Posted on June 20, 2014
In a surprising turn of events, on March 12, 2014 EPA Regions 1, 3 and 9 each simultaneously but separately responded, and each in a somewhat different way, to three virtually identical NGO petitions asking those Regions to use their Clean Water Act (“CWA”) Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require that stormwater discharges from impervious surfaces at existing commercial, industrial and institutional (“CII”) sites be permitted under CWA Section 402. The three petitions were filed in July 2013 by several different and somewhat overlapping consortia of environmental organizations.
The three Regions’ responses were all signed by their respective Regional administrators, each was worded differently, and each included a somewhat similar -- yet somewhat different --explanatory enclosure that detailed the basis of each respective Region’s response.
EPA Region 3’s response is a flat out denial of the petition, citing existing tools and programs already in place to address stormwater pollution (e.g., MS4 permits, TMDL implementation and strong state programs). The enclosure with the Regional Administrator’s letter denying the petition also states that “Region III declines to begin a process for categorical designation of discharges from CII sites to impaired waters since … the data supplied by the Petitioners to support the exercise of RDA is insufficient.” The enclosure does note that if the existing programs ultimately do not meet their objectives, alternate tools, including RDA, will need to be considered.
Similarly, EPA Region 9’s response “declines to make a Region-wide designation of the sources” in the petition specific to Region 9. That response also concludes in the enclosure that “we currently have insufficient information to support a Region-wide designation” of the CII sites specified in the petition, “that effective programs are already in place that address the majority of the sites identified in the petition,” and that the Region will keep designation in their toolbag as they “continue to evaluate currently unregulated sources of stormwater runoff.”
However, Region 1’s response states that it “is neither granting the petition … nor is it denying the petition.” Instead, the Region is going to evaluate individual watersheds in its six states to look at the nature and extent of impairment caused by stormwater, and then “to determine whether and the extent to which exercise of RDA is appropriate.”
Given the identical language in certain portions of all three of the Regional response enclosures (e.g., Statutory and Regulatory Background; Petition Review Criteria), it is clear that EPA Headquarters was in the thick of the discussions regarding the responses to these three RDA petitions. However, the apparent autonomy afforded each Region in determining how to deal with the issue is remarkable, and the discussions ultimately may have centered (as they often do at EPA HQ) on resource allocations nationally and within each Region.
The responses of Regions 3 and 9 imply that their current respective paths, with time, will get results without diverting resources. EPA Region 1 appears to more fully embrace RDA as a near-term viable tool to more aggressively control stormwater runoff from CII sites. Apparently, the New England regulators’ successful experience with the Long Creek Watershed RDA and their efforts relative to the RDA process for the Charles River has only whetted their appetite for further candidate areas at which to employ this model to address impaired stormwater.
Whether the NGOs will seek judicial relief from the denial of their Petitions, whether the states in the USA’s upper right hand corner will be supportive of EPA New England’s continued utilization of this tool, as well as how this issue ultimately will be played by EPA HQ, is fuzzy math.
Posted on October 14, 2013
One basic premise of the Clean Water Act is that EPA sets minimum standards but allows the States some latitude, in some areas, to design their own programs to meet their own needs. One area where the States have traditionally been allowed flexibility is the antidegradation analysis required for any new or expanded discharge, to assure that high quality waters are not degraded. However, in a notice published September 4, EPA is proposing to amend the federal antidegradation rule to require a review of alternative treatment levels for every permit and to require selection of the “least degrading alternative” in each case. The proposed rule would have a dramatic effect in Georgia, and perhaps in some other states.
The current antidegradation rule--both the federal rule and the Georgia rule--provides that the quality of high quality waters shall be maintained unless “allowing water quality is necessary to accommodate important economic or social development in the area….” In Georgia the longstanding process, approved by EPA, is that the state Environmental Protection Division determines whether the proposed discharge is “necessary” by considering any no-discharge alternatives, such as land application. If the no-discharge alternative is not feasible and the agency concludes, after public input, that the proposed discharge has significant positive economic or social value, then EPD considers the antidegradation analysis complete. The agency then proceeds to apply the water quality regulations to determine effluent limitations and other permit conditions.
Under EPA’s proposal, the antidegradation analysis would mandate a consideration of a full range of alternatives that could prevent or minimize the degradation that would result with the proposed activity, so long as they are “practicable.” As proposed, this would apply not only to industrial dischargers but also to POTWs, even though the Clean Water Act clearly provides for less stringent technology for public facilities. The result would be to require substantial expenditures on additional controls even if they are not needed and even if they will produce negligible water quality benefits.
This very issue has been the subject of debate and litigation in Georgia for the past ten years. It has enormous implications, because Georgia has declared that all its waters are “high quality” and subject to the Tier 2 requirements. The environmental community in Georgia has long argued that the determination that a proposed discharge is “necessary” must be supported by a demonstration that the facility, even a POTW, has employed the highest level of treatment that is technologically and economically feasible. In their view, if a facility can implement better controls, it must, without regard to a cost-benefit analysis and whether or not the lower standard would have any impact on water quality. The Georgia experience counsels against EPA’s proposal to impose a “one-size-fits-all” antidegradation analysis on all 50 states.
