Supreme Court to Visit Maui

Posted on February 21, 2019 by Patrick A. Parenteau

As anticipated in an earlier post, the Supreme Court has granted review in County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawai'i Wildlife Fund limited to the question “Whether the Clean Water Act (CWA) requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater.” The Court took no action on a related petition in Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P. v. Upstate Forever involving groundwater contamination from a ruptured gas pipeline. The Court will presumably hold that petition pending the outcome in the Maui case.

As described in the Ninth Circuit decision, the County of Maui owns and operates four wells at a wastewater treatment plant that processes four million gallons of sewage per day. Treated wastewater is then injected via the County’s wells into the groundwater which flows directly into the Pacific Ocean. Approximately one out of every seven gallons of groundwater entering the ocean near the plant is comprised of effluent from the wells.

Both the District Court and the Ninth Circuit ruled that the wells were point sources, and that the injection of treated wastewater into the groundwater constituted a discharge subject to the permitting requirements of the CWA. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit held that “an indirect discharge from a point source to a navigable water suffices for CWA liability to attach.” The Ninth Circuit adopted a “fairly traceable” test for determining when a discharge via groundwater to navigable water would require a permit. As discussed in my earlier post, the court relied in part on Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanosin support of this conclusion.

The Ninth Circuit expressly left for another day “the task of determining when, if ever, the connection between a point source and a navigable water is too tenuous to support liability under the CWA.”  

The Solicitor General supported the grant of certiorari in Maui (but not in Kinder Morgan) to resolve the split in the circuit courts on whether the CWA covers activities that cause pollutants to be conveyed through groundwater to waters of the United States.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Supreme Court is likely to reverse the Ninth Circuit. However, once the Justices (and their clerks) have had the opportunity to dig into the record, they may find that CWA regulation actually makes sense in this situation. Some of the key facts are these.

  • Maui originally considered an ocean outfall but opted for the less obvious injection wells located within a quarter mile of the shore.
  • A 2013 EPA dye tracer study confirmed that the treated effluent enters the Pacific Ocean at Kahekili Beach - - a popular surfing and snorkeling beach.
  • Monitoring has shown that nutrients, fecal coliform, and other pollutants in the effluent are impacting the reef and exposing the public to potential health risks at Kahekili. EPA studies have confirmed that reef productivity declined 44% over the time the system has been operating, and fecal coliform counts regularly exceed safe levels.
  • EPA Region 9 advised Maui it would need to obtain a discharge permit and communicated that to the Hawaii Department of Health, which failed to take any action. EPA was acting under its 40+ year-old policy that discharges through ground water with a “direct and immediate” hydrologic connection to surface waters (i.e., the ocean) require a permit.

EPA is now reviewing this policy and may well change its position, either by adopting an interpretive rule or issuing guidance in some form. The Agency will no doubt try to complete this process before the Court hears argument in the fall. Should EPA adopt an interpretation that groundwater can never be the “conduit” for conveying pollutants for point sources to waters of the United States, the next question will be whether that new interpretation is entitled to any deference. Given the skepticism that several Justices have shown towards a mechanical application of Chevron, it will be interesting to see how this all “sugars off” as we say in Vermont. 

We may soon get an answer to the question that the 9th Circuit ducked, namely when does the connection between a point source and a navigable water become too tenuous to support CWA liability.

Channeling Scalia: Does the Clean Water Act Regulate Indirect Discharges “to” Navigable Waters Via Groundwater?

Posted on December 11, 2018 by Patrick A. Parenteau

On December 4 the Supreme Court signaled its interest in this question when it requested the views of the Solicitor General on whether to grant review in two pending petitions for certiorari. In County of Maui v. Hawai'i Wildlife Fund, the Ninth Circuit held that wastewater injection wells are point sources requiring NPDES permits because the “pollutants are fairly traceable from the point source to a navigable water such that the discharge is the functional equivalent of a discharge into the navigable water.” In Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP v. Upstate Forever the Fourth Circuit held that gasoline from a ruptured underground pipeline that was seeping into a nearby waterway was subject to the CWA due to a "direct hydrological connection."

