EPA Gets the Last Word—For Now

Posted on August 22, 2014 by Charles Nestrud

At the request of El Dorado Chemical Company (EDCC), the Arkansas Commission on Pollution Control and Ecology (Commission) twice approved site specific revisions to its water quality standards for dissolved minerals, finding that the new standards were protective of downstream uses.  Twice, EPA rejected the rulemaking.  In a court battle over a state’s right to set water quality standards, EPA won. El Dorado Chemical Company v. EPA, et al, Case No. 13-1936 (8th Cir. August 15, 2013).

Arkansas has the most restrictive water quality criteria for dissolved minerals (chlorides, sulfates and total dissolved solids) in the nation, having set the criteria years ago based on naturally occurring levels in undisturbed streams. Few receiving streams with industrial discharges can meet these “pristine stream” mineral standards, creating permitting problems, 303(d) listings of impaired waters, and the need for TMDLs.  To address this issue, Arkansas developed a procedure to revise the standards on a site-specific basis to accommodate permitting historical discharges that were not impacting water quality.

EDCC received an NPDES permit from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) with unachievable mineral limits, and a 3-year compliance schedule to provide time to pursue a criteria change.  Following ADEQ procedures, EDCC demonstrated the absence of water quality impacts, and the Commission approved the new criteria, paving the way for an NPDES permit modification with achievable mineral limits.  That was derailed by EPA Region 6, which rejected the criteria change, stating that potential toxic impacts to downstream waters had not been adequately evaluated.  At the same time EPA was threatening enforcement against EDCC for permit violations that were then occurring because the NPDES permit compliance schedule had expired while EPA was holding up approval of the new criteria.  EDCC did the additional work requested by EPA, which demonstrated that the water quality immediately downstream of EDCC’s discharge was not impacted, but a stream reach further downstream failed a simulated toxicity test for sub-lethality (reproduction) of the water flea.  Since EDCC’s effluent mineral concentration was less than the background mineral concentration downstream, any downstream mineral toxicity was beyond EDCC’s control—likely the lingering effects of historical oilfield practices dating back to the early 1900’s.  EDCC decided to forego any criteria change for the downstream reach.   The Commission agreed and rescinded the criteria change for that downstream reach.  The revised rulemaking was submitted to EPA for approval and EPA again rejected it, based on the sub-lethality failure downstream.  In the meantime EDCC was participating in a project to construct a joint municipal/industrial pipeline that would by-pass these downstream waters and avoid the mineral criteria issue altogether, but appeals of the pipeline permit delayed that project as well.  With no clear alternative, EDCC appealed.

EDCC relied upon the primary authority granted to states in the Clean Water Act to establish water quality standards, including the evaluation of potential downstream effects on water quality, and argued that EPA overstepped its bounds.  Relying on EPA administrative appeals court decisions, EDCC argued that EPA must present "compelling evidence, based on strong science" before rejecting Arkansas’s proposed water quality standards.  EDCC urged that more deference should be given to the state decision.  EDCC also argued that EPA had relied upon a single, sub-lethal test result, in the face of overwhelming evidence relied upon by Arkansas, that downstream uses were not impacted.  The district court and Eighth Circuit agreed with EPA that Arkansas had failed to demonstrate that the proposed water quality standards are protective of downstream water quality.  The Court of Appeals said that EPA’s reading of its responsibilities under the CWA was not plainly erroneous, adopting the traditional APA standard of review, and found EPA’s decision to be consistent with the CWA’s broad purpose to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters."  With respect to the evidence of downstream impacts, the Eighth Circuit upheld EPA’s reliance upon the sub-lethal data, stating that EPA’s decision was not "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law."  During oral argument the Eighth Circuit panel seemed interested in EDCC’s argument that since the revised mineral criteria for the problematic downstream reach had been rescinded, EPA should deal with potential impacts from EDCC’s discharge to those stream reaches further downstream in the NPDES permit review.  However, the opinion rejected that argument, stating that assessment of downstream impacts was part of EPA’s responsibility when evaluating proposed water quality standards—how far downstream this assessment can go is not discussed.

While the appeal was pending, the pipeline appeals were successfully resolved, and the pipeline has been operating since August 2013.  Hence, EDCC has a compliance option in place.  The Court of Appeal’s awareness that this compliance option had been implemented (and Arkansas’s failure to participate in the appeal to defend its rulemaking decision), may have influenced the Court’s decision.

ADEQ is currently working with EPA to pursue a long term study of Arkansas’ dissolved mineral standards, with a goal of developing a “simplified” procedure to deal with Arkansas’ overly restrictive mineral standards. If these discussions are successful, others should be saved from the ordeal EDCC had to endure.

Choppy Water: An Update to the Turbulent Environment Between the EPA and Agricultural Opponents of the WOTUS Rule

Posted on August 11, 2014 by Stephen Bruckner

If you've been following the recent controversy surrounding the proposed rule regarding "waters of the United States" (referred to in some environmental and agricultural circles as "WOTUS"), you know the wave the EPA has created among opponents of the rule.  In April 2014, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers ("Corps") published a proposed rule defining the scope of waters protected by the Clean Water Act ("CWA"). Originally, the public comment period for the proposed rule ended July 21, 2014. That period was extended to October 20.

According to its opponents, a majority coming from agricultural interests in the nation's Heartland, the proposed rule is a stealthy way to expand the EPA's authority; a clear land grab epitomizing government overreach. According to the EPA, the purpose is to clarify the definition of navigable waters in light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Rapanos v. United States, and Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Although EPA explicitly stated that the proposed rule would not affect any exemptions to CWA Section 404 permitting requirements, which include normal farming and ranching activities, opponents think otherwise. Because of the expanded definition of navigable waters to include some waters that are merely connected to navigable waters, opponents worry landowners now will have new land covered by the CWA, forcing them to obtain permits under other provisions of the CWA for regular farming operations. Missouri farmer Andy Klay told Fox News he worries how long a permit might take. A day? A month? He and his wife created a parody video of the EPA to the tune of the popular song "Let it go" from Disney's Frozen -- "The EPA and the Corp. They will try, to justify! That's enough, that's enouuugh!"

Capturing the same sentiment, the American Farm Bureau Federation has launched a viral marketing campaign called "#DitchtheRule." The campaign supplies talking points and pre-written messages for supporters of #DitchtheRule to share on Twitter. For example, the campaign has a pre-written tweet "Ditches and puddles are not navigable. #DitchtheRule."  In an attempt to set the record straight, the EPA has responded with a campaign called "DitchtheMyth." The campaign responds directly to the #DitchtheRule allegations. EPA contends, for example, that the myth that the rule will regulate puddles is "not remotely true." But the criticisms, or misconceptions, depending on your perspective, surrounding the rule are very real in the Heartland.

It remains to be seen how things will shake out when balancing the cost of increased regulation with the benefit of additional clarity in the rule. However, there clearly is a gap in communication and deep mistrust between the EPA and agricultural interests. Though some of the fear may be based in myth, folks in the Heartland want the EPA to tread lightly and take seriously the unintended consequences of the rule for farmers and ranchers. Either way, the rule's polarizing effect has already caught the attention of lawmakers. According to The Hill, more than 260 members of Congress, spanning both parties, have opposed the rule. 

For more background, see: Weighing in on the Waters of the U.S. rule: an update 

The Uprising or Downfall of the Clean Water Act’s Permit Shield

Posted on July 31, 2014 by David Buente

            Section 402(k) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) is commonly known as the “permit shield.”  It has been part of the CWA since 1972.  Even seasoned environmental lawyers would not likely need even one hand to count the number of permit shield cases that mattered to one’s practice.  If you fall into this category, it is time to listen up! 

Background.  Section 402(k) states that compliance with a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit “shall be deemed compliance, for purposes of,” among others, various government enforcement actions and citizens’ suits.  EPA’s regulations make clear that where a party has been issued a permit, if the permit holder complies with the express limits of the permit, the permittee has “the security of knowing that . . . it will not be enforced against for violating some requirements of the [CWA] which was not a requirement of the permit. 45 Fed. Reg. 33,290, 33,311 (May 19, 1980). Federal Register.

            Almost 40 years ago, the Supreme Court in E.I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co. v. Train, confirmed that the purpose of the permit shield is to “insulate permit holders from changes in various regulations during the period of a permit and to relieve them of having to litigate in an enforcement action the question of whether their permits are sufficiently strict.  In short, Section 402(k) serves the purpose of giving permits finality.”

            Train, however, was not the last word on the permit shield.  In 1994, EPA issued a Guidance Memorandum providing its interpretations of the scope of the permit shield.  EPA’s 1994 Guidance explains that:

A permit provides authorization and therefore a shield for the following pollutants             resulting from facility processes, wastestreams and operations that have been clearly identified in the permit application process . . .: (1) Pollutants specifically limited in the   permit or pollutants which the permit, fact sheet, or administrative record explicitly          identify as controlled through indicator parameters.; (2) Pollutants for which the permit authority has not established            limits or other  permit conditions, but which are specifically identified as present in facility discharges during the permit application process; and (3) Pollutants not identified as present [in the facility discharges] but which are constituents of wastestreams, operations, or processes that were clearly identified during the permit application process.

