Posted on May 1, 2013
On April 23, a panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously held in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. EPA that the Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to withdraw permits previously granted under section 404 of the Act. The case emerged from EPA’s determination that the discharge of mining waste from the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia into certain streams and tributaries would have an unacceptable adverse effect on environmental resources. Based on this determination, EPA withdrew the Army Corps of Engineers’ prior specification of these streams and tributaries as disposal sites for the waste from mountaintop removal.
Several features of the case are striking. First, the decision has obvious – and obviously important – implications for the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal and its irredeemable environmental impacts. No longer can the argument be made that a permit, once issued, gives the permittee the power, in perpetuity, to blast the tops off of mountains and dump them into streams.
Second, the decision rested, for the most part, on a single word: “whenever.” The Clean Water Act states that the Administrator of the EPA may withdraw the specification of a disposal site for dredge-and-fill material “whenever” she determines that it will have an “unacceptable adverse impact” on certain environmental resources. The court took Congress, literally, at its word, and held that “whenever” means whenever – that is, even if EPA finds unacceptable adverse impacts after a permit has issued, the agency has the authority to pull the permit.
Third, as if to make certain its own holding is unambiguous, too, the court five times stated that the Clean Water Act unambiguously authorizes EPA to withdraw permits after they are issued. EPA’s current interpretation of the Act is thus not changeable by a future administration.
Should permittees fear that “whenever” will become wherever? It is worth remembering that EPA’s decision on the Spruce No. 1 mine was the first time EPA had – ever! – withdrawn a previously issued permit, in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act. Whether EPA will be emboldened by this decision, or will continue to mostly allow existing permits to stand, remains to be seen.
Posted on April 30, 2013
On January 3, 2013, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that EPA lacks the statutory authority to set a Clean Water Act (“CWA”) total maximum daily load (“TMDL”) for “stormwater flow rates” as a surrogate for sediment deposition. Virginia Dep’t of Transportation et al v EPA et al. EPA has decided not to appeal. The case has received national attention because of its implications for other TMDLs that use surrogates. This article will discuss the decision and its significance for the TMDL and water quality regulatory regime.
The relevant statutory framework is CWA Section 303, under which each state establishes water quality standards for waters within its boundaries. These consist of a designated use (trout fishing, contact recreation, etc.) and numerical or narrative “water quality criteria” necessary to support that use. For “impaired waters” where the criteria are not being met, the state must set a TMDL (think “pollution budget”) for each pollutant for which the criteria are exceeded, and implement a “planning process” leading to achievement. Where the state fails to act, or sets a TMDL which EPA regards as insufficient, CWA Section 303(d)(2) directs EPA to set the TMDL.
Accotink Creek is a 25 mile tributary to the Potomac River in Virginia, in which the benthic organisms were impaired, primarily because of sediment deposited by stormwater running off impervious urban and suburban areas. In April 2011, after Virginia failed to set a TMDL, EPA set one which limited the flow rate of stormwater into Accotink Creek to 681.8 cu ft/ acre-day. The court said that the parties agreed that “sediment is a pollutant, and that stormwater is not” (Slip op. 3). While EPA’s brief contains a fallback argument that stormwater can be viewed as a “pollutant”, it did not dispute that stormwater flow was being used as a surrogate for sediment. Thus the question addressed by the court was whether EPA has the statutory authority to set a TMDL for a “surrogate” which is not itself a “pollutant”.
EPA has used surrogates in a number of circumstances where, in its view, the surrogate would provide appropriate reduction of pollutants, and would be either easier to measure or provide other benefits (such as, in this case, reduction of stream bank scouring caused by heavy stormwater discharges), or both. The court rejected EPA’s argument that since the CWA does not expressly address the use of surrogates, EPA’s use of them should be upheld as reasonable “gap-filling”, consistent with the broad remedial objectives of the CWA, and entitled to substantial Chevron step 2 deference. The court held instead that because the CWA instructed EPA to set TMDLs for “pollutants”, not “surrogates”, the statute was clear. The court distinguished EPA’s use of surrogates in this case from other instances in which surrogates have been used under other CWA provisions (notably Sections 301, 304 and 402) where EPA appears to have greater latitude.
EPA and states have used stormwater surrogates in TMDLs in Connecticut, Missouri and North Carolina. They have also used other types of surrogates, such as impervious surface area limits and secchi disc readings. Some of those have been challenged, and this decision will no doubt provide ammunition for those who oppose their use. Nationally, however, this amounts to a very small percentage of the TMDLs that are in place, even if one focuses only on sediment (for which, the court noted, EPA has issued approximately 3700 TMDLs).
In addition, this ruling will have no effect whatever on EPA’s permitting of industrial and municipal stormwater discharges, including municipal separate storm sewer systems (“MS4s”), or its ongoing development of stormwater regulations, because these activities are expressly authorized under CWA Section 402(p). This is especially important, because EPA and many states now recognize stormwater as a major source of contamination and water quality impairment. For a thoughtful article on this subject and emerging approaches, see Dave Owen, Urbanization, Water Quality, and the Regulated Landscape, 82 U. of Colo. L. Rev. 431 (April 2011).
Posted on April 25, 2013
After decades of sparring over nutrient loading in the Illinois River, and following several short term extensions of a previous truce, Arkansas and Oklahoma recently executed an agreement, the “Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions”, that establishes a procedural framework for attempting to resolve their long running trans-boundary water quality dispute.
The Illinois River heads up in a rapidly developing section of Northwest Arkansas and flows west into a comparatively undeveloped portion of Northeast Oklahoma, where the river is designated by state statute as a scenic river. For more than two decades Oklahoma has worked to reduce the amount of nutrients, and particularly phosphorus, discharged into the Illinois River watershed. In 2002 Oklahoma adopted a numeric water quality criterion for Total Phosphorus that many considered impossible to attain in a developed watershed. In an effort to avoid litigation over the validity of the numeric criterion, Arkansas and Oklahoma entered into an agreement in 2003 known as the Statement of Joint Principles and Actions. This agreement provided, among other things, that: (i) Oklahoma would postpone for 10 years the date on which the numeric criterion would be fully effective; (ii) Arkansas sources would take a number of steps to reduce phosphorus discharges; and (iii) Oklahoma would review the existing numeric criterion, with an opportunity for Arkansas representatives to participate, before the end of the ten year period to determine whether the numeric criterion should be changed.
The ten year truce created by the Statement of Joint Principles and Actions was originally scheduled to expire in July 2012. During the ten year period Arkansas sources made significant progress in reducing the amount of phosphorus they discharged in the watershed. As a result, phosphorus levels in the Illinois River began to decline and most observers agreed that conditions in the river were significantly improved. Towards the end of the ten year period Oklahoma undertook a review, with full participation by representatives of Arkansas, EPA, and the Cherokee Nation. The review ended in a sharply divided report, with Oklahoma representatives stating that no change in the numeric phosphorus criterion was warranted and Arkansas representative stating that significant change was necessary.
As the end of the ten year truce approached, officials from Arkansas and Oklahoma began negotiations once again on how to avoid litigation. Focus on the potential for costly litigation was sharpened by the fact that EPA had publicly commenced work on a Phosphorus TMDL for the entire Illinois River watershed. After several agreements on short term extensions of the July 2012 deadline, Arkansas and Oklahoma reached agreement in February 2013 on a Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions. This new agreement provides, among other things, that Arkansas and Oklahoma will fund a joint three year water quality study using EPA protocols to determine the threshold Total Phosphorus levels at which shifts in algal species or biomass production occur that result in undesirable aesthetic or water quality conditions. Oklahoma and Arkansas agree in the Second Statement to be bound by the findings of the joint study, and Oklahoma agrees to adopt a new numeric criterion for Total Phosphorus in the Illinois River if the results of the joint study are significantly different from the existing criterion (i.e., more than -0.010 mg/l or +0.010 mg/l than the existing .037 mg/l criterion). During the term of the Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions, both states agree not to initiate or maintain litigation contrary to the terms of the agreement, and the statute of limitations on all claims is extended. Oklahoma agrees that it will postpone for the duration of the new agreement the date on which its existing, hotly disputed numeric criterion is to be fully effective.
EPA was not a party to the negotiation of the new agreement and it has not announced any formal position on its effect. It is not clear what impact the new agreement will have on EPA’s work to develop a TMDL for Phosphorus in the Illinois River watershed or on the various NPDES permits for POTWs on the Illinois River that are currently pending review in EPA Region 6.
Posted on April 22, 2013
I get it that environmental groups place strict compliance with regulatory controls at a premium. After all, the standards are designed to be protective of the resource, and they are The Law, which must be obeyed.
