New Mexico Supreme Court to Determine if Copper Rule Prevents, Rather Than Encourages, Ground Water Pollution

Posted on September 23, 2016 by Thomas Hnasko

The New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission enacted what is arguably the most comprehensive copper mine remediation rule in the country.  The Copper Rule requires copper mines to uniformly implement prescriptive measures of pollution control and to protect ground water at “foreseeable places of withdrawal.”  But does the Copper Rule really prevent pollution, as required by the New Mexico Water Quality Act?  Not so, say the Attorney General and various NGOs, who appealed the case to the New Mexico Court of Appeals.  They claimed that the Copper Rule’s uniform monitoring criteria, which require the placement of a monitoring well network as close as practicable around the perimeter of mine units, does not sufficiently protect ground water and therefore fails to satisfy the Water Quality Act’s mandate that contaminant concentrations not exceed permissible standards at places of withdrawal.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s rule-making in Gila Resources Information Project v. N.M. Water Quality Control Comm’n, holding that the determination of a “place of withdrawal” has always been and remains a matter committed to the Commission’s discretion. [Link to Case.] 

The New Mexico Supreme Court will now consider whether the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission has the authority, under the Water Quality Act, to adopt the regulations imposing prescriptive pollution controls and defining by rule, rather than on a case-by-case basis, the type of monitoring controls which essentially define protectable ground water as that existing on the exterior of active mine units.  After a number of swings of the bat, the petitioners in the Supreme Court have refined their arguments. They now claim that the Water Quality Act requires a case-by-case determination of a place of withdrawal, based on particular aquifer characteristics, rather than a definition derived by rule.  To succeed with this challenge, the petitioners must overcome the legislature’s mandate, in the 2009 amendments to the Water Quality Act, that the Commission adopt uniform monitoring requirements for the entire copper industry.  The battle seems to be whether the Copper Rule is sufficiently flexible to protect all places of withdrawal – regardless of where located – or whether the rule imposes a de facto definition of a place of withdrawal based on criteria that may not be tailored specifically to the aquifer characteristics at a particular site.  Oral argument is set for September 28, 2016.

The Drama of the Massachusetts Power Wars

Posted on September 20, 2016 by Lisa C. Goodheart

Sometimes the most extraordinary things in the world of law and government get served up in the most undramatic way.  If you aren’t paying attention to the back story, and you don’t know the context, you might almost miss the action.  And future generations, seeking to decipher history, might all too easily overlook the most crucial and delicate tipping points.  This fact of life has been emphatically proven by the Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural juggernaut that is the Broadway musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  In addition to telling the very personal story of one of our nation’s founding fathers, Hamilton shows, in brilliant style, that even seemingly dry and technical matters such as the origins of our nation’s financial system, and the logic underlying the complex apparatus of modern administrative agencies, are actually fueled by passion, dripping with drama, and world-changing in consequence.  You just need to know whose story to tell, and how to read between the lines.

A recent case in point:  On August 17, 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Engie Gas & LNG LLC v. Department of Public Utilities (Docket SJC-12051/SJC-12052).  Environmental and energy lawyers readily recognized the decision as an important one, but it’s easy to see how future generations, far from the current action, might miss the excitement here.  The question in Engie was whether the state utility department could approve ratepayer-backed, long-term contracts by electric distribution companies for the purchase and resale of interstate natural gas pipeline transportation capacity. 

To answer that question, the Engie court addressed, among other things, (1) the propriety of the appeal in the absence of a final adjudicatory order; (2) the pertinent standard of review, (3) the canon of statutory construction reddenda singula singulis, a.k.a. the rule of the last antecedent (which might also be merely a grammar rule), (4) whether ambiguity should or could be found in statutory language that neither expressly forbids nor clearly permits the proposed departmental action, (5) the parties’ competing interpretations of the legislative history, (6) the overall statutory framework, (7) the necessity of a “distributive reading” of the terms “gas or electric,” (8) the limitations of the deference to be afforded to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of a statute it is charged with enforcing, where the interpretation represents a significant departure from the agency’s own record of administering the pertinent statute, (9) the importance of ensuring consistency with the fundamental policy embodied in the legislation at issue, and (10) the interpretive pertinence of subsequent, separate legislation. Phew! 

Ultimately, the SJC rejected the utility department’s determination of the scope of its authority, and concluded that the pertinent statute forbade the imposition on electricity ratepayers of the costs of new natural gas supply infrastructure.  Like many judicial opinions concerning complex environmental and energy issues, the Engie decision has a sober logic that makes it seem unsurprising, correct, and even almost easy.  But wait – what just happened here? 

Ladies and gentlemen, we have an affair of honor!  One dueling party and its seconds, the state’s public utility department and electric distribution companies, contend that the policy choice by our state government’s executive branch to expand natural gas pipeline capacity is a sensible way of meeting our very real need for reliable electrical power.  Even as we move toward a more sustainable future of renewable energy, they say, we still depend urgently on new supplies of natural gas, obtained by means of fracking, to provide the essential “bridge” fuel, and we can all get ready for price spikes and power blackouts each winter if we ignore that reality.  It’s an emergency, and our future is at stake!  

The other dueling party and its seconds, who include the Massachusetts Attorney General and a coalition of environmentalists, land conservationists, and consumer and taxpayer advocates, insist that we don’t need any new natural gas infrastructure at all.  And if we don’t push much faster and harder for a larger-scale shift to more environmentally sustainable ways to support our energy consumption, they say, we are fiddling while Rome burns. It’s an emergency, and our future is at stake!

Grappling with the fine points of utility infrastructure regulation and financing may make some people’s eyes glaze over.  To which I say, are you kidding?  I can’t think of another moment when our courts were faced with environmental and energy law disputes more laden with tension and drama.  This is the high-stakes, heroic, dueling-on-the-ledge stuff on which our future history depends.  It could practically be a Broadway musical.

Section 101(f) of the Clean Water Act: Common Sense to Further a Common Purpose

Posted on September 9, 2016 by William Green

Section 101(f) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) creates a “national policy” that “to the maximum extent possible” the Act “shall” be implemented in a manner that “prevent[s] needless duplication and unnecessary delays at all levels of government.”  (33 U.S.C. § 1251(f))  Although this and the other overarching goals in § 101 of the Act were “no exercise in boilerplate rhetoric,” (William Harsha, Jr. (Ohio), Congressional Record 16520 (Jun. 3, 1976)) they are typically ignored.  Instead of ignoring § 101 of the CWA, however, a strong argument can be made that courts should remand or even vacate an agency’s action if it can be shown that such an action needlessly duplicates or unnecessarily delays efforts to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, [or] biological integrity of the Nation’s waters. (33 U.S.C. § 1251(a)) This would further Congress’s intent as codified in §§ 101(a) & (f) of the CWA.

Consider the ongoing controversy about the recent “Waters of the United States” rule (Rule).  (80 Fed. Reg. 37,054 (Jun. 29, 2015)) Many have said much about this Rule, focusing on lofty constitutional arguments, erudite discussions of which and when Supreme Court opinions control, and the finer points of APA jurisprudence.  But few have argued that the automatic implementation of its increased jurisdictional scope would contravene § 101(f).  Because the Rule seeks to increase the federal government’s jurisdiction under the CWA, without more, coverage of the Act’s regulatory requirements would immediately attach to previously non-jurisdictional waters.  This inextricable link of new jurisdiction and implementation could lead to disruptive delays and associated problems. 

When, for example, the hundreds of ditches that form a sprawling municipal separate storm sewer system become jurisdictional, various implementation requirements would be triggered – noncompliance with which could lead to administrative and civil penalties and criminal liability.  In this and many other instances, the sudden applicability of CWA requirements could have the unintended consequence of actually impeding ongoing efforts to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”  

The shift of focus from traditional waters of the United States to stormwater conveyances could divert and dilute scarce local government resources.  This could delay meaningful water quality improvements for the lakes and rivers people actually use to swim and fish, and use for potable water could become more difficult to attain and then sustain. Such delays would serve no environmental benefit and would be especially unjustified where local governments only use those stormwater conveyances for stormwater management or for treating discharges from them into traditional waters of the United States.  Indeed, until promulgation of the Waters of the United States Rule, stormwater conveyances have historically been excluded from the CWA’s jurisdictional reach.        

