Monday, July 6, 2015

State Water Board Extends Storm Water Permit Deadline to Aug. 14

On Wednesday, July 1, the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) announced it would extend the deadline for enrolling under the new Industrial General Permit (IGP) for Storm Water Discharges (Permit No. 2014-0057-DWQ) until close of business on Friday, August 14, 2015. The SWRCB also pushed back the deadline for submittal of 2014-15 annual storm water reports under the now-expired 1997 IGP (Permit No. 97-03-DWQ) to August 14.

The SWRCB blamed “ongoing technical difficulties” associated with users attempting to submit annual reports and permit registration documents to its online database, known as SMARTS (Storm Water Multiple Application and Report Tracking System).

Despite the failure of SMARTS to accommodate the large number of users seeking to comply with the new IGP, the SWRCB nevertheless indicated that “[w]hile technical issues are being resolved, the General Permit is in effect.” Draft Order 2015-XXXX-EXEC Amending Order 2014-0057-DWQ (Hearing date August 4, 2015). Thus, entities subject to the new IGP will need to ensure they are in compliance with the substantive requirements of the 2014 permit and maintain all necessary documents, while they wait to access SMARTS for registration.

Barg Coffin attorneys have previously analyzed the key changes and requirements of the new IGP here, here, and here.

--Don Sobelman and Dave Metres

For more information, contact Don Sobelman at (415) 228-5456 or des@bcltlaw.com, or Dave Metres as (415) 228-5488 or dmm@bcltlaw.com.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Supreme Court Overturns EPA Limits on Power Plants

On June 29, the United States Supreme Court nixed the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, limiting emissions of mercury and other pollutants from power plants. The challengers argued that the $9.6 billion cost of complying with the standard outweighed the benefit of its application, and that EPA impermissibly failed to consider cost in deciding whether to regulate toxic emissions from power plants.

The Supreme Court held that EPA abused its discretion by ignoring cost, even under the deferential standard established in Chevron USA Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. The Court held that in directing EPA to regulate power plants if it “finds such regulation is appropriate and necessary,” Section 112 of the Clean Air Act requires “at least some attention to cost.” Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia said, “One would not say that it is even rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.”

EPA argued that it is not required to consider cost in the initial decision regarding whether to regulate power plants because it can consider cost when deciding on the extent of regulation. The Court rejected this argument, finding that “[c]ost may become relevant again at a later stage of the regulatory process, but that possibility does not establish its irrelevance at this stage.” The majority found that cost must be considered, but went on to say that it is within the agency’s discretion to consider how to evaluate costs, and even what constitutes a “cost.” The Court stated that cost “includes more than the expense of complying with regulations; any disadvantage could be termed a cost.”

--Kathryn Oehlschlager

For more information, contact Kathryn Oehlschlager at klo@bcltlaw.com or (415) 228-5458.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Irrigation District Sues, Says State Board Lacks Jurisdiction to Curtail Senior Water Rights

On June 26, the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District (BBID) filed a petition for writ of mandate in Contra Costa County Superior Court requesting that the Court set aside the State Water Resources Control Board’s June 12, 2015 “notice of curtailment,” requiring hundreds of senior water rights-holders to cease diverting water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The BBID website states that BBID is “ a multi-county special district serving parts of Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin Counties. The District serves a total area of 47 miles and 30,000 acres.” BBID’s service area includes the community of Mountain House, which relies exclusively on BBID for its water supply.

The Petition alleges that the State Board lacks jurisdiction to curtail pre-1914 water rights, that the curtailment notice violates the California Constitution with regard to beneficial use of water, and that BBID was denied constitutional due process. 

“Enough is enough,” said BBID Board President Russell Kagehiro in the District’s press release. He went on to refer to the State Board’s action as “irresponsible and unnecessary.”

Meanwhile, also on June 26, the State Board issued a second curtailment notice to senior rights-holders, including the City and County of San Francisco.

