Balancing Environmental Protection and Public Health in the time of COVID-19 (and after)

Posted on March 27, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

Greenwire reported today that two medical sterilization facilities in Georgia that had been shut down or had production limited due to concerns about exposures to ethylene oxide  would be allowed to increase operations in response to the need for sterilized medical equipment to address the COVID-19 pandemic.  The result is not surprising and, one assumes, appropriate in the circumstances.

It does highlight, though, a major flaw in our environmental and public health regulatory systems – we have no overarching regulation that provides a context in which to compare costs and benefits across regulatory programs.  Notwithstanding the concerns of my green friends, in an ideal world, we would be able to assess the costs and benefits of different regulatory strategies, compare them, and implement the global decisions necessary to balance different programs and yield the greatest overall protection of public health. 

Balancing exposure to a compound EPA has concluded is a potent carcinogen against the need to provide equipment necessary to respond to a global pandemic is particularly stark, but the issue arises daily in numerous contexts.  I’ll give just one other example from a much more mundane situation.  Early in my career, I went to a public meeting concerning the remedy proposed for a Superfund site in Somersworth, NH.  Somersworth’s population at the time was less than 12,000 people, and its share of the cleanup costs was projected to be more than $10 million.  Numerous residents commented that more lives would be saved by investing in police or traffic lights than the cleanup of a site that might have posed a 1/100,000 risk that someone would get cancer.

The point here isn’t that this anecdotal concern was legitimate – or not – but that we don’t have a framework that allows us to make these comparisons and we don’t have a regulatory system that would allow us to prioritize the greater public health benefit, even if we knew what that was.

My dream is still one overarching public health protection environmental law.

The Bad, the Ugly and the Good; The Trump Administration Proposes Changes to the National Environmental Policy Act

Posted on March 13, 2020 by Peter Van Tuyn

Benjamin Franklin wrote that “an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”  Just over 200 years later, the United States passed a law that put that sentiment into practice in the context of federal government decision-making that may impact an increasingly stressed environment.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) marked a turning point in our nation’s relationship with the environment, and it is based on the idea that if we take the time to understand the full effects of our decisions before we make them, we tend to make better decisions.  The Trump administration recently proposed changes to the Council on Environmental Quality’s NEPA regulations that, like its proposed changes to Endangered Species Act regulations, would institutionalize ignorance in federal decision-making that impacts the environment.  These proposed changes are bad, their origins ugly, and yet, fifty years after NEPA was signed into law, they also offer the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and informed decision-making.  In that sense the administration’s attempt to gut NEPA may turn out to be good. 

NEPA requires federal agencies to conduct in-depth analyses of the potential environmental, including human, impacts of “major federal actions that significantly affecting […] the environment.”   Under NEPA, federal agencies analyze the potential impacts of actions that they directly undertake, permit or fund, in order to determine if the potential impacts are significant.  If they are, the agencies must deeply and holistically analyze those impacts, consider alternatives that may have lesser impacts, and run their preliminary analyses through a ground-truthing, often enlightening and sometimes humbling, public review and comment process.  Only once these steps are done can the federal agency make its final decision.  This investment results in final decisions that tend to eliminate or at least minimize the impact of a proposed project on the environment

In myriad ways, the administration’s proposed changes would undercut these fundamental attributes of NEPA.   The proposal includes an attempt to limit the types of federal actions that trigger NEPA, to exclude, for example, the analysis of projects that may require multiple non-federal permits or have only partial federal funding.  The proposal would eliminate the requirement that cumulative effects of a proposed project be analyzed, despite CEQ’s own acknowledgement of the significance of such effects.  Further, using the same sleight of hand from the administration’s ill-considered proposal to change Endangered Species Act regulations, the proposal would exclude climate change from cumulative effects that must be analyzed.  The proposal also eliminates the requirement for review of the indirect effects of an action, such as downstream pollution impacts from an industrial activity.  In another provision rife with potential conflicts of interest, corporations could prepare their own impact analyses, a job now accomplished by the more objective federal agencies (though it is often paid for by corporations).  And the proposal limits public involvement in both time and substance, undercutting NEPA’s critical check against government (and in the future possibly corporate) myopathy or hubris.   

Senator Henry Jackson, upon the introduction of NEPA legislation in Congress, stated the following

The survival of man, in a world in which decency and dignity are possible, is the basic reason for bringing man’s impact on his environment under informed and responsible control. 

The CEQ proposals, individually, and dare I say cumulatively, would gut this vision, and finalizing them would be bad for people and our environment.

Further, the origins of the CEQ proposal appear to be downright ugly.  As one example, the British oil company BP lobbied the Trump administration to weaken NEPA as way to “benefit BP’s operations in the US” and, as reported, “clear[] the way for major infrastructure projects to bypass checks.”   And then, just a short while after the administration revealed its NEPA proposal, BP announced a new initiative aimed at reducing its environmental impact, with its CEO stating that “[t]he world does have a carbon budget, and it is running out fast.”  So on the one hand BP privately lobbies the United States to undercut this most fundamental of environmental laws, and with the other hand it publicly claims it will take action to address the environmental impacts from its operations.  How dreadful.

There is a silver lining in this dark cloud, however.  It exists in the renewed public discussion about the importance of facts to government decision-making, including those that some see as so inconvenient that they would rather not know them.  The groundswell of public opinion that led to Republican President Richard Nixon signing NEPA into law in 1970 will, I predict, result in a reaffirmation of the importance of NEPA and other environmental laws which this administration has sought to roll back, and the rollbacks will themselves be rolled back.  And that is for the greater good.

Think Globally, Act Locally?

Posted on March 10, 2020 by Mark W. Schneider

In Washington State, some legislators and regulators have been acting locally.  But are they thinking globally?

Our two-term governor sought for years, unsuccessfully, to persuade our legislature to authorize a statewide program to reduce carbon emissions.  After several unsuccessful attempts, his Department of Ecology passed the Clean Air Rule (Chapter 173-442 WAC), which attempted to accomplish by regulation what he couldn’t accomplish by legislation.  The Clean Air Rule imposed requirements on direct and indirect emitters, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions in the state.  Predictably, it was challenged.  The trial court invalidated the Clean Air Rule in its entirety, and the Washington Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled in January that the Washington Clean Air Act (Chapter 70.94 RCW) authorized Ecology to regulate direct emitters, but not indirect emitters. Ass’n of Washington Business et al. v. Washington State Dep’t of Ecology, 455 P.3d 1126 (Wash. 2020).  Our legislature, with a different makeup of senators and representatives than in the past, is now considering several bills expressly authorizing Ecology to regulate indirect emitters.  And in next year’s legislative session, the Governor, who is likely to be elected for a third term, may ask the legislature to pass a comprehensive cap and invest bill to govern emissions from Washington State sources.

Is this thinking globally?  Does imposing carbon emission limits in Washington State lower or raise global emissions?  Many observers, including Energy Intensive Trade Exposed entities (“EITEs”), have demonstrated that the state-only limits on carbon will lead to “leakage” - a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases within the state that is exceeded by an increase in emissions of greenhouse gas emissions outside the state.  Some of the EITEs engage in operations with far less “carbon intensity” (tons of carbon emitted per unit of product produced) than their competitors in other states and countries.  With carbon emission limits, and resulting costs, imposed only on entities operating in Washington State, the EITEs may lose business to out-of-state competitors, many of which emit more carbon per unit of product.  More carbon pollution.  That’s local action that, along with other things, may contribute to global harm.            

Or will this local action lead to global benefits?  In the face of federal government inactivity on carbon, some states have already taken action on a statewide level.  Will Washington State legislative or regulatory action induce more states to follow suit, and will that result in lower emissions of carbon in the country?  And, if that happens, will other countries take action to lower global emissions? Or will it incentivize US companies to operate elsewhere in countries with less stringent emissions?

As this state/national/global tension continues to build, we need to think globally and act locally in a way that will result in reductions of global carbon emissions. In Washington State, one thoughtful step would be to regulate EITEs in a way that allows them to grow but doesn’t contribute to leakage.  That could include measuring compliance for them based on output of emissions per unit of production, rather than mass of emissions. It could also mean recognizing past beneficial conduct and crediting EITEs for prior efficiency improvements that reduced the carbon intensity of their operations.  And it could mean providing a variety of compliance pathways for EITEs, rather than simply requiring an inflexible linear reduction in emissions.

That’s one step.  We need many others.

Endangered Species: Migratory Bird Treaty Act -- Scope of Act Rule

Posted on March 9, 2020 by Richard Horder

On February 3rd, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would completely eliminate criminal penalties for “incidental” migratory bird deaths under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, even when those deaths are foreseeable and preventable.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (the Act) is a century-old statute with a broad prohibition on the taking and killing of migratory birds by any means and in any manner. It was originally enacted to protect birds from over-hunting and poaching, but has been used to prosecute and fine companies for accidental bird deaths since the 1970s, particularly when such deaths were anticipatable and preventable through conservation efforts.