Posted on September 25, 2013
On September 13, in a 99 page decision, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania upheld EPA’s multi-state Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries against a broad range of challenges brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation and six other farm industry trade associations. Six environmental organizations led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, plus four municipal water associations led by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, intervened in support of EPA.
The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is not the first to cover multiple states, but it is by far the largest, covering 64,000 square miles in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia. It requires substantial reductions of nitrogen (25%), phosphorus (24%) and sediment (20%) by 2025 to meet water quality standards. Because of the interstate nature of the long-standing pollution problems, after more than two decades of collaborative but unsuccessful efforts, the states agreed in 2007 that EPA should develop the TMDL. It was issued in 2010 and included allocations for each of 92 tidal segments which, after consultation with the states, were further allocated among states, watersheds and sectors (such as agriculture, wastewater, stormwater, etc). During the process, each state developed its own Watershed Implementation Plan (“WIP”), specifying wasteload allocations (“WLA’s”) for point sources, load allocations (“LAs”) for nonpoint sources, and identifying the regulations, programs and resources that would be used to achieve the required reductions. For more on this TMDL see "EPA Issues Biggest TMDL Ever for Chesapeake Bay Watershed" and ELI Environmental Forum “The Chesapeake Bay TMDL” (May/June 2011).
The plaintiffs alleged that (1) the TMDL was an unauthorized “implementation” of allocations by EPA, (2) requiring WIPs exceeded EPA’s authority, (3) EPA’s use of watershed and related models in setting the allocations was an abuse of discretion, and (4) there was insufficient public notice. In addressing these challenges, the court first held (as several others have) that a TMDL is not self-implementing, but is an “informational tool”, developed collaboratively by EPA and the states under CWA Section 303(d), and implemented primarily by the states.
Turning to the merits, the court upheld EPA’s definition of a TMDL for a waterbody or segment as the sum of all WLAs and LAs plus natural background. It also upheld EPA’s authority to establish a multi-state TMDL, when the affected states either fail to do so or ask EPA to do it (both occurred here), including limitations on sources in upstream states to achieve compliance with water quality standards in downstream states. It held that EPA’s “holistic” or “watershed-wide approach” was consistent with the broad national goals of the CWA to “restore … our Nation’s waters.” In reaching this result the court emphasized the collaborative efforts of the Bay states and EPA starting in 1983 to address the problems of interstate pollution, transported by rivers and tides, and their consensus that an EPA-led multistate effort was needed.
The court further held that the WIPs – new tools in the TMDL context – were authorized as part of the “continuing planning process” under CWA Section 303(e). This process is initiated by the states to achieve water quality goals, and is subject to review and approval by EPA. Because EPA had advised the states in letters what it expected in terms of general content and specificity in the WIPs, but left the details to the states, the court held EPA did not exceed its authority. The court also relied on CWA Section 117(g) - a Chesapeake Bay-specific provision - requiring EPA to “ensure that management plans are developed and implementation is begun by [all the affected states] to achieve and maintain…” the applicable water quality goals.
The plaintiffs also challenged EPA’s requirement that each WIP contain “reasonable assurances” of timely and effective implementation, and EPA’s use of “backstop” allocations where EPA determined that a WIP provision was deficient. “Backstops” involved requiring NPDES permits from previously unregulated sources. The court held that EPA could properly require “reasonable assurance” under CWA 303(d)(1), which requires a TMDL must be “established at a level necessary to implement the applicable water quality standards.” The court upheld “backstops”, which were only used in 3 instances, as a reasonable exercise of EPA’s authority under CWA 303(d)(2) to ensure that the contents of the TMDL are designed to achieve the applicable water quality goals.
The court upheld EPA’s use of models as scientifically supported and within EPA’s discretion. It rejected the challenge to adequate notice and opportunity for public participation since (1) a 45 day public comment period had been provided, (2) there had been hundreds of public meetings during the more than 10 year development of the TMDL, and (3) plaintiffs showed no prejudice from the fact that some details of the modeling were not available until after the comment period.
The court held that TMDL establishment and implementation involves “cooperative federalism” between the states and EPA, and that the Chesapeake Bay TMDL properly reflects the shared responsibilities and necessary interactions, despite some bumps along the road. While EPA exerted strong leadership, the court held that it did not unlawfully usurp the states’ implementation functions. The court noted the preserved authority of the states to implement nutrient trading and offsets, and to set or revise source-specific loading allocations. In conclusion, there is a lot of thoughtful analysis, as well as precedent, in this decision, which makes it an excellent resource for CWA practitioners.
Posted on September 18, 2013
On July 10, 2013, several different consortia of environmental organizations simultaneously filed petitions with three EPA Regional Offices asking the respective Regional Administrators to make determinations under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) that unpermitted stormwater discharges from impervious surfaces at existing commercial, industrial, and institutional sites be required to obtain stormwater permits and to conduct remedial actions. The three petitions (Region 1, Region 3, Region 9), jointly filed by American Rivers, Conservation Law Foundation (“CLF”) and Natural Resources Defense Council (along with different regional NGOs on each petition), ask EPA to use its CWA Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require property owners in EPA Regions 1, 3 and 9 to capture and treat their stormwater runoff, which the petitioners allege is impairing waterbodies in those parts of the U.S.
