Supreme Court Ruling Creates Even More Uncertainty on Waters of the U.S.

This week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Nat’l Ass’n of Mfrs. v. Dep’t of Def., No. 16-299 that district courts have jurisdiction to hear challenges to any rule that attempts to define "Waters of the United States" for purposes of determining the scope of coverage of the Clean Water Act.  As detailed on this blog previously, ever since the Supreme Court's prior decision in Rapanos, there has been tremendous uncertainty as to which streams and wetlands fall under federal jurisdiction.

The Obama Administration attempted to end the uncertainty by through the Clean Water Rule which broadly defined the federal jurisdiction.  Even before the rule went into effect, multiple legal challenges were filed seeking to block the rule.  

Before a decision could be reached on the merits of the rule, the proper venue for challenges to the rule had to be decided.  The Sixth Circuit ruled the proper venue was in the circuit court of appeals, not district courts.  However, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling sending the challenge back to district courts.  

The ruling also removes the Sixth Circuit's injunction against administering the Clean Water Rule.  With the injunction removed, the Clean Water Rule becomes effective in all but 13 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming).  These states are subject to a separate preliminary injunction which was issued by the federal district court in North Dakota. 

The Trump Administration also issued a rule to unwind the Clean Water Rule which will also likely be challenged, now in district courts.  The Administration has promised a second rule defining the scope of jurisdiction more narrowly than the Clean Water Rule.  

What the Supreme Court decision means is the district courts will likely be awash in legal challenges to both the Obama Administrations Clean Water Rule as well as the Trump Administration's rules.  It will take years for all this litigation to percolate back up to the Supreme Court for a ruling on the merits.  In the meantime, industry and land owners will be forced to navigate uncertainty.  

Unwind of WOTUS Gets Us Back to the Beginning

The Trump Administration has promised massive deregulation, in particular reductions in environmental regulations. A major target of the Trump Administration's deregulation agenda is the Obama Administration's Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS) which defines which wetlands and streams are federally regulated.

However, as described in this post, despite the controversy, all of the regulatory activity over the last several years really just leaves us in the status quo.  

CWA Defines Jurisdictional Waters

Section 301(a) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) prohibits discharges of pollutants to "navigable waters" without a permit.  See, 33 U.S.C. Section 1311(a), 1362(a).   The CWA defines "navigable waters" as "waters of the United States..." See, 33 U.S.C. Section 1362(7)

However, what exactly constitutes "waters of the United States" has been controversial since passage of the CWA in 1972.  

Supreme Court Weighs in Three Times

The Supreme Court has addressed the issue of "waters of the U.S." on three separate occasions:

  • Adjacent waters- In the Court's initial decision, it captured the issue of the extent of federal jurisdiction succinctly- "Between open waters and dry land may lie shallows, marshes, mudflats, swamps, bogs--in short, a huge array of areas that are not wholly aquatic but nevertheless fall far short of being dry land.  Where on this continuum to fine the limit of "waters" is far from obvious." The Court said the term "navigable" in the statute is of little import.  The history of the CWA shows Congress intended broad regulations of waters. In this case, the Court concluded the wetlands adjacent to "waters of the U.S." were federally regulated.  See, United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes 474 U.S. 121 (1985)
  • Habitat for Migratory Birds- The Court determined the Army Corps went too far trying to assert federal regulation over intrastate waters on the basis the waters provide habitat for migratory birds. SWANNCC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. .159 (2001)  
  • Scalia and Kennedy Tests-  The third time the Court visited the issue it could not get five justices to agree on the extent of federal jurisdiction under the CWA.  Two tests emerged- Justice Scalia's and Justice Kennedy's.  Justice Scalia limited federal jurisdiction to navigable waters, adjacent wetlands and non-navigable streams that are permanent flow year round or at least seasonally. Justice Kennedy extended jurisdiction further, to any waters with a "significant nexus" to navigable waters.  Rapanos v. U.S., 547 U.S. 715 (2006)

Post-Rapanos the uncertainty and litigation continued over the extent of federal regulation.

