Not So Fast! Oregon DEQ Objects to EPA’s Draft NPDES Permits for Lower Columbia River Dams

Posted on May 21, 2020 by Rick Glick

On May 15, 2020, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) submitted a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) in which it objected to EPA’s draft water quality discharge permits (“NPDES permits”) relating to four federal dams on the Lower Columbia River. The dams in question are Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day, and McNary. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (“USACE”) operates the dams, which are key elements of the Federal Columbia River Power System (“FCRPS”).

Section 402 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) requires a NPDES permit for discharges of pollutants from “point sources.” A point source is a defined conveyance for direct discharges of pollutants, like a pipe. Courts have considered dams to be nonpoint sources that do not require permits, as dams typically do not add pollutants, but merely pass upstream pollutants through their spillways. However, dams with hydroelectric facilities often discharge oily waste from onsite transformers, which could include PCBs.

On that basis, EPA has determined that each of the four Lower Columbia dams require a NPDES permit to cover the direct discharges resulting from power operations. EPA specifically did not address indirect discharges through the spillways or turbines.

Section 401(a)(2) requires that EPA notify states whose water quality may be affected by the permits, including Oregon. In its letter, DEQ notes that although the NPDES permits do not address pass-through pollutants, section 401 allows DEQ to consider potential violations of any water quality parameter resulting from total dam operations. DEQ therefore objects to the permits and requests imposition of certain conditions to meet numeric and narrative temperature criteria, total dissolved gas (“TDG”) levels, biocriteria, and toxics substances criteria.

For temperature, DEQ would require a temperature management plan with adaptive management elements to address a yet-to-be-developed Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”). As expected, on May 18, EPA initiated the process for establishing a TMDL for temperature in the Columbia and Lower Snake Rivers. We will be tracking this process and reporting in future posts.

For total dissolved gas, DEQ requests that EPA require the USACE to implement additional monitoring measures to increase compliance with the existing TDG TMDL through adaptive management. With regard to biocriteria, DEQ is asking USACE to allow the use of best technology available (“BTA”) or Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (“ODFW”) recommended technology to reduce fish entrainment and impingement. If the technology implemented does not reduce impingement, USACE would be required to develop an adaptive management plan and submit it to DEQ for approval. Finally, DEQ would require additional measures to reduce PCB discharges from each project to ensure compliance with Oregon toxics substances criteria.

DEQ’s objection letter is the latest development in a long-running dispute involving the effects of FCRPS operations on salmonid species listed under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). Oregon is an intervenor plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the National Wildlife Federation alleging that the 2014 Biological Opinion, and later iterations, violated the ESA.

Under the Clean Water Act, EPA will now be required to hold a hearing to address DEQ’s objections and requests. By extending its section 401 authority to the FCRPS saga, DEQ has raised the bar for the seemingly endless tension between the benefits and consequences of this massive public power system, which was established in an era preceding our organic conservation statutes. It has been a bumpy ride and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

EPA’s War on Science

Posted on May 6, 2020 by Robert B. McKinstry, Jr.

Since its creation under President Nixon five decades ago, EPA has, for the most part, been an independent agency utilizing the best science available, even where the science led it to policy results contrary to the predilections of the party in power – that is until the Trump Administration.  Two recent actions by the Trump EPA, one final and the other proposed, exemplify the sad and stark departure by the Agency from this prior practice.

An example of the agency’s prior practice is the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued following the Bush Administration’s defeat in Massachusetts v. EPA.  In that case, the agency staff drafted a lengthy and well-reasoned analysis indicating how greenhouse gases might be regulated under the Clean Air Act governed by the law and science.  The Bush Administration published that analysis, prefacing it with a number of letters by appointed officials presenting alternative views consistent with the Administration position rejected by the Supreme Court - - but the Agency’s well-reasoned analysis constituting the bulk of the notice was nevertheless published.

As noted, two recent actions by the Trump EPA represent a departure from this science-driven regulatory approach; they also share the distinction of being roundly condemned by EPA’s Science Advisory Board and the relevant scientific community.  Both have the transparent objective of preventing the adoption of regulations whose health benefits clearly outweigh their costs.  The two actions are: (1) the final rule reversing the necessary and appropriate finding underlying the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule (“MATS”), National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants: Coal- and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units—Reconsideration of Supplemental Finding and Residual Risk and Technology Review, Docket No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2018-0794 (“Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding”); and (2) the proposal cynically entitled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, 83 Fed. Reg. 18768 (Apr. 30, 2018); Supplemental Notice, 85 Fed. Reg. 15396 (Apr. 17, 2020), Supplemental Notice, 85 Fed. Reg.21340 (Apr. 17, 2020) (extending comment period to May 18, 2020), proposing 40 C.F.R. pt. 30 (“Transparency Proposal”). 

Over the unanimous objection of the regulated industry and environmental groups, the Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding reversed the Obama EPA’s finding that it was necessary and appropriate to regulate hazardous air pollutant emissions from the utility industry under section 112 of the Clean Air Act.  The finding that was reversed was made by the Obama EMA on remand from the Supreme Court’s decision in Michigan v. EPA, holding that EPA needed to consider cost in making a necessary and appropriate finding.  On remand, the Obama Administration EPA considered cost in several ways and renewed its finding that it was necessary and appropriate to regulate hazardous air emissions from the utility industry. 

After the change of administrations, the Trump EPA decided to revisit the necessary and appropriate finding and, in its Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding, found that it was not necessary and appropriate to regulated hazardous air pollutant emissions from the utility industry (this was the fourth flip over four administrations on this issue).  The Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding ostensibly left the substantive requirements of the MATS rule in place.  Indeed, the utility industry had already complied with those substantive requirements by either closing plants or installing control equipment. However, under the Clean Air Act, a necessary and appropriate finding is a prerequisite to regulating hazardous air pollutants from the utility industry.  EPA’s reversal of the finding therefore has the potential to increase its chance of success in the on-going challenges to the MATS rule.  Reversal of the rule could undermine the ability of regulated utilities to recover sunk capital costs.

In issuing the Revised Finding, EPA decided not to consider “co-benefits.” The vast majority of the monetized benefits arising from regulating air toxics from the utility industry arise from the fact that most of the toxic acid gases and fine particulates are a mixture of listed hazardous air pollutants and conventional pollutants.  It is, therefore, impossible in epidemiological surveys in most cases to segregate the impacts of the components that are listed hazardous pollutants from the impacts of the components that are conventional pollutants.  Moreover, the same pollution control equipment that removes the hazardous air pollutants will also remove the conventional air pollutants.  Thus, for example, hazardous hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid and hydrocyanic acid all form acid aerosols having the same impact on the lungs as the nitric, nitrous, sulfuric and sulfurous acid aerosols formed from “conventional” NOx and SOx air pollutants; and the same treatment technologies will remove hazardous and “conventional” acid gases.  For that reason, the direct health benefits of controlling these pollutants are labeled as co-benefits, and, according to economists, can also be considered negative costs. 

In the Revised Finding, EPA, contrary to the recommendations of the Science Advisory Board, would exclude these benefits/negative costs, as well as non-monetized benefits, from its consideration.  Instead, EPA would consider only costs to benefits relating to control of a hazardous air pollutant whose impacts can be segregated from other pollutants that are not listed as hazardous and can be monetized.   

Because EPA did not reverse the requirements of the MATS rule, the only apparent reason for proceeding with the revised finding appears to be an intent to advance a rule for the consideration of costs that will make it more difficult to regulate pollutants in the future.  Most pollutants have a variety of impacts, are emitted into the atmosphere as a mixture of pollutants, mix with other pollutants in the environment, and have impacts on receptors that cannot be segregated.  For example, most of us have observed the blue skies and clear air resulting from the reduction in automobile, truck, and air traffic as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.  Under the rationale underlying the Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding, proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from these sources could not consider the many health, environmental and welfare benefits arising from reductions in NOx and fine particulates.  While perhaps that is the underlying intent, the rationale could also be extended to water pollution, hazardous and solid waste, and other regulations in the future.

The Transparency Proposal might seem to be a proposal that would promote sound science and good government procedure; it provides:

…when EPA develops regulations, including regulations for which the public is likely to bear the cost of compliance, with regard to those scientific studies that are pivotal to the action being taken, EPA should ensure that the data underlying those are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.

83 Fed. Reg. 18768.  In fact, the proposed regulation is an all too transparent attempt to preclude reliance on results that are crucial for the promulgation of regulations to protect health and the environment, even where those results have met the rigorous requirements of scientific peer review.

Most notably the proposal applies specifically to “dose response data and models” supporting a regulation, requiring that they be “publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation. . . in a fashion that is consistent with law, protects privacy, confidentiality, confidential business information, and is sensitive to national and homeland security.  40 C.F.R. § 30.5, proposed 83 Fed. Reg; 18773.  In fact, this qualification makes most data and studies critical to support regulations out of reach for agency reliance.  The underlying data in human health studies is invariably private information that, by the words of the proposal, would be unavailable, for example, many dose response animal studies are business confidential.  Additionally, most models upon which EPA relies are proprietary and are available only for a significant price.  The proposal would also seemingly preclude reliance upon metadata and review articles appearing in peer reviewed publications, since the proposal would require that the underlying data be available. 

In recognition of these fatal flaws, the proposal has been criticized by EPA’s Science Advisory Board and major scientific organizations.  Moreover, there has not been a showing of any need for the proposed regulation.  The only reasonable conclusion is that this proposed regulation, like the Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding, is an effort to promote the Trump Administration’s anti-regulatory agenda contrary to the dictates of sound science, in short, a war against science.  There is still an opportunity to comment.  The comment period has been extended to May 18, 2020.

SCOTUS Has Spoken: Kinda Sorta Direct Discharges Need A Permit

Posted on May 1, 2020 by Theodore Garrett

On April 23 the Supreme Court announced its decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund (No. 18-260), which addressed the fundamental issue of what is a discharge to navigable waters requiring a permit under the Clean Water Act.  The case arose in the context of the County’s discharges of wastewater to wells that traveled through groundwater to the Pacific Ocean.  Justice Breyer’s opinion for the Court held that a permit is needed when there is the “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge.

The Court’s opinion in Maui reflects an effort to find a “middle ground” that avoids the consequences of an overly broad or overly narrow interpretation of the statute.  But what is a “functional equivalent”?  It’s kinda sorta like a direct discharge.  Its meaning will evolve as applied in particular cases or, as characterized thusly in Justice Alito’s dissent: “That’s your problem. Muddle through as best you can.”  But muddling through is problematic because affected industrial and municipal dischargers, subject to enforcement, need to know whether or not they need Clean Water Act permits.  Unless or until more guidance is provided by EPA, the lower courts or Congress, affected parties will be left to wrestle with the Court’s new “functional equivalent” standard. 

