EPA and Corps Release Proposed Rule Defining "Waters of the U.S."

When does placing fill in a wetland or disturbing a stream for construction require a federal permit? Seems like this should evoke a pretty straightforward answer.  However, for more than a decade the extent of federal permitting regulations has been unclear.  Now EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) are attempting, once again, to try and provide a clear answer.

Background on Supreme Court Clean Water Act Decisions

Federal regulations clearly define "waters of the United States" in 40 CFR 122.2 to include "navigable waters" (i.e. those waterways used for commerce) as well as interstate waters.  What has not been clear is the scope of "other waters" that fall within federal jurisdiction.

The extent of federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands has been unclear ever since the Supreme Court  issued its decisions in Solid Waste Authority of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001) and Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  Since Rapanos, Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test has been used to determine jurisdiction for streams and wetlands that fall into the "other water" regulatory classification.  Under the test, a waterway is evaluated to determine whether it impacts the chemical, physical, and the biological integrity of a navigable water. If it does impact a navigable water in that manner, then it falls under federal jurisdiction. 

Since the Rapanos decision, both the ACOE and EPA have struggled to provide clear guidance as to which waterways meet the "significant nexus" test.  Far too frequently, the determination has been left to case-by-case determinations that are litigated.  Making matters worse, different federal courts have reach different conclusions when applying the “significant nexus” test. 

The ACOE and EPA have attempted to clarify through guidance federal jurisdictional waters, but those guidance documents have been vacated by the Courts (see prior post).  The courts made clear a formal rule was necessary for EPA and ACOE's scientific interpretations to have legal force.

On March 25, 2014, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers jointly released their proposed rule defining the terms “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.  Under the proposal, the federal agencies attempt to move away from the case-by-case application of the “significant nexus” test by simply defining certain waters as under federal jurisdiction.

 Proposal Maintains Jurisdiction over Navigable Waters

Under the proposed rule, the following waters are jurisdictional by rule, with no further analysis needed:

  • Navigable waters
  • Territorial seas
  • Interstate waters
  • Tributaries of navigable or interstate waters
  • Adjacent waters and wetlands

The EPA and ACOE state they are not expanding the definition of these categories in the proposed rule.  Rather, these categories represent those waterways that have been consistently recognized as subject to federal jurisdiction in prior rule making.

Expansive Proposed Definition of Tributary

The rule proposal does contain an entirely new definition of "tributary," which under the proposed rule, would be classified as jurisdictional waters with no further analysis.  If the rule were finalized, it would eliminate most case-by-case decision making on federal jurisdiction.  Under the proposal, a “tributary” is any waterway that meets the following characteristics:

·       Can have perennial, intermittent or ephemeral flow

·       Has a defined bed, bank and ordinary high water mark (a term defined under existing regulations)

·       Contributes flow, either directly or through another water, to as jurisdictional water

·       Or, is part of a network that drains to a jurisdictional water

The portion of the definition which states any waterway that contributes flow “directly or through another water” to a jurisdictional water, is very expansive.  It is these waterways with more tenuous connections to "navigable rivers" that have been the subject of litigation.  The proposed rule would eliminate any doubt for the vast majority of such streams and wetlands-  they would be under federal jurisdiction.  

The tributary definition includes wetlands, lakes, ponds that contribute flow to a navigable or interstate water.  It also includes ditches, except in upland areas that don’t contribute flow to a jurisdictional water. 

The rule proposal states the connectivity demonstration can be made using aerial photos and/or USGS maps or other evidence.  However, only the connection must be demonstrated.  There does not need to be any individualized demonstration that the waterway in question impacts the chemical, physical, and the biological integrity of a navigable water. EPA argues its review of the science demonstrates the vast majority of tributaries have such impacts.

While it difficult to come up with a stream or wetland that would likely not fit the definition of tributary, the rule still proposes to a catchall provision which states jurisdiction may still be asserted over any waterway on a case-by-case basis.  The catchall provides EPA and ACOE for regulate streams and wetlands that may not meet the expansive definition of tributary.

EPA Argues Proposal Rule Supported by Science

EPA states that the proposal to expansively define tributary to automatically include most waterways without a case-by-case demonstration is supported by scientific literature.  EPA conducted a review of published peer-reviewed scientific literature- “Connectivity and Effects of Streams and Wetlands on Downstream Waters:  A Review and Synthesis of Scientific Evidence.”   In it's review EPA concludes most waterways are interconnected and can impact water quality of larger streams and rivers.