By contrast the Sixth Circuit as well as a different panel of the Fourth Circuit have ruled that leachate from coal ash pits that is polluting rivers and lakes is not a “discharge from a point source” requiring a permit under the CWA. Though a majority of the thirty-odd decisions on this issue have found in favor of CWA jurisidiction, there is a definite split among the lower courts as described in a handy chart and accompanying article published by Greenwire. In looking over the decisons it appears that the “conduit” theory, evaluating time and distance between the source of the pollutants and the receiving water, and often supported by a dye test, is perhaps the most defensible methodology for asserting jurisdiction over discharges to “tributary groundwater.”   

Meanwhile EPA is pondering whether to change its longstanding position, reiterated in the Clean Water Rule (aka WOTUS), that the CWA does cover, on a case-by-case basis, point source discharges to groundwater that are directly connected to navigable waters. Back in February EPA published a request for comment in the Federal Register on “whether pollutant discharges from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater or other subsurface flow that has a direct hydrologic connection to the jurisdictional surface water may be subject to CWA regulation.” The comment period closed in May and since then there has been no futher announcement.

The SG’s response is due January 4, which is an unusually short turnaround time that indicates four Justices may be in favor of granting one or both of the petitions in time for argument this term. The SG could cite EPA’s ongoing review with the prospect of a new policy statement or rulemaking as a reason to deny review at this time, but it is unlikley the Court would accede to that. This issue has been kicking around for decades; it has generated a good deal of confusion among the lower courts and conflicting rulings not only among but within the Circuits; it adds to the uncertainty and controversy that plagues the implementation of the CWA; and it has significant economic and environmental implications. Awaiting further word from EPA is unlikely to clarify or resolve any of this. Nor is a re-interpretation of the statute by the current EPA likely to garner much deference from a Court that has shown signs of cutting back on the scope of the Chevron doctrine.

That leaves the question how should the Court resolve the issue. In the Maui case the Ninth Circuit relied fairly heavily on Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanos in which he  recognized the CWA does not forbid the addition of any pollutant directly to navigable waters from any point source, ” but rather the “addition of any pollutant to navigable waters.” (547 U.S. 715, 743 (2006)) Though Rapanos was a splintered decision on many points there was no disagreement with Scalia’s view that the text of the statute clearly encompassed an indirect discharge that simply “washes into” navigable waters. Whether that view prevails this time around is of course unknown.

Any rule this Court would adopt would have to be narrowly tailored to situations where the source of the pollutant was clearly a “discrete conveyance” and the evidence of a direct hydrological connection to navigable water was convincing. But assuming those predicates were proven it would be hard to justify on either scientific or policy grounds excluding such discharges from the ambit of the permit program. Indeed it would create a pollution loophole that no other existing regulatory program --federal or state--would adequately fill.

Kozinski Resignation Complicates Mandamus Ruling in Kids Climate Lawsuit

Posted on December 22, 2017 by Patrick A. Parenteau

In a stunning development, Judge Alex Kozinski announced on Monday December 18 that he was resigning effectively immediately from the Ninth Circuit after multiple former clerks and junior staffers came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

Kozinsky was a member of a three judge panel that had just heard arguments on December 11 in United States v US District Court for the District of Oregon   in which the Trump administration is seeking a writ of mandamus to bar the climate lawsuit filed by 21 youth plaintiffs in Juliana v United States  which is scheduled for trial in February before the federal district court in Oregon.

By way of background, in November 2016, the district court denied motions to dismiss the action, allowing federal public trust and Fifth Amendment due process claims to proceed. After unsuccessfully seeking permission for interlocutory appeal, the United States filed the petition for writ of mandamus under the All Writs Act, arguing that the district court committed clear error in denying the motions to dismiss. The government also argued that the discovery process would be unduly burdensome and would distract senior administration officials like Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry from the more important work of dismantling the regulatory programs adopted by the Obama administration and increasing the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Kozinski, as is his wont, was the most aggressive questioner at oral argument peppering plaintiffs’ counsel with questions regarding standing and justiciability and making it pretty clear how he was going to come down. By contrast, the other members of the panel, Chief Judge Sidney Thomas and Marsha Berzon, focused on the narrower question whether mandamus was the proper remedy at this stage of the case. Both noted that the court had never granted mandamus where there was no conflict over discovery orders. Both noted that the case had become much more manageable with the departure of the industry interveners who had been the major target of discovery requests. Both noted that District Judge Aiken and Magistrate Coffin had narrowed discovery and had pledged to exercise a “firm hand” on the pretrial proceedings. Though each judge expressed reservations about various aspects of the plaintiffs’ claims and standing neither thought those were appropriate grounds for mandamus. Commenting on the unprecedented nature of what the government was seeking Judge Thomas observed: "We would be absolutely flooded with appeals from people who think their case should be dismissed by the district court."  

