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

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

Background on Supreme Court Clean Water Act Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

 Proposal Maintains Jurisdiction over Navigable Waters

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

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

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

Expansive Proposed Definition of Tributary

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

·       Can have perennial, intermittent or ephemeral flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EPA Argues Proposal Rule Supported by Science

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

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

Public Comment Period

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

 Creative Commons photo by putneypics via Flickr

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.

 

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

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

Synopsis of the Case

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

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

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

Lower Courts Ignore the Legal Presumption of a Right of Appeal

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

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

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

Supreme Court Unanimously Disagrees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implications

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio EPA Reform Bill Introduced

Last week Senator Schaffer introduced Senate Bill 294- dubbed the EPA reform bill.  According to testimony from Senator Schaffer and OEPA Director Scott Nally, the two had been working on the legislation for months.

This bill is the probably the first since Ohio EPA creation that touches on so many different areas of EPA regulatory authority, including:

  • Infectious waste- eliminate duplicate regulation
  • Wetland mitigation- change the hierarchy of mitigation (see below)
  • Underground storage tank clean up at brownfields- streamlines brownfield clean up (see below)
  • Compliance assistance to small businesses- expands confidentiality for inquiries for assistance by small businesses
  • Construction & demolition debris fees- clarifies fees apply to asbestos containing material
  • Statute of limitations for environmental enforcement actions- applies statute of limitations to enforcement actions related to construction & demolition debris
  • Regulation of public water systems and public water system operators- establishes criminal penalties for falsification and vandalism related to public drinking water systems
  • Disposal of solid waste- bans disposal of certain aluminum production waste after issues with fires at Countywide landfill

While the bill is broad in scope, many of the changes are minor fixes to address out of date statutory language.  The biggest changes fall into the following areas:

Wetland Mitigation- 

Anytime a developer impacts wetlands, they must offset the impacts with mitigation.  Under current law, the hierarchy of mitigation required the developer to, first, try and perform mitigation on-site by creating new wetlands.  Then mitigate off-site, but in the same watershed.  If on-site and off-site mitigation weren't possible, the final option was purchasing credits at a wetland mitigation bank owned and operated by a third party. 

Years ago, Ohio EPA studied the effectiveness of on-site mitigation and found that most newly created wetland were failing.  This prompted a lengthy discussion about the merits of using wetland banks versus developer driven mitigation projects.

S.B. 294 flips the hierarchy on its head.  Now, the preferred option is purchasing credits at a mitigation bank.  Such a change may allow for better success in terms of survival of man-made wetlands.  Also, a preference towards banks should greatly accelerate the permitting process for developers who often get bogged down in trying to find mitigation sites.

S.B. 294 also provides Ohio EPA with the authority to start an in lieu fee program.  Under such a program, a developer could simply write a check paying for mitigation credits versus finding a mitigation project or bank.  Ohio EPA, ODNR or a private entity operating the in lieu fee program could then use the funds to start mitigation projects they select.  This option assist developers when they can't find sufficient credits at an acceptable mitigation bank.

Underground Storage Tanks at Brownfields-

This has long been an issue highlighted on this blog.  Under current Ohio law, any business or developer cleaning up a brownfield is forced to go through two separate clean up programs if their site has underground storage tanks regulated by the Bureau of Underground Storage Tank Regulation (BUSTR).

Under Ohio law, any areas of brownfield site with BUSTR tanks is ineligible for participation in the Voluntary Action Program (VAP) until it, first, clean up the BUSTR tanks in accordance with BUSTR regulations.  Never mind that the VAP clean up standards and BUSTR were equivalent in their protection of human health and the environment.

What resulted is lengthy delays at brownfield sites while the volunteer addressed all BUSTR tank issues prior to proceeding with the VAP.

S.B. 294 will allow any person cleaning up a brownfield to use the VAP to address BUSTR tanks as long as two conditions are met:

  1. The VAP clean up also addresses other hazardous substances or petroleum that is not BUSTR regulated; and
  2. The fire marshal has not issued an enforcement order requiring BUSTR closure.

This is a great reform that is a long time coming.  It should make brownfield as well as VAP clean ups at operating sites far less complicated.