It thus seems that the directives of §101(f) should be taken into account in litigation judging the appropriateness of the Waters of the United States Rule.  This would ensure that the Rule is implementable in a fashion that satisfies §101(f)’s common sense mandate to “prevent needless duplication and unnecessary delays” in furtherance of the fundamental goal of “restor[ing] and maintain[ing] the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

William H. Green thanks Mohammad O. Jazil for his contributions to this post.

A Lumber Mill Biomass CoGen Need Not Consider Other Fuels In Its BACT Analysis. Other Sources Should Be So Lucky.

Posted on September 8, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

Ever since EPA began considering how BACT analysis would be applied to greenhouse gas emissions, there has been concern that EPA would use its BACT authority to “redefine the source” – with the particular concern that BACT for a coal plant would now be to burn natural gas instead.  In Helping Hands Tools v. EPA, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week gave some protection to biomass plants biomassfrom such redefinition of the source.  However, other types of facilities will get no comfort from the decision.

Helping Hands Tools involved a challenge to a PSD permit issued to Sierra Pacific for a cogeneration plant to be located at one of its existing lumber mills.  Under EPA’s BACT Guidance, Sierra Pacific stated that the purpose of the CoGen plant was to use wood waste from the mill and nearby facilities to generate electricity and heat. Relying in part on the 7th Circuit decision in Sierra Club v. EPA, which held that it would impermissibly redefine the source to require a mine-mouth coal generating plant to consider different fuels in its BACT analysis, the 9th Circuit found that EPA was reasonable in determining that, because a fundamental purpose of the CoGen plant was to burn wood waste, it would impermissibly redefine the source to require Sierra Pacific to consider solar power as part of its BACT analysis.

Importantly, the Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ request that Sierra Pacific consider greater use of natural gas.  The Court concluded that very limited use of natural gas for the purposes of startup, shutdown, and flame stabilization did not undermine the fundamental purpose to burn wood waste.  This is critical to source-located biomass facilities, because EPA’s GHG Permitting Guidance specifically says that greater use of an existing fuel should be considered in the BACT analysis:

"unless it can be demonstrated that such an option would disrupt the applicant’s basic business purpose for the proposed facility."

Unfortunately, the language of the decision appears to me to give EPA substantial leeway in future BACT analyses to redefine the source in other cases.  It seems to me that, building on the 7th Circuit decision, the Court has simply created an exception to potential source redefinition in circumstances where the location of the facility justifies a very narrow fuel selection.  If a coal plant intends to burn coal from the mine next door, ok.  If a lumber mill intends to burn its own wood waste, ok.  Otherwise, however, all bets are off.

What is particularly troubling was the Court’s acknowledgement that the GHG BACT guidance is vague, and its deference to EPA’s application of its own vague guidance. This is precisely the concern I noted when the Guidance was first issued.  Time will tell, but I foresee some fairly extreme BACT determinations being blessed by some very deferential courts.

Flatulence Isn’t Super fun(d)

Posted on September 2, 2016 by Peter Hsiao

Do air emissions of pollutants constitute a “disposal” under the federal hazardous waste laws?  The Ninth Circuit said “no” in Pakootas, et al. v. Teck Cominco Metals, Ltd. based upon its reading of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund).  The decision both sets important precedent and showcases the judicial process to discern legislative intent when a statute’s plain language is stressed by an unusual fact pattern.  If air pollutants can create CERCLA disposals, then emissions from any stationary or mobile source, including animal emissions of methane (which is considered a pollutant subject to CERCLA by EPA), may be the basis of cleanup liability.

The decision involves a smelter located just north of the border with British Columbia.  An earlier decision in that case held that a foreign-based facility can be liable under CERCLA for slag discharges into a river running to the United States.  Plaintiffs then alleged the facility arranged for disposal by emitting hazardous air contaminants which were carried by the wind and deposited in Washington State.  The district court denied a motion to dismiss and certified the matter for immediate appellate review.

Reading the plain language of CERCLA, the Ninth Circuit found that “a reasonable enough construction” of the law would be that the facility “arranged for disposal” of its air pollutants.  No legislative history or EPA rules shed light on this subject.  However, the Court concluded it was not writing on a blank slate.  Noting that CERCLA incorporates the definition of “disposal” from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Court cited its prior decision in Ctr. for Cmty. Action and Envtl. Justice v. BNSF Rwy. Co., which held that diesel particulate emissions “transported by wind and air currents onto the land and water” did not constitute “disposal” of waste within the meaning of RCRA.  To be a disposal, the solid or hazardous waste must first be placed into or on any land or water and thereafter be emitted into the air.  The Court also cited its en banc decision in Carson Harbor Vill., Ltd. v. Unocal Corp., holding that passive migration was not a disposal under CERCLA. 

The Court thereby found that arranging for “disposal” did not include arranging for air “emissions.”  This interpretation of “disposal” was largely consistent with CERCLA’s overall statutory scheme.  The Court expressed concern that plaintiffs’ more expansive reading would stretch CERCLA liability beyond the bounds of reason.  “[I]f ‘aerial depositions’ are accepted as ‘disposals,’” the Court said, “‘disposal’ would be a never-ending process, essentially eliminating the innocent landowner defense.” 

The Court did not discuss in detail the statutory interplay with the Clean Air Act, which regulates air emissions under a complex regulatory and permit scheme.  Under CERCLA, federally permitted releases are excluded from liability.  But because air permits often specify the control equipment parameters rather than an emission limit, a CERCLA plaintiff may allege that the mere existence of a permit does not provide a blanket immunity from liability and the facility would remain liable for any releases that were not expressly permitted, exceeded the limitations of the permit, or occurred at a time when there was no permit.  The Court in passing did note its skepticism that the federally permitted “release” exception evidenced any Congressional intent regarding the meaning of “disposal.”

The Ninth Circuit is the highest court to exclude air emissions from the reach of CERCLA and RCRA.  The Court’s citation to Carson Harbor does not provide an exact analogy since a passive landowner has not “arranged” for the initial release of hazardous substances, as compared to the smelter operations which result in air emissions.  But the Court’s unwillingness to create potentially unlimited CERCLA liability for air emissions is compelling.  Under CERCLA, liability is strict, joint and several and retroactive.  Air emissions are widely transported and dispersed in relatively small concentrations by large numbers of potential sources, making CERCLA liability findings and allocations difficult if not impossible. 

The Court thereby divined Congress’ intent to make CERCLA’s scheme workable, apart from a literal reading of its text.  For judges to “repair” statutory language in this way is controversial.  The decision is reminiscent of the U.S. Supreme Court holding that the Obama health care plan provides tax credits to millions of people who purchase insurance from a federal marketplace, even though the statute only provides credits for those who purchase from marketplaces “established by the state.”  According to Justice Roberts, that was the only way the law would work, and despite the plain wording in the statute, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.”  CERCLA also is not a model of clarity, and the Ninth Circuit similarly incorporated practicality as a factor in discerning Congress’ intent to avoid overreaching in assigning liability for the cleanup of toxic chemical releases.

Taking Colin to the Limit One More Time

Posted on August 4, 2016 by Andrea Field

This post started as a piece about a recent Fifth Circuit decision:  Texas v. EPA. In that case, the state of Texas (and others) challenge EPA’s disapproval of Texas’s (and Oklahoma’s) plans for controlling regional haze and EPA’s decision to impose its own haze-control program instead.  To make my drafting process more entertaining (and the task of posting more challenging for our official poster, Colin Gipson-Tansil), I set a goal for myself:  to include within my post at least 25 valid links to others’ posts during the past year.  Fortunately for me, there is almost nothing in Texas v. EPA that doesn’t link to one or more recent posts. 

Jurisdiction and Venue.  Many of the past year’s posts point out problems caused by the failure of the Clean Water Act to state unambiguously which federal court has jurisdiction to hear a specific challenge to an EPA action under that statute. Stoll’s 9/2/2015 post, Glick’s 10/9/2015 post, Horder’s 11/3/2015 post, Perdue’s 2/5/2016 post, and Uram’s 4/5/2016 post.  Texas v. EPA demonstrates that choice-of-court problems also exist under the Clean Air Act’s judicial review provision, §307(b)(1).