The majority felt compelled to reach a “middle ground” because it found other positions too extreme.  The court rejected the view of the County and the Solicitor General (as amicus) that discharges through groundwater should be excluded, stating that it would open a loophole allowing easy evasion of the statutory provision’s basic purposes (for example by locating a pipe a few yards from a surface water) and was not reasonable in light of the statute’s inclusion of “wells” in the “point source” definition.  The Court also was not satisfied with the Ninth Circuit’s “fairly traceable” criterion, concluding that it might require permits in unexpected circumstances not readily foreseen, such as discharges that reach navigable waters many years after their release and in highly diluted forms. 

So when is a discharge “functionally equivalent”?  Justice Breyer’s opinion states that time and distance will likely be the most important factors in most cases, but other relevant factors may include the nature of the material through which the pollutant travels and the extent to which the pollutant is diluted or chemically changed as it travels. How much time?  How far?  What underground material or dilution might defeat a permit requirement?  The Court is not in a position to say because “there are too many potentially relevant factors applicable to factually different cases for this Court now to use more specific language.” 

Where does that leave us?  The lower courts will need to wrestle with this issue and “provide additional guidance through decisions in individual cases” Justice Bryer states, referring to the “traditional common-law method" as useful even in an era of statutes.  In the meantime, affected parties face uncertainty. 

In a dissent, Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Gorsuch) concludes that the statute excludes anything other than a direct discharge.  Justice Thomas also states that the Court’s opinion “gives almost no guidance, save for a list of seven factors” but does not “commit to whether those factors are the only relevant ones, whether those factors are always relevant, or which factors are the most important.”  Justice Alito also dissented, stating that the Court “makes up a rule that provides no clear guidance and invites arbitrary and inconsistent application.”

One cannot be sanguine that Congress will address this issue.  Interested parties will thus need to monitor how the lower courts and EPA apply the Supreme Court’s new “functional equivalent” standard.

County of Maui Decided: Groundwater Discharges Require Permit . . . Sometimes

Posted on April 27, 2020 by Rick Glick

On April 23, in a 6-3 opinion, the U. S. Supreme Court decided one of the more closely followed environmental disputes of recent years.  In County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the issue was whether injecting municipal sewage effluent into groundwater, which then travels about half a mile before discharging to the ocean, requires a permit under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The Court found that it did.

The purpose of the CWA is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”  The principal tool for achieving this lofty goal is a permit system for discharges from “point sources”, meaning a “discrete conveyance.”  The most obvious example of a regulated discharge is that from the end of a pipe directly to a navigable waterway.  In the Maui case, the discharge passed through groundwater before entering the ocean, but data showed the ocean discharge contained the same pollutants as were pumped underground. 

Is such a discharge “from” the point source, i.e. municipal treatment plant, or from the groundwater?  Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer announced a new test for deciding such a case.  A permit is required for a point source discharge or the “functional equivalent.”  That is, a direct discharge and a discharge through groundwater are functionally equivalent when “the discharge reaches the same result through roughly similar means.”  He likened the situation to a recipe that calls for adding drippings from the meat into the gravy; no one would question that “from” in that context includes conveyance through a pan or cutting board. 

The majority rejected arguments from the County, EPA and Justices Alito and Thomas in dissenting opinions, that there should be a bright line test—no discharges through groundwater should ever be subject to federal regulation.  Justice Breyer reasoned that approach would create gaping “loopholes” that would prevent attainment of the CWA’s conservation goals.  For example, a facility could terminate a discharge pipe on the beach a few feet from the navigable receiving water, and then maintain that a permit is not necessary because the pollutants came from the soils between the pipe and waterway. 

Justice Breyer acknowledged that functional equivalence will not always be easy to discern, as groundwater always eventually finds its way to navigable waters.  There will be times when the presence of pollutants in navigable waters is too attenuated from the discharge to justify a permit.  In Maui’s situation, the injected pollutants had to travel about half a mile to the ocean.  What if they had to travel 250 miles and did not emerge in the receiving waters for 100 years?  The majority is content to allow future courts and agencies to refine the new test.

This decision, and the unwillingness to adopt an easy to apply test, reflects a recognition by the Court of the complexities that underlie jurisdictional determinations under the CWA.  As noted here, the Trump Administration’s attempt at rewriting the definition of “waters of the United States,” which is the basis for CWA jurisdiction, goes the other direction.  The proposed WOTUS rule seeks to establish a simple definition based on observable, running water.  In doing so it follows Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in the Rapanos case and rejects Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test.  The latter is nuanced and involves professional judgment about the interconnectedness of natural systems.  The Maui Court’s “functional equivalent” test is of a kind with “significant nexus” in its focus on achieving the purpose of the CWA.

While the Court’s decision is sensible and promotes science-based jurisdictional determinations, it leaves a great deal of uncertainty in place.  The Court expects, and we can too, that there will be many cases and administrative processes considering when discharges to groundwater require permits.

The Supreme Court’s Decision in County of Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund – The Answer to the Yes or No Question is Maybe

Posted on April 24, 2020 by Jeffrey Porter

The United States Supreme Court’s April 23 decision in County of Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-260_i4dk.pdf) proves that legislating is best done by the Congress, not the Courts.   The Court’s decision also tells us that the era of judicial deference to EPA that began in the mid-1980s seems to be coming to an end.

The Supreme Court was asked a yes or no question with huge ramifications for state authorities and millions of property owners:  does a discharge to groundwater require a permit under the Federal Clean Water Act?   The Supreme Court’s answer to this yes or no question is a muddled maybe, the Court concluding that EPA’s answer to the same question – an unequivocal “no” – was “neither persuasive, nor reasonable.”  

More specifically, the Supreme Court’s holding is that a Federal permit is required when a discharge to groundwater is the “functional equivalent” of a discharge from a point source directly into a navigable water.

How are the millions of people responsible for discharges to groundwater, including the owners of every septic system in the United States, supposed to determine whether their particular discharge is the “functional equivalent of a direct discharge”? 

Well, according to the Supreme Court, “many factors may be relevant” with “time [for the discharged pollutants to get to a navigable water]” and “distance” being “the most important in most cases.”   

The Supreme Court offers us no more guidance on “functional equivalency,” instead looking forward to lower courts putting additional meat on the very brittle “functional equivalent” bone through decisions in future cases, months and years down the road.  

In an apparent attempt to calm the millions who don’t currently have a Federal permit that the Federal Government has said they don’t need, the Court shares its expectation that “district judges will exercise their discretion mindful, as we are, of the complexities inherent in the context of indirect discharges through groundwater, so as to calibrate the Act’s penalties when, for example, a party could reasonably have thought that a permit was not required.”

The Court doesn’t tell us how “indirect dischargers” are to pay the staggering legal fees to get to the end of these future cases, nor does it explain how we can have come to a place where the Federal law is so “complex” that one can’t know whether the law applies to them without litigation.

While the Court suggests that EPA and the States might lend a helping hand through future regulations and general permits, given the Court’s lack of deference to Agency decision-making, one wonders why they would bother.

For over thirty years our Federal Courts, including the Supreme Court, have struggled to determine the scope of the Clean Water Act.   The Maui case is the fourth time the Supreme Court has grappled with this question.

In the meantime, Republican and Democrat Presidential Administrations promulgate regulations expanding and contracting the scope of the Clean Water Act.   These efforts invariably result in still more litigation and more uncertainty.

The only way out of this labyrinth is for Congress to answer the question once and for all.  This will involve environmental activists getting less Clean Water Act coverage than they want and industry and municipalities settling for more coverage than they would prefer.   But we all deserve the unambiguous answer to the question the Supreme Court refused to provide in Maui.

Modern Day Alchemy: New Help for Treating Acid Mine Drainage

Posted on March 11, 2020 by Robert Uram

Two promising new technologies—recovery of rare earths from acid mine drainage (AMD and conversion of AMD treatment by-products to paint pigments are bringing new hope to remediating AMD polluted streams. These technologies are a kind of modern day alchemy—restoring streams that are orange and lifeless by turning pollution into economically valuable products and creating new jobs for local economies. The development of economically viable treatment processes is a game changer for AMD treatment with potentially huge benefits for national security, local economies, and restoration of the health of thousands of miles of now lifeless streams.

Rare Earth Recovery

West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute director, Paul Ziemkiewicz, PhD, has been at the forefront of researching AMD issues and developing AMD remediation techniques for decades. Dr. Ziemkewicz has developed a process that can extract rare earths from AMD.  As explained more fully in Rare Earths Funded, last fall he received a 5 million dollar grant from the Department of Energy to build a pilot plant in conjunction with the WVDEP that will extract rare earths while treating 500 gallons of AMD per minute. Dr. Ziemkewicz estimates that AMD flows could be the source of as much as 2200 tons of rare earths a year.

Rare earths are a critical component in many products including cell phones.  Rare Earths Funded explains that, “Rare earth metals consist of the 17 chemically similar elements at the bottom of the periodic table, such as cerium and scandium. Despite their name, they're not "rare" because they're often found in other minerals, within the earth's crust or, in this case, in coal and coal byproducts.” Most of the 20,000 tons of rare earths we use are imported, mainly from China. The initial plant will be located on Abrams Creek, a tributary to the North Branch of the Potomac River and will benefit at least 17 miles of stream.

Paint Pigments

Rural Action is a watershed organization that has been involved in restoring AMD damaged streams since 1991. Recently, they have partnered with Ohio University Professor Guy Riefler, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to develop a process that transforms iron from AMD into marketable paint pigments in a process called True Pigments, https://www.ohio.edu/news/2019/12/acid-mine-drainage-cleanup-plant-moves-closer-full-scale-thanks-3-5m-award. They have received a 3.5 million dollar grant from the OSMRE to partially fund the development of a treatment plant. The initial plant will treat a large discharge in the Sunday Creek watershed in Athens County, Ohio, that pollutes a seven-mile stretch of Sunday Creek with 2.2 million pounds of iron each year.

The True Pigments process treats polluted water, removing iron oxide, to yield a commercial grade of iron pigment, which can be used in paint production. The United States uses about 224,000 tons of paint pigment each year, most of which is imported from China.  The first True Pigments plant is anticipated to meet one percent of that supply.  Rural Action is still seeking an additional four million dollars needed to build the treatment facility.

