Posted on April 20, 2016
Last month when the Ocean County, NJ challenge to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (“NJDEP”) authority to implement dunes for shore protection was dismissed, I wrote that the decision could very well be precedential for similar challenges in other New Jersey counties.
And so it was. In a 65-page opinion, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez also upheld the DEP’s authority to construct dunes in the City of Margate (Atlantic County) as being neither “arbitrary or capricious” nor an “abuse of power.” The opinion recognized the US Army Corps of Engineers’ (“Corps”) 6-year study and the need to be better prepared for coastal storms such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012. With this ruling – absent an appeal – the DEP will proceed to obtain the necessary easements through the eminent domain process (a prior attempt to do so via an administrative order having failed) with the appropriate compensation paid to the affected beachfront owners.
Judge Mendez acknowledged that the dunes on the oceanfront would not resolve flooding concerns to the bayfront properties nor obviate some protection afforded by seawalls and bulkheads. Interestingly, he found that the dunes in the adjacent City of Ventnor had not only protected Ventnor’s beaches but also expanded the beaches in Margate, and that the dunes in Margate would be protective of its coastal properties and was therefore not arbitrary or capricious.
Posted on April 19, 2016
Last month, while New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez was considering Margate’s challenge to the authority of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) to condemn City-owned lots on which to build dunes, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Marlene Lynch Ford dismissed a similar challenge by 28 oceanfront property owners in Ocean County, NJ.
In her decision, she ruled that (1) DEP’s condemnation activities were authorized to “protect the state’s fragile coastal system and [afford] public access” and (2) the taking of the requisite coastal acreage to do so was as a lawful use of that authority, provided that the eminent domain process of compensating affected property owner was followed, which she found to be the case in this instance.
Although it would appear likely that this decision should have significant precedential effect on the other pending challenges, it should be pointed out that the theory in other cases includes not only a challenge to DEP’s authority, but the reasonableness of constructing dunes on the beachfront as opposed to other “shore protection projects.” In fact, although she dismissed the challenge to DEP’s authority to condemn, Judge Ford granted a hearing to other homeowners who claim that DEP acted arbitrarily because their sea walls eliminated the need for dunes.
And so, although the authority of DEP to use eminent domain for shore protection would appear to be judicially blessed, the manner in which it is does so remains subject to challenge.
So, as always, stay tuned.
Posted on April 4, 2016
With increasing recognition of the value of water across the globe, in 2008 eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces established the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Management Agreement, and the states created a parallel compact on the U.S. side approved by the U.S. Congress. The primary purpose of the Agreement and Compact is to prohibit diversions of water outside the basin, with very limited exceptions. The first real application for an exception to the Agreement and Compact is under consideration by the Regional Body created under the Agreement and the Compact Council created under the Compact. This is receiving much attention and close scrutiny in the U.S. and Canada because many feel it will set the course for many future applications.
The city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, sits just outside the basin in Waukesha County, which straddles the basin line. Waukesha has a problem: the aquifer it uses is contaminated with naturally occurring radium, and beyond that, the city has concerns about its capacity to serve future needs. As a result, Waukesha has applied for an exception to the Agreement and Compact to withdraw up to 10.1 million gallons per day from Lake Michigan, which would be used, treated, and returned to the Lake through the Root River.
Communities, like Waukesha, that are located in counties straddling the water divide line can ask for water diversions from the Great Lakes, governed by strict rules. The key provisions of the exception standard under the Compact and Agreement that Waukesha must meet are:
- The Water shall be used solely for the Public Water Supply Purposes of the Community within a Straddling County that is without adequate supplies of potable water;
- There is no reasonable water supply alternative within the basin in which the community is located, including conservation of existing water supplies;
- Caution shall be used in determining whether or not the Proposal meets the conditions for this Exception. This Exception should not be authorized unless it can be shown that it will not endanger the integrity of the Basin Ecosystem;
There is little dispute that the amount of water taken by Waukesha from Lake Michigan will have any impact on the Lake, especially since all of the water not consumed in Waukesha will be returned, with a small supplement of water from outside the basin to replace the consumed water. The concern is over the precedent it would set for straddling communities and counties all around the basin in Canada and the U.S. and the potential cumulative effect. The real question is whether these three portions of the exception standard are met.
The key word in the first standard noted above for review of the application is “Community,” which is defined in the Compact as “any incorporated city, town or the equivalent thereof, that is located outside the Basin but wholly within a County that lies partly within the Basin and that is not a Straddling Community.” Waukesha’s application indicates that the water will go to a “service area” that goes beyond the boundaries of the City to several towns and unincorporated areas in Waukesha County. They add that they are required by State law to provide water to the service area. Opponents of the application assert that a “service area” is not a “community” within the meaning of the Compact and on those grounds alone, should be denied. Waukesha asserts that the Compact contemplated the “service area” as a “community.” A definition this broad would open the door to areas well beyond the intent of the Compact’s limited exception to the prohibition of diversions.
In the second element of the exception standard, the availability of a “reasonable water supply alternative” is another consideration. Waukesha argues that treatment alternatives are not appropriate and that getting water from Lake Michigan is the best alternative. Opponents argue that there are reasonable alternatives, and that the nearby communities of Brookfield and Pewaukee are utilizing treatment for radium successfully now. They add that the standard is “reasonable,” and that it does not need to be the best alternative, even though treatment for radium may well be the best.