The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) has flip-flopped on its interpretation of the Act in recent years. The Principal Deputy Solicitor concluded in early 2017 that the Act’s “broad prohibition on taking and killing migratory birds by any means and in any manner includes incidental taking and killing.” See Solicitor's Opinion M-37041, “Incidental Take Prohibited Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” issued January 10, 2017. However, that regulation was withdrawn less than a month later as the Trump administration evaluated construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. President Trump issued a memorandum on January 24, 2017, which called for an immediate review of requests for approvals related to the Keystone XL Pipeline, including requests under the USFWS’s regulations implementing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In December 2017, the DOI repealed and replaced the earlier regulation with one that clearly states: “Injury to or mortality of migratory birds that results from, but is not the purpose of, an action (i.e., incidental taking or killing) is not prohibited by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.” See Solicitor’s Opinion M-37050, “The Migratory Bird Treaty Act Does Not Prohibit Incidental Take,” issued December 22, 2017. The Proposed Rule published this February is an effort to codify this regulatory change.

Businesses and local governments now face no pressure from regulators to take precautionary measures to protect birds, and in some situations, have even been discouraged from doing so. For example, the state of Virginia underwent a major bridge and tunnel expansion in Chesapeake Bay in 2018, which was inevitably going to destroy the nesting grounds of 25,000 seabirds. While the state considered developing an artificial island as a safe haven for the birds, the Trump administration stepped in and told the state that while it “appreciates” the state’s efforts, the shift in policy now makes such conservation measures “purely voluntary.”

The agency’s emphasis on industry over conservation comes at a time when habitat loss, pesticide exposure, and general climate change threats to bird populations are at an all-time high. In fact, research shows that over the past half-century, North America has lost more than a quarter of its entire bird population— about 3 billion birds.

Though conservation efforts may seem burdensome, they provide unexpected benefits to the national economy. A 2016 study conducted by USFWS, the same agency that issued the Proposed Rule, found that more than 45 million people watch birds, joining other wildlife watchers in contributing a total of $80 billion to the U.S. economy. The importance of healthy bird populations will hopefully be addressed in public comments, which will be accepted until March 19. Comments that have been submitted to date can be found here.

Cleaning Up Nature: The Swift Creek Conundrum

Posted on February 28, 2020 by Andy Fitz

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Dredged spoils along the Swift Creek channel; landslide visible at upper right (author photo).

Swift Creek. The name evokes a clear, fast-moving mountain stream. 

The Swift Creek at issue, however, is hardly clear or swift for most of its length.  A massive, mile-long landslide hangs at the head of its southern fork, in the foothills of Washington’s North Cascades. The landslide has exposed a weak bed of serpentine rock, which weathers quickly into clay and delivers a heavy load of sediment to the creek—some 30,000 to 150,000 cubic yards annually. When the creek reaches the Nooksack Valley below, much of this material settles, clogging the channel, turning the creek sluggish, and creating a constant risk of flooding each winter.

In an effort to protect farms and rural homes, the affected local government, Whatcom County, began periodically dredging Swift Creek in the late 1950s, piling the dredged spoils along the channel. In 1971, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertook its own large-scale dredging of the channel and further shaped the dredged spoils into levees.

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Swift Creek in May 2016 (author photo).

In 2006, however, this work largely came to a halt. In its place, a regulatory conundrum emerged.

Since at least the late 1970s, Swift Creek’s sediment has been known to contain a naturally occurring chrysotile form of asbestos derived from the serpentine bedrock. In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sampled the dredged spoils and completed an activity-based risk assessment. That assessment, and a subsequent assessment in 2011, concluded that asbestos levels in dust generated from the sediment pose a human health threat, with the lifetime excess cancer risk approaching 8 in 1,000 under the most intensive exposure scenario. Making matters worse, naturally elevated levels of metals in the sediment retard plant growth, making the dredged spoils an attractive target for local four-wheelers and dirt-bike riders.

Left wholly to nature, there is no environmental liability associated with Swift Creek’s sediment: the “potentially responsible” entity is Mother Earth. And there is no clear environmental authority under which to address threats associated with the sediment. Under Section 104(a)(3)(A) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), EPA cannot respond to a “naturally occurring substance . . . from a location where it is naturally found.” Likewise, under Washington’s Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA), there must be intentional or unintentional “entry” of a hazardous substance “into” the environment in order to have an actionable release. RCW 70.105D.020(32).

Once humans move and reconfigure the sediment, however, potential liability
may arise from those activities. See, e.g., United States v. W.R. Grace & Co.—Conn., 280 F.  Supp. 2d 1149, 1155, 1175 (D. Mont. 2003). Therein lies the conundrum: absent human intervention, there can be unabated exposure to naturally occurring asbestos from the creek channel and flood deposits, but no authority to address the situation under cleanup laws. But any human intervention to abate that exposure is discouraged by the specter of liability under those very same cleanup laws.

For more than ten years, this conundrum stymied efforts to address Swift Creek sediment, despite continued discussion among EPA, the Washington Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County. Neither EPA nor Ecology had the authority, mandate, or resources to address what at its heart is a civil engineering effort. And the entity with the clearest public works mandate—the County—did not want to assume full ownership of a situation it did not have the resources to address by itself, with potentially open-ended liability. This concern was heightened by EPA threats of cost recovery and enforcement under CERCLA.

In 2013, Whatcom County did complete an alternatives assessment and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for addressing Swift Creek sediment. The preferred alternative was a series of actions to capture and manage sediment in the upper reaches of Swift Creek, before it reaches the valley floor, including sediment traps, sedimentation basins, periodic dredging of those features, and disposal of the sediment in a constructed repository. The historic dredged spoils lining Swift Creek would also be armored and covered with clean soil.

Two key developments broke the Swift Creek stalemate. First, the Department of Ecology and the Washington State Attorney General’s Office reached agreement with the County on the terms of a proposed consent decree to be lodged under MTCA. With no traditional “site” to clean up, the basis for the decree is creative. It is premised on MTCA’s authority to prevent “threatened releases”—here, releases that would inevitably arise as local government and residents are forced to deal with flood-distributed sediment, but for preventive actions. The covenant not to sue is thus prospective, providing liability protection for the County within the specific areas where sediment will be managed under the decree, for activities to be undertaken by the County under a “Swift Creek Action Plan” that largely incorporates the preferred alternative from the 2013 EIS. The County is responsible for the operations and maintenance costs associated with this sediment management, up to an annual cap.

Second, bolstered by this provisional agreement, Washington’s Legislature appropriated the first installment of capital funding for the project, totaling $6.4 million. With initial construction funds in place, the parties moved to enter the decree, which became effective on December 6, 2019. Based on the plan and decree, EPA has indicated it does not intend to exercise CERCLA authority at the “site,” such as it is.

There are challenges ahead. Full construction of the engineering controls is still dependent on further state capital appropriations, with an estimated remaining cost of $11 million. And it remains to be seen whether the engineering controls are a long-term solution or only a temporary stopgap. Based on a creative application of cleanup law, however, the Swift Creek conundrum appears to have been broken.

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Conceptual layout of engineering controls to be constructed under the consent decree (sediment repository not shown). Source: Swift Creek Action Plan, Washington State Department of Ecology (December 2019).

NEPA at 50: What Lies Ahead?

Posted on February 19, 2020 by Scott Fulton

It seems to be the season for 50th anniversaries. The National Environmental Policy Act, signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970, is now a half-century old. The first day of a new decade was no doubt seen as a symbolic moment for NEPA’s signing, but I wonder whether the statute’s framers could have envisioned the full reach of that symbolic step.

NEPA signaled the beginning of the modern environment era and was the first of many actions that would redefine our orientation toward the environment and attempt to march the country toward a more sustainable future. It also set an important marker for the rest of the world, with environmental impact assessment becoming one of the most imitated and enduring features of the global environmental legal architecture.

Now, 50 years later, change is in the air, as the Administration considers a rather sweeping rewrite of NEPA’s implementing regulations, the comment period for which closes March 10, 2020. The proposed rule may at first blush look like a walk through traditional NEPA terrain. Because it is set out as a wholly revised chapter, it takes a good deal of work to discern where language has been changed, moved, or excised. To that end, the Environmental Law Institute released the Practitioners’ Guide to the Proposed NEPA Regulations to assist commenters and others in determining what changes have been proposed and how they may relate to familiar NEPA regulatory concepts. On close inspection, the changes are dramatic and potentially far-reaching.  Here are some that in my view deserves a close and searching look.