Policy Statement on Scope of Discharge Authorization and Shield Associated with NPDES Permits at 2-3 (July 1, 1994) quoted in In re Ketchikan Pulp Co., CWA Appeal No. 96-7, p. 624 (May 15, 1998).

Shortly thereafter, in 1995, EPA re-issued the July 1994 memorandum entitled Revised Policy of Scope of Discharge Authorization and Shield Associated with NPDES Permits(now known as the “1995 Policy Statement”). The 1995 Policy Statement added qualifying text to the second and third conditions in EPA’s 1994 Guidance document.  In both cases, EPA required that the pollutants for which the permit authority has not established limits or other permit conditions or that were not identified as present but which are constituents of wastestreams, operations or processes had to be “specifically” or “clearly” identified in writing and contained in the administrative record which is available to the public.”  Id. at 2-3.  

Thirteen years later, in Piney Run Pres. Ass’n v. City Comm’rs, 268 F.3d 255 (4th Cir. 2001), the Fourth Circuit held that the permit shield applies to discharges of pollutants not listed in a permit as long as the permittee had adequately disclosed the unlisted pollutants  to the permitting authority.  If the discharger, however, “has not adequately disclosed the nature of its discharges to permit authorities, and as a result thereof the permitting authorities are unaware that unlisted pollutants are being discharged, the discharge of unlisted pollutants has been held to be outside the scope of the permit.”    

            The Piney decision held the day for 13 years with no significant permit shield decisions in the interim. 

Times Are Changing.  After more than a decade of dormancy, the scope of the permit shield is now being tested.  In 2013 and 2014, the DOJ on behalf of EPA has filed – under very quick time frames – two briefs as amici curiae addressing NPDES individual and general permits and providing a more nuanced interpretation of Section 402(k).  DOJ now takes the position that a NPDES permit can shield its holder from liability only where the permit holder (1) complies with the express terms of the permit and with the EPA/State permit application rules; and (2) the permit holder does not make a discharge of pollutants that was not within the reasonable contemplation of the permitting authority at the time the permit was granted.  DOJ made clear that any reliance on prong three from the 1995 EPA guidance “is misplaced” because, in the government’s view, the third prong of the guidance deals with  an entirely different situation – namely, it is intended to cover pollutants where there is no affirmative duty to disclose them during the permit application but where, nonetheless, the applicant has made a complete and adequate disclosure with respect to constituents of wastestreams, operations, or process” that “are clearly identified in writing and contained in the administrative record.  Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards v. A&G Coal Corp., Case No. 13-2050 (4th Cir.), DOJ Brief at 27.

            Then, earlier this year, the Fourth Circuit issued a sharply-worded decision in  Southern Appalachian  Mountain Stewards v. A&G Coal Corp. upholding a lower court’s decision that A&G was not entitled to the permit shield because nowhere in the NPDES application did A&G state that it would be discharging selenium.  The Fourth Circuit did an about face from its decision in Piney based on upon DOJ’s amicus brief and its new disjunctive test, and held that unlike in Piney,  A&G did not disclose the unlisted pollutant adequately and, thus the permit shield was not available. 

            There are two cases pending before the Sixth and the Ninth Circuits that will address the scope of the permit shield.   The Sixth Circuit case – Sierra Club v. ICG Hazard, Inc. – was argued in April, 2013, and the Ninth Circuit case -- Alaska Community Action on Toxics v. Aurora Energy Services, LLC and Alaska Railroad Corp. --  has just recently concluded the briefing process.  DOJ has filed an amicus brief in the Alaska Community Action case which is substantially similar to the one submitted in the A&G Coal litigation.

            Once these decisions are rendered, there may well be a circuit split giving the Supreme Court the opportunity to become the final arbiter of the scope and meaning of Section 402(k)’s permit shield.

Raining On The Cities’ Parades

Posted on July 22, 2014 by Charles F. Becker

Every city of any size wants development.  Some prefer commercial over residential, but they share the common belief that growing is the best way to survive.  The problem that arises, however, is nature. 

Development is, necessarily, hard surfaces.  It is rooftops, streets and driveways.  In other words, it is impervious area.  When rain hits the impervious area, it must be diverted, collected and pushed downstream.  While attempts can be made to allow it to soak into the ground, the reality is that there is simply no way to make up for all of the new impervious area without a great deal of planning, preparation and expense. 

Most attorneys who practice in the area of water regulation have received a call from a business or homeowner that is located at the “bottom of the hill.”  These entities are the ones who are feeling the effects of the urban development.  They have noticed that over the past five or ten years, they have been receiving more and more water to the point that they are now flooding on a routine basis.  They ask the obvious question:  Who is at fault?  Who can pay me for the destroyed basement, the flooded parking lot or the months of work stoppage while repairs are made?

In most states, riparian law prohibits the upstream neighbor from altering the water flow from his/her property in a way that adversely affects the next door neighbor.   But that does not provide a solution when it is the cumulative effect of many upstream neighbors, all of which have been issued permits from the city, that is the root of the problem.

As was recently reported, the stormwater runoff question was called in a recent series of class action cases filed in Illinois by an unlikely plaintiff, the Illinois Farmers Insurance Company.  In the suits, the insurance carrier alleged that 200 cities in Illinois had negligently maintained the stormwater system, had failed to remedy a known dangerous condition and had undertaken an unlawful “taking” in that the government had appropriated the properties of others to use as diversion and retention basins.  The carrier sought to recover amounts it had paid out under flood claims made by their insureds.

Interestingly, about fifty days after filing, Farmers Insurance filed a notice to dismiss the action.  The carrier said that it had successfully brought important issues to the attention of the respective cities and counties and that it hoped to continue a constructive conversation with the cities to build stronger, safer communities.  As one would expect, the spokesman for the cities believed that the dismissal was because the carrier recognized it did not have sufficient grounds for the suit. 

There are some things that local governments are particularly suited to do: manage solid waste, ensure the timely delivery of electricity and coordinate the development and maintenance of streets, for example.  These are matters that potentially affect everyone within the city limits and for which everyone must pay.  There is no better example of this than addressing stormwater that lands on every property in the city.  Having a system in place that safely carries the stormwater away from buildings cannot be done by any single landowner.  And regulating the bigger picture -- building the necessary stormwater infrastructure while encouraging development -- is uniquely within the purview of the city.

It would appear that the proverbial warning shot has been fired across the bow.  If cities are going to encourage activity that significantly exacerbates the stormwater problem, they may also be charged with protecting those that are affected by the fallout from those activities.  For this problem, time, without action, is only going to make the problem worse and the solution more expensive. And counting on the next case being voluntarily dismissed is a lot like hoping the rain won’t fall.      

Reducing Phosphorus to Wisconsin Waters – Another Tool in the Toolkit

Posted on July 2, 2014 by Linda Bochert

Imagine a nutrient reduction program that achieves financially manageable point source reductions while generating new cash for nonpoint source reductions, has bi-partisan support and requires no new state regulatory or fee programs.  Not possible you say?  Meet the Wisconsin Clean Waters, Healthy Economy Act, now codified at Wis. Stat. s. 283.16.

 In prior postings, I have described Wisconsin’s phosphorus reduction rule, including its compliance options of water quality trading and adaptive management. These are innovative alternatives to traditional construction but, unfortunately, not viable for all dischargers.

Now Wisconsin has another tool:  a multi-discharger variance, based on a finding of statewide social and economic impact, available to dischargers that cannot meet the water quality based effluent limitation (WQBEL) for phosphorus without a major facility upgrade.   Under the variance, a point source will still be required to decrease its phosphorus discharge -- meeting interim limitations of 0.8 mg/L, 0.6 mg/L, 0.5 mg/L, and the final WQBEL over four WPDES permit terms; and while doing so will make payments to the counties within its basin, providing cost-share dollars for nonpoint source phosphorus reductions.  At $50/pound for the difference between the actual pounds of phosphorus discharged and the target value of 0.2 mg/L, this is expected to generate real money -- which the counties will use to implement existing, but seriously underfunded, nonpoint source reduction programs.

Because point sources have installed treatment and reduced their phosphorus discharges by 90% or more to meet Wisconsin’s prior technology-based limit of 1.0 mg/L, the remaining primary contributors of phosphorus to our waters are nonpoint sources.  Yet getting funding for nonpoint source controls has been an ongoing, and largely unsuccessful, effort.  For context, the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District (GBMSD) currently removes about 95% of the phosphorus it receives; while the wastewater it discharges accounts for less than 3% of the total phosphorus to the lower Green Bay.  With an investment of $200 million in capital improvements GBMSD could increase its removal to 98% -- a reduction of less than 2% of the total phosphorus load to the bay.   Redirecting significant dollars to nonpoint source programs should be a game-changer.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) has been reissuing WPDES permits with phosphorus WQBELs and compliance schedules based on the phosphorus reduction rule that went into effect in December 2010.  The variance law went into effect on April 25, 2014, but won’t become available to WPDES permit holders until approved by USEPA.  The rule package is expected to be sent to USEPA for approval in January 2015, once the statewide economic impact analysis is completed. 

We have an opportunity for creative and meaningful point source and nonpoint source participation in reducing phosphorus discharges to our waters.  But time is of the essence.  Note to USEPA:  there is much to like here – please don’t let the moment pass us by.

Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act: Cooling Water Intake Requirements

Posted on June 30, 2014 by Philip Ahrens

On May 19, 2014, EPA issued its long-awaited rule establishing requirements under the Clean Water Act for existing power-generating facilities and manufacturing and industrial facilities that withdraw more than 2 million gallons per day from waters of the United States and use at least 25% of the withdrawal exclusively for cooling purposes.  The stated purpose of the Rule is to reduce injury and death to fish and other aquatic life caused by cooling water intake structures at existing power plants and commercial and industrial facilities.  The rule covers approximately 1,065 existing facilities of which slightly more than half are power-generating facilities.  

The Rule as adopted is 559 pages long.  Summarizing a very complex rule of that length is virtually impossible.  Those facilities covered by the Rule will need to study the Rule carefully to learn exactly how it affects their facility.  At the great risk of over-generalization, there are three broad components to the final Rule which are highlighted in the EPA Press Release of May 19, 2014:

Existing facilities that withdraw at least 25% of their water from an adjacent water body exclusively for cooling purposes and have a design intake flow of greater than 2 million gallons per day are required to reduce fish impingement.  To ensure flexibility, the owner or operator of the facility will be able to choose one of seven options for meeting best technology available requirements for reducing impingement.

Facilities that withdraw at least 125 million gallons per day are required to conduct studies to help the permitting authority determine what site-specific entrainment mortality controls, if any, will be required.  This process will include public input.

New units at existing facilities that are built to increase the generating capacity of the facility will be required to reduce the intake flow to a level similar to a closed-cycle recirculation system.

Any facility not covered by EPA’s rules governing cooling water intake structures will continue to be subject to Section 316(b) requirements set by the EPA, state or territory NPDES permitting director on a case-by-case, best available judgment basis.

EPA began its Section 316(b) rulemaking pursuant to a 1995 Consent Decree with a number of environmental organizations.  Whether environmental organizations, the regulated community or anyone else with standing will appeal this latest rulemaking by EPA is anyone’s guess.  Certainly there have been statements made that one or more appeals will be filed.  Who thinks that a rulemaking 20 years in the making will end quietly?

EPA’s RDA Math: 3 + 9 ≠ 1

Posted on June 20, 2014 by David Van Slyke

In a surprising turn of events, on March 12, 2014 EPA Regions 1, 3 and 9 each simultaneously but separately responded, and each in a somewhat different way, to three virtually identical NGO petitions asking those Regions to use their Clean Water Act (“CWA”) Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require that stormwater discharges from impervious surfaces at existing commercial, industrial and institutional (“CII”) sites be permitted under CWA Section 402.  The three petitions were filed in July 2013 by several different and somewhat overlapping consortia of environmental organizations.

The three Regions’ responses were all signed by their respective Regional administrators, each was worded differently, and each included a somewhat similar -- yet somewhat different --explanatory enclosure that detailed the basis of each respective Region’s response.

EPA Region 3’s response is a flat out denial of the petition, citing existing tools and programs already in place to address stormwater pollution (e.g., MS4 permits, TMDL implementation and strong state programs).  The enclosure with the Regional Administrator’s letter denying the petition also states that “Region III declines to begin a process for categorical designation of discharges from CII sites to impaired waters since … the data supplied by the Petitioners to support the exercise of RDA is insufficient.”  The enclosure does note that if the existing programs ultimately do not meet their objectives, alternate tools, including RDA, will need to be considered.

Similarly, EPA Region 9’s response “declines to make a Region-wide designation of the sources” in the petition specific to Region 9.  That response also concludes in the enclosure that “we currently have insufficient information to support a Region-wide designation” of the CII sites specified in the petition, “that effective programs are already in place that address the majority of the sites identified in the petition,” and that the Region will keep designation in their toolbag as they “continue to evaluate currently unregulated sources of stormwater runoff.”

However, Region 1’s response states that it “is neither granting the petition … nor is it denying the petition.”  Instead, the Region is going to evaluate individual watersheds in its six states to look at the nature and extent of impairment caused by stormwater, and then “to determine whether and the extent to which exercise of RDA is appropriate.”

Given the identical language in certain portions of all three of the Regional response enclosures (e.g., Statutory and Regulatory Background; Petition Review Criteria), it is clear that EPA Headquarters was in the thick of the discussions regarding the responses to these three RDA petitions.  However, the apparent autonomy afforded each Region in determining how to deal with the issue is remarkable, and the discussions ultimately may have centered (as they often do at EPA HQ) on resource allocations nationally and within each Region. 

The responses of Regions 3 and 9 imply that their current respective paths, with time, will get results without diverting resources.  EPA Region 1 appears to more fully embrace RDA as a near-term viable tool to more aggressively control stormwater runoff from CII sites.  Apparently, the New England regulators’ successful experience with the Long Creek Watershed RDA and their efforts relative to the RDA process for the Charles River has only whetted their appetite for further candidate areas at which to employ this model to address impaired stormwater. 

Whether the NGOs will seek judicial relief from the denial of their Petitions, whether the states in the USA’s upper right hand corner will be supportive of EPA New England’s continued utilization of this tool, as well as how this issue ultimately will be played by EPA HQ, is fuzzy math.

Beware the Specter of Debarment

Posted on May 8, 2014 by Tom Sansonetti

Debarment is the process whereby the federal government can permanently prevent a company from doing business with the federal government or suspend a company from doing business with the federal government for a period of years.  The debarment process has been available for decades to the United States to be used against companies or persons whom the government believes are untrustworthy. For instance, removal from EPA’s list of violating facilities requires agency evaluation of corporate attitude. But the Obama Administration has broadened the scope of the process to potentially ensnare many an unsuspecting entity.

The debarment process as it currently exists has resulted in the following scenarios:

A. An oil company in the Rocky Mountain region settled a regulatory violation with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and as part of the agreement paid a substantial seven figure fine and adopted new procedures designed to prevent a reoccurrence of the violation and a two-year period of probation.  Imagine the surprise of the company’s managers and in-house lawyers when eighteen months after the settlement was executed, they received a Notice of Debarment for a three-year period preventing the use of their federal leases requiring new permits.

B. A wind farm owner that was convicted for killing bald eagles discovered that the company could not sell future electricity production to a federal facility.

C. An oil and gas company that pleaded guilty to a Clean Water Act spill faced debarment from being able to bid on federal oil and gas leases for five years.

Companies or persons found to be in violation of civil or criminal statutes or departmental regulations are subject to debarment.  While in egregious cases debarments can be perpetual, most debarments are for a period of three to nine years.  Debarments do not affect a company’s current government contracts, but do affect renewals of those contracts or the need for new permits on federal lands.  The debarments are company-wide.  Consequently, the above-mentioned wind farm owner also could not sell its electricity produced from its coal fired power plants to federal facilities.

Debarment proceedings are administered by the various Offices of Debarment, located within each cabinet department, with the closest responsibility for enforcing the law that was violated.  Thus, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Debarment (staffed by the Inspector General’s personnel) handles violations of fish and wildlife, public lands and Indian law.  Environmental Protection Agency lawyers in the grants and debarment program handle debarment proceedings authorized by Section 508 of the Clean Water Act or Section 306 of the Clean Air Act.

Upon the entry of a federal court judgment or consent decree a representative of the Department of Justice, often an Assistant United States Attorney, forwards the document to the appropriate cabinet department’s Office of Debarment.  The government deems debarment proceedings to be separate from the underlying litigation.  Agreements to avoid debarment may not be a condition of any plea bargain or consent decree.  Adverse outcomes after executive branch debarment hearings may be appealed to a federal district court under deferential Administrative Procedures Act standards. 

Navigating “Navigable” Waters

Posted on April 21, 2014 by Earl Phillips

Whether a wetland or modest stream is subject to Clean Water Act regulation as a “navigable water” of the United States (navigable in law) remains a muddy question. In Rapanos v. United States, the Supreme Court established a two-part test for determining CWA jurisdiction: the body of water must be “relatively permanent” and it must be adjacent (have a continuous surface connection) to navigable waters. Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion says waters or wetlands sharing a “significant nexus” with traditionally navigable waters are subject to CWA jurisdiction.

In 2011, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) released draft guidance on “waters of the United States” which expanded the waters over which the agencies planned to assert CWA jurisdiction, compared to pre-Rapanos. Then, in September 2013, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board released a draft scientific report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters,” for public comment, stating that the final version of the report would be the basis for a joint EPA and ACOE rule on CWA jurisdiction.  On March 25, 2014, the two agencies released a proposed rule stating that all tributaries of traditional navigable waters and interstate waters, and adjacent water bodies, are automatically jurisdictional because they share a “significant nexus” with navigable waters. The proposed rule appears to assert default jurisdiction over many seasonal and rain-dependent streams and wetlands near rivers and streams, provided they are “tributaries.” Beyond this, the proposed rule states that jurisdiction over other types of waters with more uncertain connections to downstream waters—such as unidirectional waters, non-adjacent wetlands, and other waters outside of flood zones and riparian areas—will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The official version of the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register yesterday with public comments due in ninety days.

Parties understandably confused can petition for case-specific jurisdictional determinations. While a decision on such a petition may be definitive, courts have refused to allow judicial review of such decisions because they are not “final decisions” under the Administrative Procedure Act. In Belle Co., LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal district court noted that jurisdictional determinations do not impose any new or additional legal rights or obligations, but merely remind the party of existing duties under the CWA. By contrast, the Supreme Court determined in Sackett v. EPA that compliance orders issued by the ACOE or EPA following or flowing from jurisdictional determinations are subject to judicial review. 

