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.

Section 101(f) of the Clean Water Act: Common Sense to Further a Common Purpose

Posted on September 9, 2016 by William Green

Section 101(f) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) creates a “national policy” that “to the maximum extent possible” the Act “shall” be implemented in a manner that “prevent[s] needless duplication and unnecessary delays at all levels of government.”  (33 U.S.C. § 1251(f))  Although this and the other overarching goals in § 101 of the Act were “no exercise in boilerplate rhetoric,” (William Harsha, Jr. (Ohio), Congressional Record 16520 (Jun. 3, 1976)) they are typically ignored.  Instead of ignoring § 101 of the CWA, however, a strong argument can be made that courts should remand or even vacate an agency’s action if it can be shown that such an action needlessly duplicates or unnecessarily delays efforts to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, [or] biological integrity of the Nation’s waters. (33 U.S.C. § 1251(a)) This would further Congress’s intent as codified in §§ 101(a) & (f) of the CWA.

Consider the ongoing controversy about the recent “Waters of the United States” rule (Rule).  (80 Fed. Reg. 37,054 (Jun. 29, 2015)) Many have said much about this Rule, focusing on lofty constitutional arguments, erudite discussions of which and when Supreme Court opinions control, and the finer points of APA jurisprudence.  But few have argued that the automatic implementation of its increased jurisdictional scope would contravene § 101(f).  Because the Rule seeks to increase the federal government’s jurisdiction under the CWA, without more, coverage of the Act’s regulatory requirements would immediately attach to previously non-jurisdictional waters.  This inextricable link of new jurisdiction and implementation could lead to disruptive delays and associated problems. 

When, for example, the hundreds of ditches that form a sprawling municipal separate storm sewer system become jurisdictional, various implementation requirements would be triggered – noncompliance with which could lead to administrative and civil penalties and criminal liability.  In this and many other instances, the sudden applicability of CWA requirements could have the unintended consequence of actually impeding ongoing efforts to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”  

The shift of focus from traditional waters of the United States to stormwater conveyances could divert and dilute scarce local government resources.  This could delay meaningful water quality improvements for the lakes and rivers people actually use to swim and fish, and use for potable water could become more difficult to attain and then sustain. Such delays would serve no environmental benefit and would be especially unjustified where local governments only use those stormwater conveyances for stormwater management or for treating discharges from them into traditional waters of the United States.  Indeed, until promulgation of the Waters of the United States Rule, stormwater conveyances have historically been excluded from the CWA’s jurisdictional reach.        

It thus seems that the directives of §101(f) should be taken into account in litigation judging the appropriateness of the Waters of the United States Rule.  This would ensure that the Rule is implementable in a fashion that satisfies §101(f)’s common sense mandate to “prevent needless duplication and unnecessary delays” in furtherance of the fundamental goal of “restor[ing] and maintain[ing] the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

William H. Green thanks Mohammad O. Jazil for his contributions to this post.

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.

Waters of the United Chaos

Posted on November 3, 2015 by Richard Horder

                The Clean Water Act’s judicial review provision is bizarrely phrased and at times impenetrable.  It can force litigants into lengthy threshold battles over jurisdiction that delay and sideline the actual challenges to EPA’s action.  Nowhere is this better showcased than in the recent litigation over EPA’s new definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”).  Companies, industry groups and public interest organizations have filed dozens of suits in district and circuit courts across the country to cover all the possible jurisdictional possibilities.  The circuit court cases were filed under the Clean Water Act’s judicial review provision that automatically centralizes the cases in a randomly selected circuit court (here, the Sixth Circuit).  The district court cases were filed under the Administrative Procedure Act, which contains no mechanism for consolidating the numerous cases.

                In a heroic attempt to combine the district court cases and litigate in only one court, EPA looked to the multidistrict litigation process designed for coordinated discovery among cases sharing common facts.  The circus that ensued was a mini-caricature of the WOTUS litigation and highlighted the intrinsic problems with the Clean Water Act’s judicial review process.  The hearing before the multidistrict litigation panel began at 8:00 a.m. in a large courtroom filled beyond capacity with hundreds of lawyers representing the litigants in the fifteen matters scheduled for oral argument that day.  Clerks of the court spread across the room calling each matter, and lawyers fought through the crowd to form a bunch in front of their clerk, struggling to hear over the noise.  The clerks doled out oral argument time in minute increments, giving some lawyers as few as two minutes of argument time.  Once the schedule was set and after a brief recess, the panel called each of the thirteen cases preceding the WOTUS matter on the docket – the Amtrak derailment, airline anti-trust, various medical device and product liability matters, etc. – moving from one matter to the next with seamless agility.

