Posted on November 7, 2013
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.
Posted on October 30, 2013
Of the 21 separate questions presented in the 9 petitions for writ of certiorari filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in Utility Air Regulatory Group et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et al., challenging nearly every aspect of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent greenhouse gas regulations—from the initial “endangerment” finding to the restriction on motor vehicle emissions to the stationary-source permitting requirements—the Court granted review of only a single issue: “[w]hether [EPA’s] regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.” Several commentators have interpreted this decision (reported in a prior post by Theodore Garrett) as an implicit affirmation of EPA’s regulatory regime, insofar as the Court chose not to address some of the broader challenges to the agency’s basic authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. But, whatever implications might be drawn from the Court’s decision not to grant review of certain issues, far more telling is the Court’s deliberate rewriting of the question presented, narrowly tailored to address the validity of the stationary-source permitting regulations.
Those regulations rest on an exceedingly questionable interpretation of the Clean Air Act. The stationary-source provisions of the Act require any industrial facility that emits an “air pollutant” in “major” amounts—defined by the statute as 250 or more tons of the pollutant per year—to obtain pre-construction and operating permits from the local permitting authority. 42 U.S.C. § 7475. EPA acknowledges that it would be “absurd” to apply these provisions by their terms to sources of greenhouse gas emissions, since nearly every business in the country (including even small commercial enterprises and residential facilities) emit greenhouse gases at more than 250 tons per year, and the agency can offer no reason why the statute should not be interpreted instead to apply only to the large industrial facilities that emit “major” amounts of a pollutant otherwise subject to regulation under the permitting provisions—i.e., one of the so-called “criteria pollutants” for which a national ambient air quality standard has been issued. Nevertheless, EPA has interpreted the statute to apply to sources of greenhouse gas emissions and, to address the acknowledged “absurd results” created thereby, has decided that for these purposes the threshold for a “major” emissions source should be increased from 250 tons per year—as stated in the statute—by 400-fold, to 100,000 tons per year. The agency has, in other words, literally rewritten the express terms of the statute in order to justify its preferred interpretation.
The dissenting judges in the D.C. Circuit severely criticized the result. That is most likely the reason the Supreme Court granted review of the case, to correct the agency’s interpretation of the Act and ensure that neither EPA nor other agencies attempt to redo legislative power in this way in the future. Whether or not the limited nature of the certiorari grant can be viewed as an approval of EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases from mobile sources, it almost certainly reflects suspicion—if not disapproval—of the agency’s stationary-source regulations. The definitive answer should come by June 2014, when the Court is expected to rule.
Posted on October 23, 2013
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).
Posted on October 15, 2013
The Supreme Court agreed today to review the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases from stationary sources. The Justices accepted six petitions for review of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA (No., 12-1146 et al.), consolidated them for argument, and limited review to a single question:
“Whether EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.”
The six petitions granted were filed by the Utility Air Regulatory Group, the American Chemistry Council, the Energy-Intensive Manufacturers, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a number of states.
EPA’s position, as presented in the DC Circuit and in its opposition to certiorari, is that regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under Title II triggered permitting requirements under the PSD program and Title V of the Act, which apply to stationary sources emitting “any air pollutant” above the statutory threshold. EPA has interpreted “any air pollutant” to mean “any air pollutant regulated under the Clean Air Act,” and thus when the EPA’s regulation of emissions from new motor vehicles took effect in January 2011, the permitting requirements under the PSD program and Title V automatically applied to stationary GHG sources above the statutory threshold.
In its petition, the US Chamber of Commerce noted that EPA acknowledged that its tailoring rule would create a result “so contrary to what Congress had in mind — and that in fact so undermines what Congress attempted to accomplish with the [statute’s] requirements — that it should be avoided under the ‘absurd results’ doctrine.” With respect to the issue upon which cert was granted, the Chamber argued that EPA incorrectly determined that all “air pollutants” regulated by the agency under the Clean Air Act’s motor vehicle emissions provision, 42 U.S.C. § 7421(a)(1), must also be regulated under the Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration of Air Quality and Title V programs when emitted from stationary sources.
The Utility Air Regulatory Group petition expressly did not ask the Supreme Court to revisit its holding in Massachusetts v. EPA. However, the UARG petition did ask the Court to consider whether its decision in Massachusetts v. EPA compelled EPA to include GHGs in the PSD and Title V programs when inclusion of GHGs would expand the PSD program to cover a substance that does not deteriorate the quality of the air that people breathe. UARG emphasized EPA’s admission that regulation of GHGs under the Title I and Title V permit programs subjects “an extraordinarily large number of sources” to the Act for the first time, “result[ing] in a program that would have been unrecognizable to the Congress that designed PSD.”
A coalition of environmental groups opposed certiorari, emphasizing that EPA’s endangerment and contribution findings and emissions standards for motor vehicles simply implement the Supreme Court’s mandate in Massachusetts v. EPA. They emphasize that the Petitioners’ arguments ignore the “air pollutant” definition that the Court in Massachusetts v. EPA held “unambiguous[ly]” (549 U.S. at 529) covers greenhouse gases.
It is worth noting that four justices dissented in Massachusetts v. EPA, and the successful petitioners in Coalition for Responsible Regulation argue that Massachusetts does not compel the regulations at issue here. The granting of the petitions for certiorari is sobering news for EPA. Stay tuned.
Posted on October 4, 2013
EPA is still working the kinks out of its New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for the Oil and Natural Gas Sector, i.e., 40 C.F.R. 60 Subpart OOOO, referred to by many as the “Oil and Gas NSPS” and by some as simply “Quad O”. EPA first published the proposed Oil and Gas NSPS on August 23, 2011, in conjunction with proposed revisions to three other air regulations affecting various segments of oil and natural gas operations. The proposal prompted more than 150,000 public comments and kindled a national discussion on emissions at natural gas well sites. The final Oil and Gas NSPS rule was published in August 2012. Although the rule is most famous for establishing the first federal air standards for hydraulically-fractured natural gas wells, the rule also set significant volatile organic compound (VOC) standards for “storage vessels” used by the oil and natural gas industries.
Several stakeholders responded to the August 2012 rulemaking by filing petitions for administrative reconsideration of the Oil and Gas NSPS. On April 12, 2013, EPA published a notice granting reconsideration for a number of issues and proposing revisions to the storage vessel standards, in particular. Evidently, EPA significantly underestimated the number of storage vessels coming online in the field when it developed the August 2012 final rule, which required individual storage tanks with VOC emissions of 6 tons or more per year to achieve at least 95% reduction in VOC emissions. Tanks are commonly used at natural gas well sites, for example, to store condensate, crude oil, and produced water. In light of an updated tank estimate, EPA recognized that additional time would be needed for manufacturers to produce a sufficient number of VOC control devices.