In the past 25 years, with the active support of dozens of watershed groups like Rural Action and Friends of the Cheat River in West Virginia and state and federal agencies, hundreds of projects have been implemented and many hundred miles of AMD-polluted streams have been brought back to life. Formerly dead streams are now brimming with fish and other aquatic species. Local communities have the benefit of clean water.

The bulk of the funding for these restoration projects has come in the form of grants to State Abandoned Mine land programs from Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act’s Abandoned Mined Land Fund and from EPA’s Clean Water Act Section 319 grant program. These funding sources are simply insufficient to address the vast scope of AMD problems (which are only a part of the overall need to address the health and safety and other environmental effects from abandoned coal mines).  In addition, new revenue to the Abandoned Mined Land fund is currently scheduled to expire in 2021.

The rare earth and True Pigment processes can help address the funding shortage by providing an additional, independent source of funding for AMD remediation. They will be important tools in the decades to come as the battle continues to restore more than 7000 miles of streams polluted by AMD from abandoned coal mines continues in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama.

Little Bear Run, Pennsylvania (Before and after Treatment)

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And So It Goes, New WOTUS Rule Final

Posted on January 24, 2020 by Rick Glick

The EPA today announced that the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, jointly proposed by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in June 2019, is now final.  The new rule replaces the 2015 Obama Administration’s rule, which EPA and the Corps rescinded last October. 

The Clean Water Act confers federal jurisdiction over “navigable” waters, defined in the Act as “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.”  Congress left it to the agencies and courts to add meat to this skeletal definition. As it turns out, that has been no easy task. 

The agencies have tried multiple times to bring clarity to the scope of CWA jurisdiction, resulting in an enormous body of litigation and a few Supreme Court cases.  These cases culminated in the 2006 ruling in Rapanos v. U.S., in which a divided Supreme Court agreed that the government had overreached, but could not agree as to how.  Justice Scalia, writing for the plurality, would have limited jurisdiction to running waters and adjacent wetlands.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy instead would have conferred jurisdiction where there is a “significant nexus” to a navigable water.

The subsequent 2015 rule adopted the Kennedy approach, whereas the new 2020 rule follows Scalia.  As reported here, the new rules are not likely to implement the lofty goals of the CWA, to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”  That is the conclusion of EPA’s own Science Advisory Board:

At the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) meeting on June 5-6, 2019, the SAB discussed the scientific and technical underpinnings of the proposed WOTUS rule and concluded that aspects of the proposed rule are in conflict with established science, the existing WOTUS rule developed based on the established science, and the objectives of the Clean Water Act.

Several states and environmental organizations have announced their intent to challenge the rule’s disregard for what is known about the interconnectedness of wetlands and running waters.  As quoted in the New York Times coverage of the new rule, ACOEL’s own Patrick Parenteau concisely summarized the case:  “The legal standing all has to do with whether you have a rational basis for what you’re doing. And when you have experts saying you’re not adhering to the science, that’s not rational, it’s arbitrary.”

Lawyers advising clients as to the reach of CWA jurisdiction can only recommend caution.  We will not have clarity on the scope of WOTUS any time soon.

Whiskey In The Punch Bowl At SCOTUS: What’s The Point (Source)?

Posted on December 18, 2019 by Theodore Garrett

If you have wondered if confusion over the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act may drive one to drink, read the transcript in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, SCOTUS No 18-260, argued on November 6, 2019. 

The issue in Maui is whether a NPDES permit is required for the discharge of pollutants from injection wells that reach the ocean by migrating through groundwater.  The district court and court of appeals held that a permit is required.  The issue has potentially important ramifications for affected parties who discharge pollutants that may eventually migrate to waters of the United States (WOTUS), and interested parties will await the Supreme Court’s decision in Maui to see if it offers a workable solution.

Both sides seem to agree that the relevant question is whether there is a discharge from a point source to WOTUS.  The Solicitor General, perhaps in an early holiday mood, offered a punchbowl analogy: “For example, if at my home I pour whiskey from a bottle into a flask and then I bring the flask to a party at a different location and I pour whiskey into the punch bowl there, nobody would say that I had added whiskey to the punch from the bottle.”  Under this approach, where a pipe discharges to land or groundwater, one would not need a NPDES permit because the discharge was not from a point source to WOTUS. 

Not to be outdone on the analogy front, the Wildlife Fund’s lawyer took the Court shopping for groceries.  “When you buy groceries, you say they came from the store, not from your car, even though that's the last place they were before they entered your house.”  In the same vein, he argued, pollutants in the ocean that came from the county’s injection wells thus require a permit.

The Justices’ comments reflected difficulty in distinguishing discharges requiring a permit and those that do not.  Perhaps tough analogies make for tough decisions.

With respect to the Wildlife Fund’s position, Justice Alito offered the example of “an ordinary family out in the country that has a septic tank, and they buy it from somebody who installs them and they get the building permit that's required by that rural municipality.” What if they discover years later that pollutants are leaking out of the septic tank and migrating to waters of the United States.  Would they be violating the Clean Water Act for lack of a permit?  The Fund’s lawyer, apparently struggling, said that if the homeowner would have no reason to believe the pollutants from the septic tank would get to navigable waters, “they wouldn't be held liable.”  When that didn’t seem to get traction, he moved to the concept of traceability.  But noting that “water does run downhill,” Justice Breyer said that “traceability and causation don't quite seem to do it, “asking plaintiff’s counsel if he had “any sort of fall-back” position “that would cure my worry.”  Justice Gorsuch posited hypothetically that discharges from a septic tank are foreseeable and will end up in waters of the United States: “what limiting principle do you have to offer the Court?”  Justice Alito added that the term "from" could be read very broadly to cover a discharge “ by some means, no matter how remote” that reaches WOTUS: “So what concerns me is whether there is any limiting principle that can be found in the text and is workable and does not lead to absurd results.”

The Justices also had problems with the county’s position. Justice Breyer expressed concern with preventing evasion, asking what would happen if one decided to end a pipe a few feet from a river or the ocean.  “Now you know perfectly well that it'll drip down into the ground and it'll be carried out into the navigable water.”  In that case,  Justice Beyer said, “what we have is, I take it, an absolute road map for people who want to avoid the point source regulation.” The county argues that such discharges should be regulated under state groundwater programs.  But Justice Sotomayor found that to be a problem: “Because it presumes the state will regulate, and some states don't.”  Later on, she asked rhetorically: “Why are you doing what you're doing? This is fairly traceable to you in large quantities. The state didn't control you.”  Justice Kagan said that the question isn’t whether there is a back stop, but rather whether the statute requires a permit: “So, here, it's from a point source, which is the well, and it's to navigable waters, which is the ocean, and it's an addition.  How does this statute not apply?”

The Court will discuss these issues in conference and issue its decision in due course.  One might posit that a hydrologic connection should be dispositive, but in Rapanos, the Court split 4-4-1 on the issue of the scope of WOTUS, and the composition of the court has changed since then.  And in the Sackett case, where the plaintiffs prevailed 9-0, the plaintiffs complained of uncertainty whether they needed a permit, a factor which might be of concern to some Justices in the present case.  Will there be a majority opinion for the Court containing a workable “limiting principle?”  Stay tuned.

ORSANCO ADDS FLEXIBILITY TO OHIO RIVER WATER QUALITY PROGRAM

Posted on November 26, 2019 by David Flannery

In an earlier blog, I raised the question of “When Should A Regulatory Program Be Eliminated”. After a four-year effort, three public comment periods, four hearings and six webinars, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO – the interstate compact that regulates the water quality of the Ohio River) acted in June 2019 to answer this question. ORSANCO did so by revising its Pollution Control Standards to make it clear that while its Ohio River numerical water quality criteria would remain in place, the designated use for the Ohio River established by the ORSANCO Compact would be the primary mechanism by which ORSANCO would protect the quality of the Ohio River. 

In explaining the significance of its decision to leave its numerical water quality criteria on-the-books, ORSANCO offered the following sentence making it clear that its standards were to be considered by member states but were not mandatory:

The standards were adopted by the Commission for use or consideration by signatory States as they develop and implement their programs to assure that those designated uses and other goals regarding pollution control and prevention set forth in the Compact will be achieved. Emphasis added.

At its meeting in October 2019, ORSANCO adopted the process by which it would assess the consistency of the state-issued NPDES permits with its revised Pollution Control Standards.  Under that review process, ORSANCO’s staff will review the conditions on permits issued by member states and will compare those permit conditions to what they would have been had the ORSANCO numerical water quality criteria been applied.  If the state-issued permit contains any less stringent conditions, the state will be given the opportunity to explain how the terms of its permit would protect the designated uses of the Ohio River established by its Compact.

In short, while the ORSANCO numerical water quality criteria will continue to be available for “consideration” by States, the only mandatory duty imposed on the member states is the issuance of permits that are protective of the designated uses that the ORSANCO Compact has assigned to the Ohio River. 

Twenty Years of Waterkeeper Alliance: How the Waterkeeper Movement Shaped and Was Shaped by U.S. Environmental Law

Posted on August 6, 2019 by Karl Coplan

In the late 1980s, when I was an associate at the environmental boutique law firm of Berle, Kass, and Case in New York City, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and John Cronin came to visit the firm to discuss a new project they had started with sportswriter and Hudson River environmentalist Bob Boyle. Boyle wanted to take the British estate tradition of having a streamkeeper to protect streams from poachers and expand it to the entire estuary. Boyle’s organization, the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, had designated Cronin as the Riverkeeper for the Hudson River estuary, patrolling it for polluters and other modern-day river poachers. Thus was born the idea of having Waterkeepers – individuals acting as non-governmental environmental monitors and enforcers, supported by local, waterbody-based grassroots organizations. The Waterkeeper idea caught on – programs were started in San Francisco, Atlanta and Portland, Maine at about the same time.  And in 1999, the fledgling Waterkeepers formed an alliance to spread the Waterkeeper model and support the growing network of Waterkeeper organizations.

As Waterkeeper Alliance celebrates its twentieth anniversary, it is worth reflecting on how the movement has both shaped, and been shaped by, U.S. environmental law. In a way, the Waterkeeper movement was a natural outgrowth of mid-20th century developments in the law of judicial standing and the Congressional innovation of the environmental citizen suit. By mid-century, the Supreme Court recognized the role of public interest intervenors in agency proceedings, describing these participants as “private attorneys general.” The Riverkeeper concept sought to take this “private attorney general” idea literally and have non-governmental water monitors enforce the environmental laws.

