24th Annual American Bar Association Environmental, Energy, and Natural Resources Law Fall Conference

Denver, Colorado                                October 5-8, 2016

A Glass Half Empty – Flint, Environmental Justice, and America’s Drinking Water Infrastructure Problem

At the 24th Annual American Bar Association Environmental, Energy, and Natural Resources Law Fall Conference in Denver, a panel of three professionals in the field of environmental justice tied themes of environmental justice to the history, issues, and lessons learned from the recent drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Randy Hayman, from Beveridge & Diamond in Washington, D.C., opened by stating that the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) is the most important piece of legislation the United States Congress has ever passed, because “water is life.” The SDWA gave U.S. citizens assurance that their water would not be contaminated by anything that could cause serious health problems. Considering the necessity of water to human survival, Hayman said the SDWA is inherent to environmental justice.

The majority of Hayman’s statements were about the history and execution of the SDWA. Many regulatory checks were put in place by Congress to ensure that everyone is confident their water is safe to drink and use for everyday needs. Other than wells serving fewer than twenty-five people, every public water system is subject to the rules of the SDWA, and failure to meet the standards set forth by the law can result in fines of $25,000 per day. The damage does not just end at the fine, however. Public confidence in officials erodes when a community violates SDWA rules. Therefore, public officials face the dilemma of whether to publicize the existence of a water crisis, because failure to solve the problem swiftly result in the public’s trust quickly diminishing.

The moderator asked Hayman to elaborate on the Lead and Copper Rule, a health standard that minimizes the amount of those contaminants in public pipelines. Lead and copper particles enter the water stream from pipes, pollution, and natural processes. As long as the amount of either remains below a specified “action level,” the water is still considered safe for human consumption. An action level is an amount of contamination that will require additional action from water system administrators, including treatment, public notification, or exposure minimization. Exceeding an action level is not a violation itself—nor is it necessarily a health and safety hazard—but it could indicate the existence of a water-pollution problem. According to Hayman, because education about safe contaminant levels is insufficient, news of a community’s water getting contaminated at all sometimes causes panic. Hayman suggested officials should take greater steps to inform the public about lead and copper, since it is only when those measurements rise to very high levels that they become a potential threat to health.

The second speaker was Quentin Pair, a professor of environmental justice at Howard University School of Law who also works in the environmental justice division at the Department of Justice. According to Pair, environmental justice is the civil rights of the Twenty-First Century. In his discussion, Pair said the themes of the civil rights movement are tied directly to modern environmental justice because the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of environmental has very similar language to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act – equal treatment is emphasized in both. He mentioned how critical it is to consult the general public first about environmental issues, rather than waiting for elected officials to take notice. He believes grassroots organizing can begin to solve environmental problems much more efficiently and effectively than any other public resource because local community members know which issues are most important to their neighbors than elected officials.

As part of his discussion, Pair shared the story of the beginning of modern environmental justice in Warren County, North Carolina. Beginning in 1973 a large landfill was used to dispose of contaminants without the knowledge or consent of one of the poorest counties in the state, the populations of which were more than seventy percent black at the time. This controversy was addressed in several lawsuits, including United States v. Ward in 1982. This trend has since continued, and three out of every four disposal facilities in the country are located in minority and low-income communities. According to Pair, race is the most significant determinant of the location of these disposal facilities across the country. He said that in order to talk about environmental justice, it is impossible not to consider how much damage environmental racism has caused.

Michelle Wilde Anderson, a law professor at Stanford who focuses on state and local government, was the final speaker on this panel. She brought the discussion full-circle by connecting what the other speakers discussed to the Flint crisis. She described the professionals who initiated the documentation of the contaminated drinking water in Flint, including a pediatrician who investigated the doubling and tripling of lead levels in her patients’ blood. Those professionals did what Pair criticized public officials for not doing: they listened to the community and learned what was wrong.

Wilde Anderson also described how the cause of the crisis was a revenue problem rather than a spending problem. Because of an abundance of deferred spending and loans in the 1970s, Flint did not have the resources to meet local needs. Public infrastructure suffered as a result of the lack of resources, and old systems that were not properly maintained grew more vulnerable to leaking contaminants over time. Ultimately, she said, the decision to rebuild these outdated infrastructure systems is left to the taxpayers, and the longer those systems go without repair the more likely health hazards are to occur in the near future. Wilde Anderson views Flint as a warning or a wake-up call to the nation because old pipeline systems will fail without better and more regular maintenance.