Most recently, on September 23, 2013, EPA published final revisions to the storage vessel requirements in the 2012 Oil and Gas NSPS. Per the revised rule, which was immediately effective, an individual tank may be considered an affected facility if its construction, modification or reconstruction commenced after August 23, 2011; it has potential VOC emissions of 6 tons or more per year; and it contains crude oil, condensate, intermediate hydrocarbon liquids, or produced water. EPA made a number of important adjustments in the revised rule, chief among them an extension of the compliance date to give tank owners and operators more time to purchase and install controls. For the so-called “Group 1” storage vessels (which were constructed, modified or reconstructed between the August 2011 original proposal and the April 2013 proposal), the deadline to control VOC emissions is now April 15, 2015. For “Group 2” storage vessels (i.e., vessels that come online after April 12, 2013), the compliance deadline is April 15, 2014. Notably, pursuant to the revised Oil and Gas NSPS, operators only have until October 15, 2013 to estimate potential VOC emissions of Group 1 storage vessels for purposes of determining whether the rule applies.
Meanwhile, the agency is continuing to evaluate other issues raised in the reconsideration petitions that were submitted in response to the August 2012 rulemaking. EPA has stated in the past that it intends to address the remaining issues by the end of 2014.
Posted on September 27, 2013
Last spring, my colleague Robby Sanoff complained on our firm’s blog about the problem resulting from appellate courts’ refusal to give appropriate discretion to district judges in performing their gatekeeping function under Daubert. As Robby put it:
"The difference between “shaky but admissible” and unreliable and inadmissible evidence would seem to be entirely in the eye of the beholder."
Robby will not be pleased by last’s week’s decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Alabama Power, reversing a district court order excluding EPA’s expert testimony in support of its NSR enforcement action against Alabama Power. The Court majority performed an extensive review of the testimony provided in the Daubert hearing below, and concluded that the district court’s decision was clearly erroneous. (For those of you concerned with the merits of these cases, the question was whether EPA’s model, which clearly applied to determinations of emissions increases for baseload plants, could be applied as well to cycling plants generally and the plants at issue in the case in particular.)
The case is particularly interesting because Judge Hodges, taking Robby’s view, dissented. As Judge Hodges noted, prior to the Supreme Court decision in General Electric v. Joiner, appellate courts did not grant significant discretion to district courts in exclusion rulings. However, Joiner made clear that the abuse of discretion standard applies even in outcome-determinative exclusion rulings.
Next, Judge Hodges noted that, in Daubert rulings, there should be a “heavy thumb – really a thumb and a finger or two – that is put on the district court’s side of the scale.” He then rehearsed the actual statistics on Daubert reversals in the 11th Circuit: 3 reversals out of 54 cases.
Finally, Judge Hodges conducted a brief review of evidence tending to support the district court’s conclusion and determined that its decision was not “a clear error in judgment.” Concluding that a different result might be appropriate if review were de novo, Judge Hodges quoted Daubert itself:
"We recognize that, in practice, a gatekeeping role for the judge, no matter how flexible, inevitably on occasion will prevent the jury from learning of authentic insights and innovations. That, nevertheless, is the balance that is struck by Rules of Evidence designed not for the exhaustive search for cosmic understanding but for the particularized resolution of legal disputes."
Decisions such as this have to be discouraging to district court judges, as Robby noted. It’s worth pointing at that Judge Hodges is actually a district court judge, sitting on the court of appeals by designation. It seems fitting that the district judge on the panel would be the judge vainly trying to protect the discretion of district judges in Daubert matters.
Posted on September 26, 2013
“Shoot first, ask questions later” is how Congressman Chris Stewart described EPA’s efforts to link groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing. Stewart is the Chair of the Environmental Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, chairing the July 24 hearing on “Lessons Learned: EPA’s Investigations of Hydraulic Fracturing.” Specifically at issue was the EPA’s investigation in Pavillion, Wyoming.
In December, 2011, the EPA issued a “draft” report which concluded that hydraulic fracturing in the Pavillion, Wyoming gas field had caused pollution of the deep drinking water aquifer. The draft report was based upon sample results from two EPA monitor wells and was issued without peer review or stakeholder input.
There were serious flaws with EPA’s work. For starters, EPA failed to complete the monitor wells according to its own guidelines. Annular sealants were not properly installed, allowing cement to impact the water quality. A landowner’s complaint that EPA had an anti-freeze leak during drilling operations was not disclosed in the draft report. EPA exposed the wellbores to painted low-carbon steel casing and welding materials, which are known to contain various organic and metal compounds, yet the report inaccurately stated that stainless steel casing had been used. Moreover, several of the constituents which the EPA attributed to hydraulic fracturing fluids (e.g. glycols, 2-butoxyethanol and phenols) are known to be associated with the high pH cement that the EPA used to complete the wells. The bottom line is that the EPA’s own operations introduced the contaminants that it blamed on hydraulic fracturing fluids.
Subsequent testing by the USGS was unable to verify the EPA’s results. The USGS was unable to find some of the compounds that EPA claimed were present, and other constituents were found at significantly lower levels. The USGS was unable to sample one of the two wells due to improper well construction.
The EPA has now walked away from its flawed study, turning the entire investigation over to the State of Wyoming. The EPA has stated that the draft report will not be peer reviewed or finalized, and that the results will not be used in its national hydraulic fracturing study. Nevertheless, the EPA’s handling of Pavillion has cast doubt over the EPA’s national investigation of hydraulic fracturing intended to develop regulatory policy for unconventional reserves, causing Chairman Stewart to conclude, “given EPA’s rush to judgment in Wyoming…we should question whether the Agency’s ongoing study is a genuine, fact-finding, scientific exercise, or a witch-hunt to find a pretext to regulate.”
Posted on September 25, 2013
On September 13, in a 99 page decision, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania upheld EPA’s multi-state Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries against a broad range of challenges brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation and six other farm industry trade associations. Six environmental organizations led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, plus four municipal water associations led by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, intervened in support of EPA.
The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is not the first to cover multiple states, but it is by far the largest, covering 64,000 square miles in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia. It requires substantial reductions of nitrogen (25%), phosphorus (24%) and sediment (20%) by 2025 to meet water quality standards. Because of the interstate nature of the long-standing pollution problems, after more than two decades of collaborative but unsuccessful efforts, the states agreed in 2007 that EPA should develop the TMDL. It was issued in 2010 and included allocations for each of 92 tidal segments which, after consultation with the states, were further allocated among states, watersheds and sectors (such as agriculture, wastewater, stormwater, etc). During the process, each state developed its own Watershed Implementation Plan (“WIP”), specifying wasteload allocations (“WLA’s”) for point sources, load allocations (“LAs”) for nonpoint sources, and identifying the regulations, programs and resources that would be used to achieve the required reductions. For more on this TMDL see "EPA Issues Biggest TMDL Ever for Chesapeake Bay Watershed" and ELI Environmental Forum “The Chesapeake Bay TMDL” (May/June 2011).
The plaintiffs alleged that (1) the TMDL was an unauthorized “implementation” of allocations by EPA, (2) requiring WIPs exceeded EPA’s authority, (3) EPA’s use of watershed and related models in setting the allocations was an abuse of discretion, and (4) there was insufficient public notice. In addressing these challenges, the court first held (as several others have) that a TMDL is not self-implementing, but is an “informational tool”, developed collaboratively by EPA and the states under CWA Section 303(d), and implemented primarily by the states.
