Channeling Scalia in a New WOTUS Rule

Posted on March 24, 2017 by Donald Shandy

By now, most of the readers of this blog have heard about or read President Trump’s Executive Order directing the EPA to re-evaluate the “Waters of the United States” Rule.  This announcement brought cheers from farmers, developers, and many industry groups who had opposed EPA’s Clean Water Rule (aka “WOTUS rule”) and groans, moans, and other choice words from environmental NGOs, wetlands specialists, and supporters of the WOTUS rule.  There are many articles written about what this executive order means and other articles speculate at what a new rule from a Scott Pruitt led EPA may look like under a Scalia-based definition of “navigable waters” when all of this shakes outs.

Being an Oklahoman and having interaction with Scott Pruitt over the years when he was Attorney General, I decided to take a look back at Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanos v. United States, to see I if could piece together a couple of key components I would expect to see in a new WOTUS rule.  I note at the outset that the executive order does not require the EPA to use Justice Scalia’s definition of “navigable waters”; only that EPA “shall consider interpreting the term ‘navigable waters’ . . . in a manger consistent with” Justice Scalia’s definition in Rapanos.  However, having observed Administrator Pruitt making arguments on behalf of the State of Oklahoma as Attorney General, I would be surprised if he does not channel Justice Scalia into the new rule.

There are two points in Justice Scalia’s opinion in Rapanos that stand out.  First, he rejected the Army Corps of Engineers’ interpretation of “waters of the United States” under a Chevron step two analysis, stating that the “Corps’ expansive interpretation of that phrase is not ‘based on a permissible construction of the statute.’”  The CWA uses the phrase “navigable waters” and traditionally, that phrase applies to “relatively permanent bodies of water.”  Further, Justice Scalia pointed to language in the CWA that categorized channels and conduits that typically carry intermittent flows separately from “navigable waters.”

Second, Justice Scalia concluded that Congress’ use of “waters of the United States” did not “authorize [an] intrusion into such an area of traditional state authority as land-use regulation.”  Justice Scalia criticized Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test because it failed to account for the “primary state responsibility for ordinary land-use decisions.”  In Justice Scalia’s opinion, by taking a narrow view that the only purpose of the CWA was to “clean up the waters of the United States,” and that anything affecting the chemical, physical or biological integrity of those waters should therefore be jurisdictional, Justice Kennedy employed “the familiar tactic of substituting the purpose of the statue for its text [and] freeing the Court to write a different statute that achieves the same purpose.”  Thus, Justice Scalia thought any interpretation of “waters of the United States” must account for the traditional role of the states in determining land use.

In looking at these two components of Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion and reflecting on Administrator Pruitt’s viewpoint when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, it appears that Justice Scalia and Administrator Pruitt may be aligned when it comes to how the CWA should overlay with states’ role of land-use decisions.  I think we can expect Administrator Pruitt to champion and strengthen the notion of cooperative federalism and increasing the role of the states in crafting the new water rule.  If Pruitt’s EPA takes heed of Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanos, I think we will see more involvement by the states in crafting the language of the rule and a narrower definition that could lead to more certainty in jurisdictional determinations.

POTUS, SCOTUS & WOTUS: What Do They Have in Common With Michael Stipe and Jack Black?

Posted on March 15, 2017 by Jeff Thaler

Then-candidate Donald Trump’s unauthorized use of REM’s 1987 song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, during a 2015 campaign rally sparked a sharp objection by the band’s Michael Stipe. Flash forward to 2017 and now-President Trump has been flexing his executive powers in a number of legal fields; for many environmental, energy or immigration lawyers it’s the end of the regulatory world as we knew it for decades, and they are not feeling so fine.

Executive Orders (EOs) raise classic constitutional law issues of the separation of powers, in that they often are used for “executive legislating” even though there is no explicit constitutional authority for them. EOs also blur traditional regulating lines, because they are not issued with public notice or comment, and usually state that they do not “create any right or benefit enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States.”

An EO can have the force of law, however, if the EO is based on either the Constitution or a statute, per the Supreme Court’s 1954 Youngstown decision. That is why one must carefully read each EO to determine the grounds of its authority, and then whether it is possibly contrary to a) existing laws or b) constitutional provisions such as due process or equal protection.

