Waters of the United States?

Does this picture show a waterbody that should fall under federal protection pursuant to the Clean Water Act?

Do you believe this is a stream that has a "significant nexus" to a navigable waterway (current test established under Rapanos by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy)

Is it reasonable to require a Federal Section 404 and State 401 Water Quality Permit in order to fill this drainage way adjacent to the road?

Well, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) issued a Jurisdictional Determination (JD) finding that this is a federally protected stream.  This is a perfect example of why so much controversy surrounds the extent of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.

Recap of Rapanos

Since Rapanos, Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test has been used to determine jurisdiction for streams and wetlands. 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.

The significant nexus test is really a legal test, not a scientific one.  As such, the test is very subjective.  As a result, litigation has ensued over whether streams and wetlands fall under federal jurisdiction.

ACOE Extends its Reach

The ACOE applies the "significant nexus" test in making a JD.  It is the initial step in the process. However, as previously discussed in a recent post, it is difficult for a landowner to challenge a JD issued by the ACOE.  Their choice if they disagree with the Corps determination is either to proceed with the project and risk fines or acquiesce and initiate the permitting process.  

Perhaps in full recognition that most landowners will not fight a JD issued by the ACOE, certain Districts of the ACOE have been aggressive in their application of the "significant nexus" test.  The picture demonstrates one such example.  

Impact on EPA Rule

In attempt to address the increasing amount of litigation and uncertainty surrounding which water bodies fall under federal regulation, EPA released is proposed rule- "Definition of 'Waters of the United States' Under the Clean Water Act". The rule was released on March 25, 2014.

Many in the business community have commented that EPA's proposed rule provides certainty by purporting to regulate virtually all waterways. The rule proposal contains an entirely new definition of "tributary," which under the proposed rule, would be classified as jurisdictional waters with no further analysis.  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 Agency's proposed rule is controversial due to its open ended language providing discretion to capture almost anything as a federally protected stream.

Take the picture above, it could be argued this ditch has intermittent flow.  It may have a defined bed and bank.  If you traced its connections long enough, you probably could find another waterway to which it contributes flow.  

It is understandable why EPA would want to maintain the flexibility to broadly assert federal jurisdiction. There are many small tributaries that can impact water quality if destroyed.  EPA is worried about leaving such tributaries unprotected and allowing large impacts to those waterways with no oversight.

However, broad language cuts the other way as well.  The roadside ditch in the picture can also be deemed legally protected.  As such, the landowner, municipality or developer is forced to navigate a lengthy and costly permitting process to impact the ditch.  

A Reasonable Compromise?

Perhaps the vagueness of the "significant nexus" test isn't such a bad thing.  It allows those small tributaries to be protected.  At the same time, the test allows for a legal demonstration that a small waterway is not worth protecting because it has no real value.

The issue is the inability of landowners to cost effectively challenge JD issued by the Corps. Perhaps establishing an administrative appeal process that would allow for quick challenges to JD determinations would be a reasonable compromise.

 

Sackett Case Could Be a "Game Changer" on EPA Enforcement

Back in June, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Sackett v. EPA which could forever change the way EPA enforcement actions are defended.  While the case involves an EPA administrative enforcement order for unauthorized filling of a wetland, the ruling potentially impacts EPA enforcement under all its major statutes- RCRA (hazardous waste), Clean Air Act (CAA), Clean Water Act (CAA), and even CERCLA.

What is at issue?

When EPA believes a violation of its regulations has occurred it has the power to issue an administrative order compelling the alleged violator to remedy the issue.  EPA takes the position that the person/entity subject to that order cannot challenge the Order's validity prior to EPA taking a formal enforcement action in Court (referred to as "pre-enforcement review"). 

EPA's position leaves the person or company subject to the order with a Hobson's choice- either comply and incur the costs upfront or defy the order and face penalties for its noncompliance.

The courts have almost universally upheld EPA's position that its compliance orders cannot be challenged until it takes an enforcement action.  However, the Supreme Court has agreed to take a fresh look at this issue in the Sackett case.

Synopsis of Sackett Case

The Sacketts were building a residential home on their property.  EPA alleges that, during construction of the home, the Sacketts filled a 1/2 wetland without a permit. Filling a wetland without a permit is a violation of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.   EPA issued an administrative order requiring the Sacketts to remove the fill and restore their property to its original condition.

Sacketts could either spend the money to remove the fill and restore the property or they faced penalties for non-compliance with EPA's order of up to $37,500 per day.  To give an idea of the risk the Sacketts must take if they did not comply, one month's worth of penalties could equal $750,000.