Turning to the merits, the court upheld EPA’s definition of a TMDL for a waterbody or segment as the sum of all WLAs and LAs plus natural background. It also upheld EPA’s authority to establish a multi-state TMDL, when the affected states either fail to do so or ask EPA to do it (both occurred here), including limitations on sources in upstream states to achieve compliance with water quality standards in downstream states. It held that EPA’s “holistic” or “watershed-wide approach” was consistent with the broad national goals of the CWA to “restore … our Nation’s waters.” In reaching this result the court emphasized the collaborative efforts of the Bay states and EPA starting in 1983 to address the problems of interstate pollution, transported by rivers and tides, and their consensus that an EPA-led multistate effort was needed.
The court further held that the WIPs – new tools in the TMDL context – were authorized as part of the “continuing planning process” under CWA Section 303(e). This process is initiated by the states to achieve water quality goals, and is subject to review and approval by EPA. Because EPA had advised the states in letters what it expected in terms of general content and specificity in the WIPs, but left the details to the states, the court held EPA did not exceed its authority. The court also relied on CWA Section 117(g) - a Chesapeake Bay-specific provision - requiring EPA to “ensure that management plans are developed and implementation is begun by [all the affected states] to achieve and maintain…” the applicable water quality goals.
The plaintiffs also challenged EPA’s requirement that each WIP contain “reasonable assurances” of timely and effective implementation, and EPA’s use of “backstop” allocations where EPA determined that a WIP provision was deficient. “Backstops” involved requiring NPDES permits from previously unregulated sources. The court held that EPA could properly require “reasonable assurance” under CWA 303(d)(1), which requires a TMDL must be “established at a level necessary to implement the applicable water quality standards.” The court upheld “backstops”, which were only used in 3 instances, as a reasonable exercise of EPA’s authority under CWA 303(d)(2) to ensure that the contents of the TMDL are designed to achieve the applicable water quality goals.
The court upheld EPA’s use of models as scientifically supported and within EPA’s discretion. It rejected the challenge to adequate notice and opportunity for public participation since (1) a 45 day public comment period had been provided, (2) there had been hundreds of public meetings during the more than 10 year development of the TMDL, and (3) plaintiffs showed no prejudice from the fact that some details of the modeling were not available until after the comment period.
The court held that TMDL establishment and implementation involves “cooperative federalism” between the states and EPA, and that the Chesapeake Bay TMDL properly reflects the shared responsibilities and necessary interactions, despite some bumps along the road. While EPA exerted strong leadership, the court held that it did not unlawfully usurp the states’ implementation functions. The court noted the preserved authority of the states to implement nutrient trading and offsets, and to set or revise source-specific loading allocations. In conclusion, there is a lot of thoughtful analysis, as well as precedent, in this decision, which makes it an excellent resource for CWA practitioners.
Posted on August 28, 2013
A recent post from Mary Ellen Ternes characterized the August 23, 2013 decision in EME Homer City Generation as another blow to EPA’s ability to enforce against long ago violations of the requirement to obtain New Source Review.
The Third Circuit’s decision certainly is a blow to EPA’s NSR enforcement initiative, but not nearly a knock-out.
First, the decision depended on the fact that neither the Clean Air Act or Pennsylvania’s EPA-enforceable State Implementation Plan expressly requires a major source to operate in compliance with the results of a New Source Review. But some states do have that requirement in their EPA-enforceable SIPs, as the Third Circuit recognized in distinguishing other cases. In such states, major sources that did not go through NSR as allegedly required at the time of construction or modification should still anticipate potential EPA enforcement via the SIP.
Second, even where it is not illegal to operate in compliance with NSR, the question is still open whether the government may obtain injunctive relief anyway. In United States v. United States Steel Company (N.D. Indiana), the Court held on August 21, 2013 that no penalties could be imposed at law because there is no federally enforceable requirement in Indiana to operate in accordance with the results of an NSR. Yet the Court went on to hold that the United States still can seek injunctive relief against a plant that allegedly violated the NSR requirement. The Court reasoned that because the sovereign is not subject to laches, the government remains able to invoke the Court’s equitable powers and to seek an injunction to correct the violation.
On to the Seventh Circuit?
Posted on August 27, 2013
Followers of this Blog will not be at all surprised with the Third Circuit’s August 22, 2013 ruling denying EPA’s requested CAA New Source Review enforcement relief against former and current owners of the grandfathered and allegedly subsequently modified power plant that has been called “one of the largest air pollution sources in the nation.” Former and current owners of such aging power plants caught in EPA’s NSR national enforcement initiative are reassured with the Third Circuit’s finding that text of the Clean Air Act does not authorize injunctive relief for wholly past PSD violations, even if that violation causes ongoing harm.
Having lost its battle for the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, or the Transport Rule) in August 2012, EPA was dealt another blow with United States v. EME Homer City Generation, in which the Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s 2011 dismissal of the government’s claims.
In 2011, the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania agreed with the current and former owners of the power plant that EPA had no authority to hold either party liable for alleged PSD violations arising from purported modifications to their grandfathered power plant. In reaching defendants’ bases for dismissal, the District Court reviewed the permit actions approved by air permitting authorities in 1991, 1994, 1995 and 1996, which EPA alleged with Notices of Violation in 2008 (against the current owner) and 2010 (against current and former owners), to have triggered PSD, and which caused the current Title V permit to be incomplete. The Court’s holding that the PSD violations constituted singular, separate failures by the former owner rather than ongoing failures meant that EPA was outside the five year statute of limitations, allowing no civil penalties against the former and current owners. Moreover, the District Court held EPA was left with no injunctive relief against the current owner because they were in no position to apply for a PSD permit prior to their acquisition of the plant in 1998, and thus could not have violated PSD.
The District Court separately addressed EPA’s claims of injunctive relief against the former owner, recognizing the ongoing higher SO2 emissions that occurred without the benefit of an historic PSD permit. The District Court was unwilling to reach a broad conclusion regarding its authority to award injunctive relief under the PSD program, but given that the former owners no longer owned or operated the plant, and therefore no longer violate PSD, held that there was no plausible basis for granting the rare and extraordinary remedy of injunctive relief, despite the higher emissions occurring the absence of BACT, which the court characterized as a present consequence of a one-time violation.
Upon review, the Third Circuit rejected EPA’s arguments that the current owners violated PSD by operating the plant without BACT with a simple, “no,” pursuant to the plain text of 42 USC 7475(a) which references merely “construction” and “modification,” not “operation, ” relying on U.S. v. Midwest Generation and Sierra Club v. Otter Tail Power Co., adopting the positions of the Seventh and Eighth Circuits that “even though the preconstruction permitting process may establish obligations which continue to govern a facility’s operation after construction, that does not necessarily mean that such parameters are enforceable independent of the permitting process,” and thoroughly refuting EPA’s arguments that PSD could somehow result in ongoing operational requirements outside the PSD permitting process.
Likewise, the Third Circuit rejected EPA’s proposed injunctive relief, which would have required the former owners to install BACT or purchase emission credits and retire them, affirming the District Court’s decision on narrower grounds. Specifically, the Third Circuit held that the text of the Clean Air Act does not authorize an injunction against former owners and operators for a wholly past PSD violation, even if that violation causes ongoing harm.
