Those Dam Polluters!

Posted on August 23, 2013 by Rick Glick

The Columbia and Snake River federal network of dams, and the abundance of low cost electricity it produces, has long been the cornerstone of the Pacific Northwest manufacturing economy.  It has also supported another industry—the legions of lawyers fighting over the environmental effects.  The latest iteration is an attack brought by Columbia Riverkeepers against the Army Corps of Engineers for oily discharges from the dams.

Riverkeepers filed lawsuits in U. S. District Courts in both Oregon and Washington alleging that oils released from the dams are discharges of pollutants for which a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is required under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The oils are used for lubricating turbine equipment, which Riverkeepers allege are released every day through spillways and penstocks at Bonneville, John Day, McNary, Ice Harbor and other federal dams.  The suits seek declaratory and injunctive relief, mandating that the Corps secure NPDES permits.

Oily discharges are common among hydroelectric facilities.  For the most part these are minor releases, though the complaint does allege a spill of 1,500 gallons of transformer oil containing PCBs from the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake.  Most privately owned dams in the region operate under general permits encompassing the small-volume releases.  A few have NPDES permits.

As I have noted in prior blogs, courts have held that dams are “nonpoint” sources of pollution, which do not require a NPDES permit.  These holdings were in the context of dams merely passing through pollution flowing into reservoirs from upstream sources, as opposed to adding pollutants.  However, there have been cases where the discharge below the dam was not simply a pass through, and the court found a permit was required.

In relation to the ongoing litigation over the dams’ effect on salmon spawning, rearing and, migration, the Riverkeepers case will not likely have a significant effect on Corps operations.  Even if the suit is successful, oily discharges can be managed, if not wholly eliminated.  These cases should settle.

The Georgia Court of Appeals clarifies the antidegradation rule, at least in Georgia

Posted on February 5, 2013 by Patricia Barmeyer

The Clean Water Act’s antidegradation rule has been a fertile ground for dispute and litigation in Georgia, as elsewhere.  A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. v. Forsyth County, 734 S.E 2d 242 (Ga. App. 2012), has interpreted the Georgia version of the Rule and provided some clarity for POTWs and others seeking NPDES effluent limits. 

Georgia’s Antideg Rule is identical to the federal rule and provides that in the case of a proposed discharge to high quality waters, that quality shall be maintained unless allowing lower water quality is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development,” and water quality to protect existing uses is assured.

The Rule is not a model of clarity, to say the least, and has been subject to varying interpretations.  EPA has chosen not to provide more specific direction and has, on multiple occasions, reiterated that it is up to the States to decide how to interpret and apply the Antideg Rule, through each State’s implementation procedures.  

Georgia EPD’s implementation procedures interpret the rule to require a determination whether the proposed new or expanded discharge is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development….”  If it is determined the discharge is “necessary,” that is, that a no-discharge alternative is not economically feasible, then EPD proceeds to consider the application and to impose permit conditions based on the applicable technology-based standards and in-stream water quality standards. 

In contrast, the environmental groups, and an Administrative Law Judge, have taken the position that the Antideg Rule requires EPD to consider whether “allowing the lower water quality resulting from the permitted discharge is actually necessary.”  That reading led the ALJ to conclude that, without regard to cost or benefit, the permit limits for the POTW must be set at the lowest level that is technologically feasible, so long as the permittee can afford it.  As interpreted by the ALJ, the antidegradation analysis would be not just the beginning of the analysis of a proposed new discharge, but also the end point.  According to that view, the antideg analysis would ask, not just whether the discharge is justified, but also, what is the lowest limit that is feasible.  Application of the Antideg Rule in this fashion would short-circuit all considerations of in-stream water quality standards and technology-based limits.  It would eliminate any distinction between POTWs and industrial facilities -- they both would have to meet the lowest limit that is technologically feasible that they can afford.

The Georgia Court of Appeals has now agreed with EPD’s reading of the Antideg Rule.  The  court held the rule requires only a determination whether lower water quality generally is necessary to accommodate economic or social development, not a permit-specific analysis of whether the exact effluent limits in the permit are necessary.  The opponents to the permit have asked the Georgia Supreme Court to take up the issue; a decision on the petition for certiorari is expected by mid-2013.

COURTS FRIENDLIER TO EPA IN CLEAN WATER ACT CONTEXT THAN CLEAN AIR ACT?

Posted on September 19, 2012 by Rick Glick

In his blog post of August 27, Rob Brubaker reported on three cases in which the courts refused to grant deference to EPA decisions under the agency’s Clean Air Act authority.  EPA has fared a bit better in two recent Clean Water Act cases.

In Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District v. EPA case, the issue was whether EPA properly issued a stringent NPDES permit renewal to a sanitary district to control excessive nitrogen and phosphorus loading.  The First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the district’s argument that EPA should have waited until the district could complete its modeling effort, even though the model did not seem close to ready, and that EPA did not apply the best science.  The court declined to conduct a de novo review of EPA’s scientific analysis, limiting its inquiry to whether EPA followed the appropriate administrative process, based its decision on record evidence and clearly articulated its reasoning. So long as the criteria imposed are within the “zone of reasonableness”, the court will not strike it down.