Facing an uncooperative Congress, POTUS Obama came to rely on EOs in his last two years in office (see this prophetic 2015 School House Rock episode). POTUS Trump took to EOs right out of the gate. The two Trump EOs that have garnered the most publicity and outcry deal with immigration restrictions The first EO was challenged in numerous courts, and the 9th Circuit issued on February 9 the first appellate decision on a Trump EO. Interestingly, and instructive for future litigants and legal counsel, the first issue addressed by the 9th Circuit, and the one they discussed the most, was . . . standing. The court then moved on to reviewability, and only briefly due process and equal protection. The complaint’s count on violating the Administrative Procedure Act for not following proper rulemaking proceedings was not even discussed in the ruling.

Trump issued two EOs of more relevance to environmental and energy lawyers. First was the January 30, 2017 EO entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs”, aka the add-one-subtract-two, no-increase-in-incremental-costs [undefined]- of-regulations EO. That was followed by the February 2, 2017 Interim Guidance of the OMB implementing (and implicitly amending) the EO by limiting it to “significant regulatory actions”—i.e. those of $100 million or more of annual effect on the economy. A week later the EO and IG were both challenged in federal court in D.C. as violating the APA, separation of powers, the Constitution’s “Take Care Clause”, and as being ultra vires. Plaintiffs referenced in part OSHA, TSCA, the ESA and CAA, and other energy/environmental laws as being inconsistent with the EO’s requirement that a new rule can only be promulgated if its cost is offset by the elimination of two existing rules. The EO ironically signals the possible demise of cost-benefit analysis —first mandated by then POTUS Ronald Reagan by an EO in 1981—by disallowing consideration of the economic benefits of a regulation when weighing its costs.

Many more EOs are promised in the coming weeks concerning a variety of environmental and energy laws and regulations. Early in the wave was the February 28, 2017 EO with the majestic name of “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ [aka WOTUS] Rule”. This EO directs the EPA to review the WOTUS Rule while keeping in mind the national interest of “promoting economic growth, minimizing regulatory uncertainty, and showing due regard for the roles of the Congress and the States under the Constitution.” Since WOTUS was a final rule published in the Federal Register, it can only be repealed and replaced by a new rule that goes through full notice-and-comment rulemaking, not simply by a non-legislative guidance or policy statement.

One who lives by the EO sword can slowly die from it too. POTUS Obama did not submit for approval to Congress the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2016, calling it an “executive agreement”, thus POTUS Trump does not need Congressional approval to undo it. The Agreement terms do not allow withdrawal by a party before November 2019. However, the U.S. could withdraw from the overarching United Nations Framework on Climate Change with one year notice, if the Senate approves, and that in effect would undo our Paris “commitments”. And as a practical matter, the current Administration could also just choose not to implement the Paris obligations, because there is no binding duty to hit the emission reduction targets.

In sum, we live in interesting times.   Although Jack Black has said of this Administration that “It’s the end of the world”, for College members and their clients it’s the start of some fascinating new adventures in regulation and litigation. Stay tuned. 

WOTUS, We Hardly Knew Ye

Posted on March 2, 2017 by Rick Glick

With a flourish of his pen, on February 28, President Trump signed an Executive Order  aimed at dismantling the ill-fated Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.  The rule was the latest attempt by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to bring some clarity to the limits of federal authority under the Clean Water Act.  Clarity in this area has been elusive, and though many were unhappy with the rule, no one benefits from the current state of confusion.

The uncertainty begins with the Clean Water Act, which Congress said applies to “navigable” waters and then helpfully defined navigable to mean “waters of the United States.”  The agencies and the courts have struggled ever since to figure out when wetlands are jurisdictional.  The courts have not helped.  In Rapanos v. U.S., a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court found the Government had overreached, but could not agree as to why.  Justice Scalia, writing for a plurality of the Court, would limit jurisdiction to “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water,” excluding intermittent or ephemeral channels and most drainage ditches.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy invoked a “significant nexus” test whereby jurisdiction should apply if a hydrologic connection between a wetland and a navigable water could be demonstrated.  Later courts have tried to follow both tests, with mixed results.

