements on environmental issues. Environmental NGOs and law firms provide websites and electronic newsletters with breaking news and hot topics in the environmental arena, catching our attention and educating us on important developments. So today, everything seems to be just a click away. (When was Ginger Rogers born anyway? And when did she and Fred star in Top Hat? When will the EPA and the Corps finalize the “waters of the U.S. rule”?) At any rate, information on environmental law and environmental issues is available faster than most of us would have dreamed when we began practice, and this on-demand on-line information is helpful.
Nevertheless, generally there are costs associated with benefits, and downsides as well as upsides to developments. The sheer volume of information available online can be overwhelming. Online research often leads to more questions and more research, creating confusion similar to a discovery response providing too many boxes of documents. Managing and using voluminous and rapid-fire information can be difficult. Moreover, the online and always “on” orientation can create heightened expectations – both by the public and clients. The general sense has become that anything can be found online in an instant. (How many movies did Fred and Ginger make together anyway?)
The goal of transparent government means agencies (including federal, state, and local agencies) make substantial information available on the internet. The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (FOIA) is by no means the only -- or even the primary -- tool for gaining information about the government. The Federal Register provides a wealth of information. Created in 1935, 44 U.S.C. § 1501, et seq. (2012), the Register now provides online access to virtually all agency decisions. Additionally, numerous websites offer information on agency programs, processes, and enforcement actions, all without the need of filing a FOIA request. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website provides scientific information relevant to environmental statutes, and extensive information on regulatory initiatives. See, e.g., Environmental Protection Agency, Climate Change Science. The EPA also gives specific guidance on how to submit a FOIA request. See Environmental Protection Agency, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Agencies invest substantial resources in the internet generally and social media in particular. Necessarily the commitment to online access involves a cost, both in terms of expenditures and agency resources. Recently EPA began using blast emails to get its message to the public on particular initiatives and to poll the public about environmental protection measures. See, e.g., Thunderclap; Thunderclap, I Choose Clean Water, (Sept. 29, 2014) (showing EPA as organizer of the Thunderclap poll).
A dramatic recent example of the use of social media is found in the proposed rule on the “waters of the United States” (often referred to as “WOTUS”). In April 2014, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) published a proposed jurisdictional rule on waters of the United States for notice and comment. The rationale of the proposed rule rests in significant part on the principles articulated by Justice Kennedy in his concurring opinion in SWANCC and asserts jurisdiction (by category under the rule) based on a determination that the nexus, alone or in combination with similarly situated waters in the region, is significant based on data, science, the CWA, and case law. ACOEL and many other organizations and individuals commented on this important rule. For a full exploration of the commenting process on the proposed WOTUS rule, see the article Social Media: Changing the Landscape of Rulemaking, by Nina Hart, Elisabeth Ulmer, and Lynn White, which will appear in the summer edition of Natural Resources & Environment. The article reports on the increased use of social media in the rule making process, the dramatic number of comments submitted on the high-profile and contentious issue of classifying waters of the U.S., and the difficulties for the agencies in trying to respond to so many comments.
While the difficulty of limited agency resources is nothing new, recent news coverage highlights the issue in the modern context of tight budgets. An example is found in the disappointing pace of EPA delay on the important work of listing toxic substances (showing EPA’s work of assessment of toxic chemicals has fallen below the pace set by the Bush administration).
This is not to say that the burden of evaluating comments in one office of EPA is the cause of the shortfall on toxic chemical assessment in another. Moreover, the difficulties of setting agency priorities and allocating scarce enforcement resources are new to no one. Nevertheless, he challenges for EPA and other agencies in using the tools of the online age, including social media, are real. As a practical matter, agencies need to give serious thought to reinventing government in the sense of using the technological tools to manage the growing flood of information. Significant study will be required for agencies to fulfill the mission of educating and informing the public, managing data, and taking input seriously, all while meeting their statutory missions.
Posted on February 9, 2015
On January 5, 2015, the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral argument in the appeal of Ga. River Network v. Turner, a case involving the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s interpretation of the “stream buffer rule.” Because the Georgia Court of Appeals’ decision reversed EPD’s longstanding interpretation of the rule, the Supreme Court decision will have wide-ranging impacts.
Grady County desired to construct a 960-acre fishing lake. Georgia EPD issued a variance allowing the County to encroach on the mandatory 25-foot stream buffer under Georgia’s Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act. The purpose of the buffer is to protect the natural vegetation that filters contaminants and forms a barrier to sediment flowing toward the waterway. However, the application of the statute to onsite wetlands created controversy. The County requested a variance only for the onsite streams, not the wetlands, and EPD agreed a variance was unnecessary for work that would impact any buffer surrounding the wetlands.
Following a challenge by two environmental groups, the Administrative Law Judge disagreed with EPD’s interpretation of the statute and reversed the variance. In a series of appeals, the Superior Court reversed that decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the Superior Court, and the Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari.
O.C.G.A. § 12-7-6 (b) (15) reads, “There is established a 25[-]foot buffer along the banks of all state waters, as measured horizontally from the point where vegetation has been wrested by normal stream flow or wave action” unless one of six exceptions applies, including “[w]here the director determines to allow a variance that is at least as protective of natural resources and the environment.” This wording raises a question of whether a buffer could exist in instances where no wrested vegetation is present.
The court of appeals determined the provision merely provided an instruction as to how to measure the buffer and did not contain an implicit exception to the buffer requirement in locations where the shoreline might be rocky or sandy. The court reasoned that to find otherwise would write large stretches of shoreline out of the rule, and worse, create jagged applicability wherever vegetation is interrupted, which could not be the intention of the legislature. The court found justification in its decision in the statute’s previous wording that required measurement from the stream’s bank, with no indication that the new measurement protocol was intended to narrow the statute’s basic scope.
Two dissenting judges found the court’s resolution of the statute’s inconsistency speculative and overreaching. They argued the legislature might have reasonably concluded that in rocky and sandy areas, no vegetation is present needing protection and so no buffer should exist. Further, in wetland areas where vegetation continues into the heart of the waterbody, a designated buffer may likewise be unnecessary. Georgia EPD’s appeal agrees with the dissent, arguing the Court of Appeals imputed its own policy goals on a clearly worded statute without justification.
Posted on February 3, 2015
Lawyers who regularly practice in the realm of the Clean Water Act (the “Act”) well know that the fight causing the most widespread panic in the regulated community for many months has been the joint proposal by EPA and the Corps of Engineers to amend the definition of “Waters of the United States.” Even though the agencies jointly withdrew the proposal on January 29, 2015, water lawyers and their clients shouldn’t let their guards down, because another inevitable regulatory slugfest is coming, and it will be over water use.
In its original form in 1972, the Act contained a concise “savings clause” that was intended to keep EPA from meddling with the authority of the States to determine how water resources will be allocated for beneficial uses. Section 510(2) simply states: “Except as expressly provided in this chapter, nothing in this chapter shall be construed as impairing or in any manner affecting any right or jurisdiction of the States with respect to the waters (including boundary waters) of such States.”
Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop became very concerned that the Section 510(2) “shield” wasn’t strong enough to protect the States, so he successfully led to passage in the 1977 amendments to the Act a much more robust policy statement, which was codified as Section 101(g), as follows:
It is the policy of Congress that the authority of each State to allocate quantities of water within its jurisdiction shall not be superseded, abrogated or otherwise impaired by this chapter. It is the further policy of Congress that nothing in this chapter shall be construed to supersede or abrogate rights to quantities of water which have been established by any State. Federal agencies shall co-operate with State and local agencies to develop comprehensive solutions to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution in concert with programs for managing water resources.
