A FLORID (AND POSSIBLY SIGNIFICANT?) ACE DISSENT

Posted on January 26, 2021 by Dick Stoll

On January 19, 2021, the D.C. Circuit issued its long-awaited decision on the Trump EPA’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule.  American Lung Assn. v. EPA, No. 19-1140.  The ACE rule was the Trump EPA’s repudiation of the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) under the Clean Air Act. 

Two spoiler alerts:

(1)    I will not in this blog even begin to analyze the extremely lengthy and complex majority and dissenting opinions.  I am too retired for that.  Hopefully an unretired Fellow will be helping us with that soon. 

(2)   I will not offer any views on which of the opinions is more meritorious, because I really don’t know.   I will conclude by saying, however, that new legislation would sure be nice. 

The most critical issue in both the ACE and the CPP is fairly simple.  In regulating coal-burning electric power plants under the CAA for climate purposes, is EPA authorized to impose “beyond-the-fenceline, generation shifting” measures?  These measures will hereafter be referred to as “BTFGS.” 

Or put another way, may EPA go beyond plant-specific emission controls, and impose measures that effectively require power companies to secure emission reductions on a company-wide or grid-wide basis?  If so, power companies may be forced to shift some (or all) of their capacity to non-coal-fired generation (such as natural gas) or even shut down some (or all) of their coal-fired generation.

The Obama EPA based its CPP on BTFGS requirements.  The Trump EPA repealed the CPP and issued ACE, which imposed no BTFGS measures.  In doing so, the Trump EPA took the position that the CAA’s plain words did not authorize BTFGS measures.

The D.C. Circuit’s new 2-1 American Lung decision — joined by Judges Millet and Pillard — rejected the Trump ACE.  The majority fully embraced the Obama CPP position that the CAA authorizes BTFGS measures.  Judge Walker dissented (more on that below).

The majority decision was hailed by many as giving the Biden EPA a “green light” to fashion effective climate regulations that the Trump EPA would never entertain.  This may or may not prove to be correct, however, if the Biden EPA decides to require BTFGS measures in future climate rules.  For even though the new decision may stand as binding in the D.C. Circuit, we must consider the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

Two points on SCOTUS.  First, recall that in totally unprecedented fashion, SCOTUS in 2016 stayed the Obama CPP pending review, with the result that the CPP never came into effect before the Trump EPA repealed it.   The stay was issued by a 5-4 Court that included five conservative leaning and four liberal leaning Justices.  No opinion accompanied the stay, but it is fair to assume the conservative majority was skeptical of the Obama BTFGS position.  If any rule that relies on BTFGS comes before SCOTUS in the next few years, it will presumably face a Court that includes six conservative leaning and three liberal leaning Justices.

Second, and now I get to the Walker dissent.   Judge Walker, a recent Trump appointee, was well known on Fox News and other outlets for his strong conservative views before his appointment.   His dissent is a testament to those views.  

Whether you agree with Judge Walker or not, you may have fun reading his florid opinion.  I have attached a copy, in which I have highlighted various notable passages.  He throws in cites to Arthur Conan Doyle (p. 9), Shakespeare (p. 33), and Lawrence of Arabia (the movie, p. 14).  He explains that the U.S. Senate is designed to protect small States (pp. 3, 5).   He postulates that the doomed Obama 2009 legislative climate effort would have succeeded if there were proportional representation in both Houses of Congress (p. 6).  He engages in amusing word play (pp. 3, 35).

But why am I even bothering with Judge Walker’s dissent?   Recall that in 2014, then-D.C. Circuit Judge Kavanaugh filed a dissent in a CAA case against a majority opinion favoring stronger environmental controls.  White Stallion v. EPA, 748 F. 3d 1222 (2014).   On review, a 5-4 SCOTUS (with the conservatives in the majority) reversed the D.C. Circuit ruling, adopting and quoting from the reasoning in Judge Kavanaugh’s D.C. Circuit dissent.  Michigan v. EPA, 576 U.S. 743 (2015).

So not too long ago, a narrow conservative SCOTUS majority adopted the reasoning of a dissent from a conservative D.C. Circuit Judge to reverse a more environmentally protective D.C. Circuit opinion.  I suppose it could happen again, with an even more conservative SCOTUS now.  And by the way, Judge Walker clerked for Judge Kavanaugh when Kavanaugh was on the D.C. Circuit. 

Again, I offer no view on what I think the courts should do with BTFGS.  What I really hope is that Congress will enact CAA amendments to clarify EPA’s climate authorities.   Now that we have a Democratic President, House, and (barely) Senate, maybe this can finally happen.  Maybe the Senate will do away with the filibuster, or — even without that — enough Republicans in the Senate could come along?  There’s always hope. 

Leaving on the Midnight Train to Maui (Going Back to Find a Simpler Place in Time)

Posted on January 21, 2021 by Allan Gates

With apologies to Gladys Knight & the Pips:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwbmufPphP0

It is not unusual for a lame duck administration to issue a flurry of midnight rules and administrative actions shortly before leaving office, and the Trump administration is no exception.  One of the last minute actions by President Trump’s EPA is a draft guidance document signed on December 4th regarding application of the Supreme Court’s decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

Much of the draft guidance document reviews in unexceptional terms the threshold conditions that must be satisfied before an NPDES permit is required, namely:

  • There must be an actual discharge of a pollutant;
  • The discharge must be from a point source; and
  • The pollutant must reach a water of the United States.

The last page and a half of the draft guidance is where things get interesting.

The majority opinion in Maui identifies seven specific factors to consider in determining whether a point source discharge to groundwater that reaches navigable waters requires an NPDES permit.  The last page and a half of EPA’s draft guidance adds an eighth factor to the list.  The new factor is consideration of system design and performance.

According to the draft guidance document, the design and performance of a system should be viewed as something of a higher-order consideration that “can affect or inform all seven factors identified in Maui.”  Thus, if a system’s design and performance slows transit time of the pollutant, increases distance the pollutant travels, promotes dilution, or otherwise affects one of the Maui opinion’s seven enumerated factors, the fact that the system is designed and performing to achieve that result apparently should weigh against requiring an NPDES permit.  The draft guidance then proceeds to identify a number of specific systems that would be less likely to require an NPDES permit based on the new eighth factor:

  • Septic systems, cesspools, settling ponds and similar systems designed to provide storage or treatment;
  • Stormwater controls, infiltration or evaporation systems, green infrastructure, and other runoff management systems; and
  • Water reuse, recycling, or groundwater recharge facilities.

The draft guidance document implicitly acknowledges that its addition of an eighth factor to the Maui opinion’s list of seven goes beyond mere interpretation of the Court’s decision.  The guidance document notes, perhaps somewhat defensively, that the majority opinion in Maui expressly invites EPA to develop interpretive guidance that would illuminate application of the Court’s “functional equivalence” test.  The draft guidance document then goes on to claim that the agency’s eighth factor should be given deference under National Cable & Telecomm. Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Serv. even if it is deemed inconsistent with the Court’s opinion in Maui:

Even when an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statutory provision differs from a court’s interpretation, an agency may take such a construction because it remains the authoritative interpreter of the statute it administers.

EPA’s explicit call for Brand X deference to the agency’s draft guidance is particularly ironic because the government’s briefs in Maui did not ask for deference to EPA’s interpretation of the statute, and they did not even cite Chevron or Brand X.  Moreover, the Court in Maui summarily rejected the formal interpretive statement on discharges to groundwater that EPA issued one month before the government’s merits brief was due.

It is not clear whether the draft guidance will ever be finalized or otherwise survive the transition to the Biden administration.  But if it survives, the new eighth factor is likely to be the target of a number of questions.  For example, why should a system that is deliberately designed and operated in a manner that delivers pollutants to waters of the United States be given more lenient regulatory treatment than a less deliberate activity that delivers the same amount of pollutants to jurisdictional waters in an otherwise similar manner?  Isn’t a system with deliberate design and identifiable performance expectations exactly the kind of operation that fits logically into the scheme of NPDES individual and general permits?  And what are we to make of the list of specific systems that are to be given special consideration under the eighth factor?  Is this list anything more than a last minute attempt to put a finger on the scales whenever one of the enumerated systems may come under scrutiny for adding pollutants to waters of the United States?