Compliance Assistance for Small Businesses

Ohio EPA has the Office of Compliance Assistance and Pollution Prevention (OCAPP).  OCAPP allows small business to call EPA staff and ask for assistance with permitting or compliance issues without fear of enforcement. 

Under existing law, only inquiries regarding air permitting are confidential.  S.B. 294 would make inquiries into other permitting programs confidential.  This gives the business the comfort of knowing their noncompliance, by law, cannot be reported to other EPA divisions or offices. 

OCAPP can be a great tool for small businesses to cost effectively untangle complex EPA regulations and file for permits.  S.B. 294 will enhance OCAPP's capabilities.

Introduction Just Marks the Beginning of the Legislative Process

S.B. 294 will be very interesting to watch as it proceeds through the legislature.  Will Senator Schaffer and Ohio EPA be able to prevent it from becoming a "Christmas Tree", where every group and legislator tries to include their concepts or ideas for reforms to EPA?

Time will tell.

 

Ohio EPA Budget Testimony Sheds Light on New Initiatives

On April 5th, Ohio EPA Director Nally testified on the Agency's proposed budget before the House Finance and Appropriations – Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee.  According to the Director's Testimony, Ohio EPA is not asking for any fee increases.  Ohio EPA's proposed budget calls for a reduction of 11.8% for fiscal year 2012 and 13.8% for fiscal year 2013.  To meet these budget reductions, the Agency is planning on reducing 53 current positions through attrition.

The Director also mentioned the consolidation of the Division of Hazardous Waste Management  (DHWM) into the Division of Solid & Infectious Waste (DSIWM) along with other components in the Division of Emergency Remedial Response (DERR).  DHWM's permitting and inspection activities will be in DSIWM and clean up will be with DERR.

In addition to budget reductions and the consolidation of DHWM, Director Nally also hinted at other initiatives the Agency is planning to undertake in the near future. 

New Ohio EPA Initiatives

“In-lieu Fee” Program –  The Director signaled potential significant change on wetland and stream mitigation requirements.  Typically the 404/401 permit applicant must find appropriate mitigation projects and include those proposals in their permit application.  With an “in-lieu fee" program, the applicant is relieved of the burden of finding a mitigation project .  Rather, the applicant pays a few based on the acreage of wetlands or feet of stream impacted by the project.  The Director has recently announced a "listening session" to hear from the regulated community and others regarding the proposal.

Permitting efficiencies/Permitting Backlog – Most every Ohio EPA Director faces the pressure to get permits out the door faster.  Director Nally is no different.  Upon taking office, he announced this would be a top priority of his administration.  His testimony suggests he will be re-looking at permit-by-rule and general permits to streamline permit approvals.  While the Agency has utilized these tools in the past, business complain that the terms and requirements are too onerous.  Modifying air permitting requirements can present unforeseen issues, as the business community learned after the Courts stepped in blocking major changes adopted in Senate Bill 265.

IT initiatives and Compliance Assistance –  Ohio EPA has moved toward allowing more reports and permitting to be performed using the web or through special electronic systems.  These systems provide flexibility, but businesses complain they can be difficult to use.  The Director announced training sessions to assist businesses with understanding how to use these systems better. 

Brownfields redevelopment – The Director testimony contained a vague reference to a new initiative with brownfield redevelopment.  The current structure has the Ohio Dept. of Development passing out the grant money and Ohio EPA monitoring the clean up.  It will be interesting to watch whether Ohio EPA announces new initiatives in this area to accelerate re-use of  brownfields.

Marcellus and Utica Shale – ODNR has the lead with regard to permitting for gas exploration.  However, U.S. EPA has indicated it will be closely watching and may exercise enforcement authority at sites where drilling has gone wrong or resulted in polluted groundwater.  The Director intends to support ODNR's efforts in light of U.S. EPA's scrutiny.

Expedited Settlement Program (ESP) -- No details were given regarding this new concept to accelerate resolution of enforcement actions.  Here was the Director's testimony...Given my priority of compliance first, I am initiating modifications to the current enforcement process to help drive quicker compliance.  Historically, the existing enforcement options have been time consuming and resource intensive for both the agency and the regulated entity. By developing new steps to be used early in the enforcement process, I hope to resolve uncomplicated cases
expeditiously, putting a facility on notice of a problem, and quickly achieving compliance. 