In the proposed rule, EPA argues that its expansive definition of tributary is supported not only by science but by case law as well.  EPA discusses the various cases that have tried to address the "significant nexus" test.

Public Comment Period

A 90-day public comment period will begin once the proposal is published in the Federal Register.  The EPA states is seeks comments to its proposal as well as other ways to define which waters should be considered jurisdictional.  However, the proposal makes very clear that EPA believes its proposal is on solid ground.  

 Creative Commons photo by putneypics via Flickr

U.S. Supreme Court Unanimously Tells EPA its Orders Can be Reviewed

On March 20, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the much anticipated decision in Sackett v. EPA.  The Court rejected U.S. EPA's claims that its administrative enforcement orders were not subject to pre-enforcement review.  The Court's decision provides a new tool to challenge EPA administrative compliance orders. 

Synopsis of the Case

The Clean Water Act prohibits filling of wetland without a permit.  The Sacketts own a .63 acre parcel of land on which they hoped to construct a home.  EPA said that the Sacketts had filled wetlands as part of their development without a permit. 

EPA decided to take enforcement by issuing an administrative compliance order directing the Sacketts to remove the fill.  If the Sacketts failed to comply with EPA's order they could potentially be liable for penalties of $37,500 for each day of non-compliance with the order and potentially an additional $37,500 per day for the underlying Clean Water Act violation.

The Sacketts attempted to appeal the administrative order in Court to challenge EPA's determination they filled regulated wetlands.  EPA argued that the Sacketts were not entitled to any pre-enforcement review of the administrative order. 

Lower Courts Ignore the Legal Presumption of a Right of Appeal

The Administrative Procedure Act ("APA") sets the standards for when administrative actions of federal agencies are subject to review or judicial appeal.  The APA contains a presumption that  federal statutes allow for judicial review of agency actions.  That presumption can be overcome if: 1) there is an explicit bar to pre-enforcement review in the statue; or 2)  the presumption "may be overcome by inferences of [congressional] intent drawn from the statutory scheme as a whole." 

The Clean Water Act does not contain an explicit bar to pre-enforcement review (such a bar does exist under CERCLA- the federal Superfund law).  Therefore, EPA had to argue the bar can be inferred from congressional intent.

Both the District Court and Appeals Court sided with EPA holding that a bar to review could be inferred from the congressional record and the language in the the Clean Water Act.

Supreme Court Unanimously Disagrees

Before determining whether there was a bar to appeal, the Court had to determine whether the administrative action amounted to a final order.  The Court found that the order issued by EPA had all the hallmarks of a final order, including:

  • It determined the rights of the party- in this case, the Sacketts were required to restore the wetland;
  • Legal consequence flow from the order- the Sacketts were subject to penalties if they failed to comply;
  • The order is final- EPA did not provide the Sacketts a meaningful opportunity to challenge the order

After finding the order was final, the Court then rejected the lower courts finding that the history and language of the Clean Water Act suggested there should be no pre-enforcement review of orders.  The Court held:

"APA's presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all." and

There is "no reason to think that the [Clean Water Act] was uniquely designed to enable the strong-arming of regulated parties into 'voluntary compliance' without the opportunity for judicial review- even judicial review of the question whether the regulated party is within the EPA's jurisdiction."

It is interesting that both lower courts sided with EPA, but yet the Supreme Court unanimously sided with the Sacketts.  Its difficult to understand how such a split could occur.

Implications

Clearly, the Courts ruling gives attorneys representing regulated parties who are the subject of an EPA unilateral compliance order a tool to challenge the merits of those orders.  Certainly, allowing such a review is a clear victory and certainly seems to comport with logic.  The right to challenge EPA orders also likely extends to other environmental statutes that do not contain an explicit bar to pre-enforcement review, including orders issued related to hazardous waste (RCRA) and the Clean Air Act.

However, the standard for overturning an EPA order is very difficult to meet.  In addition, the Supreme Court's decision is unclear as to whether penalties continue to amass while litigation proceeds.

Under the APA, an EPA action is entitled to deference and can only be overturned if it is demonstrated that the EPA acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner or "otherwise in violation of the law."  That is a pretty tough hurdle to clear. 