Importantly, the term “cumulative” has been excised from every point in the proposed regulations, except for the addition of a sentence stating, “Analysis of cumulative effects is not required.” Similarly, categorical exclusions would no longer need to be evaluated for cumulative impacts. Under the proposal, cumulative and indirect impacts are not to be used in determining the threshold of significance (whether an EIS is needed), and are no longer to be analyzed in EAs or EISs.

While climate change is never mentioned in the proposal, the restriction on cumulative or indirect impacts has obvious significance in that context. But cumulative impact concerns under NEPA predated worries about climate change. How would these limitations affect consideration of environmental justice issues? How would they affect watershed, air shed, and landscape protection considerations?

Further limitations on the scope of review will prevent agencies from considering alternatives not within their own jurisdiction. The rule would interpret DOT v. Public Citizen to prohibit agencies from analyzing or considering “any effects that the agency has no authority to prevent.”

The proposed rule would allow applicants themselves to prepare environmental impact statements and assessments (under guidelines from federal officials and ultimately signed by a federal official); would no longer require the lead agency to select the contractors performing EISs and EAs; and would remove existing conflict-of-interest requirements for contractors.

In a novel procedural innovation, the proposed rule would require the lead federal agency to issue a finding itself at the end of the NEPA process that it has adequately considered all “alternatives, information, and analyses submitted by public commenters” and states that this finding and “certification” would create a “conclusive presumption” that is binding on the courts.

The proposal encourages federal agencies to require that commenters and public opponents of an action post a financial bond for a stay if they contest a final agency decision.

Finally, the proposal would expressly preempt existing and future agency NEPA requirements, thus effectively setting a ceiling on federal environmental review: “Agency NEPA procedures shall not impose additional procedures or requirements beyond those set forth in these regulations.”

There are many other changes scattered across the proposed rule. Some of these are important alterations intended to tighten time lines and increase interagency coordination and accountability. At bottom, if promulgated in this form, the proposed rule may well serve to exclude from NEPA review altogether some actions that would have heretofore gone through the process, as well as eliminate many environmental effects that agencies typically analyze.

In this sense, the proposal stands in fairly sharp contrast to prior reform efforts aimed at making NEPA review function more efficiently and effectively. This much is clear. What emerges from this proposal may well determine NEPA’s fate and role in the next 50 years.

PFAS: All you Need is Outrage?

Posted on February 6, 2020 by Kenneth Gray

To some, it’s outrageous that PFAS (Per- and Polyflouoroalkyl substances) are omnipresent in the environment, in biota, in drinking water, and in a number of past and present products.  All PFAS are highly dangerous some claim (or at least presumptively so), based on data on a limited number of the thousands of compounds. It is therefore outrageous that some of the compounds are likely present in a vast majority of Americans.

Bypassing issues of dose, cause and effect, the conclusion is that all PFAS are dangerous and unwanted.  Throw in the allegations that companies knew of hazards before phasing out manufacturing or use (of some of the chemicals) and you have a perfect storm for outrage. Ban them all! Contrary views?  The activists’ answer is that the experts have been bought off or are misleading, so public policy should be based on public opinion, right? And what politician in his or her right mind would ignore public outrage?

The fear of many, and the public in general, is undeniable. The presence of a chemical in the human body, without more information, is information of unknown significance.  For most PFAS, since we don’t have data.  Scientists are struggling currently with whether there is any basis for toxicity grouping or classes of PFAS.  For most PFAS, this is “fear of the unknown,” borne of ignorance, but heightened by uncertainty. 

Public outrage doesn’t have to be, and often isn’t, correlated to actual harm or evidence of likelihood of harm.  The media and press don’t cause outrage, but they can and do amplify it.  Add activists who are media savvy and you get the current PFAS crisis.

Here’s an equation (thanks in part to Dr. Peter Sandman):  Risk = (perceived) Hazard + Outrage.  While experienced environmental law practitioners, toxicologists, and regulators know that Risk = Toxicity X Exposure, that is not the calculus of the public.  To the public, the risk equation is fueled by outrage. To be sure, there are data for some PFAS compounds that justify concerns, but I question whether it justifies the hysteria we see.

Believe it or not, public outrage -- whether justified or not -- is never a substitute for a scientific data, or for risk assessment, or for protective environmental policy.  Lack of data and fear of the unknown don’t inform thoughtful decision making. Yet public fear is undeniable, and legislators and regulators are feeling the heat.

To quote others:  Now is the time for facts, not fear. 

Why not work on better risk communication?  The basic tools include:

  • Understanding and acknowledging the outrage
  • Acknowledging the legitimate concerns
  • Avoiding extremes
  • Sticking rigidly to the facts
  • Recognizing and reminding others that actions or decisions without a scientific and rational basis, or that can’t be implemented do more harm than good in the medium and long run, and likely to be successfully challenged in court
  • Being realistic – there are funding limitations, both public and private
  • Remembering we live in a federal system that has independent actors capable of moving at different speeds
  • If testing is to be required, making sure that we can explain to the public and the regulated community the meaning of the environmental test data produced

While I understand some of the EPA’s 2019 PFAS Listening Sessions helped in some communities, better risk communication must be an ongoing task.

Finally, what’s the role an environmental lawyer can play?  While we are advocates and counselors, the experience we bring must contribute to better decisions.  Not the least of these are the skills and lessons from analyzing environmental problems, making sure that there is credible scientific evidence to justify action, and identifying alternatives that efficiently address health and environmental risks without unnecessary costs or other adverse impacts.

We need thoughtful communication and the best information available as we work through the current PFAS regulatory issues.

A Story of Homecoming: Kisor Helps Auer Find Its Way Back To Seminole Rock

Posted on January 28, 2020 by Sanne Knudsen

Shortly before the new year, when the holidays were in full swing, Kisor v. Wilkie celebrated its half-birthday.  That was quick.  Just six months ago – when short winter days were long summer nights, when peppermint mochas were cold beers served in frosted mugs – the U.S. Supreme Court decided by the narrowest of margins to spare the life of Auer deference, the strong form of deference that for decades had been routinely given to federal agencies for interpretations of their own ambiguous regulations.  In a splintered decision, Justice Kagan penned a decision in Kisor in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Those four agreed that Auer deference is theoretically justified, that it does not undermine the APA or the Constitution, and that principles of stare decisis counsel for judicial restraint.

Notably, Justice Kagan failed to capture a majority on her justifications for Auer deference. This is important.  Before Kisor, the Supreme Court had never really provided a firm theoretical rationale for Auer deference.  After Kisor, the justifications for Auer deference are even more suspect given that only four Justices even agreed that the doctrine was a theoretically defensible idea.  Given those shaky foundations, it is not surprising that in order to save Auer, in order to earn the critical fifth vote from Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kagan had to weaken it. She had to articulate a version of Auer that is more cabined in its scope and restrained in its application than has been common practice over the past few decades. In particular, she admonished lower courts to engage in a rigorous and independent review of an allegedly ambiguous agency regulation to determine if it is genuinely as advertised. She describes a framework for review that looks very much like the Chevron doctrine, only with more bite and with a warning label: this is a test that an agency can fail.

After six months, in a time of reflection and resolutions, we can pause from the heft of eggnog and the specter of twinkle lights to ask whether Kisor has made a discernible impact on the landscape of administrative law.  In doing so, we might observe two things: First, there has been an impact. Second, the new Auer is not really new at all.  In order to save Auer, Justice Kagan was not weakening it.  Rather, she was simply helping Auer return to its roots, reminding courts to engage in the rigorous, independent-style review that was commonplace at the time of its creation.  If we are prone to the sentimentality of the season, we might say that Kisor is a story of homecoming.

A bit of history might help us gain some perspective: Auer deference originated not with the 1997 case of Auer v. Robbins, but a half-century earlier with the 1946 case of Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co.  It began as a doctrine with significant constraints, at a vastly different moment in administrative law under in highly specific circumstances of the post-war era. To that end, it was applied only in the price control context and only to official agency interpretations. And notably, courts applying the doctrine took a heavy hand in examining the text of the regulation—often deferring only after engaging in an independent review of the regulatory text. In other words, the rigorous review that Kisor articulates follows closely the pattern of how courts approached Seminole Rock deference in the early years.

Over the course of thirty years, Seminole Rock became completely divorced from these modest and restrained origins. By the 1970s, it was transformed; it was mechanically applied and reflexively treated as a constraint upon the careful inquiry that one might ordinarily expect of courts engaged in textual analysis. With the transformation of both the doctrine and the administrative state, discomfort with the doctrine grew – first among scholars like John Manning in the mid-1990s and then in the Supreme Court jurisprudence about a decade ago. Eventually, we arrived at the doorstep of Kisor and now appear to have returned nearly full circle to Seminole Rock.

