May 19, 2009


Posted on May 19, 2009 by Kevin Beaton

It is well known that EPA rules developed under the Bush Administration have not fared well in the federal courts. Earlier this year, a 2006 EPA rule that exempted the application of pesticides to surface waters from Clean Water Act NPDES permitting requirements suffered a similar fate in Nat’l Cotton Council v. EPA, 553 F.3d 927 (6th Cir. 2009). The effect of this ruling will likely require any person or governmental entity throughout the United States that applies pesticides and insecticides near or onto waters to first obtain an NPDES permit.           

            A.        The History of Pesticide Regulation under the Clean Water Act.

            In Nat’l Cotton Council of America v. EPA, the court evaluated the legality of a 2006 EPA rule which provided that the application of pesticides and herbicides to and over surface water to control pests, weeds and insects consistent with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) does not require an NPDES Permit. 

How EPA came to promulgate the 2006 rule is a familiar scenario to environmental lawyers. The operative provisions in the Clean Water Act relied on by the court in Nat’l Cotton Council to vacate EPA’s rule have been in place since 1972. For some thirty years, farmers, irrigation districts, foresters, local health agencies, fishery agencies and others have applied pesticides and herbicides to and above waters to control pests, weeds, insects and other undesireable species believing that all that was required under federal law was to follow the FIFRA labeling requirements. During this time EPA never definitively took a position whether NPDES Permits were or were not required for such applications. 

The assumption that compliance with FIFRA exempted pesticide applicators from the Clean Water Act permitting was dashed in 2001 in the case of Headwaters, Inc. v. Talent Irrigation Dist., 243 F.3d 526 (9th Cir. 2001). In Headwaters,the court found that the application of an herbicide to a canal to control weeds required an NPDES Permit. Critical to the Court’s decision in Headwaters was the fact that a chemical residue which was toxic to fish remained in the water days after application. Therefore the Court found that the residue was a “chemical waste” and therefore a “pollutant” under the Clean Water Act. The Court rejected the idea that compliance with FIFRA labeling requirements obviated the need for an NPDES Permit finding that the two federal statutes served different purposes. The court’s finding on this point was based, in part, on an amicus brief filed by EPA in the case which took the position at that time that compliance with FIFRA did not exempt an applicator of pesticides from obtaining an NPDES Permit. Shortly after Headwaters, the Ninth Circuit issued another decision on whether the application of pesticides from an airplane above surface waters required an NPDES Permit in League of Wilderness Defenders v. Forsgren, 309 F.3d 1181 (9th Cir. 2002). Forsgren was another citizen suit, this time brought against the United States Forest Service (USFS) for unlawfully discharging insecticides from airplanes to control moths which infect and kill trees on national forest lands without an NPDES Permit. In Forsgren, the Court found that the aerial application of insecticides over national forest lands (including surface waters) required an NPDES Permit. The USFS argued such spraying was covered by an EPA rule exempting certain “silvicultural activities” from NPDES Permit requirements. The Court found that the USFS’ application of pesticides clearly involved the discharge of a pollutant (insecticide) from a point source (airplane) to jurisdictional waters. The Court also found that EPA’s silvicultural rules did not (and could not) exempt activities Congress clearly required to be subject to NPDES Permit requirements under the Clean Water Act.

            The Headwaters and Forsgren cases created a major stir not only in the West but around the United States. Now activities that nobody ever believed required an NPDES Permit were subject to Clean Water Act permitting. For example, during this time the spread of West Nile Virus associated with water borne vectors were causing illness and deaths around the United States. Local agencies around the United States were facing citizen suit liability for unlawfully spraying insecticides on waters without an NPDES Permit or were potentially forced to go through a lengthy permit process (if a permit was even available) to undertake an activity that required immediate action. Some states with NPDES Permit programs such as Washington and California acted quickly and issued general NPDES Permits to authorize application of pesticides and herbicides into waters to address this untenable situation. EPA chose not to issue any type of general permits, but rather adopted an “interim guidance document” in 2003. See 65 Fed. Reg. 48385. EPA opined in the Guidance Document application of pesticides and herbicides to surface waters consistent with FIFRA requirements were not “pollutants” under the Clean Water Act since such application did not involve the discharge of a chemical “waste” but rather a chemical “product” and therefore no NPDES Permit was required. EPA then went forward with a proposed rule which resulted in publication of a final rule at 40 CFR § 122.3(h) in 2006 that closely followed their interim guidance document.