Also, the Court didn't address whether EPA could be entitled to penalties for non-compliance during the appeal let alone whether EPA could be entitled to double penalties-  one set of penalties for failing to comply with the EPA's order at $37,500 per day and a second for violating the Clean Water Act (also at $37,500 per day).   Therefore, a party could be risking up to $70,000 per day to continue its challenge of the EPA's action. 

Until another court rules EPA is not entitled to collect such large penalties during the appeal, the deck is still pretty much stacked in EPA's favor or in the Court's words, EPA can still "strong arm" regulated parties.

EPA Finds No Support in the Courts for Wetland Guidance

Ever since Rapanos,  EPA has struggled to consistently apply the "continuous surface connection" and "significant nexus test"  which both emerged from the Supreme Court decision. The two tests are to be used to determine whether wetlands fall within federal jurisdiction.  

To combat these inconsistencies, the Army Corps (ACOE)  has adopted guidance documents to help its staff apply the tests in the field.  The ACOE's first Post-Rapanos guidance document was issued in 2008. The U.S. EPA and ACOE worked together to draft the second Post-Rapanos guidance document in June 2011.  EPA's webpage still identifies the 2011 guidance as "draft."

Federal Courts Limit ACOE and EPA Use of Guidance

National Mining Association v. Lisa Jackson

While EPA and the ACOE continue to try and use guidance to clarify their regulations, the courts have severely limited application of guidance in wetland permit reviews.  In the latest decision, National Mining Association v. Lisa Jackson (Oct. 6, 2011), the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia struck down policies and procedures adopted by U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) regarding dredge and fill permits under the Clean Water Act.

The guidance involved "mountaintop removal mining," where rock and soil overburden is moved from atop coal seams and placed drainage channels.  In 2009 the EPA, Corps, and the U.S. Department of Interior entered into a memorandum which outlined when EPA would review Section 404 permits that involved surface coal mining and water quality impacts.

EPA argued that the memo clarified the procedural process for reviewing Section 404 permits.  EPA says it had broad discretion to establish procedures in how to implement statutes.

The Court disagreed.  It said that the memo had the legal impact of a rule because it imposed unequivocal requirements.  Also, the Court said the Clean Water Act limits EPA's role to select functions in the Section 404 permit review process, such as issuing a veto of a permit if EPA determines it will have an "unacceptable adverse effect."  The Court said the memo tried to expand EPA permit review role beyond that enumerated in the CWA.  Therefore, the Court said the memo was actually a rule in disguise.

Precon Development Corp., Inc. v. ACOE

The National Mining decision follows the Fourth Circuit decision in Precon Development Corp., Inc. v. Army Corps of Engineers, in which the Court also limited use wetland guidance in permitting decisions.  In Precon, the Court refused to provide the same legal deference to the Corps permitting decision because it had failed to adopt a rule for applying the "significant nexus test." 

In Precon, the Corps had utilized its 2008 Post-Rapanos guidance document in arriving at its decision a wetland was subject to federal jurisdiction.  The Court found that ACOE administrative record supporting its determination was inadequate.  The Court said the ACOE must find some evidence that the wetlands and other water bodies at issue perform functions that are considered "significant" for there to be determined a connection to a navigable water. 

The Court suggested the ACOE jurisdictional review may have been entitled to more deference if the Agency had adopted a rule rather than using guidance in making its decision.  The Court said it would not give as much deference to the ACOE application of the "significant nexus test" in this case because the Agency relied the 2008 Post-Rapanos guidance and not a rule. 

Conclusion

The EPA and ACOE's 2011 Post-Rapanos guidance has still not been finalized.  The public comment period was closed in July. 

Both the National Mining and Precon cases demonstrate that, even if the guidance is finalized, the Agency's jurisdictional determinations will not receive as much deference without a formal rule.  Furthermore, if any aspect of the 2011 guidance is found to impose unequivocal requirements on Section 404 applicants it could be struck down as illegal rulemaking.

 

Army Corps/EPA Propose to Expand Federal Jurisdication over Waters and Wetlands

The U.S. Supreme Court issued two landmark decisions, Rapanos and SWANCC, which interpret the extent of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.  Since these decisions were issued the Army Corps of Engineers as well as Courts have had difficulty applying the tests for determining federal jurisdiction in a consistent and coherent manner.