Perhaps Ohio EPA intends to make modifications at the Notice of Violation (NOV) stage.  The Agency could improve tracking of NOVs and notify businesses more quickly when issues have been resolved.

The Director's testimony did provide a good insight into his early priorities.  Details were not provided so we will need to watch closely as they are released.

Bay Village Debates Riparian Setback Ordinance

Bay Village has been debating establishing a riparian setback for the last few years.  The proposal which began with a 75 foot setback has now been scaled down to 25 feet.  Yet the ordinance is still controversial and City Council decided to delay its vote enacting the provision.

The debate before Council was covered in the West Shore Sun:

Council took the items off the March 21 meeting agenda after hearing concerns voiced by Lake Road resident and attorney, Homer Taft... 

Taft told council he felt the proposed legislation was onerous, would impose unfair hardships on some residents, and could be found unconstitutional.

Residents near creeks wanting to make changes on their property could face thousands of dollars in additional engineering expenses, he said. In addition, some residents could find themselves facing restrictions on developing significant portions of their property.

“I believe this ordinance is unfair to property owners and rather draconian,” Taft said.

He also questioned whether the city is really obligated to pass the legislation.

“I know you are being told the EPA requires this,” Taft said. “I challenge anyone to provide written evidence that’s true.”

Riparian setback ordinances are appearing all over Northeast Ohio due to a strong push by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, local officials with Ohio EPA and the Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District.  I am willing to bet that more areas are covered by riparian setback requirements in Northeast Ohio than anywhere else in Ohio.

From the article is appears there is still confusion as to whether Ohio EPA is mandating local municipalities adopt the ordinances to comply with NPDES permit requirements to control stormwater.  As discussed in a previous post, setbacks are but one option municipalities can utilize to meet their stormwater control requirements.

From an environmental standpoint do setback have value?  There is no debate setbacks have value by providing flood retention, filtering of pollutants and habitat to improve water quality.  While there are benefits, they also restrict owners ability to fully utilize their property. 

Many municipalities passed setback ordinances without really understanding what they were placing on their books.  City Councils then faced outraged citizens who complained about "no build zones" on their properties.  Some Boards of Zoning Appeals were faced with controversial variance requests to appease local citizens.  Given the controversy its a good idea that Bay Village is having a robust debate. 

 

Economic Impact of Permitting Energy Projects

The U.S. Chamber commissioned a study of the economic impact of project that have been delayed or canceled as a result of federal and state permitting processes. As described by the U.S. Chamber on its website:

This study estimates the potential loss in economic value of 351 proposed solar, wind, wave, bio-fuel, coal, gas, nuclear and energy transmission projects that have been delayed or canceled due to significant impediments, such as regulatory barriers, including inefficient review processes and the attendant lawsuits and threats of legal action.

The Chamber does acknowledge you can't blame the fact these project did not move forward exclusively on permitting:

As noted above, we do not believe that all of the subject projects will be approved or constructed even in the absence of any legal and regulatory barriers. Also, as with all economic forecasts, we recognize that there is an element of uncertainty. This could be true here because, to our knowledge, this is the first empirical study to quantify the macroeconomic and employment impact of the regulatory barriers imposed on the development and operation of so many energy projects.

The Study is a first real attempt to aggregate data on the impacts regulations on development. Below is a snaptshot of projects at issue in Ohio.

 

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. 

 

 

Ohio EPA's Overhaul of Water Regulations

This fall Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water (DSW) has been releasing a series of intertwined rule packages that govern streams and discharges to waterways.  Some business groups have said that the packages represent the most significant overhaul of water regulations in thirty years.

  To date, 3 out of 4 packages have been released:

  1. Antidegredation Rule
  2. Water Quality Standards
  3. Section 401 Water Quality Certification Rule
  4. Stream Mitigation Rule (to be released in early 2009)

No doubt the packages are highly technical and cover a myriad of issues.  But what are the implications for businesses in Ohio?

