EPA Hubris, July 2015 Edition

Posted on July 31, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

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.

Water, Water, Everywhere - and not a Drop Unlitigated

Posted on July 10, 2015 by Susan Cooke

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 report for 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 Rapanos decision, 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”.

EPA/Corps Adopt “Waters of the U.S.” Rule: What’s Next?

Posted on May 28, 2015 by Rick Glick

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 draft published 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 reported in 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 report for 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.

Muddling Through: Clean Water Act Edition

Posted on March 1, 2011 by Seth Jaffe

Previously, I discussed EPA’s efforts to “muddle through” on climate change in the absence of comprehensive legislation. This week, I think it’s the Clean Water Act’s turn. If there were any regulatory situation which required some serious muddling through at the moment, interpretation of the Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision almost is a match for the current climate mess. As most of my readers know, Rapanos was a 4-1-4 decision which left EPA, the Corps, developers and environmentalists fairly equally perplexed

Most stakeholders have assumed that Kennedy’s concurring opinion, requiring a “significant nexus” between wetlands and traditional navigable waters before those wetlands are subject to jurisdiction under the CWA, is the law of the land at this point. That is the approach adopted in the Rapanos Guidance issued by EPA and the Corps in 2007. 

A recent decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Precon Development Corporation v. Army Corps of Engineers, illustrates just how muddled post-Rapanos interpretation has become. The decision in Precon – reversing the District Court – found that the Corps had not built a record sufficient to establish that the wetlands which Precon sought to develop were jurisdictional under the CWA. 

There were two technical issues in Precon. Precon lost what one might have thought would be the more significant issue – the Corps’ finding that, although only 4.8 acres were really at issue in this case, and Precon’s entire development includes 166 acres of wetlands, 448 acres of “similarly situated” wetlands would be examined for a substantial nexus to navigable waters. Precon ultimately won, however, because the Court concluded that the Corps’ record did not contain enough physical evidence to support its determination that a significant nexus exists between the 448 wetland acres and the downstream navigable water. 

The Court’s conclusion raised two issues of broad concern to stakeholders. First, the Court granted little deference to EPA’s conclusion on the significant nexus issue. The Corps argued that its conclusion that there was a significant nexus between the site wetlands and the downstream navigable waters was a factual conclusion. However, the Court concluded that the significant nexus determination was not factual. The Court stated that:

The question is instead whether the Corps’ findings were adequate to support the ultimate conclusion that a significant nexus exists. This legal determination is essentially now a matter of statutory construction, as Justice Kennedy established that a “significant nexus” is a statutory requirement for bringing wetlands adjacent to non-navigable tributaries within the CWA’s definition of “navigable waters.”

Well, this is certainly a nice question of administrative law. The significant nexus issue may now be the ultimate legal question. Nonetheless, I would guess that most wetlands scientists and hydrologists would say that this is largely a factual question. Even if the agency is applying its judgment to answer that question, it’s the type of judgment that requires technical expertise – expertise to which courts have traditionally deferred.

The second of the Court’s important pronouncements was that it would not give the EPA/Corps Rapanos Guidance deference under Chevron. Why not?

Because – although it could – the Corps has not adopted an interpretation of “navigable waters” that incorporates this concept through notice-and-comment rulemaking, but instead has interpreted the term only in a non-binding guidance document.”

Isn’t it timely, then, that EPA and the Corps sent a draft new Rapanos guidance to OMB in December, and GOP leadership in the House is proposing language in a continuing resolution that would preclude EPA from using any funds “to implement, administer, or enforce a change to a rule or guidance document pertaining to the definition of waters under the jurisdiction of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1251).” Perhaps EPA and the Corps should take half a loaf. Why not agree to shelve the guidance and instead proceed with notice-and-comment rulemaking to clarify Rapanos? At least then the Courts might grant EPA and the Corps more deference in implementation.  It’s already been almost five years since Rapanos was issued. EPA and the Corps can hardly argue that it’s necessary to go the guidance route because they don’t have the time to proceed through the full regulatory process.

Enough muddling through. Take the time to do it right and issue regulations. Then, maybe the muddle will abate. (Can one abate a muddle?)