Obama WOTUS Rule

In 2015, the Obama Administration attempted to put an end to the uncertainty by defining "waters of the U.S." by rule (WOTUS).  Under the proposal federally regulated waters included the following:

  • Streams with perennial, intermittent or ephemeral flow
  • Defined bed, bank and an ordinary high water mark
  • Contributes flow, either directly or through another water, to a jurisdictional water
  • Part of a network that drains to a jurisdictional water
  • Excludes man-made ditches

Those opposed to the rule felt any small stream or water could meet the definition triggering federal regulation over even incidental creeks and streams or even drainage ditches.

The rules was immediately subject to over 20 legal challenges.  On October 9, 2015 the Sixth Circuit issued a stay of the effectiveness of the rule while its legality was determined.  

Litigation is before the Supreme Court to determine not the legality of the rule, but the proper venue the rule can be challenged.  Despite those who argue the Trump Administration is rolling back protections of waterways, the WOTUS rule never went into effect.  Instead, we still determine the extent of federal jurisdiction using the Scalia and Kennedy tests from Rapanos.

Trump Executive Order

Despite the fact the WOTUS rule was not in effect, on February 28, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order titled "Restoring the rule of Law, Federalism and Economic Growth by Reviewing the "Waters of the U.S. Rule."

The Executive Order had two goals:

  1. Rescind WOTUS;
  2. Issue an new rule interpreting "Navigable Waters" consistent with Justice Scalia's test in Rapanos.

Step 1- Rescinding WOTUS

July 27, 2017, EPA proposed revocation of WOTUS.  EPA accepted public comments on the proposed rule through September 27th.  

Step 2- Propose a New Definition of WOTUS

The next step will be for EPA to propose a definition of the rule that drops the Kennedy "significant nexus" test and limits jurisdiction to the test articulated by Justice Scalia.  However, similar to WOTUS, this rule will almost certainly face numerous legal challenges.

Back to the Beginning?

While the legal challenges work their way through the courts over the next several years, the law will not have changed since Rapanos was decided in 2006.  Both the Kennedy and Scalia tests for jurisdiction will be used by all circuits.  

For over forty years the issue of how far to extend federal jurisdiction over waters has not been conclusively decided.  It appears this issues will not have greater clarity for the foreseeable future.  


Surge in Environmental Citizen Suits Anticipated under Trump Administration

The Trump Administration has made rollback of environmental regulations a top priority.  Through the use of Executive Orders and the Congressional Review Act(CRA), the Administration has already undone significant Obama era regulations, including the Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS) and the Clean Power Plan.

The Trump Administration has also proposed significant budget cuts to EPA which could result in the reduction of 31% in federal funds to EPA and result in layoffs of 3,200 EPA workers. Budget cuts to State EPAs through reduction of state categorical grants have also been proposed. These cuts to federal funds could lead to reduced staff at State EPAs across the country.  

While the regulatory rollback and reduction in EPA staffs move forward, donations to major environmental groups around the country have surged since the election.  As reported in the Washington Times, the Sierra Club has reported an increase of 700% in donations since the election.  Across the board, green groups, like the NRDC are reporting a surge in donations.

Putting the New Money to Work

Whether it is the EPA budget reductions or EPA's exercising enforcement discretion, most anticipate EPA federal environmental enforcement will be on the decline under the Trump Administration. While EPA may not bring suits, many long time environmental legal practitioners anticipate a surge in green groups use of citizen suit provisions to fill the void on enforcement.  

Almost all of the major federal environmental statutes include a "citizen suit" provision that allows individuals and groups harmed by environmental violations to step in the shoes of EPA and sue companies to address violations and pay civil penalties.  Such provisions are included in the Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Clean Water Act.  Why do many anticipate a surge in such suits?