Against this backdrop it is fair to ask whether the draft guidance document offers the kind of assistance in applying the functional equivalence test the Maui Court invited EPA to provide.

"Keep Makin’ Bacon” Indiana’s Right to Farm Act Statute Upheld As Constitutional

Posted on January 11, 2021 by Chris Braun

Indiana, like every other State, has adopted a Right to Farm Act to “reduce the loss to the state of its agricultural resources by limiting the circumstances under which agricultural operations may be deemed to be a nuisance.” Indiana Code § 32-30-6-9(b) (“RTFA”). The RTFA limits the availability of state-law nuisance actions with respect to agricultural operations.

The Plaintiffs’ residential properties are located in rural Indiana near land owned by a family of second- and third-generation farmers who decided to convert land that had been historically used to grow row crops to a state-of-the art concentrated animal feeding operation (“CAFO”) for raising 8,000 hogs. The farmers obtained the necessary zoning changes, construction and operation permits, and environmental permits to build two 33,500 square foot buildings with ventilation fans, slatted floors and concrete pits to store liquid waste and began operations in October 2013. Two years later, the Plaintiffs commenced the action alleging claims of nuisance, trespass, personal injuries and property damage based on the odors and airborne emissions produced by the hog-farming operation.

The lawsuit was dismissed on summary judgment, with the dismissal upheld on appeal. The lawsuit included several constitutional challenges to Indiana’s RTFA. The Indiana courts held that the Plaintiffs’ nuisance claims were precluded by the RTFA, ruled that their trespass claims should be treated as nuisance claims as a matter of state law because they were essentially a repackaged version of the nuisance claims, and determined that the application of the RTFA did not effect a regulatory taking of the Plaintiffs’ properties. 

As the Indiana Court of Appeals held, Indiana’s legislature has declared that the Indiana RTFA is vitally important to Indiana’s agricultural economy and the protection of farmers’ rights related to livestock agriculture and the use of their farmland. The Court held that the RTFA declares that it is the State’s policy “to conserve, protect, and encourage the development and improvement of its agricultural land for the production of food and other agricultural products” and finds that “when nonagricultural land uses extend into agricultural areas, agricultural operations often become the subject of nuisance suits,” which discourage “investments in farm improvements.”  Indiana Code § 32-30-6-9(b). The purpose of the law is “to reduce the loss to the state of its agricultural resources by limiting the circumstances under which agricultural operations may be deemed to be a nuisance.” The Court of Appeals also recognized that the RTFA is designed to “protect the rights of farmers to choose among all generally accepted farming and livestock production practices, including the use of ever-changing technology.”

During the litigation, the Plaintiffs’ asserted numerous constitutional challenges to the RTFA, including claims that the Act violated the Indiana and/or U.S. Constitutions by: (a) providing certain privileges and protections only to farmers over their non-farming neighbors in violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Indiana Constitution; (b) precluding the assertion of certain claims contrary to the Open Courts clause of the Indiana Constitution; and (c) violating the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The trial court, the Indiana Court of Appeals and the Indiana Supreme Court each considered and rejected the Plaintiffs’ various constitutional challenges to the RTFA.

On February 20, 2020, the Indiana Supreme Court voted to uphold the Court of Appeals opinion and denied the Plaintiffs’ petition for transfer.

The Plaintiffs’ filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. The question presented by the Plaintiffs’ petition was whether the application of Indiana’s RTFA to preclude Plaintiffs’ nuisance claims constituted a regulatory taking without compensation violative of the federal Constitution.

The Plaintiffs argued that the Supreme Court should take the case because the RTFA allegedly violated the Takings Clause by providing the Defendants with complete immunity from nuisance and trespass claims and that there was a conflict among lower courts regarding various states’ right to farm statutes. The Defendants responded that Indiana’s RTFA does not provide complete immunity from nuisance or trespass liability. Nor is there a conflict among various States and lower courts regarding right to farm statutes across the U.S.

The Plaintiffs’ litigation came to an end on October 5, 2020, when the U.S. Supreme Court denied the Plaintiffs ’ petition. As a result, Indiana farmers are now permitted to modernize their farming operations and change the use of their farmland while being protected from nuisance lawsuits by neighbors who disagree. Janet L. Himsel, et al. v. 4/9 Livestock, LLC, et al., 122 N.E. 2d 935 (Ind. App. 2019), Petition to Transfer Denied (Ind. S. Ct., Feb. 20, 2020), Cert. Denied (U.S. S. Ct.., Oct. 5, 2020, page 27).

Agriculture is an important part of Indiana’s economy as it contributes approximately $31 billion to the State, with $3.55 billion of that revenue coming from animal and animal product production.  More than 85% of the livestock raised in Indiana are raised in confined feeding operations.  There are more than 56,000 farming operations in Indiana and 96% of those farms are family owned and operated.  This case was important because the Indiana courts recognized the Indiana Legislature’s statutory framework to protect farmers who are not negligent in operating their farms while rejecting the various constitutional challenges to the RTFA, including equal protection, due process and taking arguments.  This case provides the necessary assurances to Indiana’s farmers and the agricultural community that they have the right to choose how best to modernize their farming and livestock operations.  In addition, Indiana’s RTFA and this case provide a helpful guide to other states that are interested in updating their own RTFA statutes to ensure a proper balance is struck between the needs of the agricultural community and neighboring property owners when dealing with such land use issues.   

EPA Is The CERCLA Gatekeeper: Plaintiffs Need EPA Approval To Seek State Court Damages For Restoration

Posted on June 3, 2020 by Theodore Garrett

Landowners seeking restoration damages in state courts, at sites where there is a cleanup remedy previously selected by EPA, may pursue such claims only if they first obtain EPA approval for the proposed restoration work.  Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian (No. 17–1498, April 20, 2020). https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/17-1498_8mjp.pdf

The Atlantic Richfield decision may have the effect of  avoiding collateral attacks on EPA cleanup decisions by placing EPA in the role of gatekeeper for state lawsuits seeking restoration damages.  In the present case, EPA stated that the landowners’ restoration plan, if implemented, would interfere with EPA’s approved cleanup by, for example, digging up soil that has been deliberately capped in place.  The court’s decision in Atlantic Richfield may also have the effect of avoiding the award of windfall profits in cases where plaintiffs seek huge “restoration damages” that go well beyond actual compensatory damages they have suffered.

For many years EPA worked with , the current owner of a former smelter, to implement a cleanup plan expected to continue through 2025 for remediation of contaminated soil.  A group of 98 landowners sued Atlantic Richfield in Montana state court for common law nuisance, trespass, and strict liability, seeking restoration damages. The damages sought by plaintiffs were based on a proposed restoration plan that went beyond the measures that EPA found appropriate to protect human health and the environment.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the landowners on the issue of whether CERCLA precluded their restoration damages claim, and the Montana Supreme Court affirmed.  The US Supreme Court reversed and remanded. 

The Supreme Court first needed to decide whether CERCLA deprived the Montana courts of jurisdiction.  The landowner’s claims for trespass and nuisance arise under Montana law not CERCLA, the Court held, and thus are not barred by Section 113(b) of the Act, which provides that federal District Courts have exclusive original jurisdiction “over all controversies arising under this chapter.”  Similarly, the Court held that a suit in Montana state court is not precluded by CERCLA §113(h), which states that “[n]o Federal court shall have jurisdiction under Federal law . . .to review any challenges to removal or remedial action” selected under CERCLA.  In short,  §113(b) deprives state courts of jurisdiction over cases arising under CERCLA, while §113(h) deprives federal courts of jurisdiction over certain challenges to Superfund remedial actions.