The panel then accepted questions from the audience. One audience member asked how federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), could do a better job dealing with environmental injustice. Pair suggested those problems could not be solved without providing more funding for environmental justice, which Congress has denied. He further noted that many communities do not trust the federal government to solve all of their problems, so the EPA currently has neither the political nor the financial support needed to tackle those issues. Another audience member asked how local communities can recognize access to safe drinking water as a basic human right. Wilde Anderson answered by saying that leaders do not try hard enough to make water available to communities that cannot afford it, so communities fall short of recognizing access to safe drinking water as an essential human right. The costs associated with delivering water to these communities are high, and not many cities have completed these critical delivery infrastructure projects.

Travis Parker

Image: “There’s Something in the Water.”  Property of Live Once Live Wild, Creative Commons.


6th Annual Carver Colloquium

Denver, Colorado                                September 29, 2016

Water for Sale: Prior Appropriation or Free Market Trade?

The Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute hosted the sixth annual Carver Colloquium on September 29, 2016. Former Colorado Supreme Court Justice, Gregory Hobbs, and Professor Gary Libecap, of the University of California, Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, compared the relative merits of the prior appropriation system and the free market system of water allocation.  The debate over which system of water allocation is better suited for today’s environmental realities quickly evolved into an in-depth discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of the doctrine of prior appropriation, as well as an insightful comparison between Colorado’s use of prior appropriation and California’s hybrid utilization of prior appropriation and riparianism. University of Denver Sturm College of Law professor Jan Laitos moderated the event, which consisted of a ten-minute opening comment by each speaker, followed by three discussion questions from Professor Laitos, and a thirty-minute session in which the speakers answered questions from the audience.

Justice Hobbs began by reciting a poem and providing a brief history of water law in Colorado.  He discussed how the terrain of the American West requires the prior appropriation system of water allocations because the riparian system is not realistic in a place where the few sources of water are scattered across an arid landscape.  Water rights, he said, are for the beneficial use of the people, and Colorado’s historical use of the prior appropriation doctrine reflects that reality.

Professor Libecap followed Justice Hobbs’ introduction with a brief explanation of California’s current approach to water allocation.  In California, the riparian doctrine is still used in conjunction with the prior appropriation system.  The state owns the few large water projects that serve the main metropolitan areas, and contracts between water rights holders in the water-rich north and the water-scarce south tend to result in unfair distributions to the detriment of southern water users.  This complicated situation has led to heavy reliance on groundwater supplies, which has caused severe shortages.  Professor Libecap noted that the doctrine of prior appropriation is not to blame for California’s drought situation.  Instead, Mr. Libecap pointed to the ill management of water supplies by state legislators and municipalities.

After the introductory remarks, Professor Laitos directed his first question to the two speakers: Could a “water markets” system or “water capitalism”—where water rights are bought and sold like a commodity—ever replace the prior appropriation system?  Justice Hobbs began by stating that water rights are a type of property right and such rights cannot be bought and sold like a product or commodity.  He said he did not believe system in which water was bought and sold like a commodity could be successful, especially in Colorado because water rights are a public good determined by beneficial use, and although water rights can be owned, the use of such a right is dependent on use by all other owners.  While prior appropriation is an adaptable system and could promote a “water market,” water rights could never be traded like other commodities.  Professor Libecap did not view the prior appropriation system as significantly different from a “water market.”  He noted that there have been many water contracts created in California, and said water acting as a commodity in a water market promotes a more versatile system, with more cooperation between water-rights owners.  Legislators in California are considering the use of legislative mandates to control the current water shortage, but Mr. Libecap insisted that this kind of approach would be unmanageable and inflexible for responding to market and climate changes.

Professor Laitos then asked whether it is old fashioned that in 2016, when our society is more technologically advanced, the largest and most senior water rights holders are still ranchers and farmers as opposed to factories and production sites.  Justice Hobbs argued that Colorado should remain true to its roots, saying that although Coloradans need to find a way to meet the growing water demands of booming urban areas, they should not do so at the detriment of older agricultural water rights holders.  Professor Libecap claimed that the media is misinformed about the actual amount of water used by agricultural producers.  Californian farmers are not opposed to trading or sharing water rights with the urban population; their main concern is that the state legislature will see them as old fashioned and outdated, and will proceed to forcefully take their rights away and reapportion them to others.