  • Justify Donations- Green groups will show that increased donations are being put to work by taking enforcement to fill the void left by a less active EPA;
  • Easy Access to Monitoring Data- Permit compliance and monitoring data is readily accessible online through EPA databases like ECHO or state database counterparts.  This makes it increasingly easier for green groups to identify violations that have gone unaddressed;
  • Civil Penalties-  The citizen suit provisions allow groups to assess civil penalties.  Under law, any civil penalties must go to the U.S. Treasury.  However, groups have used creative approaches like Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) to direct funds to environmental improvement projects or funding local groups;
  • Attorney Fees- Perhaps the biggest incentive to utilize citizen suit provisions is the attorney fee provision.  Courts have established a low threshold for recovery of fees.  This makes it easy for groups to recover their investigatory and legal expenses in pursuing actions; and
  • Lack of Availability of the Diligent Prosecution Defense-  Not only will reductions in EPA staff and resources lead to less enforcement, it also makes it less likely that companies will be able to secure "friendly" administrative or judicial enforcement orders used to block citizen suits during notice periods.  The 60 or 90 day notice periods are meant to give time to allow for state or federal regulators to take appropriate action to resolve violations after receiving notice of a potential citizen suit (i.e. "diligent prosecution" defense).

"New" Citizen Suit Legal Theories

In is not just an anticipated increase in the number of citizen suit actions brought, most see an expansion of the types of harms such suits are used to address.  Across the country, green groups have already utilized long-standing citizen suit provisions to bring creative new causes of action, including:

  • Tennessee Riverkeeper, Inc. v 3M Company- Environmental group have brought a RCRA imminent and substantial endangerment claim against 3M for historical releases of teflon related substances (PFOA/PFOS) which are not currently regulated by EPA.  The Court denied a motion to dismiss the action;
  • Sierra Club v. Chesapeake Operating LLC- Brought RCRA imminent and substantial endangerment claim for earthquakes in Oklahoma allegedly caused by disposal of water from oil and gas extraction;
  • Conservation Law Foundation v. ExxonMobil Corp.-  Alleging imminent and substantial endangerment under RCRA due to climate change; and
  • Upstate Forever and Savannah Riverkeeper v. Kinder Morgan-  Claims brought under the Clean Water Act alleging passive migration of contaminated groundwater to surface water from an oil spill was a violation of the Clean Water Act.  The case was dismissed after the Judge ruled plaintiffs failed to allege facts demonstrating migration of groundwater constituted a "point source" under the Clean Water Act.

Suing EPA to Compel Non-Discretionary Acts

Green groups have always sued EPA to compel the Agency to promulgate regulations or take action that are required under environmental statutes. The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) allows green groups to bring suit to compel an agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed. See, 5 U.S.C. Section 706(1).  

Because the Trump Administration will be less inclined to promulgate new environmental regulations, there will almost certainly be a major increase in suits against EPA to compel action. Unlike under the Obama Administration, which resolved many of these suits using consent orders, the Trump Administration will be far less inclined to settle.  This will inevitably lead to long and protracted litigation.  A recent article in the Legal Intelligencer by Kenneth J. Warren discusses the complications for Courts facing these suits to compel EPA to perform non-discretionary duites.

Supreme Court Decides Army Corps JD's Can be Appealed

In a very significant case for property owners and developers, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision today that Army Corps Jurisdictional Determinations (JDs) are final agency actions which can be challenged in Court.  In U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes, the Court determined that JDs meet the test for final agency actions:

  1. A JD marks the consummation of the Agency's decision making process; and 
  2. JDs determine rights or obligations from which legal consequences flow

Federal Jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act

It has been well documented on this blog that whether a stream or wetland falls under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act (i.e. federally regulated) has been a complex issue.  There have been numerous challenges to the Army's Corps of Engineer's (ACOE) jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.  