Currently, in the absence of residual designation, only new construction projects, industrial sites falling within certain limited categories, and municipal stormwater sewer systems are required to obtain stormwater permits and manage stormwater runoff. The Petitioners allege that stormwater discharged from impervious surfaces on commercial, industrial, and institutional sites are significant sources of pollutants – specifically, metals (lead, copper and zinc), sediments, phosphorus, nitrogen, and oxygen-demanding compounds that cause water body impairments – and therefore should be regulated.
In 2008, CLF successfully petitioned EPA to use RDA to require stormwater discharge permits for existing impervious surfaces in an urban/mall area near Portland, Maine. Property owners with an acre of more of impervious surface in that watershed are now required to control their stormwater runoff either on an individual basis (by retrofitting their property to control pollutants in runoff) or by obtaining coverage under a general permit and paying an annual fee per acre of impervious cover. A similar NGO petition was granted by EPA Region I with regard to limited areas within the Charles River watershed near Boston.
The current petitions represent an effort to force expansion of EPA stormwater runoff control regulation in New England, the Mid-Atlantic States and California/Nevada/Arizona. The petitioners recommend remedial actions such as conservation of natural areas, reducing hard surface cover, and retrofitting urban areas with features that detain stormwater runoff and treat pollutants in stormwater.
EPA has 90 days to act on the petition, although action within this time frame is doubtful given the scope of the requests and the pace at which EPA has acted upon other much more limited RDA petitions. With the very recent U.S. District Court decision in American Farm Bureau v. EPA upholding the Agency’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, however, EPA may feel somewhat more emboldened to embrace these broad-reaching petitions. To date, however, the Agency has been mum regarding the petitions.
Posted on August 23, 2013
The Columbia and Snake River federal network of dams, and the abundance of low cost electricity it produces, has long been the cornerstone of the Pacific Northwest manufacturing economy. It has also supported another industry—the legions of lawyers fighting over the environmental effects. The latest iteration is an attack brought by Columbia Riverkeepers against the Army Corps of Engineers for oily discharges from the dams.
Riverkeepers filed lawsuits in U. S. District Courts in both Oregon and Washington alleging that oils released from the dams are discharges of pollutants for which a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is required under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The oils are used for lubricating turbine equipment, which Riverkeepers allege are released every day through spillways and penstocks at Bonneville, John Day, McNary, Ice Harbor and other federal dams. The suits seek declaratory and injunctive relief, mandating that the Corps secure NPDES permits.
Oily discharges are common among hydroelectric facilities. For the most part these are minor releases, though the complaint does allege a spill of 1,500 gallons of transformer oil containing PCBs from the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake. Most privately owned dams in the region operate under general permits encompassing the small-volume releases. A few have NPDES permits.
As I have noted in prior blogs, courts have held that dams are “nonpoint” sources of pollution, which do not require a NPDES permit. These holdings were in the context of dams merely passing through pollution flowing into reservoirs from upstream sources, as opposed to adding pollutants. However, there have been cases where the discharge below the dam was not simply a pass through, and the court found a permit was required.
In relation to the ongoing litigation over the dams’ effect on salmon spawning, rearing and, migration, the Riverkeepers case will not likely have a significant effect on Corps operations. Even if the suit is successful, oily discharges can be managed, if not wholly eliminated. These cases should settle.
Posted on May 1, 2013
On April 23, a panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously held in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA that the Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to withdraw permits previously granted under section 404 of the Act. The case emerged from EPA’s determination that the discharge of mining waste from the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia into certain streams and tributaries would have an unacceptable adverse effect on environmental resources. Based on this determination, EPA withdrew the Army Corps of Engineers’ prior specification of these streams and tributaries as disposal sites for the waste from mountaintop removal.
Several features of the case are striking. First, the decision has obvious – and obviously important – implications for the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal and its irredeemable environmental impacts. No longer can the argument be made that a permit, once issued, gives the permittee the power, in perpetuity, to blast the tops off of mountains and dump them into streams.
Second, the decision rested, for the most part, on a single word: “whenever.” The Clean Water Act states that the Administrator of the EPA may withdraw the specification of a disposal site for dredge-and-fill material “whenever” she determines that it will have an “unacceptable adverse impact” on certain environmental resources. The court took Congress, literally, at its word, and held that “whenever” means whenever – that is, even if EPA finds unacceptable adverse impacts after a permit has issued, the agency has the authority to pull the permit.
Third, as if to make certain its own holding is unambiguous, too, the court five times stated that the Clean Water Act unambiguously authorizes EPA to withdraw permits after they are issued. EPA’s current interpretation of the Act is thus not changeable by a future administration.
