“To Count or Not to Count, That is the Question”

Posted on June 28, 2018 by Jeff Civins

“To count or not to count”--greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions--was a question facing both the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) and the US Forest Service (“USFS”), in deciding whether to lease 13 parcels of federal mineral estate in Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico for oil and gas production, and the federal district court in New Mexico, on an appeal of those agencies’ joint determination to lease those parcels.  The appeal, filed by plaintiff citizen groups, in San Juan Citizens Alliance v. United States Bureau of Land Management, No. 16-cv-376-MCA-JHR, D. NM (June 14, 2018), asserted a number of violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) based on, among other things, the agencies’ alleged failure to take a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas leasing.  The GHG emissions in question related to those that would result not from the production of oil and gas from the leases, but rather from the consumption of that production--and the resulting climate change impacts of those emissions.  The court answered yes to the question of whether to count those emissions, but its determination raised another question--what difference would or should counting those GHG emissions make.

Operating under a memorandum of understanding, the USFS and BLM jointly manage oil and gas leasing on federal forest land, with the USFS regulating the surface and the BLM, the subsurface.  The USFS identifies specific lands to be offered for lease; the BLM provides a reasonably foreseeable development scenario.  If the UFS consents to leasing, it may include conditions; BLM may then issue competitive leases.  The leases here were issued after protracted administrative proceedings, which included the USFS’s preparation of an environmental impact statement and supplement that supported the permitting of oil and gas leasing and which culminated in the BLM’s issuance of a Decision Record and Environmental Assessment approving the parcels for lease, which “tiered to” the USFS environmental studies.

Plaintiffs argued that the agencies “failed to take a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas leasing” before making an irretrievable commitment of resources.  Regulations of the Council on Environmental Quality, at 40 CFR Part 1500, define the pertinent terms.

Direct effects” are “caused by the action and occur at the same time and place” while “indirect effects” are effects that “are caused by the action and are later in time or farther removed in distance, but are still reasonably foreseeable.” A “cumulative impact,” on the other hand, is an “impact on the environment [that] results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency … or person undertakes such other actions.” “Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time.” 

BLM’s Decision Record explained that the agency was evaluating only GHG emissions associated with exploration and production of oil and gas (estimated to be 0.0018% of the US’s total GHG emissions), because the environmental impacts of GHG emissions from consumption of that oil and gas, e.g., refining and consumer-vehicle combustion, were not direct effects and neither were they indirect effects because production was not a proximate cause of GHG emissions resulting from consumption.  BLM argued, however, that emissions from consumption were accounted for in the cumulative effects analysis. 

The Decision Record explained:

The very small increase in [GHG] emissions that could result from approval of the action alternatives would not produce climate change impacts that differ from the No Action Alternative. This is because climate change is a global process that is impacted by the sum total of [GHG] emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere. The incremental contribution to global [GHG] from the proposed action cannot be translated into effects on climate change globally or in the area of this site-specific action. It is currently not feasible to predict with certainty the net impacts from the proposed action on global or regional climate.

The Air Resources Technical Report discusses the relationship of past, present and future predicted emissions to climate change and the limitations in predicting local and regional impacts related to emissions. It is currently not feasible to know with certainty the net impacts from particular emissions associated with activities on public lands.

The Air Resources Technical Report noted that the BLM did not have the ability to associate an action’s contribution in a localized area to impacts on global climate change,” but may do so in the future when “climate models improve in their sensitivity and predictive capacity.” 

In its review of the agencies’ record, the court noted “neither the Record Decision nor its tiered or incorporated documents estimate the potential greenhouse gas emissions from consumption of the oil and gas produced by wells developed on the leases, nor do they discuss the potential impacts of such emissions. “  The court concluded that the failure to estimate the amount of GHG emissions resulting from consumption of the oil and gas produced as a result of development of wells on the leased areas was arbitrary and required that BLM reanalyze the potential impact of such greenhouse gases on climate change in light of the recalculated amount of emissions in order to comply with NEPA.

For that reason, the court remanded the case to the BLM to address this error and to consider whether, based on that reanalysis, its mitigation analysis needed to be revised as well.  The court reasoned that GHG emissions from the consumption of oil and gas were an indirect effect that BLM should have considered, citing Sierra Club v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm’n, 867 F.3d 1357, 1374 (D.C. Cir. 2017), and found that BLM also did not adequately consider the cumulative effects of those emissions, together with other emissions.