Clean Air Act §307(b)(1) – said the Fifth Circuit – is a two-fold provision:  first, it confers jurisdiction on the courts of appeals, and then it delineates whether the appropriate venue for challenges will be the regional circuits (if the challenged action is locally or regionally applicable) or the D.C. Circuit (if the action is nationally applicable).  Believing EPA’s disapproval of its regional haze program to be locally or regionally applicable, Texas filed its challenge in the Fifth Circuit.  EPA moved to dismiss or transfer the case to the D.C. Circuit based on a separate, not-as-well-known prong of §307(b)(1), which directs that a petition for review of what seems like a non-national action may be filed only in the D.C. Circuit if the action is “based on a determination of nationwide scope or effect and if in taking such action [EPA] finds and publishes that such action is based on such a determination.”  After an exhaustive de novo evaluation of that portion of §307(b)(1), the Fifth Circuit determined that because the challenged EPA actions are locally or regionally applicable and because they are not based on any determinations that have nationwide scope or effect, the Fifth Circuit is the appropriate court to hear the case.

But wait.  There are other link-worthy aspects of Texas v. EPA, including the following.

Explanations of Decisions to Stay Challenged Actions.  During the past year, posts have discussed whether and how much a court needs to explain the basis on which it stays a challenged rule pending completion of litigation concerning that rule’s validity. Jaffe’s 2/10/2016 post, Gerrard’s 2/10/2016 post.  If it is a lengthy explanation you seek for when and why a court should stay an EPA action pending completion of litigation, the Fifth Circuit provides that in Texas v. EPA.

Deference.  Other recent posts have addressed when deference to an agency interpretation is – or is not – appropriate. Kovar (12/10/2015); Percival (1/27/2016); Field (2/11/2016); Haynes (2/19/2016); May (6/9/2016); Civins (7/5/2016); Jaffe (8/2/2016).  In Texas, the Fifth Circuit put clear limits on deference, holding that the level of deference owed to an agency’s conclusions is “substantially diminished when the subject matter in question lies beyond the agency’s expertise.”  Thus, while the Fifth Circuit was prepared to defer substantially to EPA’s views on environmental science, it declined to defer to EPA’s views on whether its actions would impair the reliability of the electricity grid.  Since “EPA has no expertise on grid reliability” (that is FERC’s domain), the “deference owed to EPA’s assertions about grid reliability [is] diminished and the agency must support its arguments more thoroughly than in those areas in which it has considerable expertise and knowledge.” 

That limitation on deference could have an impact on the most talked-about case by ACOEL members this past year:  West Virginia v. EPA, in which more than two dozen states and many other parties challenge EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Jaffe’s 9/10/2015 post, Gerrard’s 2/10/2016 postJaffe’s 10/23/2015 post, Jaffe’s 12/9/2015 post, Percival’s 12/16/2015 post, Stoll’s 12/21/2015 post, Perdue’s 2/5/2016 post, Jaffe’s 2/10/2016 post, Field’s 2/11/2016 postSession’s 2/17/2016 post, and Freeman’s 3/2/2016 post. The Fifth Circuit’s limit on deference is the basis of a recent Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure 28(j) letter sent to the D.C. Circuit by the petitioning states in West Virginia.   According to those states, the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Texas v. EPA supports, among other things, the petitioning states’ argument that EPA has failed to show that the Clean Power Plan will not detrimentally affect grid reliability. 

Perhaps the link in which I take the most pride, though, is this last link – to Seth Jaffe’s October 2, 2015 Brief Rant on Cost-Effectiveness Analysis.  In that post, Seth argues that if the purpose of a rule is to improve visibility, EPA should use a measurement of visibility – a deciview (dv) – to assess visibility improvement. Well, in Texas v. EPA, the Fifth Circuit seemed to be heading in the direction of agreeing that in considering the cost of a regional haze program, EPA should use the $/dv metric.  Alas, at the last minute, the court pulled back on a complete endorsement of the $/dv metric:  because the petitioners had a “strong likelihood of establishing other flaws” in EPA’s actions, the court said it did not need to decide whether  EPA “fell short of its obligation to consider the costs of its regulations” by failing to use $/dv metrics.  So, Seth may have to wait a while longer before seeing a court mandate for EPA’s use of $/dv metrics to evaluate visibility improvements.  I, however, achieved my goal of including a record number of links in this post.  

Chevron Deference Lives! EPA’s Boiler Rule (Mostly) Survives Review

Posted on August 2, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

On Friday, the D.C. Circuit largely upheld EPA’s Boiler MACT rule. boiler-mactThe industry challenges were a complete washout.  The environmental petitioners won one significant victory and a number of smaller ones.

The environmental petitioners’ one significant victory is important.  EPA included within relevant subcategories any source that burns a fuel containing at least 10% of the “subcategory-defining fuel.”  However, for defining MACT, EPA included only those sources that burn fuel containing at 90% of the subcategory-defining fuel for existing sources, and 100% for new sources.  The Court rejected this approach.

"The CAA, however, demands that source subcategories take the bitter with the sweet. Section 7412 mandates, without ambiguity, that the EPA set the MACT floor at the level achieved by the best performing source, or the average of the best performing sources, in a subcategory. It thus follows that if the EPA includes a source in a subcategory, it must take into account that source’s emissions levels in setting the MACT floor."

Which brings me to my big take-away from this decision.  Chevron lives.  By my count, The Court cited Chevron 30 times.  Chevron pervades the decision.  Even in the one big issue that EPA lost, the Court’s decision was based not on a rejection of EPA’s interpretation of an ambiguous provision under step 2 of Chevron, but on a plain meaning interpretation of § 112.  EPA defined what a source is, but it then refused to calculate MACT based upon the performance of all of the sources in a given subcategory.  The statute simply did not allow EPA that leeway.

Other than EPA’s attempt to avoid taking “the bitter with the sweet”, however, the Court’s deference – by three Republican appointees – to EPA’s technical decisions was notable.  Not every case is the Clean Power Plan.  Where EPA is not really pushing the boundaries, I don’t see the Supreme Court weakening Chevron any time soon.

Minnesota May Not Prohibit Power Sales That Would Increase Statewide CO2 Emissions. Why Not? Pick Your Reason.

Posted on June 17, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

If you needed any further proof that energyelec_mag_fieldlaw is very complicated, Wednesday’s decision in North Dakota v. Heydinger should convince you.  The judgment is simple – the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Minnesota statute which provides in part that:

"no person shall . . . (2) import or commit to import from outside the state power from a new large energy facility that would contribute to statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions; or (3) enter into a new long-term power purchase agreement that would increase statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions."

Why, you ask?

  • The panel opinion, by Judge Loken, stated that the Minnesota statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, by regulating purely “extraterritorial” economic activity.
  • Judge Murphy, in the first concurrence, disagreed with Judge Loken’s conclusion that the statute violates the dormant Commerce Clause, but joined the judgment, because she concluded that the statute is preempted by the Federal Power Act.
  • Judge Colloton, in the second concurrence, agreed with Judge Murphy that the statute does not violate the dormant clause, but also concurred in the judgment. Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the “statute bans wholesale sales of electric energy in interstate commerce,” it is preempted by the Federal Power Act.  However, Judge Colloton wrote separately, because he at least partially disagrees with Judge Murphy (as well as with Judge Loken) and does not believe that the Minnesota statute constitutes a complete ban on wholesale sales of energy that increase CO2 emissions.  However, Judge Colloton concluded that, to the extent that the statute is not preempted by the Federal Power Act, it is preempted by the Clean Air Act.

Is that sufficiently clear?

I do feel compelled to add two final notes.  First, I don’t understand why Judge Loken wrote the panel opinion, when his rationale did not command a majority.  Indeed, as Judge Colloton pointed out, the Court should not even have reached the constitutional issue, since a panel majority existed that was prepared to strike down the Minnesota statute on statutory grounds.  (Preemption is considered a statutory, not a constitutional, rationale.)

Second, don’t analogize the electric energy transmission to the flow of water in a pipe, at least before Judge Murphy.  Here’s your electricity and magnetism primer for the day, courtesy of the Judge.

"In the electricity transmission system, individual electrons do not actually “flow” in the same sense as water in a pipe. Rather, the electrons oscillate in place, and it is electric energy which is transmitted through the propagation of an electromagnetic wave.

Certainly brought me back to course 8.02 at MIT.  Not one of my favorites.