Should permittees fear that “whenever” will become wherever? It is worth remembering that EPA’s decision on the Spruce No. 1 mine was the first time EPA had – ever! – withdrawn a previously issued permit, in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act. Whether EPA will be emboldened by this decision, or will continue to mostly allow existing permits to stand, remains to be seen.
Posted on April 30, 2013
On January 3, 2013, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that EPA lacks the statutory authority to set a Clean Water Act (“CWA”) total maximum daily load (“TMDL”) for “stormwater flow rates” as a surrogate for sediment deposition. Virginia Dep’t of Transportation et al v EPA et al. EPA has decided not to appeal. The case has received national attention because of its implications for other TMDLs that use surrogates. This article will discuss the decision and its significance for the TMDL and water quality regulatory regime.
The relevant statutory framework is CWA Section 303, under which each state establishes water quality standards for waters within its boundaries. These consist of a designated use (trout fishing, contact recreation, etc.) and numerical or narrative “water quality criteria” necessary to support that use. For “impaired waters” where the criteria are not being met, the state must set a TMDL (think “pollution budget”) for each pollutant for which the criteria are exceeded, and implement a “planning process” leading to achievement. Where the state fails to act, or sets a TMDL which EPA regards as insufficient, CWA Section 303(d)(2) directs EPA to set the TMDL.
Accotink Creek is a 25 mile tributary to the Potomac River in Virginia, in which the benthic organisms were impaired, primarily because of sediment deposited by stormwater running off impervious urban and suburban areas. In April 2011, after Virginia failed to set a TMDL, EPA set one which limited the flow rate of stormwater into Accotink Creek to 681.8 cu ft/ acre-day. The court said that the parties agreed that “sediment is a pollutant, and that stormwater is not” (Slip op. 3). While EPA’s brief contains a fallback argument that stormwater can be viewed as a “pollutant”, it did not dispute that stormwater flow was being used as a surrogate for sediment. Thus the question addressed by the court was whether EPA has the statutory authority to set a TMDL for a “surrogate” which is not itself a “pollutant”.
EPA has used surrogates in a number of circumstances where, in its view, the surrogate would provide appropriate reduction of pollutants, and would be either easier to measure or provide other benefits (such as, in this case, reduction of stream bank scouring caused by heavy stormwater discharges), or both. The court rejected EPA’s argument that since the CWA does not expressly address the use of surrogates, EPA’s use of them should be upheld as reasonable “gap-filling”, consistent with the broad remedial objectives of the CWA, and entitled to substantial Chevron step 2 deference. The court held instead that because the CWA instructed EPA to set TMDLs for “pollutants”, not “surrogates”, the statute was clear. The court distinguished EPA’s use of surrogates in this case from other instances in which surrogates have been used under other CWA provisions (notably Sections 301, 304 and 402) where EPA appears to have greater latitude.
EPA and states have used stormwater surrogates in TMDLs in Connecticut, Missouri and North Carolina. They have also used other types of surrogates, such as impervious surface area limits and secchi disc readings. Some of those have been challenged, and this decision will no doubt provide ammunition for those who oppose their use. Nationally, however, this amounts to a very small percentage of the TMDLs that are in place, even if one focuses only on sediment (for which, the court noted, EPA has issued approximately 3700 TMDLs).
In addition, this ruling will have no effect whatever on EPA’s permitting of industrial and municipal stormwater discharges, including municipal separate storm sewer systems (“MS4s”), or its ongoing development of stormwater regulations, because these activities are expressly authorized under CWA Section 402(p). This is especially important, because EPA and many states now recognize stormwater as a major source of contamination and water quality impairment. For a thoughtful article on this subject and emerging approaches, see Dave Owen, Urbanization, Water Quality, and the Regulated Landscape, 82 U. of Colo. L. Rev. 431 (April 2011).
Posted on April 25, 2013
After decades of sparring over nutrient loading in the Illinois River, and following several short term extensions of a previous truce, Arkansas and Oklahoma recently executed an agreement, the “Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions”, that establishes a procedural framework for attempting to resolve their long running trans-boundary water quality dispute.
The Illinois River heads up in a rapidly developing section of Northwest Arkansas and flows west into a comparatively undeveloped portion of Northeast Oklahoma, where the river is designated by state statute as a scenic river. For more than two decades Oklahoma has worked to reduce the amount of nutrients, and particularly phosphorus, discharged into the Illinois River watershed. In 2002 Oklahoma adopted a numeric water quality criterion for Total Phosphorus that many considered impossible to attain in a developed watershed. In an effort to avoid litigation over the validity of the numeric criterion, Arkansas and Oklahoma entered into an agreement in 2003 known as the Statement of Joint Principles and Actions. This agreement provided, among other things, that: (i) Oklahoma would postpone for 10 years the date on which the numeric criterion would be fully effective; (ii) Arkansas sources would take a number of steps to reduce phosphorus discharges; and (iii) Oklahoma would review the existing numeric criterion, with an opportunity for Arkansas representatives to participate, before the end of the ten year period to determine whether the numeric criterion should be changed.