Kozinski’s resignation throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the proceedings. Judge Thomas must decide whether to replace Kozinski on the panel and schedule a new oral argument or proceed to decide the mandamus issue. If he and Judge Berzon are in agreement that the writ should be denied the simplest solution would be to issue a decision to that effect.

There is precedent for this. In Connecticut v AEP a three judge panel of the Second Circuit heard arguments in a case involving a public nuisance action brought by a number of states against utilities operating coal fired power plants. While the case was pending one member of the panel, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, was nominated to the Supreme Court and had to recuse herself.  The remaining members of the panel proceeded to decide the case in the states’ favor and Judge Peter Hall wrote an exhaustive opinion on standing and political question in the context of climate litigation. Though the Supreme Court ultimately reversed on other grounds the jurisdictional holdings were affirmed by a divided vote. 

The upshot is that there is a good chance we will see the “trial of the century” unfolding sometime next year.  Mr Pruitt may get a chance to try out his “red team, blue team” climate science debate in a real courtroom.

Trump Greenlights Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines, but the Battle is Far From Over

Posted on January 26, 2017 by Patrick A. Parenteau

President Trump wasted no time making good on his promise to reverse President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move U.S. energy policy towards cleaner energy sources.  On January 24 Trump signed two executive memoranda, one inviting TransCanada to resubmit its application to build the 800,000 barrel a day Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast; the other directing the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the review and approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to carry approximately 500,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to oil markets in the United States. But a close reading raises some sticky legal and economic issues that will have to be resolved before the oil starts flowing.  [LINKS to Keystone and DAPL Memos]

In announcing the Keystone Memo, Trump said that approval was contingent on TransCanada’s  willingness to “renegotiate some of the terms” – including perhaps a commitment to use US steel and a share in any profits. The problem is that tar sands oil is not only the dirtiest fuel on the planet, it’s also the most expensive to extract. To be profitable oil prices need to be above $80 per barrel; today they sit around $52, and it is unlikely they will rise much higher in the foreseeable future given the competition from shale oil and the fracking boom that is flooding the market in the US. The break-even point for Bakken shale oil is $29 per barrel. Seventeen major oil sands projects were canceled after oil prices crashed in 2014, as companies took major losses. Major investors in the oil sands have begun to leave, including Norway-based Statoil, which pulled out of the oil sands in December 2016. So cutting a deal to the President’s liking may be harder than it looks.

Assuming the deal goes down, the Keystone Memo issues several directives to clear the way for the project. It directs the State Department to make a final decision within 60 days of the date TransCanada re-submits its application, and it further specifies that “to the maximum extent permitted by law” the final supplemental EIS issued in 2014 shall satisfy the requirements of NEPA as well as the consultation requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and “any other provision of law that requires executive department consultation or review.” The Keystone Memo also directs the Corps of Engineers to use Nationwide Permit 12 to summarily authorize the stream crossings needed to complete the project. These fast track measures are sure to be tested in court by the opponents who are not about to let their hard won victory be snatched away without a furious fight—in the courts as well as in the streets. While courts have ruled that the presidential permit itself is not reviewable, there is presumably no bar to challenging the decisions of the Corps and the Department of Interior that are necessary to complete the project.

The DAPL Memo directs the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of the Corps of Engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL, including easements or rights-of-way to cross Federal areas under section 28 of the Mineral Leasing Act.” The Memo also instructs the Secretary to consider whether to rescind the memorandum issued by the Obama administration requiring preparation of an EIS on DAPL’s   request for an easement to cross Lake Oahe, and to deem the previously-issued Environmental Assessment sufficient to satisfy NEPA.

