Posted on July 10, 2015 by Susan Cooke
The U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have designated July 13 as the official issuance date for purposes of judicial review of their Final Rule defining the scope of “waters of the United States” or “WOTUS” under the federal Clean Water Act. However, a number of lawsuits have already been filed, including four separate actions brought on behalf of a total of 27 states and a fifth action filed by Murray Energy Corp., a privately held coal mining company.
The lawsuits seek to overturn the Final Rule on several grounds that include:
- Usurpation of state authority over intrastate waters in violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and Tenth Amendment
- violation of the federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA) due to the Final Rule’s allegedly unlawful expansion of federal powers granted under the federal Clean Water Act, as well the arbitrary and capricious nature of the rulemaking;
- violation of the APA’s requirement to provide notice and opportunity for comment on proposed rulemakings, and to properly respond to comments made during the comment period; and
- violation of the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement to prepare an environmental impact statement for a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.
The object of all this attention is a long expected – and expansive – WOTUS interpretation adopted by EPA and the Corps. As reported on this blog site, the rule is controversial; the draft generated over one million comments. For a comprehensive analysis of the draft rule, including the cases leading up to the rule, see the American College of Environmental Lawyers report for the Environmental Council of the States.
The Final Rule, which does not change much from the draft, is intended to provide more certainty regarding what is and is not subject to the Clean Water Act’s Section 402 and 404 permitting provisions and its Section 311 oil spill prevention and response provisions so as to reduce case-by-case determinations of applicability. Despite the inclusion of a number of definitions and exclusions, it is doubtful that this goal has been achieved, given the number of new situations where a “significant nexus” determination must be made.
The significant nexus inquiry finds its genesis in Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion in Rapanos v. United States where Justice Scalia wrote the plurality opinion. According to Justice Kennedy’s opinion, wetlands adjacent to navigable waterways are waters of the United States based on a “reasonable inference of ecologic interconnection” in accordance with the Supreme Court’s 1985 opinion in United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes. However, isolated wetlands or wetlands adjacent to a non-navigable tributary, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, [must] significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as navigable” in order to fall within the purview of the Clean Water Act. Rejecting a bright-line test, Justice Kennedy noted that a “mere hydrologic connection should not suffice in all cases” as it “may be too insubstantial . . . to establish the required nexus with navigable waters as traditionally understood.”
The Final Rule broadly defines “tributaries” and “adjacent waters” and classifies them as “per se” jurisdictional waters, along with waters used in interstate or foreign commerce, interstate waters and wetlands, territorial seas, and impoundments of such waters. It also identifies a number of other waters (prairie potholes, Carolina bays and Delmarva bays, pocosins, western vernal pools, and Texas coastal prairies) as navigable waters if they meet the significant nexus test which involves consideration of a number of factors identified in a compilation of peer reviewed scientific reports assembled by EPA.
All of the complaints reference the Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision, as well as the Court’s 2001 decision in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, regarding what constitutes a “navigable water”. In particular, they claim that the Final Rule goes well beyond the limits set forth in those decisions, including Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test in Rapanos. Some of the complaints provide pretty convincing arguments on the latter point, and so another “wave” of litigation can be expected. Given that the litigation now extends back 30 years, a paraphrase of that old adage about water – and litigation – being everywhere seems right “on course”.