But I sometimes find it dismaying when people conflate immediate, measured, and guaranteed compliance with ecological outcomes. They are not the same. I have been in settlement discussions in which I propose that we first come to agreement on what’s best for the resource, and then figure out how to make that fit into the regulatory framework, but have had few takers. The number is the number is the number.
A recent example arises in the context of water quality trading. EPA policy promotes alternative means of achieving regulatory compliance that promise environmental results at least as good as conventional, engineered approaches, and at lower cost. For example, if discharge water temperatures are the problem, riparian shade tree planting could substitute for mechanical chillers. Of course, measureable cooling would be deferred by many years while the trees grow, but the ancillary benefits of watershed restoration to habitat and ecosystem function are intuitive and compelling. This approach is supported by academia, government, and many in the NGO community. Some though are skeptical.
The City of Medford, Oregon, is embarking on a riparian vegetation approach to reduce temperatures at its wastewater treatment outfall, in full cooperation with Oregon DEQ. A regional NGO, Northwest Environmental Advocates, however, has raised objections. In a letter dated March 15, 2013, NEA asks EPA to examine DEQ’s implementation of the water quality trading policy with reference to Medford. NEA questions allowance of “credits” for watershed restoration work that upstream nonpoint sources would have to do anyway, and asserts that no credits should be allowed until the new trees actually yield shade.
The problem is that the upstream nonpoint sources are not obligated by law to restore riparian vegetation; they just need to adopt best management practices to avoid further degradation. More to the point, restoration of the watershed will simply not occur without the funding provided by a point source with a regulatory problem to solve, such as Medford. By denying the City credits, the incentive to use a watershed approach disappears. Similarly, if no credits are awarded until the trees are grown, funds that could go toward watershed restoration will be diverted to engineered controls on temperature. As DEQ Director Dick Pedersen so aptly puts it, “[i]f we ever build a chiller at the expense of ecosystems, we’ve failed.”
Posted on April 8, 2013
Courts in Alaska issued two decisions upholding agency practice in carrying out antidegradation review under the Clean Water Act. The federal court concluded that adoption of water quality standards does not, itself, require antidegradation review. In the second case, a state court concluded that guidance may be developed to implement antidegradation regulations and need not be promulgated as a regulation provided it does not contain substantive criteria.
In Native Village of Point Hope v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alaska native and environmental organizations challenged EPA's approval of the State of Alaska's adoption of a site-specific water quality criterion ("SSC") for total dissolved solids ("TDS"). The SSC was challenged on a number of grounds, including on the basis that neither the State of Alaska nor EPA analyzed the SSC under the relevant antidegradation policy. The issue before the U.S. District Court for Alaska was whether antidegradation review applied to the adoption of water quality standards ("WQS") or, conversely, only when WQS are translated into permits through effluent limitations. In a case of first impression in the federal courts, the court ruled for EPA, holding that agencies are not required to undertake antidegradation review for the adoption of WQS; the obligation is only triggered when a WQS is incorporated into a permit through effluent limitations.
In Alaska Center for the Environment v. State of Alaska, environmental organizations challenged the State of Alaska's adoption of antidegradation implementation procedures through guidance, arguing that the procedures should have been promulgated as regulations. As background, several NPDES permits in Alaska were withdrawn by EPA in the face of arguments from environmental organizations that the State of Alaska lacked antidegradation implementation procedures. To address this alleged deficiency, the State of Alaska developed a guidance document which EPA found was consistent with EPA's own antidegradation regulation. The primary issue in the litigation was whether the State of Alaska was required to promulgate the guidance in the form of a regulation or whether it was permissible rely upon guidance to implement its regulations. In a decision that turned largely on the State of Alaska's Administration Procedures Act, the court held that it was appropriate for the State to develop the guidance to implement its regulatory program, reasoning that the guidance did not add substantive requirements to existing regulations.
Posted on March 26, 2013
On Monday, EPA lost another battle in the war over guidance. In Iowa League of Cities v. EPA, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated two letters that EPA had sent to Senator Charles Grassley concerning biological mixing zones and bypass of secondary treatment units at POTWs (also referred to as “blending”, because the POTWs blend wastewater that has not be subject to biological secondary treatment with wastewater that has, prior to discharge). The Court concluded that both letters constituted promulgation by EPA of effluent limits under the Clean Water Act and that they constituted legislative, rather than interpretive rules (I refuse to refer to “interpretative” rules; sorry). As a result, the Court vacated the letters due to EPA’s failure to follow notice and comment requirements applicable to promulgation of legislative rules. Finally, the Court concluded that a duly promulgated rule concerning biological mixing zones might be valid under Chevron, but that a rule barring bypasses of secondary treatment would exceed EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act.
In first determining whether the letters constituted “promulgation” of an effluent standard, the Court looked to whether the letters were binding on the regulated community. Relying in part on Appalachian Power Co., the Court concluded that the letters were binding:
If an agency acts as if a document issued at headquarters is controlling in the field, if it treats the document in the same manner as it treats a legislative rule, if it bases enforcement actions on the policies or interpretations formulated in the document, if it leads private parties or State permitting authorities to believe that it will declare permits invalid unless they comply with the terms of the document, then the agency’s document is for all practical purposes “binding.”
As the Court noted with respect to the mixing zone issue, the “letter instructs state permitting authorities to reject certain permit applications, regardless of the state’s water quality standards.” With respect to the bypass issue, EPA stated that “it will insist State and local authorities comply with” a never-issued policy that precludes the types of bypass at issue. To try to suggest that words such as “insist” are not binding did not go over well with the Court. “Just as it did in Appalachian Power, the EPA dissembles by describing the contested policy as subject to change.”
After concluding that the letters constituted promulgation of effluent standards, the Court went on to conclude that the letters constituted legislative, rather than interpretive, rules, and thus were subject to notice and comment rulemaking. The following is the key paragraph for those of us attempting to beat back the kudzu that is EPA’s reliance on such informal guidance as a substitute for notice and comment rulemaking:
Identifying where a contested rule lies on the sometimes murky spectrum between legislative rules and interpretative rules can be a difficult task, but it is not just an exercise in hair-splitting formalism. As agencies expand on the often broad language of their enabling statutes by issuing layer upon layer of guidance documents and interpretive memoranda, formerly flexible strata may ossify into rule-like rigidity. An agency potentially can avoid judicial review through the tyranny of small decisions. Notice and comment procedures secure the values of government transparency and public participation, compelling us to agree with the suggestion that “[t]he APA’s notice and comment exemptions must be narrowly construed.”
“Layer upon layer of guidance.” The “tyranny of small decisions.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Posted on February 14, 2013
The Clean Water Act requires states, as well as Indian tribes, to review their water quality standards every three years. The water quality standards include narrative and numeric criteria that differ based on the type of use designation for the particular stream. Use designations include warmwater aquatic habitat, cold water aquatic habitat, primary and secondary contact recreation and others. The Kentucky Division of Water has been engaged in the triennial review of the state’s water quality standards since early 2012. In the latest development, the agency asked the legislative committee that reviews agency regulations to defer consideration of the rules for another month while the agency takes comment on a change to the state’s standard for selenium.
The Kentucky regulations address a number of changes to the water quality standards and included proposed deletion of the acute water quality criterion for selenium. The proposal to delete the acute standard was based on findings that the current state standard, which was derived from USEPA guidance, was not based on sound science. USEPA Region 4 commented on the proposed deletion and identified three options: (1) leave the current acute criterion in place and wait for release of any revisions to USEPA’s selenium criteria, (2) adopt the acute criterion from USEPA’s current national guidance, or (3) adopt an alternate criterion based on other scientifically defensible guidance.
In response, the Division conducted a survey of recent studies of selenium toxicity to aquatic species and determined that it was appropriate to develop state-specific water quality criteria for selenium. The agency is proposing an acute criterion for warmwater aquatic habitat of 258 ug/L, with an alternate calculation option depending on the sulfate concentration that is present. The proposed chronic criterion for warmwater aquatic habitat is 8.6 ug/g (dry weight) of whole fish tissue or 19.2 ug/g (dry weight) of fish egg/ovary tissue. The analysis of fish tissue is triggered when the water column concentration of selenium exceeds 5.0 ug/L. If the water column result is less than or equal to 5.0 ug/L, the water body is meeting is aquatic life uses. If the water column result is greater than 5.0 ug/L, then the next step is to determine whether the site is attaining the fish tissue or egg/ovary tissue criterion.
Stay tuned as interested parties weigh in on the state’s proposed action.
Posted on February 12, 2013
In December 2010, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) put into place new rules to control phosphorus discharges. Adaptive management is one of four compliance options allowed under these new rules. But what is “adaptive management”?