Early signs indicate that Kisor has been more than lip service. Ordinarily, six months is hardly enough time for a change like this to take root in the jurisprudence.  Kisor, however, has already been cited in over 80 judicial opinions.  Influential jurisdictions like the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia have taken Kisor to heart and are engaging in rigorous textual review of agency regulations before deciding whether deference is warranted.  See, e.g., Stand Up for California! v. DOI  (emphasizing the courts obligation under Kisor to “exhaust[] all the traditional tools of construction to determine the meaning of the regulation”); cf. Am. Tunaboat Ass'n v. Ross (deferring only after engaging in rigorous review). The D.C. Circuit has even cited Kisor for the proposition that Chevron deference should not be “reflexively” given to agency interpretations. Mozilla Corp. v. FCC, (“[W]e do not apply Chevron reflexively, and we find ambiguity only after exhausting ordinary tools of the judicial craft.”).

Other circuits have similarly indicated that Auer deference is to be earned, not afforded as a matter of course. The Ninth Circuit, for example, declined to defer to the Department of Energy in a case alleging a violation of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act's error-correction rule. NRDC v. Perry (engaging in rigorous review of the regulatory language and declining to defer because “the absence of genuine ambiguity in the rule’s meaning precludes us from deferring to DOE’s contrary interpretation.”).  See also Romero v. Barr (citing Kisor to describe the demanding Auer framework, engaging in independent textual analysis, and declining to defer to the agency after finding the regulation unambiguous).

Of course, as with the application of other deference doctrines, the outcomes of cases involving Kisor review will vary greatly.  As the body of cases available for analysis grows, empiricists will undoubtedly have ample data to begin exploring the particular contours of Kisor’s impacts on judicial deference.  For now, however, a bird’s eye view of the early cases indicates that Auer is homeward bound.

The historical analysis provided in this post is based on the work of Sanne H. Knudsen & Amy J. Wildermuth, Unearthing the Lost History of Seminole Rock, 65 Emory L.J. 47 (2015). 

Sanne Knudsen is the Stimson Bullitt Endowed Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Washington.

And So It Goes, New WOTUS Rule Final

Posted on January 24, 2020 by Rick Glick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risky Business: Ethylene Oxide Business Closures Prompt FDA Alert; EPA Regulations to Follow

Posted on January 6, 2020 by David Tripp

Plant closures of medical equipment sterilization facilities in Chicago and Atlanta prompted the Federal Drug Administration to issue a statement on potential shortages of surgical and medical devices across the country. On October 25,  FDA Commissioner Sharpless noted the closure of two large sterilization facilities resulting in a shortage of pediatric breathing tubes and said, "The impact resulting from closure of these and perhaps more facilities will be difficult to reverse, and ultimately could result in years of spot or nationwide shortages of critical medical devices, which could compromise patient care."

The FDA underscores an important dilemma in environmental matters: when risk assessment information based on emerging science predicts cancer-causing effects at extremely low concentrations, how can citizen concerns be addressed while EPA is developing regulations to minimize impacts on health and protect availability of necessary goods and services?

What is EPA's role in these plant closures?  In the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, EPA participated in public meetings and confirmed the Sterigenics facility was permitted under the Clean Air Act and operating within permit limits. Sterigenics used Ethylene Oxide (EO or EtO) to sterilize medical devices. EO is uniquely suited for use on medical devices and is the most common sterilizing agent  in the U.S., safeguarding an estimated 50 billion medical devices annually including surgical kits for C-sections, cardiac and knee surgeries, and feeding tubes for neonatal care units. At Willowbrook, based on community health concerns, EPA asked ATSDR for input. ATSDR issued a Letter Health Consultation on August 21, 2018, stating that if measured and modeled data represent typical EtO concentrations in ambient air, an elevated cancer risk exists, and the Illinois Department of Public Health should investigate any elevated cancers in the surrounding population.

IDPH followed with its Cancer Incidence Assessment report, covering 1995 through 2015, finding increases in certain cancers, but concluding that limitations in methodology and data existed. IDPH strongly recommended future studies with larger populations, preferably involving multiple EtO emissions sites to confirm the assessment's findings.

The recommended longer term emission reductions and studies did not happen. Public opposition resulted in lawsuits seeking injunctive relief, and a Seal Order was filed by the State of Illinois. Sterigenics reached settlement with the State to allow reopening with additional emission controls, then closed both Willowbrook and a similar facility in Atlanta. Sterilization facilities which have closed, or are facing public pressure, are caught in a predicament of compliance with existing Clean Air permit requirements being overtaken by local and public pressure. EPA has begun the development of a numeric standard for EO, but in the interim a calculated risk screening level for EO at the 0.10 part per trillion threshold became the de facto control number. However, that threshold number is being hotly debated and one state has indicated it will promulgate a limit 40,000 times higher.  

The concerned citizens and municipalities believe the right result was reached when the facilities closed. FDA and the medical community believe a crisis in availability of sterilization for medical devices and instruments is foreseeable. For the companies, operation in compliance with federal and state permits did not offset sudden forces leading to closure. EPA has announced its "Suite of Actions to Address Ethylene Oxide," including proposed rulemakings for two sets of EO emission standards. The fair notice of these EPA regulatory actions  contrasts with the abrupt pressure for closure forced on the shuttered companies by a risk assessment more commonly used as the beginning step in a screening process that leads to a balanced decision on remedial actions.

Whether EPA and FDA can cooperate effectively to prevent critical shortages of sterilized medical devices remains to be seen. Until a viable option to EO sterilization of medical devices is found and implemented, medical sterilization remains a risky business.

The Bees Just Got Busier: EPA Approves New Fungicide to be Delivered by the Bees Themselves

Posted on December 20, 2019 by Richard Horder

EPA has been a hive of activity regarding the declining bee population. The agency recently approved an organic fungicide that is to be delivered to crops via “bee vectoring”—a process by which commercially-reared bees walk through trays of pesticide powder, collecting it on their legs and fur. The bees are then released into the wild, and when they land on flowers to collect pollen, the pesticide is distributed directly to the source. It’s true! I am not pollen your leg here.

The fungicide, Clonostachys rosea strain CR-7 (also known as “Vectorite”), is aimed at protecting “high value” crops such as almonds, blueberries, strawberries and sunflowers. The fungicide’s creator, Canadian company Bee Vectoring Technology International (BVT), claims it is a “naturally occurring, non-genetically modified, unique fungus found throughout the world”—in other words, totally bee-nign. 

BVT had to seek approval from EPA for this unique fungicide and distribution process. Section 408 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) authorizes EPA to set tolerances, or maximum residue limits, for pesticide residues on foods. Without such a tolerance, food containing residue is subject to seizure by the government. EPA approved an exemption from this tolerance requirement for residues of Vectorite in August 2019, finding that it is “safe” within the meaning of FFDCA. Vectorite is the first pesticide EPA has ever allowed to be deployed by bees—a bee-utiful use of the exemption.

Here is what all the buzz is about: Vectorite may be a win-win for bees and struggling crops alike. Bumblebees have been declining at an alarming rate in the U.S. in recent years, and studies show that common chemical fungicides are responsible for at least 70% of this decline. These fungicides are traditionally applied via spraying, an imprecise method which requires more product than necessary, with the rest ending up in water sources or on land—a stinging result for the environment and bees alike. But the use of bee vectoring, a highly precise distribution method, may end up replacing the use of these traditional fungicides, thereby bolstering the declining bee population. It seems like bee vectoring is the bee’s knees and a honey of a solution!

But now for the buzz kill: some biologists believe the fungicide may prove harmful to the busy bees who deliver it. Sheila Colla, a conservation biologist at the University of York, thinks that farmers will continue to use insecticides in addition to Vectorite to combat fungal diseases. Not only that, but there is also the potential that this method will adversely affect the wild bee population. The rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act just two years ago, may very well have “[rapidly declined] because they were exposed to a novel disease from managed bees.” For more on the rusty patched bumblebee, see an earlier blog post of mine, Bumble Bee Buzzkill.

The question is, then (with apologies to Shakespeare): “to bee, or not to bee?” Even if Vectorite is not the solution to the plight of the American bumblebee, hopefully it will, at the very least, make farmers buzz off of the large-scale application of harmful chemical fungicides.

Dan Esty’s Challenge to ACOEL: Let’s Do It

Posted on November 21, 2019 by Ridgway Hall

At ACOEL’s meeting in Williamsburg last month Dan Esty challenged us to undertake a multi-year project to transform the legal framework for environmental protection. He argued persuasively that our country has outgrown its tolerance for command and control regulation, and that advances in emissions modeling and risk assessment plus the ready availability of abundant and low cost data now make possible a shift to a market-driven system. This would allow a price to be put on pollution, or “harm”, and eliminate externalities: that is, everyone must either eliminate or pay for his or her pollution.