                DOJ (Martha Mann) presented oral argument for EPA, and met with stiff resistance from the panel.  The panel challenged EPA’s attempt to fit an APA case, to be decided on the record and the law with minimal discovery, into the MDL process designed mostly for coordinated discovery.  Ultimately the panel commended Ms. Mann for a noble effort in an exceptionally uphill battle.  Elbert Lin, the Solicitor General of West Virginia, presented argument for the plaintiffs and, sensing the favorable persuasion of the panel, highlighted only the diverse procedural postures of the various matters.  The various jurisdictional and preliminary injunction rulings in the district courts and an appeal already before the 11th Circuit would all greatly complicate any attempted consolidation.

                On October 13th, the panel issued its ruling, deciding not to consolidate the district court cases.  The panel agreed that not only was the MDL process not applicable to the predominantly legal WOTUS challenges, but consolidation would only further complicate the already chaotic litigation.

                Jurisdictional questions are now pending before the 6th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals.  The 6th Circuit offers EPA its last hope of litigating the WOTUS challenges in one court.  If the 11th Circuit were to disagree, the jurisdictional issues could continue to eclipse the merits of the litigation for months, if not years, pending final resolution by the Supreme Court.

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.

 

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”.

Toppling Caligula’s Column: Time To Clarify Murky Jurisdictional Waters

Posted on January 28, 2015 by Zach C. Miller

Caligula was the cruelest and craziest of a string of deranged Roman emperors.  Among his meanest and most irrational acts was to have edicts carved at the top of tall columns and then punish unsuspecting violators, who had no way to decipher the obscure laws etched far over their heads.  For this and other cruel acts, he was killed by his own Praetorian Guards.

For all its virtues, American environmental law has traces of this same sort of lunacy and unfair lack of certainty and notice to its regulated citizens.  Examples include the chronic uncertainty, after over three decades, about what constitutes a “solid” or “hazardous waste” under RCRA, our basic waste management law, and what constitutes a “major modification” that triggers the onerous PSD Program of the Clean Air Act. 

Nowhere is this uncertainty more glaring than in the Clean Water Act (CWA).  More than 40 years after its passage, what constitutes a vaguely-defined “water of the U.S.” regulated under the Act is now murkier than ever.  At this juncture, however, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have a unique opportunity to provide clarity, certainty, and consistency to this key concept by taking three critical actions that would (1) properly clarify by rule the nature and scope of CWA-regulated waters; (2) clearly describe the process for making and also tracking “jurisdictional determinations” made under such rule; and (3) provide affected parties the right to seek prompt judicial review of any final approved determination.

EPA and the Corps have undertaken the first key task by an ongoing rulemaking set to be completed in 2015.  While aspects of the agencies’ initial proposed rule were problematic, calls by some quarters to ban or “ditch the rule” altogether are misguided.  EPA and the Corps already have on the books vague rules defining regulated waters that are inconsistent with the Supreme Court‘s 2006 Rapanos decision and subsequent case law, and it is in no one’s interest simply to maintain the current status quo of uncertainty and inconsistency.  As Chief Justice Roberts emphasized in Rapanos, if the agencies had adopted reasonable rules clarifying the scope of regulated waters a decade ago, as originally planned, the confusing result in Rapanos would likely have been avoided.

In finalizing such rule, however, the agencies should recall that their role and legal duty is to identify and implement the intent of Congress under the 1972 Act, not embark on a policy making exercise about what additional areas should be regulated as a matter of public policy.  They should also strive to increase, not decrease, the clarity and certainty of what constitutes regulated wetlands and other waters.  For example, aspects of the proposed rule properly and helpfully exclude groundwater and minor ephemeral drainages but then elsewhere create confusion and inconsistency by suggesting that subsurface hydrologic connections and overly broadly defined tributaries can still make an area jurisdictional.  Overly expansive proposed approaches to determining “adjacency” and aggregating numerous small areas for their cumulative nexus to downstream navigable waters similarly increase, rather than lessen, the current regulatory confusion and uncertainty.  Whether the pending rulemaking is a helpful clarification, or just yet another Caligula’s column, depends on how the agencies resolve those and other problematic provisions in the final rule.

The agencies should also use this occasion to develop a specific process and procedures for making approved “jurisdictional determinations (JDs)” under the final rule.  That process should include improved procedures for regulated entities to present evidence that an area is not a “jurisdictional water” under the Act, and for the agencies to track and publically post all final approved JDs as they are made, so they can be used to ensure consistency and inform the public about past determinations in an area.