WDNR developed adaptive management to provide permittees with a less expensive, more flexible compliance option, and describes adaptive management this way:
“a phosphorus compliance option that allows point and nonpoint sources (e.g., agricultural producers, storm water utilities, developers) to work together to improve water quality in those waters not meeting phosphorus water quality standards. This option recognizes that the excess phosphorus accumulating in our lakes and rivers comes from a variety of sources, and that reductions in both point and nonpoint sources are frequently needed to achieve water quality goals. By working in their watershed with landowners, municipalities, and counties to target sources of phosphorus runoff, point sources can minimize their overall investment while helping achieve compliance with water quality-based criteria and improve water quality.”
To be “eligible” to use adaptive management, a permittee must discharge to a water body that is exceeding its in-stream phosphorus criteria on which at least 50% of the total phosphorus loading comes from nonpoint sources, and would have to implement filtration or an equivalent technology to meet the new phosphorus limit. Unlike water quality trading, which measures compliance with an end-of-pipe effluent limitation, the adaptive management permittee must meet an in-stream concentration of acceptable phosphorus. Under adaptive management, the phosphorus in the effluent may be reduced over a longer period of time – in some instances, up to several WPDES Permit cycles – as compared to water quality trading which requires the credits to be generated before the permit is issued. The job of identifying and finding partners falls to the permittee; WDNR does not intend to act as a broker to identify and bring prospective partners together.
An innovative alternative that seeks a watershed approach to control phosphorus, encourages nontraditional partnerships and cooperation between point and nonpoint sources, tries to provide flexibility in timing and doesn’t rely on the traditional and expensive construction of new treatment facilities – how’s it going so far?
For much of industry, forging such partnerships with other regulated and unregulated sources is unfamiliar territory and relying on those other entities to fulfill their commitments when the industrial permittee is the one that must demonstrate compliance is too uncertain to be acceptable. Many municipalities are more comfortable with partnerships of this sort, but the early experience of one environmentally proactive municipality has demonstrated the enormous amount of time and effort required to take on the role of “champion”, educate and engage other partners in the watershed. Agricultural interests are initially skeptical – concerned with the potential of taking land out of production. The environmental advocacy community reaction is mixed. One ENGO is actively working with the municipality to educate and engage partners and has written a guidance document on how to do adaptive management. Another ENGO has filed suit against WDNR over WPDES Permits issued with adaptive management compliance schedules in them, reinforcing the reluctance of industrial and municipal permittees to commit to this approach. And after approving WDNR’s rules in the first instance, EPA now takes such a strict reading of the rules that the intended flexibility may become illusory.
WDNR management is listening to all of this and seeking ways to adjust the implementation of “adaptive management” to respond to these very practical concerns. No good deed goes unpunished.
Posted on February 5, 2013
The Clean Water Act’s antidegradation rule has been a fertile ground for dispute and litigation in Georgia, as elsewhere. A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. v. Forsyth County, 734 S.E 2d 242 (Ga. App. 2012), has interpreted the Georgia version of the Rule and provided some clarity for POTWs and others seeking NPDES effluent limits.
Georgia’s Antideg Rule is identical to the federal rule and provides that in the case of a proposed discharge to high quality waters, that quality shall be maintained unless allowing lower water quality is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development,” and water quality to protect existing uses is assured.
The Rule is not a model of clarity, to say the least, and has been subject to varying interpretations. EPA has chosen not to provide more specific direction and has, on multiple occasions, reiterated that it is up to the States to decide how to interpret and apply the Antideg Rule, through each State’s implementation procedures.
Georgia EPD’s implementation procedures interpret the rule to require a determination whether the proposed new or expanded discharge is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development….” If it is determined the discharge is “necessary,” that is, that a no-discharge alternative is not economically feasible, then EPD proceeds to consider the application and to impose permit conditions based on the applicable technology-based standards and in-stream water quality standards.
In contrast, the environmental groups, and an Administrative Law Judge, have taken the position that the Antideg Rule requires EPD to consider whether “allowing the lower water quality resulting from the permitted discharge is actually necessary.” That reading led the ALJ to conclude that, without regard to cost or benefit, the permit limits for the POTW must be set at the lowest level that is technologically feasible, so long as the permittee can afford it. As interpreted by the ALJ, the antidegradation analysis would be not just the beginning of the analysis of a proposed new discharge, but also the end point. According to that view, the antideg analysis would ask, not just whether the discharge is justified, but also, what is the lowest limit that is feasible. Application of the Antideg Rule in this fashion would short-circuit all considerations of in-stream water quality standards and technology-based limits. It would eliminate any distinction between POTWs and industrial facilities -- they both would have to meet the lowest limit that is technologically feasible that they can afford.
The Georgia Court of Appeals has now agreed with EPD’s reading of the Antideg Rule. The court held the rule requires only a determination whether lower water quality generally is necessary to accommodate economic or social development, not a permit-specific analysis of whether the exact effluent limits in the permit are necessary. The opponents to the permit have asked the Georgia Supreme Court to take up the issue; a decision on the petition for certiorari is expected by mid-2013.
Posted on January 10, 2013
On January 8, 2013, the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously held that flow from an improved portion of a waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway—even if polluted—does not qualify as “discharge of pollutants” under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Although this case arises in the context of a municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4), it has major implications for dam owners everywhere. The case reaffirms evolving doctrine that dams are not point sources requiring National Pollutant Discharge Elimination (NPDES) permits per Section 402 of the CWA.
In Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, environmental groups brought a CWA citizen suit against the District for violating the terms of the District’s NPDES permit to operate the MS4 facilities. It was undisputed that water quality standards had repeatedly been exceeded for a range of pollutants, as measured at the District’s monitoring stations in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers. The District collected storm water in concrete channels before discharging back to the river, and the monitoring stations were within the concrete channels. It was also undisputed that many other upstream parties contributed to the contamination.
Plaintiffs argued that since the monitoring stations were within the control of the District, the District had responsibility for meeting standards. But that was not the issue for the Court. Instead, the Court focused on whether a “discharge of pollutants” occurs when polluted water flows from one portion of a river, through an engineered improvement, and then back again to the same river. The Court answered in the negative, citing its 2004 decision in South Fla. Water Management Dist., v Miccosukee Tribe. In Miccosukee, the Court held that pumping polluted water from one part of a water body to another part of the same water body is not a discharge of pollutants.
This decision should come as welcome news to dam and hydroelectric plant owners. Prior to Miccosukee and now LA County, the federal Courts of Appeal simply deferred to EPA judgment as to whether a dam could be said to “add” pollutants originating upstream when it passes them through penstocks or spillways to the river below. The Supreme Court, however, has firmly established a rule of law that CWA Section 402 is implicated only where the upstream and downstream river segments are “meaningfully distinct water bodies,” a condition that will rarely exist for in-river dams.
Posted on January 4, 2013
Tremendous progress has been made in protecting and restoring the environment over the past 40 years since the passage of major legislation at the federal, state, and provincial levels in the United States and Canada. However, our skill at measuring that progress is somewhat limited, and we may not have the kind of information we need to judge the health of our ecosystems or the effectiveness of our programs. There have been some good efforts on an international, national, state, and provincial basis to evaluate the state of the environment using certain indicators, but one area needing much more attention is the Great Lakes.
Although there are many indicators monitored on a continuing basis in the Great Lakes, the real difficulty has been synthesizing the information in a way that puts officials in a position to communicate effectively with the public, policy makers, and managers about whether the Great Lakes are getting better, worse, or staying the same. The International Joint Commission (IJC) initiated an effort recently through its Water Quality Board (WQB) and Science Advisory Board (SAB) to identify a limited number of core indicators for this freshwater resource. What’s needed now is a consensus among the scientific and policy leaders on the Great Lakes on the “few indicators that tell us the most” about the waters.
It was not hard to tell the Great Lakes were in trouble when enough dead alewives washed up on its shores requiring front end loaders to remove them, the Cuyahoga River and other tributaries caught fire, and Lake Eric was declared “dead” because of massive algal blooms. Many of these conditions on the Great Lakes led to both a public outcry and Congressional action in order to deal with the lakes’ water pollution and other environmental problems. As programs were put in place to keep oil out of the rivers and reduce nutrient loadings to the lakes, significant visible improvements were seen. The underlying data was available to support the observations, but the visible improvements plus much better fishing success told the story in an easily observable way.