The question raised by this case, and Sierra Club v. FERC, which the court cites, is how helpful the analysis of indirect and cumulative effects will be to the agency in its decision-making and could or should that analysis result in the selection of a different alternative or in requirements to mitigate. As a practical matter, given the global nature of the concern posed by GHG emissions and the relatively small contribution of the activity under review, is there an expectation that an agency will make meaningful changes in its decision-making as a result of any required reanalysis? So perhaps the question should be not whether to count or not to count, but rather, “What difference would or should counting make?”And, perhaps an even more salient question is, as a policy matter, should concerns posed by GHG emissions be better addressed through legislation and rulemaking rather than by imposing constraints on an ad hoc basis?

AND NOW FOR SOME GOOD NEWS

Posted on June 27, 2018 by Leslie Carothers

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

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

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

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

DAVID AND GOLIATH AT THE CONOWINGO DAM

Posted on June 26, 2018 by Ridgway Hall

Exelon owns and operates the Conowingo Dam across the Susquehanna River in Maryland just below the Pennsylvania border, including a 573 megawatt hydroelectric power plant. It is seeking a renewal of its operating license from FERC under the Federal Power Act for 50 years. Section 401 of the Clean Water Act requires that any applicant for a federal license that may result in a discharge submit a certification by the state where the discharge will occur that the discharge “will comply with the applicable provisions” of the CWA, including water quality standards. The certification may include conditions and requirements, including monitoring and reporting, deemed necessary to ensure compliance. The certification becomes part of the federal license, and the licensing agency may not change it.

The facts in this case are unusual, and the outcome will likely be precedential. For decades, sediment has flowed down the 450 miles of the Susquehanna River from New York and Pennsylvania and accumulated in the reservoir behind the dam, trapping nitrogen, phosphorus, metals, PCBs and other pollutants along with the sediment,  Now the trapping capacity has been reached. Several times in recent decades severe storms have scoured out tons of this sediment and carried it over the dam and into the Chesapeake Bay 10 miles downstream, causing not just violation of water quality standards, but severe damage to oysters, bay grasses and benthic organisms.  In addition, the dam has blocked historic fish passage. Measures such as fish ladders and transportation have produced only modest relief. Since 2010 the entire Chesapeake Bay and its tributary system has been subject to a multi-state total maximum daily load (TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, but at the time that was set, it was not anticipated that the Conowingo trapping capacity would be exhausted this soon.

On April 27, 2018, the Maryland Department of the Environment issued a CWA certification in which it determined that numerous conditions must be complied with by Exelon in order to reasonably ensure compliance with water quality standards. It requires, among other things, measures to ensure compliance with standards for dissolved oxygen (DO), chlorophyll-A (an indicator of algae), turbidity, temperature, pH and bacteriological criteria in the reservoir and downstream waters including the Bay, plus compliance with plans to protect various fish species, waterfowl and habitat. It also requires shoreline protection, removal of trash from the reservoir and a variety of monitoring programs.

Notably, to satisfy the DO standards, which are adversely affected by nutrients and are critical to aquatic life, MDE requires that starting in 2025 Exelon must annually reduce the amount of nitrogen in its discharges by 6 million pounds, and phosphorus by 260,000 pounds. Exelon can also satisfy this requirement by installing best management practices elsewhere upstream or paying $17 per pound of nitrogen and $270 per pound of phosphorus for any amounts not removed.

Exelon promptly filed a request for reconsideration and administrative appeal with MDE. It also filed a complaint in Maryland state court seeking a declaration that the certification could not be considered “final action” until proceedings before MDE were concluded, including Exelon’s right to an evidentiary hearing; an injunction against any consideration of the certification by FERC, and, alternatively, for judicial review. Exelon also filed suit in the U.S District Court in Washington, D.C., claiming that MDE’s certification exceeded its CWA authority and constituted an unconstitutional taking of its property, and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.  See Exelon’s filings at here.