On its face, the Wallop Amendment appears to be “bulletproof,” but at best it’s really just “bullet resistant.” On November 7, 1978, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water and Waste Management Thomas Jorling and General Counsel Joan Burnstein issued to all Regional Administrators an “interpretive memorandum,” which concluded that the Wallop Amendment does not absolutely prohibit legitimate use of the Act for water quality purposes, even if water rights and water usages allowed under State laws are negatively affected. While noting that Section 510(2) remained unchanged in the 1977 amendments, Jorling and Burnstein grounded their legal analysis principally in passages from Senator Wallop’s floor statement in support of his proposed amendment. Specifically, Senator Wallop acknowledged that implementation of water quality standards requirements, among other major features of the Act, might “incidentally” affect individual water rights, and that the purpose of his amendment was “to insure that State allocation systems are not subverted, and that effects on individual rights, if any, are prompted by legitimate and necessary water quality considerations.”
So, thus was born what could loosely be called the “legitimate and necessary” test for determining what is, or is not, an “incidental” effect on State-conferred water rights resulting from implementation of water quality programs arising under the Act. But, without further definition, the scope of this determination brings to mind another (and historic) subjective test – the language in the 1964 Supreme Court decision in the Jacobellis obscenity case, in which Mr. Justice Potter Stewart, in his Concurring Opinion, wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”
In 1994, the Supreme Court essentially applied the Wallop Amendment test in its P.U.D. No. 1 vs. the Washington Department of Ecology decision. There, as a condition for the issuance of a Water Quality Certification under Section 401 of the Act, the State required a proposed hydroelectric dam to pass through certain minimum flows to protect downstream fisheries. In holding for the State, the Court cited Senator Wallop’s floor statement and summarily rejected the argument that Sections 101(g) and 510(2) limit the reach of the Act to water quality issues only.
Considering the legislative history of the Wallop Amendment, the 1978 Jorling-Burnstein interpretive memorandum, and the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1994 P.U.D. No. 1 case, there is understandable angst that EPA (or anybody else, for that matter) will use one or more of the three bedrock water quality factors in Section 101(a) of the Act (i.e. chemical, physical, and biological) as offensive weapons to limit or block State water allocation proposals. Simply put, the scientific premise would be that instream ecosystems can be degraded by depleting flows below the point at which sustainability of these resources is compromised, thus causing or exacerbating a violation of the biological component of the established water quality standards at the proposed point of withdrawal. (Of course, antidegradation requirements would also be in play.)
On January 7, 2015, EPA sent to the Office of Management and Budget for regulatory review the proposed Final Rule in the recent Water Quality Standards Program rulemaking, and EPA projects that the Final Rule will be published in May 2015. To say the very least, these major changes will make even more vexing the already difficult quantity-quality, federal-state tensions over how water use allocation decisions are made at the State level.
To close this review, it must be noted that, as mentioned in the 1978 Jorling-Burnstein interpretive memorandum, some States have water allocation programs in which the impacts on water quality of a proposed withdrawal must be carefully considered. For example, in Mississippi, the statute authorizing the issuance of surface water withdrawal permits explicitly states: “No use of water shall be authorized that will impair the effect of stream standards set under the pollution control laws of this state based upon a minimum stream flow.” An appropriate case in point arose in early 2014, when a permit was sought to withdraw significant volumes of water for row crop irrigation purposes from a major stream in the Mississippi Delta. A citizens group opposed the permit proposal, contending that further withdrawals from that particular stream should not be allowed until a biological sustainability study was performed and then used as the ultimate determinant in considering applications for additional withdrawals. The citizens group and the applicant for the permit struck a compromise, but the fundamental questions about the impacts of such withdrawals on water quality remain.
Given the extended droughts in certain regions of the United States in recent years, the ever tightening laws and regulations governing both water quantity and water quality, and the reality of growing demands for water seemingly everywhere, “water wars” (both intrastate and interstate) will likely erupt more frequently as time goes by. And, in those States that have little or no statutes, regulations, and administrative procedures to work with, the fundamental questions for individuals and organizations (public and private) who want to oppose proposed water withdrawals, regardless of the intended beneficial use, will be what forum to use and what principles of law to assert. One thing is certain – seasoned water lawyers will likely see more business coming their way.
Posted on December 3, 2014
As my three prior blogs have discussed (see parts I, II, and III), the State of New Jersey has responded to Hurricane Sandy’s devastation in 2012 by escalating its efforts to construct sand dunes on its beaches to protect the shore communities beach front properties from repetitive coastal flooding. These cases have attacked the failure of the ensuing takings awards as not giving adequate compensation for the resulting partial loss of ocean view by the impacted homeowners or, by failing to reduce such awards to reflect the benefit the dunes would provide against future flooding in the future.
Now comes along a shore community, the City of Margate (in which this author owns a 10th floor vacation condominium), which filed a 16 page complaint (with 149 pages of exhibits) and asked the U.S. District Court of New Jersey to enjoin the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) from trespassing on its residents properties by constructing dunes on Margate’s beaches. Despite the proposed takings being grounded in the Government’s power to protect the public health, safety and welfare, the Court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) on November 24 in response to Margate’s Complaint alleging an “unlawful taking of Margate’s beachfront property”, required a bond of [only] $10,000.00 and scheduled a December 4, 2014 hearing to determine whether a preliminary injunction should be issued.
Stay tuned for further updates on this litigation which constitutes a challenge to the propriety of using sand dunes as an appropriate storm protection strategy for Margate, acknowledging that some preventive measures are necessary to deal with what will probably be recurring coastal flooding.
Posted on November 17, 2014
November 1967: The Moody Blues release their second album, Days of Future Passed, said to be an influential work of the countercultural, psychedelic era. May 2014: Wolverine goes back in time to rally the X-Men against the Sentinels in Days of Future Past. In between: Ed Muskie and Leon Billings roamed the Earth, particularly the U.S. Senate, and modern-day environmental law was born and thrives.
2014 also is the centennial of the birth of Muskie in the old mill town of Rumford, Maine. On November 15, almost exactly 47 years after release of Future Passed, Harvard Law Professor Richard Lazarus and Leon Billings, Senator Muskie’s former chief of staff, spoke on a panel looking back and to the future of laws like the Clean Air and Water Acts that were unanimously passed by the Senate through the guidance of Muskie and Billings.
Billings spoke of how what Muskie was able to shepherd through Congress and into law involved concepts still pervasive and taken for granted today—such as private attorneys general, nondegradation, open decision-making, the public’s right to breathe healthy air and removal of the right to pollute. He described Muskie’s insistence of and ability to achieve bipartisanship, with allies for the CAA and CWA efforts including such Senators as Baker, Eagleton, Cooper, Bayh, Boggs and Dole, as well as the exhaustive efforts to fully vet and document the need for legislation. For example, for the CWA the Senate Committee held 33 days of hearings with 1721 witnesses, 470 statements and 6,400 pages of testimony, followed by 45 sub-or-full-Committee markup sessions and 39 Conference meetings.
Billings then focused on two concepts that he said demonstrate Muskie’s ability over 40 years ago to look to the future. The first, “waters of the Unites States” grew out of the Senator’s knowledge of the 1899 Refuse Act; he successfully convinced his colleagues that the Act supported a broad view of “waters of the US” to include, for example, wetlands. Since then, the Supreme Court has gone “at least as far as we had expected, and more broadly than we could have hoped”, said Billings.
The second concept is that of climate change and the Clean Air Act. Billings was very clear: Section 111(d) was no accident, is not being misinterpreted, and Muskie intended there to be a legislative basis for then-unknown or undefined pollution problems like CO2, what Billings now calls the “epitome of the precautionary principle”. The phrase “selected air pollution agents” almost never made it out of the House-Senate Conference in December 1970, but a compromise was struck so late at night it never made it into the Conference reports. And while no one then envisioned CO2 and climate change, Billings said that if Muskie were alive when the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v EPA that CO2 is a pollutant, he would have said, “Why do you think I put that provision in there in the first place?”