Things are much more complicated now. When looking at the fundamental three legged stool supporting the Great Lakes’ ecosystem, being the chemical, physical, biological integrity of the resource, it is not easy to gage. With regard to chemicals, very low concentrations of legacy pollutants like PCBs and dioxins can cause serious problems. Likewise, ongoing contamination from airborne deposition of mercury is a real concern. New chemicals such as flame retardants are the next problem area with which to deal. Invasive species such as the zebra and quagga mussels, the ever present sea lampreys, and the threat from the Asian carp are a constant problem for maintaining the biological balance in the system. From a physical standpoint, expanding urbanization, suburban sprawl, and the manifestations of climate change are also adding tremendous pressure on the Great Lakes. What’s needed is a core set of chemical, physical, and biological indicators of the health of the ecosystem and the effectiveness of the programs to protect and restore it.
Good progress is being made on this front. After several months of work by some of the top Great Lakes’ scientists and policy makers, a group of just over twenty indicators has been preliminarily identified, with a smaller group as the core. They include:
Physical: Coastal wetlands, land cover, and tributary physical integrity
Chemical: Nutrient concentrations and loadings, and persistent bio - accumulative toxics
Biological: Lower food web productivity/health, fish species of interest, harmful and nuisance algae, aquatic invasive species
Much of the foundation for the work done recently comes from what is known as the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC), which is a large gathering, primarily of scientists, held every two years to review and evaluate a large number of Great Lakes’ indicators on the Great Lakes.
What needs to happen next is for the IJC first to adopt a set of core indicators as the ones that tell us the most about the resource, then inform the U.S. and Canadian governments of its findings. Under the recently updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the parties are responsible for establishing ecosystem indicators for the Great Lakes.
With a set of core indicators, both countries will be in a much better position to communicate with the public, elected officials, and managers about the health of the ecosystem and the effectiveness of programs. In addition, our governments will be in a position to make better choices about the allocation of increasingly scarce resources to maximize the return on investment for improving the health of the Great Lakes, the largest, surface freshwater system in the world.
Posted on December 26, 2012
As the Clean Water Act celebrates its 40th anniversary, it has ignited a controversy in New Hampshire with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. In the law’s early days, publicly owned treatment works (“POTWs”), mandated and financed in large part with federal funds, were viewed as the “good guys” in the national effort to restore quality in receiving water bodies into which raw sewage was being discharged. That view of POTWs seems to have changed in New Hampshire, at least as relates to the State’s largest saltwater estuary; the Great Bay. Faced with the potential need to finance significant POTW upgrades or reconstruction, New Hampshire POTWs are challenging EPA’s permitting decisions in the courts, through administrative channels and in the press.
As we know, POTWs are regulated through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permits that monitor and control a variety of effluent criteria. Interestingly, however, New Hampshire was and remains one of the few states that has not obtained authority to issue new and renewed NPDES permits. Because of this status as a non-delegated state, dischargers in New Hampshire with expiring permits must apply to the federal government for renewal. As environmental regulation has progressed, however, and as federal funds have diminished or disappeared, POTWs and the towns and sewer districts that operate them have found themselves opposed to the EPA’s efforts to impose stricter standards to address pollutants that were not of primary concern when the POTWs were constructed and initially permitted.
In New Hampshire, this is seen vividly in NPDES renewal efforts EPA is undertaking for several POTWs that discharge under expired and expiring permits, directly or indirectly, into the Great Bay estuary located on the State’s coast. Once a rich habitat for oysters, eel grass and other sea life, Great Bay is now stressed by a variety of factors including both point and non-point discharges as well as other environmental factors. At the heart of the controversy in New Hampshire is EPA’s intention to reduce effluent limitations for nitrogen to as low as three parts per million (the limits of technology) in order to ameliorate nitrogen related problems in Great Bay. From the municipalities and POTWs perspective, the costs to comply with these new lower limits are exorbitant. One widely cited study estimates that, for the Great Bay estuary POTWs to comply with the new nitrogen limit, it will cost in excess of one half billion dollars in capital,operation and maintenance expenses. Those costs will, of course, be passed along to a relatively small population of ratepayers.
A coalition of communities with affected POTWs has joined forces in response, proposing “adaptive management programs” combining somewhat lower discharge limits with comprehensive non-point controls aimed together at achieving EPA’s stated goals. It is unclear at this time whether those efforts will be successful. The coalition communities certainly have in mind the experiences in Chesapeake Bay, or closer to home in neighboring and similarly non-delegated Massachusetts, where EPA is using its Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require permits in the Charles River watershed. EPA has been public with its view that the Charles River RDA program may become a model for watersheds elsewhere in New England and nationwide. It is thought that an adaptive management program as proposed by New Hampshire’s coalition communities would obviate the need to utilize RDA for Great Bay, but that issue remains to be addressed in the future.
Posted on December 4, 2012
On March 13, 2012, eleven environmental organizations, led by Gulf Restoration Network ("GRN"), filed
a federal Clean Water Act (CWA) citizen suit which demanded that the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) set federal numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus for water bodies within the 31
states comprising the Mississippi River Basin ("Basin States"). Gulf Restoration Network v. Jackson,
E.D. La., No. 2: 12-cv-00677 ("GRN Suit"). The complaint alleges that EPA has failed to develop
numeric water quality criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus in the Basin States. EPA's answer states that it
is appropriately deferring to each state to promulgate numeric nutrient criteria ("NNCs") that satisfy
Clean Water Act water quality standards within the state and that, consequently, federal NNCs are not
appropriate. The trial judge ruled on September 19, 2012 that the case will be decided on "cross-motions
for summary judgment, with no initial disclosures or other discovery." In the same order, the judge set a
briefing schedule for the parties (including numerous entities to which the court granted permission to
intervene) that will extend through the beginning of June of next year.
The GRN Suit, as well as other similar suits that are active in other regions, have prompted many state
environmental agencies to work diligently, pursuant to EPA's deference and also its demand, to develop
NNCs as quickly as possible. If EPA wins the GRN Suit, the Basin States will have to be ready to go
forward with promulgation of their NNCs. If EPA loses, they may be subjected to more stringent federal
NNCs on a "one size fits all" basis. A settlement could mean an even different outcome for all ofthe
In Mississippi, the state's Department of Environmental Quality ("MDEQ") has formed a Nutrient
Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to develop scientifically defensible NNCs that are appropriate for
Mississippi's surface waters. The TAG is composed ofMDEQ staff, MDEQ's external consultants and
in-state university personnel who have water quality expeiiise and is meeting on a regular basis. MDEQ
staff members have stated that the agency's plan is to have draft NNCs developed for all state waters,
excluding the heavily agricultural Delta counties, by June 30, 2013. The draft NNCs for the Delta are to
be developed by November 30, 2014. MDEQ wil then publish these draft NNCs for public comment.
MDEQ has held several stakeholder meetings to discuss the development of Mississippi's NNCs and to
provide an opportunity for questions and comments. The MDEQ staff members have consistently
explained that they are considering "what is protective of the environment" rather than "what is
technically achievable." The new NNCs wil be "worked into permits" as they come up for renewal and
permittees wil be allowed a "reasonable time frame" to come into compliance with the new NNCs.
The key issue for the regulated community in Mississippi, as in other states, will be the cost of
compliance with these new NNCs, which could bear a very expensive price tag. In Florida, for example,
a national environmental engineering consultant prepared an economic analysis of proposed NNCs. The
estimate for direct compliance costs ranged from $ 1.5 bilion annually (best management practices for
impaired water categories) to $4.5 billion annually ("end of pipe" requirements for all water categories).
Regulated communities in Mississippi and in other states across the country are engaging with scientific
and economic data and consultants in order to have an impact concerning this volatile issue. A lot is on
Posted on November 28, 2012
My views of the Great Lakes Water Quality Protocol of 2012, which was signed on September 7, 2012, by the United States and Canada, are influenced literally by where I sit. For almost four decades I have daily seen the broad expanse of Lake Erie from my office window. For as many days as I can in the summer, I sit on its beaches and swim in its waters. Occasionally, I have sat on boats and fished Lake Erie. My view of the Protocol is also influenced by the existence of many other Great Lakes programs, such as the Great Lakes Initiative, the Lakewide Management Plans, Remedial Action Plans, the Great Water Program, the Binational Toxics Strategy, Great Lakes 2001 as well as several State of Ohio programs aimed specifically at addressing Lake Erie’s environmental issues.
From where I sit, my view of the Protocol is not whether it is a comprehensive program or whether it recognizes the values of the Great Lakes. Rather, my view is whether it will assist in addressing the most critical threats now facing the Great Lakes, and to Lake Erie in particular. Those threats are, in my opinion, irreparable damage to the Lake Erie fishery and the continued inability to enjoy its beaches and other locations for swimming on many summer days due to the combined impacts of CSOs and excessive algae blooms due to nutrient loadings.