The parties conceded that under  §122(e)(6) of CERCLA, when EPA or a responsible party has initiated a remedial investigation and feasibility study for a particular facility, no potentially responsible party may undertake any remedial action at the facility unless such remedial action has been authorized by EPA.  The court in Atlantic Richfield held that because arsenic and lead are hazardous substances that have “come to be located” on the plaintiffs’ properties, the plaintiffs are potentially responsible parties under  §107(a) of CERCLA.   Therefore, under the statute, the plaintiffs claim for restoration damages may proceed only if the landowners first obtain EPA approval for the restoration work they seek to implement. 

What are the implications of the Court’s ruling?  Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas dissented, stating that the Court’s reading of the Act endorses “paternalistic central planning” and turns a cold shoulder to “state law efforts to restore state lands.”  This argument was not compelling to the majority because, as the Court’s opinion notes, cleanup plans generally must comply with applicable or relevant and appropriate state environmental standards and, moreover, states have opportunities for involvement in developing and selecting cleanup plans.  The court’s ruling in Atlantic Richfield may also head off what are, in effect, collateral attacks on EPA’s remedial decisions and the confusion and delay threatened by such lawsuits.  

The Atlantic Richfield decision may serve to avoid unjust awards of windfall profits to plaintiffs who seek so-called restoration damages that go beyond any actual damages.  Indeed, litigation in Montana illustrates the basis for such concern.  In Sunburst School District No.2 v. Texaco, 165 P.3d 1079 (2007), the  Montana Supreme Court approved an award of damages that Texaco claimed would exceed the value of the property allegedly damaged and thus would result in a windfall.  The Court recognized the problem identified by Texaco, citing Montana law that an injured party should be made whole but not profit.  However, the court in Sunburst found that the general rule in favor of diminution in value as the appropriate measure of damages can be overcome where the record shows that an award of restoration damages will actually be used to repair the damaged property rather than simply paid to plaintiffs. 

The Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Richfield  may avoid the need for a trial court to deal with “windfall profit” issues in cases where plaintiffs are responsible parties, EPA has selected a CERCLA remedy, and EPA has not authorized the restoration plan.  In Atlantic Richfield, EPA represented that the landowners’ restoration plan would dig up soil that has been deliberately capped in place under the EPA approved remedy found to be protective.  In such a case, one can understand why EPA would not authorize the restoration plan.

The Court’s decision in Atlantic Richfield does not address “restoration damage” claims where the plaintiffs are not potentially responsible parties, e.g. parties owning property that is not contaminated but present common law claims such as diminution of value.  Although “restoration damage” suits were infrequent in the past, the Atlantic Richfield decision may serve to prompt an increase in such claims under state law.  Adjacent landowners could sue for “cleaner than clean” restoration damages, i.e. providing more (and much more expensive) remediation than required under state environmental requirements.  Trial courts in such cases will presumably be mindful of the fact that plaintiffs have other remedies under state law for compensatory damages measured by diminution of value.  Moreover, defendants, aware of  potential “windfall profit” concerns, may ask the trial court to require periodic reimbursement by defendants of actual restoration costs -- instead of a lump sum -- to deal with concerns that plaintiffs may decide to pocket the damage award rather than implement all or most of the restoration plan presented to the court.  

SCOTUS Has Spoken: Kinda Sorta Direct Discharges Need A Permit

Posted on May 1, 2020 by Theodore Garrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on April 27, 2020 by Rick Glick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on April 24, 2020 by Jeffrey Porter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on December 18, 2019 by Theodore Garrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supremes Let Hoopa Stand, Leave Door Open for EPA to Reshape CWA 401

Posted on December 10, 2019 by Rick Glick

On December 9, the Supreme Court denied certiorari to review the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC.  As reported in this space, in January the D.C. Circuit roundly rejected the common practice of withdrawing and then refiling applications for state water quality certification to avoid the one-year limit for state action under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. 

Under Section 401, applicants for federal authorizations that could result in a discharge to navigable waters must first obtain certification from the state that applicable water quality standards would be met.  States must act on Section 401 applications within one year, or they are deemed to have waived their authority.  State authority under Section 401 is broad and presents an opportunity to superimpose state policy on federal licenses or permits, an opportunity many states are eager to exercise.

Section 401 is often invoked in the context of licensing and relicensing of hydroelectric power facilities before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  Such facilities and their impacts are complex, and states struggle to complete their analysis within one year.  This has led to states offering applicants the choice of either withdrawing and refiling the application to reset the clock, or having their certification denied.

In the Hoopa case, PacifiCorp entered into a settlement agreement with the states of Oregon and California, and other stakeholders, concerning removal of four dams on the Klamath River.  As part of the settlement, PacifiCorp would annually submit a letter to withdraw its pending Section 401 applications before both states and simultaneously refile the application with no changes.  The D. C. Circuit found this practice a subversion of the plain statutory language limiting state action to one year.

So, with the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari, the withdrawal/refile stratagem seems less viable.  Where do we go from here?  One answer is that when states need more time they will simply deny Section 401 applications without prejudice, meaning the applicant can reapply.  But that approach could also be seen by the courts as an evasion of the one-year limitation.

Another answer lies with EPA, which recently proposed new rules to constrain state authority under Section 401.  As part of the reform of Section 401 policy, the new rules would adopt time limitations “consistent” with the Hoopa decision:  “The certifying authority is not authorized to request the project proponent to withdraw a certification request or to take any other action for the purpose of modifying or restarting the established reasonable [i.e. no more than one year] period of time.”

Under the new rules, then, one year means one year.  However, the new rules, once adopted, will certainly be challenged.  Two related issues are whether EPA has authority to direct state implementation of Section 401 and, if it does, whether EPA’s interpretation is entitled to Chevron deference.

While all of this plays out, however, the D. C. Circuit’s decision in Hoopa stands, but many questions remain to be answered.  Did Hoopa effectively kill the withdraw/refile workaround?  Or should Hoopa be read narrowly and limited to the unique facts underlying the case?  And how will all this ultimately affect the timing and content of federal permits for major projects?  Stay tuned.

Confidentiality of “Voluntary” Submittals to EPA

Posted on November 25, 2019 by Stephen Gidiere

When is the confidentiality of sensitive information provided at EPA’s request protected?  In Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media (“FMI”), the Supreme Court addressed the question, but uncertainty remains.

It happens at least once in every television crime drama.  The police bring in for questioning the prime suspect.  After an initial back and forth, it becomes apparent they have no warrant or enough evidence to hold the suspect, who then asks:  “Am I under arrest?”  “No,” the police respond.  “You are free to leave.”  But of course, they never do.  In reality—warrant or not—the suspect is stuck there.

For years, the same drama repeated itself countless times for companies and individuals facing requests from EPA for confidential business information and, understandably, concerned about the further dissemination of sensitive data submitted to EPA via the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).  While FOIA Exemption 4 provides that “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential” are exempt from further disclosure, determining whether certain information is protected is no simple task, thanks mostly to a web of court decisions interpreting Exemption 4.

For decades, the inquiry began by asking whether the information was submitted to EPA “voluntarily.”  That’s the test the D.C. Circuit established in its 1992 Critical Mass decision.  If the information was submitted voluntarily, then the submitter could protect the information by simply showing it was not the kind of information that it normally releases to the public.  If the information was compelled or required, then the submitter would have to meet a more stringent “competitive harm” test.

And so debates raged over what exactly it meant to provide the information “voluntarily.”  If the submitter objected to EPA’s statutory authority to issue the request, but submitted the information anyway, was that “voluntarily?”  Did EPA have to issue and enforce a subpoena to defeat such a claim?  Or was it enough that EPA possessed authority to do so, even if not exercised?  In reality, like the suspect, the submitted was never really free to leave, right?

But thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent decision FMI, submitters of information to EPA have been liberated from their imaginary chains!  In FMI, the Supreme Court held that the “competitive harm” test is “inconsistent with the terms of statute” and rejected the D.C. Circuit’s “casual disregard of the rules of statutory interpretation” in formulating that test.  In addition, the Court found “no persuasive reason” to distinguish between “voluntary” and “required” submissions.  Instead, the Court held that all submissions should be evaluated for Exemption 4 coverage based on whether the information is “customarily and actually treated as private by its owner.”