Richard Lazarus then spoke of Senator Muskie’s enduring legacy in the courts as the font of legislative intent underlying many environmental laws, including frequent references to Muskie in court opinions and during oral arguments at the Supreme Court. He also demonstrated that while President Nixon did sign the bills authored by Muskie and had the label of being an environmental President, in fact he was largely using the issue for a short time as a defensive measure to cut off Muskie’s prospects as a potential 1972 Presidential candidate. Richard then showed slides of handwritten notes made by Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman of three discussions with the President: in February 1971, even when they thought environmental protection “has to be done”, at the same time they thought it “is not worth a damn”; in June “should take on environment—it’s not a sacred cow”; and by July 1971 they wanted to put the “brakes on pollution bills…when we can without getting caught”, and to “reexamine all pollution bills in terms of current economic impact”.
Richard also discussed the current EPA rulemaking under 111, especially referencing the term “best system of emission reduction”; EPA’s June 2014 legal memorandum in support of its rulemaking proposal used Senator Muskie’s own words concerning “system” as encompassing the potential for emission reductions to occur outside the fence, and to include more than just controls. He said that for EPA, Muskie is its “Mr. Clean”.
During Q&A, both panelists discussed the partisanship of the past 10-20 years contrasted with during Muskie’s era. Billings mentioned how during Muskie’s opening presentation of the Clean Air Act on the Senate floor, the presiding officer was Senator Barry Goldwater, who sent down a note (now lost to history) saying, “Ed, that is the finest speech I think I have ever heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Turning to NEPA, the concept of an” environmental impact statement” developed through a personal compromise Muskie struck with Senator Jackson.
Afterwards I asked Billings, “If Ed Muskie and you were in the Senate now, what would you be doing?” He said, “If we were the majority party, holding a lot of oversight hearings to bring in all the scientists and evidence; if the minority party, writing speeches.”
And that is how the Past (or Days Passed) in Environmental Law still have major force in today’s many controversies. Oh, by the way: The Moody Blues recently released a new box set, “Timeless Flight”, and are still touring. Long live rock and environmental laws!
Posted on November 3, 2014
The Science Advisory Board has at last released its peer review of EPA’s draft report on Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis, the technical support for the proposed rule on definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. The SAB paper is generally supportive of EPA’s analysis.
The proposed rule has generated a great deal of controversy, causing EPA and the Corps to extend the comment period twice (November 14 is the current deadline). Part of the controversy relates to EPA’s analysis of the technical literature supporting the proposed rule, particularly the effect of tributaries, intermittent and ephemeral streams on navigable waters. A detailed explanation of the proposed rule, case law leading up to it, and prior agency guidance can be found here.
The SAB paper confirms EPA’s science, but recommends more nuance in some instances. For example, the paper agrees that tributaries, intermittent and ephemeral streams can have a significant effect on the physical, biological and chemical integrity of receiving waters, but notes that the question is not simply whether there is a connection between upstream sources and navigable waters. The SAB chides EPA for taking a “binary” view of connectivity—either a water body is connected to a navigable water or it is not. Rather, the paper urges EPA to acknowledge there is a “gradient of connectivity.”
That there is a gradient of connectivity seems obvious, even from a lay standpoint; everything is connected at some level. But that observation by itself is not terribly helpful, as EPA and the Corps have a regulatory function that is binary in nature—either there is Clean Water Act jurisdiction or there is not. What would be helpful is guidance on where on the gradient government intervention matters; that is, how the agencies can recognize a truly “significant nexus” as prescribed by Justice Kennedy in Rapanos.
The SAB also makes recommendations to improve the clarity of the EPA report and make more definitive statements. For example, the SAB states that the literature supports a firmer statement on downstream functions of “unidirectional,” non-floodplain wetlands. The SAB also recommended that EPA expand the discussion of approaches to quantifying connectivity, which would increase the utility of the document for regulators.
The SAB paper certainly is a necessary element of the scientific support for EPA’s and the Corps’ proposed rule for determining jurisdiction. But it is unfortunate that the agencies reached their policy choices in the proposed rule without first having the benefit of the SAB’s input. That opens the door to criticism that the SAB paper is just window dressing.
Whether that reversed sequence matters in the long term remains to be seen. Even if EPA and the Corps had waited until the SAB completed its peer review, the rule would probably have come out roughly the same and attracted as much comment.
Posted on October 29, 2014
The unfortunate fact about copper mining is that it just cannot be done without impacting groundwater. This inevitable result occurs because of the massive excavations extending below groundwater elevations and the leaching of contaminants through the process of capturing copper. Most western mining states, including Arizona, have recognized this inevitable consequence and have crafted a “point of compliance” system where groundwater quality standards must be achieved at some designated point beyond the active mining site. Previously, the New Mexico Environment Department dealt with quality exceedances at active mining sites either by issuing variances from compliance requirements under the New Mexico Water Quality Act, or by simply ignoring the problem altogether. The Copper Mine Rule has been promoted as a pragmatic response to the cumbersome administrative variance procedure.
Under the New Mexico Water Quality Act, groundwater compliance must be achieved at any “place of withdrawal for present or reasonably foreseeable future use.” This jurisdictional threshold is markedly different than the jurisdictional standard for surface water discharges, which requires compliance precisely at the point of discharge into a body of surface water. The Copper Mine Rule recognizes that groundwater directly beneath an active mine site would not be available for use during the period of active mining operations and thus would not qualify as a “place of withdrawal” where groundwater standards must be met. Similar to the “point of compliance” approach taken by other states, the New Mexico Copper Mine Rule requires that groundwater standards must be achieved at monitoring well locations placed as close as practicable around the perimeter of the active mine site.
The Copper Mine Rule has been appealed by various NGOs and by the New Mexico Attorney General. The Attorney General contends on appeal that any determination of a “place of withdrawal” must be made on a case-by-case basis, rather than through a rule-making procedure. Interestingly, the Attorney General originally represented the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission (“WQCC”) when it adopted the Copper Mine Rule, but abruptly reversed course and has lodged an appeal against the Rule for which it provided representation to the WQCC. As part of the response to the Attorney General’s appeal, the WQCC has filed a motion seeking to disqualify the Attorney General, based on a conflict of interest, from taking positions adverse to its former client. The matter is presently pending before the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
Posted on October 8, 2014
On September 16, 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a trio of bills to establish a statewide regulatory scheme for use of groundwater: Assembly Bill 1739 and Senate Bills 1168 and 1319. California had previously been the only Western state to leave “reasonable” use of groundwater to the tender mercies of individual pumpers until such time as the aquifer is adjudicated, a process that takes decades to complete.
California historically had asserted regulatory authority only over surface streams and defined underground channels. But the most prevalent, and unregulated use, was of percolating groundwater. Overlying landowners were deemed to have “correlative” rights to the use of groundwater under their lands; that is, rights proportionate to the amount of owned land.
This laissez faire approach has led to widespread overdrafting of groundwater resources, subsidence, and ruined groundwater quality. Further, as stream flows decline—whether because of drought or climate change—more users turn to groundwater pumping, lowering the water table and driving up the cost of energy to lift the water.
All the other Western states exerted authority over groundwater in the previous century. For example, Oregon’s groundwater appropriation law was enacted in 1955. California finally joined the 20th Century with enactment of these bills as a response to unprecedented drought conditions and the fear that climate change will make matters worse.