An invasion of the Asian carp into the Great Lakes threatens a permanent change in its fishery, the nature of which cannot be predicted. The Asian carp would determine what the Great Lakes fishery would be. Combined sewage overflows into the Great Lakes continue to produce beach closings for days after rainstorms forty years after the enactment of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and beach closings can be expected for at least another 40 years based on the current trajectory of CSO Control Projects. The current generation of algae blooms in Lake Erie has produced swimming advisories for large portions of the Lake that persist for weeks.
Of the many issues that the Protocol addresses, preserving and enhancing the public’s ability to swim and fish in the Great Lakes are the most important. For the public to fully value and to love the Great Lakes, they need to be able to touch it by wading, swimming or fishing. Public support for the many programs under the Protocol will depend ultimately on the public’s love for the Great Lakes.
Posted on September 19, 2012
In his blog post of August 27, Rob Brubaker reported on three cases in which the courts refused to grant deference to EPA decisions under the agency’s Clean Air Act authority. EPA has fared a bit better in two recent Clean Water Act cases.
In Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District v. EPA case, the issue was whether EPA properly issued a stringent NPDES permit renewal to a sanitary district to control excessive nitrogen and phosphorus loading. The First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the district’s argument that EPA should have waited until the district could complete its modeling effort, even though the model did not seem close to ready, and that EPA did not apply the best science. The court declined to conduct a de novo review of EPA’s scientific analysis, limiting its inquiry to whether EPA followed the appropriate administrative process, based its decision on record evidence and clearly articulated its reasoning. So long as the criteria imposed are within the “zone of reasonableness”, the court will not strike it down.
Interestingly, the Upper Blackstone court also rejected the district’s argument that the new permit is improper because even with stricter criteria, it would not be sufficient to correct the eutrophication problem in the watershed. The court set that aside, noting that the CWA contemplates multiple sources of contamination and no one party is responsible for cleaning up the river.
The Upper Blackstone case is consistent with the U. S. District Court’s decision in the Northwest Environmental Advocates v. EPA, which I discussed in my March 23 post. In the latter case, the court upheld EPA’s approval of Oregon’s numeric temperature standards, deferring to the EPA’s scientific expertise. It took issue with the narrative Natural Conditions Criteria because it was so broad that the court concluded it supplanted numeric standards. The court left the door open for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to rewrite the narrative standard for EPA review, based on the agencies’ own review of the science and a good explanation in support of the standard.
It appears the theme running through three Clean Air Act cases cited in the Brubaker post is that the reviewing court found no authority supporting EPA’s action, or that EPA’s interpretation defied the plain meaning of the statute. In the Clean Water Act cases, EPA overreaching on the Upper Blackstone permit or approval of Oregon water quality standards was not at issue. The focus instead was on whether EPA demonstrated it properly considered the best science available under the authority it had, and then explained how it got to its decision. In that context, EPA and state regulatory agencies will win more than they lose.
Posted on August 8, 2012
Under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), most municipalities in the United States are now required to have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for discharges of stormwater/urban runoff. As intended by Congress, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and authorized state NPDES permit writers originally took a programmatic approach relative to the requirements they put into such Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems or “MS4” permits. Over time, though, municipalities have, in various ways, been required to address water quality standards more directly, including where such standards are expressed quantitatively.
In California, this has manifested itself in the issuance of MS4 permits containing provisions called “Receiving Waters Limitations,” which, among other things, preclude the permitted municipal stormwater discharges from “causing or contributing to a violation of an applicable water quality standard.” Since this ambitious goal is a tall order that likely cannot be met without the construction of large, capital-intensive detention and treatment facilities for which no funding is available, other language contained in these MS4 permits has instructed the municipality that if “exceedances of water quality standards persist,” they must evaluate and submit plans to improve their stormwater management programs to address the situation and then implement such plans and improvements according to a schedule they propose – an “iterative process” that envisions reasonable further progress towards the achievement of water quality standards over time and which inherently recognizes that resource and feasibility constraints may inform the pace of that progress.
Last year, in NRDC v. County of Los Angeles, et al., 636 F. 3d 1235 (9th Cir. 2011), the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that demonstrating compliance with the iterative process language in these MS4 permits did not create a safe harbor and shield a municipality from direct enforcement of the Receiving Water Limitations themselves, including by means of a citizens’ suits. The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted cert. in this case, raising a glimmer of hope for municipalities that a reasonable further progress approach might somehow be restored.
Unfortunately, the High Court may well not speak directly to this issue notwithstanding its practical import for municipalities. Its cert. grant instead requested briefing and argument on the more unusual and academic issue of whether water that flows from one portion of a river that is navigable water, through an MS4 or other engineered channel, and into a lower portion of the same river is “discharge” from an “outfall” requiring an NPDES permit. As its cert. grant itself suggests, this is an issue the U.S. Supreme Court likely already addressed in South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, 541 U.S. 95 (2004). Accordingly, if the Ninth Circuit’s decision is reversed on this basis and without a discussion of the broader issues that caused it to arise, it will be left to Congress, EPA, or state permit writers to decide if they are willing to restore a reasonable further progress approach to municipal stormwater permitting.
Posted on July 9, 2012
The criterion to protect human health found in state water quality standards under the Clean Water Act are getting more stringent in the Northwest. This is occurring because people in the Northwest supposedly eat more fish from Northwest waters than other parts of the country. The esoteric standard setting process to protect people from toxic pollutants in surface waters is premised upon numerous risk based assumptions which include the amount of surface water an average person consumes combined with the amount of fish consumed from such waters. The more water and fish people consume the more stringent the criteria becomes. EPA establishes national defaults for states to use in their human health standard setting process for both water ingestion and fish consumption rates (“FCR”). The national recommended FCR is 17.5 g/day. A detailed description of the standard setting process can be found in EPA’s Methodology for Deriving Ambient Water Quality Criteria for the Protection of Human Health (2000).
Until recently, use of the EPA default FCR was acceptable in the Northwest. However the state of Oregon recently adopted (and EPA approved in 2011) a FCR ten times higher than the national default. The principal driver behind Oregon’s change was a FCR study funded by EPA in the 1990’s that evaluated the FCR of members of a number of Northwest Tribes in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. See A Fish Consumption Survey of the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakima, and Warm Springs Tribes of the Columbia River Basin (CRITFC 1994). The CRITFC study showed that Tribal members consumed much higher rates of fish.
In May 2012, EPA disapproved Idaho’s human health criteria in Idaho’s water quality standards which were based on EPA’s national recommended default FCR. EPA disapproved Idaho’s standard because the state did not “consider” the CRITFC study. (Idaho believes it did consider the CRITFC study.) EPA also questioned whether Idaho’s standards were protective of Oregon’s downstream standards. Idaho now has 90 days to respond to EPA’s disapproval. Meanwhile the state of Washington is in the process of reevaluating its human health standards and FCRs. Whether this trend moves into other states or other EPA regions remains to be seen.
One might legitimately ask whether this issue is nothing more than an academic exercise amongst toxicologists and risk assessors. Ultimately the answer to that question is found in the Clean Water Act itself. Roughly calculated, increasing the FCR ten times equates into the criteria for many toxic pollutants becoming ten times more stringent. Under the Clean Water Act NPDES Permit limits must be established to meet these new criteria. Under the new standards adopted by Oregon some of the toxic pollutants that are likely to present particularly challenging compliance issues for permittees will include mercury, PCBs and arsenic, as the presence of these pollutants are somewhat pervasive in Northwest waters. In most instances, requiring permittees to implement costly pollution controls to attempt to achieve the new criteria at the end of the pipe will have minimal affect on achieving the new stringent standards in the receiving waters. In light of EPA’s recent disapproval of Idaho’s standards, the state must now decide if it needs to amend its criteria or conduct its own fish survey statewide. Untested legal issues are raised by EPA’s disapproval like whether a state must establish a state-wide FCR based on a very small percentage of the population or because a downstream state (Oregon) has decided to adopt more stringent criteria. Like many increasingly complex issues under the Clean Water Act, these issues may have to be settled in federal court.
Posted on March 23, 2012
In a 50 page opinion issued February 28, Federal Magistrate Judge Acosta handed EPA and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) a partial victory in Northwest Environmental Advocates v. EPA et al. The decision upheld EPA’s approval under the federal Clean Water Act of the Oregon DEQ’s numeric temperature water quality standards, while rejecting certain narrative standards. NWEA also challenged the biological opinions issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. The Services concluded that the Oregon temperature and intergravel dissolved oxygen standards would not jeopardize listed salmonid species, and those agencies did not fare as well in the case.
