WHAT’S IN A LIST? Judicial Review of Agency Decisions Identifying Impaired Water Bodies

Posted on February 1, 2012 by Allan Gates

Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act requires each state to identify all water body segments within the state that do not meet water quality standards.  The statute requires the states to submit a list of their impaired water body segments to EPA every two years for review and approval.  The decision to list as stream segment as impaired is important because it usually triggers a chain of regulatory consequences, beginning with the preparation of a Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) study and typically ending with significantly more stringent permit limits for point sources and more robust regulation of non-point sources.

Although the decision to add a stream segment to a state’s 303(d) list is undeniably important, there is significant uncertainty whether the decision is subject to judicial review.  An ACOEL blog entry reported in December 2011 on a Pennsylvania decision which questioned whether Pennsylvania’s issuance of its 303(d) list was an appealable agency action under state law.  Chester Babst, Beware of “Impaired” Surface Water Designations, posted December 10, 2010.

The federal courts of appeals are split on whether EPA’s decisions in reviewing a state 303(d) list are subject to judicial review.  The 8th Circuit has held that a private stakeholder challenge to EPA’s approval of a Missouri 303(d) list was premature and not justiciable because the addition of a segment to a 303(d) list, by itself, did not have any impact on the rights, duties, or property of private parties.   On the other hand, the 9th Circuit has held that a private party had alleged sufficient claims of present injury to have standing to challenge EPA’s approval of California’s 303(d) list. Even after the 9th Circuit’s decision, EPA argued on remand that the scope of judicial review should be narrow because EPA’s role in reviewing California’s 303(d) list was supposedly only one of limited oversight (“[EPA] note[s] that the 30-day limitation on [its] review process demonstrates that [its] ‘role is one of mere oversight’.”  The district court accepted this argument and rejected the challenge to EPA’s review on remand.

It must have been amusing for knowledgeable stakeholders and state water quality regulators to read EPA’s claim that its role is one of “mere oversight” that is strictly circumscribed by a 30-day time limit.   The practical experience of most states has been quite different.  In fact, EPA routinely runs months and even years past the 30-day limit on its review of state 303(d) lists, and it is not at all unusual for EPA to significantly alter the state’s submission, frequently with a supplemental factual record and the imposition of new impairment decisions generated out of whole cloth.

Normally one might think that identifying impaired stream segments would be a simple task of comparing the numbers in the monitoring results for a given stream segment to the relevant numeric water quality standards, and therefore questions of judicial review would rarely be relevant.  In practice, however, the decision to list a segment as impaired frequently can be problematic or even controversial.  To begin with, monitoring results are sometimes subject to questions regarding the adequacy and accuracy of the sampling and analysis.   In many instances the relevant water quality standard is expressed in a narrative rather than numeric form, and therefore the simple comparison of two numbers is replaced by an exercise in subjective judgment.  Even when the basic identification of an impaired segment has been made, there are still choices of priority and timing that can make a great deal of difference in how the impairment decision affects stakeholders.

Given the potential uncertainties that can attend a listing decision, and the gravity of the regulatory consequences that are set in motion by such a decision, it is unfortunate that EPA and some state agencies have displayed such resistance to any form of independent accountability for their decisions.