Adding to the challenge of navigating these uncertain legal waters, many states and municipalities have expanded their statutory definitions of “waters” (e.g. artificial features and groundwater) and “wetlands” (e.g. soil types and buffers) to increase the breadth and depth of state and local regulation. So, update your navigational charts and prepare for some challenging sailing! 

EPA Finalizes Revisions to Stormwater Permitting Rule for Construction Sites

Posted on April 21, 2014 by Daniel Riesel

 

New EPA Rule to Have Broad Implications for Construction Industry; Describes Required Best Management Practices for Stormwater

 

EPA recently finalized revisions to the effluent limitations rules for the Construction and Development (“C&D”) point source category under the Clean Water Act. The revisions will take effect on May 5th, and reflect the terms of a settlement agreement between EPA and the Wisconsin Builders Association, the National Association of Home Builders, and the Utility Water Act Group. See Wisconsin Builders Association v. EPA, No. 09-4413 (7th Cir. 2012). 

The groups challenged EPA’s 2009 Effluent Limitations Guidelines for the Construction and Development Industry, known as the 2009 C&D Rule, arguing that the rule was unworkable and reflected incorrect calculations, and that compliance could cost stakeholders up to $10 billion annually.

The new revisions to the C&D rule eliminate the numeric limitations for turbidity in stormwater discharges from construction sites, in favor of non-numeric effluent controls and best management practices for reducing the effects of erosion and scour on water quality.  EPA had previously included numeric limitations for turbidity in its 2009 C&D rule but had stayed implementation of those limitations as a result of several legal challenges to the rule. 

The C&D rule has wide-ranging applicability, as it typically covers construction activities such as clearing, grading, and excavating at sites where one or more acres of land will be disturbed.  Improperly managed soil at construction sites can easily be washed off during storms and has the potential to negatively impact nearby water bodies. 

Under the stormwater permitting rule, construction site owners and operators are generally required to:

  • implement erosion and sediment controls;
  • stabilize soils;
  • manage dewatering activities;
  • implement pollution prevention measures;
  • provide and maintain buffers around surface waters;
  • prohibit certain discharges, such as motor fuel and concrete washout; and
  • utilize surface outlets for discharges from basins and impoundments.

The new revisions to EPA's stormwater permitting standards may have implications for states that have issued construction-related stormwater permits since 2009. For projects in New York State, for example, the Department of Environmental Conservation Construction General Permit (“CGP”) expires in 2015; any necessary updates to the CGP resulting from the EPA C&D rule are likely to be incorporated into the revised CGP permit due in 2015.

Ashes to Ashes; Waters to Waters – The Death of EPA’s Water Transfer Rule?

Posted on April 8, 2014 by Robert M Olian

On March 28, 2014, a federal district court vacated EPA’s “Water Transfer Rule,” which had sought to clarify EPA’s position that transfers of water between navigable bodies of water do not require NPDES permits. See Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Inc. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency (SDNY, 3/28/2014). The Water Transfer Rule, codified at 40 CFR  § 122.3(i), was the presumptive culmination of a long and meandering trail of EPA regulatory interpretation, guidance memoranda and judicial opinions, including a trip to the United States Supreme Court in the case of South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, 541 U.S. 95 (2004).

The Catskill ruling is notable in several respects. First, it came from a district court. After the Supreme Court ruled, in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, that district courts, rather than appellate courts, have jurisdiction in certain situations to review such regulations -- even if the suits are brought years after the rules were promulgated, the Eleventh Circuit held in Friends of the Everglades v. EPA that it lacked original jurisdiction over a challenge to the water transfer rulemaking, a ruling that the Supreme Court declined to review.

Second, the district court did not stay its ruling pending appeal, though appeal is a virtual certainty. Thus, the permit status of various water transferors who relied on the rule (irrigation districts, dam operators, water utilities, etc.) is now in limbo until a higher court reviews the Catskill decision or EPA promulgates a temporary fix. Any such fix, by the way, may be hard to come by in light of the district court’s expressed views about EPA’s misinterpretation of Congressional intent.

Third, the opinion contains language about the definition of “navigable waters” that does not quite align with EPA’s and the Corps’ imminent release of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing that very definition.

At this time, then, the only certainty is that litigation over the Water Transfer Rule will continue to flow. 

Minefields (Still) Ahead: EPA’s Improved Good Samaritan Policy for Abandoned Mines Doesn’t Pan Out

Posted on April 7, 2014 by Zach C. Miller

For over forty years, the risk of incurring major liability under the Clean Water Act (CWA) has effectively discouraged “Good Samaritan” volunteers from cleaning up abandoned hardrock mine sites throughout the U.S. Past efforts to amend the CWA to remove this disincentive have been blocked, based in part on the assumption that EPA policies alone should be sufficient to remove the threat of CWA liability and effectively encourage such cleanups. 

In the words of the Gold Rush prospectors, that assumption and related agency policies have simply not panned out. A Good Samaritan Initiative adopted by EPA in 2007 and clarified and “improved” in 2012 has had virtually no effect on removing this threat of CWA liability or causing actual cleanups involving water impacts to occur. Meanwhile, willing Good Samaritans continue to be discouraged from conducting useful remedial actions, and these problem sites remain untouched.

During this same period, flexible state and federal “brownfield” and voluntary cleanup programs have cleaned up hundreds of former industrial sites and revitalized key urban areas, including in lower downtown Denver. But some members of Congress have rigidly refused to apply similar common-sense approaches to abandoned mine sites.

The time has come to recognize that informal agency policies encouraging these voluntary mine cleanups have not fixed and legally cannot solve this long-standing problem and to embrace the practical types of legislative approaches that have worked in the urban brownfield programs. The Good Samaritan CWA amendments introduced in 2013 by Senator Udall and others offer just such a practical solution. Past opponents of such legislation should acknowledge that agency efforts alone cannot remove the existing disincentive for cleaning up these sites and should support this modest, practical step to facilitate these mine cleanups.  

The Problem. According to the GAO, there are over 160,000 abandoned hardrock mines, mainly in the western U.S., that can leach heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic into the environment. EPA’s estimate is over three times higher. EPA further estimates that historic mines have contaminated over 40 percent of the watersheds in the west and would cost more than $35 billion to clean up. These former mines are considered “orphan” sites, because their owners and operators are either dead, defunct or insolvent.

Remediating these sites has proven to be an intractable problem for several reasons. One is the technical difficulties and enormous costs of remediating such sites in full compliance with applicable environmental laws. Another is the risk of incurring substantial liabilities or obligations under those laws for a non-compliant or partial clean up.

The Disincentive. While CERCLA contains a “Good Samaritan” provision that shields qualified non-liable volunteers from incurring liability under that law when they conduct voluntary remedial actions, the Clean Water Act (CWA) currently contains no such exemption. Because the most serious of these abandoned mine sites involve impacts to water quality, this threat of CWA liability has severely inhibited both private Good Samaritans and state and local governments from conducting common-sense, voluntary cleanups that would significantly improve the affected watersheds.

Beginning in 1995 and continuing to the present, Senator Baucus and others have introduced various “Good Samaritan” amendments to the CWA aimed at removing this major legal disincentive. However, because the amendments would have allowed less than full compliance with otherwise applicable water quality standards and discharge permit requirements, certain NGOs and members of Congress to date have strongly opposed and defeated such efforts.

This well-intentioned opposition has been misguided and a classic instance of the perfect being the enemy of the good. By demanding that remediation of these orphan sites be fully compliant and permitted without exception, only a handful of minor abandoned mine cleanups involving water have occurred during the last four decades.

Ineffective EPA Initiative. To address this Congressional logjam and currently discouraged Good Samaritans, EPA has laudably attempted to address this disincentive by adopting in 2007 an administrative “Good Samaritan Initiative”. The Initiative consisted of an EPA statement of Interim Principles and a “Comfort Letter” and model settlement agreement offered to non-liable entities that volunteer to remediate abandoned hardrock mines. This initial guidance focused primarily on the fact that, under the CERCLA 121(e) “permit shield,” no permit would be required under the CWA or other laws while an on-site CERCLA “removal” action was occurring. However, that guidance did not address the fundamental question troubling Good Samaritans about what happens once the removal is completed but some discharge unavoidably continues. As a result, that Initiative did little to allay those concerns and had no appreciable effect on increasing efforts to remediate abandoned mines with water impacts.

In recognition of that ineffectiveness, EPA in December 2012 attempted to bolster its 2007 Initiative by issuing a guidance Memorandum describing two clarifications to the 2007 Guidance. The first was that a CERCLA removal action could be extended through periodic monitoring or other activities, which would lengthen the period when the CERCLA permit shield would apply. However, the prospect of being engaged in a very-long-term CERCLA action has neither enthused Good Samaritans nor addressed their root concern about CWA liability once the CERCLA action is done.

To address that key issue, EPA further clarified that, based on the application of five listed factors, a Good Samaritan cleaning up an abandoned mine “might” not be considered by EPA to be a liable “operator” required to obtain an NPDES discharge permit. All of those factors relate to whether the volunteer has the “power or responsibility” to access the site and control the ongoing discharge after its remedial action is finished.