Professor Laitos’ final question was whether the speakers believed that the prior appropriation system is equipped to accommodate the countervailing needs of the environment—keeping water in the stream to protect water quality and aquatic wildlife—and of making sure a senior appropriator has enough water—even if it means dewatering that stream? Justice Hobbs responded that prior appropriation is equipped to deal with environmental concerns but that it comes at a cost.  He pointed out that federal legislation has created permitting regulations that overlay Colorado’s prior appropriation system for any new major water projects, but those processes can take fourteen to eighteen years.  Because of the increasing difficulty and uncertainty associated with getting those supplies through new transbasin or storage projects, Front Range municipalities are forced to turn to accelerated water-market acquisition, stoking the fears of buy and dry on the Eastern Plains. Professor Libecap agreed that prior appropriation is perfectly set up to deal with environmental flows. Nevertheless, he cautioned against states like California turning to solutions that involve issuing mandates to protect stream flows, which he called a tax on senior rights holders and one that causes endangered species to become the enemy, thus creating a conflict between local and environmental objectives. Instead, he argued, if states really want to protect stream flows in the long term, they need to turn to market solutions like leases, option contracts, or outright sales to protect that water. That way the environment “owns” it and the farmers benefit financially, both of which prevent the type of conflicts mandates will have down the road.

In the final portion of the debate, the audience asked questions of the speakers. Justice Hobbs clarified that the prior appropriation doctrine used in Colorado does not create the “use it or lose it” problem because the key concept of the prior appropriation system is beneficial use. Applicants are only required to show actual use (historic consumption) and what is left over returns to the stream for the public; thus, nothing is lost.  Then, Professor Libecap commented that the hybrid system currently used in California, when compared to the much more streamlined Colorado system, lacks the clear statutory structure and direction required to create an active and effective “water market.”  Professor Libecap also assuaged the general fear that recreational or aesthetic water use in times of drought are frivolous by noting that such uses are so minuscule that they do not have much impact on broader water issues.  Finally, Justice Hobbs advised that the only problem with the prior appropriation system is management and enforcement of the system; he felt that the government sometimes gave in to pressure from private parties, which decreases the effectiveness of the system.  Justice Hobbs proposed that more administrative control in the future should combat this governmental failing and make the prior appropriation system more successful.

Tina Xu

Image: The Colorado River. Flickr User Rennett Stowe, Creative Commons

 

 


Water, Oil, and Tribal Sovereignty: 

The Fight for the Dakota Access Pipeline

Denver, Colorado

On September 27, 2016, the University of Denver Sturm College of Law hosted a panel discussion about the current legal fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.  The panel addressed legal, historical, social justice, and environmental justice topics related to the dispute.  The discussion was co-sponsored by DU’s Natural Resources & Environmental Law Society, Native American Law Students Association, and the DU Water Law Review.

Professor Fred Cheever, a DU Law professor and co-director of the school’s Environmental & Natural Resources Law Program, moderated the discussion and introduced the issue. The Dakota Access Pipeline (“DAPL”) is an approximately 1,170-mile pipeline constructed to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.  The pipeline’s path is intended to span four states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois—and cross the Missouri River at a point located a half-mile from the Standing Rock Indian reservation in North Dakota.  The DAPL route would pass through tribal lands of great cultural, religious and spiritual significance to tribes.

Professor Brad Bartlett, a visiting assistant professor in the Environmental Law Clinic at DU Law, offered a timeline of events regarding the DAPL legal conflict. In July 2016, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, filed a declaratory and injunctive relief complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).  The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe intervened and joined the lawsuit in August 2016.  In the initial complaint, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) violated multiple federal statutes, including the Clean Water Act, National Historic Protection Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, when it issued permits to move forward with construction of the DAPL. First, the DAPL’s route is intended to pass under the Missouri River just a half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation boundary. A federal permit is required under the Clean Water Act for any construction project impacting federally regulated rivers —including the DAPL’s crossing of the Missouri River. In this case, the permitting process triggers requirements under the National Historic Protection Act that intend to protect areas of great cultural significance to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, such as sacred sites and burial grounds.  The Tribes argue that the Corps pre-authorized construction of DAPL without ensuring compliance of the National Historic Protection Act, allows the Corps to circumvent its statutory responsibility to ensure that the DAPL does not harm historically and culturally significant sites. The Tribe’s injunctive relief complaint seeks to stop the DAPL from proceeding and causing irreparable harm.