Sacketts petitioned EPA for a hearing to challenge EPA conclusion that their property had a jurisdictional wetland.  EPA did not grant the hearing, so the Sacketts filed suit making the following challenges:

  1. No Bar to Pre-Enforcement Review of EPA's Order-  The Sacketts argue that the Clean Water Act ("CWA"), unlike CERCLA (Superfund), contains no express statutory bar to pre-enforcement review of administrative orders.  Therefore, the should be able to challenge the validity of EPA's order without risking being subject to civil penalties for non-compliance with the Order.
  2. If there is a Bar to Pre-Enforcement Review it Violates Due Process under the Constitution-  In the alternative, if the Court finds that the CWA does contain an implied bar against pre-enforcement review, such a bar violates the U.S. Constitutional guarantee of Due Process.

 Game Changer?

If the Supreme Court agrees with the Sacketts, companies and individuals would be provided much better options when facing an EPA order.  Rather than immediately complying or risking penalties, they could challenge the EPA's order in Court.  Importantly, the challenge could be made before EPA has the legal authority to assert civil penalties for failure to comply with the Order.

This case involves EPA's enforcement authority under all its major statutes (CWA, RCRA, CAA and CERCLA).  This means EPA efforts to immediately compel action under any of these statutes through administrative orders would be practically be eliminated.  It would likely mean that EPA would, in many cases, skip the administrative order step and immediately sue in Court.

Legal Arguments

Implied Bar Against Pre-Enforcement Review

Only CERCLA contains an express bar in the statute against pre-enforcement review of administrative orders issued under the Act.  While the other environmental statutes (CWA, RCRA and CAA) don't contain such an express bar, the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) states that a bar exists if the "the congressional intent to preclude judicial review is fairly discernible in the statutory scheme."

The Ninth Circuit in Sackett said the bar was implied in the CWA because Congress intended EPA to have the authority to remedy violations quickly.  Similar arguments have been successful in other cases challenging EPA's authority involving other statutes.

The Supreme Court will review the Ninth Circuit's determination that an implied bar exists.

Bar Against Pre-Enforcement Review Violates Due Process

Even if the Court finds the implied bar exists, it could still say such a bar violates the Constitution.  At issue will be whether the negative ramifications of receiving a Unilateral Administrative Order constitute property deprivations protected by the Due Process Clause

General Electric ("GE") challenged EPA's Administrative Order authority when it received an CERCLA Order requiring clean up.  GE argued that its stock price could suffer, its brand would take a hit and it could face higher financing costs.  GE said all of these negative ramifications were enough a property deprivation to require due process (i.e. the ability to challenge the Order pre-enforcement).

The D.C. Circuit rejected GE's arguments.  It said GE could always challenge any penalties for noncompliance once EPA brought an enforcement action in Court.  It also found the consequential impacts on GE from receiving the Order were not significant enough to merit due process protection.

Conclusion

The odd thing is that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Sackett case.  Only three weeks earlier it rejected GE's petition on the Due Process issue.  Also, regarding the existence of an implied bar, there appears to be no split among Circuits on the issue that typically is a basis for the Supreme Court to review an issue. 

The fact that the Court agreed to hear the case suggests some on the Court are uncomfortable with the current state of the law.

When Do I have to Report a Chemical/Oil Spill or Other Release

There are a myriad of federal statutes that require your company to report a spill to any of the following:

  • National Response Center
  • State Emergency Response Center (SERC)
  • Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC)
  • Local Fire Department

Failure to report a spill can lead to an enforcement action as well as civil penalties.  Also, failure to respond appropriately following a spill can lead to serious ramifications for your company in terms of exposure to greater clean up costs, property damages, or environmental harm. 

Due to the liability exposure associated with managing and reporting spills appropriately, its wise for all corporations to have prepared an internal corporate policy for spill response.  The policy would not only cover when you have a legal obligation to report a spill to regulators, but also how to communicate about a spill internally within the company.

Depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the spill event, you are not always under a legal obligation to report a spill to the authorities.  Its wise to know your regulatory obligations before making the decision to report.  Otherwise, you may be inviting teams of regulators to your facility unnecessarily. (Click here for U.S. EPA's Website on Spill Reporting)

The facts of each event are different.  Therefore, each must be analyzed independently to determine your regulatory obligations.  However, its wise to get familiar with the triggers for mandatory reporting.

Attached is a series of power point slides which contains information regarding the most commonly applied federal regulations that may trigger mandatory reporting to federal or state regulators.  The spreadsheet shows the event, regulation, trigger level and reporting requirement. 