Standing for private law enforcement was a potential hurdle, and the Storm King case on the Hudson River proved pivotal to opening up environmental enforcement standing to non-governmental plaintiffs. Bob Boyle wrote a Sports Illustrated article about the proposed Storm King pumped storage hydroelectric facility and the devastating impact it would have on the Hudson River striped bass fishery. This story led to the 1965 Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission case in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly recognized judicial standing based on non-economic recreational, environmental, and aesthetic harms.  A year later, Boyle founded the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, the predecessor organization to Riverkeeper.

The Supreme Court went on to adopt the Scenic Hudson standard for environmental standing in Sierra Club v Morton, but with an important limitation: organizational plaintiffs would have to show that some individual member of the organization personally suffered one of these environmental, recreational, or aesthetic injuries. This holding set the stage for the growth of waterbody-based grass roots membership organizations litigating to protect their waters from pollution – exactly what became the Waterkeeper model. And in the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments Congress gave such groups something to enforce and the means to enforce it, with strict permitting requirements for point source discharges, numeric permit limits, monitoring requirements, and, most importantly, specific authorization for citizen suits. Congress thus gave life to Waterkeepers as enforcers. In 1983, John Cronin became the Hudson Riverkeeper and started patrolling the river looking for cases to bring as a private attorney general.

While many of the early Clean Water Act citizen suits of the 1980s were brought by Natural Resources Defense Council, as the Riverkeepers, Baykeepers, and Soundkeepers popped up across the country, their influence on the development of US environmental law grew. The grass-roots membership model based on recreational use of rivers, lakes, sounds, and bays was a natural fit with environmental standing requirements. Not surprisingly, given their roots in the Storm King power plant fight, Waterkeepers have played an important role in ensuring regulation of power generation water intakes. John Cronin got the ball rolling when he successfully sued to force EPA to issue the long delayed cooling water intake structure regulations under Clean Water Act § 316(b). When EPA finally issued these rules, it was a Riverkeeper suit that prompted the Second Circuit to remand the rules to remove reliance on offsite restoration as “Best Technology” to reduce aquatic species impacts. It was also (less successfully for Riverkeeper) the same Riverkeeper litigation that later led the Supreme Court to graft cost-benefit analysis onto the “Best Technology” standard in Entergy v. Riverkeeper. Waterkeepers continue to play the role of regulatory watchdog over the power industry. This year, Waterkeeper Alliance won a case requiring reconsideration of the coal ash impoundment effluent limits under the Clean Water Act as well as another case requiring reconsideration of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulations governing disposal of power plant coal combustion residuals.

Waterkeepers played a key role in development of Clean Water Act regulations in other areas as well. Another one of the founding Waterkeepers, the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, helped bring combined sewer overflows to the regulatory agenda with a successful suit against the City of Atlanta for violating water quality standards. Long Island Soundkeeper brought the cases establishing that recreational trap and skeet shooting ranges required Clean Water Act permits for their discharges, and were responsible for cleaning up past lead shot and target contamination in water bodies. Waterkeeper Alliance brought one of the first cases seeking enforcement of Clean Water Act and RCRA requirements against massive hog Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Waterkeeper Alliance also brought a successful challenge to EPA’s revisions of the CAFO effluent limitations regulations.

The Waterkeeper movement has grown to over three hundred forty organizations in forty-seven countries, and Waterkeeper affiliates around the world are influencing the global development of environmental law just as the earliest Waterkeepers did in the United States.


NOTE: The author serves as outside counsel for Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, and is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance Board of Directors.

HEY CONGRESS: PLEASE FIX THIS “JUST PLAIN NUTS” SITUATION

Posted on June 10, 2019 by Dick Stoll

Seth Jaffe’s recent ACOEL post correctly laments that the current judicial review regime for EPA’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule is “just plain nuts.”  He points to two recent (May, 2019) conflicting federal district court decisions, leaving the Obama WOTUS rule in place in one area and remanding it in another.

I similarly complained of a “whole lot of craziness going on” regarding WOTUS judicial review in my 2015 ACOEL post.  I related how inconsistent decisions coming out of various courts were leaving the rule in force in some states, yet throwing it out in other states.  Since then, we have seen even crazier situations with some counties left subject to the rule while other counties in the same State are not!

Here is a recent sad summary from the May 29, 2019 Inside EPA: “Due to a variety of district court decisions, the 2015 rule continues to apply in 23 states and 23 of New Mexico’s 33 counties, but it is blocked in 26 states and in the other 10 New Mexico Counties.”  And to make the patchwork even crazier, the 23 states where the rule remains in place are anything but contiguous – looking at a U.S. map, it appears someone threw darts.

As Rick Glick recently reminded us, we will soon have a brand new WOTUS from the Trump EPA folks.  This will inevitably trigger a slew of new judicial review actions in numerous federal district courts, with another crazy-quilt patch of inconsistent results sure to follow.

Seth appears to blame this situation on the Supreme Court, which ruled last year that initial judicial review of the WOTUS rule must lie in the federal district courts – not, as the federal government had urged, in a U.S. Court of Appeals.  Seth notes that “the Supreme Court had the luxury of ignoring the chaos that would ensue” from its decision.

I blame this situation squarely on Congress, however.  Given the way the Clean Water Act is drafted, I just don’t see how the Supreme Court could have ruled otherwise.  And it is telling that the Court’s opinion was unanimous.  That’s right, a unanimous opinion from this Supreme Court! 

The heart of the problem is straightforward.  Under the federal APA, direct judicial review of final agency rules lies in federal district courts except where Congress has provided that certain types of rules are to be reviewed directly in a Court of Appeals.  As I outlined in my 2015 “craziness” post, Congress has provided that all sorts of national rules under the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and many other statutes, shall be directly reviewed by a Court of Appeals.

But in 1972 Congress took a different approach in the Clean Water Act, and specified that only seven types of final EPA actions would be directly reviewed in a Court of Appeals.  As the Supreme Court unanimously ruled last year, the WOTUS rule does not fit within any of these seven types of actions.  As a matter of pure (and unfortunate) logic, this means the district courts have initial jurisdiction over the WOTUS rule.

The federal government argued before the Supreme Court that the policy arguments in favor of direct Court of Appeals review are overwhelming.  The crazy-quilt patchwork that would take years (probably decades) to resolve would be avoided, as federal rules would require challenges filed in various Court of Appeals circuits to be consolidated in one Court. 

I wholly agree with these policy arguments, and I believe it is up to Congress to fix this mess. Just a few words added to the CWA would do it.  For example, Congress could simply provide that final rules defining the extent of “waters of the United States” would be the eighth type of action subject to direct Court of Appeals review.  Or many other formulations with just a few words could do the trick.

I know we live in polarized political times, and it is hard to secure Congressional consensus on major issues like reproductive rights, immigration, etc.   But should it be polarizing to provide direct Court of Appeals review of a critical EPA rule to avoid “just plain nuts” and “whole lot of craziness” inconsistencies throughout the nation?  If it is, I think that is just plain nuts.

2019 WOTUS Rule Seeks to Make the Complex Simple—It Won’t Work

Posted on June 6, 2019 by Rick Glick

What is the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act?  The Act applies to “navigable waters”, which are defined as the “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” That’s all the CWA says about jurisdiction.  Congress left it to the implementing agencies—EPA and the Corps of Engineers—and the courts to define the contours of CWA jurisdiction.  In the 45 years following enactment, we are not much closer to clarity. 

The 2019 proposed “waters of the U. S.” or WOTUS rule is the latest attempt and, like all its predecessors, it has generated a lot of controversy.  Setting aside for the moment whether the rule is ultimately adopted and survives the inevitable court challenges, will it achieve the CWA’s object “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters”?  Unfortunately, the approach taken in the rule seeks an easy resolution to a complex problem as it avoids the interconnectedness of natural systems.  That approach will be of limited use in meeting the CWA’s objective.

The central strategy underlying the CWA is adoption by the states of water quality standards.  The standards would be protected through grant funding of public treatment facilities on the one hand, and on the other, a regulatory program allowing for limited discharges of pollutants or filling of wetlands to ensure attainment of standards.  Early cases looking at discharges or fills subject to the CWA stressed whether the receiving waters were “navigable in fact,” that is, capable of carrying interstate commerce.  However, regulations adopted by the Corps of Engineers extended jurisdiction to tributaries and adjacent wetlands, as degradation of these results in degradation of the navigable waters.  These regulations also included certain intermittent streams among WOTUS.

In its 2006 decision in Rapanos v. U. S., a majority of the Supreme Court found the regulations too broad, but did not quite agree as to why.  Writing for the plurality, Justice Scalia criticized the Corps for regulatory overreach and argued for a common sense, dictionary understanding of WOTUS:

In sum, on its only plausible interpretation, the phrase “the waters of the United States” includes only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water “forming geographic features” that are described in ordinary parlance as “streams[,] … oceans, rivers, [and] lakes.” See Webster’s Second 2882. The phrase does not include channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall. 

In other words, if you can see it and your feet get wet when you stand on it, the CWA applies.  Applying his usual strict constructionist approach, Justice Scalia found no statutory justification for a nuanced approach to jurisdiction.  By Executive Order, President Trump directed EPA and the Corps to replace the Obama WOTUS rule with one based on Justice Scalia’s interpretation, and the proposed rules do just that.

Will this approach serve the stated objective of the CWA to protect our waters?  Justice Kennedy, in his concurring opinion in Rapanos, thought not.  He chastised both the plurality and the dissent for not applying the test established by the Court just five years earlier in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook Cty. v. Army Corps of Engineers.  That case pegged jurisdiction to whether there is a “significant nexus” between the wetland in question and a navigable waterway.  In SWANCC, the Court rejected Corps regulations that imposed jurisdiction over isolated wetlands because they served as habitat for migratory birds.  That was not, per the Court, enough to show a significant nexus between those wetlands and a navigable waterway. 

However, in Rapanos, Justice Kennedy argued that the Court must do the SWANCC analysis, with all its inherent complexity, before simply concluding there is no jurisdiction:

Taken together [prior Court opinions show that], the connection between a nonnavigable water or wetland and a navigable water may be so close, or potentially so close, that the Corps may deem the water or wetland a “navigable water” under the Act. In other instances, as exemplified by SWANCC, there may be little or no connection. Absent a significant nexus, jurisdiction under the Act is lacking.

* * *

The required nexus must be assessed in terms of the statute’s goals and purposes. Congress enacted the law to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters,” 33 U. S. C. §1251(a), and it pursued that objective by restricting dumping and filling in “navigable waters,” §§1311(a), 1362(12). With respect to wetlands, the rationale for Clean Water Act regulation is, as the Corps has recognized, that wetlands can perform critical functions related to the integrity of other waters—functions such as pollutant trapping, flood control, and runoff storage. 33 CFR §320.4(b)(2). Accordingly, wetlands possess the requisite nexus, and thus come within the statutory phrase “navigable waters,” if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as “navigable.” When, in contrast, wetlands’ effects on water quality are speculative or insubstantial, they fall outside the zone fairly encompassed by the statutory term “navigable waters.”