So, now submitters are in control, right?  Not so fast.  The Court also found that Exemption 4 may not apply unless the information was “provided to the government under an assurance of privacy,” arguably putting EPA and other agencies back in control.  Should submitters insist on such an assurance before submitting their information and data?  Sounds likes it is time to lawyer up.

What’s Up with Gundy?

Posted on November 14, 2019 by Allan Gates

Last summer the Supreme Court announced its decision in Gundy v. United States.  Conservative advocates had eagerly followed the case, hoping it would restore the nondelegation doctrine to the glory days of 1935, the year Schechter Poultry and Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan used the nondelegation doctrine to cut down a broad swath of New Deal programs.

The decision in Gundy disappointed conservative hopes, but only by the slimmest possible margin.  A plurality of four justices — Justice Kagan joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor — voted to uphold the statute in question, following the very tolerant nondelegation analysis the Court has used consistently for decades.  Three justices — Justice Gorsuch joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas — voted to invalidate the statute using a new and much more robust nondelegation analysis.  Justice Alito concurred in the judgment reached by the plurality, but only because a short-handed Court did not have a majority of Justices willing to establish a new (or resurrect a very old) nondelegation standard.  His opinion openly invited a new nondelegation challenge once the Court has a full complement of nine justices.  Justice Kavanaugh did not participate in Gundy because he was not on the Court when it heard oral argument.

College fellow Lisa Heinzerling wrote a very perceptive blog post about Gundy last May, three weeks before the decision was announced, noting that the Court was lingering over Gundy longer than any other case that Term.  In retrospect, the timeline is even more interesting than Lisa could have known.  Gundy was argued on the first day of the Term, October 2, 2018.  It was decided at the very end of the Term, June 20, 2019.  Justice Kavanaugh joined the Court on October 6, 2019.  Presumably, Justice Kavanaugh was in the room at every conference in which the Court struggled over how to resolve its 4-4 split over nondelegation in Gundy.  When one considers this timeline, Justice Alito’s open invitation for another nondelegation challenge packs special punch.

The significance of the unusual timeline was not lost on Gundy’s counsel, a New York public defender who had taken Gundy’s case farther than anyone could have expected.  She promptly filed a petition for rehearing.  Rehearing in the Supreme Court is extremely rare, but Gundy’s public defender aptly noted that her request presented one of the few circumstances that has prompted the Court to grant rehearing in the past, namely a short-handed Court that divided 4-4 with a new justice in place who could resolve the split if rehearing were granted.

The timeline of the Court’s consideration of Gundy’s petition for rehearing is also interesting.  The petition was filed on July 11 and scheduled for consideration at the Court’s October 1, 2019 conference.  Following that conference, the Court relisted the petition for consideration at the October 11, 2019 conference.  Since then it has been relisted four more times.  Most recently the petition has been scheduled for consideration at the November 15 conference. 

As the Justices ponder Gundy’s petition for rehearing, it seems likely they know if rehearing were granted, the result would be different the second time around.  Among other things, the Court is probably considering how the general public would react to seeing the Court flip on a do-over of a high profile constitutional case solely because a new Justice joined the Court, particularly when that Justice was confirmed by a bare partisan majority after a bruising confirmation hearing.

It is worth noting that there are petitions for certiorari pending in Paul v. United States and Caldwell v. United States, cases identical to Gundy, that were being held pending the decision in Gundy.  The Court might mitigate the public appearance of a highly political flip by taking one of those cases as the vehicle for addressing nondelegation.

SCOTUS Remands: Miles to Go Before I Sleep?

Posted on October 8, 2019 by Ed Tormey

As attorneys we are fascinated by U.S. Supreme Court cases, the ultimate jurisprudence in our country.  These decisions are analyzed, discussed and debated by legal scholars and practitioners alike.  What is often overlooked is the statement at the end of many of these cases: “we remand the case for further proceedings.”  While we have what we want from the case – Supreme Court precedent – the parties to the case still have a tough row to hoe working back through the federal court system.  It is worth asking what ultimately happened in those cases.  Who won?  After all isn’t the purpose of litigation to pick winners and losers? 

For curiosity’s sake I picked four Supreme Court cases where property owners and the federal government battled over WOTUS wetland jurisdiction issues under the Clean Water Act: Hawkes Co. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 136 S.Ct. 1807 (2016); Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, 566 U.S. 120 (2012); and Rapanos v. United States / Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  In each of these cases, the property owner was successful in having the federal government’s position remanded back to a lower court for further proceedings.  But did they ultimately win?  

The Hawkes case was brought by three peat mining companies who were seeking approval to discharge material onto wetlands located on property that the miners owned and hoped to mine.  The Supreme Court held that the Army Corps of Engineers’ jurisdictional determination was final agency action judicially reviewable under the federal Administrative Procedure Act.  After the Supreme Court decision, the case was sent back to federal district court for consideration of the Army Corps’ jurisdiction over the wetlands.  The district court held that the Clean Water Act was not applicable to the wetlands in question, and granted summary judgment in favor of the miners.  2017 WL 359170 (D. Minn.). The court went further and enjoined the Army Corps from ever exercising jurisdiction over the land.  So here we have a clear win for the property owners. 

In Sackett, the property owners discharged material into what the EPA claimed to be wetlands.  The EPA issued an administrative order requiring the Sacketts to restore and provide access to the site.  The Sacketts asked the EPA for a hearing, but that request was denied.  The Supreme Court remanded the case back after holding that EPA’s administrative order was effectively a “final agency action” and thus reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act.  After a significant time gap, the district court granted EPA’s motion for summary judgment finding that the property in question was a WOTUS.  The Sacketts have appealed this decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  For now, we have a clear win for the government. 

The holding of Rapanos/Carabell is well-known for its lack of lack of clarity.  I will not attempt to add any more confusion.  What is pertinent here is that the case was remanded back for further proceedings to determine if two sets of Michigan property developers had WOTUS issues related to their planned development.  The first developer, John Rapanos, had backfilled three wetland areas without a permit.  EPA and Rapanos ultimately entered into a consent decree whereby Rapanos did not confirm or deny any violation of law but nevertheless agreed to pay a fine of $150,000.  In addition, Rapanos agreed to construct 100 acres of wetlands to mitigate the 54 acres he had backfilled.  Finally, Rapanos agreed to designate 134.60 acres of land as conservation areas protected under conservation easements.  As a settlement, neither side walked away with everything they wanted.  But I would imagine that the government is chalking this up as a win.

June and Keith Carabell were also litigants against the federal government after the Army Corps denied their request for a permit to develop a wetland adjacent to a drainage ditch.  After remand by the Supreme Court, it appears that the Carabells have not had any further conflict with the Army Corps and the court has closed the case.  But it does appear that the property owners may still want to develop the land.

There you have it.  Four cases with only one clear cut victory for property owners, despite promising holdings from the Supreme Court.  And in most of these cases, the Supreme Court’s involvement in the matter was far from the end of the litigation.  For example, in Carabell the matter is still outstanding thirteen years later.  In Sackett, it’s been seven years since the Supreme Court decision and the parties are still litigating this matter. In Rapanos, it took three years for the parties to settle the matter after the decision. 

So while we enjoy reading a SCOTUS opinion, we should remember that the parties’ involvement in that case is often far from over and far from a clear victory or defeat. 

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.

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

Posted on June 10, 2019 by Dick Stoll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woe is WOTUS

Posted on June 7, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

When the Supreme Court decided that the district courts had jurisdiction over challenges to the Obama administration WOTUS rule, I described it as a victory of the “give me a break” doctrine of statutory interpretation over the “just plain nuts” theory.  I also noted that the Supreme Court had the luxury of ignoring the chaos that would ensue.

Whatever one may think of the merits of the competing theories, two district court decisions in the past week have made clear that it is, indeed, just plain nuts to have these cases before the district courts.