The third element of the standard highlighted is that the diversion will not endanger the integrity of the Basin Ecosystem. The return flow from Waukesha to Lake Michigan is through the Root River. Under the terms of the Compact, as well as State and Federal Law, the discharge must meet all the terms of a permit. Waukesha argues that this protects the Root River and will even improve it. Opponents say that the volume and thermal component, as well as unregulated contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, microbeads, phosphorus and others, will jeopardize the integrity of the Root River. In the summer months, the effluent from Waukesha could be up to 80% of the flow of the River.
Beyond the three elements of the exception standard, there is a question of precedent with this being the first application for an exception to the prohibition against diversions under the Compact and Agreement. Waukesha claims that it meets the exception standard, and that only other straddling communities and counties around the basin might benefit from approval. Opponents claim that the exception standard must be applied strictly because there are so many straddling counties and communities across the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces that could qualify for exceptions. Furthermore, they argue that jurisdictions outside the straddling counties and communities will be watching closely for an opening to broaden the exceptions to the Compact.
The Regional Body of the eight states and two provinces will meet April 21 and 22, 2016 to make a recommendation on the application to the Compact Council consisting of just the eight states, which will meet in June. It will require a unanimous vote of the Compact Council to approve the application. The decision has implications well beyond Waukesha’s application, and could chart the course for future attempts to divert water from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence.
Posted on February 19, 2016
Amid the finger-pointing, forced resignations, and mea culpas, a question has hovered over the Flint water crisis. What did staff at the Flint water plant say before the switch to Flint River water?
For months, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have admitted mistakes but never quite explained why Flint switched from Lake Huron water to Flint River water without prior pilot studies. Critics assailed the saving-costs-at-the-expense-of-the-public-health attitude. Apologists apologized and promised remedial measures. But until last weekend, we did not know what the engineers and technicians who operate the Flint water plant thought of the switch.
On February 13, the Detroit Free Press reported that the Flint water lab supervisor questioned the switch. One week before the grandiose public ceremony celebrating the new era for Flint, the lab supervisor told DEQ he needed time to train staff and update monitoring to be ready to use Flint River water. He complained that higher-ups seemed to have their own agenda.
Like many members of this College, I have spent my career fighting the regulator attitude that “we’re the government experts—trust us” and being dismayed when courts blindly defer to an agency. But when faced with a choice, should we believe agency staff, or politicians and their flappers (see Gulliver’s Travels)? We should start by considering the views of the technical folks who take seriously their jobs to protect publichealth. We might get better policy.
From the Detroit Free Press, February 18, 2016
Posted on February 11, 2016
There is no safe blood lead level in children.
In following the inexplicable regulatory missteps in the Flint public water supply debacle, I could not help but think of the progress that has been made in removing lead from the environment and out of our children’s blood. In spending my professional career addressing environmental issues and problems from a state, federal and private practice perspective, I often have wondered what difference does it make. In the case of lead, we can actually measure our progress and success.
As a teenager, I filled my ‘54 Ford with regular leaded gasoline. Lead was not only in gasoline, it was everywhere. Recognizing the significant and often irreversible health effects of lead, regulatory programs were initiated at the federal, state, and local levels to “get the lead out.” The implementation of these programs reduced or eliminated lead from gasoline, foods and food packaging, house paint, water pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder used in plumbing and drink cans.
Did these programs work? In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children aged 1-5 had blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood, which was until recently the level of concern recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The recommended level is now 5 ug/dL. Also, back in the 70s, the average BLL was approximately 15 ug/dL. Black children and children living in low-income families were at greater risk.
We have come a long way from the 70s. The average BLL in children dropped to 1.4 ug/dL by 2008. Below is a table graphically demonstrating this dramatic decrease in BLLs. The table is based on data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971 – 2008, taken from a CDC report, Lead in Drinking Water and Human Blood Lead Levels in the United States, August 10, 2012.
As we beat ourselves up over the mistakes in Flint, we should take a moment to reflect on and be re-energized by the demonstrable success of these regulatory programs. What we have done has made a difference! Flint reminds us that more must still be done.
Timeline of lead poisoning prevention policies and blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years, by year — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971–2008
Posted on February 4, 2016
With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water. As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014.
How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”
The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”
EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens. Even philanthropic groups are stepping in. EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.
The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight. As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.
Posted on February 3, 2016
In my last blog, I summarized the substantive arguments made by the City of Margate’s attorneys in their countersuit against the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s eminent domain proceedings, which were filed in state court—the federal court overturned DEP’s attempts to proceed via administrative orders. The court will have to consider: (a) is dune construction a reasonable use of the state’s “taking” powers; or (b) were alternative storm protections – e.g., sea walls and wooden bulkheads – more reasonable?
While awaiting a ruling by the court after the upcoming February 4th hearing, there have been two new developments:
1. Seventeen residents of Point Pleasant Beach in Ocean County have filed a suit against DEP, claiming the agency’s taking of their beaches was a “land grab” of the residents’ private property destined to require future maintenance expenses and possible development of boardwalks, public restrooms, etc. These cases are scheduled for hearings next month.