The analysis called for by Justice Kennedy is complex and requires professional judgment.  Granting agencies the discretion to exercise that judgment makes many uncomfortable, but such discretion is inherent in our current framework in which Congress provides vague direction that agencies must implement.  There is much talk about the Supreme Court eviscerating Auer and Chevron deference to agency interpretations of their own rules or statute, but surely there must be some leeway for agencies that courts can find acceptable.  If not, already ponderous and glacially slow regulatory processes will get only more so. 

The Obama WOTUS rule took the Kennedy approach and then tried to put certain sideboards around it to determine CWA jurisdiction, which played to mixed reviews—a million comments and scores of legal challenges were filed.  The Trump WOTUS rule swings the pendulum toward the simplistic Scalia approach, which will also draw broad opposition.

Getting clarity on the scope of CWA jurisdiction has proved elusive.  However, in our zeal for clarity and preventing overly aggressive federal regulation, we must not lose sight of the clarion purpose Congress gave in enacting the CWA in the first place.

Clean Water Act §401—Whose Certification Is It?

Posted on April 19, 2019 by Richard Glick

As part of the Administration’s policy in favor of domestic oil and gas development, President Trump issued an Executive Order on April 10 “Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth.”  The EO seeks to make the regulatory process more efficient and to create “increased regulatory certainty.”   

A policy focus in the EO is water quality certification under section 401 of the Clean Water Act.  Section 401 provides that before a federal agency may approve a project that could result in a “discharge” to navigable waters, the state or tribe with jurisdiction must certify that the discharge would comply with water quality standards, effluent limitations and “other appropriate requirements of State law.”  The statute imposes a one-year period for the state or tribe to act. 

This issue arises most often in the context of permits issued by the Corps of Engineers under section 404 of the CWA to fill wetlands, and licenses issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for hydroelectric projects under the Federal Power Act.  Both trigger state review under section 401.  Gas pipelines and LNG terminal developments almost always involve stream crossings or shoreline work, which means filling of wetlands.

The EO directs EPA to take the lead to review federal policy and regulations concerning section 401 implementation.  In particular, EPA is to revisit the 2010 interim guidance entitled “Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification: A Water Quality Protection Tool for States and Tribes.”  In its review, EPA is directed to focus on a list of issues, including the appropriate scope of 401 review, the “types of conditions that may be appropriate to include in a certification,” reasonable review times and how much information should be requested of the applicant.

Who could be opposed to improved regulatory efficiency and certainty?  To be sure, the section 401 process can be contentious and time consuming. Although section 401 prescribes a one-year review period, the issues are thorny and it has become a common practice for applicants to withdraw and refile applications to restart the clock.  A recent decision by the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals throws a shadow on that practice, but one year doesn’t necessarily mean one year.  It is also true that states have used section 401 as a cudgel to block LNG developments, as in the AES Sparrows Point LNG Project.

The problem with the EO is that it directs EPA to “fix” a problem over which it has little authority.  Section 401 is a program administered by the states and EPA has just a marginal role to ensure that one state’s 401 decision doesn’t violate a downstream state’s water quality standards.  Even EPA’s 2010 interim guidance is just a compendium of case law and general principles to aid state implementation, not a document that establishes policy.

Indeed, the scope of state section 401 authority is broad, and states use that authority to promote state policies far beyond water quality standards.  Any limitations on state discretion over the process and conditions of certification are likely to come from the courts, not EPA.  States are not shy in asserting their sovereignty and no state is going to cede any of its authority to EPA, regardless of what any new guidance or rules might suggest.

North to the Future: Alaska and the Risks of Pursuing a Trump Legacy

Posted on April 5, 2019 by Peter Van Tuyn

On the last Friday in March, Judge Sharon Gleason of the Federal District Court for the District of Alaska issued two opinions in closely-watched cases* concerning federal public lands and waters in and offshore of Alaska.  In both cases, the Trump administration’s actions were overturned by the court, having immediate impact on two State of Alaska priorities and potential impact on a number of other State and private development efforts. 

The first case concerns a land trade approved by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in which the United States agreed to transfer formal Wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to an Alaska Native Corporation.  Izembek Refuge is internationally significant and of critical importance to many species of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl.  For example, virtually the entire global populations of Pacific Brant and Emperor Geese migrate through Izembek.  The land trade was intended to enable the construction of a road between the Alaska communities of Cold Bay and King Cove.  In multiple analyses since the 1980s the Interior Department had found that such a road would harm wildlife in the Refuge.  In 2013 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formally rejected a land trade due to harm it would cause to “irreplaceable ecological resources,” and because “reasonable and viable transportation alternatives” exist between the communities.  In 2018, Secretary Zinke reversed course and approved the land trade.  A coalition of conservation groups then sued.

In rejecting the land trade, Judge Gleason found that Secretary Zinke had not addressed anywhere in the record his reasons for reversing course; indeed, he had not even acknowledged the change in agency position. Relying on the seminal U.S. Supreme Court administrative law cases of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers v. State Farm and FCC v. Fox, which require an acknowledgement and reasoned explanation for such a change of course, Judge Gleason invalidated the land trade, writing that while a court should “‘uphold a decision of less than ideal clarity if the agency’s path may reasonably be discerned,’ a court may not ‘supply a reasoned basis for the agency’s action that the agency itself has not given.’”

Later that same day Judge Gleason issued an opinion in a challenge to a 2017 President Trump executive order concerning areas where offshore oil and gas leasing can take place.  In that case, conservation organizations and an Alaska Native-focused NGO challenged Trump’s  revocation of President Obama’s earlier withdrawals from oil and gas leasing of most of the United States’ Arctic Ocean and a number of canyons within the Atlantic Ocean. 

This lawsuit turned on an interpretation of presidential withdrawal authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Section 12(a) of OCSLA provides the president with the clear authority to withdraw certain areas of the Outer Continental Shelf from oil and gas leasing, and the central question in the lawsuit was whether it also provides authority for a president to undo existing  withdrawals that were intended, like Obama’s Arctic and Atlantic actions, to be of unlimited duration.  Judge Gleason found that section 12(a) authority works only in the direction of presidential withdrawals, and not the undoing (or “revocation”) of such withdrawals.

Looking to the future, should Acting (and likely soon-to-be-confirmed) Secretary David Bernhardt revisit the Izembek land trade, he will need to either win on appeal during his tenure (should he take one) or directly confront the agency’s previous rejection of a land trade and the reasons for that rejection.  Furthermore, Trump’s “energy dominance” effort to expand offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is dealt a blow.  Notably, the OCSLA issue is similar to one raised in litigation over Trump’s revocation of National Monument designations under the Antiquities Act and Judge Gleason’s treatment of the issue thus may influence other courts. 

More broadly than even these implications, the two Gleason decisions may portend the result of other Alaska-related federal policy and decision-making.  For example, the Corps of Engineers is fast-tracking Clean Water Act section 404 permitting for the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska.  And the proposed mine’s developers are trying to get EPA to reverse course on its intended use of its Clean Water Act section 404(c) authority to restrict or prevent any Corps’ permit for the mining of the Pebble ore deposit.  EPA’s proposed restrictions were based on a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which the developer had waived challenging in settling a previous lawsuit with EPA.  Given the clarity of Judge Gleason’s Izembek opinion on what it would take for the agency to reverse course, and the settled science of EPA’s watershed assessment, securing a 404 permit won’t be as simple for proponents as winning a policy argument, which appeared to be the case with the Izembek land trade. 

Looking back to the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with oil and gas lease sales on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge.  Critics of that effort, including a former Interior official, say the legal process is being illegally shortcut, which is an attribute it may thus share with the Izembek land trade.  Interior is also speedily-redoing a 2013 management plan for the 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve with a goal of expanding oil and gas leasing in the Reserve starting in 2020.    

Ironically, on Thursday, March 28, the day before Judge Gleason issued her decisions, Interior Secretary-nominee David Bernhardt had his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  This committee is chaired by Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is a supporter of expanded oil and gas development on federal lands in and offshore of Alaska.  The judicial smackdown the next day, however, is sure to complicate Bernhardt’s efforts to implement such an agenda before the next presidential term, which is the timeframe which appears to underly Interior’s and other agencies’ efforts on Alaska issues.  And if the rush to secure more decisions in this presidential term leads to more losses in court, Alaska development interests could face complicated bureaucratic and legal landscapes, and strong political backlash, well into the future.

* Izembek case:  Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, et al, v. Bernhardt, 3:18-cv-00029-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak).

* Arctic OCS case:  League of Conservation Voters, et al, v. Trump, 3:17-cv-00101-SLG (March 29, 2019, D. Ak)

 

What Happens When the Green New Deal Meets the Old Green Laws?

Posted on March 27, 2019 by JB Ruhl

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey made headlines when introducing the Green New Deal resolution to Congress. Within milliseconds, contesting waves of support and opposition flooded the news wires, social media, and blogs. Critics focused on the proposal’s perhaps overly hopeful (some say, delusional) absence of any accounting for the funding, political feasibility, and technological capacity needed to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the Green New Deal’s target date of 2050 (some Green New Dealers advocate an even earlier date), especially under the other conditions they demand. After all, the Green New Deal movement is basically asking our nation to replace one national energy infrastructure with another, plus demanding that government also ensure social justice for present and future generations, provide millions of new jobs, install an awesomely sustainable economy, extend free health care, and the list goes on.

But let’s put all that aside. Let’s say we had a blueprint for the Green New Deal’s carbon goal and a whole lot of money to spend. The stark reality is that the Green New Deal is going to run smack dab into the wall of the Old Green Laws. I’m talking about the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Clean Air Act, the…do I really need to keep going, because the list is really long.

What the Green New Deal movement simply does not seem to appreciate is that the nation’s existing energy infrastructure is a vast physical, social, and economic entity that has been defined in its geographic, technological, and economic dimensions largely by decades upon decades of lawsuits brought under those Old Green Laws by many of the interest groups now behind the Green New Deal. The infrastructure the New Green Deal envisions—particularly if it rules out hydropower and nuclear power—can’t just land where the existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure is located, as if we are just changing car tires. Wind power has to follow wind, and solar power has to follow the sun, and neither of those geographic footprints has much overlap with where the fossil fuel infrastructure is currently located. So, making the Green New Deal happen means putting vast new renewable energy production facilities on the landscape. And then, because our existing transmission grid is based on where fossil fuel generation occurs, which is generally not where solar and wind generation will occur, we’ll need to put new transmission lines on the landscape. Just looking at NEPA alone, it would take 25 years just to get the Environmental Impact Statements done and through the courts before the first shovel of dirt is moved!