Justice Scalia’s test is a lot easier to apply:  If you can see the water or the land goes squish under your feet, there is jurisdiction.  Justice Kennedy’s test requires a case-by-case review and exercise of professional judgment.  The WOTUS rule focused more on the Kennedy test to indicate how the Government would make its jurisdictional determinations.

Without getting into detail that now is mostly moot, the rule generated about one million public comments and lots of litigation—17 District Court complaints and 23 petitions to various Circuit Courts of Appeal.  It seemed certain that the Supreme Court would get another opportunity to declare the law of WOTUS.

No doubt the Court will get that chance, but in a drastically different context.  The president’s Executive Order has no legal effect, other than to get the process started.  The Obama Administration’s WOTUS rule was subject to years of notice and comment before adoption, and the Trump Administration’s revisions will have to go through the same process.  No doubt they will be as controversial and will also be fiercely litigated.  That will take a very long time to play out, and won’t likely be completed during a Trump first term. 

In the meantime, property owners still would like to develop their property, and the Government still has to apply the law.  The Trump Executive Order gives direction that a new WOTUS rule should follow the Scalia test, but that doesn’t reflect the way jurisdictional determinations are made today.  Suffice to say that the Kennedy significant nexus test will still be in play for the near to intermediate term, and a prudent developer will include a wetlands determination as a key part of the due diligence for the project.

Whither WOTUS?

Posted on July 18, 2016 by Rick Glick

In June 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers released a rule to define “waters of the United States,” affectionately referred to as WOTUS.  This definition goes to the scope of federal jurisdiction over wetlands and other waters that are not obviously free flowing and navigable.  An in-depth analysis of the rule can be found here

The rule hasn’t exactly played to rave reviews.  It attracted over one million comments.  Many complained the rule represents gross government overreach.  Others criticize the rule for not being protective enough.  The rule is also the subject of multiple challenges around the country, some filed before the rule was officially released.  The lead case is now pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.  The Court of Appeals accepted original jurisdiction over a challenge to the rule based, in part, on the failure of the rule’s “distance limitations” to comport with good science, and on the inconsistency of the final rule with the proposed rule.  The Court of Appeals thought enough of petitioners’ arguments that it stayed implementation of the new rule.

On this first anniversary of the rule, we thought a brief summary of the controversies surrounding the rule and current status might be helpful.  The attached article, newly published in The Water Report, attempts to do just that.  Many thanks to Diego Atencio, a third year law student at the University of Oregon and a summer associate at DWT, for his assistance in writing the article.

Following the Yellow Brick Road…

Posted on June 2, 2016 by LeAnne Burnett

The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) fairly boasts that it lived up to its tag line “Rescuing Liberty from Coast to Coast” by following its 2012 Supreme Court victory in Sackett v. EPA with its May 31, 2016 victory in United States Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc.  In both Clean Water Act cases the PLF represented the property owners on appeal, arguing that the particular agency action was final, subject to judicial review.  The Supreme Court agreed both times.  Some boasting is due. 

The particulars of each case flow from disputes about the scope of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act.  Neither case resolved the merits issue.  Both cases considered only whether the dispute may be brought to court by challenging a pre-enforcement agency action. 

The Sacketts filled in a half acre of their 2/3-acre residential lot near Priest Lake, Idaho with dirt and rock in preparation for building a home.  EPA served a compliance order advising the Sacketts that they violated the Clean Water Act by filling in waters of the United States without a Section 404 dredge and fill permit.  The Order unilaterally prevented further construction and required the Sacketts to remove the fill material then restore the wetland pursuant to an EPA Restoration Work Plan. 

The Sacketts tried to challenge EPA’s order, but were told by EPA, then by the District Court, that they had no right to challenge the order until EPA attempted to enforce it.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, setting the Sacketts squarely on the horns of their dilemma.  Disregarding the unilateral compliance order subjected the Sacketts to potential fines of up to $75,000 per day.   Complying with the order meant spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to carry out the EPA’s Restoration Work Plan, and never getting to build on their property. 