Does the Clean Water Act Cover Discharges To Or Through Groundwater?

Posted on June 15, 2016 by David Buente

An issue that has recently come to the forefront of Clean Water Act (“CWA”) jurisprudence in numerous district courts across the country and which is currently before the Ninth Circuit is whether the discharge of pollutants into groundwater which is hydrologically connected to a surface water is regulated under the CWA.  The CWA prohibits discharges from point sources to navigable waters, defined as “waters of the United States,” unless they are in compliance with another provision of the Act, such as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permitting program.  Whether discharges to groundwater hydrologically connected to a surface water body fall under this prohibition is a question with far-reaching consequences for facilities as varied as coal ash basins, slurry pits, retention ponds, and hydraulic fracturing wastewater ponds, all of which could theoretically be deemed to be in violation of the CWA under this hydrological-connection theory if they leak into groundwater at all.

As a preliminary matter, there is no question that isolated groundwater itself is not a water of the United States regulated under the CWA.  First, multiple courts, including several circuit courts of appeals, have held that groundwater is not “waters of the United States.”  Second, the legislative history surrounding the CWA indicates clearly that Congress considered setting standards for groundwater or explicitly including it in the NPDES permitting program and decided against such an approach.  Finally, in the rule, now stayed by the Sixth Circuit, which EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers promulgated last year defining the term “waters of the United States,” the agencies explicitly stated that they had “never interpreted” groundwater “to be a ‘water of the United States’ under the CWA.”  80 Fed. Reg. 37073

The hydrological connection issue is not a new one; both the Seventh Circuit in 1994 and the Fifth Circuit in 2001 determined that discharges to groundwater which is hydrologically connected to waters of the United States are not regulated under the CWA or the Oil Pollution Act (“OPA”) (courts have typically interpreted the term “navigable waters” to have the same meaning under both acts).  In the past few years, however, the frequency of opinions on this topic has increased, and district courts have been very much split on this issue.  Some courts and commentators have dubbed this theory of regulation the “conduit theory,” with the idea being that the groundwater serves as a conduit between the point source and the water of the United States. 

Three district courts have recently rejected the conduit theory.  In 2014, in Cape Fear River Watch, Inc. v. Duke Energy Progress, Inc., the Eastern District of North Carolina confronted the issue of whether seepage from coal ash basins at one of the defendant’s power plants, alleged to contain contaminants and to carry those contaminants through groundwater into a lake, was a discharge prohibited by the CWA.  The court emphatically held that “Congress did not intend for the CWA to extend federal regulatory authority over groundwater, regardless of whether that groundwater is eventually or somehow ‘hydrologically connected’ to navigable surface waters.”  As justifications for its holding, it cited the CWA’s dearth of language actually referring to groundwater, its legislative history, and the 2006 Supreme Court case on the meaning of waters of the United States, Rapanos v. United States, in which the plurality opinion and Justice Kennedy’s concurrence appeared to reflect a limited construction of the term.  The following year, in 2015, the District of Maryland came to a similar conclusion in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Apex Oil Co., Inc.  The court held that “even if it is hydrologically connected to a body of ‘navigable water,’” groundwater is not regulated under the OPA, also citing the language of the CWA, its legislative history, and Rapanos.  Likewise, in 2013, in Tri-Realty Co. v. Ursinus College, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania concluded that “Congress did not intend either the CWA or the OPA to extend federal regulatory authority over groundwater, regardless of whether that groundwater is eventually or somehow ‘hydrologically connected’ to navigable surface waters.”

Other recent district court opinions, however, have come to the opposite conclusion.  In 2014, in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, the District of Hawaii confronted the issue of whether the County would need a NPDES permit to discharge waste into underground injection wells when plaintiffs contended that some of the injected wastewater eventually finds its way to the Pacific Ocean.  The district court concluded that “liability arises even if the groundwater…is not itself protected by the Clean Water Act, as long as the groundwater is a conduit through which pollutants are reaching navigable-in-fact water.”  The district court also cited Rapanos in support of its argument.  That case is now before the Ninth Circuit on appeal, and the Department of Justice recently filed an amicus brief supporting the argument that there is CWA jurisdiction where pollutants move through groundwater to jurisdictional surface waters if there is a “direct hydrological connection” between the groundwater and surface waters.  Likewise, in 2015, in Yadkin Riverkeeper v. Duke Energy Carolinas, LLC, the Middle District of North Carolina held that it had jurisdiction over claims where “pollutants travel from a point source to navigable waters through hydrologically connected groundwater serving as a conduit between the point source and the navigable waters.”  That court based its determination in part on the idea that taking an expansive view of the types of discharges which the CWA prohibits is most in line with the statute’s purpose.  A few weeks later in Sierra Club v. Virginia Electric and Power Co., the Eastern District of Virginia, citing Yadkin Riverkeeper, held that a CWA citizen suit against Dominion Virginia Power using the conduit theory should survive a motion to dismiss.

The line of cases rejecting CWA jurisdiction over discharges to groundwater which is hydrologically connected to surface waters of the United States gets it right.  As the legislative history proves, Congress considered regulating discharges to groundwater and rejected such an approach.  This decision is reflected in the language of the statute.  Moreover, in Rapanos, the Supreme Court restricted the factual scenarios under which a wetland could be considered a water of the United States, thus revealing that a majority of the justices on the Court favored a narrower jurisdictional reach under the CWA.  Finally, to accept the “conduit theory” would be to write the “point source” requirement out of the statute.  As described above, a discharge must come from a point source, which the CWA defines as a “discernible, confined and discrete conveyance.”  Groundwater seepage seems to be about as far from a “discernible, confined and discrete” source as it gets, resembling nonpoint source pollution like stormwater runoff.

D.C. Circuit: Save Us Sinners Who Fail to Object When There Is Nothing to Object To!

Posted on June 7, 2016 by Richard G. Stoll

Clean Power Plan (CPP) groupies are beside themselves over the D.C. Circuit’s surprise “straight-to-en banc” move for CPP judicial review.  The buzz is mostly over the survivability of the CPP’s interpretations of Clean Air Act (CAA) §111(d) in light of the nine judges’ dispositions.

I won’t weigh in on that issue here.  My target is another issue, one that has been lurking in the background and has bugged me greatly for the last couple of years.  Now that the issue is before an en banc panel, I am fervently hoping the Court will do what only en banc panels can do:  declare that a few recent D.C. Circuit rulings are wrong.

The issue involves garden variety adlaw:  should the CPP be vacated because EPA failed to propose or adequately foreshadow key elements of the final rule?  Parties attacking the CPP have advanced this argument, and EPA has defended on numerous grounds that its notice was adequate. 

I won’t opine here on whether EPA’s notice was adequate.  My beef is with EPA’s fall-back defense:  EPA’s argument that even if there were wholly insufficient notice of the CPP’s final provisions, the Court has no authority to vacate the CPP on those grounds. 

EPA’s theory is that since CAA §307(d)(7)(B) provides that only an issue raised in public comments can be raised on judicial review, a final rule that was never proposed cannot be challenged on judicial review because there were no public comments on that provision.  Yep, read on.

EPA argues that parties claiming a final rule was never proposed must instead file administrative petitions for review under CAA §307(d)(7)(B) and wait (usually for a few years, if ever) for EPA to act on those petitions.  In the meantime, under EPA’s position, regulatory provisions that were never proposed or foreshadowed must go into full force and effect.

This means that EPA can get away with murder, at least in the adlaw context.  Just forget the bedrock principle that an agency can impose and enforce only those rules that have first been proposed.  Under EPA’s position, the bedrock is blown away by a Richter 8.8 otherwise known as CAA §307(d)(7)(B). 

In the last two years, EPA has managed to convince D.C. Circuit panels to accede to this unfair and baseless approach.  See my 2015 ACOEL post discussing these opinions.  In a piece I published in Bloomberg BNA in 2014, I showed how the D.C. Circuit had never previously interpreted CAA §307(d)(7)(B) in this fashion , and had on many occasions vacated final rule provisions that had never been proposed. 

As explained in the above-cited pieces, the absurdity of EPA’s position is that final rules will go into full force and effect against parties because they failed to object to something they could not object to.  This just can’t be right.  The en banc CPP panel should do the right thing and declare the three most recent decisions to be wrong.