Among Exelon’s complaints is the fact that the certification would require it to spend vast sums to remove pollutants that did not come from its operations, but from upstream polluters. The fee equivalent of the nitrogen and phosphorus removals would amount to $172 million per year – far more than Exelon earns from the operation of Conowingo. An environmental impact statement had concluded that efforts to remove the sediment from behind the dam “would be cost-prohibitive and ineffective.” Releases from the dam, Exelon contends, are not “discharges” but “pass-through.” Exelon also argues that fish passage damage was caused decades ago and it would be unfair to make Exelon bear the full cost of restoring it.

Some environmental groups have joined the administrative appeal process.  Stewards of the Lower Susquehanna and Waterkeepers Chesapeake (a group of 18 Waterkeeper organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed) appealed to MDE asking that protection against scouring by big storms be strengthened and that likely effects from climate change be considered, but otherwise supporting the certification. The Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, both with longstanding interests in water quality and restoration of the fisheries and fish passage, have also been actively involved.

The stakes are high. MDE, “David” in my title, has taken some bold measures to address some enormous problems, and Exelon is fighting back hard. However it comes out, the resolution will have precedential value for other CWA 401 cases across the country, and particularly for hydroelectric projects.

HOW WILL WE COPE WHEN DAY ZERO ARRIVES IN A U.S. CITY?

Posted on June 21, 2018 by Eileen Millett

While those of us here in the northeast have been wringing out soggy clothing, using umbrellas as an essential feature of our wardrobes, praying for sun, and genuinely wondering if the long hot days of summer will ever truly be with us, residents of Cape Town, South Africa are experiencing the opposite dilemma.  Although recently the situation began to improve, Cape Town is suffering through one of the longest and driest spells in its history, and could be the first major city to run out of water.   They could come face to face with Day Zero when no water comes from the taps.

Cape Town, named one of the world’s best places to visit by the New York Times and Britain’s Daily Telegraph, is Africa’s third main economic hub, and until the gold rush development of Johannesburg, was the largest city in South Africa. It is alive with multi-million dollar beach front homes, art museums and two of the world’s top 50 restaurants.  The city could now have another distinction.  Despite reducing its water use to half, announcing three new desalination plants, and residents taking 90-second showers, it will take years to normalize  the extended drought its residents have suffered through.   Cape Town is suffering from a three-year drought the likes of which haven’t been seen in a century, as the city has become warmer and drier.

We take water’s existence for granted.  When we turn on the tap, it better be there, and it better be drinkable.  Water quality and less water quantity have been front and center in deliberations about water management.   Flint, Michigan brought us to the battle zone at the mouth of the Flint River, and demonstrated the ramifications head-on of high levels of lead in drinking water.  Lack of proper treatment, exposure and yes, environmental justice issues were at the fore.  Obviously, we care about what is in our drinking water, but we don’t give much thought to whether or how much water is readily available.  Little has prepared us for the day when the amount of water flowing from our faucets will be limited to a few hours a day, if even we have access to water at all. 

Not so the case in Cape Town, South Africa, a coastal paradise, responsible for 10% of Africa’s GDP, where residents have been living with the ramifications of severely limited supplies of water, and where this thriving metropolis of 4 million is poised to become the first major city in the world to completely run dry.   They have little choice but to prepare and to live with the crisis.  Can we afford to dismiss Cape Town as an outlier or should we be preparing for a Day Zero closer to home?

Population growth and urbanization, combined with drought, a natural climate phenomenon or a feature of climate change, depending on your point of view, has pushed Cape Town to a 2019 Day Zero countdown clock, but has not resulted in its being able to avoid Day Zero entirely — a day when the doomsday scenario occurs and the taps run dry.  Earlier this year, Day Zero had been predicted to fall on May 11, 2018, the day when taps in all homes and businesses would be turned off, and when Cape Town’s 4 million residents would have had to line up for water rations.  Cape Town residents are now forced to subsist on 13 gallons of water a day.  Exceeding the daily water limit results in fines.  Residents and tourists alike are implored to recognize the water crisis and to conserve.  This means taking extreme measures on a daily basis, like taking 90-second showers, drinking a half gallon of water, utilizing only one sinkful to hand wash dishes or laundry, having water for one cooked meal, two hand washings, two teeth brushings and one toilet flush.   The 13-gallon limit is less than the minimum U.N. daily recommendation for domestic needs.