In a prior decision, the Supreme Court in Rapanos created the "Significant Nexus Test" as the means to determine jurisdiction.  The test involves balancing various factors as to how closely related small water bodies are to larger water bodies. Under the test, a waterway or wetland 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 Army Corps has been aggressive in asserting jurisdiction under the Significant Nexus Test.  The Clean Water Rule, currently under appeal before the Sixth Circuit, was the EPA's attempt to define jurisdiction in conformance with prior Supreme Court guidance.  The Rule has been challenged as going well beyond the Supreme Court's guidelines for federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.

Jurisdictional Determinations (JDs)

A Jurisdictional Determination (JD) is issued by the ACOE as its determination whether particular property contains federally protected wetlands or streams.  The JD is the ACOE application of the Significant Nexus Test to the property.  Due to the ACOE aggressiveness in asserting jurisdiction, many property owners and developers have wanted to challenge JDs. 

However, a complicating issue for property owners and developers is that the ACOE had maintained that JDs were not final appealable actions that could be challenged in Court.  This left the property owners and developers with a "Hobson choice:"

  • Administratively appeal the JD which means the ACOE makes the decision as to whether the JD is valid;
  • Assert the ACOE is without jurisdiction, proceed with the development and risk enforcement with criminal sanctions or civil penalties; or
  • Comply by submitting a costly permit application (404 permit)

None of these choices were deemed attractive.  With the Court's decision in Hawkes, Courts can now hear challenges to JDs.  

Due to the subjective nature of the Significant Nexus Test, property owners and developers should be entitled challenge ACOE determinations in court.  Today's decision will likely result in a flood of challenges to JDs in federal courts.


U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Whether Army Corps JDs Can be Challenged in Court

In prior posts, I have discussed the split in the federal circuit courts over whether Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) Jurisdictional Determinations (JDs) can be challenged in Court.  A JD is the ACOE formal determination as to whether streams and wetlands are federally protected under the Clean Water Act and whether a 404/401 permit is needed prior to any disturbance or impact.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that an approved JD is a final agency action that can be challenged. See, Hawkes Co., Inc. et al v. Corps, Case No. 13-3067 (April 10, 2015). The Eighth Circuit Court decision reached the opposite conclusion as the Fifth Circuit in Belle v. Corps., 761 F. 3d 383 (5th Cir. 2014) which held JDs could not be challenged in Court and can only be challenged through administrative procedures before the ACOE.

On December 11, 2015, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case due to the split in the circuits.   A decision in this case is expected some time before June 2016.  

Property owners face a Hobson choice if JDs cannot be challenged in Court.  They can defer their legal challenge and start the permitting process, forgo the development altogether or risk enforcement by proceeding without the proper permits.   

The ACOE and U.S. EPA argue that JDs do not make any final legal determinations because the property owner still has the options outlined above.  Frankly, this seems ridiculous.  There should be a legal means to argue the ACOE overstretched and asserted jurisdiction over wetlands that were outside the coverage of the Clean Water Act.  Especially when the scope of jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act is still so unclear, even after two separate Supreme Court decisions.  Why not give the property owner their day in Court?

I have heard legal scholars opine that the Court will look to the Administrative Procedures Act and will determine, from a legal perspective, JDs are not appealable.  If the Supreme Court reaches that conclusion it will be an unfortunate circumstance for property owners.  Purely from a policy perspective, their should be a way to challenge Corps decisions before a neutral third party.

Some also speculate that that if the Court does find JDs are appealable, the ACOE may simply stop issuing approved JDs.   Again, from a policy perspective that would be a very unfortunate result.

The Significant Nexus Test used to determine jurisdiction established by the Justice Kennedy in Rapanos is by no means clear cut.  It involves balancing various factors as to how closely related small water bodies are to larger water bodies.   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.

With such a subjective method of determining jurisdiction, property owners should be entitled to have a legal determination as to whether the wetlands or streams on their property fall under federal protection.  After receiving a legal determination, the property owner should also have a means to challenge the federal agency's determination.