The ten year truce created by the Statement of Joint Principles and Actions was originally scheduled to expire in July 2012. During the ten year period Arkansas sources made significant progress in reducing the amount of phosphorus they discharged in the watershed. As a result, phosphorus levels in the Illinois River began to decline and most observers agreed that conditions in the river were significantly improved. Towards the end of the ten year period Oklahoma undertook a review, with full participation by representatives of Arkansas, EPA, and the Cherokee Nation. The review ended in a sharply divided report, with Oklahoma representatives stating that no change in the numeric phosphorus criterion was warranted and Arkansas representative stating that significant change was necessary.
As the end of the ten year truce approached, officials from Arkansas and Oklahoma began negotiations once again on how to avoid litigation. Focus on the potential for costly litigation was sharpened by the fact that EPA had publicly commenced work on a Phosphorus TMDL for the entire Illinois River watershed. After several agreements on short term extensions of the July 2012 deadline, Arkansas and Oklahoma reached agreement in February 2013 on a Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions. This new agreement provides, among other things, that Arkansas and Oklahoma will fund a joint three year water quality study using EPA protocols to determine the threshold Total Phosphorus levels at which shifts in algal species or biomass production occur that result in undesirable aesthetic or water quality conditions. Oklahoma and Arkansas agree in the Second Statement to be bound by the findings of the joint study, and Oklahoma agrees to adopt a new numeric criterion for Total Phosphorus in the Illinois River if the results of the joint study are significantly different from the existing criterion (i.e., more than -0.010 mg/l or +0.010 mg/l than the existing .037 mg/l criterion). During the term of the Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions, both states agree not to initiate or maintain litigation contrary to the terms of the agreement, and the statute of limitations on all claims is extended. Oklahoma agrees that it will postpone for the duration of the new agreement the date on which its existing, hotly disputed numeric criterion is to be fully effective.
EPA was not a party to the negotiation of the new agreement and it has not announced any formal position on its effect. It is not clear what impact the new agreement will have on EPA’s work to develop a TMDL for Phosphorus in the Illinois River watershed or on the various NPDES permits for POTWs on the Illinois River that are currently pending review in EPA Region 6.
Posted on February 5, 2013
The Clean Water Act’s antidegradation rule has been a fertile ground for dispute and litigation in Georgia, as elsewhere. A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. v. Forsyth County, 734 S.E 2d 242 (Ga. App. 2012), has interpreted the Georgia version of the Rule and provided some clarity for POTWs and others seeking NPDES effluent limits.
Georgia’s Antideg Rule is identical to the federal rule and provides that in the case of a proposed discharge to high quality waters, that quality shall be maintained unless allowing lower water quality is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development,” and water quality to protect existing uses is assured.
The Rule is not a model of clarity, to say the least, and has been subject to varying interpretations. EPA has chosen not to provide more specific direction and has, on multiple occasions, reiterated that it is up to the States to decide how to interpret and apply the Antideg Rule, through each State’s implementation procedures.
Georgia EPD’s implementation procedures interpret the rule to require a determination whether the proposed new or expanded discharge is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development….” If it is determined the discharge is “necessary,” that is, that a no-discharge alternative is not economically feasible, then EPD proceeds to consider the application and to impose permit conditions based on the applicable technology-based standards and in-stream water quality standards.
In contrast, the environmental groups, and an Administrative Law Judge, have taken the position that the Antideg Rule requires EPD to consider whether “allowing the lower water quality resulting from the permitted discharge is actually necessary.” That reading led the ALJ to conclude that, without regard to cost or benefit, the permit limits for the POTW must be set at the lowest level that is technologically feasible, so long as the permittee can afford it. As interpreted by the ALJ, the antidegradation analysis would be not just the beginning of the analysis of a proposed new discharge, but also the end point. According to that view, the antideg analysis would ask, not just whether the discharge is justified, but also, what is the lowest limit that is feasible. Application of the Antideg Rule in this fashion would short-circuit all considerations of in-stream water quality standards and technology-based limits. It would eliminate any distinction between POTWs and industrial facilities -- they both would have to meet the lowest limit that is technologically feasible that they can afford.
The Georgia Court of Appeals has now agreed with EPD’s reading of the Antideg Rule. The court held the rule requires only a determination whether lower water quality generally is necessary to accommodate economic or social development, not a permit-specific analysis of whether the exact effluent limits in the permit are necessary. The opponents to the permit have asked the Georgia Supreme Court to take up the issue; a decision on the petition for certiorari is expected by mid-2013.
Posted on January 4, 2013
Tremendous progress has been made in protecting and restoring the environment over the past 40 years since the passage of major legislation at the federal, state, and provincial levels in the United States and Canada. However, our skill at measuring that progress is somewhat limited, and we may not have the kind of information we need to judge the health of our ecosystems or the effectiveness of our programs. There have been some good efforts on an international, national, state, and provincial basis to evaluate the state of the environment using certain indicators, but one area needing much more attention is the Great Lakes.