While issued with much fanfare in 2012, this “improved” Good Samaritan Initiative has again had virtually no effect on addressing the concerns of potential volunteers or increasing cleanups of these sites, for several reasons. First, EPA has emphasized that this Initiative merely explains its current interpretation but is not binding on EPA, third party NGOs, or the courts and “may not be relied on to create a right or benefit … by any person.” Not exactly the assurance that Good Samaritans want and need. Second, EPA stresses that this guidance applies only to Good Samaritans at orphan mine sites, but the factors for determining whether an entity is a CWA-liable “operator” cannot be unique to those parties. As a result, potential Good Samaritans have rightly been skeptical whether they can make any potential CWA liability vanish simply by arranging that their right to access and conduct operations on the affected site terminates upon completion of some defined task. If a mining lessee or contractor attempted such an arrangement, EPA and the courts no doubt would reject any claim it was not a CWA-liable operator. There currently is no legal basis to treat volunteers any differently. This point also offers no comfort to a governmental volunteer, who likely will always have the power of access and thus trigger operator liability.

The 2012 memo also repeatedly indicates that, if a Good Samaritan is not deemed a responsible operator, then the site owner would be required to comply with NPDES permitting requirements. But EPA ignores the fact that, at these orphan sites, there simply is no owner (unless it is the U.S., which to date has largely ignored its own liability).

Over a year after issuance of this “improved” Good Samaritan Initiative, it is clear that this EPA policy has been ineffective in increasing mine cleanups or addressing the CWA legal disincentive for such actions. To the contrary, several groups dedicated to these voluntary efforts have made clear that these nonbinding agency guidance documents have had little to no impact, and the groups’ efforts continue to be stymied in the absence of effective legislative reform.

The Proposed Legislative Fix. To address this problem, Colorado Senators Udall and Bennett have introduced S. 1443, the Good Samaritan Cleanup of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act of 2013. The bill creates a new Good Samaritan Permit under the CWA, to be issued by EPA or an approved State or Tribe, that would authorize a Good Samaritan volunteer to conduct a specified remedial action at an abandoned mine site. Those actions could include relocating waste rock, re-routing drainages, establishing wetlands, and similar measures that would greatly improve watershed conditions, but they would not need to result in complete compliance with otherwise applicable water quality standards or require a long-term discharge permit. Compliance with that special permit would then shield the volunteer from liability under the CWA and cure the current disincentive for volunteers willing to address these sites.

This huge, languishing problem of abandoned hardrock mine sites needs a solution. This bill isn’t perfect. But it’s a good start. Let’s get started.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Posted on February 7, 2014 by Richard Glick

The Western states face two reciprocating and overarching problems in water resources policy.  First, water is an increasingly scarce resource facing sharply competitive needs. Climate change is projected to put even more strain on water supplies. Second, most streams listed as water-quality impaired in the West are designated as such for issues related to the biological integrity of the waterway. The combination of aggressive human use of waters, manipulation of stream channels, and failure to control agricultural runoff has resulted in widespread degradation of aquatic habitat.

The primary impediment to addressing these related issues arises from dated legal constructs designed to achieve different objectives in eras with markedly different economies. In other words, trying to apply these constructs to today’s problems is like attempting to fit square pegs into round holes.

The doctrine of prior appropriation governs water rights everywhere in the West.  It was developed in the 19th century to promote mining and agriculture—both water intensive enterprises—in arid climates. The doctrine provides that the first to physically take control of the water and put it to beneficial use has priority over later comers. Thus, the oldest water rights with the highest priorities are mostly agricultural, and many streams have become over-appropriated during the past century. So where does a growing community go for new water supplies? And what about maintaining sufficient high-quality flows instream for healthy fisheries?

The problem is made more acute by the formidable costs and regulatory uncertainty of developing major water storage projects. Many cities seek to acquire or share in old agricultural water rights through direct payments to water right holders or they finance irrigation system improvements for more efficient use of water. Such water marketing approaches free up water for municipal use, while reducing pressure to remove still more water from oversubscribed streams. But if a legislature could have anticipated then what we know now, might it a century ago have considered systems that allocate water based more on maximum public value and efficient use, rather than simply priority in time?

The Clean Water Act was enacted over 40 years ago to address toxic discharges of industrial and sewage wastewater to rivers and lakes.  Dramatic events like the spontaneous ignition of the Cuyahoga River drove public demand for government intervention, leading to the new law. The Act has done a remarkable job of cleaning up end-of-pipe discharges (point sources), but has largely failed at controlling more diffuse sources of pollution (nonpoint sources) from stream channelization, devegetation of riparian habitat and agricultural runoff. Thus, many streams today are impaired by turbidity, nutrient loading, and higher temperatures.

Since the Act does not provide enforcement tools for nonpoint sources, regulatory agencies use the authority available to them to ratchet up controls on point sources. One solution to this problem is water-quality trading, in which a point source permittee can take watershed-restorative action upstream to correct a nonpoint pollution problem in order to meet escalating permit requirements. This approach can yield better ecological outcomes at lower cost. But if Congress were drafting the Clean Water Act today, any rational approach would address the problem of diffuse sources of pollution.

It seems unrealistic to expect substantive changes to either the law of prior appropriation or the Clean Water Act any time soon. Aside from the politics, changes to prior appropriation raise significant constitutional questions to the extent property rights are affected. In the meantime, we’ll have to continue looking for creative workarounds. This circumstance makes interesting work for lawyers, but is hardly the optimal approach to effective water resource use and protection.

A SWING AND A MISS -- The First Reported Challenge to Water Quality Trading is Dismissed for Lack of Standing

Posted on January 24, 2014 by Allan Gates

EPA has touted water quality trading for more than a decade as a viable tool for combating water pollution, particularly pollution due to excess nutrients and sediment.  But the Clean Water Act contains no express authority for water quality trading or offsets, and some environmental groups view trading as a “license to pollute” that violates the Clean Water Act’s promise to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into waters of the United States.

Last month a federal district court issued a final ruling in the first reported challenge to the legality of water quality trading.  The court dismissed the action without reaching the legality of water quality trading.   Instead, the court held that the plaintiff environmental groups (Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth) lacked standing and that EPA’s  “authorization” of trading in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL was not a final agency action.  Food and Water Watch v. EPA, No. 1:12-cv-01639 (D.D.C. decided December 13, 2013).

Although the court’s decision did not address the substantive legality of water quality trading, the case still presents four interesting aspects that may prove instructive on what to expect in future challenges.

First, environmental groups split over the question of joining the challenge to water quality trading.  It is widely rumored that Food and Water Watch actively solicited support from environmental groups involved in Chesapeake Bay issue but met with stiff resistance. It appears that the other environmental groups’ support for the Chesapeake Bay TMDL overrode any interest they might otherwise have had in supporting a challenge to the legality of water quality trading.

Second, the defense of water quality trading made for strange bedfellows.  Three parties intervened as defendants.  One was a group representing municipal point source dischargers who support the Chesapeake Bay TMDL (National Association of Clean Water Agencies).  Two were non point source groups who are actively challenging the legality of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL in another case (American Farm Bureau and National Association of Home Builders).  The non-point source representatives argued that the trading component of the Bay TMDL would be important and valuable to their members if their challenge to the validity of the Bay TMDL in the other case was unsuccessful.

Third, the court’s decision on standing, ripeness, and the question of final agency action suggests it may be difficult to litigate the basic legality of water quality trading until a program is fully established and permits allowing credit for trades are issued.  EPA argued successfully that no actual or imminent injury to the plaintiffs was caused by the Chesapeake Bay TMDL’s express reference to trading as a means for meeting the waste load allocations.  According to this argument, the TMDL did not compel any trades; it simply acknowledged that states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed might use trading as a tool in developing permits that implement the TMDL.  Carrying this argument to its logical conclusion, one could envision the possibility that there would be no basis for private party standing to challenge the legality of a trading program until after a stream has been listed as impaired, a TMDL has been performed, a trading program has been established, and permits have been issued allowing credits for trades within the program.  Litigating the legality of water quality trading at such a late stage would presumably face a significant task in unwinding the momentum of such a fully developed administrative structure.

Fourth, given the success of EPA’s standing and ripeness arguments, it seems unlikely that there will be any definitive judicial ruling on the legality of water quality trading any time soon.  The partisan division in Congress makes clarifying legislative action even less likely.  As a consequence, EPA’s success in defending against the Food and Water Watch lawsuit may have the ironic result of postponing the day when states and permit holders will have a clear and definitive answer regarding the basic legality of water quality trading.

A Card Laid Is A Card Played: EPA Is Subject To Sackett Review Even After Withdrawing An Enforcement Order

Posted on December 19, 2013 by Theodore Garrett

In Sackett v. EPA, the Supreme Court held that pre-enforcement review is available to challenge an order concluding that parties had violated the Clean Water Act by filling a wetland without a permit.  Practitioners have wondered whether, in response to Sackett, EPA would take steps to avoid review, such as by issuing warning letters instead of orders.  In a recent case, EPA employed another tactic.  EPA withdrew an enforcement order, hoping thereby to avoid judicial review under Sackett by claiming that the case was now moot.  Not so fast, a court in West Virginia concluded, EPA’s position is still reviewable.    Alt v. EPA, 2013 WL 5744778 (N.D. W.Va. No. 2:12–CV–42, Oct. 23, 2013), available here

In the Alt case, EPA issued an enforcement order against Lois Alt, the owner of a poultry farm, on the grounds that Alt failed to obtain a Clean Water permit for storm water discharges that allegedly contained manure.  Alt filed suit in U.S. District Court in West Virginia challenging the EPA order based on the Supreme Court’s Sackett decision.  The American Farm Bureau intervened because of concern over EPA’s position on agricultural storm water.  

