Posted on February 18, 2011 by Fournier J. Gale, III
Last month, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (“ADEM”) gained the Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) long-awaited approval of its proposed stormwater pollution regulations. EPA’s approval ends the looming threat it would take over Alabama’s stormwater permitting in the event ADEM did not cure certain deficiencies contained in previous draft regulations. EPA’s primary concern with ADEM’s previous draft regulations was that the regulations did not make clear exactly what obligations a local government had with respect to stormwater management. This issue has sparked intense debate from various groups over the last several months. One constituency, primarily builders and developers, argued that increasing local governments’ role in stormwater pollution prevention is unnecessary and wholly duplicative in light of ADEM’s existing regulations. On the other hand, various environmental groups contended that ADEM is simply ill-equipped to handle monitoring and enforcement responsibilities at the local level. Under the proposed regulations recently accepted by EPA, local governments must adopt local regulations to control runoff, conduct site inspections, and must have enforcement authority. EPA’s recent approval settles this dispute for the time being, but just as importantly, ends the threat that it would take over stormwater permitting in Alabama. It should be noted that the proposed regulations will not become final until ADEM has completed its review of and responded to the comments received during the rule making process.
Although EPA’s threat to take over Alabama’s permitting could be viewed as a strategic maneuver designed to hasten ADEM’s action, such a threat should not be taken lightly given EPA’s recent actions in Texas. EPA issued a series of rules and regulations that would bring greenhouse gases under the permitting programs of the Clean Air Act beginning January 2, 2011. To bring about these changes, EPA asked each state to revise and submit new state implementation plans to account for greenhouse gases. Several states publicly voiced their concern and disagreement with the rulemakings, but only Texas persisted in completely refusing to cooperate with EPA. After Texas failed to meet EPA’s deadline for submitting a revised plan, EPA sent Texas a letter stating that it would proceed with taking over Texas’s air permitting program. In response, Texas filed two petitions asking the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to stay the EPA takeover. On December, 25, 2010, the Fifth Circuit denied Texas’s request for an immediate stay. While the D.C. Circuit issued a short-lived administrative stay, the court lifted the stay on January 12, 2011, determining that Texas had failed to meet “the stringent standards required for a stay pending court review.” While these rulings represent just one battle in the war between EPA and Texas, it remains to be seen how they will shape Texas’s strategy moving forward. Regardless of the ultimate outcome in this litigation, one thing is clear – the current EPA has demonstrated that it is not adverse to stepping in to take over state environmental regulatory programs in circumstances where EPA determines that the state agency is either unwilling or unable to implement federal law.