To put it bluntly, this is going to be ugly. Environmental protection special interest groups already are attacking wind and solar energy projects around the nation, claiming they will kill too many bats, birds, and desert creatures. Yet, if you were to map out what would be needed to implement the Green New Deal, we’ll need to locate new wind and solar power generation infrastructure, and their transmission line infrastructure, on the landscape at a pace and scale unprecedented in our nation’s history. Believing that everyone will be behind that is naïve. Wherever this Green New Deal landscape transformation machine goes, it will face opposition by narrow-interest environmental groups, not-in-my-backyard landowners, states, local governments, and companies threatened by the new regime, and so on. To think otherwise is delusional. And their first weapon of choice is going to be the Old Green Laws. After all, look around and ask, what has for decades impeded and often stopped new fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines, processing facilities, and port facilities. It’s the Old Green Laws.

Looking into the Law 2050 future, the “green” interests that are promoting the New Green Deal sooner or later will have to come up with a convincing soundbite explanation for how they propose to comply with the Old Green Laws in a way and time frame that meets their 2050 deadline. Doing so without in some substantial ways relaxing the current Old Green Laws seems implausible, but relaxing any current regulations seems a nonstarter for Green New Deal politicians. In other words, the Green New Deal is between a rock and a hard place, and they can blame their predecessor “green” generations who designed and implemented the Old Green Laws that must be satisfied regardless of the climate virtues of the Green New Deal.

One can easily imagine that many industry and landowner special interest groups long pitted against the environmental protection special interest groups have grins on their faces, as the latter will seem to have been hoisted by their own petard. It is not hard to envision how the Green New Deal will splinter the environmental interest group universe—indeed, more than 600 groups recently signed a letter to Congress supporting the Green New Deal agenda, but a good number of leading national groups such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Society did not sign on.

There is perhaps a third path, however. To make its agenda complete, the Green New Deal could propose a new environmental law regime as well, one that does not tinker with the Old Green Laws and thus face the claim of “deregulation” or “backsliding.” The Green New Deal must acknowledge the environmental disruptions its infrastructure proposal will cause and design an environmental planning, assessment, permitting, and regulatory regime (perhaps even with--gasp!--market mechanisms like trading and taxes) built from scratch around concepts of resilience, adaptive management, and collaborative adaptive governance. This will mean dispensing with the Old Green Laws’ morass of comprehensive pre-decision studies and rounds of lawsuits. In short, the New Green Deal needs New Green Laws.

Does the Clean Water Act Cover Discharges to or Through Groundwater, Part III?

Posted on March 7, 2019 by David Buente

In both 2016 and 2017, I blogged to discuss a key Clean Water Act (“CWA”) jurisdictional issue:  whether the indirect discharge of pollutants into groundwater which is hydrologically connected to a surface water of the United States is regulated under the CWA.  At the time, the district courts were split on this issue, and the only courts of appeals to rule on this point (a Fifth Circuit opinion from 2001 and a Seventh Circuit opinion from 1994) got the issue right by rejecting CWA or Oil Pollution Act jurisdiction over such discharges.  Since then, the landscape has shifted dramatically.  In 2018 alone, three circuit courts weighed in on this topic in five decisions.  And, as noted on this blog last month, the Supreme Court recently granted a petition for certiorari in one of these cases, meaning that years of confusion will finally be resolved, in some fashion, by 2020. 

The first circuit court to issue an opinion in 2018 was the Ninth Circuit in February 2018, in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui (the opinion was amended in March 2018).  That case addressed whether treated wastewater effluent which traveled from the County’s underground injection wells, through groundwater, into the nearby Pacific Ocean constituted discharges regulated under the CWA.  The Ninth Circuit held that the wastewater was a covered discharge since it came from a point source (the wells) and was “fairly traceable from the point source,” even if it did not make its way directly from the wells to the ocean. 

The next circuit to weigh in was the Fourth Circuit, in April 2018 in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P.  This decision held that the movement of gasoline which resulted from a pipeline spill in 2014 and was allegedly still seeping through groundwater approximately 1000 feet into surface waters constituted a CWA discharge, since it originated from a point source (the pipeline rupture) and there was evidence of a “direct hydrological connection between [the] ground water and navigable waters….”  This decision in fact expands the CWA even further than the Maui opinion, because it held that the CWA covered discharges when the original release of pollutants from the point source has ceased, but the pollutants continue to travel diffusely through groundwater.  In a September 2018 decision, a different Fourth Circuit panel in Sierra Club v. Virginia Electric & Power Company acknowledged the Upstate Forever panel’s adoption of the direct hydrological connection theory but rejected liability on the grounds that the coal ash landfills and basins at issue were not point sources.   

Finally, on the same day in September 2018, the Sixth Circuit issued decisions in Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Company and in Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority.  Both cases dealt with alleged discharges through groundwater from coal ash basins to navigable waterways.  Contrary to the Fourth and Ninth Circuits (and in line with the earlier circuit court case law), the Sixth Circuit held that groundwater was not a point source and that these discharges are not regulated since they must be directly from the point source to a water of the United States.

Petitions for writs of certiorari before the Supreme Court have proceeded on similar timeframes in the Maui and Upstate Forever cases.  In each case, the petitioners filed their petitions in August 2018.  The Maui petition addressed the indirect discharge via groundwater issue and a fair notice question.  The Upstate Forever petition raised both the indirect discharge through groundwater issue and whether an ongoing violation for purposes of a CWA citizen suit occurs when the point source ceased discharging but pollutants are still reaching navigable waters via groundwater.  In December 2018, the Supreme Court, signaling interest in the cases, requested the Solicitor General to file an amicus brief in both cases by January 4, 2019, expressing the view of the United States.  In that amicus brief, the United States urged the Supreme Court only to accept the Maui case, and only on the groundwater discharge issue.  The United States’ rationale was that Maui presented the groundwater discharge issue more squarely, since the ongoing violation issue in Upstate Forever was a threshold concern.  The brief separately observed that EPA was planning to take action shortly in response to its February 2018 request for comment on the groundwater discharge issue. 

On February 19, 2019, the Supreme Court, adhering to the United States’ request, accepted only the Maui petition and only on the groundwater discharge question.  The Maui case will likely be the Supreme Court’s most seminal CWA decision in over a decade, since the split decision in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  Industry should track this case closely, as its resolution will have an effect on everything from federal and citizen suit enforcement to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit requirements.   

EPA Calls for Market-Based and Collaborative Approaches to Achieve Nutrient Reductions

Posted on January 10, 2019 by Todd E. Palmer

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a letter to their state counterparts highlighting plans to improve water quality and seek “meaningful reductions” in nutrient loadings to waterways. EPA and USDA leadership note that while progress has been made, national water quality data indicate that nutrient losses from agricultural lands continue to be widespread, especially in the Mississippi River basin. Moving forward, the agencies plan to identify further opportunities to address nutrient loadings from nonpoint sources, including non-regulatory conservation efforts and market-based programs.

The agencies’ recommitment to these topics should come as welcome news to the regulated and environmental community alike. Existing market-based solutions, such as water quality trading, have helped allocate limited resources toward technologies and practices with a lower cost per unit of nutrient reduction. EPA and USDA state that they have heard that additional regulatory flexibility in areas such as TMDL implementation may be useful in facilitating market-based strategies. EPA’s willingness to engage with stakeholders on how it can remove regulatory barriers to such efforts is commendable.

Perhaps even more significantly, the agencies indicated a desire to partner with local stakeholders to develop local solutions to nutrient-loss challenges. State and local partners are well-positioned to develop innovative approaches to reducing nonpoint source pollution that are both effective and responsive to local needs. For example, since Wisconsin adopted more stringent numeric phosphorous water quality criteria in 2010, municipal and industrial wastewater dischargers have improved water quality and realized compliance savings through one of several market-based phosphorous compliance options. Those options include water quality trading, as well as adaptive management and the phosphorous multi-discharger variance, where sources comply with interim limits and fund local efforts to reduce nonpoint source contributions. Strategies to amplify existing market-based solutions, including creation of a “clearinghouse” to facilitate trades and other compliance strategies, are also being discussed around the country.

EPA’s willingness to support and build on these efforts by evaluating regulatory barriers and providing technical and financial support for local efforts should open the door to innovative nutrient control strategies. Federal support for these efforts is also especially critical in the current farm economy, which finds farmers managing through a prolonged period of low commodity prices that may limit the resources available for voluntary environmental enhancements.

WOTUS Lives! . . . at Least in Half the States (for Now)

Posted on September 11, 2018 by Rick Glick

On August 16, a federal judge in South Carolina invalidated the Trump Administration’s suspension of the rule defining “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), under the Clean Water Act.  In South Carolina Coastal Conservation League v. Pruitt, the court found that the notice-and-comment opportunity supporting the Suspension Rule was too narrow and thus violated the Administrative Procedure Act.  The WOTUS suspension is the latest in a series of attempts by the Administration to stall implementation of Obama era regulations, none of which have met favor with the courts. 

As reported here about one year ago, the Trump Administration announced a two-step process to undo WOTUS.  The first step was to suspend WOTUS for two years, during which a revised WOTUS rule would be developed.  In the meantime, guidance on jurisdictional waters that had been issued in the 1980s by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers would be reinstated.  The public notice of the Suspension Rule requested comments only on the suspension, but not the substance of either the Obama WOTUS rule or the 1980s guidance.

U. S. District Court Judge David C. Norton, a George H. W. Bush appointee, reasoned that the practical effect of the Suspension Rule is that the WOTUS rule would not apply and instead the 1980s guidance would control.  The court then noted that the definitions in the WOTUS rule and the 1987 guidance are “drastically different” and it is hard to comment on the Suspension Rule without talking about that difference.  That refusal to allow comment on the substantive differences violates the notice-and-comment provisions of the APA:  “An illusory opportunity to comment is no opportunity at all.”  The judge therefore rejected the Trump Suspension Rule, and imposed a nationwide injunction. 

Explaining the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act has flummoxed the federal agencies and courts for decades.  Far from bringing clarity, the Obama WOTUS Rule drew over one million comments and multiple judicial challenges on the merits of the rule.  Initially the question was whether such challenges should be made in the U. S. district courts or the Circuit Courts of Appeal.  The Sixth Circuit held that the appellate courts had original jurisdiction and stayed all of the pending district court actions, but that decision was reversed earlier this year in a unanimous decision of the U. S. Supreme Court.  Thus, those lower court cases can continue.