Subsequently, EPA withdrew the order against Alt, nominally because Alt had taken steps to remedy environmental harm -- or did EPA foresee an unhappy ending in court?  In any event, EPA filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit as moot.  Alt opposed EPA’s motion to dismiss, arguing that EPA would likely resume its unlawful conduct after the case is dismissed.  The district court denied the motion on the grounds that EPA had not changed its underlying position concerning whether the discharges were agricultural storm water exempt from permit requirements.  The district court noted that EPA reserved the possibility of reissuing the order if there was a significant change in the poultry farm’s operations, and the intervenors showed that EPA’s alleged assertion of authority can be expected to continue.  In short, EPA’s position was reviewable even though the order that provoked the lawsuit had been withdrawn  by EPA.  As Jimmy Reed said in his classic blues song, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

If that wasn’t enough to ruin EPA’s day, the court went on to reach the merits of EPA’s position concerning the need for a NPDES permit and granted summary judgment for Alt.  The court held that no permit was required because the discharges were exempt as “agricultural storm water discharges.”  The court rejected EPA’s argument that the discharges did not have an agricultural purpose, concluding that the poultry operation was agricultural, that the incidental manure was related to the raising of poultry, and that the runoff from the farm was storm water caused by precipitation.

The Alt decision is significant both for its review of an EPA position underlying an order that had been withdrawn and for its decision concerning the agricultural storm water exemption.

Cooling Water Intake Rules – Will This Turkey Arrive for the Holidays?

Posted on November 7, 2013 by Molly Cagle

Quoting our colleague Philip Ahrens, “We shall see” indeed.

Invoking force majeure due to the 16-day government shutdown, EPA has again (for the third time) delayed the issuance of the Clean Water Act 316(b) rules past the November 4, 2013 deadline most recently agreed to in its settlement with Riverkeeper.  It remains to be seen if EPA will deliver the 316(b) rules on November 20, 2013 – just in time for a little light reading over your turkey dinner – or seek a further extension with Riverkeeper.  EPA and environmentalists are now in talks for a new deadline, so you can probably head home to enjoy your  turkey and sides at Thanksgiving without toting home a Federal Register package to disrupt your holiday.

Advocates for a more stringent set of rules appear to have used the latest delay to secure political support from a group of House Democrats that recently encouraged EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to require power plants and other industrial facilities to install closed-cycle cooling water technologies not just to save local ecosystems, but also to respond to climate change.  According to the elected officials, “Closed-cycle cooling structures would ensure greater energy grid security and reduce ecological harm in a warming world.”  That’s a pretty incredible statement all around given that, although the cooling water intake rules have been embroiled in a multi-decade-long saga of regulations and litigation about entrainment and impingement of fish, they have never been about a meaningful assessment of the ecological impact of various entrainment and impingement rates in various types of water bodies.  In fact, the proposed rule completely failed to take into account significant variations in different types of waterbodies.

Given the proposed 316(b) rules, EPA is unlikely to jump on the closed-cycle cooling bandwagon and abandon a more flexible approach.  The Democratic Congressmen say in their letter that flexibility unfairly burdens state environmental protection agencies.  Environmentalist say that the flexible approach will bring more litigation because the proposed approach is not lawful.  Industry groups continue to prefer flexibility as it allows them options such as upgraded screens, barrier nets, reduced intake velocity, fish return systems – technologies that would lead to reduced impingement and entrainment but cost far less than retrofitting plants with cooling towers and other high-energy technologies.  So industry too remains primed for challenge.  At stake is the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades for an ill-defined environmental benefit.  

While it’s anyone’s guess when the rules will come out, it does seem reasonable to predict that whenever they emerge, the lawsuits will follow.

USEPA Proposes Revisions to the Water Quality Standards Program Under the Clean Water Act

Posted on October 23, 2013 by Kevin Beaton

On September 4, 2013 EPA published proposed changes to its Water Quality Standards Rule at 40 CFR Part 131 (WQS Rule).  The proposal is styled “regulatory clarifications” but the proposal represents the most significant changes made to the WQS Rule in some thirty years.  The WQS Rule currently sets forth the minimum conditions that must be met in each State’s or Tribe’s water quality standards before EPA can approve them under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Increasingly over the years, state water quality standard decisions have been the driver behind required stringent permit limits in NPDES Permits, TMDLs for impaired waters and lawsuits against EPA.  The proposed rule is mostly an attempt to codify exciting EPA guidance and practices to ensure national consistency and “transparency.”  Many of the proposed changes were generally discussed in EPA’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) on water quality standards published in 1998 and many come from the Great Lakes Water Quality Guidance at 40 CFR Part 132.

First EPA is proposing to amend the use attainability analysis (UAA) requirements found in the current rule to now require a state or Tribe to identify the highest attainable use (HAU) and the water quality criteria to protect the HAU in any UAA.  A UAA is a structured analysis a State or Tribe can undertake to attempt to demonstrate to EPA that the so called “fishable and swimmable” uses required under the CWA are not attainable based on a number of factors.  These factors include low flows, natural or physical conditions, human caused conditions which cannot be remedied, dams, or because controls to achieve attainment would be too expensive.  At least in the Northwest, EPA have been very reluctant to approve UAAs because the agency has a “rebuttable presumption” that fishable uses and swimmable uses are attainable (some might call it an irrebuttable presumption) and implicitly that it is never too expensive to remedy water quality problems.  Requiring states and Tribes to also adopt a new HAU in connection with a UAA along with associated criteria may make the UAA an even less viable CWA off-ramp.

Speaking of off-ramps, the proposed rule also sets forth the conditions under which a state or Tribe can adopt “variances” to water quality standards for individual or groups of NPDES permittees.  Variances are merely referenced in the current WQS Rule and have been viewed as a “UAA lite.”  Variances are codified in water quality standards (subject to approval by EPA) and allow individual dischargers or groups of NPDES Permits to temporarily exceed water quality based effluent limits based on the same factors which justify a UAA.  EPA articulates in the proposal that it believes variances have been underutilized and therefore sets forth the conditions which the Agency will grant variances for an individual or groups of NPDES permittees.  (e.g. Demonstrate temporary unattainability, maximum timeline of 10 years and protect the HAU during the variance.)  Whether the proposal will lead to more variances may be doubtful.  EPA has typically been unwilling to approve variances for industrial or commercial dischargers (although they are more flexible with municipalities) because pollution controls to meet WQS are seemingly never too expensive.

As my colleague Patricia Barmeyer notes in her recent post, the proposed rule also proposes changes to antidegradation implementation procedures that are somewhat consistent with current practices and guidance by providing some flexibility in how states protect high quality waters and a specific requirement that states must first require dischargers to implement “practicable” pollution controls that minimize or eliminate any degradation to high quality before allowing the discharge.  “Practicable” is not defined but if this term is implemented in the same way as proving economic hardship in a UAA or variance then new and increased discharges could be subject to additional (and expensive) hurdles in going through antidegradation reviews.  Finally, the proposed rule addresses compliance schedules in NPDES permits consistent with current practice and specifies the conditions under which the EPA Administrator will make determinations that a water quality standard does not meet the requirements of the CWA.  Comments on the proposed rule are due on December 3, 2013 (unless an extension is granted).

Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act – Cooling Water Intake Requirements – Update on EPA and State of Maine Actions

Posted on October 21, 2013 by Philip Ahrens

Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act requires that the location, design, construction and capacity of cooling water intake structures reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact.  Although the statutory language is straight-forward, EPA continues to face – and create – enormous difficulties in promulgating the rules to implement Section 316(b).

The latest in a series of rulemaking efforts began on April 20, 2011 when EPA published a proposed rule to protect fish from being killed at water intake structures that withdraw at least 2,000,000 gallons per day from waters of the United States and use at least 25% of that water exclusively for cooling purposes.  Pursuant to a judicial Settlement Agreement with the environmental group Riverkeeper and other organizations, EPA was required to issue the revised rule by July 27, 2012. 

When EPA was unable to issue its new rule by the court-approved date, it entered into a Second Amendment to the Settlement Agreement with Riverkeeper and other organizations.  That Agreement required that “Not later than June 27, 2013, the EPA Administrator shall sign for publication in the Federal Register a notice of its final action pertaining to issuance of requirements for implementing Section 316(b) of the CWA at existing facilities.” 

On June 18, 2013, nine days before the June 27 deadline for publication of notice of final action, EPA initiated Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7 consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.  EPA has been criticized for many years for its failure to initiate Section 7 ESA consultation during rulemaking.  With the agreement of Riverkeeper and the other plaintiffs, a revised Settlement Agreement now allows a delay in the issuance of the final rule until November 4, more than four months after the June 27, 2013 deadline. 

Although the revised Settlement Agreement allows time for Section 7 consultation, it does not appear to allow time for review of the rule by the White House Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs. 