In a nod to intense water politics, the bills take a local planning and management approach. Other states direct their water agencies to establish basin plans to manage their groundwater resources. In that sense, California has shown leadership in adopting a more decentralized approach to a water-scarce 21st Century. Under the new legislation, local entities are to develop management plans for their groundwater basin for state review. The state would intervene only if it deems the management plans inadequate or not enforced. This local approach has not prevented certain water users from denouncing the bills as a state power grab.
My first job as a lawyer was as staff counsel to the California State Water Resources Control Board. In response to what was then the worst drought on record, Jerry Brown, in his first iteration as Governor, convened a blue ribbon commission to review California water rights law. The group was staffed by U. C. Davis law professor Hap Dunning and a team of young water lawyers, including myself. We reviewed every aspect of California water law in a series of white papers, and made several sweeping and not so sweeping recommendations for reform.
None of the recommendations passed out of legislative committees. I suspect the current legislation would not have passed either but for the historic and severe drought conditions now facing the state. California will need to do whatever it can to stretch its limited and declining water resources to support its powerful agricultural economy and growing cities. Let’s hope that the new groundwater legislation will be a solution for this century.
Posted on September 17, 2014
On Monday, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) publicly announced a memorandum prepared by ACOEL members concerning a controversial rule proposed by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to clarify jurisdiction over “waters of the United States.” In May 2013, ACOEL entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with ECOS to facilitate a relationship pursuant to which members of ACOEL will provide assistance on issues of interest to ECOS.
Since the Supreme Court decision in Rapanos v. United States, there has been significant discussion regarding the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction. In order to facilitate its members’ ability to comment on the proposed rule, ECOS requested that ACOEL members provide an objective analysis of how Rapanos has been interpreted to date and how the proposed rule might modify existing understanding of the term, if at all. A diverse group of ACOEL members from academia, private law firms, and public interest groups volunteered and produced the attached comprehensive memorandum, which was made publicly available today by ECOS.
In announcing the memorandum, Dick Pedersen, the President of ECOS and Director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, thanked the members of ACOEL for their significant time and effort in preparing the “very informative” memorandum, and added that ECOS looks forward to working with ACOEL in the future. ACOEL hopes that this memorandum will serve as a valuable resource in connection with EPA’s anticipated rulemaking efforts in this area.
This is the second white paper produced by ACOEL members to aid ECOS members in assessing important federal environmental policy initiatives. The first concerned implementation of section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act.
Posted on August 11, 2014
If you've been following the recent controversy surrounding the proposed rule regarding "waters of the United States" (referred to in some environmental and agricultural circles as "WOTUS"), you know the wave the EPA has created among opponents of the rule. In April 2014, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers ("Corps") published a proposed rule defining the scope of waters protected by the Clean Water Act ("CWA"). Originally, the public comment period for the proposed rule ended July 21, 2014. That period was extended to October 20.
According to its opponents, a majority coming from agricultural interests in the nation's Heartland, the proposed rule is a stealthy way to expand the EPA's authority; a clear land grab epitomizing government overreach. According to the EPA, the purpose is to clarify the definition of navigable waters in light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Rapanos v. United States, and Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Although EPA explicitly stated that the proposed rule would not affect any exemptions to CWA Section 404 permitting requirements, which include normal farming and ranching activities, opponents think otherwise. Because of the expanded definition of navigable waters to include some waters that are merely connected to navigable waters, opponents worry landowners now will have new land covered by the CWA, forcing them to obtain permits under other provisions of the CWA for regular farming operations. Missouri farmer Andy Klay told Fox News he worries how long a permit might take. A day? A month? He and his wife created a parody video of the EPA to the tune of the popular song "Let it go" from Disney's Frozen -- "The EPA and the Corp. They will try, to justify! That's enough, that's enouuugh!"
Capturing the same sentiment, the American Farm Bureau Federation has launched a viral marketing campaign called "#DitchtheRule." The campaign supplies talking points and pre-written messages for supporters of #DitchtheRule to share on Twitter. For example, the campaign has a pre-written tweet "Ditches and puddles are not navigable. #DitchtheRule." In an attempt to set the record straight, the EPA has responded with a campaign called "DitchtheMyth." The campaign responds directly to the #DitchtheRule allegations. EPA contends, for example, that the myth that the rule will regulate puddles is "not remotely true." But the criticisms, or misconceptions, depending on your perspective, surrounding the rule are very real in the Heartland.
It remains to be seen how things will shake out when balancing the cost of increased regulation with the benefit of additional clarity in the rule. However, there clearly is a gap in communication and deep mistrust between the EPA and agricultural interests. Though some of the fear may be based in myth, folks in the Heartland want the EPA to tread lightly and take seriously the unintended consequences of the rule for farmers and ranchers. Either way, the rule's polarizing effect has already caught the attention of lawmakers. According to The Hill, more than 260 members of Congress, spanning both parties, have opposed the rule.
For more background, see: Weighing in on the Waters of the U.S. rule: an update
Posted on July 9, 2014
I was surprised by a recent piece on National Public Radio. California is in an historic drought, as we all know. The story reported that Sacramento, the capital city of California, is now-- just now!--installing residential water meters. Water meters are the simplest of all water conservation devices, and yet, the story reports, more than 250,000 households in California receive unmetered water. Sacramento and other California cities are working now to remedy this obvious shortcoming.
The story invited a comparison to metro Atlanta. As you may remember, metro Atlanta was the poster child for drought in 2007. Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s primary source of drinking water, was at historically low levels. Both Florida and Alabama accused metro Atlanta of taking more than its fair share of the streams that rise in Georgia and flow to our neighboring states. The assertion that metro Atlanta was not managing its water resources wisely was trumpeted loudly and often repeated. And even today, you’ll find “experts” opining that metro Atlanta has done “nothing” to address its water supply use.
But are these claims true? Hardly. The fact is that metro Atlanta has been working hard for the past fifteen years to become a conservation leader, and its efforts are paying off. From 2000 to 2010, total water withdrawn from streams and reservoirs by metro Atlanta decreased by almost 10% while the population increased by almost 25% (1 million people). Total per capita use in metro Atlanta is now just 106 gallons per day. This is on par with the best of the best, and it is far better than peer cities in the Southeast. Per capita usage in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, is more than 160 gallons per day.
This progress is the result of aggressive conservation planning at the State, regional, and local levels. For example, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District has required local providers to do the unthinkable, which is not only to require metering, but also to put those meters to good use by charging more per gallon as usage increases. 99% of the population of the District is now subject to conservation pricing. The impact has been dramatic. Meanwhile, at the State level, the Georgia Water Stewardship Act of 2010 has helped to establish a culture of conservation statewide.
On top of these and many other efforts to reduce the amount of water withdrawn from the environment, metro Atlanta water suppliers have spent more than $2 billion on advanced systems to recycle the water withdrawn. The District now recycles over 60 million gallons per day by discharging highly treated wastewater directly into area drinking water reservoirs.
In short, metro Atlanta is way beyond meters. Are you surprised?
Posted on June 20, 2014
In a surprising turn of events, on March 12, 2014 EPA Regions 1, 3 and 9 each simultaneously but separately responded, and each in a somewhat different way, to three virtually identical NGO petitions asking those Regions to use their Clean Water Act (“CWA”) Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require that stormwater discharges from impervious surfaces at existing commercial, industrial and institutional (“CII”) sites be permitted under CWA Section 402. The three petitions were filed in July 2013 by several different and somewhat overlapping consortia of environmental organizations.
The three Regions’ responses were all signed by their respective Regional administrators, each was worded differently, and each included a somewhat similar -- yet somewhat different --explanatory enclosure that detailed the basis of each respective Region’s response.