These charts were based upon a more limited spreadsheet prepared by Region VII of U.S. EPA called the Fact Sheet on Emergency Release Reporting Requirements.  They are meant for reference only and cannot substitute for analysis of each regulation and the facts surrounding your particular event.  However, I hope they are useful to you in getting familiar with the mandatory reporting obligations that exist.

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.

 

Ending 40 Years Of Cleveland Jokes: A River's Recovery

June 22nd will mark the 40 year anniversary of the famous 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River.  A picture of the fire in Time magazine was credited with bringing national focus to water pollution in the United States.  Here is a quote from a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer Article on the notorious fire:

"The fire did contribute a huge amount to the new environmental movement and it put the issue in front of everyone else, too," said Jonathan Adler, environmental historian and law professor at Case Western Reserve University. "Water pollution became a tangible, vivid thing -- like it had never been on a national level. "There was a sense of crisis at that point. It was: Oh, my God -- rivers are catching on fire.' "

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act whose stated goal is to make waterways across the country "fishable and swimmable."  Forty years ago, achieving the goal of the Clean Water Act seemed impossible for rivers like the Cuyahoga. 

The River was virtually dead from the release of industrial wastes and untreated sewage along with intensive urban and industrial development.  I remember talking with some of the original employees of the Ohio EPA who described the rivers like the Cuyahgoa and the Mahoning were virtually boiling from steel mills and other industrial sources that did not cool their water prior to discharging into the River.      

Flash forward to 2009, we are about to celebrate the anniversary of the fire by marking a significant achievement  in its recovery.  The Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan along with Ohio EPA has submitted a request U.S. EPA to take official action by removing most of the river  from list of the most polluted rivers in the Great Lakes (delisting request).  As the Chairman of the Cuyahoga RAP, I was lucky enough to sign the letter submitting the official request to U.S. EPA. 

The area of recovery stretches from Akron to 50 miles down the River to its navigation channel.  A once dead River is now teaming with life.  The River so notorious for its fire is now become a favorite for steelhead fly fishing. 

Perhaps no aspect of the recovery tells the story better then the return of fish to the River. The chart to the left is part of the delisting request to U.S. EPA.  It is a compilation of years of data collection from the River.  The horizontal axis is the miles of the River.  The vertical axis is the number of fish species. 

1969 is represented by the nearly flat purple line across the bottom indicatng virtually no life in the River except for its upper most reaches.  The green line across the top is 2008 which shows between 15 to 25 species living in the River.  (The dip in the green line is the Route 83 dam which shows how dams can have dramatic impacts on water quality)

What an amazing recovery.  From dead in 1969 to a River that has a wide variety of species and healthy fish in 2008.  Here are some more details on the return of fish to the River:

  • In 1984 the relative number of fish caught per kilometer was 53. In 2008 the relative number was 657 fish per kilometer. 
  • Total species in 1984 was 28, compared to 43 in 2008 with ¼ fewer sites. 
  • In 1984 there was only 1 individual of a sensitive species. In 2008 there were 10 sensitive species comprising 1412 individuals (31% of the total catch). 
  • In 1984 there were only 8 bass caught. In 2008 there were 221 bass caught, with the dominant species being Smallmouth Basin. 
  • In 1984 there was only 1 darter individual collected. In 2008 there were 5 species of darters (228 individuals). 
  • In 1984 there were no redhorse species (sensitive) in the entire reach. In 2008 there were 3 species (96 individuals). 

What are the reasons behind the miraculous recovery of the Crooked River?  It took a combination of major investment, successful environmental regulation and protecting the sensitive corridors along its banks. 

  1. Major investment by private industry and municipal wastewater treatment facilities- the North East Ohio Regional Sewer District and Akron's wastewater system have invested billions of dollar upgrading treatment.  Industry along the river has invested millions in new treatment wastewater treatment technology and improved business practices.
  2. Environmental regulation- Often maligned, the recovery demonstrates that regulation can be effective.  The Clean Water Act brought permits to all the major discharges to the River.  Overtime, as technology improved, the permits ratcheted down how much pollution dischargers could put into the river.
  3. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Cleveland Metroparks- Maintaining natural vegetation along the banks of rivers and streams has major benefits to water quality.  This vegetation operates as filters-absorbing non-point pollution before  it can impact waterways.  It also provide habitat for important bugs and critters that breathe life into streams.  The Cuyahoga Valley National Park protects 33,000 acres along the banks of the Cuyahoga River.  The park system operates as a massive riparian corridor along the River. 