The Army Corps of Engineers, in its 2008 Rapanos Guidance, set forth its methods for applying the Supreme Court tests for determining federal jurisdiction.   The prior written guidance left open key issues such as:

  • Which of the two tests (Kennedy or Scalia) should be utilized- see discussion below
  • Since the statutory language at issue, "waters of the United States,"  appears in other sections of the Clean Water Act how do the Supreme Court tests apply to regulatory requirements not directly addressed by the Supreme Court Decision.

The new 2010 Draft Rapanos Guidance (click link for a copy) attempts to address these issues as well as others. 

Perhaps most importantly, the draft guidance announces that its application will greatly expand the number of waters falling within federal jurisdiction- "the Agencies expect that the numbers of waters found to be subject to CWA jurisdiction will increase significantly compared to practices under the 2003 SWANCC guidance and the 2008 Rapanos guidance.”   The Agencies criticize the 2008 Rapanos guidance as interpreting Justice Kennedy's test too narrowly. 

Recap of Supreme Court Tests

The Rapanos decision contains two tests for determining federal jurisdiction.  The plurality test and the significant nexus test created by Justice Kennedy.  A key debate since the Supreme Court decision in the lower courts has been whether one or both tests should be used to determine jurisdiction.  Here is recap of the two tests that emerged from Rapanos:

  1. Significant Nexus Test- (Justice Kennedy) Federal Clean Water Act Jurisdiction extends to all waterways that have a "significant nexus" to a navigable water. A "significant nexus" occurs "if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as `navigable
  2. Plurality Test- (Just Scalia) The test developed by the plurality has a more narrow focus than the Kennedy test.  Under the test, federal jurisdiction extends to only "relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water"

New 2010 Draft Rapanos Guidance

EPA and the Army Corp's 2010 Rapanos guidance basically states the agencies will apply Justice Kennedy test exclusively, the more expansive of the two tests.  Also, as discussed above, the guidance contains a clear message that the Justice Kennedy test will be applied by the agencies in a more expansive manner than under the 2008 guidance. 

The new guidance also applies to more programs under the Clean Water Act (CWA)  The 2008 Rapanos guidance focused only on the CWA 404 regulations governing placement of fill in wetlands and streams.  The 2010 Draft Guidance is far more expansive, stating it is meant to apply to “whether a water body is subject to any of the programs authorized under the CWA."  Such CWA programs include sections 402 (NPDES), 311 (oil spill), 303 (water quality standards and TMDLs) and 401 (state water quality certification) programs.

Status of Written Guidance

The draft 2010 Guidance was sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review. OMB has until March 20, 2011 to conclude its review (90 days from the date it was submitted).  EPA and the Army Corps have also said they will provide a limited opportunity for comment once the draft clears OMB review.

It goes without saying that there is concern with the new guidance.  Industry has already stated it believes it is overly expansive and also incorporates language into Justice Kennedy's test that the Justice never intended. 

Based on the federal agencies attempt to greatly expand federal jurisdiction through release of the guidance, it will almost certainly be challenged. 

Clean Water Restoration Act- Federal Expansion or Restoring Protections?

On June 18th the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on a vote of 12-7, passed the amended version of the Clean Water Restoration Act.  The proposal is seen by some as an attempt to fix a major hole in the Clean Water Act.  Others see it as a major extension of federal regulation.  I see it as a State's rights issue...

The debate over the bill has centered on whether federal jurisdiction should cover essentially all streams and wetlands. (for a discussion of the jurisdiction issue see the extended entry to this post)  The hardcore supporters or detractors appear to break into two camps:

  1. Farmers who want the independence and flexibility to address irrigation or flooding without the need of federal permits
  2. Without passage the majority of streams and wetlands will be left completely unprotected leading to a complete destruction of water quality even in federally regulated waterways. 

If you think I'm painting the camps too dramatically let me provide some examples.  First from the protection camp (post on Blue Living Ideas).

Without CWRA, we could return to the times of the Cuyahoga River burning and the Great Lakes smelling like cesspools. The Clean Water Act is important legislation that needs restoration. It’s about birds; it’s about clean water; it’s about drinking water. CWA was intended to protect all of America’s waters from pollution, not just those that are navigable.

Now from the farmer's perspective (post on Drovers).