[Mr. Stoll is not representing any party in the pending D.C. Circuit CPP judicial review proceedings.]

Deal or no Deal? - Partial Dismissal of CERCLA Claims Against United States and Tribal Entities

Posted on May 19, 2016 by Larry Ausherman

Three companion decisions in Atlantic Richfield Co. v. U.S. et. al., Case No. 1:15-cv-00056, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, provide insight on the CERCLA statute of limitations, potential pitfalls in pleading CERCLA claims, and the defense of sovereign immunity by an Indian Pueblo in the context of CERCLA and contract claims.  The case remains pending.

In the 1940s, when the war was over, the federal government was in the market for uranium concentrate for bombs, and it encouraged private entities to mine and mill uranium for sale to the government at prices set by the government.  Much of the country’s uranium reserves were in the Grants Uranium Belt in western New Mexico, an area that includes the Laguna Pueblo. 

Uranium was discovered on Laguna Pueblo lands in 1952, and Anaconda Copper Mining Company entered into mining leases with Laguna, which were approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, acting pursuant to its trust responsibility to the Pueblo.  Much uranium was mined there from the Jackpile Paguate mine beginning in 1952, and operations continued until 1982.        In 1986, the Pueblo and Anaconda’s successor, Atlantic Richfield Co. (“ARCO”), entered into an agreement to terminate the leases and perform remediation.  ARCO agreed to pay the Pueblo to perform remediation, and the Pueblo agreed to assume all liability and release ARCO regarding it.  The Department of the Interior approved the agreement and, following the preparation of an EIS, BLM and BIA issued a ROD that established requirements for the remediation.  ARCO paid $43.6 million to the Pueblo to perform the remediation and release ARCO. 

All defendants were involved in varying degrees with the remediation.  BIA had responsibility to determine the extent of remediation required and approve key remediation decisions according to a cooperative agreement with the Pueblo.  But BIA and the Pueblo saw in ARCO’s $43.6 million payment an economic development opportunity.  The Pueblo formed Laguna Construction Company (“LCC”) to conduct the remediation, and BIA ceded certain oversight to the relatively inexperienced LCC as well.  Work on the initial remediation ended in 1985.  Beginning in 2007 the Pueblo, and then EPA, investigated the adequacy of mine reclamation at the mine site and found problems.  In 2012 EPA proposed listing on the NPL, and in 2014 it asserted that ARCO should fund the RI/FS, but EPA has brought no litigation. 

ARCO claims that the remediation was mishandled and brought CERCLA claims against the United States, the Pueblo and LCC, seeking cost recovery, contribution, and declaratory relief.  The United States moved to dismiss.  In detailed decision by Senior United States District Judge, James A. Parker, all of ARCO’s claims against the United States were dismissed.    In companion decisions, some claims against the Pueblo and LCC were dismissed and some survived motions to dismiss.  Dismissals were based in part on the CERCLA statute of limitations, the court’s determination that the ARCO pleadings were deficient and sovereign immunity.

ARCO sought to recover two categories of response costs:  (1) the $43.6 million it paid to the Pueblo in 1986 in exchange for the Pueblo’s agreeing to be responsible for the remediation and to release ARCO from all responsibility for it; and (2) the significant costs ARCO incurred in responding to EPA’s more recent efforts to shift responsibility to ARCO.  The Court dismissed ARCO’s claims for cost recovery and contribution for the 1986 settlement payment as time barred.  The Court dismissed ARCO’s claim to recover the costs in responding to EPA and associated investigation as inadequately pled to establish that the expenditure constitutes “necessary costs of response.”  Claims for contribution under 113(f)(1) (referenced by the court as “post judgment contribution claim”) were dismissed as premature because ARCO had not been sued.  Finally, the claims against the United States for declaratory judgement were dismissed; the court ruled that ARCO cannot bring a claim for declaratory relief because it has failed to establish a valid underlying contribution or cost recovery claim. 

Claims against the Pueblo and LCC are somewhat more complicated as a result of sovereign immunity defenses they raised.  The court considered the sovereign immunity defense asserted by both Laguna Pueblo and LLC, its federally-chartered Tribal Corporation.  The Court concluded that both the Pueblo and LCC are entitled to assert sovereign immunity as a bar to ARCO’s CERCLA claims because the language of existing waivers of sovereign immunity was not unequivocal enough to cover CERCLA claims.  The Court therefore dismissed those CERCLA claims.  However, the court found that the Pueblo and LCC waived sovereign immunity with regard to ARCO’s breach of contract claims.  The source of this waiver for the Pueblo is in the 1986 Agreement to Terminate Leases.  The court found that this agreement served to waive sovereign immunity from claims brought under that contract.  Regarding LCC, the source of the waiver of sovereign immunity for breach of contract claims was in the Articles of Merger associated with the merger of LCC from a New Mexico corporation to a federal LCC formed under 25 USC §477, which may assert sovereign immunity.  A motion for reconsideration by LCC is pending.

Although the facts of Atlantic Richfield are unique, its lessons are broader.  First, in pleading a CERCLA claim for cost recovery, care should be taken to allege in some detail facts which support all elements of the claim, including facts showing that necessary response costs within CERCLA were incurred.  Second, without adequate waiver of sovereign immunity, the settlement and payment in exchange for a release and commitment by a tribe or tribal corporation to assume full responsibility for clean-up may leave the door open for CERCLA liability in the future without recourse through CERCLA-based contribution and cost recovery claims.  Finally, although the court’s decision confirmed that the defense of sovereign immunity applies to CERCLA contribution and cost recovery claims brought by private parties against sovereign Indian tribes and their federally chartered corporations, the court’s analysis confirms that under the right circumstances, a tribe may waive its sovereign immunity protections. 

Emotional Distress Claims in Environmental Torts: Does the “Zone of Danger” Rule Allow Recovery for Fear of Future Injury?

Posted on April 26, 2016 by H. Thomas Wells Jr.

Two legal rules frequently come into play in environmental tort cases that are difficult to reconcile: the rule allowing recovery for emotional distress damages without physical injury if someone is found to be in the “zone of danger,” and the rule not allowing recovery for mere fear of a future injury.

Normally, recovery for emotional distress (sometimes called mental anguish) requires the plaintiff to suffer some actual physical injury, however slight.  But one exception allows someone who is in the “zone of danger” to recover despite the lack of any physical injury. Usually, the danger must be an immediate physical injury. For example, one case allowed recovery for emotional distress under a “zone of danger” theory for the driver at whom a gun was pointed, but not for the passenger in the same car. Another case allowed recovery to someone who had to escape his burning home, and then watched it burn to the ground, but not for someone who merely saw his house burning when he returned from work. Yet another case allowed recovery for floodwaters entering a home because the floodwaters were infested with snakes.  Presumably, without the snakes, there could have been no recovery for emotional distress for the flood.

How does this “zone of danger” rule square with claims in environmental tort cases?  Many courts do not allow recovery for a mere fear of an injury in the future, or so-called “cancerphobia” cases.  Despite this rule, can one recover for emotional distress in, for example, an air pollution case, arguing that the plaintiff is in the “zone of danger” despite no present physical injury?

Plaintiffs in environmental tort cases, such as flooding, air pollution, and others, have indeed been asserting “zone of danger” theories to avoid the physical injury rule, and are asking juries to award them emotional distress or mental anguish damages.  These claims must walk a fine line, since most courts do not allow recovery for mere fear of future injury. Where is that line drawn in an environmental tort case? For example, since presumably any amount of air pollution is bad for one’s lungs, is mere exposure to air pollution enough to recover for mental anguish for worrying about one’s self or one’s children?  Or is this argument simply an end run around the ban on recovery for fear of future injury?  Courts will have to draw lines in these environmental tort cases, and the lines they draw may not all be bright or easy to see.

Children’s Crusade to Combat Climate Change Continues

Posted on April 18, 2016 by Rick Glick

As reported by Seth Jaffe in this space, a federal magistrate judge in Oregon has kept alive the dreams of a group of young plaintiffs—aided by environmental advocacy groups—to compel government action against climate change.  Like a similar case brought by the same plaintiffs a few years ago in state court, discussed below, the federal case seeks a declaration that government inaction violates the public trust.  But in the federal case, plaintiffs added claims that their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property also are being violated.

The judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the matter is a political question better left to Congress.  Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin reasoned that the pleadings were adequate on their face and that the substantive issues raised by the defendants should await motions for summary judgment or trial.  Still, the judge gave hope to the plaintiffs, which, I think will be short lived.  Climate change is simply too big, diffuse and complex an issue for the courts to try to fashion a remedy around.

This same group of plaintiffs has had mixed success in pursuing its objectives at the state level.  In June 2014 I posted about the Oregon Court of Appeals reversing and remanding a trial court’s dismissal of a similar claim against the state.  The appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to a determination whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource and whether Oregon state government had breached its fiduciary responsibility by not adequately protecting it.  On remand, Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten H. Rasmussen granted the state summary judgment and dismissed the suit with prejudice.  The case is now again pending before the Court of Appeals.

In his 19-page opinion, Judge Rasmussen concluded that the public trust does not extend to the atmosphere.  The contours of the public trust are a matter of state common law, and Oregon law ties the public trust to title and restraints on alienation.  The court concluded that there could be no title in the atmosphere and therefore public trust fiduciary obligations do not exist.  The court also noted that traditional public trust resources, such as submerged lands, are exhaustible, which under Oregon law confers a fiduciary responsibility on the state.  While the atmosphere may be altered or even damaged, the court found that it is not exhaustible.

The court added the following thought, which I think will guide the U.S. District Court when it hears the current case:

The Plaintiffs effectively ask the Court to do away with the Legislature entirely on the issue of GHG emissions on the theory that the Legislature is not doing enough. If "not doing enough" were the standard for judicial action, individual judges would regularly be asked to substitute their individual judgment for the collective judgment of the Legislature, which strikes this Court as a singularly bad and undemocratic idea.

            Watch this space for further developments in Oregon state and federal courts.

A Substantive Due Process Right to Climate Change Regulation? What’s a Lonely Apostle of Judicial Restraint To Do?

Posted on April 13, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

Late last week, Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin concluded that the most recent public trust Mosaic_of_Justinianus_I_-_Basilica_San_Vitale_(Ravenna) (1)case, which seeks an injunction requiring the United States to take actions to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 parts per million by 2100, should not be dismissed.

The complaint here is similar to, but broader than, others of its ilk.  As we noted previously, at least one federal court has already held that there is no public trust in the atmosphere.  Perhaps in response to that case, the plaintiffs here appear to have focused their arguments on the government’s public trust responsibilities with respect to various waters of the United States, though the opinion does not make clear precisely what the complaint alleges to be the subject of the public trust obligation.

The plaintiffs not only allege that the United States has violated its public trust obligations, but that that violation in turn constitutes a violation of the plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights.  Magistrate Judge Coffin takes pains to make clear that this is only about a motion to dismiss, but I still think he got it wrong.

Indeed, I think that Magistrate Judge Coffin ignored that well known latin maxim:  “Oportet te quasi ludens loqui.” (Which is how the on-line translator I used translated “You must be joking.”  I hereby disclaim any warranty that this is even close to correct.)

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in judicial restraint.  And that applies to everyone.  Traditionally, conservatives have accused liberals of judicial activism.  To my totally objective mind, in recent years at least, it is the conservative judges who could more fairly be called activist.  For one case, at least, the shoe seems to be back on its original foot.  I just cannot see this decision standing.  The District Judge should reject Magistrate Judge Coffin’s Findings and Recommendation.  If he or she doesn’t, this case is sufficiently novel and important to warrant interlocutory appeal, and the 9th Circuit should reverse.  And if that doesn’t happen, it will be up to the eight (oops, I meant nine) members of the Supreme Court to get it right.  One of them surely will.

Okies from Muskogee 1; Sierra Club 0. Another NSR Case Goes Down on Statute of Limitations Grounds

Posted on March 10, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

The law is full of fine distinctions.  Today’s example?  A divided 10th Circuit panel affirmed dismissal of the Sierra Club’s citizen suit claims against Oklahoma Gas and Electric concerning alleged PSD violations at OG&E’s Muskogee plant muskogeebecause the Sierra Club did not sue within five years of the commencement of construction – even though Sierra Club did sue within five years of the completion of construction.

I have not seen any other cases present this issue so squarely.  For the majority, the decision was relatively easy.  Because the CAA has no limitations provisions, the default five-year limitations period set forth at 28 USC § 2462 applies.  Section 2462 provides that suits must be brought “within five years from the date when the claim first accrued.”  That “first accrued” language was Sierra Club’s downfall.  The court decided that a claim “first accrues” when a plaintiff has a right to bring a claim.  In the PSD context, that is when a defendant commences construction or modification without a permit.  Because the Sierra Club did not file within five years after OG&E commenced construction, the complaint was late.

Not so fast, argued the dissent. As the dissent rightly noted, the CAA does not make commencing construction or modification without a required PSD permit a violation; it makes “the construction or modification of any source” without a permit a violation.  Thus, the dissent argued, OG&E was still “constructing” its project without a permit during a period less than five years before Sierra Club brought suit and was still in violation, so the suit was timely.

I should note that, whether the dissent is correct or not, it did rightly distinguish two other cases, United States v. Midwest Generation and United States v. EME Homer City Generation, which have been cited in opposition to “continuing violation” theories.  As the dissent emphasized, those cases concerned whether operation of the modified facility, after construction was complete, constituted continuing violations.  The dissent agreed that post-construction operations cannot effectively toll the statute of limitations. However, that is a different question than whether continuing construction keeps the limitations period open.  Indeed, the EME Homer City decision specifically contemplated the possibility that:

"the maximum daily fine accrues each day the owner or operator spends modifying or constructing the facility – from the beginning of construction to the end of construction."

That sounds like a basis for new claims accruing each day, thus triggering a new limitations period.  I think that this case is a close question. However, as interested as the Supreme Court seems to be in the CAA these days, I don’t see it taking this case, and certainly not before there is a circuit split on the issue.

What is impossible to determine is what caused the Sierra Club to wait.  Why take the chance?  It does seem a self-inflicted wound either way.

(Very quickly, I’ll note that the majority also dismissed Sierra Club’s injunctive relief claims under the concurrent remedies doctrine.  That’s an important issue, but not a difficult or interesting one, at least where the government is not a party.)

Contracting for Original and Renewal of Pipeline Right-of-Ways on Tribal and Allottee Lands

Posted on February 24, 2016 by Tom Sansonetti

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has promulgated new regulations involving the original procurement and renewal of Right-of-Ways (ROW) on tribal and allottee lands which take effect on March 22, 2016. These new rules will replace those in place since 1947, creating a series of significant problems. This post lists the problems and suggests a legislative solution.

1) Majority Consent of Life Estate Heirs is Needed for ROW to be Granted or Renewed

The new rules limit the length of a ROW to 20 years. The ROWs are not subject to state or local laws, and the new rules impose consent and approval requirements that do not appear in the current regulations. Under the current law, voluntary agreements could be struck between tribes, allottees, and a company, so long as the BIA Regional Director approved the deal. The BIA would approve if a majority of the allottee landowners consented and the amounts of money paid for the ROW were not less than the fair market value (FMV) of the allotment parcel. Under the new rules, however, the company must obtain a majority consent for the original ROW or renewal thereof, not only from the living life estate allottees, but from their heirs as well. This presents a huge obstacle, as companies will now have to find each of the heirs and then attempt to bargain with them individually. Under the current rules, if agreement could not be reached, then the company was free to use a 1907 statute to condemn the allottee land but never the tribal land.

2) Life Estate Holders Can Withdraw Previously Granted Consents

In two separate New Mexico ROW cases involving Western Refining’s pipeline and Public Service of New Mexico’s (PNM) overhead wires, the companies both originally obtained the written consent of a majority of the life estate holders who were paid fair market value for their consent. However, upon the BIA Regional Director finding a lack of a majority of heirs consenting, certain life estate holders informed the BIA that they were “unconsenting” in order to hold out for better compensation, even though they had cashed the original checks. Because the BIA allowed the holdouts’ action of “unconsenting” to stand, the companies lost their majority consent of life estate holders. Attorneys for the life estate holders are now suing PNM for trespass in federal court in Albuquerque.