EPA Region 3’s response is a flat out denial of the petition, citing existing tools and programs already in place to address stormwater pollution (e.g., MS4 permits, TMDL implementation and strong state programs). The enclosure with the Regional Administrator’s letter denying the petition also states that “Region III declines to begin a process for categorical designation of discharges from CII sites to impaired waters since … the data supplied by the Petitioners to support the exercise of RDA is insufficient.” The enclosure does note that if the existing programs ultimately do not meet their objectives, alternate tools, including RDA, will need to be considered.
Similarly, EPA Region 9’s response “declines to make a Region-wide designation of the sources” in the petition specific to Region 9. That response also concludes in the enclosure that “we currently have insufficient information to support a Region-wide designation” of the CII sites specified in the petition, “that effective programs are already in place that address the majority of the sites identified in the petition,” and that the Region will keep designation in their toolbag as they “continue to evaluate currently unregulated sources of stormwater runoff.”
However, Region 1’s response states that it “is neither granting the petition … nor is it denying the petition.” Instead, the Region is going to evaluate individual watersheds in its six states to look at the nature and extent of impairment caused by stormwater, and then “to determine whether and the extent to which exercise of RDA is appropriate.”
Given the identical language in certain portions of all three of the Regional response enclosures (e.g., Statutory and Regulatory Background; Petition Review Criteria), it is clear that EPA Headquarters was in the thick of the discussions regarding the responses to these three RDA petitions. However, the apparent autonomy afforded each Region in determining how to deal with the issue is remarkable, and the discussions ultimately may have centered (as they often do at EPA HQ) on resource allocations nationally and within each Region.
The responses of Regions 3 and 9 imply that their current respective paths, with time, will get results without diverting resources. EPA Region 1 appears to more fully embrace RDA as a near-term viable tool to more aggressively control stormwater runoff from CII sites. Apparently, the New England regulators’ successful experience with the Long Creek Watershed RDA and their efforts relative to the RDA process for the Charles River has only whetted their appetite for further candidate areas at which to employ this model to address impaired stormwater.
Whether the NGOs will seek judicial relief from the denial of their Petitions, whether the states in the USA’s upper right hand corner will be supportive of EPA New England’s continued utilization of this tool, as well as how this issue ultimately will be played by EPA HQ, is fuzzy math.
Posted on June 17, 2014
The ownership of riverbeds can be an important question when development of minerals (coal, oil and gas, etc.) includes lands on which there are non-tidal surface streams. Under what is called the “equal footing doctrine”, each State owns the beds of all streams that were “navigable in fact” at the time that particular State entered the Union, or streams that were “tidal”, or subject to the ebb and flow of the tide.
Thus, claims of ownership of riverbeds of non-tidal streams depend upon the condition of the stream at the time of statehood, and upon the type of boats that were commonly used for commerce at that time. This becomes more of a historical research project than a legal analysis.
For example, in one recent case, involving Montana’s ownership claims to some streambeds, Justice Kennedy relied on the notes and letters of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis (of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition) in ruling on the ownership claims. Montana, which was attempting to collect some $40 million in rent from the operator of hydroelectric dams, lost because Lewis’ and Clark’s notes showed there were five waterfalls, including one of over 80 feet, which required them to traverse overland via portage before finally putting their boats back in the water. Because of the need for portage around the waterfalls, the stream segments in question were not “navigable in fact”.
If you are involved in any matter involving the title to riverbeds, because of the equal footing doctrine, you need to be equally adept at historical, as well as legal, research.
Posted on June 16, 2014
On June 11, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that two teens are entitled to a judicial declaration of whether there exists a “public trust” obligation in state officials to “protect the State’s atmosphere as well as the water, land, fishery, and wildlife resources from the impacts of climate change.” In Chernaik v. Kitzhaber, the court reversed the trial judge’s dismissal of the case and remanded for a decision on the merits.
This case is one of dozens brought in the name of kids across the country to force government to act more aggressively to combat climate change. The young activists—with a little help from the environmental advocacy groups Crag Law Center, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Environmental Law Center—argued that the state has displayed a frustrating lack of urgency: “I don’t want to live in a wasteland caused by climate change,” Olivia Chernaik told the Eugene Register-Guard.
Who could argue with that? As it happens, no one did at this stage of the proceedings. Rather, the case turned on whether a judiciable controversy exists under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act. Plaintiffs asked for a declaration that a public trust obligation exists and that Oregon officials have violated that trust by not preventing climate change, and they asked for an injunction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a prescribed amount, which plaintiffs characterize as the “best available science.” The state countered that such declarations could not lead to practical relief by the court, and that if they did, the court would be intruding on the legislature’s prerogative to determine whether current policies are adequate and what additional measures may be needed.
The court rejected the state’s arguments, holding that such declarations could stand on their own, which would lead the legislature to take appropriate steps without an injunction. In other words, the kids should get their day in court to show that a fiduciary duty exists under the public trust doctrine to protect against climate change and which duty the state has failed to properly discharge.
The public trust doctrine stems from English common law, which states that some resources are so central to the well-being of citizens that they cannot be freely alienated and must be protected. The doctrine was adopted by the U. S. Supreme Court in its 1892 decision Illinois Central Railway v. Illinois, which held that the state could not convey outright title to a substantial segment of the Chicago lakefront.
Many such cases followed, but in 1983 the influential California Supreme Court, in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, extended the doctrine to overlay ongoing public trust obligations to limit vested water rights. In that case, the issue was whether the state must act to limit the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s appropriation of water from tributaries to Mono Lake in the face of declining lake levels.
The expansive reading given the public trust doctrine by the California Supreme Court sets the stage for court imposition of regulatory controls to protect the environment. When the Chernaik case is restarted by the trial judge on remand, we will see if Oregon courts will pick up the baton.
Doing so could mean big problems for the state, and perhaps lead to unintended consequences. It would be one thing for the court to order the state to do more to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and another to force the state to find the funds. In a zero sum budget process, which other essential programs would need to be cut? And do we want state court judges prescribing and monitoring remedial measures? Despite the slow pace and inefficiency of the legislative process, wouldn’t we prefer our elected leaders to develop the complex and coordinated suite of measures to address climate change?
My guess is the courts won’t go there. But to Olivia Chernaik and co-plaintiff Kelsey Juliana, congratulations on your win and for elevating climate change on the state’s agenda.
Posted on April 24, 2014
Common law litigation seeking relief from petrochemical companies for causing climate change has been much touted but little successful.
The insurance industry has been warning of huge coming losses due to climate change, but has not taken aggressive action to force change.
In a lawsuit filed in Illinois state court on April 16, 2014, some property insurers sued the City of Chicago and a host of regional and municipal water managers for failure to provide adequate stormwater storage. The class action suit alleges that the plaintiffs’ insureds would not have suffered so much flood damage from a 2013 storm had the defendants exercised better planning and construction to deal with foreseeable storms.
Notably, the plaintiff insurers rely heavily on the 2008 Chicago Climate Action Plan. The plan recognized that climate change would cause increased amounts, durations and intensities of rainfall. Plaintiffs allege that despite the foreseen problem and having had adequate time and opportunity, the defendants failed to make the recommended and necessary improvements, leading to the injuries to the insureds’ properties.
Certainly this suit faces many challenges. Courts are slow to override state and local governments’ complicated budgeting choices. Moreover, courts may be ill-equipped to oversee projects such as Chicago’s Deep Tunnel Project, which was commissioned in the 1970s to address metropolitan flooding, stormwater and sewage. After more than $3 billion so far, itwill not be completed until at least 2029.
Also, query whether such litigation will help or hurt state and local efforts to adapt to climate change. It could deter honest forecasting of what it will take.
Still, this lawsuit could augur a new wave of common law climate change litigation – a category involving well-funded plaintiffs with provable arguments for proximate cause of real damages.
