Posted on June 24, 2009 by Theodore Garrett
On June 22, 2009, the Supreme Court held 6-3 that the Corps, rather than EPA, has authority to permit the discharge of a rock and water mixture called “slurry” from a mine froth flotation process to a nearby lake, reversing the Ninth Circuit’s decision that the proposed discharge would violate the EPA’s performance standard and §306(e) of the Clean Water Act. Coeur Alaska, Inc. v.. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council et al., __U.S.__ (No. No. 07–984, June 22, 2009). Section §402(a) of the Clean Water Act forbids the EPA to issue permits for fill materials falling under the Corps’ §404 authority. Because §404(a) empowers the Corps to “issue permits . . . for the discharge of . . . fill material,” and the agencies’ joint regulation defines “fill material” to include “slurry . . . or similar mining-related materials” having the “effect of . . . [c]hanging the bottom elevation” of water, 40 C.F.R. §232.2, Justice Kennedy’s opinion for Court states, the slurry Coeur Alaska wishes to discharge into the lake falls within the Corps’ §404 permitting authority. The Clean Water Act is ambiguous on the question whether §306 applies to discharges of fill material regulated under §404, however EPA’s internal “Regas Memorandum” states that the performance standard applies only to the discharge of water from the lake into the downstream creek, and not to the initial discharge of slurry into the lake. The dissent , written by Justice Ginsburg, takes the view that a discharge covered by a performance standard must be authorized, if at all, by EPA.