Under current law, the federal government has jurisdiction over "navigable waters of the United States." However, by removing the word "navigable" from the definition, the CWRA would expand federal regulatory control to unprecedented levels - essentially putting stock tanks, drainage ditches, any puddle or water feature found on family farms and ranches—potentially even ground water—under the regulatory strong-arm of the federal government.

There are of course other perspective, such as the U.S. Chamber's.  In a letter to the Senate Committee the U.S. Chamber opposes the Clean Water Restoration Act because it fears the expansive language will be used by citizen groups to stop development projects:

It has been well-documented that deletion of the term “navigable” from the definition of “waters of the United States” could lead to the unnecessary expansion of the CWA to certain intrastate waters. The bill does attempt to address this problem by listing the specific types of waters explicitly covered by the CWA and exempting others. However, the Chamber’s primary concern is that, despite the good intentions of the Committee in negotiating a compromise, S.787 as drafted is still subject to manipulation by activist groups whose only goal is to stop development.

Lost in the debate seems to be Republican notions of federalism.  When it comes to environmental protection, States seem to often loose the argument that they can craft better regulations or even be trusted to adopt any regulation at all.

The lack of trust makes groups push hard for federal regulation, which is unfortunate because State crafted water quality regulatory programs should be a much better alternative. Here are some reasons why an expanded Ohio jurisdiction over waterways and wetlands may be preferable to "putting all waters under federal protection." 

  1. Regulations crafted at the local level-  ideally States should be in a better position to address unique water quality issues that may be present in their state.  Rather than one size fits all approach under federal regulations.
  2. One permit instead of two-  If the Clean Water Restoration Act passes, anyone with development projects in the State that impacts a stream or wetland will have to get a 401 water quality certification and a 404 permit.  This means all development projects face distinct regulators who may push for different outcomes to mitigate for impacts. 
  3. Greater Flexibility-  In navigating federal regulations, companies and developers often must deal with the "national consistency" argument.  In other words, "we can't be flexible in this instance because we have to worry we are setting national precedent."
  4. Navigation of only one regulatory structures-  Water quality regulation is a complex business.  It involves biological and chemical criteria.  Navigating two complex regulatory structures (federal and state) bogs down business.  An efficient regulatory structure can still be protective.

A state water permit program is not only a possibility, it was proposed by Ohio EPA in the fall of 2008 in response to shrinking federal regulation.  The State's proposal has met with significant resistance which has slowed the rule development process down to a crawl.  However, for the reasons articulated above perhaps its worth reconsidering positions on the proposal.  

Those groups opposing both the Clean Water Restoration Act and Ohio EPA's proposed Water Quality Permit Program must realize they will not get it both ways.  There is too much support for protecting streams and wetlands to have no regulatory program in place.  Without a strong push for State regulation, the default will be to push for federal regulation.

To fend off federal regulation through adoption of effective state regulation, supporters must address the perception of many that State's engage in a "race to the bottom" when enacting environmental regulation.  Federal legislation like the Clean Water Restoration Act get pushed because fear by many groups that if regulation is left up to the State's they will all compete to have the least amount of protections or requirements. 

(Photo: Colin Gregory Palmer/everystockphoto.com)

The Supreme Court got things set in motion by issuing its decisions in SWANCC and Rapanos which significantly narrowed the jurisdiction of U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act. The decisions were seen at first as limiting jurisdiction over wetlands. However, the same term "navigable water" was used in the Clean Water Act to discuss wetlands or streams that fall within federal regulation.

The Rapanos decision increased regulatory uncertainty. At decision with no clear majority (4-4-1) that includes two separate methods of determining whether waters or wetlands are federally regulated. Under the Plurality test a stream must have permanent flow and be connected to a navigable water. Under Justice Kennedy's test, the waterway must have a "significant nexus" to a navigable water. Whether such a nexus exists depends upon whether impacts to a waterway would have a impact on the chemical, physical or biological quality of downstream navigable waters.

After the Rapanos decisions was issued, U.S. EPA and the ACOE issued guidance to determine whether waters where federally regulated using the tests established by the Supreme Court. The guidance did not remove the uncertainty. As noted in a prior post, the U.S. EPA Inspector General released a report that indicated tremendous uncertainty persists in applying the law. The uncertainty impacted some 489 enforcement cases across the country. Some have estimated that 60% of the nations waterways have been left unprotected as a result of the narrow federal jurisdiction applicable under the Rapanos tests. 