Posted on April 21, 2014
Whether a wetland or modest stream is subject to Clean Water Act regulation as a “navigable water” of the United States (navigable in law) remains a muddy question. In Rapanos v. United States, the Supreme Court established a two-part test for determining CWA jurisdiction: the body of water must be “relatively permanent” and it must be adjacent (have a continuous surface connection) to navigable waters. Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion says waters or wetlands sharing a “significant nexus” with traditionally navigable waters are subject to CWA jurisdiction.
In 2011, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) released draft guidance on “waters of the United States” which expanded the waters over which the agencies planned to assert CWA jurisdiction, compared to pre-Rapanos. Then, in September 2013, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board released a draft scientific report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters,” for public comment, stating that the final version of the report would be the basis for a joint EPA and ACOE rule on CWA jurisdiction. On March 25, 2014, the two agencies released a proposed rule stating that all tributaries of traditional navigable waters and interstate waters, and adjacent water bodies, are automatically jurisdictional because they share a “significant nexus” with navigable waters. The proposed rule appears to assert default jurisdiction over many seasonal and rain-dependent streams and wetlands near rivers and streams, provided they are “tributaries.” Beyond this, the proposed rule states that jurisdiction over other types of waters with more uncertain connections to downstream waters—such as unidirectional waters, non-adjacent wetlands, and other waters outside of flood zones and riparian areas—will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The official version of the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register yesterday with public comments due in ninety days.
Parties understandably confused can petition for case-specific jurisdictional determinations. While a decision on such a petition may be definitive, courts have refused to allow judicial review of such decisions because they are not “final decisions” under the Administrative Procedure Act. In Belle Co., LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal district court noted that jurisdictional determinations do not impose any new or additional legal rights or obligations, but merely remind the party of existing duties under the CWA. By contrast, the Supreme Court determined in Sackett v. EPA that compliance orders issued by the ACOE or EPA following or flowing from jurisdictional determinations are subject to judicial review.
Adding to the challenge of navigating these uncertain legal waters, many states and municipalities have expanded their statutory definitions of “waters” (e.g. artificial features and groundwater) and “wetlands” (e.g. soil types and buffers) to increase the breadth and depth of state and local regulation. So, update your navigational charts and prepare for some challenging sailing!
Posted on April 8, 2014
On March 28, 2014, a federal district court vacated EPA’s “Water Transfer Rule,” which had sought to clarify EPA’s position that transfers of water between navigable bodies of water do not require NPDES permits. See Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Inc. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency (SDNY, 3/28/2014). The Water Transfer Rule, codified at 40 CFR § 122.3(i), was the presumptive culmination of a long and meandering trail of EPA regulatory interpretation, guidance memoranda and judicial opinions, including a trip to the United States Supreme Court in the case of South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, 541 U.S. 95 (2004).
The Catskill ruling is notable in several respects. First, it came from a district court. After the Supreme Court ruled, in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, that district courts, rather than appellate courts, have jurisdiction in certain situations to review such regulations -- even if the suits are brought years after the rules were promulgated, the Eleventh Circuit held in Friends of the Everglades v. EPA that it lacked original jurisdiction over a challenge to the water transfer rulemaking, a ruling that the Supreme Court declined to review.
Second, the district court did not stay its ruling pending appeal, though appeal is a virtual certainty. Thus, the permit status of various water transferors who relied on the rule (irrigation districts, dam operators, water utilities, etc.) is now in limbo until a higher court reviews the Catskill decision or EPA promulgates a temporary fix. Any such fix, by the way, may be hard to come by in light of the district court’s expressed views about EPA’s misinterpretation of Congressional intent.
Third, the opinion contains language about the definition of “navigable waters” that does not quite align with EPA’s and the Corps’ imminent release of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing that very definition.
At this time, then, the only certainty is that litigation over the Water Transfer Rule will continue to flow.
Posted on February 14, 2014
On February 11, 2013, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico denied a Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed by the Village of Logan, seeking to compel the Bureau of Reclamation (“BOR”) to perform an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) for the Ute Lake Diversion Project in eastern New Mexico. The BOR issued an environmental assessment (“EA”), which failed to analyze the foreseeable impacts to Ute Lake based on the design capacity of the intake structure to withdraw 24,000 acre-feet per year (“af/yr”). The BOR contended that, while contracts had been issued to deliver the full 24,000 af/yr of water, the project which it funded was limited to withdrawals from the lake of only 16,450 af/yr. Significantly, the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of 16,450 af/yr paled in comparison to the projected impacts resulting from withdrawals of 24,000 af/yr.
The briefs in the Tenth Circuit present an issue of first impression under NEPA. That is, can the BOR defer an analysis of certain impacts it knows will occur in the future, and summarily discuss those deleterious impacts under the rubric of “cumulative” rather than “direct” effects? According to the Department of Justice, Logan’s complaint about the matter is only one of “nomenclature,” and it should not matter whether the effects are deemed “direct” or “cumulative.” In response, Logan argues that the difference is one of substance, as an analysis of “cumulative” effects of a project does not require a comparison of the project to reasonably available alternatives, whereas an analysis of foreseeable “direct” effects, i.e., withdrawals up to the capacity of the intake structure, would require a vigorous comparison to available alternatives. These alternatives, which received only a one-half page discussion in the EA’s section on cumulative effects, include retirement of wasteful irrigation groundwater rights to augment municipal water supplies in eastern New Mexico. According to Logan, allowing the BOR to analyze a plainly foreseeable “direct” effect as merely “cumulative” would result in the illegal segmentation of the project. If such a result were sanctioned, there would be no NEPA analysis ever undertaken of the effects between 16,450 af/yr and 24,000 af/yr.
Oral argument is scheduled for March 17, 2014.
Posted on February 7, 2014
The Western states face two reciprocating and overarching problems in water resources policy. First, water is an increasingly scarce resource facing sharply competitive needs. Climate change is projected to put even more strain on water supplies. Second, most streams listed as water-quality impaired in the West are designated as such for issues related to the biological integrity of the waterway. The combination of aggressive human use of waters, manipulation of stream channels, and failure to control agricultural runoff has resulted in widespread degradation of aquatic habitat.
The primary impediment to addressing these related issues arises from dated legal constructs designed to achieve different objectives in eras with markedly different economies. In other words, trying to apply these constructs to today’s problems is like attempting to fit square pegs into round holes.
The doctrine of prior appropriation governs water rights everywhere in the West. It was developed in the 19th century to promote mining and agriculture—both water intensive enterprises—in arid climates. The doctrine provides that the first to physically take control of the water and put it to beneficial use has priority over later comers. Thus, the oldest water rights with the highest priorities are mostly agricultural, and many streams have become over-appropriated during the past century. So where does a growing community go for new water supplies? And what about maintaining sufficient high-quality flows instream for healthy fisheries?
The problem is made more acute by the formidable costs and regulatory uncertainty of developing major water storage projects. Many cities seek to acquire or share in old agricultural water rights through direct payments to water right holders or they finance irrigation system improvements for more efficient use of water. Such water marketing approaches free up water for municipal use, while reducing pressure to remove still more water from oversubscribed streams. But if a legislature could have anticipated then what we know now, might it a century ago have considered systems that allocate water based more on maximum public value and efficient use, rather than simply priority in time?
The Clean Water Act was enacted over 40 years ago to address toxic discharges of industrial and sewage wastewater to rivers and lakes. Dramatic events like the spontaneous ignition of the Cuyahoga River drove public demand for government intervention, leading to the new law. The Act has done a remarkable job of cleaning up end-of-pipe discharges (point sources), but has largely failed at controlling more diffuse sources of pollution (nonpoint sources) from stream channelization, devegetation of riparian habitat and agricultural runoff. Thus, many streams today are impaired by turbidity, nutrient loading, and higher temperatures.