3) Fair Market Value Has Become a Floor in Negotiations Rather Than an Appraisal Standard

Since the 1947 statute came into existence, the fair market value (FMV), as determined by BIA-qualified appraisers, of the allotment acreage to be crossed by the pipeline served as the negotiation basis between the company and individual allottees. The allottees, knowing that their land could be condemned under the 1907 statute dealing with ROWs, often bargained for a payment that was two or three times FMV. However, under the new regulations, FMV is a starting point, non-binding and irrelevant to an allottee who believes that the sky is the limit when dealing with large corporations.

4) The Condemnation Alternative is Under Attack Due to Tribal Ownership of Undivided Interests in Allotments

In the Public Service of New Mexico federal district court litigation, PNM sued the allottees of several allotments under the New Mexico condemnation statutes after failing to obtain the consent of a majority of life estate heirs for a 20-year renewal. The federal judge dismissed the condemnation lawsuit, because recently deceased allottees left their interests to the Navajo Nation. Even though those interests amounted to less than 1% of the entire allotment, the court labeled that interest tribal land, recognized the Navajo Nation’s sovereign immunity from suit, declared the Navajo Nation an indispensable party, and dismissed the lawsuit. PNM is appealing the dismissal to the Tenth Circuit. Without the ability to condemn, pipelines will be left only with choice of either paying ransom under the 1947 statute or facing allottee trespass actions.

Western Refining has also filed a condemnation suit against the unconsenting allottees under the New Mexico condemnation statutes. The case is before a different judge than the PNM case and is currently stayed pending a decision from the Interior Board of Indian Appeals on the majority consent of heirs issue.

The best solution to the four problems above requires the active involvement of the Legislative Branch.

Utilizing its plenary authority concerning tribal issues, Congress should pass amendments to the 1907 and 1947 statutes or create new legislation supplanting the current law that:

  1. Eliminates the need for heirs to consent
  2. Eliminates the ability of consenters to unconsent once consideration is paid
  3. Re-establishes the sufficiency of fair market value as the basis for the compensation to be paid
  4. Guarantees the right of pipeline owners to condemn allottee land regardless of partial tribal ownership

Nothing less than the free flow of energy-oriented interstate commerce is at stake. 

Courts Narrow Citizen Suit Potential

Posted on February 18, 2016 by Donald Shandy

Citizen suits under federal environmental laws have been under fire through criticism of “sue and settle” where agencies, in particular the U.S. EPA, have been accused of intentionally relinquishing statutory discretion for the sake of settling lawsuits without participation by affected third parties.  From this perspective, the scope of citizen suits has broadened.  However, two recent federal circuit court opinions curb this growth. 

On January 6, 2016, the Third Circuit and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals issued opinions that underscore certain limitations in the citizen suit provisions.  The Third Circuit examined a Clean Air Act citizen suit in Group Against Smog and Pollution, Inc. v. Shenango Inc. (No. 15-2041) (GASP). The Sixth Circuit examined a Clean Water Act citizen suit in Askins v. Ohio Dept. of Agriculture, Ohio Envtl. Prot. Agency, U.S. EPA (No. 15-3147). Both courts affirmed dismissal of the citizen suits by the district courts based on statutory limitations Congress placed in each statute.

These two cases highlight a couple of important components of citizen suits.  First, citizen suits are to serve as a backup to the non-discretionary functions and enforcement responsibilities of the States and the EPA.  As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “the citizen suit is meant to supplement rather than to supplant governmental action.”  The Sixth Circuit stated, “Paradoxically, [Plaintiffs’] expansive reading of the citizen-suit provision would grant citizen greater enforcement authority than the U.S. EPA. . . . Congress did not intend to give citizens greater and faster enforcement authority against a state than the U.S. EPA.” 

The other important component highlighted is the role of the “diligent prosecution bar” against citizen suits.  Citizen suits are prohibited if the EPA or State agency “has commenced and is diligently prosecuting” the matter.  While most courts seem willing to restrict citizen suits when there is clear prosecution (civil or criminal) in a state or federal court, the answer is less clear when there is no active or concluded matter at the courthouse or the enforcement action is only administrative. In GASP, the Third Circuit slightly tilted the bar in favor of the agency and regulated entity by concluding that if the agency has diligently prosecuted a suit, the presence of a final judgment, consent decree, or consent order and agreement would likely prevent a citizen suit challenge.  This is logical given that environmental enforcement proceedings that are filed in court often, if not always, result in a judicially enforceable consent decree or consent order and agreement in which the regulated entity must fulfill specified obligations or be subject to stipulated penalties. It also provides certainty to the agreement reached between the agency and the regulated entity, which benefits all involved. 

While these recent decisions were not momentous court opinions, the Third and Sixth Circuits did provide a bit more clarity to the role citizen and how our environmental laws are enforced.  In this arena, I think we all would agree that a little clarity can go a long way.

Ninth Circuit to federal land trespassers: Fuggedaboutit

Posted on February 2, 2016 by Theodore Garrett

Tensions ran high in eastern Oregon in early January 2016 as an armed group seized the headquarters of a national wildlife refuge. The occupation began as a protest of the sentencing of ranchers who were convicted of arson on federal lands in Oregon. The occupation subsequently became a rally for opening federal public lands to all. Entering the fray, albeit indirectly, the Ninth Circuit in its January 15, 2016 decision in United States v. Hage, held that defendants’ unauthorized grazing of cattle on federal lands in Nevada was unlawful. Contrary to the views of the Oregon occupiers that they are defending the Constitution, the Ninth Circuit held that grazing cattle without a grazing permit violated federal statutes as well as the state law of trespass, noting that a grazing permit is “a revocable privilege” and is not a “property right.” The Ninth Circuit rejected the district court’s ruling that the government cannot claim trespass if the cattle stayed within a reasonable distance of a source to which defendants had water rights. Concluding that the district judge “harbored animus toward the federal agencies,” the Ninth Circuit requested the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Nevada to assign the case to a different judge on remand. Meanwhile, back in Oregon, several of the protesters have been arrested. One was killed. 

You Say Yes, I Say No, You Say Stop…

Posted on January 11, 2016 by Robert M Olian

Seth Jaffe’s recent post about the tension between Colorado’s governor and attorney general over who has the right to speak on behalf of Colorado in the Clean Power Plan litigation brought to mind the very first piece of environmental litigation I ever worked on, Village of Wilsonville v. SCA Services. In the late 1970s, SCA (which later became part of Chemical Waste Management) began operating a large hazardous waste landfill, fully permitted by Illinois EPA, in Wilsonville, Illinois, and the residents were predictably displeased. (Hint to those of you who operate similar NIMBY-ish facilities – don’t do as SCA did and disseminate marketing materials displaying the site as the “bullseye target” on a regional map showing concentric circles of distances to the facility.)

Not satisfied with some pretty effective self-help efforts (e.g. the Village dug a three-foot wide trench for “sewer repairs” across the only road into the site, thereby halting all truck traffic into and out of the facility), the Village sued SCA and Illinois EPA (the permitting agency) seeking permit revocation and a halt to operation of the facility. The case got off to an unusual start in the trial court (our firm was not retained until the unsuccessful appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court) when then-Attorney General William Scott, who had appeared in the case on behalf of Illinois EPA, stuck his finger in the air, felt which way the wind was blowing, and abandoned the defense of Illinois EPA to file his own complaint and join with the Village against the defendants, including the State agency. Perhaps unlike Colorado, Illinois law is pretty clear that the Attorney General has independent enforcement powers when it comes to environmental matters, so Scott’s volte-face didn’t cause much of a stir other than at Illinois EPA, which had never before been left hanging in the wind like this.

Bill Scott probably remains the Illinois Attorney General best known for environmental enforcement; the first line in his obituary correctly notes that he “achieved an international reputation for his battle on behalf of the environment during his four terms” as Attorney General. Scott tried but never made it to the Governor’s chair, though he clearly had what it takes. Like Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich - Illinois governors #33, 36, 39 and 40 respectively - Scott later served time in federal prison.

Over the years, notable cases of tension between disparate agencies of the same sovereign have spread from Wilsonville to Colorado to China. A recent news article notes, “Prosecutors in eastern China have filed a lawsuit against a county-level environmental protection department, accusing it of ‘failing to fulfil its regulatory duties’ in its supervision of a local sewage firm.” Apparently the United States is a successful exporter of something; I’m not sure what to call it, but it isn’t as desirable as the Fab Four or iPhones.