The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert, and Justice Scalia, authoring the decision concluded that the compliance order met the Bennett two-prong test for reviewability:  (1) no adequate remedy other than review under the Administrative Procedures Act, and (2) no statute, in this case the Clean Water Act, precluded that review.  Justice Alito, concurring, declared:  “The position taken in this case by the Federal Government -- a position that the Court now squarely rejects -- would have put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees.” And later:  “In a nation that values due process, not to mention private property, such treatment is unthinkable.”    

The Hawkes case, four years later, is the same song, second verse.  This time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued the offending decision -- a jurisdictional determination (JD) that waters of the United States existed on 530 acres from which Hawkes Co., Inc. (Hawkes) and its affiliated companies planned to mine for peat.  Hawkes provides peat for golf courses and sports fields, and mining peat on the 530 acres would extend the life of its peat mining business by ten to fifteen years.  The USACE concluded that the property was connected by a “relatively permanent water” (a series of culverts and unnamed streams) that flowed into the Middle River and then into the Red River of the North, a “traditional navigable waterway” about 120 miles away.  With the USACE determination, Hawkes needed a permit to harvest peat.  Moreover, USACE advised that before it issued a permit, it would require additional hydrological and functional resource assessments and an evaluation of upstream potential impacts, the cost of which would exceed $100,000.

Using an analysis, discussed in my colleague’s post Sending a Message on WOTUS, the Court concluded that a JD satisfied both prongs of Bennett, and affirmed the Eighth Circuit, remanding the Hawkes companies to District Court of Minnesota - Minneapolis with the right to litigate the jurisdictional determination, same as the Sacketts.  When the Supreme Court ruled favorably on their case the Sacketts were remanded to the Idaho District Court, where their court battle continues.  Presumably, the battle will continue with the Hawkes’ companies as well. 

At the heart of each battle is whether or not the property actually contains “Waters of the United States.”  Following the procedural “yellow brick road” won’t get anyone out of Oz -- not until a clear definition of waters of the United States emerges.

Sending a Message on WOTUS?

Posted on June 2, 2016 by Patrick A. Parenteau

The May 31 decision in Hawkes may be less important for what it says about the reviewability of jurisdictional determinations (JDs) under the Clean Water Act than for what is says about the far more consequential stakes in the pending challenges to EPA’s Clean Water Rule (aka WOTUS), which will undoubtedly find its way to the Court following a decision by the Sixth Circuit which is expected before the end of the year.

Contrary to my prediction the Court did rule (unanimously) that JDs are final agency actions subject to review under the APA. In an opinion penned by Chief Justice Roberts the Court upheld the conclusion of the Eighth Circuit but substituted a different test for finality, one that emerged during oral argument and one that introduces a novel and perhaps questionable rationale. The key question was whether JDs have legal consequences. In roundabout fashion, Roberts concluded they did because a positive finding of jurisdiction meant that the applicant was denied the advantage of a negative determination (or NJD). That had the effect of denying the applicant the benefit of what Roberts called a “safe harbor” provision contained, not in the statute or implementing regulations, but in a 2015 Memorandum of Agreement between by EPA and the Corps. Roberts read the MOA as creating a legal right – similar to a covenant not to sue – binding the government to a five year commitment not to revisit the NJD, an interpretation the government vigorously disputed as pointed out by Justice Ginsburg in her concurrence.

This ruling could have significant practical effects. Since 2008 the Corps and EPA have issued over 400,000 JDs of which approximately 40% were approved JD’s. Under the MOA, the process has become more formal, giving it at least the appearance if not the reality of adjudication. The formality of the process convinced a number of the Justices, particularly Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan, that JDs should be considered final actions under the Abbott Labs test. They emphasized the fact that under the MOA the agencies were not simply giving advice to the public. This raises the question whether the agencies may want to rethink the MOA and consider revising the safe harbor provision to make clear it is not binding. The Solicitor raised this possibility during the oral argument (transcript at p 16 lines 16-25).

Pursuing that route, however, runs the risk of further alienating Justice Kennedy and the government can ill afford to lose his potentially crucial vote if and when the Clean Water Rule reaches the Court. In his concurring opinion, joined not surprisingly by Justices Alito and Thomas, Kennedy went out of his way to take several pot shots at the Clean Water Act and the agencies implementation of it. Referring to “the Act’s ominous reach” Kennedy said it “continues to raise troubling questions regarding the Government’s power to cast doubt on the full use and enjoyment of private property throughout the Nation.”  During oral argument Kennedy offered the view that the CWA is “arguably unconstitutionally vague, and certainly harsh in the civil and criminal penalties it puts into practice.”