2. The super storm/blizzard over the January 22-24th weekend again left Margate’s streets flooded. Governor Christie took a “serves you right” position, whereas Margate officials blamed the flooding on the bay, not the ocean.
As I “go to press,” we’ll soon see whether the plaintiffs’ “we don’t need dunes” position “holds water” (pardon the pun).
Posted on December 11, 2015
In my latest blog, I related that New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez had taken under advisement the City of Margate’s request for an evidentiary hearing on the reasonableness of the state’s condemnation of easements on 87 City-owned lots. The request had stressed the public’s express opposition to dunes (2 referenda) and the alleged superiority of bulkheads and seawalls for both bay and ocean front properties.
Well, the Judge ruled on Tuesday, December 8, to grant Margate’s Motion to hear its argument in a February hearing on alleged abuse of the state’s eminent domain power. Margate also challenged the Corps of Engineers’ reliance on a 20-year old study, claiming that the study was outdated and its beach protections were as good as, if not better than, dunes.
If Margate’s arguments are successful, Governor Christie’s 127 mile Sandy Relief Act program would have an approximate 1½ mile gap in continuity (its neighbors Ventnor and Longport have agreed to give the state easements to build dunes).
Next month look for the lowdown on Judge Mendez’ decision in Part 8 of my series, “Doin the Dunes.”
Posted on November 30, 2015
As we left off, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that in obtaining easements to build dunes, the amount of compensation for the partial loss of ocean view would have to take into account a credit for the benefit afforded by the dunes’ protection.
When the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, in carrying out Governor Christie’s program to construct a $3.5 billion dune system to protect its 127 mile coastline, decided to acquire the necessary easements by administrative actions, the City of Margate in Atlantic County challenged the failure to proceed by eminent domain: U.S. District Judge Bumb agreed with Margate and invalidated this mechanism, ordering the Department to proceed with eminent domain in state court.
Ten months later, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mendez took under consideration two issues: (1) the reasonableness of the use of eminent domain to acquire easements from 10 private lot owners and 87 city-owned lots, and (2) instead of his making a summary ruling, the need to allow Margate to have an evidentiary hearing, citing the two referenda in which Margate’s voters voted to oppose the dunes.
Once Judge Mendez rules, I will update this matter, keeping in mind that the author owns a 10th floor condominium in Margate, the Municipality Governor Christie calls the most “selfish” municipality in New Jersey.
Posted on November 13, 2015
For those of you who are becoming exhausted by the opinions in the Fox River case, it is time to suggest that the fundamental underpinning of the case – the toxicity of PCBs to humans and to fish – may be in jeopardy.
Twice under the auspices of the World Health Organization “consensus toxicity factors” for dioxin-like compounds including PCBs have been published. These factors were based on analysis of laboratory animals, typically rodents. The lead author of both reports was Martin van den Berg.
Recently an article was published in Chemical Research in Toxicology, “Consensus toxicity factors for PCPDs, PCDFs, and PCBs combining in silico models and extensive in vitro screening of AhR-mediated effects in human and rodent cells,” where van den Berg was the second author on the article who reported on the results of dosing human cells with PCBs and found that PCB 126 was the only PCB congener that produced a measurable response from human cells and that the result was more than 30 times lower than the WHO TEF value for PCB 126. Similar results have been reported in other papers.
As to fish, T.B. Henry has recently published analysis in Critical Reviews in Toxicology , “Ecotoxicology of polychlorinated biphenyls in fish – a critical review.” He concludes: “Biological activity of PCBs is limited to a small proportion of PCB congeners [e.g., dioxin-like PCBs…] and occurs at concentrations that are typically orders of magnitude higher than PCB levels detected in wild fish… Overall, there appears to be little evidence that PCBs have had any widespread effect on the health or survival of wild fish.”
What would the District Court and the Seventh Circuit make of this adjustment to the facts of the case?
Posted on November 3, 2015
The Clean Water Act’s judicial review provision is bizarrely phrased and at times impenetrable. It can force litigants into lengthy threshold battles over jurisdiction that delay and sideline the actual challenges to EPA’s action. Nowhere is this better showcased than in the recent litigation over EPA’s new definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”). Companies, industry groups and public interest organizations have filed dozens of suits in district and circuit courts across the country to cover all the possible jurisdictional possibilities. The circuit court cases were filed under the Clean Water Act’s judicial review provision that automatically centralizes the cases in a randomly selected circuit court (here, the Sixth Circuit). The district court cases were filed under the Administrative Procedure Act, which contains no mechanism for consolidating the numerous cases.
In a heroic attempt to combine the district court cases and litigate in only one court, EPA looked to the multidistrict litigation process designed for coordinated discovery among cases sharing common facts. The circus that ensued was a mini-caricature of the WOTUS litigation and highlighted the intrinsic problems with the Clean Water Act’s judicial review process. The hearing before the multidistrict litigation panel began at 8:00 a.m. in a large courtroom filled beyond capacity with hundreds of lawyers representing the litigants in the fifteen matters scheduled for oral argument that day. Clerks of the court spread across the room calling each matter, and lawyers fought through the crowd to form a bunch in front of their clerk, struggling to hear over the noise. The clerks doled out oral argument time in minute increments, giving some lawyers as few as two minutes of argument time. Once the schedule was set and after a brief recess, the panel called each of the thirteen cases preceding the WOTUS matter on the docket – the Amtrak derailment, airline anti-trust, various medical device and product liability matters, etc. – moving from one matter to the next with seamless agility.