Although there are many indicators monitored on a continuing basis in the Great Lakes, the real difficulty has been synthesizing the information in a way that puts officials in a position to communicate effectively with the public, policy makers, and managers about whether the Great Lakes are getting better, worse, or staying the same. The International Joint Commission (IJC) initiated an effort recently through its Water Quality Board (WQB) and Science Advisory Board (SAB) to identify a limited number of core indicators for this freshwater resource. What’s needed now is a consensus among the scientific and policy leaders on the Great Lakes on the “few indicators that tell us the most” about the waters.
It was not hard to tell the Great Lakes were in trouble when enough dead alewives washed up on its shores requiring front end loaders to remove them, the Cuyahoga River and other tributaries caught fire, and Lake Eric was declared “dead” because of massive algal blooms. Many of these conditions on the Great Lakes led to both a public outcry and Congressional action in order to deal with the lakes’ water pollution and other environmental problems. As programs were put in place to keep oil out of the rivers and reduce nutrient loadings to the lakes, significant visible improvements were seen. The underlying data was available to support the observations, but the visible improvements plus much better fishing success told the story in an easily observable way.
Things are much more complicated now. When looking at the fundamental three legged stool supporting the Great Lakes’ ecosystem, being the chemical, physical, biological integrity of the resource, it is not easy to gage. With regard to chemicals, very low concentrations of legacy pollutants like PCBs and dioxins can cause serious problems. Likewise, ongoing contamination from airborne deposition of mercury is a real concern. New chemicals such as flame retardants are the next problem area with which to deal. Invasive species such as the zebra and quagga mussels, the ever present sea lampreys, and the threat from the Asian carp are a constant problem for maintaining the biological balance in the system. From a physical standpoint, expanding urbanization, suburban sprawl, and the manifestations of climate change are also adding tremendous pressure on the Great Lakes. What’s needed is a core set of chemical, physical, and biological indicators of the health of the ecosystem and the effectiveness of the programs to protect and restore it.
Good progress is being made on this front. After several months of work by some of the top Great Lakes’ scientists and policy makers, a group of just over twenty indicators has been preliminarily identified, with a smaller group as the core. They include:
Physical: Coastal wetlands, land cover, and tributary physical integrity
Chemical: Nutrient concentrations and loadings, and persistent bio - accumulative toxics
Biological: Lower food web productivity/health, fish species of interest, harmful and nuisance algae, aquatic invasive species
Much of the foundation for the work done recently comes from what is known as the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC), which is a large gathering, primarily of scientists, held every two years to review and evaluate a large number of Great Lakes’ indicators on the Great Lakes.
What needs to happen next is for the IJC first to adopt a set of core indicators as the ones that tell us the most about the resource, then inform the U.S. and Canadian governments of its findings. Under the recently updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the parties are responsible for establishing ecosystem indicators for the Great Lakes.
With a set of core indicators, both countries will be in a much better position to communicate with the public, elected officials, and managers about the health of the ecosystem and the effectiveness of programs. In addition, our governments will be in a position to make better choices about the allocation of increasingly scarce resources to maximize the return on investment for improving the health of the Great Lakes, the largest, surface freshwater system in the world.
Posted on December 4, 2012
On March 13, 2012, eleven environmental organizations, led by Gulf Restoration Network ("GRN"), filed
a federal Clean Water Act (CWA) citizen suit which demanded that the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) set federal numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus for water bodies within the 31
states comprising the Mississippi River Basin ("Basin States"). Gulf Restoration Network v. Jackson,
E.D. La., No. 2: 12-cv-00677 ("GRN Suit"). The complaint alleges that EPA has failed to develop
numeric water quality criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus in the Basin States. EPA's answer states that it
is appropriately deferring to each state to promulgate numeric nutrient criteria ("NNCs") that satisfy
Clean Water Act water quality standards within the state and that, consequently, federal NNCs are not
appropriate. The trial judge ruled on September 19, 2012 that the case will be decided on "cross-motions
for summary judgment, with no initial disclosures or other discovery." In the same order, the judge set a
briefing schedule for the parties (including numerous entities to which the court granted permission to
intervene) that will extend through the beginning of June of next year.
The GRN Suit, as well as other similar suits that are active in other regions, have prompted many state
environmental agencies to work diligently, pursuant to EPA's deference and also its demand, to develop
NNCs as quickly as possible. If EPA wins the GRN Suit, the Basin States will have to be ready to go
forward with promulgation of their NNCs. If EPA loses, they may be subjected to more stringent federal
NNCs on a "one size fits all" basis. A settlement could mean an even different outcome for all ofthe
In Mississippi, the state's Department of Environmental Quality ("MDEQ") has formed a Nutrient
Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to develop scientifically defensible NNCs that are appropriate for
Mississippi's surface waters. The TAG is composed ofMDEQ staff, MDEQ's external consultants and
in-state university personnel who have water quality expeiiise and is meeting on a regular basis. MDEQ
staff members have stated that the agency's plan is to have draft NNCs developed for all state waters,
excluding the heavily agricultural Delta counties, by June 30, 2013. The draft NNCs for the Delta are to
be developed by November 30, 2014. MDEQ wil then publish these draft NNCs for public comment.