Since the Act does not provide enforcement tools for nonpoint sources, regulatory agencies use the authority available to them to ratchet up controls on point sources. One solution to this problem is water-quality trading, in which a point source permittee can take watershed-restorative action upstream to correct a nonpoint pollution problem in order to meet escalating permit requirements. This approach can yield better ecological outcomes at lower cost. But if Congress were drafting the Clean Water Act today, any rational approach would address the problem of diffuse sources of pollution.
It seems unrealistic to expect substantive changes to either the law of prior appropriation or the Clean Water Act any time soon. Aside from the politics, changes to prior appropriation raise significant constitutional questions to the extent property rights are affected. In the meantime, we’ll have to continue looking for creative workarounds. This circumstance makes interesting work for lawyers, but is hardly the optimal approach to effective water resource use and protection.
Posted on February 5, 2014
In the mid 1970’s, the City of Cleveland and some fifty plus surrounding communities created a sewer district now known as the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (“NEORSD”) to handle sanitary and industrial discharges into Lake Erie, and several rivers, including the Cuyahoga. Over time, however, the Cleveland area experienced considerable urban sprawl, creating vast expanses of impervious surfaces in the form of parking lots and large clusters of office, shopping, Big Box, commercial and industrial facilities. With the conversion of green space to impervious roofs and parking facilities, some of the communities began to experience more flooding and erosion problems. Indeed, the Cleveland Metroparks, known as the “Emerald Necklace” because of the park lands situated in the flood plains of the Cuyahoga, Chagrin, and Rocky Rivers, was particularly hard hit from the storm water runoff originating in the nearby suburbs.
To address storm water and erosion problems that were “regional” in scale, the NEORSD developed a program in 2010 that included the payment of fees by all property owners based on the amount of impervious surface areas, like driveways, parking areas, and roof tops. The NEORSD expected to use these funds on projects that would alleviate flooding and stream erosion. But there was no unanimity among the member communities of the NEORSD about the need for, or the type of program that the district wished to implement. Approximately ten of those communities objected, in large part because their geographical elevations were such that they likely would never benefit from the preventive measures. Moreover, many of those communities already had their own expensive, capital intensive storm water systems. Furthermore, a significant number of commercial property owners objected because of the hefty fees that they would pay based on the parking lots and roof structures they maintained.
To validate the regional program, the NEORSD filed a declaratory judgment action in the Court of Common Pleas in Cuyahoga County, where it prevailed. But the dissenting communities and commercial property owners appealed, and secured a two to one appellate reversal in 2013. The appeals court concluded that the sewer district did not have the authority to address storm water unless it was also contaminated with sewage. The court of appeals did not reach the merits of the claim that the storm water fees were illegal taxes. (The NEORSD had billed approximately $35,000,000 in fees by the time of the appeals court decision.)
The NEORSD has appealed the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, with significant amicus support. The dissenting communities and the commercial property owners have urged the Ohio Supreme Court to decline to hear the case, and claim that the legislative process in the General Assembly is the proper place to balance the political considerations that might be involved in a fee supported regional storm water management plan. They claim that the current plan is nothing more than power grab and illegal tax by an unelected and unaccountable body. The NEORSD, on the other hand, argues that the storm water problems know no political boundaries, and thus its regional, holistic approach is far superior to the piecemeal, community by community approach that previously existed.
As of this note, the Ohio Supreme Court has not decided whether it will take the case. The underlying court of appeals decision can be accessed here.
Posted on January 24, 2014
EPA has touted water quality trading for more than a decade as a viable tool for combating water pollution, particularly pollution due to excess nutrients and sediment. But the Clean Water Act contains no express authority for water quality trading or offsets, and some environmental groups view trading as a “license to pollute” that violates the Clean Water Act’s promise to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into waters of the United States.
Last month a federal district court issued a final ruling in the first reported challenge to the legality of water quality trading. The court dismissed the action without reaching the legality of water quality trading. Instead, the court held that the plaintiff environmental groups (Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth) lacked standing and that EPA’s “authorization” of trading in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL was not a final agency action. Food and Water Watch v. EPA, No. 1:12-cv-01639 (D.D.C. decided December 13, 2013).
Although the court’s decision did not address the substantive legality of water quality trading, the case still presents four interesting aspects that may prove instructive on what to expect in future challenges.
First, environmental groups split over the question of joining the challenge to water quality trading. It is widely rumored that Food and Water Watch actively solicited support from environmental groups involved in Chesapeake Bay issue but met with stiff resistance. It appears that the other environmental groups’ support for the Chesapeake Bay TMDL overrode any interest they might otherwise have had in supporting a challenge to the legality of water quality trading.
Second, the defense of water quality trading made for strange bedfellows. Three parties intervened as defendants. One was a group representing municipal point source dischargers who support the Chesapeake Bay TMDL (National Association of Clean Water Agencies). Two were non point source groups who are actively challenging the legality of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL in another case (American Farm Bureau and National Association of Home Builders). The non-point source representatives argued that the trading component of the Bay TMDL would be important and valuable to their members if their challenge to the validity of the Bay TMDL in the other case was unsuccessful.
Third, the court’s decision on standing, ripeness, and the question of final agency action suggests it may be difficult to litigate the basic legality of water quality trading until a program is fully established and permits allowing credit for trades are issued. EPA argued successfully that no actual or imminent injury to the plaintiffs was caused by the Chesapeake Bay TMDL’s express reference to trading as a means for meeting the waste load allocations. According to this argument, the TMDL did not compel any trades; it simply acknowledged that states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed might use trading as a tool in developing permits that implement the TMDL. Carrying this argument to its logical conclusion, one could envision the possibility that there would be no basis for private party standing to challenge the legality of a trading program until after a stream has been listed as impaired, a TMDL has been performed, a trading program has been established, and permits have been issued allowing credits for trades within the program. Litigating the legality of water quality trading at such a late stage would presumably face a significant task in unwinding the momentum of such a fully developed administrative structure.
Fourth, given the success of EPA’s standing and ripeness arguments, it seems unlikely that there will be any definitive judicial ruling on the legality of water quality trading any time soon. The partisan division in Congress makes clarifying legislative action even less likely. As a consequence, EPA’s success in defending against the Food and Water Watch lawsuit may have the ironic result of postponing the day when states and permit holders will have a clear and definitive answer regarding the basic legality of water quality trading.
Posted on December 19, 2013
In Sackett v. EPA, the Supreme Court held that pre-enforcement review is available to challenge an order concluding that parties had violated the Clean Water Act by filling a wetland without a permit. Practitioners have wondered whether, in response to Sackett, EPA would take steps to avoid review, such as by issuing warning letters instead of orders. In a recent case, EPA employed another tactic. EPA withdrew an enforcement order, hoping thereby to avoid judicial review under Sackett by claiming that the case was now moot. Not so fast, a court in West Virginia concluded, EPA’s position is still reviewable. Alt v. EPA, 2013 WL 5744778 (N.D. W.Va. No. 2:12–CV–42, Oct. 23, 2013), available here.
In the Alt case, EPA issued an enforcement order against Lois Alt, the owner of a poultry farm, on the grounds that Alt failed to obtain a Clean Water permit for storm water discharges that allegedly contained manure. Alt filed suit in U.S. District Court in West Virginia challenging the EPA order based on the Supreme Court’s Sackett decision. The American Farm Bureau intervened because of concern over EPA’s position on agricultural storm water.