DOJ (Martha Mann) presented oral argument for EPA, and met with stiff resistance from the panel. The panel challenged EPA’s attempt to fit an APA case, to be decided on the record and the law with minimal discovery, into the MDL process designed mostly for coordinated discovery. Ultimately the panel commended Ms. Mann for a noble effort in an exceptionally uphill battle. Elbert Lin, the Solicitor General of West Virginia, presented argument for the plaintiffs and, sensing the favorable persuasion of the panel, highlighted only the diverse procedural postures of the various matters. The various jurisdictional and preliminary injunction rulings in the district courts and an appeal already before the 11th Circuit would all greatly complicate any attempted consolidation.
On October 13th, the panel issued its ruling, deciding not to consolidate the district court cases. The panel agreed that not only was the MDL process not applicable to the predominantly legal WOTUS challenges, but consolidation would only further complicate the already chaotic litigation.
Jurisdictional questions are now pending before the 6th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals. The 6th Circuit offers EPA its last hope of litigating the WOTUS challenges in one court. If the 11th Circuit were to disagree, the jurisdictional issues could continue to eclipse the merits of the litigation for months, if not years, pending final resolution by the Supreme Court.
Posted on October 9, 2015
Does this make sense to you? Eighteen states petitioned the Sixth Circuit to challenge the new rule adopted by EPA and the Corps of Engineers defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Then the petitioners move the court to dismiss their own petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but at the same time request a stay of the rule. And then, the court acknowledges it may not have jurisdiction but issues the stay anyway! That is exactly what Sixth Circuit did in the case published today.
This case is among many seeking to block the rule. The Clean Water Act confers original jurisdiction upon the circuit courts for challenges to “effluent limitations or other limitations.” But as reported earlier in this space, thirteen states convinced a federal district judge in North Dakota that he had jurisdiction because the WOTUS rule is merely definitional, and neither an effluent nor other limitation.
The court concluded that petitioners have a good chance at prevailing on the merits, that the rule exceeds “guidance” given by the Supreme Court in extending CWA jurisdiction too broadly. The court also indicated that the final rule may have strayed too far from the notice given in the proposed rule in its definitions of jurisdictional waters.
The majority was not troubled by the fact the parties are still briefing subject matter jurisdiction, finding that it had plenty of authority to preserve the status quo pending a jurisdictional determination. The dissent took the view that the proper sequence is to first decide jurisdiction, then decide on a national stay of a rule years in the making. Pants first, then shoes.
Did the majority consider the situation an emergency that required immediate action? No, the court found that petitioners were not persuasive that irreparable harm would occur without a stay, but neither could the court find any harm with freezing implementation of the rule. The reasoning seems to be that we’ve muddled through so far, let’s take a step back and consider all the implications before implementation.
Why do the states prefer to go after the rule in the district courts instead of the circuit courts of appeal? Maybe they believe they can forum shop to find conservative judges and build a favorable body of case law before appealing. Or maybe they believe they can more directly attack the science underlying the rule or otherwise augment the administrative record. Whatever the reasons, the ultimate return of this issue to the Supreme Court will be delayed and the law dealing with regulation of wetland fills will remain as confused as ever.
Posted on September 24, 2015
Ohio statutes authorize regional sewer districts to collect and treat sewage, including combined sewer overflows, and to charge fees for those services. The regional sewer district in the Cleveland area (“NEORSD”), with a service territory encompassing nearly 60 communities of Cuyahoga County and some nearby counties, took its authority one step further. Nearly fifty years after its creation, the NEORSD added a regional storm water management program that would charge property owners fees on the basis of a formula primarily tied to the square footage of impervious surfaces like parking lots and roofs. The NEORSD envisioned the plan would address the considerable urban sprawl that had occurred since the 1970’s and that had created vast expanses of impervious spaces in the form of parking lots, large clusters of office, shopping, Big Box, commercial and industrial facilities, often in the upland suburban areas to the east and south of the core city (many suburbs’ names end with “Heights”). With the conversion of green space to impervious surfaces, many of the lower lying areas began to experience more flooding and erosion.
Not content to wait for the individual upland communities to control storm water in a decentralized fashion, the NEORSD in 2010 adopted its plan in response to the “regional” flooding that urban sprawl created and exacerbated. But there was immediate and well financed opposition to the expanded storm water program. Opposition came from several communities which maintained their own capital intensive storm water systems and from commercial property owners which feared the hefty fees they would pay as a result of the parking lots and roof structures they had constructed. And the opposition succeeded when, in 2013, the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals ruled that the statutory charter could not support regional storm water control. See my February 5, 2014 posting, “Storm Water Management by a Regional Sewer District: Was it a Power Grab or a Logical Extension of Existing Powers?”
With that decision, the NEORSD stopped collecting the estimated $35,000,000 per year in fees to implement the regional storm water prevention and abatement measures, but it did not give up. The NEORSD appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, and received considerable amicus support. [Full disclosure: I authored a supporting amicus brief.]