--Kathryn Oehlschlager

For more information, contact Kathryn Oehlschlager at klo@bcltlaw.com or (415) 228-5458.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Clean Water Act: New Rule Significantly Expands Reach of Federal Jurisdiction

On May 27, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) finalized the long-anticipated Clean Water Rule. The Rule defines the term “waters of the United States” as used by the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq. (the “CWA”). The impact of the definition is to prescribe the scope of federal jurisdiction for regulating activity associated with waters of the United States. The Rule will be effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Although the Rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register, an advance draft of the final rule can be accessed here

According to the government, the intent of the Rule is to make the process of identifying “waters” subject to the requirements imposed by the CWA “easier to understand, more predictable, and consistent with the law and peer-reviewed science, while protecting the streams and wetlands that form the foundation of our nation’s water resources.” Clean Water Rule Preamble at 7. As a practical matter, the new Rule substantially extends the extent of claimed federal jurisdiction over water resources nationwide, will result in significant costs for the regulated community, and, as it is applied, will likely be subject to numerous legal challenges.

The extent of federal CWA jurisdiction has been addressed in three seminal Supreme Court cases. In the first, United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes, 474 U.S. 121 (1985), the Supreme Court issued an unanimous opinion deferring to the Corps’ ecological judgment and upholding the inclusion of certain adjacent wetlands in the regulatory definition of “waters of the United States.” In Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001), the Court struck down the government’s overbroad interpretation of the CWA extending jurisdiction over non-navigable intrastate ponds on the basis that the ponds supported migratory bird populations. Finally, in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006), a split court addressed the extent of permissible CWA jurisdiction over waters that are not navigable in a traditional sense. The plurality Rapanos opinion held that federal jurisdiction could only extend over non-navigable waters if they exhibit a relatively permanent flow or, in the case of wetlands, where there is a continuous surface water connection between the wetland and a relatively permanent waterbody. Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion held that CWA jurisdiction extends to wetlands and non-navigable waterbodies provided that there is a “significant nexus” to a traditional navigable waterway.

In response to the Supreme Court cases addressing CWA jurisdiction,  EPA and the Corps issued guidance in 2003 (post-SWANCC) and 2008 (post-Rapanos) seeking to clarify the extent of federal jurisdiction over waterways and wetlands. According to EPA, this guidance was insufficient, requiring complex and resource intensive “case-specific” jurisdictional determinations that resulted in inconsistent interpretations of CWA jurisdiction and perpetuated ambiguity over the extent of federal authority. Clean Water Rule Preamble at 13. EPA initiated a rulemaking to adopt the Clean Water Rule to define “waters of the United States” in an effort to “make the process of identifying waters protected under the CWA clearer, simpler, and faster.” Id.

Before issuing the current draft Rule, EPA and the Corps published a proposed rule addressing the scope of CWA jurisdiction in April 2014. The government received public comments for 200 days and, according to the government, over 1 million public comments were received. In adopting the final Rule, EPA and the Corps relied substantially upon a report -- Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence -- finalized by EPA’s Office of Research and Development in early 2015. That Report, a copy of which is available here, is based upon the government’s review of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed publications. According to EPA, the Science Advisory Board also reviewed the adequacy of the Report and the technical basis for the rulemaking.