First up, Texas v. EPA, in which Judge George Hanks (an Obama appointee, no less) ruled that EPA and the Corps of Engineers had violated the Administrative Procedure Act in two ways by promulgating the 2015 Rule.  First, while the proposed rule had defined “adjacent waters” based hydrogeological criteria, the final rule used specific numerical distance criteria instead.  The Court concluded that the use of distance criteria was not sufficiently anticipated in the proposed rule and thus EPA violated the APA when it failed to take comment on the new approach.  Judge Hanks also concluded that the 2015 Rule violated the APA because the Agencies relied on what is known as the “Final Connectivity Report,” even though the comment period closed before the Final Connectivity Report was available.  As a result, Judge Hanks remanded the 2015 Rule to the Agencies “for proceedings consistent with this order.”  Of course, the Agencies have already announced that they intend to replace the 2015 Rule, so I think we all know what those proceedings will be.

Next up, Oklahoma v. EPA, in which Judge Claire Eagan (a Bush appointee, no less!), refused to issue a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of the 2015 Rule.  Simply put, Judge Eagan was not persuaded by any of the declarations submitted by the plaintiffs that they would suffer irreparable harm if the 2015 Rule were to remain in effect in Oklahoma.  She described them as “speculative.”  This was particularly troubling because:

the 2015 Rule has been in effect for varying periods of time since this case was filed, and the State can identify no evidence of an aggressive expansion of federal regulation of Oklahoma waters. … This case has been pending for nearly four years, and the Court would have anticipated a showing of substantial, actual harm in support of a motion for preliminary injunction.

We now have a situation where an Obama appointee has remanded the 2015 Rule and a Bush appointee has refused to enjoin its enforcement.  I do get some pleasure from these two judges upsetting preconceived notions in this partisan age about what judges do and how they decide.

Beyond that, however, I have no idea what these cases mean for the enforcement of the 2015 Rule.  I understand that this may all soon be moot, but in the meantime, it’s hard to defend this as a logical system of judicial review of agency action.  Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that it’s just plain nuts.

Where Is Gundy v. United States?

Posted on May 30, 2019 by Lisa Heinzerling

In the first week of October, the justices heard argument in Gundy v. United States, in which a convicted sex offender argues that the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) violates the nondelegation doctrine by giving the Attorney General untrammeled authority to decide whether the law's registration requirements, backed by criminal penalties, apply at all to offenders convicted before the statute was enacted. Gundy is the only case from the Court's October argument session left to be decided.

Around the time of the oral argument in Gundy, I heard several Court watchers predict that the case would be decided easily, and against Gundy, through a narrowing interpretation that would avoid any serious nondelegation issue. The government had argued that the Attorney General's discretion could be limited by finding that "the text and context" of SORNA convey an instruction to the Attorney General to "specify the applicability of SORNA's registration requirements to pre-Act offenders 'to the maximum extent he finds to be feasible.'" Such guidance from Congress would easily satisfy the Court's existing jurisprudence on nondelegation.

As time passes, however, this seemingly straightforward resolution of Gundy seems ever less probable. One problem for the government is that the limiting principle it asserted – "to the maximum extent he finds to be feasible" – does not appear in the statute. Conservative justices wedded to textualism may be hesitant to read into the statute a limitation the text does not identify.

Moreover, the justices have already passed up a chance to interpret SORNA narrowly to avoid the very challenge they now face. In 2013, in Reynolds v. United States, the Court found that SORNA's registration requirements did not apply to pre-Act offenders until the Attorney General said they did. Chief Justice Roberts, who at oral argument had asked counsel for the government whether delegating this degree of authority would create a nondelegation problem, joined Justice Breyer's majority opinion without comment. By interpreting SORNA to require action from the Attorney General before the law's registration requirements may apply to pre-Act offenders, the Court in Reynolds created the constitutional conflict it now confronts.

Another worrisome sign for the government is that four of the Court's current justices have in recent years expressed constitutional anxieties about Congress's broad delegations of power to administrative agencies. Gundy may give them the chance to revive or even expand a constitutional doctrine that has not been used to invalidate a federal statute since 1935.

If the Court invalidates SORNA as an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority, the consequences could be gigantic. A reawakened nondelegation doctrine could run like a scythe through the scores of statutes – including, of course, environmental statutes – that grant broad authority to administrative agencies. Operating that destructive instrument would be the least politically accountable of all the branches of government.

The Court could try to limit a decision invalidating SORNA, based on such factors as the criminal context; the worrisome power of the Attorney General as both prosecutor and quasi-legislator; and the backward-looking nature of the application of registration requirements to pre-Act offenders. Even a limited invalidation, however, would mark a significant turning point in administrative law, with destabilizing consequences for federal environmental programs. The longer we wait for the Court's decision, the more likely it is that the justices are grappling with the most fundamental questions raised by this case.

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NOTE: A version of this post was published by ACSblog in September 2018.

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

Posted on March 7, 2019 by David Buente

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court to Visit Maui

Posted on February 21, 2019 by Patrick A. Parenteau

As anticipated in an earlier post, the Supreme Court has granted review in County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawai'i Wildlife Fund limited to the question “Whether the Clean Water Act (CWA) requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater.” The Court took no action on a related petition in Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P. v. Upstate Forever involving groundwater contamination from a ruptured gas pipeline. The Court will presumably hold that petition pending the outcome in the Maui case.

As described in the Ninth Circuit decision, the County of Maui owns and operates four wells at a wastewater treatment plant that processes four million gallons of sewage per day. Treated wastewater is then injected via the County’s wells into the groundwater which flows directly into the Pacific Ocean. Approximately one out of every seven gallons of groundwater entering the ocean near the plant is comprised of effluent from the wells.

Both the District Court and the Ninth Circuit ruled that the wells were point sources, and that the injection of treated wastewater into the groundwater constituted a discharge subject to the permitting requirements of the CWA. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit held that “an indirect discharge from a point source to a navigable water suffices for CWA liability to attach.” The Ninth Circuit adopted a “fairly traceable” test for determining when a discharge via groundwater to navigable water would require a permit. As discussed in my earlier post, the court relied in part on Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanosin support of this conclusion.

The Ninth Circuit expressly left for another day “the task of determining when, if ever, the connection between a point source and a navigable water is too tenuous to support liability under the CWA.”  

The Solicitor General supported the grant of certiorari in Maui (but not in Kinder Morgan) to resolve the split in the circuit courts on whether the CWA covers activities that cause pollutants to be conveyed through groundwater to waters of the United States.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Supreme Court is likely to reverse the Ninth Circuit. However, once the Justices (and their clerks) have had the opportunity to dig into the record, they may find that CWA regulation actually makes sense in this situation. Some of the key facts are these.

  • Maui originally considered an ocean outfall but opted for the less obvious injection wells located within a quarter mile of the shore.
  • A 2013 EPA dye tracer study confirmed that the treated effluent enters the Pacific Ocean at Kahekili Beach - - a popular surfing and snorkeling beach.
  • Monitoring has shown that nutrients, fecal coliform, and other pollutants in the effluent are impacting the reef and exposing the public to potential health risks at Kahekili. EPA studies have confirmed that reef productivity declined 44% over the time the system has been operating, and fecal coliform counts regularly exceed safe levels.
  • EPA Region 9 advised Maui it would need to obtain a discharge permit and communicated that to the Hawaii Department of Health, which failed to take any action. EPA was acting under its 40+ year-old policy that discharges through ground water with a “direct and immediate” hydrologic connection to surface waters (i.e., the ocean) require a permit.

EPA is now reviewing this policy and may well change its position, either by adopting an interpretive rule or issuing guidance in some form. The Agency will no doubt try to complete this process before the Court hears argument in the fall. Should EPA adopt an interpretation that groundwater can never be the “conduit” for conveying pollutants for point sources to waters of the United States, the next question will be whether that new interpretation is entitled to any deference. Given the skepticism that several Justices have shown towards a mechanical application of Chevron, it will be interesting to see how this all “sugars off” as we say in Vermont. 

We may soon get an answer to the question that the 9th Circuit ducked, namely when does the connection between a point source and a navigable water become too tenuous to support CWA liability.

