On March 12, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) order finding that delays by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) in reviewing Millennium Pipeline Company’s application for water quality certification constituted waiver of NYDEC’s authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA).
This week, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana granted a preliminary injunction, halting construction of the $750 million Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Judge Shelly D. Dick concluded that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in authorizing the project, did not provide sufficient explanation for how the proposed off-site mitigation would compensate for the loss of wetlands impacted by construction. In addition, the Court found the Corps’ environmental analysis failed to sufficiently consider and address historical impacts to wetlands from similarly situated pipelines. Thus, the Court held that these deficiencies likely violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and ordered the 162-mile oil pipeline to halt construction within the Atchafalaya Basin, a large wetland habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife species and a critical component of regulating flooding and stream recharge in the region. As we recently saw with the D.C. Circuit’s decision to vacate authorizations for the Sabal Trail Pipeline, this is another example of courts and environmental organizations relying on errors in a federal agency’s NEPA analysis to justify enjoining pipeline construction or operations.
On January 22nd, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous (9-0) decision, authored by Justice Sotomayor, agreeing with industry groups, some eNGOs, and many states, that the district courts have jurisdiction over challenges to the 2015 Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) Rule. Nat’l Ass’n of Manufacturers v. Dept. of Defense, et al., No. 16-299 (Jan. 22, 2018). The Court wholly rejected the government’s claim that the WOTUS Rule is subject to exclusive appellate court jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) judicial review provision and confirms that current and future challenges to the WOTUS Rule must be brought in district court. By reversing the Sixth Circuit decision which found that the CWA vests the federal courts of appeals with exclusive jurisdiction over challenges to the WOTUS Rule, the Supreme Court set in motion proceedings that will likely result in the lifting of the Sixth Circuit’s nationwide stay of the 2015 WOTUS Rule. Continue Reading Agencies Move Quickly to Delay Applicability of 2015 WOTUS Rule Following Unanimous Supreme Court Decision
WOTUS, an acronym that has received a lot of attention in recent years, stands for the “waters of the United States.” When Congress enacted the Clean Water Act (“CWA” or the “Act”) in 1972, it prohibited “the discharge of any pollutant by any person” into navigable waters without a permit. The Act defines navigable waters as the “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” 33 U.S.C. §§ 1311(a), 1362(7), (12). But Congress failed to, in turn, define the words “waters of the United States,” and the Supreme Court has noted that these “words themselves are hopelessly indeterminate.” Sackett v. EPA, 132 S. Ct. 1367, 1375 (2012) (J. Alito, concurring). The meaning of these words matters because violations of the CWA are subject to substantial criminal and civil penalties, so knowing whether a feature on your site is a WOTUS subject to federal jurisdiction has important consequences. Continue Reading Navigating the CWA’s Reach: What’s Happening with WOTUS?
The stakes are high for anyone facing environmental liability in the wake of superstorms like Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, and Maria. If you are among the parties potentially liable for the costs to clean up a release of oil or hazardous substances caused by a major storm event, you may be thinking about a possible “act of God” defense. You may want to think again. In practice, the availability of this defense has proved elusive. It is still a good idea, however, to minimize risk in planning for the next “big one.” Ultimately, advance actions taken to avoid or mitigate the impacts of natural disasters may be the difference between being excused from or being saddled with cleanup liability. Continue Reading Viability of the “Act of God” Defense in a Superstorm World
Today, EPA and the Corps released a highly anticipated proposal to rescind the Obama Administration’s controversial 2015 Clean Water Rule. The June 2015 rule, which has been stayed since October 2015, would broadly define the scope of “waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) subject to federal regulation and permitting requirements under the CWA. The proposed rescission is the first step of a two-step process to repeal and replace the 2015 Clean Water Rule with a new WOTUS rule. With today’s proposal, EPA and the Corps are proposing to officially rescind the 2015 rule and continue to implement the regulatory definition in place prior to the 2015 rule while they work to promulgate a new rule to define WOTUS.
In a closely watched case, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last week dismissed an interstate natural gas pipeline company’s challenge to the State of New York’s delay in issuing a water quality certification under section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) for the Millennium pipeline project. While the company requested a ruling that the state had waived its right to make a decision on water quality certification for the project, the court decided to dismiss the action – holding that even if the state agency’s lengthy delays did constitute a waiver under CWA section 401, there was no cognizable injury to the company that would give it standing to challenge the delays in court. Rather, according to the court, the remedy is for the company to present evidence of waiver directly to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to seek authorization to begin construction of the project. The case is one of several pending across the country that involve a state’s authority to issue, deny, or waive a CWA water quality certification for interstate natural gas pipeline projects.
On February 28, 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) that sets into motion a process for the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (jointly, the “Agencies”) to review the Obama Administration’s Waters of the US (WOTUS) Rule. 80 Fed. Reg. 37,054 (June 29, 2015). The EO directs the Agencies to review the WOTUS Rule for consistency with the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the policies set forth in the EO, stating that “[i]t is in the national interest to ensure that the Nation’s navigable waters are kept free from pollution,” while at the same time “promoting economic growth, minimizing regulatory uncertainty, and showing due regard for the roles played by Congress and the States under the Constitution.” Following review, the EO instructs the Agencies to publish, as appropriate, a proposed rule for notice and comment rescinding or revising the WOTUS Rule.
As previous Nickel Report posts have discussed, congressional efforts to rein in freewheeling agency interpretation and reinterpretation of ambiguous statutes have begun to intensify, and calls to reconsider Chevron deference have increased from both within the judiciary and without. One of the most vocal and eloquent critics of Chevron and its progeny, notably Mead and Brand X, is Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy. In Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, 834 F.3d 1142 (10th Cir. 2016), Judge Gorsuch penned an exhaustive and erudite analysis of the tension between the separation of powers that the US Constitution demands and the deference that Chevron and Brand X require courts to afford to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes, even if those interpretations differ from those previously announced by the courts.
In January, the US Army Corps of Engineers published the final 2017 nationwide permits (NWPs), renewing a critical permitting tool for both the government and the regulated community. To comply with the Clean Water Act (CWA or the Act), projects with minimal adverse environmental effects can obtain authorization for the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States through the Corps’ streamlined NWP process. The Corps reissued all 50 of the 2012 NWPs, issued two new NWPs, one new General Condition and made a number of notable revisions.