According to EPA, the new Rule accomplishes the following:
  • Clearly defines and protects tributaries that impact the health of downstream waters.” The Rule concludes that tributaries are “waters of the United States” and extends federal jurisdiction over any “tributary” that shows physical features of flowing water (e.g., a bed, bank, and ordinary high water mark). Clean Water Rule Preamble at 19.
  • Provides certainty in how far safeguards extend to nearby waters.” The Rule provides that CWA jurisdiction extends to “adjacent waters.” Those waters are defined as waters or wetlands that are “bordering, contiguous, or neighboring, including waters separated from other ‘waters of the United States’ by constructed dikes or barriers, natural river berms, beach dunes and the like.” Clean Water Rule Preamble at 20.
  • The term “neighboring,” is defined in the rule to include: (i) waters located in whole or in part within 100 feet of the ordinary high water mark of a traditional navigable water, interstate water, the territorial seas, an impoundment of jurisdictional water, or a tributary…”; (ii) “floodplain waters,” meaning “waters located in whole or in part in the 100-year floodplain and  that are within 1,500 feet of the ordinary high water mark of a traditional navigable water, interstate water, the territorial seas, an impoundment, or a tributary …”; and (iii) waters located in whole or in part within 1,500 feet of the high tide line of a traditional navigable water or the territorial seas and waters located within 1,500 feet of the ordinary high water mark of the Great Lakes. Id.
  • Protects the national’s regional water treasures.” The Rule identifies five types of isolated “waters” that will now be subject to “a case-specific analysis” to determine if a significant nexus exists with a “water of the United States”: (i) Prairie potholes, (ii) Carolina and Delmarva bays, pocosins, western vernal pools in California, and Texas coastal prairie wetlands. The Rule requires that EPA and the Corps analyze such “waters” “‘in combination’ (as a group, rather than individually) in the watershed…” Clean Water Rule Preamble at 22.
  • Focuses on Streams, not ditches.” The Rule exempts certain ditches from CWA jurisdiction. This exclusion extends to ditches with “ephemeral flow that are not a relocated tributary or excavated in a tributary, and ditches with intermittent flow that are not a relocated tributary, or excavated in a tributary, or drain wetlands.” Clean Water Rule Preamble at 25. To the extent that ditches are not exempted by the terms in Rule, they are subject to regulation under the CWA.
EPA has prepared the following chart showing how the new definitions adopted by the Rule will alter the extent of federal jurisdiction over water resources as compared to prior agency interpretations and the terms provided in the proposed rule:

The regulated community, including industry and agricultural associations, have concluded that the Rule will substantially increase the geographic reach of CWA jurisdiction. Illustrations prepared by the Farm Bureau, showing how the new definitions will extend the geographic scope of CWA authority, are available here. For example, many small, isolated geographic areas with wetland characteristics that would have fallen outside CWA jurisdiction under existing Supreme Court precedent and prior agency interpretations will now be regulated or, at a minimum, require a case-by-case evaluation for jurisdiction (e.g., vernal pools, prairie potholes, etc.) that is both time-consuming and expensive.

Although EPA and the Corps argue that the Rule “does not interfere with or change private property rights, or address land use,” as a practical matter the Rule will require many property owners that were not previously regulated by the CWA to engage with the Corps to determine whether there are jurisdictional waters and wetlands on their property and, if so, to pursue permits prior to any development or other activities within the regulated area.

Expected consequences as a result the Rule include:
  • Expanded Jurisdiction and Burden on the Regulated Community. EPA and the Corps, via adoption of the Rule, seek to dramatically expand the geographic reach of federal jurisdiction under the CWA. As a result, many property owners will now be regulated by the CWA for the first time. Prior to development or intrusive activities in potentially regulated areas, those property owners will need to retain consultants to assess the extent of federal jurisdiction, potentially seek an approved jurisdictional determination from the Corps and/or a permit, and either mitigate potential impacts or alter development on, or use of their private property. For some property owners, activity that was previously lawful on their private property will now be subject to CWA jurisdiction. For example, existing mining (e.g., sand, gravel, etc.) in an area with prairie potholes or vernal pools will likely require a jurisdictional evaluation prior to continued operation.
  • Regulatory Confusion. In the short-term, there is likely to be substantial confusion among regulators, as they come up to speed with the requirements in the new Rule, and throughout the regulated community as the new Rule is implemented. This confusion may result in additional enforcement activity. There is also likely to be confusion about whether the new Rule will apply to pending permit applications and existing, unresolved enforcement actions.
  • Slower Permitting. Although EPA and the Corps claim that the Rule will reduce ambiguity, in the short term we expect confusion caused by the new definitions will further slow the permitting process for all. Additionally, because of the substantial increase in the geographic reach of CWA jurisdiction, an increase in permit applications (or requests for approved jurisdictional determinations) will likely tax Corps and EPA resources. Delay in issuing permits and approved jurisdictional determinations will result in substantial transaction costs and other economic damages to the regulated community.
  • Legal Challenges to Scope of the Rule. We expect legal challenges to the Rule, both in connection with the rulemaking itself, and as the Rule is applied on a case-by-case basis. It will likely take years for legal precedent to accumulate to the point where the full extent of CWA jurisdiction claimed by the Rule is clearly specified and understood.
  • Congressional Opposition. Republicans in Congress have already started efforts to overturn the Rule. On May 12, for example, the House, passed legislation (by a vote of 261-155) that would require EPA and the Corps to withdraw the Rule. The Senate is exploring similar legislation. Although the Obama Administration has already stated that President Obama would veto any such legislation, there is likely to be a continuing political show-down over the Rule through the 2016 election and beyond.
-- Tom Boer