It is too soon to write the obituary for the Clean Water Rule. But Kennedy’s vote is more in doubt now than when he authored the concurring opinion in Rapanos showing a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of both the values enshrined in the CWA and the constitutional issues it raises. Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test, widely accepted as controlling by the lower courts, was the blueprint EPA and the Corps used to write the rule. Given these more recent statements, that may not be enough to win his approval. The fate of the rule may well depend on how soon and by whom the vacancy on the Court is filled.

Curiouser and Curiouser: Sixth Circuit Not Sure of Jurisdiction but Stays WOTUS Rule Anyway

Posted on October 9, 2015 by Rick Glick

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.

Whole Lot of Craziness Going On

Posted on September 2, 2015 by Richard G. Stoll

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!

First Blood: North Dakota Federal Court Strikes WOTUS Rule

Posted on August 31, 2015 by Rick Glick

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 Virginia and Georgia concluded 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 memoranda indicate 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.

Two Days, Three Decisions, One Big Mess: Welcome to Judicial Review of the Waters of the United States Rule

Posted on August 28, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

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.

 

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”.

Managing “Online” Info Impacts Agency Resources

Posted on February 26, 2015 by Irma S. Russell

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 & EnvironmentThe 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.  

Sorry, The Pollywogs Win and Your Crops Lose

Posted on February 3, 2015 by James Palmer Jr.

Lawyers who regularly practice in the realm of the Clean Water Act (the “Act”) well know that the fight causing the most widespread panic in the regulated community for many months has been the joint proposal by EPA and the Corps of Engineers to amend the definition of “Waters of the United States.”  Even though the agencies jointly withdrew the proposal on January 29, 2015, water lawyers and their clients shouldn’t let their guards down, because another inevitable regulatory slugfest is coming, and it will be over water use. 

In its original form in 1972, the Act contained a concise “savings clause”   that was intended to keep EPA from meddling with the authority of the States to determine how water resources will be allocated for beneficial uses. Section 510(2) simply states:  “Except as expressly provided in this chapter, nothing in this chapter shall be construed as impairing or in any manner affecting any right or jurisdiction of the States with respect to the waters (including boundary waters) of such States.” 

Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop became very concerned that the Section 510(2) “shield” wasn’t strong enough to protect the States, so he successfully led to passage in the 1977 amendments to the Act a much more robust policy statement, which was codified as Section 101(g), as follows:

It is the policy of Congress that the authority of each State to allocate quantities of water within its jurisdiction shall not be superseded, abrogated or otherwise impaired by this chapter. It is the further policy of Congress that nothing in this chapter shall be construed to supersede or abrogate rights to quantities of water which have been established by any State. Federal agencies shall co-operate with State and local agencies to develop comprehensive solutions to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution in concert with programs for managing water resources. 

On its face, the Wallop Amendment appears to be “bulletproof,” but at best  it’s really just “bullet resistant.” On November 7, 1978, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water and Waste Management Thomas Jorling and General Counsel Joan Burnstein issued to all Regional Administrators an “interpretive memorandum,” which concluded that the Wallop Amendment does not absolutely prohibit legitimate use of the Act for water quality purposes, even if water rights and water usages allowed under State laws are negatively affected.  While noting that Section 510(2) remained unchanged in the 1977 amendments, Jorling and Burnstein grounded their legal analysis principally in passages from Senator Wallop’s floor statement in support of his proposed amendment. Specifically, Senator Wallop acknowledged that implementation of water quality standards requirements, among other major features of the Act, might “incidentally” affect individual water rights, and that the purpose of his amendment was “to insure that State allocation systems are not subverted, and that effects on individual rights, if any, are prompted by legitimate and necessary water quality considerations.”