Oregon’s temperature standards were adopted in 1996 and promptly attacked. In 2003 EPA Region 10 adopted its own Temperature Guidance, and Oregon’s temperature standards were reformulated. NWEA again found the revised standards wanting and brought the case at issue. The judge upheld DEQ’s numeric temperature standards, despite evidence that the standards were less than optimal for fish, deferring to the scientific expertise of the government.
The judge found fault, however, with narrative standards that deal with “nonpoint sources” of heat. A point source is a discrete, end-of-pipe discharge to a waterway, whereas nonpoint sources are diffuse, such as runoff from a field. The Clean Water Act regulates point sources through a permit program, while nonpoint source control is mostly aspirational, although it does direct states to develop best management practices and measures for controlling nonpoint source pollution. Under the Oregon narrative standards, a nonpoint source that adopts “best management practices” is deemed to be in compliance.
The court found that this formulation undermines DEQ’s numeric standards as it provides a substitute for actual compliance. The same reasoning was applied to the so-called Natural Conditions Criteria, which provide that compliance is excused if natural conditions exceed standards. The court found that such an exemption supplants otherwise lawful standards.
The court’s objections to the narrative standards notwithstanding, neither the Clean Water Act nor state law authorize direct regulation of nonpoint sources. The narrative standards were Oregon’s attempt to address pollution from nonpoint sources without adopting a new regulatory program. It seems the court reacted to the blanket exemptions provided in the rules, and it further seems that Oregon can revise them and pass muster. The deference shown the agencies on the science suggests that the court will allow some leeway on language used to deal with nonpoint sources and the effects of natural conditions.
No such deference was granted to the federal fisheries services. On remand they will have to prepare a new biological opinion that accounts for Evolutionary Significant Units (i.e. sub-groups of salmonids), potential for recovery, baseline conditions and cumulative effects. Further, the Fish and Wildlife Service was chastised for considering factors other than the best scientific data available in formulating its opinion. That is, FWS seemingly bowed to pressure to support the EPA Temperature Guidance, even though it believed that temperatures for bull trout provided for in the Guidance were not what FWS considered to be optimal.
The net result of the many years of litigation over Oregon’s temperature standards is that Oregon’s approach, and EPA’s approval under the Clean Water Act, were largely validated. Problems with narrative standards should be correctable. Whether on reanalysis the Services find that the standards are protective of listed species, as required under the Endangered Species Act, remains to be seen.
Posted on February 23, 2012
Current federal law requires states to develop and adopt a statewide antidegradation policy to protect existing in-stream uses for high quality waters. Georgia has done so under Rule 391-3-6-.03. Georgia’s antidegradation policy describes what requirements must be met before the State issues a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) and allows a wastewater point source (i.e. wastewater treatment plan) to discharge pollutants into surface waters. However, in apparent response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) potential revision of its requirements for state antidegradation policies and an Administrative Law Judge’s recent ruling, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (“EPD”) published proposed amendments to its antidegradation policy in September 2011.
In its proposed amendments, EPD attempts to set out exactly when the antidegradation review process is triggered and what an applicant requesting a new or expanded point source discharge must demonstrate to obtain the permit. EPD’s proposed rule and related guidelines explain the three basic steps as follows: (1) applicant may demonstrate that proposed discharge will not result in “significant lowering of water quality” (if satisfied, no antidegradation analysis is required); (2) if water quality is significantly lowered, applicant must demonstrate that discharge will accommodate important social or economic development; and (3) applicant must demonstrate that no reasonable alternatives exist that would provide the needed wastewater capacity without authorizing a new or expanded wastewater discharge into surface waters. The key to this new procedure is the definition of “does not significantly lower water quality.” Specifically, if the proposed discharge of a pollutant is 10% or less than the remaining assimilative capacity for that pollutant in the receiving stream, then the new discharge per se “does not significantly lower water quality” and no antidegradation analysis is required. These amendments appear to respond to EPA’s concerns over EPD’s implementation of an antidegradation policy, and clearly appear to respond to the ALJ’s decision in Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. v. Forsyth County, Georgia.
In September 2010, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. (“UCR”) filed a petition challenging the issuance by EPD of an NPDES permit (“Permit”) authorizing Forsyth County to discharge 6 million gallons per day (“MGD”) of wastewater into the Chattachoochee River from the County’s existing waste water treatment facility and the new Shakerag facility. The Permit set limits of 200 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters (“cfu/100mL”) and 0.3 milligrams per liter (“mg/L”) for fecal coliform bacteria and phosphorous, respectively. UCR claimed that the Permit, specifically the expanded limits, threatened the present and future health of the Chattahoochee River without EPD having undertaken a proper study, modeling or antidegradation analysis to show that the degradation of the river was necessary to accommodate Forsyth County’s economic and social development.
In a decision found later to be overreaching, the ALJ held that any lowering of water quality in the receiving water triggers an antidegradation review and such review must analyze both the technical and economic feasibility of any alternatives, as well as a no-discharge permit alternative. The ALJ made this conclusion in part by referencing EPD’s failure to define certain terms and therefore the ALJ adopted the EPA’s guidelines. More surprising, the ALJ also adopted the permit discharge limits suggested by UCR which were much lower than those in the original permit or even those allowed for recreational waters by Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. The ALJ then remanded the permit to the Director of EPD for reissuance with revised monthly discharge limits of 23 cfu/100mL for fecal coliform bacteria and 0.08 mg/L for total phosphorous.
Forsyth County appealed to the Superior Court of Forsyth County which reversed the ALJ’s decision finding that the ALJ had exceeded her authority. The Court concluded the ALJ could not create an enhanced review by wholesale adoption of EPA guidelines nor set specific effluent limits. EPD’s recent proposed amendments state clearly that effluent limits cannot be set pursuant to an antidegradation analysis, but only by EPD pursuant to Rule 391-2-6-.06. The Court remanded the matter to the ALJ, ordering the antidegradation review standard be applied as codified in EPD’s implementing procedures without reference to EPA guidance documents.
However, the battle is not over as UCR has appealed this decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals. As of this writing, both parties have submitted their briefs for review and oral argument is yet to be set. In light of EPD’s recent proposed amendments, this decision is one to watch as the appellate court’s holding could have a significant impact on restrictions in future NPDES permits.
Posted on February 7, 2012
A rather surprising turn of events occurred recently in North Carolina, but the underlying reasons still remain unclear. On January 11, 2012, the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (“EMC”), by a 4-3 vote, vacated an Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision on summary judgment that the Rose Acre egg farm’s airborne ammonia emissions are not subject to regulation under, and do not require, a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit. The ALJ’s Decision and the parties’ pleadings are available here.The EMC remanded the matter back to the ALJ, August B. Elkins II, for a full evidentiary hearing. Thus, the case raises anew the question of whether a discharge to air can constitute a point source discharge to navigable waters of the United States which requires a NPDES permit under the Clean Water Act,. The answer may depend on whether such a discharge is found to remain “in the air” and not make its way by land “into the water.”
On October 17, 2011, ALJ Elkin found that the Rose Acre facility does not discharge or have the potential to discharge process wastewater (or manure, litter) to navigable waters of the United States. Judge Elkin’s relied on the March 2011 decision by the Firth Circuit Court of Appeals in National Pork Producers Council v. EPA, in which it held that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lacked the authority to require a NPDES permit for a facility that “proposes to discharge” or any facility that has not yet discharged into a navigable water of the United States. Judge Elkin held that the DENR has no authority to require Rose Acre to obtain an NPDES Permit.
Rose Acre is the site of 14 high-rise hen houses with a total of four million egg laying hens, located within the Tar-Pamlico River Basin in North Carolina. Rose Acre operates what is called a “dry-litter facility” that does not directly discharge into any waters. In 2009, before the Fifth Circuit’s decision in National Pork Producers Council that only CAFOs that actually discharge were required to secure a NPDES permit, Rose Acre applied for a NPDES permit. The Division of Water Quality of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (“DENR”) issued a NPDES permit to Rose Acre, which included conditions requiring amendment of the facility’s Best Management Plan (“BMP”). Rose Acre appealed, contending that it no longer needed an NPDES permit as well as challenging a number of the BMP conditions on the grounds that they exceeded the DENR’s regulatory authority. The ALJ granted Rose Acre summary judgment.
Existing precedent supports the ALJ’s decision. Both the Second and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that air emissions, even where there is atmospheric deposition into navigable waters, are not regulated by the Clean Water Act. The Second Circuit so held in its 2000 decision in No Spray Coalition, Inc. v. City of New York, dealing with insecticide spray to eradicate mosquitoes. In No Spray Coalition, the Second Circuit found that:
While the trucks and helicopters used to spray insecticides may be point sources…they discharge the insecticides into the atmosphere and not into navigable waters. It would be stretching the language of the [Clean Water Act] well beyond the intent of Congress to hold that the de minimus incidental drift over navigable waters of a pesticide is a discharge from a point source into those waters. The fact that a pollutant might ultimately end up in navigable waters as it courses through the environment does not make its use a violation of the Clean Water Act…To so hold would bring within the purview of the Clean Water Act every emission of smoke, exhaust fumes, or pesticides in New York City.