Froggie Goes A Courtin’ in the Home of the Hapless Toad

Posted on August 29, 2018 by Allan Gates

John Roberts’ first opinion as a judge on the D.C. Circuit was a dissent from denial of rehearing en banc in an Endangered Species Act case.  His opinion famously referred to the endangered species at issue as “a hapless toad that, for reasons of its own, lives its entire life in California[.]”  Two years later critics pointed to this flippant reference to species extinction as a reason to oppose his nomination to be Chief Justice.

On October 1st the Supreme Court will begin a new term.  The first case scheduled for oral argument is another ESA case involving another amphibian, the dusky gopher frog.  In this case, private landowners challenge the government’s designation of 1,500 acres of pine forest not occupied by the frog as critical habitat essential for survival of the species.

The ESA clearly authorizes the designation of private land as critical habitat; and it expressly authorizes the designation of land not occupied by an endangered species if the Secretary finds the area to be essential for the species’ survival.  The fight over habitat for the dusky gopher frog in the Supreme Court involves two relatively straightforward issues of statutory construction:

  1. Whether land not occupied by an endangered species may be designated as critical habitat if the land currently lacks one or more of the physical or biological features essential to conservation of the species; and
  2. Whether the agency’s decision not to exercise its discretionary authority to exclude petitioner’s land from critical habitat on grounds of economic impact is committed to agency discretion.

A district judge appointed by President Reagan and generally regarded as staunchly conservative, upheld the critical habitat designation, but did so with clear distaste for the result:

“The Court has little doubt that what the government has done is remarkably intrusive and has all the hallmarks of government insensitivity to private property.  The troubling question is whether the law authorizes such action and whether the government has acted within the law.  Reluctantly, the Court answers yes to both questions.”

The Fifth Circuit, widely regarded as one of the most conservative federal circuits, affirmed the district court, albeit with one judge on the panel dissenting and six judges dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc.

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case does not bode well for the dusky gopher frog.  As the saying goes, “The Supreme Court does not grant cert. to affirm.”  The broad picture of this case is familiar.  A small, seemingly insignificant creature is allegedly blocking the common sense path of economic development and prosperity. The arguments challenging the habitat designation are long on drama regarding supposed economic impact, despite the fact the habitat designation only affects government actions, and in the absence of a federal nexus, does nothing to change the landowners’ private use of their property.  And, the arguments against the habitat designation are very short on concern over the survival of what the landowners dub as the “phantom frog.”

So far, the sturdy structure of the ESA has generally withstood this type of full frontal assault, from the snail darter to the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, to the hapless toad, and now to the dusky gopher frog.  If the dusky gopher frog wins, it will not be the first time the Supreme Court took an ESA case that seemed at first blush to be an easy reversal only to find itself ultimately affirming a decision protecting the species.  That was exactly what happened with the snail darter in TVA v. Hill.  And, as was the case in TVA v. Hill, a victory for the dusky gopher frog in the Supreme Court will undoubtedly fuel arguments that Congress should amend the ESA.

Brett Kavanaugh’s recent nomination to succeed Justice Kennedy has prompted speculation that he would vote against the dusky gopher frog based on his opinion in the D.C. Circuit vacating the critical habitat designation for the San Diego fairy brine shrimp and his critical view of Chevron deference.  Such speculation may be overstated.  It is not clear the Senate will vote on Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation in time for him to participate in the decision regarding the dusky gopher frog.  And, in any event, the record supporting the habitat designation for the frog is far more robust than that involving the fairy brine shrimp.  In this case, conservative principles supporting strict adherence to statutory language may carry the day for the dusky gopher frog.

Takings Math for Dummies: When 1+1=1

Posted on March 7, 2018 by Mary K. Ryan

One benefit of preparing an annual review of last year’s important cases, as I just did for MCLE, is that you may have missed a significant case when it came out. That’s why I’m writing now about Murr v. Wisconsin, 137 S. Ct. 1645, decided on June 5, 2017. Murr, which incorporates the mathematical conundrum in the title, expands the Supreme Court’s regulatory takings jurisprudence by asking a preliminary question—what parcel or parcels of land are at issue? The Court held that this question must be answered before reaching the ad hoc case-by-case analysis established by Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, and Palazzolo v. Rhode Island which examines the economic impact of the challenged regulation, the investment-backed expectations of the landowner, and the character of the government action.

Murr involved the owners of two adjacent waterfront properties on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin which, given their location, were subject to numerous regulations, including a one acre buildable lot requirement. The properties lost their original grandfathered protection from that regulation when they were put into common ownership. The county denied requests for variances and the owners filed a regulatory takings claim, which they lost at the state level.

In a 5-3 opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Court developed a new, three-factor test for determining the “denominator” in the regulatory takings analysis—in other words, the unit of property against which a court must assess the effects of the challenged governmental action. First, courts must assess the treatment of the land under state and local law, in particular how state law bounds and divides the land. Second, courts must look at the physical characteristics of the landowner’s property, e.g., whether the land is subject to further environmental or land use regulations due to the nature of the land or adjacent natural resources. Third, courts must consider the value of the property under the challenged regulation. Under this test, there was no regulatory taking. The Court rejected the bright line tests offered by the state (state law controls) and the landowners (lot lines define the relevant parcel) as too easily subject to manipulation. The Court defined the relevant parcel as a single combined lot based on several factors:  (1) that merger as a result of common ownership is a reasonable and usual zoning and land use control and there was a voluntary merger; (2) riverside property is often subject to restrictions on development; and (3) treatment as one lot did not substantially diminish the value of the land without the regulation.    

Murr may be an example where the “no harm, no foul” rule led to the right result. But generally speaking, the government’s defenses just got better, and the landowner’s burden tougher, in regulatory takings cases. And while there were three dissenters (Justice Gorsuch did not participate in the case), without two more votes, Murr will be the law for the foreseeable future.

One Brief Shining Moment of WOTUS Clarity

Posted on January 24, 2018 by Rick Glick

In a rare moment of clarity in the benighted history of the Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule, a unanimous Supreme Court declared that jurisdiction to review the WOTUS rule lies in the District Courts and not the Courts of Appeal.  The immediate effect of the January 22 ruling in National Assn. of Manufacturers v. Dept. of Defense  is to lift the nationwide stay of the rule imposed by the Sixth Circuit—which held that the appellate courts have original jurisdiction over the rule—thus reigniting a lot of dormant trial court challenges. 

The Clean Water Act applies to “navigable” waters, which is defined simply as “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.”  EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers administer the CWA, and have tried without much success to refine this vague definition.  The latest attempt is the WOTUS rule, adopted by the Obama EPA in 2015.  The issue in National Assn. of Manufacturers is not whether that attempt hits the mark, but in which court should challenges be heard.

As noted in Bob Brubaker’s take on this case, the Court looked to the plain language of the statute, and to context when further explanation is needed.   The CWA extends original jurisdiction to the Circuits for EPA “approving or promulgating any effluent limitation or other limitation.”  The government argued that the WOTUS rule falls within “any . . . other limitation.”  The Supreme Court rejected that argument, holding that such other limitations must be related to effluent limitations, and the WOTUS rule just establishes a definition that would apply generally to the scope of CWA.  The Court also rejected applicability of another CWA basis for Circuit Court jurisdiction advanced by the government, “issuing or denying any [NPDES] permit,” concluding simply that the WOTUS rule is not the same as permit issuance.

So what difference does it make if a trial judge or an appellate judge makes the initial decision on WOTUS?  WOTUS has drawn a multitude of challenges in both the District Courts and Courts of Appeals, including some in which plaintiffs filed in both courts to be on the safe side.  The case will end up at the Supreme Court anyway, right? 

True, but consider that the Sixth Circuit consolidated all the challenges in other Circuits and issued a decision that applied across the country.  The district court litigation has not been consolidated, and some cases have come to different conclusions, with many remaining to be litigated.  So, we can expect years of litigation in many different courts, followed by years of appeals heard by the Circuits, and finally to the Supreme Court . . . again.