More than a year after oral argument, the Ohio Supreme Court announced its decision. In a 5-2 vote, the high court reversed, finding that the NEORSD possessed the statutory authority to undertake regional storm water control. But as to the collection of fees, the vote was closer, with four Justices approving of the NEORSD fee plan and three dissenting. One Justice dissented because she believed that the fees are intended to relate to services and are not for the future construction and eventual operation of the infrastructure; therefore, she concluded that the NEORSD is premature in assessing fees until it actually provides a “benefit” or “service” from “water resource projects” already in operation. The other two dissenting Justices found that the regional storm water plan exceeds the NEORSD authority and that the fees are unrelated to services, and therefore, the fees are invalid, un-voted “taxes”. Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. v. Bath Twp., Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-3705(decided September 15, 2015.
With the passage of time since the NEORSD plan’s conception in 2010, and the eventual judicial affirmation approximately five years later, a great deal of momentum was lost, with delays in the acquisition of infrastructure to abate storm water runoff and deferral in the collection of funds to implement the program. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s validation of the NEORSD regional storm water plan should “greenlight” similar strategies of other regional sewer districts that are grappling with urban-sprawl induced storm water issues.
Posted on September 2, 2015
A whole lot of craziness is going on in federal district and appellate courts all over the country right now. About what? About judicial review of EPA’s recent “WOTUS” rule under the Clean Water Act (CWA). So I can avoid wheel re-invention, see the very recent ACOEL blogs by Seth Jaffe and Rick Glick.
So what’s the problem? You might find a lot to hate about the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and I could name a few others, but at least they all have one good thing going for them: they all provide in a crystal clear manner that judicial review of EPA’s national rules under those statutes will lie exclusively with the D.C. Circuit. No ifs, ands, buts, or maybes.
For reasons I have never understood (and I have been trying since the 1970s), Congress in its infinite wisdom chose a different path in the CWA. In Section 509, they listed seven types of actions that must be reviewed in a federal Court of Appeal (not necessarily the D.C. Circuit) and left any other type of action to be reviewed initially in federal district court.
Over the years, a lot of mixed case law has developed regarding EPA’s CWA rules that don’t fit neatly within one of the seven types of actions Section 509 has specified for Court of Appeals review. Quite predictably, as reflected in Seth’s and Rick’s recent blogs, three district courts last week reached conflicting results over whether WOTUS fits within the seven types. In its WOTUS preamble, EPA included a discussion about confusion in the courts over the issue and took no position on whether WOTUS should initially be reviewed in a district court or Court of Appeals.
So how crazy is this: right now, we have (1) a ruling from one district court judge in North Dakota finding he has jurisdiction and enjoining EPA from enforcing WOTUS; (2) a statement from EPA saying the agency will honor his injunction only in the 13 States that were plaintiffs in that action; (3) an order from that judge directing the parties to brief the issue of whether EPA has authority to honor his ruling in only those states; (4) decisions from two other federal district judges holding WOTUS judicial review must be brought only in a Court of Appeals; (5) numerous cases filed in several circuit Courts of Appeals that have been transferred (at least for now) to the 6th Circuit; (6) an almost certain EPA appeal to the 8th Circuit in attempt to reverse the North Dakota judge’s injunction; and (7) WOTUS review cases filed in numerous other federal district courts by lots of parties with various motions still pending.
This is early September, and I can’t imagine how this won’t get a lot crazier over the next few months. Congress in its infinite wisdom!
Posted on August 31, 2015
With so many challenges filed in so many venues to EPA’s Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule, it seemed inevitable that some plaintiffs somewhere would find a sympathetic court. And so it is that thirteen states found U. S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson to preliminarily enjoin the “exceptionally expansive view” of the government’s reach under the Clean Water Act.
This case is interesting from a couple of perspectives. First, Congress conferred original jurisdiction for challenges to EPA “effluent limitations or other limitations” and for permit decisions upon the Circuit Courts of Appeal. In the past two days, district court judges in West Virginiaand Georgiaconcluded they lacked jurisdiction over challenges to the WOTUS rule on that basis. Judge Erickson, however, did not feel so constrained.
The judge found that the WOTUS rule is simply definitional, and neither an effluent limitation nor an “other limitation” on states’ discretion. Further, the judge found that the rule “has at best an attenuated connection to any permitting process.” The conclusion states’ discretion is not affected is a bit odd in that the judge later concludes that the state plaintiffs satisfied all the criteria for a preliminary injunction, including irreparable harm caused by the rule.
Second, Judge Erickson plays on an internecine dispute between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in an unusual way. In my first sentence I refer to the WOTUS rule as EPA’s, although the rule was jointly adopted by EPA and the Corps. However, recently leaked internal government memorandaindicate that the Corps disavows much of the technical support and policy choices underlying the rule. Judge Erickson obliquely references these memoranda and seems to rely on them to conclude that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their challenge.
Typically, courts are loathe to rely on internal documents of uncertain provenance, as they prefer to leave the government room to openly discuss policies under development without fear its deliberations would be disclosed. But in this case, Judge Erickson notes that he has not been presented with the full record for the WOTUS rulemaking, and so felt justified in citing the Corps memos.
