Pruitt Memo Centralizes Veto Power on Waters of the U.S.

On March 30, 2018, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a memorandum eliminating the authority of Regional Administrators to veto decisions by the Army Corps of Engineers to grant a permit for impacts to streams or wetlands.  The veto authority has been re-delegated to the U.S. EPA Administrator.  

Any project that results in a discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the U.S. must obtain a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers under 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Under the CWA, EPA is given authority to potentially veto the Army Corps issuance of a 404 permit if EPA determines it the permit will allow unacceptable impacts to waters of the U.S. 

Administrator Pruitt's memo states the change in control was to "restore regulatory certainty and promote the rule of law."  However, the current regulatory uncertainty does not stem from vetoes of issued permits.  Rather, the regulatory uncertainty stems from the ongoing litigation associated with the Obama Administrations Waters of the U.S. Rule which defined the scope of federal jurisdiction under the CWA. (See prior post)  That uncertainty is likely to persist due to ongoing litigation in multiple courts.

EPA Spokesperson downplayed the significance of the memorandum:

This memo explains that jurisdictional determinations that raise significant issues or technical difficulties should be handled in a consistent and uniform manner, particularly during the WOTUS rulemaking," EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said. "Regions will absolutely be involved in the process and work closely with the administrator's office when doing the work to assess jurisdiction for very select, and often rare, cases."

The authority under Section 404(c) of the CWA has rarely been used by EPA.  According to EPA's webpage, the authority has only been used thirteen (13) times since 1970.  

 

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.  

 

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.

[UPDATE:  AFTER FURTHER INTERNAL REVIEW, I HAVE BEEN INFORMED THE ARMY CORPS AGREED TO NOT CALL THIS DITCH A JURISDICTIONAL WATERWAY]

 

Ohio EPA Wants to Take Over Wetland and Stream Permitting from the Army Corps of Engineers

Another aspect of Governor Kasich's controversial proposed legislation- Senate Bill 315- is to provide the legislative authority for Ohio EPA to take over Section 404 Clean Water Act permitting from the Army Corps of Engineers.  Section 404 permits are needed prior to impacts to streams or wetlands within federal jurisdiction. 

The bill itself doesn't really do that much.  It simply provides the authority to the Director of Ohio EPA to seek approval from U.S. EPA to assume responsibility for administering the Section 404 permitting program.  The real important issues will be covered in the approval request itself. 

As discussed below, the biggest issue Ohio EPA faces is to convince U.S. EPA in its request that it has sufficient resources to take over all the Section 404 permitting functions from the Army Corps.

What's good about the proposal

Right now any developer that needs to impact wetlands or streams as part of their development will typically need to obtain two permit approvals.  First, they must obtain a Section 401 Water Quality Certification from Ohio EPA.  Second, if the wetland or stream is considered within federal jurisdiction, the developer must obtain a Section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. 

The fact two permits will be needed won't change if Ohio takes over the Section 404 program.  However, developers will have the opportunity to go to one regulator to obtain both certifications.  This will hopefully streamline the process. 

Another major complication under the current structure is that Ohio is divided among four different Army Corp Districts- Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Louisville and Huntington.  Each of the Districts has very different ways they process Section 404 permits.  Therefore, another benefit of Ohio taking over the program would be greater consistency. 

Approval Process Will Be Lengthy and Difficult

While there are good reasons for Ohio to take over Section 404 permitting, it will be a very lengthy and difficult process.  First, Ohio EPA will have to show that it has sufficient resources to handle all the duties performed by the Army Corps.  I have heard projections that this could take up to forty (40) additional staff in Ohio EPA wetland section. 

This would be a very substantial increase in staff and the resources will be very difficult to come by.  Unless, Ohio EPA is going to direct fees that are currently being used to support other programs, the Agency would need to seek a fee increase or new fee.  While applicants may like the streamlined process, its unlikely they will want to pay substantially more for it. 

If the Director was going to tap into current fees, such as the solid waste disposal fee, he will have to likely cut other programs.  Also, the solid waste industry may object to use of the disposal fees to pay for significant new staff in program that doesn't directly deal with management of solid waste.

Even if Ohio EPA clears the hurdle of demonstrating sufficient resources, it will still need to prove to U.S. EPA its has the legal authority to carry out the same functions as the Army Corps.  The last time the State of Ohio tried to convince U.S. EPA of something similar it was transfer of the water permitting program (NDPES) for large farms to the Department of Agriculture.  This process has taken years and involves only a transfer between two state agencies. 

While the idea may sound good in theory, Ohio faces a significant uphill climb to make this proposal a reality.

 

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. 

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)