For more information, contact Tom Boer at jtb@bcltlaw.com or (415) 228-5413.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Landowners, Developers Win Big In Wetlands Case

Building on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Eighth Circuit ruled on April 10th that Clean Water Act jurisdictional determinations made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can be challenged in a “pre-enforcement” context. Hawkes Co., Inc. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 13-3067, __ F.3d __,  (8th Cir. April 10, 2015). The decision will provide project developers and landowners with a powerful tool for ensuring that regulators do not intrude on projects over which they have no jurisdiction.

Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) requires obtaining a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the “Corps”) to discharge dredged or fill materials into “navigable waters.” 33 U.S.C. § 1344. The CWA defines “navigable waters” to mean “waters of the United States.”  33 U.S.C. § 1362(7). The Corps and EPA have broadly construed “waters of the United States”  to apply to many non-navigable waterbodies, including certain wetlands not connected to a surface water. As a result, the scope of “waters of the United States,” and therefore the bounds of federal jurisdiction under the CWA,  has been a highly contentious issue, and the subject of several Supreme Court decisions and ongoing federal rulemaking.
In Hawkes, the affected landowners—owners of a peat mine—contended that the Corps had exceeded its jurisdictional authority by classifying a wetlands as “waters of the United States” subject to the CWA. Such a determination by the Corps can spell the death knell for a proposed project because an “average applicant for an individual Corps permit ‘spends 788 days and $271,596 in completing the process.’” Hawkes, slip op. at 10, quoting Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715, 721 (2006). In Hawkes, the situation was worse—Corps regulators had “repeatedly made it clear” that a permit to mine peat would ultimately be refused. Hawkes, slip op. at 10.

Previously, persons or businesses seeking to challenge a jurisdictional determination faced a no-win situation: they had to “either to incur substantial compliance costs (the permitting process), forego what they assert is a lawful use of their property, or risk substantial enforcement penalties.” Hawkes, slip op. at 8. The delays inherent in the Corps’ permitting process meant that if the challenger lost the lawsuit disputing the jurisdictional determination, the challenger could be subject to extremely high fines because the CWA authorizes penalties of $37,500 per day per violation.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the stage for the Hawkes decision. In Sackett, the Supreme Court held that a jurisdictional determination is a final agency action subject to judicial review, and that the CWA does not preclude pre-enforcement judicial review of administrative compliance orders issued by the agency to the landowner. 566 U.S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 1367 (2012). The Hawkes decision takes the Sackett decision one step further by holding that the CWA allows these jurisdictional determinations to be challenged even before the agency commences any enforcement action, administrative or otherwise.