Lower courts have had difficulty in applying the Rapanos test on a consistent basis.  (Legal Planet: The Environmental Law and Policy Blog- has a good discussion of regarding the inconsistency in application of the two tests under Rapanos.)

In response to all this uncertainty many environmental groups and states have pushed for a Rapanos "fix." A change in the federal Clean Water Act to extend coverage to unprotected waterways. The "fix" has now taken the form of the Clean Water Restoration Act. In reality, the Act proposes a fairly simple fix- delete the term "navigable waters" as a limiting factor on federal jurisdiction over waterways. In its place substitute a new term "Waters of the U.S." 

The amended version of the Clean Water Restoration Act does include two exceptions from coverage from the broad definition of "waters of the U.S.".  Those exemptions include:

  1. Converted Cropland- included in an attempt to appease the agricultural community
  2. Waste Treatment Systems- included to address things like wastewater treatment systems and storm water retention ponds

The amended version also includes statements intended to limit coverage under the new term "waters of the U.S." to only that federal jurisdiciton that existed prior to SWANCC. 

The bill now moves to the full Senate where passage is less than certain even with the new 60 vote majority held by the Democrats.

 

EPA Inspector General Reports Impact of Rapanos Uncertainty

U.S. EPA's Office of Inspector General released a report regarding the effects of the Supreme Court's decision in Rapanos on enforcement of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.  The report, titled Comments Related to Effects Jurisdictional Uncertainty On Clean Water Act Implementation, contains some interesting observations and discussion.  Bottomline, the lack of clarity for determining whether wetlands or waterways fall within the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act has led to U.S. EPA dropping hundred of enforcement cases. 

Overall, CWA enforcement activities (for Sections 311 (oil spills), 402 (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System), and 404) have decreased since the Rapanos ruling. An estimated total of 489 enforcement cases (Sections 311, 402, and 404 combined) have been affected such that formal enforcement was not pursued as a result of jurisdictional uncertainty, case priority was lowered as a result of jurisdictional uncertainty, or lack of jurisdiction was asserted as an affirmative defense to an enforcement action.

Some interesting observations by the EPA lawyers who are  trying to provide advice to those enforcing the Clean Water Act:  Here are two notable comments about the legal terms that are causing uncertainty:

Traditional navigable waterways evade easy definition; even the Supreme Court has been vague on the precise scope of traditional navigable waterways. Traditional navigable waterways have arisen in multiple legal contexts over the years, not just in CWA discussions. Many stakeholders find the Appendix D definition to be still too broad to adequately serve the jurisdictional issues created by the Rapanos decision. The OGC attorneys noted that there had been considerable discussion about the scope of traditional navigable waterways in Fall 2007. Traditional navigable waterways continue to be an issue in some "isolated (a)(3)" elevations.

"Adjacency" was not addressed by the Supreme Court. Although there are 1-2 sentences on it in the interim June 2007 guidance, it remains an imprecise term. However, OGC staff is working with various program offices to create a follow-up to the June 2007 Rapanos guidance where adjacency, among other things, will be addressed. The real debate involves the interpretation of one aspect of the "adjacency" definition: "neighboring." This "neighboring" term was a cornerstone of the debate in the Carabell case.

The blog Great Lakes Law provides a good summary of the aftermath of the Rapanos Decision as well as discussing the possible legislative fix currently being debated in Congress:

Rapanos / Carabell vs. United States resulted in a divided Court issuing a confusing 4-4-1 divided ruling that cast doubt on whether non-navigable tributaries and their associated wetlands were protected by the Clean Water Act. The Rapanos decision has put at risk safeguards for approximately 60% of the nation’s stream miles (exclusive of Alaska) and their neighboring wetlands.

If nearly 60% of the rivers and wetlands are "unprotected" under federal law, it would seem there would be strong pressure on the States to fill the void.  That pressure is being felt in Ohio where it has proposed a new permit program for impacts to streams.  This proposed rule, if it goes final, would likely be challenged.  This could lead to the State of Ohio's own Rapanos-type decision in the State Supreme Court.  Although that is a long way off.