Subsequently, EPA withdrew the order against Alt, nominally because Alt had taken steps to remedy environmental harm -- or did EPA foresee an unhappy ending in court? In any event, EPA filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit as moot. Alt opposed EPA’s motion to dismiss, arguing that EPA would likely resume its unlawful conduct after the case is dismissed. The district court denied the motion on the grounds that EPA had not changed its underlying position concerning whether the discharges were agricultural storm water exempt from permit requirements. The district court noted that EPA reserved the possibility of reissuing the order if there was a significant change in the poultry farm’s operations, and the intervenors showed that EPA’s alleged assertion of authority can be expected to continue. In short, EPA’s position was reviewable even though the order that provoked the lawsuit had been withdrawn by EPA. As Jimmy Reed said in his classic blues song, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”
If that wasn’t enough to ruin EPA’s day, the court went on to reach the merits of EPA’s position concerning the need for a NPDES permit and granted summary judgment for Alt. The court held that no permit was required because the discharges were exempt as “agricultural storm water discharges.” The court rejected EPA’s argument that the discharges did not have an agricultural purpose, concluding that the poultry operation was agricultural, that the incidental manure was related to the raising of poultry, and that the runoff from the farm was storm water caused by precipitation.
The Alt decision is significant both for its review of an EPA position underlying an order that had been withdrawn and for its decision concerning the agricultural storm water exemption.
Posted on November 26, 2013
EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers continue their ongoing effort to bring clarity to the tangled mess wrought by the Supreme Court in Rapanos v. U. S. In that 2006 case, a fractured Court issued five separate opinions on the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act. Congress didn’t help in the first place by extending such jurisdiction to “navigable” waters, defined in the Act as “waters of the United States” without further elucidation. EPA and the Corps have developed new rules now under review by the Office of Management and Budget prior to release for public comment.
The agencies and the courts have long struggled with a workable definition of “waters of the United States,” particularly in the context of filling wetlands. The Supreme Court previously held that wetlands adjacent to navigable waters are jurisdictional because of their ecological connection to those waters, but isolated wetlands in the Pacific Flyway are not. In Rapanos, a four member plurality in an opinion by Justice Scalia limited jurisdiction to areas that are wet with flowing or standing water on a more or less regular basis, which would exclude many areas that appear dry but meet the agency definition of wetlands. The determinative fifth vote, however, was from Justice Kennedy, who applied a different test, requiring only a “significant nexus” between the navigable waterways and the wetland.
Since Rapanos, many courts have been unable to discern guiding precedent and adopted hybrids of the Scalia and Kennedy tests. In the meantime, the agencies on two occasions have adopted guidance to help permit writers and the regulated community recognize jurisdictional wetlands. The agencies’ latest effort would go beyond guidance to rules having the force of law.
The rules define jurisdictional waters of the United States to include categories of wet areas, such as tributaries of navigable waterways. The rules would exclude drainage ditches excavated on uplands or other artificially wet areas, such as waste treatment systems or irrigated lands. The expectation is that by establishing by rule categories of jurisdictional waters that per se have a significant nexus to navigable waters, the cost of permitting and litigation would decrease, while certainty for land developers would increase.
The rules are based on a report by EPA staff that compiles and synthesizes peer-reviewed scientific research on the relationship between tributaries, wetlands and open waters. The report is under review by EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and EPA has said the rules would not be released for public comment until that review is complete.
Still, the fact that the rules were developed before the report and Science Advisory Board review is complete has drawn criticism from Congressional Republicans. They charge that the report is just window dressing for EPA doing what it wants. In a letter dated November 13 to EPA, the Senate and House Western caucuses urge EPA to withdraw the rule “based on the devastating economic impacts that a federal takeover of state waters would have.”
The prospect of having rules in place to define jurisdictional waters is, on its face, a positive development because of the uncertainty that now pervades this area. However, in addition to Congressional resistance, the goal of avoiding litigation will likely prove elusive. If challenged, the agencies will be entitled to a measure of deference once the rules are adopted, but we can safely predict there will be many challenges.
Once the rules clear OMB and the Science Advisory Board, they will be published for public comment. Watch this space for updates.
Posted on November 13, 2013
Water management issues have become much more serious in recent years. Even Minnesota – the Land of 10,000 Lakes – is coping with limited water resources. Recent state reports have warned a growing number of parts of Minnesota will soon face groundwater shortages, especially during drought periods due to increasing water use and the potential effects of climate change.
In Minnesota, the responsibility to ensure the State maintains an adequate supply of water resources falls primarily upon the Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”). Since 1937, the DNR Commissioner has regulated water use through a water appropriations permit program. In implementing the appropriations program, the DNR Commissioner is granted broad authority to assess cumulative impacts and sustainability. Although there is no specific definition in state law, the DNR has defined “sustainable water use” as “the use of water to provide for the needs of society, now and in the future, without unacceptable social, economic, or environmental consequences.”
To manage groundwater conflicts, the Minnesota Legislature in 2010 authorized the DNR to designate “groundwater management areas” and develop water use plans for these designated areas. The DNR is now in the process of implementing this new law. Last year, the DNR undertook a process to develop a groundwater strategic plan to designate and implement groundwater management areas. In kicking off the planning process, the DNR acknowledged that both the Department and water users have traditionally operated under the assumption that water was plentiful and limits were seldom necessary. The DNR now recognizes, however, that it has the authority to change the permitting system to shift away from such generous assumptions and to make determinations intended to promote sustainability even if those determinations result in the denial of some allocation requests.
The DNR is now seeking input from stakeholders in the development of the state-wide strategic plan. The DNR has also identified three potential groundwater management areas but the specific boundaries have not been delineated. In fact, defining the groundwater management boundaries will be one of the toughest issues in implementing the new law, as DNR is weighing whether boundaries should be based on underlying aquifers, distribution of current and future use, watershed boundaries, or even community boundaries.
As water management issues become more serious, Minnesota’s groundwater management area program presents one potential model for other policymakers and regulators who must tackle these tough issues.
Posted on November 7, 2013
Quoting our colleague Philip Ahrens, “We shall see” indeed.
Invoking force majeure due to the 16-day government shutdown, EPA has again (for the third time) delayed the issuance of the Clean Water Act 316(b) rules past the November 4, 2013 deadline most recently agreed to in its settlement with Riverkeeper. It remains to be seen if EPA will deliver the 316(b) rules on November 20, 2013 – just in time for a little light reading over your turkey dinner – or seek a further extension with Riverkeeper. EPA and environmentalists are now in talks for a new deadline, so you can probably head home to enjoy your turkey and sides at Thanksgiving without toting home a Federal Register package to disrupt your holiday.
Advocates for a more stringent set of rules appear to have used the latest delay to secure political support from a group of House Democrats that recently encouraged EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to require power plants and other industrial facilities to install closed-cycle cooling water technologies not just to save local ecosystems, but also to respond to climate change. According to the elected officials, “Closed-cycle cooling structures would ensure greater energy grid security and reduce ecological harm in a warming world.” That’s a pretty incredible statement all around given that, although the cooling water intake rules have been embroiled in a multi-decade-long saga of regulations and litigation about entrainment and impingement of fish, they have never been about a meaningful assessment of the ecological impact of various entrainment and impingement rates in various types of water bodies. In fact, the proposed rule completely failed to take into account significant variations in different types of waterbodies.
Given the proposed 316(b) rules, EPA is unlikely to jump on the closed-cycle cooling bandwagon and abandon a more flexible approach. The Democratic Congressmen say in their letter that flexibility unfairly burdens state environmental protection agencies. Environmentalist say that the flexible approach will bring more litigation because the proposed approach is not lawful. Industry groups continue to prefer flexibility as it allows them options such as upgraded screens, barrier nets, reduced intake velocity, fish return systems – technologies that would lead to reduced impingement and entrainment but cost far less than retrofitting plants with cooling towers and other high-energy technologies. So industry too remains primed for challenge. At stake is the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades for an ill-defined environmental benefit.
While it’s anyone’s guess when the rules will come out, it does seem reasonable to predict that whenever they emerge, the lawsuits will follow.