MDEQ has held several stakeholder meetings to discuss the development of Mississippi's NNCs and to
provide an opportunity for questions and comments. The MDEQ staff members have consistently
explained that they are considering "what is protective of the environment" rather than "what is
technically achievable." The new NNCs wil be "worked into permits" as they come up for renewal and
permittees wil be allowed a "reasonable time frame" to come into compliance with the new NNCs.
The key issue for the regulated community in Mississippi, as in other states, will be the cost of
compliance with these new NNCs, which could bear a very expensive price tag. In Florida, for example,
a national environmental engineering consultant prepared an economic analysis of proposed NNCs. The
estimate for direct compliance costs ranged from $ 1.5 bilion annually (best management practices for
impaired water categories) to $4.5 billion annually ("end of pipe" requirements for all water categories).
Regulated communities in Mississippi and in other states across the country are engaging with scientific
and economic data and consultants in order to have an impact concerning this volatile issue. A lot is on
Posted on August 8, 2012
Under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), most municipalities in the United States are now required to have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for discharges of stormwater/urban runoff. As intended by Congress, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and authorized state NPDES permit writers originally took a programmatic approach relative to the requirements they put into such Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems or “MS4” permits. Over time, though, municipalities have, in various ways, been required to address water quality standards more directly, including where such standards are expressed quantitatively.
In California, this has manifested itself in the issuance of MS4 permits containing provisions called “Receiving Waters Limitations,” which, among other things, preclude the permitted municipal stormwater discharges from “causing or contributing to a violation of an applicable water quality standard.” Since this ambitious goal is a tall order that likely cannot be met without the construction of large, capital-intensive detention and treatment facilities for which no funding is available, other language contained in these MS4 permits has instructed the municipality that if “exceedances of water quality standards persist,” they must evaluate and submit plans to improve their stormwater management programs to address the situation and then implement such plans and improvements according to a schedule they propose – an “iterative process” that envisions reasonable further progress towards the achievement of water quality standards over time and which inherently recognizes that resource and feasibility constraints may inform the pace of that progress.
Last year, in NRDC v. County of Los Angeles, et al., 636 F. 3d 1235 (9th Cir. 2011), the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that demonstrating compliance with the iterative process language in these MS4 permits did not create a safe harbor and shield a municipality from direct enforcement of the Receiving Water Limitations themselves, including by means of a citizens’ suits. The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted cert. in this case, raising a glimmer of hope for municipalities that a reasonable further progress approach might somehow be restored.
Unfortunately, the High Court may well not speak directly to this issue notwithstanding its practical import for municipalities. Its cert. grant instead requested briefing and argument on the more unusual and academic issue of whether water that flows from one portion of a river that is navigable water, through an MS4 or other engineered channel, and into a lower portion of the same river is “discharge” from an “outfall” requiring an NPDES permit. As its cert. grant itself suggests, this is an issue the U.S. Supreme Court likely already addressed in South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, 541 U.S. 95 (2004). Accordingly, if the Ninth Circuit’s decision is reversed on this basis and without a discussion of the broader issues that caused it to arise, it will be left to Congress, EPA, or state permit writers to decide if they are willing to restore a reasonable further progress approach to municipal stormwater permitting.
Posted on July 9, 2012
The criterion to protect human health found in state water quality standards under the Clean Water Act are getting more stringent in the Northwest. This is occurring because people in the Northwest supposedly eat more fish from Northwest waters than other parts of the country. The esoteric standard setting process to protect people from toxic pollutants in surface waters is premised upon numerous risk based assumptions which include the amount of surface water an average person consumes combined with the amount of fish consumed from such waters. The more water and fish people consume the more stringent the criteria becomes. EPA establishes national defaults for states to use in their human health standard setting process for both water ingestion and fish consumption rates (“FCR”). The national recommended FCR is 17.5 g/day. A detailed description of the standard setting process can be found in EPA’s Methodology for Deriving Ambient Water Quality Criteria for the Protection of Human Health (2000).
Until recently, use of the EPA default FCR was acceptable in the Northwest. However the state of Oregon recently adopted (and EPA approved in 2011) a FCR ten times higher than the national default. The principal driver behind Oregon’s change was a FCR study funded by EPA in the 1990’s that evaluated the FCR of members of a number of Northwest Tribes in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. See A Fish Consumption Survey of the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakima, and Warm Springs Tribes of the Columbia River Basin (CRITFC 1994). The CRITFC study showed that Tribal members consumed much higher rates of fish.
In May 2012, EPA disapproved Idaho’s human health criteria in Idaho’s water quality standards which were based on EPA’s national recommended default FCR. EPA disapproved Idaho’s standard because the state did not “consider” the CRITFC study. (Idaho believes it did consider the CRITFC study.) EPA also questioned whether Idaho’s standards were protective of Oregon’s downstream standards. Idaho now has 90 days to respond to EPA’s disapproval. Meanwhile the state of Washington is in the process of reevaluating its human health standards and FCRs. Whether this trend moves into other states or other EPA regions remains to be seen.