But wait, Scott Pruitt’s EPA has initiated a rulemaking process to rescind and replace the WOTUS rule, so wouldn’t that moot the pending challenges to the rule?  It would not.  EPA has announced it is delaying the effective date of the 2015 rule for two more years to allow the Agency to develop its replacement.  But, in the meantime, the 2015 WOTUS rule remains in place.

The practical result is that the current round of cases in the District Courts will continue, followed -- if not accompanied -- by a new round of litigation challenging the proposed change of effective date, and the proposed rescission and replacement rules.  Safe to say there will be no certainty on the definition of WOTUS and the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction for many years to come.

Oh, Well, Some Folks Don’t Like Oysters, Anyway….

Posted on December 12, 2017 by James I. Palmer, Jr.

As a kid growing up in the hills of North Mississippi, I was introduced to oysters by my maternal Grandmother in Biloxi, down on our Coast.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with the slimy mollusks then, but my tastes changed over many years and I now enjoy them, especially in po’boys and on the half shell.

For the longest, I have considered oysters from Apalachicola Bay, Florida, to be the best along the Gulf Coast.  Large, plump, salty, everything an oyster fan likes.  But, today the oyster industry in the Bay has declined dramatically, and many Floridians believe that the ultimate fate of this historic mainstay of the economy of the area will soon be determined by the Justices of the United States Supreme Court.

The “Tri-State Water Wars” among Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are now several decades long, and never more intense.  Two interstate compacts, covering six river basins in the three states, failed to yield an “equitable apportionment” of the flows from these basins, and expired by their terms.  Follow-on negotiations fared no better.  So, in 2013 Florida sued Georgia in the Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, but didn’t join Alabama.  The case was tried before the Special Master from October 31, 2016 through December 1, 2016.

At the core of Florida’s claims is the ever-growing demand for water in Georgia, principally (but not only) in metropolitan Atlanta.  Even the definition of “metropolitan Atlanta” differs among websites, so the data showing the population trends over the last 50 years also differs somewhat, but the numbers I will use for general reference show that the population of metropolitan Atlanta was 3,317,000 in 1990, 4,548,000 in 2000, 5,034,000 in 2004, and the 2010 U.S. Census recorded 5,800,000.  I’ve seen one projection of 8,000,000 by 2020.  Using these statistics purely for the sake of argument, the population of metropolitan Atlanta in 2020 – just over two years away – could have grown by over 240% in 30 years.  

Too, production agriculture in southwestern Georgia, heavily dependent upon surface water and groundwater supplies for irrigation, has also burgeoned during this same time period.  Groundwater levels in the Flint River basin have declined significantly because of what one of Georgia’s own witnesses at trial attributed to essentially lax regulatory management at the State level.  No surprise, these declines in groundwater availability have ratcheted up pressures on surface water resources in the Flint River watershed.

Thus, given these twin realities of seemingly insatiable urban and agricultural demands for water in Georgia, it’s no wonder that folks down in the Apalachicola Bay area staunchly believe that this is the principal cause of declining freshwater flows into the Bay, and, inevitably, will lead to the irrecoverable loss of the Bay ecosystem, itself.

The Special Master rendered his Report on February 14, 2017, and it was filed on March 20, 2017.  The Special Master found, as a matter of fact and law, that Florida had failed to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence, and recommended that the Supreme Court deny Florida’s claims.

Florida filed its Exceptions to the Report of the Special Master on May 31, 2017.  Georgia filed its Reply opposing Florida’s objections on July 31, 2017, and Florida filed its Sur-reply on August 30, 2017.  Amicus briefs supporting Georgia’s position have been filed by the United States (on behalf of the Corps of Engineers), the State of Colorado, and the Atlanta Regional Commission, et al.  The case has been set for oral argument before the Supreme Court on Monday, January 8, 2018.

Of the several issues before the Court, the two major ones are the “clear and convincing evidence”  burden of proof standard the Special Master imposed upon Florida and the general issue of “redressability,” which turns on the obligation of Florida to prove both substantial (some would say “irreparable”) injury and that the relief sought (a consumption cap on Georgia water use, primarily in the Flint River Basin) would, in fact, provide additional flows into Apalachicola Bay sufficient to save the ecosystem and the oyster industry.  Understandably, Georgia strongly rejects Florida’s contentions.

The cases relied upon by Georgia and the amici are, in the main, decisions in litigation between and among western states whose organic water resources laws are grounded in the doctrine of prior appropriation.  Here, the dispute is between two states whose organic water resources laws arise under the common law doctrine of riparianism (or, in modern times, regulated riparianism).  Interestingly, because the Supreme Court departed from pure riparian principles in early cases involving interstate fights over the water needs of huge urban areas like New York City, Florida contends that it is appropriate in this case for the Court to apply traditional equitable principles in addition to equitable apportionment principles that have evolved over many years of case law.  While not dismissing the argument out of hand, I think it could be a real challenge for Florida to make it stick.

Ultimately, the Court will either accept the Report and recommendations of the Special Master and dismiss Florida’s case outright, or decline to accept the Report and remand the case to the Special Master for further proceedings.  Given the deference the Supreme Court generally accords Special Masters in Original Jurisdiction cases, I think Florida, figuratively, now has to push a very heavy anchor chain up a very steep hill to stay in the fight it started.  If the State fails, locals say that the loss will likely result in a knockout blow to the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay, which is already on the ropes.  Maybe, yes.  Maybe, no.  Maybe, not yet.  Time will tell.  Oh, well, some folks don’t like oysters, anyway….

Is Neil Gorsuch Poised To Obliterate Deference – or only Chevron/Auer Deference?

Posted on March 13, 2017 by Christopher R. Schraff

Recently, our ACOEL colleague Bob Percival penned an article in which he notes that Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch is a leading critic of Chevron (and Auer) deference , and suggests that Judge Gorsuch’s separation of powers concerns (and those of other opponents of Chevron/Auer deference) “…are really attacks on the constitutionality of the larger administrative state.”  But if Judge Gorsuch is confirmed and his views command a majority of the Court, is his skepticism about the viability of deference to agency interpretations likely to lead to a collapse of the modern administrative state?  Is Judge Gorsuch really little more than a judicial extension of Steve Bannon’s and the Alt-Right’s campaign to deconstruct the administrative state and roll back the federal government to a size more appropriate to 19th Century America?  I suspect not—and here’s why.

A reading of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions reveals a jurist who is not only an engaging writer, but who digs deep into the facts and details of each case before  applying the law in an appeal before him.  In one of the few environmental cases which Judge Gorsuch has authored, United States v. Magnesium Corp. of America, Judge Gorsuch duly applied Auer deference to uphold EPA’s interpretation of a RCRA regulation, observing that an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation was entitled to deference. 

But in other contexts, Judge Gorsuch denied Chevron deference to agency decisions that directly implicate (some might say trample upon) individual liberties and rights.  Here’s an example:  In 2014, the 10th Circuit took up the case of Andrew Yellowbear, who had bludgeoned to death his 22-month-old-daughter, and was serving a life term in a Wyoming prison.  Mr. Yellowbear brought suit against the prison for refusing to allow him access to a sweat lodge to practice his Arapahoe religion, which he claimed violated his rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.  Now one might think that Judge Gorsuch, conservative fellow that he appears to be on criminal matters, would give short shrift to Mr. Yellowbear’s claims.  But that is not what happened.  

In Yellowbear v. Lampert, Judge Gorsuch, writing for a unanimous court, struck down the prison’s efforts (and arguments) to deny Mr. Yellowbear his religious practice.  In rejecting the prison’s poorly documented claims of a “compelling governmental interest,” Judge Gorsuch wrote:  “the deference this court must extend the experience and expertise of prison administrators does not extend so far that prison officials may declare a compelling governmental interest by fiat.”

Now that decision hardly seems to presage the dismantling of the administrative state, but does suggest the administrative state had better show it deserves deference. 