Interestingly, the Upper Blackstone court also rejected the district’s argument that the new permit is improper because even with stricter criteria, it would not be sufficient to correct the eutrophication problem in the watershed.  The court set that aside, noting that the CWA contemplates multiple sources of contamination and no one party is responsible for cleaning up the river. 

The Upper Blackstone case is consistent with the U. S. District Court’s decision in the Northwest Environmental Advocates v. EPA, which I discussed in my March 23 post.  In the latter case, the court upheld EPA’s approval of Oregon’s numeric temperature standards, deferring to the EPA’s scientific expertise.  It took issue with the narrative Natural Conditions Criteria because it was so broad that the court concluded it supplanted numeric standards.  The court left the door open for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to rewrite the narrative standard for EPA review, based on the agencies’ own review of the science and a good explanation in support of the standard. 

It appears the theme running through three Clean Air Act cases cited in the Brubaker post is that the reviewing court found no authority supporting EPA’s action, or that EPA’s interpretation defied the plain meaning of the statute.  In the Clean Water Act cases, EPA overreaching on the Upper Blackstone permit or approval of Oregon water quality standards was not at issue.  The focus instead was on whether EPA demonstrated it properly considered the best science available under the authority it had, and then explained how it got to its decision.  In that context, EPA and state regulatory agencies will win more than they lose.

What Ever Happened to Reasonable Further Progress?

Posted on August 8, 2012 by Robert Falk

Under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), most municipalities in the United States are now required to have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for discharges of stormwater/urban runoff.  As intended by Congress, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and authorized state NPDES permit writers originally took a programmatic approach relative to the requirements they put into such Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems or “MS4” permits.  Over time, though, municipalities have, in various ways, been required to address water quality standards more directly, including where such standards are expressed quantitatively. 

In California, this has manifested itself in the issuance of MS4 permits containing provisions called “Receiving Waters Limitations,” which, among other things, preclude the permitted municipal stormwater discharges from “causing or contributing to a violation of an applicable water quality standard.”  Since this ambitious goal is a tall order that likely cannot be met without the construction of large, capital-intensive detention and treatment facilities for which no funding is available, other language contained in these MS4 permits has instructed the municipality that if “exceedances of water quality standards persist,” they must evaluate and submit plans to improve their stormwater management programs to address the situation and then implement such plans and improvements according to a schedule they propose – an “iterative process” that envisions reasonable further progress towards the achievement of water quality standards over time and which inherently recognizes that resource and feasibility constraints may inform the pace of that progress.

Last year, in NRDC v. County of Los Angeles, et al., 636 F. 3d 1235 (9th Cir. 2011), the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that demonstrating compliance with the iterative process language in these MS4 permits did not create a safe harbor and shield a municipality from direct enforcement of the Receiving Water Limitations themselves, including by means of a citizens’ suits.  The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted cert. in this case, raising a glimmer of hope for municipalities that a reasonable further progress approach might somehow be restored.

Unfortunately, the High Court may well not speak directly to this issue notwithstanding its practical import for municipalities.  Its cert. grant instead requested briefing and argument on the more unusual and academic issue of whether water that flows from one portion of a river that is navigable water, through an MS4 or other engineered channel, and into a lower portion of the same river is “discharge” from an “outfall” requiring an NPDES permit.  As its cert. grant itself suggests, this is an issue the U.S. Supreme Court likely already addressed in South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, 541 U.S. 95 (2004).  Accordingly, if the Ninth Circuit’s decision is reversed on this basis and without a discussion of the broader issues that caused it to arise, it will be left to Congress, EPA, or state permit writers to decide if they are willing to restore a reasonable further progress approach to municipal stormwater permitting.

More Changes Coming In Stormwater Regulation

Posted on July 10, 2012 by Charles F. Becker

"And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain."
 Creedence Clearwater Revival
 
As environmental issues go, stormwater regulation is not a high priority for many environmental practitioners. Maybe it should be, because EPA seems to be obsessed by it. In the last year, among other things, EPA has:

•    Issued a new construction general permit to regulate stormwater discharges (and got involved in litigation that forced it to withdraw the regulations regarding a numeric effluent limit);
•    Developed a template designed to help builders write their stormwater control plans;
•    Filed a Notice of Intent to revise the stormwater regulations to exempt discharges from logging roads; and
•    Created an action plan to address stormwater runoff in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (over some objection).

On the litigation front, cases involving  stormwater compliance have been popular. Of the five environmental cases from the Ninth Circuit that sought (and have been granted) review by the U.S. Supreme Court for the next term, three of them relate to stormwater regulation.

For residential and commercial developers, stormwater regulations have been expensive to address, but 20 years of practice have allowed many of them to adapt to the existing requirements. EPA's attempt to introduce numeric effluent limits in the new permit caused a few moments of panic until EPA was forced to withdraw them.

However, a change was made in the permit that has gone unnoticed and has the potential to impact the cost of construction.  The new requirements for stormwater discharges at construction sites can be found at 40 C.F.R. Part 450. At Section 450.21, there are requirements relating to “effluent limitations reflecting the best available practicable technology available.” Buried in this section is a fairly innocuous provision that simply requires the developer and builder to, “unless infeasible, preserve topsoil.”