This system would be science-based, flexible, transparent, and more efficient than command and control. It would also be more politically appealing by allowing the market to determine our choices instead of regulatory hammers. Dan’s proposal is described at length in his thoughtful article Red Lights to Green Lights: From 20th Century Environmental Regulation to 21st Century Sustainability.

The need for such an overhaul is great because our current system is not working well. Unless we can develop a legal framework that is more efficient and politically acceptable, environmental protection faces an uncertain future at a time when the need for responsible stewardship has never been greater. The magnitude of the challenge is enormous. Yet who is better equipped to tackle this than ACOEL? No one. We should do it. My purpose in this article is not to debate that. Rather, as an initial step, it is to point out that about 25 years ago, when EPA was 25 years old and we had already seen the last major piece of federal environmental legislation, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, there was a widespread recognition even then that we needed major reforms in our legal framework. The call was for greater flexibility, market incentives, and more holistic approaches. During the 2 year period 1996-98 at least six major reports were published based on thoughtful analyses by a wide range of stakeholders committed to finding better ways to protect our environment and human health. They provide a useful foundation for any new effort. They include: 

- The Aspen Institute, The Alternative Path: A Cleaner, Cheaper Way to Protect and Enhance the Environment (1996)

- Enterprise for the Environment, The Environmental Protection System in Transition: Toward a More Desirable Future (William Ruckelshaus, Chair; Center for Strategic and International Studies, National Academy of Public Administration and The Keystone Center, 1998)

- The President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity and a Healthy Environment for the Future (1996)

- National Environmental Policy Institute, Integrating Environmental Policy: A Blue- Print for 21st Century Environmentalism (1996)

- National Academy of Public Administration, Resolving the Paradox of Environmental Protection: An Agenda for Congress, EPA and the States (1997)

- Marian R. Chertow and Daniel C. Esty, eds., Thinking Ecologically: The Next Generation of Environmental Policy (a collection of papers produced by the “Next Generation Project” of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, 1997).

A consensus ran through all these reports that while command and control regulation focusing on end of pipe controls was right to deal with the serious environmental problems of the 1970s, something more flexible and cost-effective was needed for the future. The proposals included a focus on the multi-media footprint of an entire plant, consideration of regional and ecosystem-wide approaches, incentives for innovative management and market-driven solutions, and sector-based strategies. They also included greater use of corporate environmental, health and safety management systems coupled with robust compliance auditing; greater incentives for innovative technology; product life cycle management; “alternative tracks” under which a facility would be given broad performance or protection goals with flexibility on how to get there; and the use of tax incentives, marketable pollution rights, and other financial mechanisms.

While some considered replacing our media-specific statutes with a single holistic environmental statute, there was broad recognition that even by the mid-‘90s the mood in Congress was sufficiently divisive that that was not possible, and any effort to do that could produce something much worse. Robert Sussman proposed a more promising alternative, “An Integrating Statute” (Environmental Forum, March/April 1996) which would allow broad-gauge, multi-media strategies though integrated application of existing statutes.

What was the result of this extraordinary outpouring of creative thinking from the brightest, most experienced and diverse brainstormers available? No new legislation, some minor efforts to streamline regulations, a few more flexible policies at EPA, and little else. There is a lot in these reports that will provide helpful background for any effort that ACOEL or anyone else might launch to achieve the new legal framework that Dan envisions, but getting there will be a huge task.  It will almost certainly require new legislation that can attract bipartisan support.

Just this past April, in recognition of EPA’s 50th anniversary, the American University Center for Environmental Policy and the EPA Alumni Association hosted a 2 day conference on “EPA and the Future of Environmental Protection”, featuring a wide range of highly qualified speakers, including four past EPA Administrators. Many of the same issues were discussed, but some fresh perspectives and ideas seemed to emerge. A report is due to be released within the next few weeks, and I will discuss its principal recommendations in a future blog post.

Will The PM NAAQS Be the Real End of Agency Deference?

Posted on October 31, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

According to Bloomberg Environment (subscription required), EPA’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee cannot reach agreement whether to recommend that the NAAQS for PM2.5 be lowered.  Even after two years, I guess I had not realized the extent to which the scientists relied on by this administration are willing to ignore what used to be generally known as the “scientific consensus.”

As I reported last month, EPA’s Office of Air Quality and Standards released a draft reassessment of the adequacy of the PM2.5 NAAQS.  The draft states that:

"The risk assessment estimates that the current primary PM2.5 standards could allow a substantial number of PM2.5-associated deaths in the U.S.

When taken together, we reach the preliminary conclusion that the available scientific evidence, air quality analyses, and the risk assessment, as summarized above, can reasonably be viewed as calling into question the adequacy of the public health protection afforded by the combination of the current annual and 24-hour primary PM2.5 standards."

Based on the analysis in the draft, it seemed obvious to me that EPA would have to lower the NAAQS to somewhere between 8.0 ug/m3 and 10.0 ug/m3.  I assumed and predicted that EPA would propose to lower the standard as little as possible, to 10.0 ug/m3. 

It turns out that four out of six members of EPA’s significant reconstituted Clean Air Science Advisory Committee think that the current standard should be retained.  I doubt that the American Lung Association will agree.

I have previously speculated, in connection with matters ranging from BLM standards for methane emissions on federal lands to the EPA/DOT decision on CAFE standards, that, if this administration consistently flouts the scientific consensus on appropriate regulatory standards, then, at some point, courts will stop deferring to agency “scientific” conclusions.  I now wonder whether the PM2.5 rule will be the breaking point.

It’s still more likely that a court would simply rule within the confines of existing jurisprudence that a decision by EPA to retain the current PM2.5 standard would be arbitrary and capricious, even given traditional deference.  However, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a court will at some point conclude that the administration has forfeited the deference it would otherwise have gotten.

When agencies just make up the science, Chevron seems almost beside the point.

COAL

Posted on October 8, 2019 by Donald Stever

My blog posts have, in the past, largely focused on this or that regulation or some legal development or other dealing with chemical regulation or environmental statutes or rules in general. This one is different.

I grew up in Pennsylvania coal country. Well, actually on the border between the coal mines on the Piedmont Plateau (CO2 precursors) and the big dairy farm (methane emitters) region in the wide valleys that stretched along the Allegheny Mountains. My father was a veterinarian. As a kid I was his unpaid assistant. One vivid childhood memory I have is of going down into a deep shaft coal mine with my father; I lay on my back in an electric rail car, traveling nearly a mile into the earth where my father was called to treat an injured mule. You see, mules pulled the coal cars from the active extraction shafts to the main mine shaft. Oh, and the mules were blind. They were blinded intentionally because (a) there was no light anyway and (b) they learned to know the labyrinth by senses other than sight. Then there was the coughing. The mules coughed. The miners coughed. All were covered with coal dust. My father returned to the mine from time to time. I demurred.

Which brings me to my point. When I retired from my full-time litigation-heavy law practice I started to read books, a pastime that I had largely been denied for lack of time during the fifty-odd years of environmental law practice. Not pulp novels. Mostly not “best sellers.” Nope. I read science-based books, many of which address the environment. Two of these dealt in part with the subject of coal.  Peter Brannen, in The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions, neatly explains the primary cause of the last five extinctions of nearly all life on Earth, discernable from analyses of geologic strata. The culprit? Carbon dioxide emitted by the combustion of coal (fossil vegetable matter accumulated over eons of time) caused by massive flows of volcanic magma which ignited enormous coal deposits, which in turn heated up the atmosphere, which in turn heated up and acidified the oceans. So, burning coal pushes carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which traps solar heat, heats up the earth and oceans and every complex living thing (or almost every living thing) dies.

Sound familiar? In his most recent book, Falter, Bill McKibben points to irrefutable scientific analyses concluding that human combustion of coal and its cousin oil, abetted by human agricultural emissions of methane, is on track to raise carbon dioxide levels in the  atmosphere to a concentration that is higher than the carbon dioxide levels that triggered all of the prior mass extinctions.

I have to ask: are the Trumps and the Wheelers and the McConnells and their counterparts in Asia and South America who simply deny the obvious consequences of their refusal to deal with the issue of runaway combustion of fossil carbon unable to read? Obviously, they can read, but I dare say that inability to read would at least give them an excuse for denying my three-year-old granddaughter a habitable planet on which to live.

Singer-songwriter and distinguished member of the New Hampshire Bar John Perrault perhaps says it best in his song, Carbon the Garden:

There is the Capitol floatin’ away

Congressmen wailing “it’s a mighty fine day”

Tell me, how long does it take to investigate

Oh, the oceans in the kitchen and the desert’s at the garden gate.