Outside of new regulations, some states have legal authority that appears broader then federal jurisdiction over waterways.  I wonder whether in any of the 500 cases the U.S. EPA  has dropped they attempted to make a reverse referral to the States for enforcement.   For instance, Ohio Revised Code 6111 has a very broad definition of "Waters of the State" which could form the basis of a State enforcement action:

“Waters of the state” means all streams, lakes, ponds, marshes, watercourses, waterways, wells, springs, irrigation systems, drainage systems, and other bodies or accumulations of water, surface and underground, natural or artificial, regardless of the depth of the strata in which underground water is located, that are situated wholly or partly within, or border upon, this state, or are within its jurisdiction, except those private waters that do not combine or effect a junction with natural surface or underground waters.

Many are pinning their hopes on a Congressional fix that would expand federal jurisdiction beyond navigable waters or those with a "significant nexus" to a navigable water.   Legislation has been proposed- the Clean Water Restoration Act.  It would redefine fedral waterways covered by the Clean Water Act by dropping the term "navigable" as a qualifier to which waters are covered.  It would also add the following language regarding federal

WATERS OF THE UNITED STATES.—The term ‘waters of the United States’ means all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing, to the fullest extent that these waters, or activities affecting these waters, are subject to the legislative power of Congress under the Constitution."

This language would certainly capture virtually every water way.   However, it is very controversial.  Especially out West.  Perhaps with Democratic control this legislation will begin to move, but it still faces a huge challenge.  As a result, states will be feeling increasing pressure, like Ohio has, to exercise existing authority in an attempt to fill the void left by the Rapanos decision.

(Photo: whiskymac/everystockphoto.com)

Controversial Ohio EPA Rule Proposes New Permit For Impacts To All Streams

On September 12, 2008, Ohio EPA issued proposed rules that would require a new permit, called a "state water quality permit", for all dredge or fill impacts to non-federally regulated streams.  Ohio may be the first state in the country to try and expand state stream permit requirements in reaction to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting the coverage of the Clean Water Act.  As discussed below, Ohio's effort will be controversial.

 The Supreme Court in Rapanos and SWANCC limited federal jurisdiction of the nation's waterways based upon its interpretation of the Clean Water Act's trigger for jurisdiction- "Navigable Waters".  In a prior post (Narrowing Federal Jurisdiction Over Waterways), I discussed the pressure mounting on States to react to federal court decisions which leave many waterways unprotected.  

Currently, Ohio EPA only requires a permit (401 permit) to fill or dredge a stream if the stream is under federal jurisdiction.   No permit is required if a stream is considered a state waterway but not a federal waterway.

In the past this approach didn't matter much because the Army Corps had a very expansive interpretation of federal waterways.  However, with the federal authority shrinking based upon a flurry of recent federal court decisions, the State felt it could no longer allow more and more streams to go unprotected.  In reaction, they have proposed a new rule that would require a permit for dredge or fill activity on any Ohio waterway, defined as "waters of the state" under Ohio Revised Code 6111.01(H). 

While Ohio EPA's action is understandable, after reviewing the rule, the Agency may be overcompensating.  The definition of a "water of state" is quite expansive under O.R.C. 6111.01(H), it includes:

 "...all streams, lakes, ponds, marshes, watercourses, waterways, wells, springs, irrigation systems, drainage systems, and other bodies or accumulations of water, surface and underground, natural or artificial, regardless of depth of the strata in which underground water is located, that are situated wholly or partly within, or border upon, this state, or are within its jurisdiction, except those private waters that do not combine or effect a junction with natural surface or underground waters."

I can see the lobbyists now, holding up pictures of a small puddle and arguing that Ohio EPA would require a permit for putting a few shovels of dirt in the hole.  Only problem is there is not much in the rule to refute this claim from a purely legal perspective.  The rule does not contain an exemption from permit requirements for small water bodies or deminimis impacts. 

In my experience the Agency is typically not persuasive when it argue "just trust us" to apply the regulation fairly.  As a result, there is no doubt this rule package will be very controversial. 