Professor Bartlett oversees DU law students in the environmental law clinic who worked in conjunction with Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP, a national Indian law firm, to file a complaint on behalf of the Yankton Sioux Tribe on September 8, 2016, for declaratory and injunctive relief in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Yankton Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to stop construction of the DAPL.  The Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation is located in South Dakota along the Missouri River.  The complaint seeks to prevent the Corps and other federal agencies from violating the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), the Clean Water Act, the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and the Administrative Procedures Act.  Specifically, NEPA requires a federal agency to complete an environmental impact statement, including public engagement and detailed comparison of alternatives.  Additionally, the complaint requests that the Corps engage in a more meaningful consultation process with the tribal communities.  Professor Bartlett noted that neither has happened as of September.

On September 9, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg denied the tribes’ motions for an injunction.  Immediately following this decision, the Justice Department, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement moving to stop construction of the DAPL on land near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation until the Corps could revisit and reconsider previous decisions under federal laws.  The joint statement also requested that tribes and government agencies meet to evaluate the current government-to-government consultation and to determine how to better include tribes in decision-making processes concerning pipeline construction.

Professor Bartlett also noted that the tribal response to the construction of this pipeline has resulted in the largest congregation of Native Americans in the past 100 years.  Police and private security forces have responded with arrests and violence to tribes’ peaceful acts of civil disobedience. As of September 2016 a prayer camp still remains in the area with ongoing protest demonstrations.

The second panelist, Dr. Angel M. Hinzo, is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Interdisciplinary Indigenous Studies at the University of Denver Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE) focusing on Native American history from the mid-19th century to the present.  In the panel, Dr. Hinzo recounted how the history of U.S. governmental and tribal relations is characterized by contrasting, and often conflicting, worldviews.  She said the federal government’s extraction of natural resources embodies western values of exploitation for economic gain.  For example, proponents of the DAPL have framed the project as benefiting the public good by creating jobs during the construction phase of the pipeline and contributing to federal sales and income taxes. Tribes, on the other hand, view the same natural resources, as sentient beings to be respected and revered, not exploited. The current DAPL conflict illustrates this fundamental difference in worldview because the pipeline would transport crude oil over an area rich in cultural and natural resources.  Historically, according to Dr. Hinzo, the Corps—the oldest agency dealing with natural resources in the United States—has harmed native lands and the environment.

Additionally, Dr. Hinzo raised concerns that the construction of pipeline threatens local tribal burial sites.  In September 2016, the pipeline construction company—Dakota Access LLC—destroyed burial sites near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to build the DAPL.  Dr. Hinzo emphasized that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA”) provides regulations to protect culturally significant sites during infrastructure projects, which the Corps and pipeline workers did not respect. Dr. Hinzo also argued that discussions around the DAPL need to better address the NAGPRA. Lastly, Dr. Hinzo noted the social costs associated with the oil-and-gas boom in North Dakota. Communities living near fossil fuel extraction have witnessed an increase in violence and sex trafficking.  Low income tribal communities living near the proposed route of the DAPL, who already experience difficulty with these issues, are increasingly at risk.

The panel’s third speaker, Mr. David Neslin, is of counsel at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP in Denver, Colorado.  He previously managed the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission within the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which regulates all oil and gas development in Colorado.  During his career, Mr. Neslin has also represented multiple tribes in natural resource–extraction issues.