Song lyrics by John Perrault © 2013 John Perrault

If You Need the Money I’ve Got the Fine

Posted on October 3, 2019 by Kevin Finto

With apologies to Lefty Frizell, that is a terrible suggestion on how to fund environmental programs.  But, we need to figure something out.  As environmental lawyers, we spend a lot of effort discussing the substantive and procedure aspects of the statues and regulations that protect the environment, but little time on the appropriations bills that make them work.  We are all familiar with environmental regulations that have wide-scope, strict requirements, but inadequate funding for their implementation.  This deficiency results in the unintended consequences of providing a false sense of protection to the public and frustration to the regulated community. 

The problem is becoming more acute as political-based belt-tightening on environmental issues continues at the Federal level and directly affects budgets of the state environmental agencies, where most of the implementation occurs.  The Environmental Council of the States (“ECOS”) reported in 2017 that federal funding of state government programs declined by 2.5 percent between 2013 and 2015.  While some states were able to meet the short fall, many states, faced with ever-increasing demands for education, security and social welfare are not keeping up with environmental funding as their economies grow out of the great recession.  For FY 2020, EPA proposed a budget decrease of 31 percent.  Where this ends up is yet to be seen.  On September 26, ECOS sent a letter to EPA Administrator Wheeler, which did not expressly identify budget issues, but demanded a meeting to discuss “serious[] concern[s] about a number of unilateral actions by U.S. EPA that run counter to the spirit of cooperative federalism and to the appropriate relationship between the federal government and the states who are delegated the authority to implement federal environmental statutes.”

So what do we do?  I think three steps might be helpful.  First, there needs to be greater focus and participation on the budgetary process to evaluate the need, priority and allocation of available resources rather than simply updating a prior year’s budget.  I am suggesting reevaluation from the bottom up of many agency budgets by the regulators, lawmakers, the regulated community and environmental non-governmental organizations.  Of  particular concern is how agencies can meet basic long-existing requirements such as monitoring environmental quality and training of personnel while dealing with expenses of new requirements related to communicating through social media, data storage and cyber security.  The second is to evaluate the efficiency with which the agencies operate and to share best practices.  As documented by ECOS, in many instances, state agencies, in particular, have become increasingly efficient as they have had their budgets repeatedly slashed and cuts have been necessary in order to provide the essential services.  Third, there needs to be advocacy in Congress and our state legislatures, from relevant stakeholders –government agencies, the regulated community, and environmental non-governmental organizations. 

In some states, the latter has already occurred.  A good example is VIRGINIAforever, a unique, diverse coalition of businesses, environmental organizations, and outdoor enthusiasts that advocates for increased government funding for water quality improvements, land conservation and improved agency performance and funding across the Commonwealth.  It is the only statewide organization that has a primary focus on increasing funding for natural resources protection.  This has taken the form of collaborative and very active lobbying for adequate funds in the Virginia General Assembly to promote land conservation and water quality.

VIRGINIAforever representatives meet regularly with agency heads to discuss budgets.  It promotes activities to educate lawmakers on the importance of environmental protection and it lobbies for adequate funding.  It is in the process of releasing its latest five-year plan to obtain those resources.  The group also recognizes those who promote its goals.  For example, each year it holds a Bridge Builder dinner honoring those who work with both environmental groups, government agencies and the business community to promote land conservation and water quality.  By design, VIRGINIAforever also provides a forum for fostering relationships among those with diverse perspectives on environmental issues. In sum, if we want to promote sound and efficient environmental programs, we need to think not only about the substance and the procedure, but also identify and advocate for the sources of adequate funding.

NSR Regulatory Reform—the saga continues

Posted on September 18, 2019 by William Brownell

In 2002, EPA promulgated a Clean Air Act new source review (NSR) “reform rule” to clarify the confusion created by inconsistent guidance and judicial decisions on NSR applicability.  That clarification effort had only limited success, as inconsistent interpretations of the NSR applicability rules continued to emerge as those rules were applied by state regulators and courts.  In perhaps the most extreme example of regulatory confusion, a three judge panel of the Sixth Circuit issued five opinions with three different interpretation of the same regulatory language.  DTE I, http://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/13a0080p-06.pdf.  DTE II, http://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/17a0006p-06.pdf.

The Trump Administration has embarked on a new clarification effort.  In what EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation dubbed a “singles and doubles” approach, EPA issued guidance and undertook rulemaking on key applicability issues, including emissions projections, emissions accounting, and project aggregation.  In conjunction with the Affordable Clean Energy rule, EPA then proposed a more fundamental change to the NSR applicability rules under which a project would trigger NSR only if it resulted in both an hourly and annual emissions increase.

That EPA is still struggling with clarification of its NSR rules two decades after it began a series of significant NSR enforcement initiatives illustrates how controversial this program has been and continues to be.  From an environmental standpoint, however, the NSR program has become less significant. Industrial sources are largely well-controlled for a variety of reasons other than NSR.  And in the electric utility sector, the steep drop in the price of natural gas has resulted in current or planned retirement of many coal-fired generating units.  As a result, there is little to be gained from injunctive relief even in a successful NSR enforcement action.

All of this says that there should be wide-spread support for EPA completing its NSR clarification efforts.  Regulated entities have every incentive to comply with NSR.  From the regulators standpoint, the limitations the Supreme Court put on regulatory re-interpretation in Kisor v. Wilkie, should create its own incentives for regulatory clarity.

Environmental Protection Is an Afterthought at the Environmental Protection Agency

Posted on September 17, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers promulgated the final rule repealing the 2015 rule defining the Waters of the United States. The repeal rule is 172 pages in its pre-publication version.  The word “science” is used 18 times in those 172 pages.  Almost all of them are used in quotes from the 2015 rule or characterizations of the intent of the 2015 rule.

I did not find a single sentence in the repeal rule stating that the science does not support the 2015 rule.  As I noted when the Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued, the mission of EPA and the Corps is to protect the Waters of the United States.  If they’ve concluded that the text of the Clean Water Act doesn’t give them the authority needed to do so, the Administration could certainly propose amendments to the CWA to give them that authority.

That’s what used to be called “governing.”

Vaped and Confused

Posted on September 16, 2019 by Tracy Hester

E-cigarettes have vaulted to the front pages lately, and for tragic reasons.  To date, at least six users have died from severe lung disease tied to vaping, and nearly 400 others have reported serious medical symptoms in 36 states and the Virgin Islands.  The reasons for the outbreak remain murky:  some investigators link the victims’ illnesses to bootleg or counterfeit nicotine cartridges, while others have focused on the addition of “thickeners” or THC and marijuana components.  Heavy abusive use of the devices has also come under suspicion.  But regardless of the explanation, e-cigarettes will likely remain in the spotlight until researchers either identify the cause or the pace of the illness starts to slow.

The furor, however, has distracted attention from another growing regulatory issue with e-cigarettes.  As vaping continues to expand into the workforce, employers have discovered that they now have to manage growing volumes of discarded vaping cartridges.  These cartridges contain residual amounts of nicotine – a deadly substance that figured prominently as a poison in Agatha Christie’s murder mystery Three Act Tragedy.  Nicotine is so hazardous, in fact, that EPA accorded it the dubious distinction of an acute hazardous waste (P075) listing under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act.  EPA listed nicotine originally in 1980, and EPA confirmed on Feb. 22, 2019 that unspent nicotine in discarded e-cigarette cartridges can constitute hazardous waste under its pharmaceutical waste rules.  While EPA exempted used nicotine patches and gums from the listing, e-cigarette cartridges containing unused nicotine failed to earn the same exemption.  And cigarette butts don’t pose the same challenges because their nicotine isn’t the sole active ingredient and isn’t pharmaceutical grade.

Home users, of course, needn’t worry because their discarded vaping cartridges are household hazardous wastes exempt from hazardous waste regulation.  But commercial facilities and industrial operators don’t enjoy that exemption, and as a result accumulated spent cartridges from their employees’ vaping can create big problems.  Because nicotine is a P-listed acute hazardous waste, facilities can quickly become large quantity generators if they accumulate more than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of spent cartridges in a month (although they may argue that only the residual liquid nicotine itself counts towards the waste tally).  Rinsing the cartridges may simply magnify the problem because the rinsate itself counts as a listed hazardous waste under the derived-from rule.  And other possible strategies, such as reverse distribution or reclamation, may not cleanly apply.

Many facility operators are only now realizing the scale of the problem.  Possible compliance strategies may not require any RCRA wizardry at all – for example, some facilities can simply ban on-site employee vaping, while others can require that employees take their spent cartridges home for disposal.  With the Trump Administration’s call to ban flavored e-cigarette cartridges and similar initiatives by Michigan and New York, the problem also may retreat if more states and agencies demand withdrawal of e-cigarettes from the market.  But facilities that can’t rely on these fixes may find themselves struggling for answers in a hazy and confused regulatory environment.