One might legitimately ask whether this issue is nothing more than an academic exercise amongst toxicologists and risk assessors. Ultimately the answer to that question is found in the Clean Water Act itself. Roughly calculated, increasing the FCR ten times equates into the criteria for many toxic pollutants becoming ten times more stringent. Under the Clean Water Act NPDES Permit limits must be established to meet these new criteria. Under the new standards adopted by Oregon some of the toxic pollutants that are likely to present particularly challenging compliance issues for permittees will include mercury, PCBs and arsenic, as the presence of these pollutants are somewhat pervasive in Northwest waters. In most instances, requiring permittees to implement costly pollution controls to attempt to achieve the new criteria at the end of the pipe will have minimal affect on achieving the new stringent standards in the receiving waters. In light of EPA’s recent disapproval of Idaho’s standards, the state must now decide if it needs to amend its criteria or conduct its own fish survey statewide. Untested legal issues are raised by EPA’s disapproval like whether a state must establish a state-wide FCR based on a very small percentage of the population or because a downstream state (Oregon) has decided to adopt more stringent criteria. Like many increasingly complex issues under the Clean Water Act, these issues may have to be settled in federal court.
Posted on February 23, 2012
Current federal law requires states to develop and adopt a statewide antidegradation policy to protect existing in-stream uses for high quality waters. Georgia has done so under Rule 391-3-6-.03. Georgia’s antidegradation policy describes what requirements must be met before the State issues a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) and allows a wastewater point source (i.e. wastewater treatment plan) to discharge pollutants into surface waters. However, in apparent response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) potential revision of its requirements for state antidegradation policies and an Administrative Law Judge’s recent ruling, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (“EPD”) published proposed amendments to its antidegradation policy in September 2011.
In its proposed amendments, EPD attempts to set out exactly when the antidegradation review process is triggered and what an applicant requesting a new or expanded point source discharge must demonstrate to obtain the permit. EPD’s proposed rule and related guidelines explain the three basic steps as follows: (1) applicant may demonstrate that proposed discharge will not result in “significant lowering of water quality” (if satisfied, no antidegradation analysis is required); (2) if water quality is significantly lowered, applicant must demonstrate that discharge will accommodate important social or economic development; and (3) applicant must demonstrate that no reasonable alternatives exist that would provide the needed wastewater capacity without authorizing a new or expanded wastewater discharge into surface waters. The key to this new procedure is the definition of “does not significantly lower water quality.” Specifically, if the proposed discharge of a pollutant is 10% or less than the remaining assimilative capacity for that pollutant in the receiving stream, then the new discharge per se “does not significantly lower water quality” and no antidegradation analysis is required. These amendments appear to respond to EPA’s concerns over EPD’s implementation of an antidegradation policy, and clearly appear to respond to the ALJ’s decision in Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. v. Forsyth County, Georgia.
In September 2010, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. (“UCR”) filed a petition challenging the issuance by EPD of an NPDES permit (“Permit”) authorizing Forsyth County to discharge 6 million gallons per day (“MGD”) of wastewater into the Chattachoochee River from the County’s existing waste water treatment facility and the new Shakerag facility. The Permit set limits of 200 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters (“cfu/100mL”) and 0.3 milligrams per liter (“mg/L”) for fecal coliform bacteria and phosphorous, respectively. UCR claimed that the Permit, specifically the expanded limits, threatened the present and future health of the Chattahoochee River without EPD having undertaken a proper study, modeling or antidegradation analysis to show that the degradation of the river was necessary to accommodate Forsyth County’s economic and social development.
In a decision found later to be overreaching, the ALJ held that any lowering of water quality in the receiving water triggers an antidegradation review and such review must analyze both the technical and economic feasibility of any alternatives, as well as a no-discharge permit alternative. The ALJ made this conclusion in part by referencing EPD’s failure to define certain terms and therefore the ALJ adopted the EPA’s guidelines. More surprising, the ALJ also adopted the permit discharge limits suggested by UCR which were much lower than those in the original permit or even those allowed for recreational waters by Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. The ALJ then remanded the permit to the Director of EPD for reissuance with revised monthly discharge limits of 23 cfu/100mL for fecal coliform bacteria and 0.08 mg/L for total phosphorous.
Forsyth County appealed to the Superior Court of Forsyth County which reversed the ALJ’s decision finding that the ALJ had exceeded her authority. The Court concluded the ALJ could not create an enhanced review by wholesale adoption of EPA guidelines nor set specific effluent limits. EPD’s recent proposed amendments state clearly that effluent limits cannot be set pursuant to an antidegradation analysis, but only by EPD pursuant to Rule 391-2-6-.06. The Court remanded the matter to the ALJ, ordering the antidegradation review standard be applied as codified in EPD’s implementing procedures without reference to EPA guidance documents.
However, the battle is not over as UCR has appealed this decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals. As of this writing, both parties have submitted their briefs for review and oral argument is yet to be set. In light of EPD’s recent proposed amendments, this decision is one to watch as the appellate court’s holding could have a significant impact on restrictions in future NPDES permits.
Posted on February 1, 2012
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.