So, thus was born what could loosely be called the “legitimate and necessary” test for determining what is, or is not, an “incidental” effect on State-conferred water rights resulting from implementation of water quality programs arising under the Act. But, without further definition, the scope of this determination brings to mind another (and historic) subjective test – the language in the 1964 Supreme Court decision in the Jacobellis obscenity case, in which Mr. Justice Potter Stewart, in his Concurring Opinion, wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

In 1994, the Supreme Court essentially applied the Wallop Amendment test  in its P.U.D. No. 1 vs. the Washington Department of Ecology decision.  There, as a condition for the issuance of a Water Quality Certification under Section 401 of the Act, the State required a proposed hydroelectric dam to pass through certain minimum flows to protect downstream fisheries.  In holding for the State, the Court cited Senator Wallop’s floor statement and summarily rejected the argument that Sections 101(g) and 510(2) limit the reach of the Act to water quality issues only.

Considering the legislative history of the Wallop Amendment, the 1978 Jorling-Burnstein interpretive memorandum, and the Supreme Court’s decision in  the 1994 P.U.D. No. 1 case, there is understandable angst that EPA (or anybody else, for that matter) will use one or more of the three bedrock water quality factors in Section 101(a) of the Act (i.e. chemical, physical, and biological) as offensive weapons to limit or block State water allocation proposals.  Simply put, the scientific premise would be that instream ecosystems can be degraded by depleting flows below the point at which sustainability of these resources is compromised, thus causing or exacerbating a violation of the biological component of the established water quality standards at the proposed point of withdrawal.  (Of course, antidegradation requirements would also be in play.)

On January 7, 2015, EPA sent to the Office of Management and Budget for regulatory review the proposed Final Rule in the recent Water Quality Standards Program rulemaking, and EPA projects that the Final Rule will be published in May 2015.  To say the very least, these major changes will make even more vexing the already difficult quantity-quality, federal-state tensions over how water use allocation decisions are made at the State level.

To close this review, it must be noted that, as mentioned in the 1978 Jorling-Burnstein interpretive memorandum, some States have water allocation programs in which the impacts on water quality of a proposed withdrawal must be carefully considered.  For example, in Mississippi, the statute authorizing the issuance of surface water withdrawal permits explicitly states: “No use of water shall be authorized that will impair the effect of stream standards set under the pollution control laws of this state based upon a minimum stream flow.” An appropriate case in point arose in early 2014, when a permit was sought to withdraw significant volumes of water for row crop irrigation purposes from a major stream in the Mississippi Delta.  A citizens group opposed the permit proposal, contending that further withdrawals from that particular stream should not be allowed until a biological sustainability study was performed and then used as the ultimate determinant in considering applications for additional withdrawals.  The citizens group and the applicant for the permit struck a compromise, but the fundamental questions about the impacts of such withdrawals on water quality remain.

Given the extended droughts in certain regions of the United States in recent years, the ever tightening laws and regulations governing both water quantity and water quality, and the reality of growing demands for water seemingly everywhere, “water wars” (both intrastate and interstate) will likely erupt more frequently as time goes by.  And, in those States that have little or no statutes, regulations, and administrative procedures to work with, the fundamental questions for individuals and organizations (public and private) who want to oppose proposed water withdrawals, regardless of the intended beneficial use, will be what forum to use and what principles of law to assert. One thing is certain – seasoned water lawyers will likely see more business coming their way.

ACOEL MEMBERS CONTINUE THE DISCUSSION OF WATERS OF THE US

Posted on January 30, 2015 by David Flannery

          Members of the ACOEL Team that co-authored the earlier white paper on Waters of the US have taken the discussion further by presenting a one-hour audio program which both highlights and updates this important issue. 

          In this discussion, ACOEL members Rick Glick, Michael Wall and Karen Crawford review the judicial and regulatory history of Waters of the US as well as the proposed rule that is being advanced by USEPA and the Corps of Engineers.  In addition, these panelists offer their unique insight into the science report in support of the rule as well as the likelihood of the rule being changed in its final adaption by the agencies or upon review by the US Supreme Court. 

          ACOEL originally undertook its review of this issue at the request of the Environmental Council of States and as part of its commitment to pro bono service.  The white paper on the issue is available at:  http://goo.gl/fneJVD 

          The audio discussion by the ACOEL panel can be found at:  http://goo.gl/uv4nJi.