Hopefully, this Third Circuit decision, along with the Seventh and Eighth Circuit decisions relied upon therein, will signal a substantive end to EPA’s NSR/PSD Enforcement Initiative for similarly situated historic grandfathered power plants and their former and current owners. But, we may have to wait out EPA’s hard headed circuit by circuit enforcement approach. See e.g., EPA’s December 21, 2013 enforcement memorandum, “Applicability of the Summit Decision to EPA Title V and NSR Source Determinations,” following the Sixth Circuit’s Summit Petroleum Corp. v. EPA et al.
Posted on August 5, 2013
Enforcement with a Flair
EPA has seen the smoke.
This certainly is no joke.
Benzene is a neighborhood scare,
With upsets going to the flare.
On July 10, the Department of Justice and EPA announced the lodging of a consent decree with Shell Oil Company to resolve alleged Clean Air Act violations at Shell’s refinery and chemical plant in Deer Park Texas. This agreement represents the fourth “refinery flare consent decree” in the past year. More are expected.
Shell will spend $115 million to control emissions from flares and other processes, and will pay a $2.6 million civil penalty. EPA alleged that Shell was improperly operating its flaring devices resulting in excessive emissions of benzene and other hazardous air pollutants. Shell will spend $100 million to reduce flare emissions.
These flare consent decrees represent a new chapter in EPA’s national Petroleum Refinery Initiative (“PRI”), which, beginning in 2000, resulted in the entry of 31 settlements covering 107 refineries in 32 states, affecting 90% of the domestic refining capacity. EPA did address refinery flares as one of the marquee issues in PRI consent decrees – compliance with the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) for Petroleum Refineries.
EPA is now pushing the envelope to impose “regulatory requirements plus.” Through an enforcement alert in August of last year, EPA warned industry that there were significant issues with flare efficiency and excessive emissions. EPA Enforcement Alert: EPA Enforcement Targets Flaring Efficiency Violations.
What is EPA doing? What is the basis of this Petroleum Refinery Initiative 2.0 and the imposition of “regulatory requirements plus”?
EPA bases this new initiative on the “general duty” requirements. NSPS requires that at all times owners and operators should operate and maintain a facility or source consistent with “good air pollution control practices.” In addition, Section 112r of the CAA requires owners and operators to maintain a safe facility by taking such steps as are necessary to prevent releases of hazardous air pollutants (“HAP”), and to minimize the consequences of accidental releases which do occur. Accordingly, with no threshold amount, any release of a listed HAP (e.g. benzene) that could have been prevented violates this general duty. If a flare smokes, there must be a violation.
This general duty is used to require control measures that go beyond those specified in the regulations. The consent decrees include conditions addressing flare combustion efficiency limits incorporating automated controls with complex and expensive monitoring systems, flaring caps for individual flares and the overall refinery, and flare gas recovery systems for individual flares.
The enforcement train has left the station. Who will be next in line? How much will the ticket cost? Are there rulemaking or other actions that may be taken to slowdown or stop the train? Flares are not unique to petroleum refineries and petrochemical plants (e.g. flaring in oil and gas production facilities). Will EPA provide other industries the opportunity to go for a train ride?
Posted on July 31, 2013
On Friday, July 19, the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Oklahoma v. EPA, affirmed EPA’s rejection of Oklahoma’s state implementation plan setting forth its determination of the Best Available Retrofit Technology, or BART, to address regional haze. The Court also affirmed EPA’s promulgation of a federal implementation plan in place of the Oklahoma SIP. While rehearsing the Clean Air Act’s “cooperative federalism” approach, the Court seemed more focused on deference to EPA’s technical assessment of the SIP than on any obligation by EPA to cooperate with states.
"Given that the statute mandates that the EPA must ensure SIPs comply with the statute, we fail to see how the EPA would be without the authority to review BART determinations for compliance with the guidelines.
While the legislative history may evidence an intent to prevent the EPA from directly making those BART decisions, it does not necessarily evidence an intent to deprive the EPA of any authority to ensure that these BART decisions comply with the statute."
Judge Kelly dissented. As he noted, while the courts normally grant deference to EPA’s decisions, such deference is appropriately limited where “EPA rejected Oklahoma’s evidentiary support with no clear evidence of its own to support its contrary conclusion.” Judge Kelly also noted that, even in a statute relying substantially on state implementation, the amount of power given to the states to implement the regional haze program is particularly evident.
I don’t know whether Oklahoma will seeking rehearing en banc. (It’s difficult to imagine that the Supreme Court would be interested in hearing this case.) I do know that cooperation is in the eye of the beholder.
Posted on July 3, 2013
On June 13, 2013, U.S. EPA announced its enforcement priorities for the next three years. Among other things, the Agency decided to continue its ill-fated, 15-year old "New Source Review (NSR) Enforcement Initiative." This effort has targeted coal-fired power plants and other large manufacturing facilities for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act. The allegations often pertain to projects which were implemented over twenty and thirty years ago.
Not surprisingly, EPA has not fared very well in the courts with cases like this. The Agency has run into problems, including: 1) statute of limitations concerning projects completed more than five years before legal action has been commenced; 2) successor liability issues when the current owner/operator of a facility did not own or operate the facility when a targeted project was undertaken; and 3) serious evidentiary questions as to whether a decades-old project caused the requisite actual air emissions increase which triggers the requirements for NSR review under the Clean Air Act. See generally "EPA's Utility Enforcement Initiative: The MetED Decision May Pose Problems for Plaintiffs," BNA Daily Environment Report, June 13, 2013; U.S. v. Midwest Generation, LLC, 694 F. Supp. 2d 999 (N.D. Ill. 2010), appeal pending in 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
A recent notice of violation illustrates some of the unfairness and waste of resources connected with EPA's NSR Enforcement Initiative. EPA issued the notice in 2012. It alleged a number of NSR violations against the owner/operator of a manufacturing facility (not a utility). One of the allegations pertained to a change made at that facility in 1982. Since 1982, the ownership of the facility has changed four times. The current owner has been targeted in EPA's enforcement action. Records regarding the 1982 project are scant, and the personnel involved in the work in 1982 are all either long-retired or deceased.
To make matters worse, EPA had received the available information about the 1982 project in 1999 from the party who owned the facility at that time. This was done in response to a Section 114 Information Request issued by EPA. That owner heard nothing further from EPA about any of the projects covered in the 1999 inquiry.
In 2011, EPA issued a new Section 114 Information Request to the current owner who had acquired the facility in 2006. The request covered projects that occurred after 1999, but it also covered projects which were done prior to 1999, including the 1982 project discussed above.
A reasonable person could ask: 1) Why did EPA wait for 13 years to allege a NSR violation regarding the 1982 project when the Agency was given information about it in 1999? 2) Why is EPA taking action now on a change made at the facility over thirty years ago? 3) Why is EPA targeting the owner who acquired the facility in 2006 -- some seven years after EPA was first given information about the 1982 project? 4) Has EPA considered that the current owner/operator of the facility is four times removed from the owner/operator who implemented the change in 1982?