Local news coverage of the remarkable comeback of the burning River has been good.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer has a series dedicated to the Year of the River.  But this deserves to be a national story.  So often the Midwest and Cleveland seem to be the epicenter of bad news- from a down economy to the housing crisis.  Don't get me started on the sports teams. 

What once brought Cleveland into the national spotlight for all the wrong reason should now bring attention for the rights ones.  How great would it be to see Time Magazine revisit the River forty years later!  Maybe with a picture of some fly fishing on the River.  Another reason to highlight the recovery nationally, the Obama Administration has requested $475 million in funding for the Great Lakes. What a better poster child for showing investment in the Great Lakes can work than the Cuyahoga.

If you want to do your part to help the river, you can purchase t-shirts and mugs embossed with the four fish graphic at the beginning of this post.   Money raised will be used to support on-going efforts to restore the River.  If you happen to be in the Cleveland area come down to the River on the 22nd and celebrate this amazing story or re-birth.  You can get details form of the events planned from the Cuyahoga RAP's website.

 

Riverkeepers: Is Weighing the Cost and Benefits of Environmental Regulations Really "Back On The Table"

On April 1st, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Entergy v. Riverkeepers which examined whether a cost benefit analysis is appropriate under certain provisions of the Clean Water Act, specifically Section 316(b) of the Act. As detailed below, there has been wide ranging debate over the significance of the decision.

At issue are large power plant cooling water intakes.  In the course of operation of these intakes large amounts of fish are pinned against the screens (called "impingement") or sucked into the plant (called "entrainment").  Due to the harmful effect to aquatic ecosystems, the intakes are subject to EPA regulations.  The CWA requires the location, design, construction, and capacity of cooling water intake structures reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact. 

EPA adopted regulations applicable to existing plants.  The regulations included the option for plants to obtain a variance from the requirement to install specified technology.  To obtain a variance the plant would need to demonstrate:

  1. costs of compliance are “significantly greater than” the costs considered by the agency in setting the standards, 40 CFR §125.94(a)(5)(i), or
  2. costs of compliance “would be significantly greater than the benefits of complying with the applicable performance standards,” §125.94(a)(5)(ii).

Where a variance is warranted, the permit-issuing authority must impose remedial measures that yield results “as close as practicable to the applicable performance standards.” 

Environmental groups challenged the ability to obtain a variance after performing a cost-benefit analysis.  The groups challenging EPA's rule argued that Section 316(b) is silent on the use of cost as a factor in setting forth the "best technology available" standard.  Because the statute is silent, the groups challenging the regulation argued the variance provision was illegal. 

Justice Scalia wrote the opinion for the Court which rejected the argument that 316(b)'s  silence means costs cannot be considered.  However, Justice Scalia did point to other language in the statute that the Court believed indicates costs could be considered.

the statute's use of the less ambitious goal of “minimizing adverse environmental impact” suggests, we think, that the agency retains some discretion to determine the extent of reduction that is warranted under the circumstances. That determination could plausibly involve a consideration of the benefits derived from reductions and the costs of achieving them.

There has been significant debate over the importance of the ruling.  (See New York Time- Groups Debate Supreme Court's Power Plant Ruling.  In the NYT's article, some argue the door is now open to increased use of cost-benefit analysis in environmental regulatory decision-making:

"While the Entergy decision rests on close analysis of the statutory language of a particular Clean Water Act provision, it is likely to be highly influential in granting EPA discretion to use cost-benefit analysis more generally when statutory language does not preclude it," said Tim Bishop, a partner in the Supreme Court and appellate practice at Mayer Brown.

The Wall Street Journal comments that the decision will have significant impact on future regulations:

The ruling addresses a huge question in the energy and environment battle raging right now—namely, how to strike the balance between environmental protections and safeguarding the economy. It also brings the field of cost-benefit analysis squarely back into the environmental debate.

The statements appearing in the Wall Street Journal dramatically overstate the impact of the decision.  The decision was based upon a very close analysis of the language in one specific provision of the Clean Water Act.  The Court avoided wide pronouncements regarding the use of cost benefit analysis in environmental decision making.

Even more importantly, silence alone was not enough.  Justice Scalia found other language in the statute- "minimizing"- as suggesting Congress intended costs to be considered. There are plenty of instances where environmental statutes strictly forbid considerations of costs.  In fact, Justice Scalia in his opinion cites to several other Clean Water Act sections that he deems to prohibit cost considerations. 

For cost-benefit analysis to really become a major factor in environmental policy, Congress will have to insert affirmative language into environmental statutes to allow for costs to be considered.  Something that appears unlikely given the current make up of Congress.