As Seth Jaffe has observed, it seems likely that Judge Erickson’s jurisdictional determination will not stand, and his reliance on the confidential exchanges between the Corps and EPA is a little disturbing. However, his order highlights EPA’s poor management of this rulemaking, which has led to challenges from states, property rights advocates and environmentalists—a kind of anti-EPA trifecta.
As previously noted, EPA released its draft WOTUS rule before the work of the Science Advisory Board was complete, thus raising questions as to the rule’s scientific objectivity. Then EPA seemingly disregarded the technical concerns raised by its rulemaking partner, the Corps. Any WOTUS rulemaking would be controversial, but EPA has unnecessarily raised the bar for public acceptance.
Posted on August 28, 2015
On Wednesday, Judge Irene Keeley of the Northern District of West Virginia held that district courts do not have jurisdiction to hear challenges to EPA’s rule defining waters of the United States, because courts of appeal have original jurisdiction over “any effluent limitation or other limitation.” Yesterday, Judge Lisa Wood of the Southern District of Georgia agreed.
Later yesterday, Judge Ralph Erickson of the District of North Dakota disagreed. Finding that a definitional rule is not an effluent limitation and is not any “other limitation”, because it “places no new burden or requirements on the States”, Judge Erickson concluded that the district courts do have jurisdiction. Addressing the merits, Judge Erickson concluded the states were likely to prevail, and would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction. He thus enjoined enforcement of the rule in the 13 states involved in the case before him.
I’ll go out on a limb and assert that Judge Erickson’s decision is not likely to survive. Why not?
- Both the Georgia and West Virginia opinions cogently explain why the WOTUS rule is an “other limitation under existing CWA cases.
- Judge Erickson was clearly trying to have his cake and eat it, too. It is, to put it mildly, internally inconsistent for Judge Erickson to conclude that he had jurisdiction to hear the case, because the “rule places no new burden or requirements on the States”, while ruling on the merits that the States will suffer irreparable harm if the rule goes into effect. If they will suffer harm, it is precisely because the rule will limit them in new ways – which is pretty much what his own opinion says.
- As Judge Keeley noted, providing consolidated jurisdiction over all challenges to the rule in one court of appeals furthers
“the congressional goal of ensuring prompt resolution of challenges to EPA’s actions.” That scheme would be undermined by … a “patchwork quilt” of district court rulings.
Based on these three decisions in just the last two days, it would seem that truer words were never spoken.
Posted on July 31, 2015
Anyone who reads this blog must have seen the explosion of reports in the trade press that EPA ignored significant criticism from the Army Corps of Engineers in promulgating its Waters of the United States rule. (For a useful summary of the rule and an analysis of some of the legal issues that might be raised in potential litigation, see Susan Cooke’s post from earlier this month.) I have not seen the memoranda, but, based on the press reports, it appears that EPA ignored criticism both that it was too stringent in some areas and that it was not sufficiently stringent in others. If EPA’s purpose wasn’t simply to make the rule more – or less – stringent, why did it ignore the Corps and try to bury the disagreement?
How about hubris?
I noted earlier this year and as far back as 2010, EPA’s tendency towards self-righteousness. I also pointed out how counterproductive that self-righteousness is; it makes it more difficult for EPA to achieve its goals. While I still think that EPA is self-righteous, hubris seems the apt description today.
Posted on July 10, 2015
The U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have designated July 13 as the official issuance date for purposes of judicial review of their Final Rule defining the scope of “waters of the United States” or “WOTUS” under the federal Clean Water Act. However, a number of lawsuits have already been filed, including four separate actions brought on behalf of a total of 27 states and a fifth action filed by Murray Energy Corp., a privately held coal mining company.
The lawsuits seek to overturn the Final Rule on several grounds that include:
- Usurpation of state authority over intrastate waters in violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and Tenth Amendment
- violation of the federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA) due to the Final Rule’s allegedly unlawful expansion of federal powers granted under the federal Clean Water Act, as well the arbitrary and capricious nature of the rulemaking;
- violation of the APA’s requirement to provide notice and opportunity for comment on proposed rulemakings, and to properly respond to comments made during the comment period; and
- violation of the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement to prepare an environmental impact statement for a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.
The object of all this attention is a long expected – and expansive – WOTUS interpretation adopted by EPA and the Corps. As reported on this blog site, the rule is controversial; the draft generated over one million comments. For a comprehensive analysis of the draft rule, including the cases leading up to the rule, see the American College of Environmental Lawyers reportfor the Environmental Council of the States.
The Final Rule, which does not change much from the draft, is intended to provide more certainty regarding what is and is not subject to the Clean Water Act’s Section 402 and 404 permitting provisions and its Section 311 oil spill prevention and response provisions so as to reduce case-by-case determinations of applicability. Despite the inclusion of a number of definitions and exclusions, it is doubtful that this goal has been achieved, given the number of new situations where a “significant nexus” determination must be made.
The significant nexus inquiry finds its genesis in Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion in Rapanos v. United States where Justice Scalia wrote the plurality opinion. According to Justice Kennedy’s opinion, wetlands adjacent to navigable waterways are waters of the United States based on a “reasonable inference of ecologic interconnection” in accordance with the Supreme Court’s 1985 opinion in United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes. However, isolated wetlands or wetlands adjacent to a non-navigable tributary, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, [must] significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as navigable” in order to fall within the purview of the Clean Water Act. Rejecting a bright-line test, Justice Kennedy noted that a “mere hydrologic connection should not suffice in all cases” as it “may be too insubstantial . . . to establish the required nexus with navigable waters as traditionally understood.”