Substantial amounts of money and countless hours of valuable employee time have been expended by the current owner in dealing with EPA on this case. Both the money and the time could have been better utilized in helping to keep the facility competitive in a very challenging global marketplace.
EPA should consider whether the continuation of the NSR Enforcement Initiative is justified with respect to projects that occurred decades ago. With most of these cases, fair-minded decision-makers at EPA will find that "Enough is Enough!"
Posted on June 25, 2013
Congress said EPA and the States are partners in implementing the Clean Air Act. It’s simple: EPA sets pollutant-by-pollutant standards for clean air (NAAQS) and each State develops and implements a state-specific plan to meet and maintain those NAAQS. Each partner is well-positioned and equipped to perform its assignment and Congress included appropriate “carrots and sticks” in the Act to ensure that both do their job. The Supreme Court has extolled Congress’s partnership approach and EPA routinely professes its deep appreciation of its State partners and their important role. So wassup with EPA suddenly demanding that thirty-six States delete rules about excess emissions during startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM) that have been EPA-approved for 30 to 40 years?
On February 22, in response to a 2011 petition by Sierra Club, EPA proposed to “call” thirty-six state implementation plans (SIPs) because they contain affirmative defense, exemption, or director’s discretion rules for excess emissions during periods of SSM. EPA’s previous approval of the offending rules wasn’t even a speedbump. EPA also rejected any obligation to connect the offending rules with air pollution problems in the affected States. EPA’s legal position on how the States should enforce their CAA permits was enough to shuck the partnership and impose the federal will. And EPA didn’t even ask nicely. State requests for information about EPA’s consideration of their SIPs were ignored and States were given 30 days to comment on a proposal EPA took more than a year to develop. EPA gave its State partners another 45 days only after more than a dozen State Attorneys General jointly asked for more time and the Senate Committee considering the new Administrator’s confirmation made the same request.
When comments were filed on May 13, thirty affected States filed comments; none of them supported EPA’s proposed call of their SIP. Not even EPA’s regular supporters on issues like tougher NAAQS thought EPA’s dictation was a good idea. Complaints from EPA’s partners ranged from being wrongfully excluded from EPA’s evaluation of their SIP to EPA trampling on the States’ planning and implementation responsibilities to EPA creating a lot of work that could have been avoided if EPA had just talked to them. No amount of spin can make this look good for state–federal relationships.
So why? Well, Sierra Club did ask for it. Maybe because an obvious compliance impact is on emission limits with continuous monitoring and short averaging times like opacity. And maybe because coal-fired power plants always have opacity limits and deleting common excess emission rules will set those sources up for widespread enforcement litigation. Or, maybe the States and the previous EPAs had it wrong for all these years and someone finally straightened everyone else out. Like so many conundrums of this type, it might take some judges to give us the answer.
Pursuant to a settlement agreement with Sierra Club, EPA must finalize the SSM SIP Call by August 27, 2013.
Posted on June 10, 2013
I believe in governmental environmental regulation. We have a complicated world and it is not surprising that many activities, including those generating greenhouse gases, cause negative externalities. At the same time, however, I have spent more than 25 years representing regulated entities in negotiations with government regulators and it is impossible to do such work without obtaining an appreciation for the very significant costs that bureaucracies impose.
With all due respect – cue the upcoming diss – to my many friends in government, the absence of market discipline or the ability to fire nonpolitical bureaucrats often leads to street level bureaucrats operating under a law of their own devising. Moreover, if a complex economy causes externalities requiring regulation, that same complexity should cause regulators to pause before imposing or revising complicated regulatory regimes. Unintended consequences abound.
The genesis of these musings was the confluence of a number of otherwise unrelated recent regulatory developments. The most significant was headline in the Daily Environment Report earlier this week noting that “EPA [is] Still Unable to Provide Time Frame For Revising Definition of Solid Waste Rule.” RCRA is the perfect example. No one can really quarrel with the need for hazardous waste regulation, in order to prevent the creation of more Superfund sites. However, if we’re still fighting over the definition of something as basic as solid waste more than 30 years after the inception of the program and EPA’s most recent efforts to update the definition remain fruitless after about five years of effort, then we have to acknowledge some serious implementation problems where the rubber is trying to hit the road.
I’ll also provide two recent examples from my home state of Massachusetts. MassDEP has been engaged in a serious regulatory reform effort, which has earned deserved praise. However, as NAIOP has recently noted in comments on the draft proposal to revise the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, MassDEP’s proposed Active Existing Pathway Elimination Measure Permit is “so cumbersome that it is not clear that a PRP or redeveloper would want to seek such a permit.” This calls to mind MassDEP’s reclaimed water regulations, which were intended to encourage water reuse, but are so cumbersome that no one is applying for the permits.
Thus, the final caution. The MassDEP example is extremely common – and extremely troubling. Regulator gets great idea for innovative program. Prior to implementation, concerns are raised about what happens if…. More effort is put into avoiding the perceived downsides than in actually making the program work. Program ends up being worse than nothing.
I believe in environmental regulation, but…
Posted on June 4, 2013
With the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 soon approaching, EPA has been planning on extensively incorporating “environmental justice” into its permitting processes. This executive order required all federal agencies to address disproportionately adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations in the U.S.
To that end, nearly two years ago, EPA issued “Plan EJ 2014” as a roadmap – not as a rule – to implement the executive order throughout the agency. Specifically, Plan EJ 2014 formally introduced EPA’s priorities of promoting increased public participation in the permitting process and considering more stringent permit conditions. In February of this year, EPA selected two case studies that highlight the agency’s approach to achieving these permitting priorities.
The first case study involved a recent Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit for the Pioneer Valley Energy Center, a power plant expected to generate up to 431 MW in Westfield, Massachusetts. From the developers’ filing of the permit application in November 2008 through EPA’s issuing of the final permit in April 2012, Region 1 incorporated what it has described as environmental justice into this permitting process by providing enhanced public engagement opportunities and including more stringent conditions in the permit. These stricter conditions were aimed at limiting the applicant’s ability to burn ultra-low sulfur diesel for testing of its emergency generator when air quality would already be diminished.
The second case study involved a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) general permit for oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet, Alaska. Even as this permit has evolved over time, now with federal and state authority split, the subject conditions have been based on environmental justice considerations dating back to 2006-2007. In the permit’s 2007 iteration, Region 10 incorporated environmental justice into this permitting process by collecting and considering tribal traditional knowledge about the effects of development and by imposing more restrictive permit conditions. These conditions imposed new monitoring requirements, extended the area where discharges were prohibited for all sources from 1,000 to 4,000 meters from sensitive coastal areas, and explicitly did not authorize several types of drilling discharges for new sources.
There are two striking facets of these case studies. First, even as EPA found no disproportionate adverse effect on minority populations, low-income populations, or tribal populations, EPA still included somewhat more restrictive permit conditions based upon environmental justice considerations. Second, the imposed conditions do not appear to be particularly onerous – perhaps explaining why the permittees did not challenge the additional restrictions. Opinions vary as to the impact of these “EJ conditions” on the permitting process, as EPA likely could have imposed these restrictions under existing statutes and regulations without any reference to environmental justice.