Sackett Redux?

Posted on December 17, 2015 by Patrick A. Parenteau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DUE PROCESS TRUMPS DEFERENCE? JURIDICTIONAL QUIBBLING?

Posted on December 10, 2015 by Annette Kovar

The U.S. Supreme Court will likely agree to review the decision of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hawkes Co. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. So said John Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources and College Fellow, to the 2015 National Clean Water Law Seminar. He described the Hawkes case as the second generation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Sackett v. EPA decision in 2012.

As noted here, the Hawkes case is another wetlands case, this time about a Minnesota peat farming company that applied for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act to expand its peat mining operation. The Corps advised Hawkes that it had made a preliminary jurisdictional determination (JD) that the property on which the expansion was planned included regulated wetlands requiring a more extensive environmental assessment. Despite Corps staff attempts to dissuade continuing with the permitting process, Hawkes challenged the preliminary JD. The Corps subsequently prepared an Approved JD and ultimately issued a Revised JD after its own internal review raised issues of concern. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Corps JD was a judicially reviewable final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Previously, the Fifth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal had ruled that a Corps JD was not a judicially reviewable final agency action. The Hawkes case sets up a split in the Circuit Courts making Supreme Court review more likely.

One might recall that the Supreme Court’s unanimous Sackett v. EPA decision held an EPA compliance order, alleging the Sacketts had violated the Clean Water Act by placing fill material on their property without a permit and requiring restoration of the property, was a final agency action and subject to judicial review under the APA. The Supreme Court concluded the Sacketts had no other adequate remedy at law and further stated that the APA creates a “presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action.” Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, said this “presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all.” He continued that nothing in the CWA can be read to enable or condone “the strong-arming of regulated parties into ‘voluntary compliance’ without the opportunity for judicial review—even judicial review of the question whether the regulated party is within EPA’s jurisdiction.” Clearly, principles of fundamental fairness and due process underlie the Sackett decision.

If one goes back to the Hawkes case, note that the Corps describes its preliminary and Approved JDs as tools-- i.e. guidance, to help implement the Clean Water Act, and not orders. JDs probably do streamline the permitting process because an applicant will know what the Corps’ position is before investing heavily in a permit process and may decide to abandon the project. But, there is a hint of “strong-arming” tactics in the Hawkes case that does not bode well for a deferential decision by the Supreme Court to the Corps. However, even if Corps’ JDs become subject to judicial review in the future, won’t a reviewing court still ascribe a certain amount of deference to the Corps’ expertise under APA standard of review precedents? Wouldn’t the Corps have to defend its JD at some point if challenged? Will the Corps really lose much by defending its JD sooner rather than later?

Does Colorado Support the Clean Power Plan? Yes. And No.

Posted on December 9, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

 

I have never understood why 43 states – including the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts – have independent elected attorneys general.  I’m sure my new colleague, former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, would disagree with me, but I just don’t think that the value of having an AG independent of the Governor is worth the lack of policy consistency.  Exhibit A to my argument is the current dispute in Colorado between Governor John Hickenlooper and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman concerning EPA’s Clean Power Plan.  What’s the problem?

Hickenlooper supports the CPP; Coffman opposes it.  Indeed, Coffman does not just oppose it; on behalf of the State of Colorado, she’s joined the litigation seeking to stop the rule.  Excuse me, but shouldn’t the Governor speak for the citizens of Colorado on such matters?  Absent some kind of conflict of interest requiring independent counsel, the Governor has to be the boss.  I’m sure most citizens see it that way; it would be nice if reality mirrored perception.

I’d assume that the Colorado Governor has authority to retain separate counsel – and I hope my friends in Colorado will tell me if I’m wrong.  I’d love to see Governor Hickenlooper retain his own counsel and intervene in the litigation on the side of EPA.  What would the Court do if Colorado appeared on both sides of the V?

hickenloopercoffman

What Do Opponents of the Clean Power Plan and the Oklahoma Sooners Have In Common?

Posted on October 23, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

So the Clean Power Plan has been published in the Federal Register.  For those who cannot get enough, you can find all of the important materials, including EPA’s Technical Support Documents, on EPA’s web site for the CPP. 

Not surprisingly, given the number of suits brought before the CPP was even finalized, opponents were literally lining up at the courthouse steps to be the first to sue.  West Virginia apparently won the race and is the named plaintiff in the main petition filed so far. 

Perhaps because Oklahoma has been one of the most persistent, and vocal, opponents of the CPP, this called to mind the origin of the Sooner State’s nickname – which seems particularly apt, since Oklahoma was one of the states that couldn’t wait for the rule to be promulgated to sue.

Sooners

Oklahoma is not actually among the plaintiffs in the West Virginia suit.  Oklahoma filed its own petition today.  One wonders whether Oklahoma was banished from playing with the other states as a result of its impatience.  Unlikely, since most of those in the West Virginia suit also filed early, but it did call to mind that other famous event in the history of the west, as recorded in Blazing Saddles.

Curiouser and Curiouser: Sixth Circuit Not Sure of Jurisdiction but Stays WOTUS Rule Anyway

Posted on October 9, 2015 by Rick Glick

Does this make sense to you?  Eighteen states petitioned the Sixth Circuit to challenge the new rule adopted by EPA and the Corps of Engineers defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.  Then the petitioners move the court to dismiss their own petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but at the same time request a stay of the rule.  And then, the court acknowledges it may not have jurisdiction but issues the stay anyway!  That is exactly what Sixth Circuit did in the case published today.  

This case is among many seeking to block the rule.  The Clean Water Act confers original jurisdiction upon the circuit courts for challenges to “effluent limitations or other limitations.”  But as reported earlier in this space, thirteen states convinced a federal district judge in North Dakota that he had jurisdiction because the WOTUS rule is merely definitional, and neither an effluent nor other limitation. 

The court concluded that petitioners have a good chance at prevailing on the merits, that the rule exceeds “guidance” given by the Supreme Court in extending CWA jurisdiction too broadly.  The court also indicated that the final rule may have strayed too far from the notice given in the proposed rule in its definitions of jurisdictional waters.

The majority was not troubled by the fact the parties are still briefing subject matter jurisdiction, finding that it had plenty of authority to preserve the status quo pending a jurisdictional determination.  The dissent took the view that the proper sequence is to first decide jurisdiction, then decide on a national stay of a rule years in the making.  Pants first, then shoes.

Did the majority consider the situation an emergency that required immediate action?  No, the court found that petitioners were not persuasive that irreparable harm would occur without a stay, but neither could the court find any harm with freezing implementation of the rule.  The reasoning seems to be that we’ve muddled through so far, let’s take a step back and consider all the implications before implementation. 

Why do the states prefer to go after the rule in the district courts instead of the circuit courts of appeal?  Maybe they believe they can forum shop to find conservative judges and build a favorable body of case law before appealing.  Or maybe they believe they can more directly attack the science underlying the rule or otherwise augment the administrative record.  Whatever the reasons, the ultimate return of this issue to the Supreme Court will be delayed and the law dealing with regulation of wetland fills will remain as confused as ever.

Chicken Little Cannot Compare to the Opponents of the Clean Power Plan

Posted on September 10, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

On Wednesday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the latest effort to stay EPA’s Clean Power Plan before it has even been promulgated in the Federal Register.  The Court simply stated that “petitioners have not satisfied the stringent standards that apply to petitions for extraordinary writs that seek to stay agency action.”

Really?  Tell me something I did not know.

I’m sorry.  The CPP is a far-ranging rule.  There are strong legal arguments against its validity.  Those arguments may prevail.  I see it as about a 50/50 bet.  This I do know, however.  The sky isn’t falling. The sky won’t fall, even for West Virginia, if the rule is affirmed and implemented. Those opposed to regulation have made these arguments from time immemorial – certainly no later than when Caesar tried to regulate the amount of lead in Roman goblets.  And if I’ve got that one wrong, at least no later than Ethyl Corporation v. EPA, when opponents of EPA’s rulemaking on leaded gasoline thought that the rule would mean the end of western civilization.

I’m not naïve.  I understand that these arguments are political as well as legal.  I just think that opponents of EPA rulemaking undermine their own political position in the long run by repeatedly predicting catastrophe, even though catastrophe never arrives.

sky is falling