The Standing Rock protest over DAPL has become an historic confrontation that has united an Indigenous land-and-water movement and climate activism to confront a fossil-fuel corporation protected by a militarized police force.  At one point in December thousands of veterans arrived to provide a safe space for the protesters who call themselves “water protectors.” Litigation filed by the Standing Rock Tribe and other tribes challenging the Corps’ issuance of permits under the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act is pending in federal district court in the District of Columbia.  Judge Boasberg denied a preliminary injunction but has yet to rule on the merits of the case. At the moment, the court is considering DAPL’s motion for summary judgment to declare that the project already has all of the approvals it needs and the Corps should not be able to reverse its earlier decision that an EIS was not required. Though the Justice Department has vigorously opposed this move, it will be interesting to see whether the Trump administration adopts a different posture. In any event, the Tribe has raised serious questions about whether the Corps properly evaluated threats to its water supply intake and alternative routes that would lessen the risk. One of the allegations invokes environmental justice concerns arguing that the project was re-routed away from Bismarck in response to concerns about threats to its water supply. The Tribe has also raised novel questions about whether granting the easement would violate treaty rights under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

At the hearing on DAPL’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Boasberg acknowledged the uncertainty about what the new administration might do but observed that “It’s not my business to guess.” For now the rest of us will have to guess at what the final outcome of this epic confrontation that has galvanized indigenous peoples from all over the world will be.

Sending a Message on WOTUS?

Posted on June 2, 2016 by Patrick A. Parenteau

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

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

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

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

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

Sackett Redux?

Posted on December 17, 2015 by Patrick A. Parenteau

As Annette Kovar recently predicted in her blog, the Supreme Court granted cert in United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Construction., Inc. (15-290) to resolve a split in the circuit courts on the question whether a jurisdictional determination (JD) under the Clean Water Act constitutes “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in a court" and is therefore subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act.

In Hawkes , the Eighth Circuit held that the JD was a final agency action subject to the APA. The case arose after a company sought to mine peat from wetland property owned by two affiliated companies in northwestern Minnesota. The Corps’ JD found that the wetlands onsite were "waters of the United States" and were therefore subject to the permit requirements of section 404 of the CWA. This decision runs counter to the Fifth Circuit decision in Belle Co., LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs.

Both courts evaluated the reviewability of JD’s in light of Sackett v. EPA, which held that property owners may bring a civil action under the APA to challenge EPA's issuance of a CWA §309 compliance order directing them to restore their property immediately pursuant to an EPA work plan and assessing penalties of $37, 500 per day for failure to comply. The Fifth Circuit in Belle declined to apply Sackett on the ground that a JD does not have the same legal consequences as a 309 compliance order. The Eighth Circuit disagreed and held that a JD presents landowners with a Hobson’s choice requiring them “either to incur substantial compliance costs (the permitting process), forego what they assert is lawful use of their property, or risk substantial enforcement penalties.”  

In my view the Fifth Circuit has the better reading of Sackett and the governing law on what constitutes final agency action. The Supreme Court uses a two prong test to determine finality:  first the action must “mark the consummation of the agency’s decision making process;” and second “the action “must be one by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.” Bennett v. Spear There is no question that a JD satisfies the first prong. But a JD does not meet the second prong for at least three reasons. First, a JD does not determine the rights and obligations of the landowner for the simple reason that the statute has already done that. Section 301 of the CWA prohibits any discharge by any person to a water of the US without a permit.   The landowner’s legal obligations are exactly the same with or without the JD. 

Second, unlike the compliance order in Sackett, a JD does not compel the landowner to take any action at all. Nor does it expose the landowner to penalties, let alone the double penalties at issue in Sackett. The JD notifies the landowner that a permit may be required for discharging dredge or fill material into the wetland unless one of the statutory exclusions such as prior converted cropland apply.  However as the Fifth Circuit said, “even if Belle had never requested the JD and instead had begun to fill, it would not have been immune to enforcement action by the Corps or EPA.” 

Third, the Eighth Circuit was simply wrong to equate the practical consequences of a JD putting the landowner on notice that a permit was required with Bennett’s requirement that the action must have legal consequences. In Bennett the action at issue was a biological opinion issued under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. The Court found that under the ESA “the Biological Opinion at issue here has direct and appreciable legal consequences;” namely, that it curtailed the authority of the Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for irrigators from federal reservoirs in order to protect endangered fish. Nothing remotely similar to that follows from the issuance of a JD.

Finally the Court ought to be leery of broadening the reach of the APA to include actions having practical effects but not actual legal consequences. That could sweep in a large number of federal actions that have never been thought of as justiciable controversies—for example notices of violations which arguably trigger even more immediate and serious consequences than JD’s. Regulated entities are not the only ones who might benefit from a relaxation of the APA’s finality requirement. Environmental plaintiffs would gain increased access to the courts as well.