The Deep

Thoughtful analysis of major developments in federal and state regulatory policy and key court decisions

On August 13, EPA finalized Clean Water Act (Act) Section 304(a) recommended criteria for phosphorus and nitrogen in lakes and reservoirs. The new recommendations incorporate scientific models that states and tribes with treatment as state status can use to establish numeric water quality criteria for phosphorus and nitrogen, and they mark an important milestone in EPA’s long-running war on excess nutrients in the nation’s surface waters. In the new recommended lakes criteria, EPA is embracing a stressor-response approach to managing nutrients, instead of the least-disturbed reference method. This is a significant move for the agency and has the potential to set a positive precedent going forward for EPA and state and tribal regulators to re-evaluate the utility of the reference method approach in other contexts.
Continue reading EPA Finalizes Recommended Nutrient Criteria for Lakes and Reservoirs

There has been a longstanding debate about how to apply the one-year time limit on Clean Water Act Section 401 certification decisions. The D.C. Circuit court in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, 913 F.3d 1099 (D.C. Cir. 2019) established a bright-line standard that a 401 certification must be issued or denied within one year of receipt of application, or the certification opportunity is waived. States cannot engage in actions to extend this deadline by requiring an applicant to withdraw and refile their application or by finding an application incomplete. This bright-line test was reinforced by the Second Circuit’s more recent decision in New York State Department of Environmental Conservation v. FERC, 991 F.3d 439 (2d Cir. 2021). This interpretation was also codified in EPA’s 2020 Clean Water Act Section 401 Certification Rule. See 85 Fed. Reg. 42210 (July 13, 2020). However, on July 2, the Fourth Circuit offered a different interpretation of Section 401 in its decision in N.C. Department of Environmental Quality v. FERC, No. 20-1655 (McMahan Hydro).
Continue reading The Fourth Circuit Weighs In on the Interpretation of CWA Section 401

On March 31, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello found that the Federal Power Act (FPA) is the exclusive authority with regards to controversies related to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) -issued hydroelectric licenses, including challenges that stem from the permitting decisions of other federal agencies acting under their independent statutory authority. In Save the Colorado v. Semonite, Civil Action No. 18-cv-03258 (D. Colo. Mar. 31, 2021), the court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction over an appeal of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 404 permit and the associated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Endangered Species Act (ESA) biological opinion since these are actions “inhere[d] in the controversy” related to the FERC license.
Continue reading District Court Lacked Jurisdiction Over Clean Water Act Section 404 Permit Challenge Involving FERC License Amendment

On May 27, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its intent to reconsider the Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 401 final rule issued by the Trump administration in June 2020 (Final Rule).

Section 401 of the CWA provides a cooperative federalism framework where states and authorized Tribes can issue a water quality certification that places conditions on a proposed project or action requiring a federal permit. Under President Trump, EPA revised the regulations implementing Section 401, to among other reasons, create greater regulatory certainty in the process, reaffirm one year means one year or less as authorized by statute, address the scope of review by clarifying conditioning authority is focused on water quality effects of the discharge as opposed to the entire activity, and modernize the application process. While some states have intervened in support of EPA to defend the Final Rule (including Texas and West Virginia), other states (including New York and California) and environmental groups have challenged the Final Rule. Courts are currently holding these proceedings in abeyance in light of the change in administration. It is not clear how the reconsideration notice will affect these abeyances, but the courts may simply continue to hold the cases in abeyance pending a replacement rule being issued.
Continue reading EPA Announces Reconsideration and Potential Revision of the Clean Water Act Section 401 Final Rule

In an order dated May 20, 2021, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC, or the Commission) terminated the hydropower licenses for three projects located on the Tittabawasee River in Michigan—the Secord (P-10809), Smallwood (P-10810) and Sanford (P-2785) dams.  The termination by implied surrender follows a May 2020 breach at the Sanford dam and the breach and failure of the upstream Edenville dam, which was also operated by the same licensee before the Commission revoked the Edenville license in 2018 due to the licensee’s repeated noncompliance with FERC dam safety orders.  The resultant floods caused significant damage in the communities surrounding the dams and have been estimated by the State of Michigan to have caused economic harm exceeding $190 million.
Continue reading FERC Terminates Licenses for Projects Involved in Michigan Dam Breach

On March 23, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (the “Second Circuit” or the “Court”) agreed with FERC’s determination that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) had waived its certification authority under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) by failing to act within the one-year statutory deadline. Notably, the Second Circuit held that a state agency cannot revise a certification request date by written agreement with the applicant, thereby altering the one-year statutory deadline for state action. Denying the petitions for rehearing by DEC and the Sierra Club, the Court applied the same reasoning it applied in New York State Dep’t of Env’t Conservation v. FERC (“New York I”), 884 F.3d 450, 455-56 (2d Cir. 2018) (see March 20, 2018 edition of the WER) where the Second Circuit determined that DEC could not unilaterally alter the application date based on when it considered an application complete “because that approach would allow a state agency not only to dictate when the review process can begin but also to delay it indefinitely.” There, to avoid such a subjective standard, the Second Circuit established a bright line rule that the beginning of the review is determined by the date “of receipt of such request.”
Continue reading Second Circuit Sides With FERC – States May Not Agree to Revise the Certification Request Date to Avoid Waiver of its Certification Authority Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act

In an April 1, 2021 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Florida’s exceptions to the decision of Special Master Judge Paul Kelly in its long-running dispute with Georgia over the use of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin. The oral argument in the case, held February 22, 2021, seemed to point to several open questions where the justices could have made new law or clarified the tests associated with an equitable apportionment action. However, in the end, it came down to just the content of the evidentiary record, which was not in Florida’s favor, especially with the application of heightened standards of review.
Continue reading Georgia Prevails Before Supreme Court in Long Running Water Wars Dispute

On March 23, the Second Circuit issued its opinion in N.Y. Dep’t of Enviro. Conservation v. FERC, Case No. 19-1610 (i.e., the “Empire Pipeline” case). The case concerns the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC or Commission) determination that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) waived its water quality certification authority with regard to FERC’s issuance of a gas pipeline certificate when NYSDEC sought to extend its review period beyond the one-year deadline under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA or Act) by agreeing with the applicant to “post-date” the filing date of its water quality certification application by several weeks.
Continue reading Second Circuit Enforces the Clean Water Act Section 401 One-Year Time Limit

On March 18, 2021, FERC issued a Final Rule amending its regulations to establish a one-year period for states, tribes, or other certifying authorities (“Certifying Agencies”) to act on a Clean Water Act (“CWA”) Section 401 water quality certification request for proposed natural gas and liquefied natural gas projects.
Continue reading FERC Establishes Water Quality Certification Waiver Period for Natural Gas Projects

Addressing environmental justice (EJ) concerns highlighted during the campaign is an important priority for the Biden Administration.  Within a week of taking the oath of office, President Biden issued a sweeping executive order with a number of EJ initiatives, including creation of a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council consisting of the heads of each Cabinet-level and independent federal agency.  The order also directed federal agencies to “make achieving environmental justice part of their missions” through development of programs and policies aimed at addressing disproportionately high adverse environmental impacts on disadvantaged communities.
Continue reading FERC to Increase Focus on Environmental Justice