The reason to preserve topsoil at construction sites is two-fold. First, it has more organic material than denser soils so it allows faster growth of vegetation which, in turn, works to slow down the runoff of stormwater from a site. Second, it acts like a sponge to soak up the rain before it is allowed to run into a gully or ditch and, eventually, to a stream or river. For development of a construction site, however, topsoil has a serious drawback – it's in the way. Topsoil does not provide a solid enough base for roads or buildings and, therefore, the developer frequently finds it necessary to scrape the property of all topsoil before installing any streets, driveways or permanent structures.

While I cannot speak to the rest of the country, in the Midwest, this typically means that the topsoil is removed and is often not replaced, but is used for berms around the site. Respreading it is too costly and would usually affect the final grade of the development.  Rather, when it comes time to put vegetative cover on the open areas, sod (with its own layer of topsoil) is used.  The new permit requirement will change that practice.  The definitional problem that will need to be addressed by every state is the meaning of "preserve" as used in the permit.

Perhaps the term means that areas of a development that are not going to have a structure or street should not have the topsoil removed. As a practical matter, that would be impossible. Virtually every development site of any size requires grading to even the slopes and to account for drainage. The term might mean that whatever topsoil was in existence prior to the disturbance of the site, would need to be returned to the site. As a practical matter, this would be difficult to do. Some areas of a site might have a few inches of topsoil, while other areas might have several feet. Grading in anticipation of replacing the topsoil with what was preexisting would, at least arguably, be infeasible.

As the NPDES Permit for each state comes up for renewal, the issue of how to comply with this requirement will need to be addressed. The permits could simply incorporate the language into the terms of the revised permit, but this would provide virtually no guidance to developers or, more importantly, to the MS4 cities that will be called upon to enforce the requirement.

In Iowa, the General Permit for Construction Sites will need to be updated on October 1, 2012. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has spent considerable time pondering this problem and has come up with a solution. The IDNR has decided to create, in essence, a safe harbor for compliance. The proposed rule provides that disturbed areas that will not have streets, driveways or structures located on them will require a minimum of four inches of topsoil (which can include the topsoil found in the sod). This amount of topsoil fits well with other building requirements and is a significant sponge for purposes of soaking up rainwater. There is an exception to the four inch requirement for those sites which did not have four inches of topsoil prior to disturbance. If a developer believes that the site has less than four inches of topsoil, he/she can complete a soil survey prior to disturbing any soils and, if the topsoil is less than four inches at any given location, the developer is only required to return that amount of topsoil at the conclusion of the development.

The Iowa solution is far from ideal. While it has the advantage of providing certainty, it does so at what may be a very steep cost. Estimates have not yet been made on the additional cost of returning topsoil to each lot, but there will certainly be added expenses that will add to home ownership costs at a time that the industry needs to be finding ways to reduce costs. On the other hand, it is preferable to an undefined requirement that a developer “preserve topsoil unless infeasible,” which simply invites litigation.

Over the course of the next twenty-four to thirty-six months, virtually every state will need to address this issue. If EPA chooses to make stormwater compliance a priority, and there is every indication that it will, the new permits will result in a significant change in the way developments are built and priced. Adding these costs to help reduce what amounts to less than 1% of the surface water contamination problem is questionable, but it's here. Since we're not going to stop the rain, or the EPA, I would suggest that we need to help our state regulatory agencies come up with a reasonable, and workable, solution.

Stormwater Permits for Logging Roads? Muddied Waters.

Posted on June 4, 2012 by David Van Slyke

So let me get this straight.  In Northwest Environmental Defense Center v. Brown, the United States took the position (as an amicus) that, under EPA’s long-standing silviculture rule, NPDES permits are not required for stormwater runoff from logging roads that ends up in ditches and culverts, and that such runoff is not associated with industrial activity.  The 9th Circuit rejected that position and a number of parties (not including the United States) combined to file two different petitions for certiorari with the Supreme Court. 

But in its subsequent amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court, the United States urged the Court to reject the cert petitions -- despite continuing to insist that, on the merits, the 9th Circuit erred by not giving deference to EPA’s interpretation of its own regs.   The United States’ rationale?  Three in number:  (1) “no square circuit conflict exists;” (2) Congress has placed a short term (through September 30, 2012) moratorium on EPA implementation of the 9th Circuit decision and bills (H.R. 2541; S. 1369) on the issue are pending in both houses of Congress; and (3) EPA issued a Notice of Intent (the day before the United States filed its amicus brief) that it planned to amend its Phase 1 stormwater rules to clarify that stormwater discharges associated with logging roads did not require an NPDES Permit. 

So, er, um, the timber industry should hope that the Congressional moratorium gets extended…, or one of the bills pending before Congress providing relief on this topic gets enacted…, or EPA puts its nascent rulemaking efforts into overdrive to promulgate amended Phase 1 Stormwater rules before the moratorium expires or a bill is enacted…, or the Court rejects the United States’ position, hears the case and provides some guidance. 

The road ahead is muddy, at best.