 Boiling down the packages, here are the major changes:

  • Creation of a new State Water Quality Permit for impacts to streams
  • Complete overhaul of mitigation requirements for stream impacts
  • Comprehensive tightening of standards for discharges to water ways (will result in more stringent discharge permits for businesses)
  • Standards for drainage ditch maintenance
  • Phase out of open lake disposal for dredged sediment from ship channels by the Army Corps of Engineers
  • Introduction of a nutrient standard for newly constructed or modified wastewater treatment plants

STATE WATER QUALITY PERMIT

I already discussed the new State Water Quality Permit in a prior post.  I believe Ohio would be the first state in the Country to create a state permit for impacts to streams that are not covered by the Clean Water Act.  The State is reacting to a series of Supreme Court decisions which have reduced federal jurisdiction over waterways and wetlands.

WASTEWATER DISCHARGE STANDARDS

Ohio EPA is proposing to tighten standards for some 135 chemicals.  They are also proposing to revise the human health criteria applied to NPDES discharge permits.  The more stringent standards will be incorporated into NPDES permits after they are renewed (NPDES permits have a 5 year life cycle).  Depending on the business and the nature of their discharge, the tighter standards could result in significant upgrades to wastewater treatment plants. 

The biggest question from business groups regarding the strengthening of water quality standards is....Why  now?   Many of the revised standards were part of U.S. EPA updates from 2000. 

MITIGATION FOR STREAM IMPACTS

For wetland impacts, Ohio mitigation requirements are very straightforward and are set forth in rules.  The ratios for required mitigation and the quality of wetland mitigation is all tied to the class of wetland impacted (Ohio classifies wetlands as either Class I, II or III).

Stream mitigation requirements are not straightforward.  Ohio EPA's stream mitigation requirements have been described by developers as a "black box."   The fact is mitigation is decided on a case by case basis, and lack of consistency is a legitimate concern.  To address this longstanding issue, Ohio EPA is attempting to clearly defined mitigation requirements for streams. 

Each of the four packages contain some aspect that is relevant to stream mitigation requirements.  However, until Ohio EPA releases the main rule package on stream mitigation requirements it will be difficult to see how the pieces fit together.  However, certain aspects of the rules that have been release foreshadow what is coming:

  • Primary Headwater Habitat Designation- Ohio EPA creates this new designation and creates three classes based on the quality of the stream.  For lower classes, the focus of the designation is hydrology and not aquatic life.  This sets up mitigation requirements.  If you impact a Class I stream by moving or filling it, you will have to restore the hydrology lost as part of your mitigation.
  • "Upland Drainage" and "Water Conveyance" Designations- applies to drainage ditches (or what Ohio EPA refers to as "historically channelized watercourses").  The purpose of these new designations for ditches is to encourage better management practices, such as natural stream design when performing maintenance on ditches.  
  • "No Net Loss" Principle Applied to Streams-  A legal issue surrounds the amount of impacts that are allowed under antidegredation principles to streams versus wetlands.  For wetlands, there has been a "no net loss" that actually allows destroying an entire wetland if its value is replaced through mitigation.  There is an open legal question as to whether the same flexibility exists for streams.  Ohio EPA is proposing to settle that issue by bringing the "no let loss" principle to streams.

DRAINAGE DITCHES

A source of major controversy in Ohio has been poorly maintained drainage ditches (see the Ohio Environmental Council web page).  Through mother nature's influence over time, drainage ditches can become valuable headwater streams. The controversy occurs when a farmer or County engineer wants to dredge a ditch for drainage or flood control that has not been maintained for many years.  Will the rules even allow them to perform that work if the stream has become a valuable resources, such as a warmwater habitat stream?

NUTRIENT STANDARDS

For the first time in Ohio, the Agency is proposing to require treatment standards for nutrients.  Nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, are one of the most significant causes of water quality impacts in the State (U.S. EPA Nutrient Website for background).  The Agency is proposing to take a step in the direction of regulating this pollutants by requiring treatment for nutrients as part of Best Available Demonstrated Control Technology (BADCT) that will apply to new wastewater treatment plants or modifications to the biological treatment process of an existing plant.

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)

A Primer on Riparian and Wetland Setbacks

Municipalities and counties are utilizing riparian and wetland setbacks in their zoning and planning efforts on a more frequent basis.  Setbacks can be an effective tool to control growth, protect valuable natural resources as well as meet federal and state Phase II stormwater requirements. 