Given the delays that have been experienced to date on this rule, coupled with the delays engendered by the government shutdown, it seems doubtful that EPA will be able to meet the new November 4, 2013 deadline for issuance of its cooling water intake rule.  We shall see.

EPA Proposes to Take Away State Discretion on Antidegradation Analysis

Posted on October 14, 2013 by Patricia Barmeyer

One basic premise of the Clean Water Act is that EPA sets minimum standards but allows the States some latitude, in some areas, to design their own programs to meet their own needs.  One area where the States have traditionally been allowed flexibility is the antidegradation analysis required for any new or expanded discharge, to assure that high quality waters are not degraded.  However, in a notice published September 4, EPA is proposing to amend the federal antidegradation rule to require a review of alternative treatment levels for every permit and to require selection of the “least degrading alternative” in each case.  The proposed rule would have a dramatic effect in Georgia, and perhaps in some other states. 

The current antidegradation rule--both the federal rule and the Georgia rule--provides that the quality of high quality waters shall be maintained unless “allowing water quality is necessary to accommodate important economic or social development in the area….”  In Georgia the longstanding process, approved by EPA, is that the state Environmental Protection Division determines whether the proposed discharge is “necessary” by considering any no-discharge alternatives, such as land application.  If the no-discharge alternative is not feasible and the agency concludes, after public input, that the proposed discharge has significant positive economic or social value, then EPD considers the antidegradation analysis complete.  The agency then proceeds to apply the water quality regulations to determine effluent limitations and other permit conditions. 

Under EPA’s proposal, the antidegradation analysis would mandate a consideration of a full range of alternatives that could prevent or minimize the degradation that would result with the proposed activity, so long as they are “practicable.”  As proposed, this would apply not only to industrial dischargers but also to POTWs, even though the Clean Water Act clearly provides for less stringent technology for public facilities.  The result would be to require substantial expenditures on additional controls even if they are not needed and even if they will produce negligible water quality benefits. 

This very issue has been the subject of debate and litigation in Georgia for the past ten years.  It has enormous implications, because Georgia has declared that all its waters are “high quality” and subject to the Tier 2 requirements.  The environmental community in Georgia has long argued that the determination that a proposed discharge is “necessary” must be supported by a demonstration that the facility, even a POTW, has employed the highest level of treatment that is technologically and economically feasible.  In their view, if a facility can implement better controls, it must, without regard to a cost-benefit analysis and whether or not the lower standard would have any impact on water quality.  The Georgia experience counsels against EPA’s proposal to impose a “one-size-fits-all” antidegradation analysis on all 50 states.

Illicit PCB Dumping Prompts Emergency Regulation

Posted on October 1, 2013 by Thomas Lavender

On September 25, 2013 the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) filed an emergency regulation in response to multiple occurrences of illegal dumping of substances containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into multiple sewer systems across the State. The Emergency Regulation took effect immediately upon filing and remains in effect for ninety (90) days.  SCDHEC acknowledged the existence of an ongoing investigation into the origin of the materials, including state and federal authorities.  SCDHEC noted that there was currently no known impact to public health or any confirmed discharge to surface water bodies.  It is also believed that publicly-owned treatment works (POTWs) in states bordering South Carolina have recently detected PCBs in their systems.

In August, SCDHEC had acknowledged that PCBs had been detected in several POTWs in the Greenville-Spartanburg area of the State.  Concurrent with the filing of the Emergency Regulation, the agency announced that PCBs had now been detected in a POTW in the Columbia, SC area.

Some South Carolina wastewater treatment systems are permitted for the land application of their sludge.  Based on the suspected criminal activity, DHEC has determined the need for specific regulations limiting the land application of sludge containing detectable levels of PCBs.  The Emergency Regulation addresses the land application of sludge from wastewater treatment systems and specifically limits land application to sludge containing no detectable levels of PCBs and requires increased testing of sludge, regardless of disposal method, to aid in identifying illegal dumping suspects.  SCDHEC has also informed all of the state’s class III landfill operators and waste water treatment plants of the matter, and provided them guidance regarding proper disposal and reporting any suspicious activity.

SCDHEC issued a Be On the Lookout (BOLO) alert through the State Law Enforcement Division to heighten awareness among law enforcement of illegal dumping and solicit the help of local law enforcement agencies.

Court Upholds Multi-State Chesapeake TMDL

Posted on September 25, 2013 by Ridgway Hall

On September 13, in a 99 page decision, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania upheld EPA’s multi-state Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries against a broad range of challenges brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation and six other farm industry trade associations. Six environmental organizations led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, plus four municipal water associations led by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, intervened in support of EPA.

The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is not the first to cover multiple states, but it is by far the largest, covering 64,000 square miles in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia.  It requires substantial reductions of nitrogen (25%), phosphorus (24%) and sediment (20%) by 2025 to  meet water quality standards.  Because of the interstate nature of the long-standing pollution problems, after more than two decades of collaborative but unsuccessful efforts, the states agreed in 2007 that EPA should develop the TMDL. It was issued in 2010 and included allocations for each of 92 tidal segments which, after consultation with the states, were further allocated among states, watersheds and sectors (such as agriculture, wastewater, stormwater, etc). During the process, each state developed its own Watershed Implementation Plan (“WIP”), specifying  wasteload allocations (“WLA’s”) for point sources, load allocations (“LAs”) for nonpoint sources, and identifying the regulations, programs and resources that would be used to achieve the required reductions. For more on this TMDL see "EPA Issues Biggest TMDL Ever for Chesapeake Bay Watershed" and ELI Environmental ForumThe Chesapeake Bay TMDL” (May/June 2011). 

The plaintiffs alleged that (1) the TMDL was an unauthorized “implementation” of  allocations by EPA, (2) requiring WIPs exceeded EPA’s authority, (3) EPA’s use of watershed and related models in setting the allocations was an abuse of discretion, and (4) there was insufficient public notice.  In addressing these challenges, the court first held (as several others have) that a TMDL is not self-implementing, but is an “informational tool”, developed collaboratively by EPA and the states under CWA Section 303(d), and implemented primarily by the states.

Turning to the merits, the court upheld EPA’s definition of a TMDL for a waterbody or segment as the sum of all WLAs and LAs plus natural background.  It also upheld  EPA’s authority to establish a multi-state TMDL,  when the affected states either fail to do so or ask EPA to do it (both occurred here), including limitations on sources in upstream states to achieve compliance with water quality standards in downstream states. It held that EPA’s “holistic” or “watershed-wide approach” was consistent with the broad national goals of the CWA to “restore … our Nation’s waters.” In reaching this result the court emphasized the collaborative efforts of the Bay states and EPA starting in 1983 to address the problems of interstate pollution, transported by rivers and tides, and their consensus that an EPA-led multistate effort was needed.

The court further held that the WIPs – new tools in the TMDL context – were authorized as part of the “continuing planning process” under CWA Section 303(e). This process is initiated by the states to achieve water quality goals, and is subject to review and approval by EPA. Because EPA had advised the states in letters what it expected in terms of general content and specificity in the WIPs, but left the details to the states, the court held EPA did not exceed its authority. The court also relied on CWA Section 117(g) - a Chesapeake Bay-specific provision - requiring EPA to “ensure that management plans are developed and implementation is begun by [all the affected states] to achieve and maintain…” the applicable water quality goals.

The plaintiffs also challenged EPA’s requirement that each WIP contain “reasonable assurances” of timely and effective implementation, and EPA’s use of “backstop” allocations where EPA determined that a WIP provision was deficient.  “Backstops” involved requiring NPDES permits from previously unregulated sources. The court held that EPA could properly require “reasonable assurance” under CWA 303(d)(1), which requires a TMDL must be “established at a level necessary to implement the applicable water quality standards.”  The court upheld “backstops”, which were only used in 3 instances, as a reasonable exercise of EPA’s authority under CWA 303(d)(2) to ensure that the contents of the TMDL are designed to achieve the applicable water quality goals.

The court upheld EPA’s use of models as scientifically supported and within EPA’s discretion.  It rejected the challenge to adequate notice and opportunity for public participation since (1) a 45 day public comment period had been provided, (2) there had been hundreds of public meetings during the more than 10 year development of the TMDL, and (3) plaintiffs showed no prejudice from the fact that some details of the modeling were not available until after the comment period.

The court held that TMDL establishment and implementation involves “cooperative federalism” between the states and EPA, and that the Chesapeake Bay TMDL properly reflects the shared responsibilities and necessary interactions, despite some bumps along the road. While EPA exerted strong leadership, the court held that it did not unlawfully usurp the states’ implementation functions. The court noted  the preserved authority of the states to implement nutrient trading and offsets, and to set or revise source-specific loading allocations.  In conclusion, there is a lot of thoughtful analysis, as well as precedent, in this decision, which makes it an excellent resource for CWA practitioners.

Retroactive Stormwater Permitting – Coming to a Parking Lot Near You?