Outlook

The Hawkes decision creates a circuit split because a prior Fifth Circuit case determined that jurisdictional determinations are not reviewable in court in a pre-enforcement context. See Belle Co., LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, 761 F.3d 383 (5th Cir. 2014), cert denied, 83 U.S.L.W. 3291 (Mar. 23, 2015) (No. 14-493). Given the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett, the circuit split on a topic of significant controversy, and the Court’s consistently strong interest in CWA jurisdiction—see United States v. Riverside Bayview, 474 U.S. 121 (1985), Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 531 U.S. 159 (2001), and Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006)—review by the U.S. Supreme Court is a distinct possibility.

- Josh Bloom and Dave Metres

For more information, contact Joshua Bloom at (415) 228-5406 or jab@bcltlaw.com, or David Metres at (415) 228-5488 or dmm@bcltlaw.com.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

UPDATE: Citadel Dumps Challenge to San Benito County Hydraulic Fracturing Ban

Citadel Exploration has abandoned its legal challenge to San Benito County’s Measure J, a voter-sponsored initiative that banned several enhanced recovery methods of extracting oil and gas, including hydraulic fracturing and cyclic steaming. Citadel’s plan to develop oil wells in a remote area of San Benito County are currently undergoing environmental review, and it filed a lawsuit last month seeking $1.2 billion in damages. Its motives for abandoning the claim are not clear.

For more detail on the history of this legal challenge, see this March 3, 2015 blog post.

- Kathryn Oehlschlager

For more information, contact Kathryn Oehlschlager at klo@bctlaw.com or (415) 228-5458

California Issues Emergency Regulations Restricting Underground Injection in Connection with Oil and Gas Recovery

The California Department of Conservation (“Department”) proposes to adopt emergency regulations purported to bring California’s underground injection control program into compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (“Act”). These regulations will be submitted to the Office of Administrative Law on April 9, 2015, and are scheduled to go into effect on April 20, 2015. This is the next step in the systematic statewide review of oil and gas injection practices being conducted by the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”) and the State Water Resources Control Board (“State Water Board”) at the behest of U.S. EPA.

Enacted in 1974, the Act requires that an underground source of drinking water (“USDW”) be protected from contamination by injection wells. In the early 1980s, through DOGGR, California applied for and received primacy to implement a Class II Underground Injection Control (“UIC”) program. The UIC Class II regulatory program extends to wells that inject fluid associated with oil and gas production.

On Thursday of last week, the Department made a finding of emergency stating that it had identified over 2,500 wells in California (including both enhanced oil recovery injection wells and disposal injection wells) that “may have been improperly approved for injection into non-exempt aquifers protected by the Act.” A corrective action plan formulated by U.S. EPA, DOGGR, and the State Water Board, calls for DOGGR to implement a compliance schedule for phasing out injections into USDWs, either by obtaining an aquifer exemption or by halting injection into the aquifer.

The following compliance deadlines have been established by U.S. EPA:
  • October 15, 2015 is the shut-in deadline for wells injecting into non-exempt, non-hydrocarbon-bearing aquifers with less than 3,000 mg/L total dissolved solids (“TDS”) that do not have an aquifer exemption;
  • December 31, 2016 is the shut-in deadline for wells injecting into 11 specific aquifers historically treated as exempt by U.S. EPA, unless U.S. EPA takes further action to affirm exemption of the pertinent aquifer(s) before that deadline; and
  • February 15, 2017 is the shut-in deadline for all wells injecting into non-exempt aquifers with less than 10,000 mg/L TDS that do not have an aquifer exemption.
The proposed regulations would establish a civil penalty of $25,000 per day for each well in which injection occurs beyond the compliance deadline.

U.S. EPA’s mandates are significant in part because U.S. EPA may withdraw California’s primacy authorization under the Act if the State fails to comply with the terms of its Primacy Agreement and fails to take additional corrective actions.

- Kathryn Oehlschlager, Tom Boer, and Sherry Jackman

For more information, contact Kathryn Oehlschlager at klo@bcltlaw.com or (415) 228-5458, Tom Boer at jtb@bcltlaw.com or (415) 228-5413, or Sherry Jackman at sej@bcltlaw.com or (415) 228-5412.