While setbacks are beneficial, officials must understand the level of impact on both large scale and small development within their communities before adopting them.  Are they prepared to require alteration of major new commercial or residential developments?  Are they prepared to face angry residents whose plans for a deck or storage shed are influenced by no build zones?  Do they understand the environmental benefits gained by adopting setbacks?

Some local officials that quickly enacted setbacks without fully comprehending the requirements or educating their residents have faced strong push back.  Some communities have responded by frequently issuing variances that dilute the effectiveness of setbacks. Other communities are delaying action on stormwater ordinances until ordered to by the State.

I have worked with local governments on stormwater ordinances, including setbacks.  In my experience, it is critical for local officials to gain a thorough understanding of the ordinances, how they will be applied, as well as the benefits and consequences of setbacks. 

QUICK PRIMER ON RIPARIAN SETBACKS:

Riparian and wetland setbacks are typically adopted through local ordinance.  The most common form prohibits any development, with narrow exceptions, within specified distances from either wetlands or streams. 

In Northeast Ohio, many communities have used the model ordinances developed by NOACA and the Chagrin River Watershed Partners.  The basic approach used in these ordinances is to establish  "no-build" areas equal to specific distances from all streams or wetland.  The distances in the model ordinances range from 300 ft to 25 ft based on the drainage area of the stream or quality of wetland.  A property owner can try and obtain a variance from the setback requirements by demonstrating hardship.

Some local governments have taken this basic approach much further.  They have invested significant resources to map all of the sensitive environmental resources within their communities.  Once mapped, areas are either designated for planned development or are to be avoided and protected.   

An excellent example of this approach is the Chippewa Creek Balanced Growth Plan developed by the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization through a Balanced Growth grant awarded by the Lake Erie Commission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The map on the left show the entire watershed.  Each color designates a different environmental attribute (such as wetlands, streams or steep slopes) that should be protected.  The map on the right is a satellite image with the critical areas highlighted.  Dark green are "no build zones" (PCAs- Priority Conservation Areas) and light green are designated for future development (PDAs- Priority Development Areas).

Creative approaches can be used to compensate landowners whose land lies in area designated for protection. 

  • Transfer of Development Rights- compensating a landowner for the development value of the land that is being preserved by allowing higher density development elsewhere in the community.  (A good primer on Transfer of Development Rights)
  • Mitigation Banking- establish wetland or restoration areas that can be used to compensate if an impact occurs to a setback area.  This provides flexibility while ensuring the environmental benefits stay within the watershed.

WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE ENACTING SETBACK ORDINANCES

1. Flexibility-  Have you built in a level of flexibility within the ordinance that fits your community's needs?  For instance, will you allow development in a setback if mitigation is provided for the impacts.

2.  Takings-  Do the legal standards for granting a variance provide sufficient protection against taking claims?  Because takings case law is fact specific, requirements within the ordinances must have inherent legal flexibility to avoid providing a basis for a claim.  Application of a setback ordinance that results in a valid takings claims can result in significant compensation to the landowner thus draining local government finances.

3.  Distance of the Setback-  Currently in Ohio there is no minimum setback distance specified in state law.  In addition, there are many different distances utilized.  Some are based upon a formula like the one in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Rainwater Manual.  Others use standard distances like the approach in the NOACA model ordinance.  The key consideration in choosing a distance is whether it will provide the protection your desire without unnecessarily burdening property owners.

4.  Alternatives to Setbacks-  In Ohio, Phase II stormwater communities must adopt both structural and non-structural "best management practices" as part of their stormwater management plans.  Right now, the State does not mandate adoption of setback ordinances unless the community committed to one in their stormwater management plan.  Would an alternative non-structural BMP requirement, such as mandating use of green infrastructure (green roofs, pervious pavement, rain gardens) be more palatable to residents?

5.  Education-  It is critical that communities use effective public education techniques so citizens understand the value of setbacks.  Good education can be the difference between local governments effective implementation of a setback ordinance or a community that issues frequent variances to avoid confrontation with residents. 

 

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.