Other issues with the package include the following:

  1. Same Level Review for All Impacts-  While flawed, Ohio's isolated wetland permit requirements appropriately tries to match the level of review required with the amount/severity of impact.  The proposed rule makes no such effort.  All impacts are required to submit the same amount of technical information as part of their application. Also, all projects will be reviewed within 180 days, expedited review requirements for smaller projects is not included in the rule.
  2. Drainage Ditches- Who can clean out a ditch and when has been a controversial issue in Ohio for some time.  The proposed rule would put significant limitations on when ditches can be cleaned out for purposes of flood control or drainage.
  3. Clean Fill Materials- The rule limits fill to material "free from toxic contaminants in other than trace quantities."  While this limitation often appears in 401 permits, it has always been vague.  The rule adds no clarity to what is considered "trace quantities."  For instance, arsenic is naturally occurring in most Ohio soils.  Couldn't this limit be viewed to prohibit use of even typical Ohio farm soil as fill?
  4. All Permit Applicants Will Have to Wait-  The rule requires every applicant provide a copy of a determination letter from the Army Corps of Engineers as to whether the waters to be impacted are within federal jurisdiction.  Shouldn't some waters be just obviously not within federal jurisdiction?  This requirement is problematic because the Army Corps has been very slow to issue jurisdictional determinations. 
  5. Ohio EPA Guidance Elevated to Legal Requirements-  The rule requires all applicants evaluate the quality of streams in accordance with a series of technical guidance developed by Ohio EPA.  While these guidance documents have been used for years in permit reviews, it certainly will be controversial to make them mandatory. 

Comments on the rule package are currently due October 27, 2008.  However, business associations  are already requesting Ohio EPA allow for more extensive public involvement in the development of the rules.

 (Photo: flickr, heather0174)

Narrowing Federal Jurisdiction Over Waterways

The USA Today did a story on the huge debate taking place over the limits of federal jurisdiction over waterways.   The debate ensued in the aftermath of two major Supreme Court cases dealing with federal jurisdiction over wetlands. 

Early on the focus after Rapanos and SWANCC was which wetlands would receive federal protection.  Now, after a series of federal district court rulings and proposed federal legislation, the debate has grown to be much larger.  The States may soon find themselves in the middle scrambling to fill some large holes in federal authority.

(Image: Colin Gregory Palmer/everystockphoto.com)

At issue was the term "navigable waters" which appears repeatedly in the Clean Water Act.  Both Rapanos and SWANCC looked at that term as it related federal jurisdiction over wetlands.  The Supreme Court ruled that Congress, by using the term "navigable waters", did not intend to use its full powers under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.  Rather, Congress limited exercise of its authority to waters and wetlands that had some significant connection to a "navigable in fact waterway." 

Unfortunately the Court could not agree on a clear test for determining which waters are federally protected.  Justice Kennedy's broader "significant nexus" test seems to have emerged as the most relevant test.  Under the "significant nexus" test, any stream, pond, wetland or other waterway that has a "significant nexus" to a navigable water is federally protected.  "Significant nexus" means it has a significant effect on the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the navigable water.

The grey area are intermittent streams and isolated ponds/wetlands.  Litigation has seen a clash between experts arguing over whether there is some significant hydrologic connection to a navigable water. 

Now two major cases have expanded the debate from beyond just wetlands.  Back in 2006, the 5th Circuit in United States v. Chevron Pipe Line Co. 437 F. Supp. 2d 605, 614 (N.D. Tex. June 28, 2006)  drastically limited the federal government's authority to pursue spill and contamination in waterways.  Chevron involved a major oil spill of 126,000 gallons.  The Company successfully argued there was no federal violation resulting from the spill because contamination only reached intermittent streams that had no flow during the time of the spill or during clean up.  The Court put the burden on U.S. EPA to prove contamination actually reached a navigable water.

In March, a Federal Court vacated U.S. EPA's SPCC Rule (API v. Johnson, No. 02-2247, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25859 (D.D.C March 31, 2008) because it contained an overly broad definition of navigable water.  The Court ruled there was no way U.S. EPA could defend the regulation in light of the recent Supreme Court rulings limiting federal jurisdiction.  The result of this ruling may be less facilities will need to prepare spill control plans. 

Many are focused on the proposed federal legislation as the viable fix to these gaps in federal authority. The legislation would expand coverage under the Clean Water Act from "navigable waters' to "waters of the United States".   As highlighted in the USA Today article, given the controversy over such a large expansion of federal jurisdiction, I don't see legislation passing anytime soon.  This means the States, who have broader authority will soon be facing the prospect of filling the gaps in federal authority using state permitting or enforcement authority.