Tragically, Cape Town’s looming problem might have been avoided if only there had been better planning, better crisis management and no drought.  To be fair, Cape Town did undertake a program to fix old and leaky pipes, to install meters and to adjust tariffs.  The city did not, however, look for new water sources.  Cape Town depends on water from six dams that are rainfall dependent, and now stand at just over 25% of capacity.  Depending on these dams as a limited source has been exacerbated by the city’s population growth swelling by upwards of 30% in the last decade, with most of that growth in the city’s poorer areas that actually consume less water.  And therein lies one of the realities of South Africa’s sad apartheid legacy — extraordinary inequality and concentrated wealth and privilege.  Folks in the more affluent area of the city can access privately maintained water tanks and pools for their water needs.  Pools provide a built in bathing option and an emergency water supply.

With only about half of the residents reaching the 13 gallon a day target, most consider a shut-off inevitable.  It is not a question of if, but how the city will make water accessible and prevent anarchy.  In poorer parts of the city, people share communal taps and carry water buckets to their homes.  With the clock ticking, Capetonians are sharing water-saving tips — don’t boil food, bake it or grill it; use paper plates; order pizza and eat it from the box; use water collected from showing to wash clothes, use grey water to flush toilets, and more.

Recent rainfall in Cape Town will help to normalize the situation, but the city has not averted the crisis.  Closer to home the condition of the Rio Grande in New Mexico reflects a broader trend in the west, where greenhouse gas emissions have made wet years less wet and dry years even drier.   So although conservancy districts store water in reservoirs, once that water is drained, if there are no summer rains, farmers will face an uncertain future.  Despite the northeast’s rainy spring and general good fortune with water reserves, there are lessons to be learned from our neighbors to the west, and very far south on a different continent.

Places

Posted on June 20, 2018 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

On vacation on Sanibel Island, FL, three hour’s drive from the central Florida town I grew up in, I’m thinking about place.  When I vacationed here as a child, Sanibel was a sleepy island, with primitive bungalows for tourists, insatiable hordes of mosquitoes, mephitic drinking water, and glorious shell beaches, refreshed daily by the tides. Like most of Florida’s West Coast, Sanibel has undergone a sea change since then, transformed into a high-end resort community with luxury accommodations and expensive homes – and, yes, points of public access to the beach. There’re fewer good shells, because so many more people are hunting them.

A visitor from the early days might say the island had been spoiled, but in fact people who cared about Sanibel and its sister island, Captiva, worked to protect it even as it morphed under intense development pressure. The local land trust, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), begun in 1967 with the first flush of the modern environmental movement, is the largest private landowner on the islands and manages over 1200 acres of conservation lands on Sanibel and another 600 on Captiva. That’s in addition to the conservation lands managed by the State of Florida and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which include the 6400-acre J. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1945, through the efforts of J.N. “Ding” Darling, a Pulitzer-prize winning political cartoonist and conservationist who kept a winter home on Captiva, the refuge protects a part of “the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States” and “spectacular migratory bird populations.”

We all live in places, vacation in places; we care about them –their people and their nature. There are over 1300 active land trusts in the United States, most of them local or regional. These organizations protect and manage over 56 million conservation acres largely though private donations.  Local governments protect additional land through easement acquisition programs, open space zoning, and protections for ecologically sensitive areas. These actions go on largely under the radar of the divisive politics that infects national environmental and natural resource policy. There are still conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats in these local settings, but they are joined by a common interest in their place – the qualities that make that place worth living in for everyone.  This common commitment is more elusive at larger geographic scales, where red and blue segregate along lines of rural/urban, coast and heartland.

The power of place to mobilize action to protect and defend is no panacea for environmental ills. Rootedness in place can cause people to overlook the larger consequences of their actions, as in NIMBY cases. It also may fail to be an effective motivator for addressing issues at larger scales, such as climate change. But there’s evidence that politically diverse communities that are seeing the effects of global change, such as cities and counties in Southern Florida, are moving toward meaningful climate change policies – with both adaptation and mitigation components. A common threat to “home” might help lift even climate change into the realm of common commitment.

Big Tribal Victory in Culvert Case, Big Implications for Taxpayers

Posted on June 13, 2018 by Rick Glick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on June 8, 2018 by Seth Jaffe

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

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

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

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

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

I loved the Court’s response.

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

Epistemological smokescreen.  Humph.

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

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

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

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

Ending Secret Science or Censoring Science?