Judge Gorsuch’s concurring opinion in Guitierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch offers a window into his views on the limits and shortcomings of Chevron deference.  Among other things, Judge Gorsuch suggests that the Chevron/Auer doctrines already may have no applicability with respect to agency interpretations of criminal statutes—of which we have many in the environmental law field.  Even more to the point, Judge Gorsuch questions how Chevron/Auer deference  squares with the judicial review provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. (“…the reviewing court shall decide all questions of law, interpret constitutional and statutory provisions and determine the meaning or applicability of the terms of an agency action.”).  Judge Gorsuch questions whether Chevron, in effect, overrides the APA.

But don’t simply focus on Judge Gorsuch’s concurring opinion:  look to the facts of the case, and to an earlier Gorsuch opinion. Guitierrez-Brizuela involved an attempt by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to retroactively apply a decision of the 10th Circuit deferring to BIA’s reconciliation of two statutory provisions of immigration law.  In Padilla-Caldera v. Holder, the 10th Circuit had upheld BIA’s interpretation of the immigration law on Chevron deference grounds, notwithstanding that BIA’s interpretation effectively overruled an earlier 10th Circuit decision interpreting those same laws.   

But in Guitierrez-Brizuela, BIA sought to accord retroactive application of the Padilla-Caldera decision in order to deport an illegal alien.  Judge Gorsuch, writing for a unanimous 10th Circuit panel, concluded that the BIA cannot use Chevron deference principles to retroactively impose their interpretation of immigration law upon an illegal alien to deport him—not the kind of result which would endear Judge Gorsuch to the Alt-Right.

What resonates in Judge Gorsuch’s opinions is a reluctance to unconditionally embrace Chevron/Auer deference in order to allow administrative agencies to trample on individual liberties and rights.  Is that such a bad thing?  And Judge Gorsuch is not calling for an end to deference.  He acknowledges that some form of deference should be given to administrative agencies, as he notes in Guitierrez-Brizuela:  “Of course, courts could and would consult agency views and apply the agency’s interpretation when it accords with the best reading of a statute.” 

But more fundamentally, will a reconsideration—and even a repudiation—of Chevron/Auer deference signal the end of the modern administrative state?  The administrative state survived and grew comfortably for more than fifty years before Chevron was decided. 

My guess is that, if the Supreme Court revisits the question of Chevron/Auer deference when (and if) Justice Gorsuch joins the Court, and if his views carry the day, we are likely to return to Skidmore deference, or to a flexible rule of deference of the kind outlined in United States v. Mead Corp, here the degree of deference varies according to an agency’s care, consistency, formality, expertness and the persuasiveness of the agency’s position.

That hardly signals the end of the administrative state as we know it.

Justice Scalia and Environmental Law, Part II: Takings and Administrative Law

Posted on June 9, 2016 by James May

Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence had a huge impact on environmental law. Part I focused on standing. This short piece addresses his impact on takings and Administrative Law.

Takings

Modern takings jurisprudence is also Justice Scalia’s handiwork. He, more than any other Justice, was inclined to find government regulation – particularly that which serves environmental ends – “goes too far” and thus constitutes a regulatory taking warranting just compensation. In Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, he held for the majority that a state law designed to protect barrier islands constituted a compensable taking when it had the effect of depriving a developer of what he considered to be all economic use. And in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, Justice Scalia—again for the majority—held that a requirement that a shorefront property owner maintain a public pathway to a public beach was “illogical” and constituted a compensable taking.

Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence makes policymakers think twice about regulating in the environmental realm.

Deference to Agency Rulemaking

Justice Scalia was consistently skeptical of environmentally-protective interpretations by federal agencies, especially those by EPA. In Rapanos v. EPA, writing for a plurality of the Supreme Court, he rejected the Army Corps of Engineers’ interpretation of the Clean Water Act’s term “navigable waters” to include temporally-saturated areas, instead insisting on a direct surface water connection to a water that is “navigable in fact.” Likewise, he joined the Court’s decision in SWANCC v. Army Corps of Engineers, holding that Congress did not intend to permit the Corps and EPA to regulate dredging and filling of isolated ponds and wetlands that are not adjacent to otherwise navigable waters, under what was known as the “migratory bird rule.” Most recently, in Michigan v. EPA, he wrote for the majority to invalidate EPA’s mercury and toxics rule, finding it unreasonable “to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.” And shortly before he died, he joined four other justices to order a stay of EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Yet Scalia was more inclined to defer to EPA interpretations that were less environment-minded. For instance, in Entergy v. Riverkeeper, he wrote on behalf of the majority to uphold EPA’s use of cost-benefit analysis in assessing “best technology available” for minimizing the adverse environmental effects of cooling water intake structures under section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act. Likewise, he dissented in EPA’s favor in Massachusetts v. EPA, voting to uphold the agency’s decision at that point that greenhouse gases are not “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act.

Early during his tenure on the bench, however, Justice Scalia seemed more inclined to endorse the edict from Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. NRDC, to defer to “reasonable” statutory interpretations from mission-oriented agencies. For example, in EDF v. Chicago, Scalia on behalf of the Court upheld EPA’s interpretation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that “solid waste” includes ash from municipal waste incinerators. And then in dissent he decried the result in U.S. v. Mead Corp., where the Court strayed from the Chevron standard by granting only “power to persuade” as opposed to “reasonableness” deference to agency interpretations that are not the result of a deliberative process.

Last, Whitman v. American Trucking stands as a bit of an outlier to Scalia’s seeming antipathy to EPA’s reach, in which his majority opinion upheld as an “intelligible principle” under the non-delegation doctrine Congress having EPA establish national ambient air quality standards that are “requisite” to protect human health and the environment.

Justice Scalia’s views on deference to rulemaking gave agencies – except for EPA – more leeway. For further reading on these subjects, please see Principles of Constitutional Environmental Law.

Justice Scalia and Environmental Law, Part I: Standing

Posted on June 9, 2016 by James May

Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence had a huge impact on environmental law. Part I focuses on standing. Part II (a forthcoming post) then turns to takings and Administrative Law.

Standing 

Justice Scalia’s most lasting legacy on environmental law is how his jurisprudence makes it more difficult for environmental plaintiffs to demonstrate constitutional standing under Article III of the Constitution. Since at least Sierra Club v. Morton, plaintiffs needed to show that they possessed an “injury in fact,” which could be commercial, economic, aesthetic, or environmental. Raising the bar, Scalia stated that plaintiffs must demonstrate at an “irreducible minimum”: (1) imminent and concrete “injury-in-fact” that is (2) fairly “traceable” to the defendant’s actions, and (3) “redressible” by the court. Applying this standard, Scalia found standing lacking in Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation, because using land “in the vicinity of” affected federal land wasn’t sufficient, and in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, due to the absence of what has come to be known as “tickets in hand” to return to the places of alleged injury. Dissenting in Defenders of Wildlife, Justice Blackmun, bemoaned Scalia’s new requirements as “a slash-and-burn expedition through the law of environmental standing.”

Justice Scalia then dissented in Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services v. EPA, when the majority held that it is injury to the person, and not the environment, that matters in standing analysis. There, he complained that the majority had proceeded “to marry private wrong with public remedy in a union that violates traditional principles of federal standing—thereby permitting law enforcement to be placed in the hands of private individuals. I dissent from all of this.”

Justice Scalia was skeptical that the effects of climate change could ever support standing, even for states. Speaking from his dissent in Massachusetts v. EPA, Scalia would have found that petitioning states lacked standing to challenge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) failure to institute rulemaking to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources, thereby rejecting that states are entitled to “special solicitude” in standing analysis.

Justice Scalia was more inclined to find standing when litigants challenged environmentally-protective agency action. For example, writing for a plurality, he found that alleged injury to economic interests to water districts and to corporate ranching and agricultural interests was sufficient injury in Bennett v. Spear. Moreover, he held that homeowners possessed both standing and a cause of action to challenge an EPA-issued but not enforced administrative compliance order in Sackett v. EPA.

Concur or not, Justice Scalia’s standing test took hold and stands firm. For further reading on this subject, please see Principles of Constitutional Environmental Law.