First, Mr. Neslin noted that the sole issue of the preliminary injunction action was whether the Corps violated federal laws when it issued permits allowing construction of the DAPL to move forward.  In general, preliminary injunctive relief actions seek to halt a project and maintain the status quo until the court has a chance to go through the full litigation process and resolve the issue.  Consequently, the court’s denial of the injunction in this case was a narrow decision because it did not go to trial or produce a full development of record.  Next, Mr. Neslin spoke about the importance of the administrative record to the court’s decision and how this case represents a good example of why it is vital for parties to develop and convey a cohesive narrative to the court.  While people can disagree about the substance of such records, he said that the Corps adequately documented its compliance and “checked all the boxes” needed to comply with federal regulations as to tribal consultations and environmental impacts of the DAPL.  As noted earlier, the federal government is required to provide permits under the Clean Water Act to allow the DAPL to move forward, triggering requirements under the National Historic Protection Act to ensure proper treatment of sacred sites.  Because the Corp followed and completed steps outlined in the permitting process, Judge Boasberg denied the tribes’ motions for an injunction.  Mr. Neslin argued that it was the Department of Justice’s multiple affidavits, for example, that illustrated the ways in which the Corps took the proper steps in allowing the DAPL to move forward.  The tribes, he said, could have done a better job of illustrating and citing examples to the court of the DAPL’s impacts on tribal cultural resources.  Finally, Mr. Neslin noted that the district court opinion serves as a reminder of the potency of judicial deference toward agency decision making in cases like this.  Traditionally, courts defer to agencies—such as the Environmental Protection Agency—to determine whether infrastructure projects have followed proper procedure when considering environmental and cultural impacts.  When not one overarching agency exists to ensure proper compliance, as in the case of the DAPL, multiple federal agencies follow their own processes when dealing with a discrete aspect of the overall project.  Mr. Neslin said that federal segmentation of this kind results in piecemealed environmental and cultural impact assessments, overlooking the potential for studying the impacts of the project as a whole.

The final panelist, Ms. Heather Whiteman Runs Him, is a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund (“NARF”) in Boulder, Colorado, where she works on tribal water and natural resource rights issues.  She provided an overview of tribal water rights and upcoming meetings between tribes and the U.S. government to evaluate current administrative consultation requirements.  Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that NARF’s role in the current DAPL actions is to coordinate multiple amicus briefs in support of tribes’ ongoing defense. Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that the foundation of tribal water rights under federal law rests on the Winters Decision, which says that the establishment of an Indian reservation includes an implied reservation of water for future use in an amount necessary to fulfill the needs of the reservation.

While Winters recognized tribal rights to water, Ms. Whiteman Runs Him noted, some tribes are working with state and federal governments to quantify their water rights and build water infrastructure in order to put their water to use.  Currently twenty-nine tribes have settled their water rights, while many more have not.  Settlement negotiations are generally expensive, lengthy, and multi-step processes that involve analyzing the land base of the reservation, hydrology, soil science, economics, etc. Ms. Whiteman Runs Him emphasized that neither the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe nor the Yankton Sioux Tribe have either quantified or settled their reservation water rights, but that does not diminish the Tribes’ rights to a reliable and safe water supply for their citizens.  These tribes have concerns about the DAPL’s affect on their water supply because the pipeline’s proposed route traverses the Missouri River, a major municipal water source to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation, and the point of diversion for its drinking water.

Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that federal agencies are required to establish policies and procedures to meet the consultation standards of the National Historic Protection Act.  Most federal agencies have established such policies; the Corps, however, has a history of failing to comply with federal standards in regard to tribal sovereignty.  Ms. Whiteman Runs Him believes that federal agencies need to “make the letter of the law match the spirit of the law” by not only requiring the Corps meet requirements of the administrative process, but also implementing requirements in a way that is meaningful to the intent of the regulations.

One major point illuminated throughout the panel discussion and the question and answer period is the adequacy of a permitting process that allowed the DAPL to move forward in the face of federal trust obligations to tribes.  As previously mentioned, the permitting process for the DAPL requires certain mitigation activities under federal regulations to ensure proper treatment of sacred sites.  While federal agencies may have completed the required steps to receive permits, the tribes argue that such steps lack substance and do not adequately and meaningfully consider tribal input.  While the permitting process may be administratively sufficient, many question whether the process actually fulfills spirit of the federal trust obligations to substantively consult and include tribal input.

Lindsey Ratcliff

Image: The Dakota Access Pipeline being installed between farms, as seen from 50th Avenue in New Salem, North Dakota. Flickr user Tony Webster, Creative Commons.