The Final Rule broadly defines “tributaries” and “adjacent waters” and classifies them as “per se” jurisdictional waters, along with waters used in interstate or foreign commerce, interstate waters and wetlands, territorial seas, and impoundments of such waters. It also identifies a number of other waters (prairie potholes, Carolina bays and Delmarva bays, pocosins, western vernal pools, and Texas coastal prairies) as navigable waters if they meet the significant nexus test which involves consideration of a number of factors identified in a compilation of peer reviewed scientific reports assembled by EPA.
All of the complaints reference the Supreme Court’s Rapanosdecision, as well as the Court’s 2001 decision in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, regarding what constitutes a “navigable water”. In particular, they claim that the Final Rule goes well beyond the limits set forth in those decisions, including Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test in Rapanos. Some of the complaints provide pretty convincing arguments on the latter point, and so another “wave” of litigation can be expected. Given that the litigation now extends back 30 years, a paraphrase of that old adage about water – and litigation - being everywhere seems right “on course”.
Posted on June 23, 2015
On June 4, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources,” which finds no evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water supplies. According to the draft assessment, between 2000 and 2013, there were an estimated 9.4 million people living within one mile of a well that was hydraulically fractured. The draft assessment supports the assertion that state agencies, as the primary regulator of oil and gas development in the United States, are effectively governing hydraulic fracturing activities by the industry.
Initially announced by USEPA in March 2010, the study has a broad scope. USEPA reviewed each stage of the “hydraulic fracturing water cycle” – including water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water recapture, and wastewater treatment and disposal – to assess for any widespread, systemic impacts on the quality or quantity of drinking water resources. The agency also used an expanded definition of drinking water resources that includes currently undrinkable saline aquifers that might be desalinated for consumptive use in the future.
Although the draft assessment acknowledged that hydraulic fracturing could potentially contaminate drinking water resources, USEPA found that the actual occurrences of such impacts were “small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.” The risks related to hydraulic fracturing activities identified in the draft assessment included: water withdrawal in times of low availability; spills of fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.
The draft assessment noted that the primary means of disposing of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing activities conducted in the United States is underground injection wells. However, one notable exception to this finding is in the Marcellus shale play, where USEPA found that most wastewater is reused by industry. The high percentage of reuse and recycling of wastewater in the Marcellus shale play is a practice that industry has long asserted is a valuable means of reducing the amount of freshwater needed for well development activities.
USEPA is expected to publish a final assessment after the completion of a notice and comment period, which is currently open and concludes on August 28, 2015, and a review of the draft assessment by the Science Advisory Board Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel. The Panel has scheduled a public meeting to conduct a review of the draft assessment from October 28 to October 30, 2015, and teleconferences to discuss the draft assessment on September 30, October 1, and October 19, 2015.
Posted on May 28, 2015
Today EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers released a prepublication version of the final rule defining “waters of the United States,” the jurisdictional trigger under the Clean Water Act. The term needs defining because the Act extends to navigable waters and adjacent wetlands, but it is often not clear how some streams or wetlands relate to a navigable waterway, and the Supreme Court has provided conflicting guidance.
So, the agencies have attempted to clarify. With the new definition they hope to reduce the number of case-by-case jurisdictional determinations and litigation, but they understand full well the controversial nature of the rule, having received over a million comments on the draftpublished on April 21, 2014. In response, EPA and the Corps today also released a battery of public relations offerings—press release, fact sheets, blogs, op-ed pieces—to explain and defend the rule. The controversy will not end here.
As previously reportedin this space, the impetus for the rule is uncertainty created by a 2006 Supreme Court decision in Rapanos. In that case, a 5-4 split Court held that the government had overstepped its authority, but failed to issue a majority opinion. Instead, four justices, led by Justice Scalia, proposed a rule in essence requiring that the subject waters or wetlands be free flowing and obviously wet. The concurring opinion by Justice Kennedy would instead look for a “signficant nexus” between a wetland and a navigable waterway. The lower courts have struggled ever since to discern a clear jurisdictional definition.
At first glance, the final rule does not veer much from the draft. For a comprehensive analysis of the draft rule, including the cases leading up to the rule, see the American College of Environmental Lawyers reportfor the Environmental Council of the States. Although EPA and the Corps have declared that the rule does not represent a major policy shift, a diverse ACOEL writing team—made up of experts in academia, non-profit organizations, and private practice—had differing opinions. Some saw a sea change in federal policy, while others believed the draft rule was simply a restatement of existing policy.
Congress has been fulminating about government overreach since the draft rule was published. On May 12, 2015 the House passed HR 1732, the Regulatory Integrity Protection Act, in an effort to block the final rule. If the Senate passes the bill, Congress will need to muster the votes to override a certain presidential veto.
Although the purpose of the final rule is to provide some certainty as to the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction, it is highly likely to be challenged by industry groups in the courts. That means years of litigation and appellate review across the country, ultimately landing once again before the Supreme Court. Whether we get clarity this time from the Court remains to be seen.
