Posted on August 31, 2015 by Rick Glick
With so many challenges filed in so many venues to EPA’s Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule, it seemed inevitable that some plaintiffs somewhere would find a sympathetic court. And so it is that thirteen states found U. S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson to preliminarily enjoin the “exceptionally expansive view” of the government’s reach under the Clean Water Act.
This case is interesting from a couple of perspectives. First, Congress conferred original jurisdiction for challenges to EPA “effluent limitations or other limitations” and for permit decisions upon the Circuit Courts of Appeal. In the past two days, district court judges in West Virginia and Georgia concluded they lacked jurisdiction over challenges to the WOTUS rule on that basis. Judge Erickson, however, did not feel so constrained.
The judge found that the WOTUS rule is simply definitional, and neither an effluent limitation nor an “other limitation” on states’ discretion. Further, the judge found that the rule “has at best an attenuated connection to any permitting process.” The conclusion states’ discretion is not affected is a bit odd in that the judge later concludes that the state plaintiffs satisfied all the criteria for a preliminary injunction, including irreparable harm caused by the rule.
Second, Judge Erickson plays on an internecine dispute between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in an unusual way. In my first sentence I refer to the WOTUS rule as EPA’s, although the rule was jointly adopted by EPA and the Corps. However, recently leaked internal government memoranda indicate that the Corps disavows much of the technical support and policy choices underlying the rule. Judge Erickson obliquely references these memoranda and seems to rely on them to conclude that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their challenge.
Typically, courts are loathe to rely on internal documents of uncertain provenance, as they prefer to leave the government room to openly discuss policies under development without fear its deliberations would be disclosed. But in this case, Judge Erickson notes that he has not been presented with the full record for the WOTUS rulemaking, and so felt justified in citing the Corps memos.
As Seth Jaffe has observed, it seems likely that Judge Erickson’s jurisdictional determination will not stand, and his reliance on the confidential exchanges between the Corps and EPA is a little disturbing. However, his order highlights EPA’s poor management of this rulemaking, which has led to challenges from states, property rights advocates and environmentalists—a kind of anti-EPA trifecta.
As previously noted, EPA released its draft WOTUS rule before the work of the Science Advisory Board was complete, thus raising questions as to the rule’s scientific objectivity. Then EPA seemingly disregarded the technical concerns raised by its rulemaking partner, the Corps. Any WOTUS rulemaking would be controversial, but EPA has unnecessarily raised the bar for public acceptance.