Nevertheless, EPA seems to be testing the limits of its authority and telegraphing its intent to continue these efforts. Consequently, practitioners and permit applicants should be wary of EPA seeking to impose potentially unnecessary conditions based upon environmental justice.
Posted on June 3, 2013
Four votes. That is the number of votes required to grant a Supreme Court petition for a writ of certiorari. And because that is the same number of Justices who dissented from the Court’s landmark 2007 ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, EPA has reason to worry over the summer.
Pending before the Court are nine petitions seeking review of a wide ranging set of challenges to EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles and new stationary sources. Petitioners include most every significant part of American industry, 14 States, and numerous political leaders. Some petitions, consistent with Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent from the D.C. Circuit’s denial of rehearing en banc in Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. U.S. EPA, are strategically narrow; they ask the Court to review only a relatively narrow issue regarding the applicability of the Clean Air Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration Program to greenhouse gas emissions. Others, by asking the Court to overturn EPA’s determination that greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles endanger public health and welfare seek, as a practical matter, to topple the Obama Administration’s effort to address global climate change in the absence of new federal legislation. But a few of the petitions jettison even any pretense of modesty by directly asking, consistent with D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown’s blistering dissent from en banc denial, the Court to do no less than overrule Massachusetts v. EPA.
The Solicitor General and other respondents (including 18 States) will no doubt oppose cert on all issues in their responsive filings this summer. They have nontrivial arguments, especially given the serious questions they can raise concerning the Article III standing of petitioners to raise the particular legal claims that would likely otherwise have the most force on the merits. But EPA is likely to be less concerned with whether review is granted than, if granted, on what issues. The legal stakes for some issues raised are far less consequential than they are for others, which are quite enormous.
Any cert grants will likely be announced in late September, shortly before October’s “First Monday” to allow for expedited briefing and argument as early as January 2014 and more likely in February. Otherwise, all petitions will be denied on that First Monday. It will be a long summer’s wait for all parties.
Posted on May 7, 2013
The confluence of aggressive new EPA regulations targeted at coal-fired power plants and low natural gas prices has made the decommissioning of older coal-fired plants substantially more likely in the coming years. Decommissioning a plant does not occur within a specific regulatory framework. In many cases, unless there is a suspected public health threat, potential environmental conditions at the plant do not have to be reported to government agencies. For that reason environmental remediation of a plant site is often addressed in the property sale and redevelopment process.
But the shut down and decommissioning of power plants nonetheless has significant regulatory implications, and the reality is that analysis of regulatory obligations and advance planning, including a proactive strategy for interacting with agencies and other stakeholders, is essential. Understanding obligations requires review of existing permits and the underlying regulatory landscape. And that landscape may shift under your feet – for example, new regulations for coal combustion residuals on the horizon may implicate the closure of certain waste management units.
The regulatory landscape may also provide opportunities to maximize value. There are a wide variety of emission credit programs that vary by jurisdiction. Identifying and capturing emission credits brings value to the table. Similarly, water rights, to the extent they are marketable in a particular jurisdiction, could be a source of revenue.
On the practical front, laying out a smooth decommissioning path through careful planning may help avoid stoking the fire of agency, local or public ire. The agency may have a formal role to play depending on the permit conditions or applicable regulations, but there may also be extensive agency oversight exercised through pursuit of enforcement actions. Particularly where community interest is high, local, state or federal agencies may have a heightened interest and enforcement provides them an avenue for involvement in the site that might not otherwise exist. So it is important to recognize the key stakeholders early and to understand how their interest may translate to pressure on an agency to leverage any violations.
If the site is one with good redevelopment potential, finding and working with a credible and savvy purchaser may keep the focus on the end game and allow for appropriate risk-based standards to be deployed against a more concrete vision for the future of the site. Once there is a well-developed understanding of the regulatory obligations associated with the particular plant and the overall objective for the site after decommissioning, it may be the moment to reach out to the state and federal agencies, and perhaps key stakeholders, with early, accurate and contextualized information.
Because there is not a standard regulatory framework to apply, experience over the coming years as plants come offline will be telling – it is that experience that will provide useful frameworks for up front, comprehensive analysis and strategic outreach for a smooth path through decommissioning.
Posted on May 3, 2013
After being taken to task by states and its own Inspector General for lack of final guidance on Vapor Intrusion, EPA has just released draft guidance documents for hazardous substances and petroleum products for comment. The guidance documents are already generating discussion on the blogosphere, with comments due to EPA by May 24th. Below are some of the issues EPA will have to address for its guidance for hazardous substances, and those of us addressing vapor intrusion for our clients.
Will the guidance collapse under its own weight? EPA’s recommended framework relies upon collecting and evaluating multiple lines of evidence to support risk management decisions, detailed investigation of vapor intrusion including rigorous data quality objectives and recognition of seasonal/temporal variability in levels, consideration of options for building mitigation and subsurface remediation, decisions on how institutional controls can be crafted and monitored, and how the public will be involved. The practical question is how much evidence and process is enough for a rational decision, and how costly and time-consuming an evaluation effort is justified? Rarely are actions taken quickly in the CERCLA or RCRA world, but if there are risks, then they should be acted upon, and applying the guidance in other contexts will be challenging. There already appears to be a consensus that EPA’s approach will be costly, and give vapor intrusion a life of its own in remedial decision-making. EPA will have to address this issue, or find its guidance bypassed or ignored, given the need for timely decisions.
Should we all buy stock in fan manufacturers and makers of synthetic vapor barriers? EPA offers (only on page 125 of 143) the question of weighing relative costs of characterization vs. engineered exposure controls. If EPA guidance is followed, the cost of implementing the guidance will at times greatly exceed the cost of engineering controls. Clients want the deal “done” and are not likely to wait for a lengthy deliberative process.
What role will EPA acknowledge for OSHA standards? EPA proposes guidance for residential and non-residential buildings, but as a practical daily matter, there are separate standards and approaches for workplace and non-workplace scenarios. EPA doesn’t directly address that issue in the 2013 guidance, even though the Agency had helpful statements in its 2002 proposal. The issue gets even more complicated given the unsurprising obligation to consider potential future land uses. If the default scenario is residential use, will the workplace vs. non-workplace distinction disappear?
Déjà vu all over again? Yogi Berra may have been commenting on repeats of the Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris back-to-back home runs, but it is pretty clear we will be reopening sites that may have had vapor intrusion issues, and assessing old sites at which the issue was never raised, or addressed following different procedures. EPA settled the question in November 2012 for CERCLA five-year reviews by declaring vapor intrusion a mandatory topic, and plans to adopt final Hazard Ranking System amendments for vapor intrusion. The guidance document applies to RCRA sites as well, but EPA knows that the guidance will surely find application at many types of sites where volatile chemicals may have been present. Although the document is limited to CERCLA/RCRA guidance, its general purpose is to be helpful, and EPA should probably re-emphasize that not only are all sites different, the recommended framework may not even be practical when applied through other state programs. At risk of over-generalizing, practitioners have learned to recognize the advantages of not following CERCLA and RCRA approaches.
EPA will receive many comments, and there is some cleanup work to be done on the guidance documents, but look for the final documents to be completed in months, not years.