In 1997, the Tenth Circuit, in Chemical Weapons Working Group v. U.S. Department of the Army, refused to apply the Clean Water Act § 301(f) prohibition against disposal of chemical weapons into waters to smokestack emissions from a chemical weapons incinerator. The Tenth Circuit emphasized the potential duplication of regulation by the Clean Air Act as well as finding that under § 301(f), Congress clearly intended to authorize the incineration of chemical weapons. The Tenth Circuit also viewed the attempt to regulate stack emission under the Clean Water Act as contrary to plain old common sense. (“Although Plaintiffs may be correct in arguing that an object may fly through the air and still be ‘discharged…into the navigable waters’ under the Clean Water Act, common sense dictates that [the] stack emission constitute discharges into the air – not water- are therefore beyond § 301(f) reach.”).
Similarly, in American Canoe Assn. v. D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected allegations that the D.C. Sewer Authority violated its NPDES permit by failing to install odor controlling carbon filters on sewer vents. The court found that attempts to control sewer gas or hydrogen sulfide fumes emanating from sewers in a NPDES permit are “unrelated to the general purposes of the CWA” and unenforceable obligations.
During oral argument on its challenge to the ALJ Elkin’s Rose Acre decision before a panel of the EMC, the DENR’s counsel appears to have successfully changed the focus of the legal inquiry from what’s in the air to what’s in the water? In its Exceptions to the ALJ’s Entry of Summary Judgment, the DENR contended that it had not attempted to regulate airborne emissions of ammonia. Instead, it now contends that Rose Acre does discharge to navigable waters, citing the fact that “with a rain event the feathers and dust from the ventilations fans at [Rose Acre] are flushed into a stormwater pond and then into waters of the State. The DENR further relied upon the comparative results of surface water monitoring taken before and the Rose Acre hens were stocked, which showed higher levels of ammonia nitrogen, total inorganic nitrogen, phosphorus and fecal coliform in surface water. Thus, the DENR took the position that although pollutants may initially be discharged “into the air,” if they wind up on the ground and then make their way to a regulated surface water, there is a “point source” discharge that is subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act.
Rose Acre contends that the DENR’s argument is a post hoc rationalization, without any supporting, credible evidence, to defend its decision to issue the NPDES permit. In this regard, Rose Acre notes that the ventilation fans in question “are pointed at a ninety degree angle away from a storm water retention pond that is located over one-fifth of a mile away.” Judge Elkin found that the stormwater pond point source theory was unsupported by the record. Relying on the holding in National Pork Producers Council that a CAFO is not required to apply for a NPDES permit until there is an “actual discharge into navigable waters to trigger the CWA’s requirements”, Rose Acre contends that the DENR has failed to present any proof of such a discharge.
If the Rose Acre case proceeds to ruling after the ordered full evidentiary hearing, it will be worth watching to see whether the ultimate decision is based on what’s in the air or what’s in the water (and how it got there).
Posted on February 1, 2012
Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act requires each state to identify all water body segments within the state that do not meet water quality standards. The statute requires the states to submit a list of their impaired water body segments to EPA every two years for review and approval. The decision to list as stream segment as impaired is important because it usually triggers a chain of regulatory consequences, beginning with the preparation of a Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) study and typically ending with significantly more stringent permit limits for point sources and more robust regulation of non-point sources.
Although the decision to add a stream segment to a state’s 303(d) list is undeniably important, there is significant uncertainty whether the decision is subject to judicial review. An ACOEL blog entry reported in December 2011 on a Pennsylvania decision which questioned whether Pennsylvania’s issuance of its 303(d) list was an appealable agency action under state law. Chester Babst, Beware of “Impaired” Surface Water Designations, posted December 10, 2010.
The federal courts of appeals are split on whether EPA’s decisions in reviewing a state 303(d) list are subject to judicial review. The 8th Circuit has held that a private stakeholder challenge to EPA’s approval of a Missouri 303(d) list was premature and not justiciable because the addition of a segment to a 303(d) list, by itself, did not have any impact on the rights, duties, or property of private parties. On the other hand, the 9th Circuit has held that a private party had alleged sufficient claims of present injury to have standing to challenge EPA’s approval of California’s 303(d) list. Even after the 9th Circuit’s decision, EPA argued on remand that the scope of judicial review should be narrow because EPA’s role in reviewing California’s 303(d) list was supposedly only one of limited oversight (“[EPA] note[s] that the 30-day limitation on [its] review process demonstrates that [its] ‘role is one of mere oversight’.” The district court accepted this argument and rejected the challenge to EPA’s review on remand.
It must have been amusing for knowledgeable stakeholders and state water quality regulators to read EPA’s claim that its role is one of “mere oversight” that is strictly circumscribed by a 30-day time limit. The practical experience of most states has been quite different. In fact, EPA routinely runs months and even years past the 30-day limit on its review of state 303(d) lists, and it is not at all unusual for EPA to significantly alter the state’s submission, frequently with a supplemental factual record and the imposition of new impairment decisions generated out of whole cloth.
Normally one might think that identifying impaired stream segments would be a simple task of comparing the numbers in the monitoring results for a given stream segment to the relevant numeric water quality standards, and therefore questions of judicial review would rarely be relevant. In practice, however, the decision to list a segment as impaired frequently can be problematic or even controversial. To begin with, monitoring results are sometimes subject to questions regarding the adequacy and accuracy of the sampling and analysis. In many instances the relevant water quality standard is expressed in a narrative rather than numeric form, and therefore the simple comparison of two numbers is replaced by an exercise in subjective judgment. Even when the basic identification of an impaired segment has been made, there are still choices of priority and timing that can make a great deal of difference in how the impairment decision affects stakeholders.
Given the potential uncertainties that can attend a listing decision, and the gravity of the regulatory consequences that are set in motion by such a decision, it is unfortunate that EPA and some state agencies have displayed such resistance to any form of independent accountability for their decisions.
Posted on January 12, 2012
The Supreme Court heard oral argument this morning (January 9, 2012) in Sackett v. EPA, No. 10-1062. EPA had issued a compliance order charging the Sacketts with filling in a wetlands, in the course of building their home, in violation of the Clean Water Act and requiring them to restore their property. The Sacketts dispute that their property is a wetlands and seek an opportunity for judicial review of EPA’s order. EPA argues that the Sacketts could comply with the EPA order or submit an application for a wetlands permit or defend if EPA brings an enforcement action, but may not seek judicial review of EPA’s order.
The tenor of the oral argument did not bode well for the United States. Some of the Court’s questions seemed to focus on how to write the opinion and the consequences of a ruling for the Sacketts. If the Sacketts prevail, it will be important to see how EPA responds and what if any changes are made to EPA’s practice and procedure for issuing orders in wetlands and perhaps other matters. The transcript of the Supreme Court argument is available [here].
The toughest questions and comments were aimed at counsel for the United States, Malcolm Stewart. Justice Alito stated: “Mr. Stewart, if you related the facts of this case as they come to us to an ordinary homeowner, don't you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can't happen in the United States?” (Tr. 37)
Chief Justice Roberts asked “what would you do, Mr. Stewart, if you received this compliance order? (Tr. 35). When Stewart responded that one could apply for an after-the-fact permit,” Chief Justice Roberts replied “You wouldn’t do that, right? You know you will never get an after the fact permit if the EPA has sent you a compliance order saying you’ve got wetlands.” (Tr. 36) Earlier, Justice Kagan had asked counsel for the Sacketts rhetorically whether the critical point wasn’t that EPA would not entertain an after-the-fact permit while a compliance order is outstanding. (Tr. 12). Justice Alito expressed the view it “seems very strange for that, for a party to apply for a permit on the ground that they don't need a permit at all.” (Tr. 14).
The government’s alternative solution, that one could comply with the compliance order, met with an incredulous response from Chief Justice Roberts: ”That's what you would do? You would say, I don't think there are wetlands on my property but EPA does, so I'm going to take out all the fill, I'm going to plant herbaceous trees or whatever it is, and I will worry about whether to -- that way, I'll just do what the government tells me I should do.” (Tr. 36-37).