Judge Norton, in South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, was clear that he was not ruling on the merits of the WOTUS Rule, but just the procedural correctness of the Suspension Rule.  In challenges on the merits, other federal courts have stayed the WOTUS Rule in 24 states.  Striking down the Suspension Rule means that WOTUS remains in effect in the other 26 states. 

At the moment, then, about half the country is subject to the WOTUS Rule, while the other half is not.  What could go wrong?

When Should A Regulatory Program Be Eliminated?

Posted on August 9, 2018 by David Flannery

It is certainly not unusual for regulatory agencies implementing water quality standard programs to conduct periodic reviews of the appropriateness of those programs.  Such has been the case with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (“ORSANCO”) for many years. In connection with the current triennial review of its Pollution Control Standards, ORSANCO recently offered the following statement in a public notice and request for comment

This review of the Pollution Control Standards differs from past reviews in that it asks your input on whether ORSANCO should continue to maintain, administer, and periodically update the current Pollution Control Standards, or should eliminate the Pollution Control Standards and withdraw from the process of maintaining and updating such standards.

The proposal to eliminate this regulatory program was undertaken by ORSANCO following a multi-year comprehensive assessment of ORSANCO’s function and role in partnership with its member states, USEPA, and the many other water quality protection activities that are currently administered to protect the Ohio River. This review caused ORSANCO to reach the conclusion “that all member states are implementing approved programs under the federal Clean Water Act” and that “there appears to be little or no purpose for the Commission to continue the triennial review process of updating the PCS rules.” ORSANCO also concluded that elimination of its regulatory program was being proposed with full confidence that the public would have “the full and complete protection of the federal Clean Water Act and the oversight of USEPA and the states without the redundancy of the current PCS program”. http://www.orsanco.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Preferred-Expanded-Alternative-2-and-Minority-Report.pdf   

ORSANCO is seeking comment on this proposal through August 20, 2018. Details of the proposal and the public comment process can be found on the ORSANCO web site.  I am sure that ORSANCO would be very interested in hearing from any of you that have a comment on the proposal or any thoughts on the title question about when a regulatory program should be eliminated.

 ORSANCO is an interstate compact whose member states include Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.  The Compact forming ORSANCO was signed in 1948 following the consent of the United States Congress and enactment of the Compact into law by the legislatures of the eight member states.

Strong Headwinds Face Water Quality Trading in the Chesapeake

Posted on August 2, 2018 by Ridgway Hall

The Chesapeake Bay watershed covers 64,000 square miles in parts of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. When the six states and the District asked EPA to establish a multi-state Total Maximum Daily Load under the Clean Water Act in 2010 and assign each state its fair share, they took on the job of reducing discharges of nitrogen from all sources by 25%, phosphorus by 24% and sediment by 10%. The goal is to have all necessary measures in place to achieve this by 2025 to meet applicable water quality standards. With funding at the state and federal levels in short supply, a search was on for the most cost-effective ways to reduce these pollutants.  The states with the biggest burdens, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland, each turned to the emerging practice of water quality trading.

Trading enables a discharger for whom the cost per unit of pollution reduction is lower than for other dischargers to reduce its pollution below what the law requires and sell that extra reduction as a “credit” to another discharger for whom the cost per unit of pollutant reduction is greater.  The result is that the seller makes money from the credit sale, and the buyer attains compliance at a lower cost than it would otherwise incur. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  In October the Government Accounting Office published the results of a nationwide survey in which it found that only 11 states have water quality trading programs, and the only significant use being made was in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut, even though EPA has been promoting it since 1996. (I discussed this in “Water Quality: Wading into Trading” posted Nov. 28, 2017).

To encourage the Bay states to adopt trading programs that will comply with the Clean Water Act and its implementing regulations, EPA published a series of “Technical Memoranda” (TMs) addressing key elements of a trading program including “baseline” (the maximum amount of pollution allowed under any applicable law before a credit can be generated), protecting local water quality where a credit is used, credit calculation, and accounting for uncertainty. This is needed where a nonpoint source, like a farm, is generating credits by installation of best management practices (BMPs) and the pollution reduction benefits must be estimated using modeling. The TMs also address credit duration, certification by the agency, registration and tracking on a publicly posted registry, and verification that the BMPs on which the credits are based are being maintained.  Finally, they address sampling and public participation. (See my blog post of Sept. 26, 2016 “New Tools for Water Quality Trading”).  Credits can also be used to “offset” new or expanded discharges. The TMs are not regulations, but set forth EPA’s “expectations”.

Common Elements

Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland have adopted trading regulations which are intended to be consistent with the TMs.  The principal elements include . . . [CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE]

DAVID AND GOLIATH AT THE CONOWINGO DAM

Posted on June 26, 2018 by Ridgway Hall

Exelon owns and operates the Conowingo Dam across the Susquehanna River in Maryland just below the Pennsylvania border, including a 573 megawatt hydroelectric power plant. It is seeking a renewal of its operating license from FERC under the Federal Power Act for 50 years. Section 401 of the Clean Water Act requires that any applicant for a federal license that may result in a discharge submit a certification by the state where the discharge will occur that the discharge “will comply with the applicable provisions” of the CWA, including water quality standards. The certification may include conditions and requirements, including monitoring and reporting, deemed necessary to ensure compliance. The certification becomes part of the federal license, and the licensing agency may not change it.

The facts in this case are unusual, and the outcome will likely be precedential. For decades, sediment has flowed down the 450 miles of the Susquehanna River from New York and Pennsylvania and accumulated in the reservoir behind the dam, trapping nitrogen, phosphorus, metals, PCBs and other pollutants along with the sediment,  Now the trapping capacity has been reached. Several times in recent decades severe storms have scoured out tons of this sediment and carried it over the dam and into the Chesapeake Bay 10 miles downstream, causing not just violation of water quality standards, but severe damage to oysters, bay grasses and benthic organisms.  In addition, the dam has blocked historic fish passage. Measures such as fish ladders and transportation have produced only modest relief. Since 2010 the entire Chesapeake Bay and its tributary system has been subject to a multi-state total maximum daily load (TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, but at the time that was set, it was not anticipated that the Conowingo trapping capacity would be exhausted this soon.

On April 27, 2018, the Maryland Department of the Environment issued a CWA certification in which it determined that numerous conditions must be complied with by Exelon in order to reasonably ensure compliance with water quality standards. It requires, among other things, measures to ensure compliance with standards for dissolved oxygen (DO), chlorophyll-A (an indicator of algae), turbidity, temperature, pH and bacteriological criteria in the reservoir and downstream waters including the Bay, plus compliance with plans to protect various fish species, waterfowl and habitat. It also requires shoreline protection, removal of trash from the reservoir and a variety of monitoring programs.

Notably, to satisfy the DO standards, which are adversely affected by nutrients and are critical to aquatic life, MDE requires that starting in 2025 Exelon must annually reduce the amount of nitrogen in its discharges by 6 million pounds, and phosphorus by 260,000 pounds. Exelon can also satisfy this requirement by installing best management practices elsewhere upstream or paying $17 per pound of nitrogen and $270 per pound of phosphorus for any amounts not removed.

Exelon promptly filed a request for reconsideration and administrative appeal with MDE. It also filed a complaint in Maryland state court seeking a declaration that the certification could not be considered “final action” until proceedings before MDE were concluded, including Exelon’s right to an evidentiary hearing; an injunction against any consideration of the certification by FERC, and, alternatively, for judicial review. Exelon also filed suit in the U.S District Court in Washington, D.C., claiming that MDE’s certification exceeded its CWA authority and constituted an unconstitutional taking of its property, and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.  See Exelon’s filings at here.

Among Exelon’s complaints is the fact that the certification would require it to spend vast sums to remove pollutants that did not come from its operations, but from upstream polluters. The fee equivalent of the nitrogen and phosphorus removals would amount to $172 million per year – far more than Exelon earns from the operation of Conowingo. An environmental impact statement had concluded that efforts to remove the sediment from behind the dam “would be cost-prohibitive and ineffective.” Releases from the dam, Exelon contends, are not “discharges” but “pass-through.” Exelon also argues that fish passage damage was caused decades ago and it would be unfair to make Exelon bear the full cost of restoring it.

Some environmental groups have joined the administrative appeal process.  Stewards of the Lower Susquehanna and Waterkeepers Chesapeake (a group of 18 Waterkeeper organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed) appealed to MDE asking that protection against scouring by big storms be strengthened and that likely effects from climate change be considered, but otherwise supporting the certification. The Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, both with longstanding interests in water quality and restoration of the fisheries and fish passage, have also been actively involved.

The stakes are high. MDE, “David” in my title, has taken some bold measures to address some enormous problems, and Exelon is fighting back hard. However it comes out, the resolution will have precedential value for other CWA 401 cases across the country, and particularly for hydroelectric projects.

Regulation of Groundwater under the Clean Water Act

Posted on June 4, 2018 by William Brownell

In the early 1980s, the State of Michigan filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the United States alleging that chemicals from a federal facility located near Lake Michigan could “enter the groundwaters under the … area” occupied by the facility and then “be discharged [through that groundwater] into Grand Traverse Bay.” The Department of Justice told the Court that “these claims are not allowed under the Clean Water Act since the Act does not regulate pollutant discharges onto soil or into underlying groundwater,” and the suit was eventually dismissed.  According to the United States, “[t]he statutory language, the legislative history, the case law, and EPA’s interpretation of the Act all support this conclusion.” 

Thirty years later, in 2016, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the County of Maui, alleging that the County was violating the Clean Water Act by disposing of treated waste water through underground injection wells into groundwater that was hydrologically connected to the Pacific Ocean.  According to a Department of Justice amicus brief, this claim was allowed under the Clean Water Act because a discharge “that moves through groundwater with a direct hydrological connection [to surface water] comes under the purview of the CWA’s [NPDES] permitting requirements.”   

Which is right:  the 1985 government or the 2016 government?  Not surprisingly, both sides assert that they offer the government’s “longstanding” position.  For example, those concluding that releases to hydrologically connected groundwater are not subject to the Clean Water Act’s NPDES permit program point to (among other statements) an Office of General Counsel memorandum from 1973 that “the term ‘discharge of a pollutant’ is defined so as to include only discharges into navigable waters…. “[d]ischarges into ground waters are not included”; to EPA’s assertion in 2004 that NPDES “regulations apply to … [e]xisting facilities that discharge directly to surface waters”; and to EPA’s statement in 2017 that “discharges to groundwater are not regulated by the NPDES permit program.”  