Posted on April 16, 2015
After Sackett, the question on everyone’s mind was “How far does it go?” The first test of that question was the decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals – not known as a bastion of liberalism – in Belle Company v. Corps of Engineers, holding that a Corps jurisdictional determination is not final agency action subject to judicial review. Late last week, however, in Hawkes Co. v. Corps of Engineers, the 8th Circuit disagreed, creating a circuit split.
As we noted at the time, the 5th Circuit decision in Belle focused on the differences between the Sacketts’ position facing an enforcement order and that of Belle Company facing a Corps JD. As the 5th Circuit emphasized, the JD did not require Belle Company to do anything. Nor did the JD expose Belle Company to penalties. Nor did it prejudice Belle Company’s ability to obtain a permit. Nor did it include a finding of a CWA violation.
The 8th Circuit took a different tack, focusing instead on the one great, glaring similarity between the enforcement order in Sackett and the JD in Hawkes Co. – in both cases, the Corps’ decision, as a practical matter, defined the property owner’s rights and ended the proceeding.
It’s not obvious to me that the Supreme Court will take the case, even with the circuit split. I don’t think that the Court likes these cases. On the other hand, it is obvious that the conservative wing of the court sees Sackett as a very important decision and there could well be four votes to decide the issue at this point.
If the Court does take the case, all bets are off. I think that the 5th Circuit still has the better of the legal argument, and I expect that will be sufficient for all but the most ardent property rights advocates on the Court. Whether there are five ardent property rights advocates on the Court is what remains to be seen.
Posted on March 30, 2015
It may come as a surprise that people fight over water in soggy Oregon and Washington. To be sure, we have not experienced the same level of conflict over competing water needs as our neighbors in the southwest, but in fact the conflicts are there and the stakes are high.
Most senior water rights in the Pacific Northwest are held by agriculture, whereas the growth in demand for water is occurring in the municipal and industrial sectors . . . and at last check, fish still need flowing streams. Add to that dynamic a declining hydrograph due to climate change, and the table is set for confrontation.
Two recent cases in the Oregon Court of Appeals and a case in the Washington Supreme Court that address municipal water rights illustrate the point. A more complete discussion of these cases is in the current issue of The Water Report.
The Oregon cases arise from a 2005 statute providing special rules for extensions of time to complete development of municipal water supplies. The caption for both cases is WaterWatch of Oregon v. Water Resources Department, but one involves the City of Cottage Grove and the other a group of Clackamas River water providers. The 2005 statute provides that for the first municipal extension granted after enactment of the statute, “fish persistence” conditions must be applied to the “undeveloped portion” of the city’s water system.
By the time Cottage Grove’s extension application was considered, the city had completed work on its water system. The Oregon Water Resources Department found no “undeveloped portion” and therefore imposed no fish persistence requirements. The court overturned the extension, finding that the fish conditions must relate back to the previous extension in 1999.
The Oregon Supreme Court initially accepted review of the case, but then without explanation declared that review was “improvidently” granted and dismissed it. Thus, the case stands; legislative corrections may be forthcoming. For the moment, Cottage Grove and other similarly situated public water providers may have less water than they previously thought due to fish flow curtailments and may incur unbudgeted additional public expense.
In the Clackamas case, the court found the “fish persistence” conditions were inadequate because OWRD failed to articulate how the conditions actually protected fish. The case is now back before OWRD for further proceedings.
In Cornelius v. Washington State University, the Supreme Court came to a happier conclusion for public water providers. The issue was whether university groundwater rights identified as for “domestic” purposes were entitled to special protections afforded only to municipal purposes. The Court unequivocally held they are.
The economies of our region depend on the courts getting it right with respect to municipal water supplies. Washington public water providers can rest easier than their counterparts in Oregon after their state courts’ recent pronouncements.
Posted on March 10, 2015
In a December 2012 blog post, I discussed the tensions raised by “Water for Texas 2012 State Water Plan” between the expected population growth and available water resources in Texas. As water demand is expected to rise, existing water supplies are diminishing.
These critical water supply constraints are again brought into sharp focus by the population projections contained in a March 5, 2015 report released by the Office of State Demographer. The 40-year projections (2010 to 2050) indicate that if the migration patterns observed in Texas between 2000 and 2010 continue at the same rate, the population of Texas will double, representing a significant increase in projections contained in the 2012 State Water Plan. The projected water resource shortages will be exacerbated.
The 2012 State Water Plan, based on a 50-year horizon, projected a 2060 population of 46.3 million. New population numbers, based on the recent migration patterns, project an increase from the 2010 Census population of 25.1 million to a 2050 population of 54.4 million.
For the past 10 years, Texas experienced the largest annual population growth of any state. Will the Texas economy maintain its strength to support job growth that will attract young workers from around the country and the world? Can the associated high net migration be sustained? What will be the impact of this growth? How will the environmental impacts be anticipated and managed?
The areas of fastest growth include the areas in and around Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin/San Antonio, and Houston. Cities in those areas are making plans to secure long-term water supplies. Will they be successful? Will regulatory changes have to be made to surface and groundwater water rights to effectively and efficiently acquire, manage, and conserve these limited water resources? Will the infrastructure be there? How will it be financed?
Will Texas have “cool, clear water”?
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.