            B.        The Cotton Council Decision.

After the EPA published the final rule in late 2006, a host of environmental advocacy groups, groups opposed to the use of pesticides, and industries filed challenges to the rule in numerous federal courts throughout the United States. Each group sought to have their challenge heard in a favorable forum. All of the challenges were consolidated before the Sixth Circuit Court for decision. The court in Cotton Council rejected much of the rationale offered by EPA in support of the rule. EPA’s principal position in supporting the exemption was that the application of pesticides to and above waters in accordance with FIFRA is the application of a product and not a “chemical waste” or a “biological material” and therefore not a “pollutant” under the NPDES Permit program. The court in Cotton Council focused on the definition of “pollutant” in the Clean Water Act which included the terms “chemical waste” and “biological materials.”

            The court accepted EPA’s position that some chemical pesticides that are intentionally applied to waters for a beneficial purpose are chemical products and not a “chemical waste” as long as there does not remain any chemical residue after application. This finding was consistent with an earlier Ninth Circuit case that found the discharge of a pesticide to waters with the intent of eradicating a certain species of fish and which did not leave any remaining chemical residue in the water was not a discharge of a pollutant requiring an NPDES Permit. See Fairhurst v. Hagener, 422 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2005). The court in Cotton Council, however, disagreed with EPA as it relates to pesticides that leave a “residue” in the water. The court in Cotton Councilagreed with the Ninth Circuit’s analysis in Headwaters that such residues were clearly a “chemical waste” and therefore a pollutant.

            The court rejected EPA’s attempt to subtly overturn Headwaters by suggesting that even if chemical residues (toxic or otherwise) remained in the water after application of chemical pesticides an NPDES Permit was still not required because at the time of discharge the pesticide was still a “product” and only turned into a waste after it was in the water. According to EPA this meant that the chemical waste was not discharged from a point source but rather was now a “nonpoint” pollution source and not subject to NPDES Permit requirement. The court rejected EPA’s logic and found the Clean Water Act did not support EPA’s “temporal” interpretation that material could be lawfully discharged without a permit but later turn into a pollutant.

            The court also found that a variety of other pesticides which utilize “biological materials” such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, and plant material were pollutants and therefore could not be exempted from NPDES Permit requirements if they were discharged to or above surface waters. The court found that the plain meaning of the term “biological materials” in the definition of “pollutant” did not require such material to be a “waste.” Therefore the court concluded that the application of any biological pesticide to jurisdictional waters from a point source whether it left a residue or not required an NPDES Permit.

            C.        Aftermath of Nat’l Cotton Council.

            EPA has requested a two-year stay of the ruling to allow the agency sufficient time to develop a general NPDES Permit authorizing pesticide application on, near or above surface waters. Industry parties may seek rehearing or request review of the ruling before the United States Supreme Court. A change in the Clean Water Act is also possible but seems unlikely in the current political environment. At this point it is clear that any chemical pesticide that is applied to or above waters from a point source that leaves any type of chemical residue in the water requires an NPDES Permit. Also the application of any biological pesticide to or above waters from a point source also requires an NPDES Permit. 

For those who are not familiar with actually obtaining an NPDES Permit from EPA, it is no simple task. For example, it is not unusual for EPA to take years to issue an NDPES Permit for a new facility or years to reissue an NPDES Permit for an existing facility whose permit has expired. Most states (approximately forty-six states) issue NPDES Permits in lieu of EPA. Often state permitting decisions are faster than EPA, but not always. General permits are authorized for certain categories of discharges. See 40 CFR § 122.28. Typical general permits issued by EPA include stormwater discharges from construction sites, stormwater discharges from industrial facilities, and discharges from confined animal feeding operations. States often mirror EPA general permits in administering state programs. 

Because of the varied water applications of various pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides to and near waters throughout the United States, it is likely that issuance of a general permit covering all of these activities will be a challenge, which explains EPA’s request to stay the decision for two years. Likely permit conditions will include instream monitoring and a variety of pesticide application management practices. No matter what happens to EPA’s stay request or any further appeals by industry, one thing is certain: the regulatory uncertainty under the Clean Water Act associated with pesticide applications to or near waters over the past seven years will continue.

Tags: Water


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