Proponents of regulating releases to groundwater under the NPDES program rely principally on statements made in the preamble to a 2001 proposed rule for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and on the amicus brief filed in 2016 by the Department of Justice in the County of Maui case.

This “hydrological connection” theory of Clean Water Act groundwater regulation is now pending before the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits, and the period for certiorari is running in the Ninth. Clearly, the Clean Water Act cannot mean two opposite things at the same time.  Which Department of Justice is right?  

EPA recently issued a Federal Register notice asking the public to weigh in on the confusion created by its prior statements.  Perhaps instead of debating who said what when, what is needed is a dispassionate return to the statutory language.  As the Supreme Court said unanimously in 2004 in South Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, the Clean Water Act “defines the phrase ‘discharge of a pollutant’ to mean ‘any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source,’” and in turn defines a “point source” as a “‘discernible, confined and discrete conveyance’ … ‘from which pollutants are or may be discharged.’” The Court explained this “definition makes plain” that “a point source need not be the original source of the pollutant,” but “it need[s] [to] … convey the pollutant to ‘navigable waters.’”  If the NPDES program applies only where a point source conveys the pollutant to navigable water and EPA agrees that groundwater is not a point source, shouldn’t that be the end of the debate? 

Does Upstate Forever Mean Potential Citizen Suit Liability Forever?

Posted on May 24, 2018 by Patricia Barmeyer

Maybe.

If, as held by the Fourth Circuit in the recent decision in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan,

  • A release from a point source to groundwater that reaches jurisdictional surface waters in measurable quantities is an unpermitted discharge in violation of the Clean Water Act, and
  • The unpermitted discharge is deemed to be “continuing” so long as the seepage through groundwater continues to add pollutants to jurisdictional waters, even though the discharge to groundwater has ceased

then, indeed, the potential for citizen suit liability has been vastly increased and, most troubling, the requirement for an “ongoing violation” has been significantly eroded.

The recent decision of Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan, L.P. (4th Cir. April 12, 2018), addressed a citizen suit arising out of a spill of gasoline from an underground pipeline. The pipeline operator repaired the pipeline shortly after the spill, implemented remediation and recovery measures required by state regulators, and recovered much of the gasoline from the spill site. NGOs brought a citizen suit under the CWA, alleging that actions taken by the pipeline operator were insufficient to abate the pollution, and that gasoline and other pollutants were continuing to seep from the spill site, through groundwater, into surface waters regulated under the CWA. The district court dismissed the suit, finding that (1) the CWA does not regulate the movement of pollutants through groundwater, and (2) the alleged violation was not ongoing because the pipeline had been repaired and was no longer discharging pollutants “directly” into navigable waters.

The Fourth Circuit reversed on both points and allowed the citizen suit to move forward. The decision has two key holdings:

  • First, while acknowledging that the CWA does not generally regulate releases to groundwater, the Fourth Circuit panel held that discharges to groundwater with a “direct hydrological connection” to surface waters may be regulated by the CWA, so long as the  discharge results in pollutants reaching jurisdictional waters in “measureable quantities.”
  • Second, the Court found that the repair of the pipeline breach was not sufficient to render the alleged CWA violations “wholly past,” because the continuing seepage of gasoline was continuing to add pollutants to jurisdictional waters.

Assuming the majority opinion stands, the implications are very troubling.

The first holding makes even an accidental release to groundwater an unpermitted discharge under the CWA, if the pollutant makes its way to jurisdictional waters. This “groundwater as a conduit” theory, also adopted in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, 2018 WL 1569313 (9th Cir. Feb. 2018), is the subject of much debate in the courts, in Congress and at EPA, which has solicited comment on the issue. 

The second holding is at least as problematic. Even assuming that the accidental discharge to groundwater was an unpermitted discharge to jurisdictional waters in violation of the CWA,    one must wonder how the party responsible could ever cut off liability. According to the decision in Upstate Forever, stopping the point source release and even remediation to state standards does not make the violation “wholly past.” Depending on the amount released, the amount remaining after remediation, the distance to jurisdictional waters, the soil characteristics, the speed of groundwater movement, and other factors, it is possible that the risk of citizen suit liability could continue for years—long after the incident has been corrected, repaired and remediated.

There is a strong, well-reasoned dissent that concludes that there is no ongoing discharge of pollutants from a point source because “the only point source at issue—the pipeline—is not currently leaking or releasing any pollutants.” Slip Opinion at 40. The defendant pipeline operator has filed a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc, arguing that the panel decision is erroneous on both issues and emphasizing the inconsistency with Gwaltney of Smithfield, Ltd. v. Chesapeake Bay Found., Inc., 484 U.S. 49 (1987).

If it stands, however, the Upstate Forever decision could indeed create the risk of citizen suit liability almost “forever.”

HOW I BECAME AN ENVIRONMENTAL LAWYER

Posted on April 25, 2018 by H. Thomas Wells Jr.

When someone asks what type of law I practice, and the answer is “environmental law”, the next question often is, “How did you become an environmental lawyer?”  My answer to that question is simple: I reported for duty on Tuesday.  The full story is a bit more complicated.

Having gone through undergraduate school at the University of Alabama on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, I had a commitment to serve as an Air Force officer.  Upon graduation from undergraduate school in 1972, I was commissioned as second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. (This was during the Vietnam War. Although my draft number was over 300, I still went through advanced ROTC because of the scholarship).  The Air Force then granted me an educational delay to attend law school.  With the Vietnam War still ongoing, obtaining the educational delay was not guaranteed, but once it was granted, I was off to law school.

If there were any courses at the University of Alabama School of Law in environmental law at that time, I didn’t take them.  The field of environmental law was not on my radar screen at all.  In fact, it was not on many radar screens back then.

The day after my law school graduation ceremony, I received a call from a Colonel who was the Executive Officer for the Air Force General Counsel’s office in the Pentagon.  He asked if I might be interested in coming up to the Pentagon for an interview.  The explained that the Air Force General Counsel’s office had a “Military Honors Program” under which they took two or three recent law school graduates who had an obligation to serve in the Air Force to work in the General Counsel’s office rather than becoming a JAG officer.  Of course, the interview had to be at my own expense.

So I flew to D.C., interviewed, and was selected as one of the three recent law graduates with an obligation to serve in the Air Force on active duty to work in the Air Force General Counsel’s office.  This office was on the civilian side of the Department of the Air Force.  That meant we reported to the civilian General Counsel, rather than to The Judge Advocate General (“TJAG”); The GC, in turn, reported to the Secretary of the Air Force rather than to the Chief of Staff.  As noted, none of us were JAG officers, but were nevertheless promoted to Captain by order of the Secretary of the Air Force.

Upon moving to the D.C. area, I still didn’t know what area of law to which I would be assigned within the General Counsel’s office.  There were three slots: one was Government Procurement law, one was International Law, and the third was Real Estate and Environmental Law.  Without my knowledge, the lawyers in the office had decided the assignments would be based on when we reported for duty.  Since I reported on the day after Columbus Day, a Tuesday in October 1975, I was assigned to be in the Real Estate and Environmental Law section of the office.

Environmental law in 1975 was really just beginning.  We had NEPA, the old Clean Water Act, as amended in 1972 and the old Clean Air Act of 1970, and that was just about it.  RCRA had yet to be enacted; TSCA wasn’t around, and Superfund was nonexistent.  So I became an environmental lawyer with on the job training and by learning the amendments to the relevant Acts as they were enacted.  All in all, things worked out pretty well, and I indeed became an environmental lawyer because I reported for duty on Tuesday.

The Proposed Pebble Mine: Too Toxic for Trump?

Posted on April 17, 2018 by Peter Van Tuyn

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt began his tenure by decrying the so-called “sue and settle” policy approach, where EPA settles lawsuits brought against it in a manner that dictates EPA actions on court-approved deadlines, often well into the future.Observers were therefore somewhat surprised when, two and a half months later, EPA settled a lawsuit brought against it years earlier by the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), the want-to-be developers of the proposed Pebble mine in Alaska.  PLP declared victory and touted the settlement as providing it a “clear path” to the permitting process for the proposed mine.

It turns out that Administrator Pruitt himself made the decision to settle this lawsuit.  As reported in media, “[w]ithin hours of meeting with a mining company CEO, the new head of the US Environmental Protection Agency directed his staff to withdraw a plan to protect the watershed of Bristol Bay, Alaska, one of the most valuable wild salmon fisheries on Earth.”

The Pebble ore deposit sits at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, and the region produces roughly half of the world’s commercial sockeye salmon catch, with over 56 million sockeye returning to the Bay’s fresh waters in 2017 alone.  The commercial fishery supports 14,000 full and part time jobs and generates roughly 1.5 billion in annual revenue.  Bristol Bay salmon also support the subsistence lifestyle of area residents, and are one reason why Bristol Bay is a sought-after sport fishing destination.  The Pebble ore deposit is massive, contains low-grade quantities of copper, gold and molybdemum, and also has the potential to produce acid as the ore is disturbed.  It also lies at the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay’s most productive river systems.  In 2014, the EPA found that the mining of the Pebble ore could result in “irreversible” impacts to fish habitat.  EPA thus used its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to propose certain restrictions on the mining of that deposit to protect the salmon fishery.

Notwithstanding the response of the mine developer, a closer look at the settlement reveals that EPA did not abandon its proposed restrictions, but rather only committed to an agency process “to propose to withdraw” them.  Pursuant to the settlement, EPA initiated a public process and held public hearings in Bristol Bay, seeking input on whether to actually withdraw the proposed protections.  In that process, EPA received over one million comments, with over 99% of the comments supporting the proposed restrictions and asking EPA to leave them in place.

In what was called a “surprise reversal” by some observers, in January of this year Administrator Pruitt decided to leave the proposed restrictions in place.  In announcing his decision, Administrator Pruitt stated that “it is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection.”

The result of this decision is that the EPA’s proposed restrictions under Section 404(c) will remain in place as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers processes PLP’s Section 404 permit application for the mine, submitted by PLP to the Corps in December 2017.  Looking forward, the Corps cannot issue a final permit decision approving the mine unless and until EPA’s concerns are fully addressed. EPA retains the opportunity to finalize its proposed restrictions before the Corps makes its decision.  This leads one to wonder, as did many people from Bristol Bay, whether the proposed Pebble mine is simply “too toxic” for Trump?  

Disclosure:  Bessenyey & Van Tuyn, L.L.C. represents a client that opposes the proposed Pebble mine because of risks to Bristol Bay salmon.