The third critical fix to make this JD process fair and transparent is to provide that final agency jurisdictional determinations are subject to judicial review.  The Corps’ rules already provide for an administrative appeal of approved JDs, as well as proffered or denied 404 permits.  33 CFR Part 331.  Inconsistent with that appeal process, however, the Corps and EPA have taken the position that their final decisions on JDs, unlike permitting decisions, are not judicially reviewable “final agency actions” under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  The 5th Circuit agreed with that position in July 2014 in Belle Company, LLC  v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is subject to a pending Petition for Certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In a pending appeal of this issue before the 8th Circuit in Hawkes Co. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, two judges during oral argument on December 11, 2014 indicated disagreement with Belle, suggested the agencies’ position is inconsistent with the Corps’ administrative appeal rules, and described this claimed exemption from judicial review as “government by regulatory tyranny.”  An eventual adverse ruling by the 8th Circuit would greatly increase the odds of the Supreme Court granting certiorari in the Belle case or later in the Hawkes case.  The agencies could avoid that uncertainty and the cost, effort, and risk of litigating this issue before the Supreme Court by simply confirming by rule that final approved JDs are final agency actions subject to judicial review under the APA.  That confirmation would be consistent with the Corps’ administrative appeal rules and the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Sackett v. EPA, which held that EPA compliance orders (that have a parallel practical effect) are subject to judicial review.

EPA and the Corps are at a crossroads.  They can decide to make the definition and identification of jurisdictional “waters of the U.S.” subject to the Clean Water Act clear, consistent, based on Congress’ original intent in 1972, and subject to prompt, objective judicial review.  Or, they can decide to keep that process complex and ambiguous, expanded beyond Congress’ original intent, determined case-by-case in the varying judgment of agency personnel, and unreviewable by any court – in effect etched on a proverbial Caligula’s column.  The choice should be clear.  It’s time to knock that column down.

Choppy Water: An Update to the Turbulent Environment Between the EPA and Agricultural Opponents of the WOTUS Rule

Posted on August 11, 2014 by Stephen Bruckner

If you've been following the recent controversy surrounding the proposed rule regarding "waters of the United States" (referred to in some environmental and agricultural circles as "WOTUS"), you know the wave the EPA has created among opponents of the rule.  In April 2014, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers ("Corps") published a proposed rule defining the scope of waters protected by the Clean Water Act ("CWA"). Originally, the public comment period for the proposed rule ended July 21, 2014. That period was extended to October 20.

According to its opponents, a majority coming from agricultural interests in the nation's Heartland, the proposed rule is a stealthy way to expand the EPA's authority; a clear land grab epitomizing government overreach. According to the EPA, the purpose is to clarify the definition of navigable waters in light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Rapanos v. United States, and Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Although EPA explicitly stated that the proposed rule would not affect any exemptions to CWA Section 404 permitting requirements, which include normal farming and ranching activities, opponents think otherwise. Because of the expanded definition of navigable waters to include some waters that are merely connected to navigable waters, opponents worry landowners now will have new land covered by the CWA, forcing them to obtain permits under other provisions of the CWA for regular farming operations. Missouri farmer Andy Klay told Fox News he worries how long a permit might take. A day? A month? He and his wife created a parody video of the EPA to the tune of the popular song "Let it go" from Disney's Frozen -- "The EPA and the Corp. They will try, to justify! That's enough, that's enouuugh!"

Capturing the same sentiment, the American Farm Bureau Federation has launched a viral marketing campaign called "#DitchtheRule." The campaign supplies talking points and pre-written messages for supporters of #DitchtheRule to share on Twitter. For example, the campaign has a pre-written tweet "Ditches and puddles are not navigable. #DitchtheRule."  In an attempt to set the record straight, the EPA has responded with a campaign called "DitchtheMyth." The campaign responds directly to the #DitchtheRule allegations. EPA contends, for example, that the myth that the rule will regulate puddles is "not remotely true." But the criticisms, or misconceptions, depending on your perspective, surrounding the rule are very real in the Heartland.

It remains to be seen how things will shake out when balancing the cost of increased regulation with the benefit of additional clarity in the rule. However, there clearly is a gap in communication and deep mistrust between the EPA and agricultural interests. Though some of the fear may be based in myth, folks in the Heartland want the EPA to tread lightly and take seriously the unintended consequences of the rule for farmers and ranchers. Either way, the rule's polarizing effect has already caught the attention of lawmakers. According to The Hill, more than 260 members of Congress, spanning both parties, have opposed the rule. 

For more background, see: Weighing in on the Waters of the U.S. rule: an update