Posted on June 7, 2018 by Chester Babst

On April 30, 2018, EPA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking entitled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” Although EPA’s stated intent is to increase transparency and public confidence in the Agency’s regulations, a number of its critics have described the proposed rule as “exquisitely opaque,” “vague,” and “lacking data transparency.” Even supporters of the proposed rule seem to recognize that it may need some work before it is issued in final form.

Critics of the proposed rulemaking argue that some scientific studies cannot be released publicly because they may include personal health information and identifiers or they may involve trade secrets.  Proponents of the proposed rulemaking note that the proposed rule allows EPA to make studies available in a manner that protects privacy and confidential business information. However, it does not provide how this would be accomplished. If personal identifiers could be redacted from studies examining health effects, who would perform this data removal and who would pay for the costs associated with this removal? Proponents also note that the proposed rulemaking would give the Administrator the power to grant exemptions to these disclosure requirements if the Administrator deems it impractical or not feasible to release the research in a manner that protects privacy and other private interests, but critics are concerned that the proposed rule does not provide what factors would govern this type of discretionary exemption.

Although the concept that environmental regulations should rely on data, information and methods that are publicly available and sufficiently transparent to meet a “standard of reproducibility” is laudable, the initial reactions to the proposed rule suggest that finding a path to that end will not be easy.

Regulation of Groundwater under the Clean Water Act

Posted on June 4, 2018 by William Brownell

In the early 1980s, the State of Michigan filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the United States alleging that chemicals from a federal facility located near Lake Michigan could “enter the groundwaters under the … area” occupied by the facility and then “be discharged [through that groundwater] into Grand Traverse Bay.” The Department of Justice told the Court that “these claims are not allowed under the Clean Water Act since the Act does not regulate pollutant discharges onto soil or into underlying groundwater,” and the suit was eventually dismissed.  According to the United States, “[t]he statutory language, the legislative history, the case law, and EPA’s interpretation of the Act all support this conclusion.” 

Thirty years later, in 2016, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the County of Maui, alleging that the County was violating the Clean Water Act by disposing of treated waste water through underground injection wells into groundwater that was hydrologically connected to the Pacific Ocean.  According to a Department of Justice amicus brief, this claim was allowed under the Clean Water Act because a discharge “that moves through groundwater with a direct hydrological connection [to surface water] comes under the purview of the CWA’s [NPDES] permitting requirements.”   

Which is right:  the 1985 government or the 2016 government?  Not surprisingly, both sides assert that they offer the government’s “longstanding” position.  For example, those concluding that releases to hydrologically connected groundwater are not subject to the Clean Water Act’s NPDES permit program point to (among other statements) an Office of General Counsel memorandum from 1973 that “the term ‘discharge of a pollutant’ is defined so as to include only discharges into navigable waters…. “[d]ischarges into ground waters are not included”; to EPA’s assertion in 2004 that NPDES “regulations apply to … [e]xisting facilities that discharge directly to surface waters”; and to EPA’s statement in 2017 that “discharges to groundwater are not regulated by the NPDES permit program.”  

Proponents of regulating releases to groundwater under the NPDES program rely principally on statements made in the preamble to a 2001 proposed rule for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and on the amicus brief filed in 2016 by the Department of Justice in the County of Maui case.

This “hydrological connection” theory of Clean Water Act groundwater regulation is now pending before the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits, and the period for certiorari is running in the Ninth. Clearly, the Clean Water Act cannot mean two opposite things at the same time.  Which Department of Justice is right?  

EPA recently issued a Federal Register notice asking the public to weigh in on the confusion created by its prior statements.  Perhaps instead of debating who said what when, what is needed is a dispassionate return to the statutory language.  As the Supreme Court said unanimously in 2004 in South Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, the Clean Water Act “defines the phrase ‘discharge of a pollutant’ to mean ‘any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source,’” and in turn defines a “point source” as a “‘discernible, confined and discrete conveyance’ … ‘from which pollutants are or may be discharged.’” The Court explained this “definition makes plain” that “a point source need not be the original source of the pollutant,” but “it need[s] [to] … convey the pollutant to ‘navigable waters.’”  If the NPDES program applies only where a point source conveys the pollutant to navigable water and EPA agrees that groundwater is not a point source, shouldn’t that be the end of the debate?