A SWING AND A MISS -- The First Reported Challenge to Water Quality Trading is Dismissed for Lack of Standing

Posted on January 24, 2014 by Allan Gates

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.



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