 (Photo: flickr mcgervey)

Army Corps/EPA Issue New Post-Rapanos Guidance on Federal Jurisdiction Over Streams and Wetlands

After the Supreme Court issued its decision in Rapanos, a lack of clarity persists as to how to determine whether a waterway or wetland is federally protected under the Clean Water Act.  This of course pretty critical in deciding which types of permits you may need to impact a stream or wetland.

On December 2nd, the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA released a new guidance document that builds upon earlier guidance.  The guidance provides more insight into what factors will be used to determine federal jurisdiction. 

Rapanos 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.  The new federal guidance makes clear the EPA/Corps position is that both tests should be applied.

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"

The new federal guidance creates three groups of waterways and wetlands- those that are categorically federal waterways, those where a fact specific analysis will be performed and those that are not federally protected.  A quick summary of the key factors for each category is set forth below:

 Categorical Federal Waters-  The following waters will be considered federal waters:

  • Traditional Navigable Waters- which include waters currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce
  • Wetlands adjacent to traditional navigable waters- (adjacent = 1) unbroken surface or subsurface connection; 2)  only separated by man-made barriers like a dike; or 3) science supports conclusion ecologically connected)
  • Non-navigable tributaries of traditional navigable waters that are relatively permanent where they have flow year-round or seasonal flow (typically three months)
  • Wetlands adjacent to these permanent non-navigable tributaries

Fact Specific "Significant Nexus" Test-  The Corps will have to engage in a fact specific analysis of the ecological factors in deciding whether to extend federal jurisdiction to non-adjacent or non permanent waterways justifies.  The fact specific analysis will include:

  • Examination of the flow characteristics and functions of  the tributary and any adjacent wetlands to determine whether such tributary has a significant effect on the chemical, physical and biological integrity of downstream traditional navigable waters.
  • Principal considerations when evaluating significant nexus include the volume,
    duration, and frequency of the flow of water in the tributary and the proximity of the
    tributary to a traditional navigable water
  • In examining flow, physical indicators of flow may include the presence and characteristics of a reliable ordinary high water mark (OHWM) with a channel defined by bed and banks. Other physical characteristics include shelving, wracking, water staining, sediment sorting, and scour.
  • Extent to which the tributary and adjacent wetlands have the capacity to carry pollutants (e.g., petroleum wastes, toxic wastes, sediment) or flood waters to traditional navigable waters, or to reduce the amount of pollutants or flood waters that would otherwise enter traditional navigable waters
  • Evaluate ecological functions such as the capacity to transfer nutrients and organic carbon vital to support downstream foodwebs (e.g., macroinvertebrates present in headwater streams convert carbon in leaf litter making it available to species downstream), habitat services such as providing spawning areas for recreationally or commercially important species in downstream waters

Non-jurisdictional waterways or wetlands-  The Corps will not extend federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction to the following waters and wetlands:

  • Swales or erosional features (e .g., gullies, small washes characterized by low volume, infrequent, or short duration flow)
  • Ditches (including roadside ditches) excavated wholly in and draining only uplands and that do not carry a relatively permanent flow of water

COMMENTARY:  While the guidance provide additional insight, legislative clarity is needed.  It should not take a 13 page memo that includes vague standards to determine whether a waterway or wetland is within federal jurisdiction.  Such a complex test is prone to inconsistent application.  We need a more straightforward test so its clear to everyone. 

 

 

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)

Update: Shrinking Jurisdiction Leads EPA to Drop Hundreds of Clean Water Act Cases

In a prior post discussing the impact of the Supreme Court's rulings limiting federal jurisdiction over waterways, I discussed how state's may feel increasing pressure to fill the gaps in federal authority.  A recent article in the Boston Globe on diminished EPA enforcement suggests the states are probably dusting off their legal theories as we speak. The Globe reported the following: 

The Bush administration didn't pursue hundreds of potential water pollution cases after a 2006 Supreme Court decision that restricted the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate seasonal streams and wetlands.

From July 2006 through December 2007 there were 304 instances where the EPA found what would have been violations of the Clean Water Act before the court's ruling, according to a memo by the agency's enforcement chief.

Two questions I have relative to this story.  First, does this foretell a strange trend where US EPA starts referring cases to the states for enforcement?  Second question- when will the battle shift to permitting?  It cannot be long before a company challenges federal authority to require an NPDES permit.  The most likely candidate in my mind will be something like the requirement to obtain a permit for construction activities.

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.