Climate Whack-a-Mole; or How the Trump Administration Institutionalizes Ignorance in the Endangered Species Act

Posted on August 27, 2019 by Peter Van Tuyn

Given the severity and finality of the extinction of species on this planet, and the myriad adverse impacts on human society and natural ecosystems of such extinction, Congress passed the hallmark Endangered Species Act in 1973.  Since then it has helped save myriad species from extinction and recover many species to healthy population levels.  The success of the ESA in meeting its goals, and strong public support for the law, did not stop the Trump administration from targeting the ESA to ease what it perceives as its negative impact on economic growth. 

As those familiar with the ESA know, a central duty under the law is for federal agencies to consult with the experts within the federal government before undertaking any activity that might jeopardize a species listed under the ESA or adversely modify such a species’ critical habitat.  This consultation helps both to prevent jeopardy and adverse modification and to identify ways in which the activity could proceed without having such effects. 

Among the Trump administration’s controversial proposals was to change the ESA regulations to create a climate change exemption to the ESA’s expert consultation process.  This proposal would have exempted from such consultation any proposed federal action with “effects that are manifested through global processes,” a phrase that is a clear reference to climate change. 

Not surprisingly, this proposal was met with substantial criticism from ESA supporters, who asserted that there was no legal authority to excise climate change from the ESA’s consultation requirements and that to deliberately do so was extremely foolhardy.  These people undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when the final rule came out without this proposal, which the Trump administration abandoned “in the interest of efficiency” in the face of that stinging criticism.  

That sigh, however, was certainly followed by a gasp, as those same people found that the final regulations included a wholly new regulatory approach designed to achieve the same effect.  The Trump administration did this by controlling what the expert agencies can consider as they seek to understand the effects of proposed federal action. 

Here is how it works.  First, the final rule defines “effects of the action” as

all consequences to listed species or critical habitat that are caused by the proposed action, including the consequences of other activities that are caused by the proposed action. A consequence is caused by the proposed action if it would not occur but for the proposed action and it is reasonably certain to occur. Effects of the action may occur later in time and may include consequences occurring outside the immediate area involved in the action.

(emphasis here and elsewhere added).  One layer deeper, the final rule defines the newly-added term “consequence,” in relevant part, as follows: 

Considerations for determining that a consequence to the species or critical habitat is not caused by the proposed action include, but are not limited to:  (1) The consequence is so remote in time from the action under consultation that it is not reasonably certain to occur; or (2) The consequence is so geographically remote from the immediate area involved in the action that it is not reasonably certain to occur; or (3) The consequence is only reached through a lengthy causal chain that involves so many steps as to make the consequence not reasonably certain to occur.

The final rule also defines the term “reasonably certain to occur,” which was not defined in the prior rule, to read, in relevant part, as follows:

Factors to consider when evaluating whether activities caused by the proposed action (but not part of the proposed action) or activities reviewed under cumulative effects are reasonably certain to occur include, but are not limited to:  (1) Past experiences with activities that have resulted from actions that are similar in scope, nature, and magnitude to the proposed action; (2) Existing plans for the activity; and (3) Any remaining economic, administrative, and legal requirements necessary for the activity to go forward. 

Finally, the new rule mandates that the criteria set forth in these new definitions of “consequences” and “reasonably certain to occur” “must be considered by the action agency and the [expert agencies].” 

Although the term “climate change” is not used in the text, the intention to preclude the Services from considering climate change is evident.  To begin with, the definition of “consequences” sets forth three criteria and provides that any one of these would support a non-causation finding.  These three factors – remoteness in time, geographic remoteness, and lengthy causal chain – are classic attributes of climate change.  Indeed, climate change is a global phenomenon that has taken decades to develop from multiple sources, through what may be (or perhaps in some cases may not be) complex causal chains.  Furthermore, the definition of “reasonably certain to occur” takes a retrospective stance, emphasizing “past experiences” and “existing plans,” and thus discounts the possibility of new and novel activities resulting from a proposed action in a climate-altered world. 

By providing that the criteria in these two definitions “must be considered,” the new rule makes it clear that it is creating a mandatory duty for the expert agencies to ignore climate-related impacts in their consultations under the ESA.  Indeed, the preamble to the new rule explains that, in situations where the consequences of activities resulting from a proposed action are “remote in time or location, or are only reached following a lengthy causal chain of events,” the consequences of such activities “would not be considered reasonably certain to occur,” thus removing discretion from the experts to determine the likelihood of occurrence. 

So, the Trump administration reacted to the hammering of its proposed attempt to institutionalize the ignorance of climate change impacts on listed species and their habitat with an approach that appears for the first time in the final rule and is effectively the same. This may not be the end of the matter, however, as I suspect the gasps of ESA supporters will turn to anger, and then to action, as they likely head to the courtroom to challenge the final rule.

If It Walks Like a Duck and Talks Like a Duck, It May Still Not Be Sauce for the Gander

Posted on August 23, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the “Wehrum Memo,” which reversed EPA’s longstanding policy of “once in, always in” regarding MACT jurisdiction, was not final agency action subject to judicial review.  Like Judge Rogers, I dissent. 

The majority makes much of its effort to clarify this “byzantine” area of the law.  My take is that, to the extent the court has succeeded in that effort, it is only by reducing the law to this simple rule:  If the guidance document appears to impose obligations on the regulated community, then it is a regulation and can be challenged.  If it lessens obligations on the regulated community, then it is guidance and may not be challenged.

This may benefit my clients, but seems an odd view of the law.

The majority and dissent agreed that the Wehrum Memo was the “consummation” of EPA’s decision making process.  The question thus became whether it constituted an agency action “by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.”  The Court concluded that the Wehrum Memo does not have such an effect, because parties currently subject to MACT can only take advantage of EPA’s new policy by seeking to amend their Title V permit, and states can ignore the Wehrum Memo and permits can, in any case, always be appealed.

However, as Judge Rogers’s dissent noted, the Court pretty much had to ignore the decision Appalachian Power v. EPA, in which the Court stated that “’rights’ may not be created, but ‘obligations’ certain are….  The entire Guidance … reads like a ukase.”

When one reads Appalachian Power together with Sackett v. EPA, one conclusion becomes clear – courts are not going to allow agencies to promulgate guidance that allows them to exercise coercion against regulated entities who face significant costs and risks if they ignore the enforcement implications of agency “guidance.”

On the other hand, the courts seem to have concluded, if the guidance benefits the regulated community, then there is no harm to making those who want to challenge the guidance wait until some formal appellate opportunity becomes ripe at some point in the future.  However, as Judge Rogers pointed out, “legal consequences flow” from the Wehrum Memo as soon as major sources take enforceable limits to get below MACT thresholds.

I’m very skeptical that the decision contributes towards “clarifying this somewhat gnarled field of jurisprudence,” unless the Court really does intend the law to be that regulated entities can challenge guidance, but others cannot.

Trump Track: Speed Bumps on the Road to Species Protection

Posted on August 21, 2019 by Rick Glick

On August 12, 2019, the Trump Administration adopted three new rules in an attempt to rein in the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  The rules would undo a rule in place since 1978 affording protections for “threatened” species similar to those listed as “endangered”; limit “critical habitat” designations where species do not now occur; and most controversially, inject economic considerations into the listing process.

The ESA was enacted in 1973 and signed into law by President Nixon.  At that time, environmental protection was not seen as the partisan issue it is today.  The Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and formation of the EPA all came during Nixon’s watch with near-unanimous support in the Congress.  Speaking on the ESA, Nixon said:  “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”

In enacting the ESA, Congress used uncommonly crisp and unambiguous language.  For example, listing decisions must be “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”  Further, the Act directs federal agencies to “utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of this Act by carrying out programs for the conservation of endangered species and threatened species listed pursuant to section 4 of this Act.” 

The courts have given these words robust interpretations, beginning with TVA v. Hill, which halted the construction of the Tellico Dam to protect endangered snail darters.  Since then scores of ESA cases have protected listed species.  In the Pacific Northwest, these cases often focus on salmon, northern spotted owls and shore birds at the expense of hydropower and the timber industry.

The ESA still enjoys broad public support, but has been on the Republican hit list for decades due to the economic effects associated with species protection.  Of particular note for this Administration, ESA restrictions stand in the way of oil and gas extraction and pipelines.  Yet in an era when the White House and both houses of Congress were all in Republican hands, the Administration was unable to get passed any limitations on ESA jurisdiction. 