Thanks to Jeff Carnahan, LPG, EnviroForensics, for sharing with me his expertise on vapor intrusion. However, the thoughts expressed here are solely mine.
Posted on May 1, 2013
On April 23, a panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously held in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA that the Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to withdraw permits previously granted under section 404 of the Act. The case emerged from EPA’s determination that the discharge of mining waste from the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia into certain streams and tributaries would have an unacceptable adverse effect on environmental resources. Based on this determination, EPA withdrew the Army Corps of Engineers’ prior specification of these streams and tributaries as disposal sites for the waste from mountaintop removal.
Several features of the case are striking. First, the decision has obvious – and obviously important – implications for the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal and its irredeemable environmental impacts. No longer can the argument be made that a permit, once issued, gives the permittee the power, in perpetuity, to blast the tops off of mountains and dump them into streams.
Second, the decision rested, for the most part, on a single word: “whenever.” The Clean Water Act states that the Administrator of the EPA may withdraw the specification of a disposal site for dredge-and-fill material “whenever” she determines that it will have an “unacceptable adverse impact” on certain environmental resources. The court took Congress, literally, at its word, and held that “whenever” means whenever – that is, even if EPA finds unacceptable adverse impacts after a permit has issued, the agency has the authority to pull the permit.
Third, as if to make certain its own holding is unambiguous, too, the court five times stated that the Clean Water Act unambiguously authorizes EPA to withdraw permits after they are issued. EPA’s current interpretation of the Act is thus not changeable by a future administration.
Should permittees fear that “whenever” will become wherever? It is worth remembering that EPA’s decision on the Spruce No. 1 mine was the first time EPA had – ever! – withdrawn a previously issued permit, in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act. Whether EPA will be emboldened by this decision, or will continue to mostly allow existing permits to stand, remains to be seen.
Posted on April 30, 2013
On January 3, 2013, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that EPA lacks the statutory authority to set a Clean Water Act (“CWA”) total maximum daily load (“TMDL”) for “stormwater flow rates” as a surrogate for sediment deposition. Virginia Dep’t of Transportation et al v EPA et al. EPA has decided not to appeal. The case has received national attention because of its implications for other TMDLs that use surrogates. This article will discuss the decision and its significance for the TMDL and water quality regulatory regime.
The relevant statutory framework is CWA Section 303, under which each state establishes water quality standards for waters within its boundaries. These consist of a designated use (trout fishing, contact recreation, etc.) and numerical or narrative “water quality criteria” necessary to support that use. For “impaired waters” where the criteria are not being met, the state must set a TMDL (think “pollution budget”) for each pollutant for which the criteria are exceeded, and implement a “planning process” leading to achievement. Where the state fails to act, or sets a TMDL which EPA regards as insufficient, CWA Section 303(d)(2) directs EPA to set the TMDL.
Accotink Creek is a 25 mile tributary to the Potomac River in Virginia, in which the benthic organisms were impaired, primarily because of sediment deposited by stormwater running off impervious urban and suburban areas. In April 2011, after Virginia failed to set a TMDL, EPA set one which limited the flow rate of stormwater into Accotink Creek to 681.8 cu ft/ acre-day. The court said that the parties agreed that “sediment is a pollutant, and that stormwater is not” (Slip op. 3). While EPA’s brief contains a fallback argument that stormwater can be viewed as a “pollutant”, it did not dispute that stormwater flow was being used as a surrogate for sediment. Thus the question addressed by the court was whether EPA has the statutory authority to set a TMDL for a “surrogate” which is not itself a “pollutant”.
EPA has used surrogates in a number of circumstances where, in its view, the surrogate would provide appropriate reduction of pollutants, and would be either easier to measure or provide other benefits (such as, in this case, reduction of stream bank scouring caused by heavy stormwater discharges), or both. The court rejected EPA’s argument that since the CWA does not expressly address the use of surrogates, EPA’s use of them should be upheld as reasonable “gap-filling”, consistent with the broad remedial objectives of the CWA, and entitled to substantial Chevron step 2 deference. The court held instead that because the CWA instructed EPA to set TMDLs for “pollutants”, not “surrogates”, the statute was clear. The court distinguished EPA’s use of surrogates in this case from other instances in which surrogates have been used under other CWA provisions (notably Sections 301, 304 and 402) where EPA appears to have greater latitude.
EPA and states have used stormwater surrogates in TMDLs in Connecticut, Missouri and North Carolina. They have also used other types of surrogates, such as impervious surface area limits and secchi disc readings. Some of those have been challenged, and this decision will no doubt provide ammunition for those who oppose their use. Nationally, however, this amounts to a very small percentage of the TMDLs that are in place, even if one focuses only on sediment (for which, the court noted, EPA has issued approximately 3700 TMDLs).
In addition, this ruling will have no effect whatever on EPA’s permitting of industrial and municipal stormwater discharges, including municipal separate storm sewer systems (“MS4s”), or its ongoing development of stormwater regulations, because these activities are expressly authorized under CWA Section 402(p). This is especially important, because EPA and many states now recognize stormwater as a major source of contamination and water quality impairment. For a thoughtful article on this subject and emerging approaches, see Dave Owen, Urbanization, Water Quality, and the Regulated Landscape, 82 U. of Colo. L. Rev. 431 (April 2011).
Posted on April 22, 2013
I get it that environmental groups place strict compliance with regulatory controls at a premium. After all, the standards are designed to be protective of the resource, and they are The Law, which must be obeyed.
But I sometimes find it dismaying when people conflate immediate, measured, and guaranteed compliance with ecological outcomes. They are not the same. I have been in settlement discussions in which I propose that we first come to agreement on what’s best for the resource, and then figure out how to make that fit into the regulatory framework, but have had few takers. The number is the number is the number.
A recent example arises in the context of water quality trading. EPA policy promotes alternative means of achieving regulatory compliance that promise environmental results at least as good as conventional, engineered approaches, and at lower cost. For example, if discharge water temperatures are the problem, riparian shade tree planting could substitute for mechanical chillers. Of course, measureable cooling would be deferred by many years while the trees grow, but the ancillary benefits of watershed restoration to habitat and ecosystem function are intuitive and compelling. This approach is supported by academia, government, and many in the NGO community. Some though are skeptical.
The City of Medford, Oregon, is embarking on a riparian vegetation approach to reduce temperatures at its wastewater treatment outfall, in full cooperation with Oregon DEQ. A regional NGO, Northwest Environmental Advocates, however, has raised objections. In a letter dated March 15, 2013, NEA asks EPA to examine DEQ’s implementation of the water quality trading policy with reference to Medford. NEA questions allowance of “credits” for watershed restoration work that upstream nonpoint sources would have to do anyway, and asserts that no credits should be allowed until the new trees actually yield shade.
The problem is that the upstream nonpoint sources are not obligated by law to restore riparian vegetation; they just need to adopt best management practices to avoid further degradation. More to the point, restoration of the watershed will simply not occur without the funding provided by a point source with a regulatory problem to solve, such as Medford. By denying the City credits, the incentive to use a watershed approach disappears. Similarly, if no credits are awarded until the trees are grown, funds that could go toward watershed restoration will be diverted to engineered controls on temperature. As DEQ Director Dick Pedersen so aptly puts it, “[i]f we ever build a chiller at the expense of ecosystems, we’ve failed.”
