EPA Loses Another Battle in the War Over Guidance: The Eighth Circuit Vacates EPA Policies on Mixing Zones and Bypasses

Posted on March 26, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

On Monday, EPA lost another battle in the war over guidance.  In Iowa League of Cities v. EPA, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated two letters that EPA had sent to Senator Charles Grassley concerning biological mixing zones and bypass of secondary treatment units at POTWs (also referred to as “blending”, because the POTWs blend wastewater that has not be subject to biological secondary treatment with wastewater that has, prior to discharge).  The Court concluded that both letters constituted promulgation by EPA of effluent limits under the Clean Water Act and that they constituted legislative, rather than interpretive rules (I refuse to refer to “interpretative” rules; sorry).  As a result, the Court vacated the letters due to EPA’s failure to follow notice and comment requirements applicable to promulgation of legislative rules.  Finally, the Court concluded that a duly promulgated rule concerning biological mixing zones might be valid under Chevron, but that a rule barring bypasses of secondary treatment would exceed EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act.

In first determining whether the letters constituted “promulgation” of an effluent standard, the Court looked to whether the letters were binding on the regulated community.  Relying in part on Appalachian Power Co., the Court concluded that the letters were binding:

If an agency acts as if a document issued at headquarters is controlling in the field, if it treats the document in the same manner as it treats a legislative rule, if it bases enforcement actions on the policies or interpretations formulated in the document, if it leads private parties or State permitting authorities to believe that it will declare permits invalid unless they comply with the terms of the document, then the agency’s document is for all practical purposes “binding.”

As the Court noted with respect to the mixing zone issue, the “letter instructs state permitting authorities to reject certain permit applications, regardless of the state’s water quality standards.”  With respect to the bypass issue, EPA stated that “it will insist State and local authorities comply with” a never-issued policy that precludes the types of bypass at issue.  To try to suggest that words such as “insist” are not binding did not go over well with the Court.  “Just as it did in Appalachian Power, the EPA dissembles by describing the contested policy as subject to change.”

After concluding that the letters constituted promulgation of effluent standards, the Court went on to conclude that the letters constituted legislative, rather than interpretive, rules, and thus were subject to notice and comment rulemaking.  The following is the key paragraph for those of us attempting to beat back the kudzu that is EPA’s reliance on such informal guidance as a substitute for notice and comment rulemaking:

Identifying where a contested rule lies on the sometimes murky spectrum between legislative rules and interpretative rules can be a difficult task, but it is not just an exercise in hair-splitting formalism. As agencies expand on the often broad language of their enabling statutes by issuing layer upon layer of guidance documents and interpretive memoranda, formerly flexible strata may ossify into rule-like rigidity. An agency potentially can avoid judicial review through the tyranny of small decisions. Notice and comment procedures secure the values of government transparency and public participation, compelling us to agree with the suggestion that “[t]he APA’s notice and comment exemptions must be narrowly construed.”

“Layer upon layer of guidance.”  The “tyranny of small decisions.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Is the Era of “Enforceable Guidance” Coming to an End?

Posted on February 24, 2012 by William Hyatt

Typically, EPA guidance contains a “disclaimer” that it does not impose legally binding requirements and that the agency retains the discretion, on a case-by-case basis, to adopt different approaches.  In practice, however, EPA tends to require strict adherence to its guidance as though the guidance had been adopted as a binding regulation.  State regulatory agencies have followed the same or similar patterns.  The practice avoids the notice and comment protections of the Administrative Procedure Act and its state counterparts, denies access to the courts to challenge unlawful guidance, and creates uncertainty in the regulated community. Recently, however, New Jersey has signaled what may be the beginnings of a departure from that approach. 

In January, 2012, after years of advocacy by the regulated community, the New Jersey Legislature adopted Assembly Bill No. 2464, which prohibits the use of guidance documents that have not been adopted as rules, unless the guidance is posted on the agency’s website.  On January 17, 2012, Governor Christie signed A. 2464 into law.  P.L.2011, c.215 (N.J.S.A. 52:14B-3a).  Under the bill, even published guidance cannot impose new or additional requirements not spelled out in state or federal law or rules that the guidance is intended to clarify.  Most importantly, guidance not promulgated as a rule cannot be used as a substitute for state or federal law or rules for enforcement purposes.

This issue came to a head when the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection adopted rules implementing the recently enacted Site Remediation Reform Act, N.J.S.A. 58:10C-1 et seq. (SRRA), best known for creating a licensed site remediation professional program. The rules explicitly made NJDEP guidance enforceable.  That guidance, which contained a number of provisions the regulated community thought were extreme, had not undergone the notice and comment process required by the state APA. 

Now, NJDEP finds itself in an awkward position, having adopted rules which run counter to the newly adopted statute and having relied on the enforceability of its guidance to implement the SRRA.  As of this writing, the agency has not publicly disclosed how it intends to cope with this awkwardness.  It will be interesting to see whether Congress and the legislatures in other states follow the lead of A. 2464.

Muddling Through: Clean Water Act Edition

Posted on March 1, 2011 by Seth Jaffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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