The new rules represent the Administration’s shot at reducing the scope of the ESA through policy and rulemaking.  Here is a brief summary of some key elements:

Section 4(d) Rule

Under Section 4(d) of the Act, the fish and wildlife agencies can establish protections or exemptions for certain activities, known as 4(d) rules.  Since 1978 the agencies used a “blanket rule” that treated “threatened” species the same as those designated “endangered. The new rule reverses that default position, and requires a specific 4(d) rule custom made to provide additional protection for threatened species.  This change benefits industry in that the prohibition on “take” of listed species will not automatically apply to threatened species.  Of additional importance is the fact that the new 4(d) rules will take time to develop.  In the interim, presumably development may proceed without fear of prosecution for take of a threatened species.

Critical Habitat

Historically, the agencies have on occasion elected to list as “critical habitat” areas in which listed species do not now occur, but potentially could.  In Weyerhaeuser v. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that such designations would not be available for areas that needed improvement to be good habitat, and remanded the matter back to the FWS.  The new rules require designation of areas as critical habitat where listed species currently exist before considering unoccupied areas, and then imposes new standards to demonstrate the species will benefit if the designation is extended to unoccupied areas. 

The new rule would also allow the agencies to decline designation of critical habitat if they find doing so “not prudent.”  This includes changes to habitat from climate change.  The rationale is that the government cannot control climate change, so taking steps to protect such habitat would be futile.

Section 7 Consultation

ESA Section 7 requires federal permitting or action agencies to consult with the fish and wildlife agencies about potential “jeopardy” to listed species.  The new rule would affect the “baseline” used for such determinations.  The jeopardy determination will apply only to the new activity; consultation is not required for ongoing activities that the action agencies lack discretion to change.  

Assessment of ongoing activities is particularly relevant to the continuing litigation over the application of the ESA to the Federal Columbia River Power System, a series of hydropower and flood control dams in the Snake and Columbia Rivers.  At the heart of the litigation is whether the existence of four Lower Snake River dams should be presumed, limiting evaluations for jeopardy to modifications to the projects or operations.  The agencies argued that the Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, have no discretion to modify their purpose and therefore the status quo is the proper baseline.  Courts to date have not found this argument persuasive.

Listing Determinations

Perhaps the most controversial rule change concerns consideration of economic impacts in making a listing or delisting decision.  As noted above, the ESA mandates that listing determinations must be based “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”  The previous rule added for emphasis that the listing must be made “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”  The new rule eliminates that language and would allow consideration of economic effects, but like the statute, also specifies that the designation must be based on the best available science.  The Administration has offered no plans on how this analysis will be conducted.  Environmental groups, not surprisingly, see this as a back door means of inserting economics into the decision-making.

Conclusion

There is broad scientific consensus that biodiversity among plants and animals is essential to long-term survival of life on the planet.  Species go extinct or are imperiled every day, often but not always due to human activity.  The ESA was intended address the manmade impacts to wildlife, and indeed there have been stunning successes—the bald eagle, grizzly bear and gray wolf to name a few. 

But the economic dislocations from ESA implementation in many instances have been substantial, often without concomitant species recovery.  Columbia River salmon are still in trouble after billions of dollars spent.  Protection of old growth timber for northern spotted owl habitat led to severe hardships to communities reliant on the forest products industry, only to find that the predation of spotted owls by barred owls could lead to the former’s extinction. 

There is nothing easy, or cheap, about preventing extinction.  It is hubris to suggest government can fix the problem.  But, having created much of the problem, it seems we have to try.  Our effort must extend beyond only saving the “charismatic mega fauna” that dominate media reports, like salmon and polar bears.  Although the public generally supports saving iconic species, support wanes for lesser known species. That is particularly so in rural communities with natural resource-based economies.  Yet these relatively unknown species also play essential roles in the ecosystem. 

The ESA, as well as the other major environmental statutes, is in need of reform to address the unintended consequences of the Act.  That is a task only Congress can perform, but until they do the executive and judicial branches will fill the vacuum.  In the meantime, environmental groups and some states have announced plans to challenge the new rules, which means another several years of litigation and uncertainty. 

That is not a recipe for sound policy, but is what we have until the national consensus on the environment returns.  And no, I’m not holding my breath either.

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

Posted on August 6, 2019 by Karl Coplan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Supreme Court’s Most Important Environmental Law Decision in 35 Years

Posted on July 30, 2019 by Robert Brubaker

As our esteemed colleague John Cruden is fond of saying, administrative law is a subset of environmental law.  My vote for the most important Supreme Court environmental law decision in 35 years goes to the administrative law case (involving not environmental rules but the interpretation of a Department of Veterans Affairs rule) handed down on June 26, Kisor v. Wilkie.

I believe Kisor will prove to be the watershed case that that marks a consensus on shifting core principles of administrative law for decades to come.  To me, it continues what I saw as Justice Scalia's project to reform reflexive deference to agency “interpretations” (with the GHG Tailoring Rule case, UARG v. EPA, being a notable milestone, and probably also the thinking behind his final vote, on the extraordinary Clean Power Plan stay).  What are the odds that Auer v. Robbins is the unnamed case that Justice Thomas was referring to in his humorous anecdote at former Justice Scalia’s memorial about “Nino’s” outrage at “one of the worst ever” decisions of the Court (that Nino wrote)?   

Kisor goes a long way toward fulfilling Justice Kennedy's 2018 recommendation in his final opinion (Pereira v. Sessions) to reconsider "the premises that underlie Chevron and how courts have implemented that decision."  And, it further cements Justice Kagan's observation, in her 2015 Scalia Lecture at Harvard that "we're all textualists now."  It clearly articulates and shines a bright and permanent light on the concern about administrative agencies pushing too far at times in combining the power to make, interpret, change, administer, and enforce binding law, with too little independent judicial oversight.

The four separate opinions in Kisor distinguish judicial review of agency interpretations of their own rules (Auer deference) from agency interpretations of statutes (Chevron deference), but there are some inevitable parallels.  Kisor establishes a three-step analysis for agency interpretations of its own rules: 1) is the rule genuinely ambiguous? 2) if so, is the agency’s interpretation of the genuine ambiguity reasonable? and 3) even if an agency interpretation of a genuine ambiguity is reasonable, is it of a “character and context” that justifies deference?  Step 1 is strikingly similar to the pre-Chevron deference analysis under Skidmore (acceptance of an agency’s interpretation is commensurate with its “persuasive power”).  As Justice Kagan put it: “serious application of these tools [of construction, such as text, structure, history] therefore has use when a regulation turns out to be truly ambiguous.  The text, structure, history and so forth at least establish the outer bounds of permissible interpretation.”  Steps two and three of the Kisor framework add specificity and rigor to the judicial inquiry not spelled out in Skidmore.  Importantly, Kisor casts a highly skeptical eye on agency interpretations that circumvent appropriate procedural safeguards, or veer outside the lane of the agency’s expertise, or conflict with a prior agency construction.

It is significant that Kisor is authored by Justice Kagan, and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer (noted for his command of administrative law), and Sotomayor, and joined in part by Chief Justice Roberts.  This is not a majority that can be characterized as anti-administrative state or as sponsors of a partisan Republican or conservative agenda.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote a short concurring opinion, expressing his view that the “distance between the majority and Justice Gorsuch is not as great as it may initially appear” because the majority’s catalog of the “prerequisites for, and limitations on” Auer deference has much in common with Justice Gorsuch’s list of the reasons that a court might be persuaded to adopt an agency’s interpretation.  Justice Gorsuch wrote a 42-page concurring opinion, joined by Justice Thomas and in parts by Justices Kavanaugh and Alito, touring the history of the Court’s deference jurisprudence and expressing a preference for overruling Auer and reverting to Skidmore deference.  Justice Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Alito, opining that “rigorously applying footnote 9” in Chevron (exhorting courts to “exhaust all the ‘traditional tools’ of construction” before concluding that an agency rule is ambiguous) should lead “in most cases to the same destination” as Justice Kagan’s majority opinion and eliminate any basis “to put a thumb on the scale in favor an agency” interpretation.

The boundaries on administrative powers and discretion are placed by Kisor in the hands of the judiciary, with paramount responsibility to judge conscientiously based on a searching and independent inquiry into the relevant legal and factual circumstances involved, and not based on some dogmatic, oversimplified, or wooden formula.  Deference cabined by a diligent judiciary is better than deference too readily or haphazardly granted or denied.  Justice Kagan's detailed instructions ("we mean it" she wrote) to judges handling administrative interpretation cases may well do more good for the opponents of Auer deference than an outright overruling of Auer.  If the Auer precedent had been overruled, instead of being "restated" and "somewhat expanded on," there would be more uncertainty and inconsistency, over a longer period of time, about exactly what replaces Auer deference.  The implicit call to legislators and administrators to pay better attention to the text and clarity of the laws they write is constructive too.  Good work Justice Kagan.

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

Posted on June 6, 2019 by Rick Glick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on April 5, 2019 by Peter Van Tuyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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