Posted on September 18, 2013 by David Van Slyke

On July 10, 2013, several different consortia of environmental organizations simultaneously filed petitions with three EPA Regional Offices asking the respective Regional Administrators to make determinations under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) that unpermitted stormwater discharges from impervious surfaces at existing commercial, industrial, and institutional sites be required to obtain stormwater permits and to conduct remedial actions.  The three petitions (Region 1, Region 3, Region 9), jointly filed by American Rivers, Conservation Law Foundation (“CLF”) and Natural Resources Defense Council (along with different regional NGOs on each petition), ask EPA to use its CWA Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require property owners in EPA Regions 1, 3 and 9 to capture and treat their stormwater runoff, which the petitioners allege is impairing waterbodies in those parts of the U.S.

Currently, in the absence of residual designation, only new construction projects, industrial sites falling within certain limited categories, and municipal stormwater sewer systems are required to obtain stormwater permits and manage stormwater runoff.  The Petitioners allege that stormwater discharged from impervious surfaces on commercial, industrial, and institutional sites are significant sources of pollutants – specifically, metals (lead, copper and zinc), sediments, phosphorus, nitrogen, and oxygen-demanding compounds that cause water body impairments – and therefore should be regulated.   

In 2008, CLF successfully petitioned EPA to use RDA to require stormwater discharge permits for existing impervious surfaces in an urban/mall area near Portland, Maine.  Property owners with an acre of more of impervious surface in that watershed are now required to control their stormwater runoff either on an individual basis (by retrofitting their property to control pollutants in runoff) or by obtaining coverage under a general permit and paying an annual fee per acre of impervious cover.  A similar NGO petition was granted by EPA Region I with regard to limited areas within the Charles River watershed near Boston.

The current petitions represent an effort to force expansion of EPA stormwater runoff control regulation in New England, the Mid-Atlantic States and California/Nevada/Arizona.  The petitioners recommend remedial actions such as conservation of natural areas, reducing hard surface cover, and retrofitting urban areas with features that detain stormwater runoff and treat pollutants in stormwater. 

EPA has 90 days to act on the petition, although action within this time frame is doubtful given the scope of the requests and the pace at which EPA has acted upon other much more limited RDA petitions.  With the very recent U.S. District Court decision in American Farm Bureau v. EPA upholding the Agency’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, however, EPA may feel somewhat more emboldened to embrace these broad-reaching petitions.  To date, however, the Agency has been mum regarding the petitions.

Arsenic and Apple Juice: Are We Now Safe?

Posted on July 30, 2013 by Michael Rodburg

Earlier this month the FDA proposed an “action level” of 10 ppb for inorganic arsenic in apple juice (down from 23 ppb), bringing it to the same level as EPA’s drinking water MCL. One may view this action as the culmination of a campaign of sorts initiated by a 2011 Consumer Reports article whose cause was taken up by Dr. Oz. Yet, the FDA has been monitoring arsenic levels for many years and has never viewed the data as any cause for concern.  Should we now believe that the FDA has made us completely safe by adopting a drinking water standard for juice?  In a practical sense, yes, but in EPA-Superfund speak, not really; and that is the point of this post.

The poisonous propensities of arsenic have been the stuff of history and literature for centuries; the Poison of Kings and the King of Poisons. Remember elderberry wine from Arsenic and Old Lace? But, arsenic is, after all, not only naturally occurring but rather ubiquitous.  The human race has managed to live with some level of arsenic for a few millennia now without evident consequence.  Indeed, because of naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater in the western United States, the MCL is actually set “considering cost, benefits and the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.” If, in contrast, one turns to the gold-standard of “safe,” the one in a million excess cancer risk level, the drinking water standard required is .02 ppb;  that’s right folks, 500 times lower than the current MCL and FDA’s proposed new juice level.


What does it mean?  I think it points out that the ultra-conservatism of the “10 to the minus six” environmental risk standard leads to absurd results and hugely unnecessary costs.  I still recall with a smile a quite notorious Superfund site (which shall remain nameless to protect a client) that had literally dozens and dozens of polysyllabic chemicals at high levels in soils, groundwater and waste disposal units throughout several hundred acres.  In the baseline risk assessment, the only risk to exceed the 10-6 level was that from naturally occurring arsenic in the soil!

The more we know about the genetic basis and causes of cancer, the more we realize how poorly both our animal models and in vitro experiments perform in predicting cancerous effects.  (See E. Topol, The Creative Destruction of Medicine (Basic Books 2011) for a good discussion of the limitations and frustrations of our current methods and models for finding cancer fighting drugs.)  While we are a long way from tossing EPA’s current approach to carcinogenic risk, we should perhaps take into account far more than we do now the inherent limits of our understanding and incorporate more the practical necessity for “cost, benefits and the ability” to “remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.” And yes, my grandchildren will continue to drink their apple juice.

The Reach of Sackett v. EPA: Impacts Beyond Clean Water Act Compliance Orders

Posted on June 19, 2013 by Theodore Garrett

When Sackett was decided by the Supreme Court, an uncharted issue was the extent to which the decision would be extended to make pre-enforcement review available to EPA orders under  other statutes.  EPA has now acknowledged that Sackett has a long reach. 

As previously reported, the Supreme Court in March 2012 issued its long awaited decision in Sackett v. EPA. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that the Sacketts may bring a civil action under the Administrative Procedure Act to challenge EPA’s compliance order. The court rejected the government’s argument that EPA is less likely to use orders if they are subject to judicial review, saying that “[t]he APA’s presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all.”

When I reported on this decision earlier, I noted that it will be important to see how EPA responds and what if any changes are made to EPA’s practice and procedure for issuing orders under other statutes.

EPA has now formally acknowledged that the Sackett decision has implications for other statutes.  In a memorandum dated March 21, 2013, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance has concluded that it is important to advise recipients of EPA unilateral orders under other programs of their opportunity to seek pre-enforcement judicial review of such orders. 

In particular, EPA has directed enforcement staff to immediately begin adding the following language to typical unilateral orders under FIFRA, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and EPCRA: 

“Respondent may seek federal judicial review of the Order pursuant to [insert applicable statutory provision providing for judicial review of final agency action.]” 

The foregoing language applies, inter alia, to stop sale, use or removal orders under FIFRA §13, stop work or compliance orders under Clean Air Act §§113(a) and 167, and emergency and compliance orders under EPCRA §§ 325(a). 

With respect to compliance and corrective action orders under RCRA §§3008(a), 3008(h), 9003(h) and 9006(a), EPA’s Memorandum directs enforcement staff to include language advising respondents that they may seek administrative review in accordance with 40 CFR Part 22 or 24 as applicable. 

EPA’s March 21, 2013 Memorandum states that EPA believes that the reasoning in Sackett does not lead EPA to believe that similar language is appropriate for unilateral orders issued under statutory authorities other than those discussed in the Memorandum, and it is noteworthy that the EPA Memorandum makes no reference to unilateral orders under CERCLA. 

Justice Scalia’s opinion in Sackett had little difficulty in disposing of the government’s argument that the Clean Water Act should be read as precluding judicial review under the APA, 5 U. S. C. §701(a)(1). The APA creates a presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action, and the Court concluded that nothing in the Clean Water Act’s statutory scheme precludes APA review.  EPA undoubtedly believes the CERCLA is different because of the provisions in §§113(h) that deprived the courts of jurisdiction to review challenges to removal or remedial actions selected or orders issued under §106 unless one of five exceptions applies. 

In addition to their Administrative Procedure Act argument, Sacketts also maintained that EPA’s issuance of the compliance order deprived them of due process in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  Because the APA disposed of the matter, the Supreme Court did not reach the Fifth Amendment issue.  Interestingly, before it granted certiorari in Sackett, the Supreme Court denied certiorari to review a decision by the D.C. Circuit rejecting arguments made by General Electric that CERCLA §106 orders violate the due process clause.  Stay tuned.

“Whenever”: EPA’s Continuing Power to Withdraw Dredge-and-Fill Permits

Posted on May 1, 2013 by Lisa Heinzerling

On April 23, a panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously held in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA that the Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to withdraw permits previously granted under section 404 of the Act.  The case emerged from EPA’s determination that the discharge of mining waste from the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia into certain streams and tributaries would have an unacceptable adverse effect on environmental resources.  Based on this determination, EPA withdrew the Army Corps of Engineers’ prior specification of these streams and tributaries as disposal sites for the waste from mountaintop removal.

Several features of the case are striking.  First, the decision has obvious – and obviously important – implications for the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal and its irredeemable environmental impacts.  No longer can the argument be made that a permit, once issued, gives the permittee the power, in perpetuity, to blast the tops off of mountains and dump them into streams.

Second, the decision rested, for the most part, on a single word: “whenever.”  The Clean Water Act states that the Administrator of the EPA may withdraw the specification of a disposal site for dredge-and-fill material “whenever” she determines that it will have an “unacceptable adverse impact” on certain environmental resources.  The court took Congress, literally, at its word, and held that “whenever” means whenever – that is, even if EPA finds unacceptable adverse impacts after a permit has issued, the agency has the authority to pull the permit.

Third, as if to make certain its own holding is unambiguous, too, the court five times stated that the Clean Water Act unambiguously authorizes EPA to withdraw permits after they are issued.  EPA’s current interpretation of the Act is thus not changeable by a future administration.

Should permittees fear that “whenever” will become wherever?  It is worth remembering that EPA’s decision on the Spruce No. 1 mine was the first time EPA had – ever! – withdrawn a previously issued permit, in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act.  Whether EPA will be emboldened by this decision, or will continue to mostly allow existing permits to stand, remains to be seen.