Sixth Circuit Issues Stay of the Clean Water Rule

Today, the Sixth Circuit issued a stay of the Clean Water Rule in response to a challenge filed by eighteen states, including Ohio.  The issuance of a stay represents a major set back to EPA in  effort to better define the limits of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Unlike the stay issued by the North Dakota District Court, this stay applies to implementation of the rule nationwide.

The CWA limits jurisdiction to "navigable waters" which is defined as "waters of the United States, including the territorial seas." 33 U.S.C. Section 1361(7)  Interpretation of the vague term- "waters of the United States"- has been left largely to guidance and the Courts. The most significant decisions were issued by the Supreme Court in Rapanos and SWANCC. Justice Kennedy, plurality decision in Rapanos held that CWA jurisdiction extended to both navigable waters and any non-navigable water that had a "significant nexus" to a navigable waterway.

EPA issued the Clean Water Rule in attempt to better define how the significant nexus test should be applied as well as establish which waterways were exempt from coverage.  The rule was harshly criticized as an overreach by EPA. Soon after its release, the rule was challenged by a number of states and business groups.  

States sought a stay of the effectiveness of the rule while the Court considers their challenge.  The issuance of a stay prevents EPA from using the the Clean Water Rule to define federal jurisdiction over wetlands or streams.  In order to be granted a stay, the states challenging the rule had to demonstrate they were likely to win on their challenge to the legality of the rule.  In addressing this issue the Court said the following:

Meanwhile, we conclude that petitioners have demonstrated a substantial possibility of success on the merits of their claims. Petitioners first claim that the Rule’s treatment of tributaries, “adjacent waters,” and waters having a “significant nexus” to navigable waters is at odds with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rapanos, where the Court vacated the Sixth Circuit’s upholding of wetlands regulation by the Army Corps of Engineers. Even assuming, for present purposes, as the parties do, that Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Rapanos represents the best instruction on the permissible parameters of “waters of the United States” as used in the Clean Water Act,3 it is far from clear that the new Rule’s distance limitations are harmonious with the instruction.

Now that the stay has been issued, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) will have to revert back to the prior methods for issuing Jurisdictional Determinations (JDs) which were largely based on internal guidance.  

In practical experience, the ACOE has been aggressive in asserting jurisdiction over wetland and streams even before the Clean Water Rule.  However, the rule would have provided them more legal support for their determinations when they are challenged.

With the Court's grant of a stay, it seems pretty likely the rule will be overturned and EPA will have to go back to the drawing board.

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