Posted on April 12, 2013
The August 21, 2012 decision of the D.C. Circuit Court in EME Homer City Generation LP v. EPA, Case No. 11-1302, not only vacated the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), it also provided a detailed framework (including the math) for how future plans should be developed by States to implement national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) through the “good neighbor” provisions of the Clean Air Act. This case has already been the subject of various posts to this Blog. This article will provide an update of activities that have occurred in recent weeks as state and federal agencies, NGOs and the regulated community respond to the decision and its implications for implementing the various NAAQS (past, present and future).
Let me begin by noting that on March 29, 2013, EPA and various environmental organizations filed for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. Even as EPA was filing for such a writ, EPA has scheduled two meetings this month with states to obtain input on technical and policy decisions. In these meetings, EPA is offering its interpretation of the court decision and its views about various options that exist for conducting the required analyses through the shared responsibility of EPA and the states.
Finally, the Midwest Ozone Group (MOG), a coalition of electric power generation interests, has developed a position statement on how the court opinion might be implemented including the identification of the following seven rules taken from the court opinion.
1. Basic rule - An upwind State’s obligation is limited to its own significant contribution and it cannot be directed to reduce emissions to account for any other factors impacting a downwind State’s nonattainment.
2. Proportionality of Downwind States - A downwind State is responsible for above-NAAQS amounts that are not attributable to significant contributions from upwind States.
3. Proportionality of Upwind States - The ratio of an individual upwind State contribution to the total contribution of all upwind States should be used as scalar to determine how the total upwind contribution is allocated among upwind States.
4. The Role of Costs - EPA may reduce some or all of the obligations of upwind States to avoid the imposition of unreasonable costs.
5. Insignificance - Once contributions are determined, a State is not required to address more than that contribution amount minus the significance threshold.
6. NAAQS Attainment - Once an area meets the NAAQS, no additional upwind emission reductions are required.
7. Over-Control - When multiple downwind areas are concerned, reductions associated with one downwind area should be reviewed in other areas to ensure unnecessary over control is not achieved
The full position statement can be found here.
The MOG position statement is accompanied by a presentation prepared by Alpine Geophysics which applies an example set of modeling data to these rules to illustrate how the rules might be applied as well as the significant technical and policy questions that remain. The Alpine Geophysics presentation can be found here.
Posted on April 8, 2013
Courts in Alaska issued two decisions upholding agency practice in carrying out antidegradation review under the Clean Water Act. The federal court concluded that adoption of water quality standards does not, itself, require antidegradation review. In the second case, a state court concluded that guidance may be developed to implement antidegradation regulations and need not be promulgated as a regulation provided it does not contain substantive criteria.
In Native Village of Point Hope v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alaska native and environmental organizations challenged EPA's approval of the State of Alaska's adoption of a site-specific water quality criterion ("SSC") for total dissolved solids ("TDS"). The SSC was challenged on a number of grounds, including on the basis that neither the State of Alaska nor EPA analyzed the SSC under the relevant antidegradation policy. The issue before the U.S. District Court for Alaska was whether antidegradation review applied to the adoption of water quality standards ("WQS") or, conversely, only when WQS are translated into permits through effluent limitations. In a case of first impression in the federal courts, the court ruled for EPA, holding that agencies are not required to undertake antidegradation review for the adoption of WQS; the obligation is only triggered when a WQS is incorporated into a permit through effluent limitations.
In Alaska Center for the Environment v. State of Alaska, environmental organizations challenged the State of Alaska's adoption of antidegradation implementation procedures through guidance, arguing that the procedures should have been promulgated as regulations. As background, several NPDES permits in Alaska were withdrawn by EPA in the face of arguments from environmental organizations that the State of Alaska lacked antidegradation implementation procedures. To address this alleged deficiency, the State of Alaska developed a guidance document which EPA found was consistent with EPA's own antidegradation regulation. The primary issue in the litigation was whether the State of Alaska was required to promulgate the guidance in the form of a regulation or whether it was permissible rely upon guidance to implement its regulations. In a decision that turned largely on the State of Alaska's Administration Procedures Act, the court held that it was appropriate for the State to develop the guidance to implement its regulatory program, reasoning that the guidance did not add substantive requirements to existing regulations.
Posted on March 26, 2013
On Monday, EPA lost another battle in the war over guidance. In Iowa League of Cities v. EPA, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated two letters that EPA had sent to Senator Charles Grassley concerning biological mixing zones and bypass of secondary treatment units at POTWs (also referred to as “blending”, because the POTWs blend wastewater that has not be subject to biological secondary treatment with wastewater that has, prior to discharge). The Court concluded that both letters constituted promulgation by EPA of effluent limits under the Clean Water Act and that they constituted legislative, rather than interpretive rules (I refuse to refer to “interpretative” rules; sorry). As a result, the Court vacated the letters due to EPA’s failure to follow notice and comment requirements applicable to promulgation of legislative rules. Finally, the Court concluded that a duly promulgated rule concerning biological mixing zones might be valid under Chevron, but that a rule barring bypasses of secondary treatment would exceed EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act.
In first determining whether the letters constituted “promulgation” of an effluent standard, the Court looked to whether the letters were binding on the regulated community. Relying in part on Appalachian Power Co., the Court concluded that the letters were binding:
If an agency acts as if a document issued at headquarters is controlling in the field, if it treats the document in the same manner as it treats a legislative rule, if it bases enforcement actions on the policies or interpretations formulated in the document, if it leads private parties or State permitting authorities to believe that it will declare permits invalid unless they comply with the terms of the document, then the agency’s document is for all practical purposes “binding.”
As the Court noted with respect to the mixing zone issue, the “letter instructs state permitting authorities to reject certain permit applications, regardless of the state’s water quality standards.” With respect to the bypass issue, EPA stated that “it will insist State and local authorities comply with” a never-issued policy that precludes the types of bypass at issue. To try to suggest that words such as “insist” are not binding did not go over well with the Court. “Just as it did in Appalachian Power, the EPA dissembles by describing the contested policy as subject to change.”
After concluding that the letters constituted promulgation of effluent standards, the Court went on to conclude that the letters constituted legislative, rather than interpretive, rules, and thus were subject to notice and comment rulemaking. The following is the key paragraph for those of us attempting to beat back the kudzu that is EPA’s reliance on such informal guidance as a substitute for notice and comment rulemaking:
Identifying where a contested rule lies on the sometimes murky spectrum between legislative rules and interpretative rules can be a difficult task, but it is not just an exercise in hair-splitting formalism. As agencies expand on the often broad language of their enabling statutes by issuing layer upon layer of guidance documents and interpretive memoranda, formerly flexible strata may ossify into rule-like rigidity. An agency potentially can avoid judicial review through the tyranny of small decisions. Notice and comment procedures secure the values of government transparency and public participation, compelling us to agree with the suggestion that “[t]he APA’s notice and comment exemptions must be narrowly construed.”
“Layer upon layer of guidance.” The “tyranny of small decisions.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.