Justice Breyer focused on the finality of the EPA order for purposes of judicial review, stating “for 75 years the courts have interpreted statutes with an eye towards permitting judicial review, not the opposite. And yet -- so here you are saying that this statute that says nothing about it precludes review, and then the second thing you say is that this isn't final. So I read the order. It looks like about as final a thing as I have ever seen.” (Tr. 41)
Justice Ginsburg asked Mr. Stewart whether, once EPA made the determination that there were wetlands, that be the end of the matter as far as EPA is concerned. Mr. Stewart got himself in difficulty when he replied “ I think they have reached that conclusion for now. I don't think it would be accurate to say that we have done all the research we would want to do if we were going to be required to prove up our case in court.” (Tr. 51) Justice Alito was not pleased with that reply: “Well, that makes the EPA's conduct here even more outrageous. We think now that this is -- these are wetlands that -- that qualify, so we're going to hit you with this compliance order, but, you know, when we look into it more thoroughly in the future, we might change our mind?” (Tr. 51)
In questions to counsel for the Sacketts, Justice Breyer noted the government’s concern that “when you get judicial review of this kind of order, the Court doesn't refer on fact-finding that isn't made on a record. * * * And so they'll have a hard time -- or a harder time -- in each of these cases subjecting it to judicial fact-finding.” Justice Breyer suggested that EPA might change its procedure if the Sacketts prevail, and providing some type of pre-order or post-order procedure that would be open to change. (Tr. 55)
It is of course always difficult to predict the outcome of a Supreme Court case with certainty simply based on oral argument. That being said, it is also difficult to be optimistic about the government’s chances of prevailing based on the comments made by the court during oral argument today. Whatever the outcome, the Court’s ruling will likely be an important environmental and administrative law precedent.
Posted on January 11, 2012
I am generally loath to speculate about what the Supreme Court will do based on oral argument, but the overwhelming reaction to the oral argument in Sackett v. EPA was that EPA is going to lose. What would a loss mean? In simplest terms, EPA would no longer be able to issue enforcement orders under the Clean Water Act without those orders being subject to judicial review. Such a decision would undeniably be significant. Everyone practicing in this area knows how coercive EPA enforcement orders can be. A person who thinks that he is not liable or that the order is inappropriate, and faced with having to violate the order and wait for EPA to bring an enforcement action to obtain judicial review, is truly between a rock and a hard place – or perhaps Scylla and Charybdis (I’m not sure which, but it’s not good, either way). The opportunity for preenforcement review would eliminate much of EPA’s coercive power.
The big question is whether a decision against EPA would be so broad as to make it clear that EPA’s order authority under other statutes, such as CERCLA, would be similarly affected. Here, speculation really is difficult, because the Supreme Court could invalidate EPA’s CWA authority several different ways, with differing impacts on other statutes. Readers who want to explore the issue in more depth than a blog post can review an article I did in the ABA Superfund and Natural Resource Damages Litigation Committee Newsletter.
As long as I am speculating, I’m going to go out on limb and predict that the Court’s decision will not be easily limited to the CWA. I think EPA’s order authority is in trouble across the board.
The next big question is when lower courts are going to actually start paying attention to what the Supreme Court says about environmental cases. I’m tired of this pattern. A series of cases are decided by lower courts, almost universally in EPA’s favor. Indeed, one of the striking things about Sackett is that the Supreme Court took the case without a circuit court split – EPA had won before every circuit court that had reached the question. The Supreme Court applies principles that are broadly accepted outside the environmental arena, but which for reasons unknown to everyone but the lower court judges have been thought inapplicable to environmental cases, and EPA loses. The next several years are spent with EPA, DOJ, and the lower courts merrily constructing some new edifice which allows EPA to continue to win – until the Supreme Court takes another case and says “No, we really meant it.”
There is a lesson here for lower courts, if they would but listen. Environmental cases are not sui generis. EPA does not necessarily win just because it is protecting the environment. General principles of corporate, administrative, and constitutional law apply. Under this framework, EPA will still win most of the time. That’s the nature of administrative law. Expert agencies receive a lot of deference from the courts in interpreting their organic statutes and applying their expertise. But they don’t win all the time, and they don’t win just because they are EPA.
Rant over. Let’s see what the Supremes actually do.
Posted on February 11, 2011
There is nothing new about transboundary water quality disputes under the Clean Water Act. Introductory classes on environmental law commonly trace the history of Supreme Court decisions arising from Milwaukee’s battles with Illinois over sewer discharges into Lake Michigan, the challenge Vermonters’ raised against New York paper mill discharges into Lake Champlain, and Oklahoma’s objections to a permit EPA issued to a sewage treatment plant in Arkansas. Given the length of time that the Clean Water Act program has been in place and the large number of instances in which upstream discharges drain into and therefore arguably affect water quality in downstream states, one would expect that most of the relevant legal questions would be well-settled. Recently, however, transboundary water quality disputes have arisen with increasing frequency.
Coal bed methane development in Wyoming has given rise to disputes with Montana over salinity impacts in the Powder and Tongue Rivers. Efforts by the state of Washington to protect dissolved oxygen levels in Spokane Lake have prompted a dispute over Washington’s attempt to impose wasteload allocations that would limit nutrient discharges by upstream sources in Idaho. Oklahoma’s efforts to restore the Illinois River to pristine scenic river conditions have resulted in recurrent and steadily intensifying disputes with agricultural interests on both sides of the border and point sources located predominantly in the headwaters on the Arkansas side. EPA’s imposition of nutrient water quality standards in Florida could have direct effects on discharges originating in Georgia; and the agency’s showcase multi-state TMDL for the Chesapeake Bay has recently precipitated challenges by state and national agricultural interests. In what undoubtedly is the most dramatic transboundary claim under the Clean Water Act, environmental groups have filed a petition with EPA asking the Agency to impose nutrient water quality standards and adopt TMDLs for the main stem of the Mississippi River, all of its tributaries, and certain related coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
These recent disputes have recurring themes that arise out of weaknesses or unresolved questions regarding the Clean Water Act program. The statute empowers each state to exercise sovereign independence in adopting water quality standards that apply within the state’s own borders (so long as minimum federal standards are met), but the statute does little to address or even give consideration to the interests of other states that may be directly affected by those standards. Transboundary disputes frequently involve situations in which the regulatory burdens fall disproportionately on interests in one state while the resulting environmental benefits are realized largely or entirely in another state, but the Clean Water Act does nothing to address questions of transboundary fairness. Transboundary disputes frequently involve regulatory decisions that have enormous financial and long term planning consequences, but the decisions are often based upon limited factual data, imperfect scientific analysis, and less than comprehensive computer modeling. The Clean Water Act offers no process for seeking to assure that the quality of the decision making will be commensurate with the gravity of the consequences at stake. Indeed, the program largely makes the magnitude of financial consequences simply irrelevant. Disparities between the magnitude of the consequences and the limited quality of analysis and data supporting the regulatory decision are particularly problematic when the regulatory decision is being made by one jurisdiction that has no political accountability to the other.
It is perhaps no surprise that most of the recent transboundary water quality disputes are arising out of efforts to regulate the discharge of nutrients. Nutrient pollution is the largest unresolved water quality issue nationally; and the adverse effects of excess nutrients frequently occur at locations far downstream from the original source. The fact that most of the current transboundary water quality disputes involve nutrient pollution probably makes the disputes even more difficult than normal to resolve. Nutrient pollution has no simple, universally accepted means of measurement. It is costly and time consuming to establish a clear causal link between a given discharge of nutrients and an observed adverse effect; and many of the most important sources of nutrient pollution are non-point sources which are beyond direct control under the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately, this appears to be a recipe for increased frustration and controversy.
Transboundary water quality disputes may not be a new phenomenon, but it does not appear that we are any closer to finding a good way to resolve them.
Posted on October 12, 2010
On October 6, 2010, and at the direction of Governor Joe Manchin (D-WV), the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) filed a complaint against EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. The complaint alleges that two actions by EPA, requiring surface mine permit applications to undergo enhanced scrutiny and setting a new water quality standard based on conductivity, are unlawful and have brought the permitting process to a standstill. WVDEP is seeking a court order declaring EPA’s actions to be unlawful and enjoining their implementation.
WVDEP argues that EPA’s actions 1) are substantive rule changes that did not go through formal rulemaking required by the APA; 2) require the Corps to apply illegal presumptions during environmental assessments of new surface mine permits; 3) usurp West Virginia’s authority to implement its own water quality standards and effectively issue NPDES and SMCRA permits; 4) impose new water quality standards that are not based on sound science; and 5) have caused undue delays in the issuance of surface mining permits and threaten the supply of coal available for the nation’s energy needs.
Governor Manchin is in a hotly contested race for the US Senate in which his opponent is accusing him of being a "rubber stamp" for President Obama. Undoubtedly this action will be offered as a response to that criticism.