Annual Symposium 2017: At The Confluence: The Past, Present, and Future of Water Law

Denver, Colorado                         April 7, 2017

The Clean Water Act and The Scope of Federal Power

(Scroll down for full video of panel)

For this panel discussion, David Ivester, Melinda Kassen, Peter Nichols, and Paul Kibel each spoke about a different aspect of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) and its various intersections with federal power.

First, David Ivester, partner at the land use, environmental, and water law firm Briscoe Ivester & Bazel, detailed the background of the CWA and the two different types of jurisdiction contained within it. Simply put, the CWA regulates discharges of pollutants from point sources into navigable waters. Under the relevant definitions, pollutants include dredge or fill material and navigable waters are simply “waters of the United States.” The CWA governs two types of jurisdictions: geographic and activity. Geographic jurisdiction allows the CWA to protect all waters with a “significant nexus” to traditionally navigable waters. This theory derived from three Supreme Court opinions interpreting the CWA. First, in United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes, the Court upheld the Army Corps of Engineer’s claim that the CWA’s geographic reach includes wetlands adjacent to navigable waters. Then, in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers (“SWANCC”), the Court found that Congress did not intend the CWA to reach isolated, non-navigable, intrastate waters. Finally, the Court in Rapanos v. United States issued a plurality opinion holding that the CWA extends only to relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies of water and those wetlands attached to such bodies of water. Interestingly enough, Kennedy’s concurring opinion in SWANCC used a significant nexus as a test for determining CWA jurisdiction.

Mr. Ivester then discussed activity jurisdiction of the CWA, specifically in reference to plowing. An Army Corps of Engineers regulation excludes plowing as a discharge. Mr. Ivester then pointed out that, while the regulation defines and excludes plowing, it does not include redistribution of soil that changes any water to dry land. Finally, Mr. Ivester showed a picture of a freshly-tilled land asked the audience to consider whether plowing had occurred.

Next, Melinda Kassen, Interim Director of the Theodore Rooosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Water Resources, explained the CWA’s statutory and regulatory landscape, specifically focusing on the “waters of the United States” rule. First, Ms. Kassen discussed various health and safety issues with rivers prior to the CWA. For instance, rivers were burning and life within them was dying. Even following the Water Quality Act of 1965, these same issues persisted. As a result, Congress passed the CWA in 1972. From around the 1970’s until 2006, the CWA utilized a definition of the “waters of the United States” that included all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, and streams.

Moreover, a series of opinions – elaborated in depth by Mr. Ivester – examined this definition, and Ms. Kassen pointed out interesting parts of two of the opinions. For instance, in SWANCC, the court held that waters need not literally be navigable, yet it also said that all words must have meaning. Moreover, in Rapanos, the Court required a significant nexus to navigable waters alone or in combination with similarly situated navigable waters. In this opinion, the Chief Justice himself mentioned that the best way to deal with the continuous stream of navigable water issues was to adopt rules. Finally, in 2015, the agencies adopted a rule defining the waters of the United States using connectivity and bright line theories. For connectivity, the rule required some form of nexus to a river, stream or body of water. The rule also introduced what Ms. Kassen referred to as “bright lines.” That is, the rule dictates that waters within a given distance of navigable waters are automatically within the definition. Many states objected to this rule and filed suit. The Sixth Circuit consolidated all of the cases and as recently as January 20, 2017, the parties filed the opening briefs in the case. Moreover, President Trump issued an Executive Order in February 2017 regarding the waters of the United States rule.

Finally, Ms. Kassen closed by asking the audience to consider who will implement the next version of the CWA. Originally based on cooperative federalism, the CWA did not maintain that mantra for long, especially in the expensive permitting process. For example, only two states currently issue their own 404 permits. Simply put, states are forced to do more in carrying out the CWA, but those states lack sufficient funding to provide the necessary services. As a result, CWA enforcement drops and a downward spiral may continue.

Peter Nichols, Board Member of University of Colorado Law School’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, spoke third, and he discussed the intersection of water quality and water quantity. Specifically, he discussed physical water transfers and question of whether these transfers that do not add anything else to the destination body require permitting under Section 402 of the CWA. First, Mr. Nichols noted that, for most transfers, the destination body sees no impact. However, other transfers can exceed or contribute to exceeding current water standards by introducing more suspended solids such as nutrients and metals. Moreover, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permitting include discharge limits that concern primarily with contamination. Thus, water transfers must meet NPDES compliance standards and often involve a water treatment plant.

At this junction, Mr. Nichols pointed out that compliance with NPDES standards for water transfers is difficult for three reasons. First, permitting, treating, and transferring are expensive practices, making the process almost economically infeasible. Second, the transfers must operate among a range of differences in water volume and water quality, presenting a technical challenge to transfers. Finally, transfer sites are limited and environmentally difficult to operate. Faced with these challenges, a transferer really only has two options. On one hand, it could cease waters when transfers do not meet the standards. This presents a problem, as stopping during a critical time may result in a chronic lack of water for the season. On the other hand, the transferor may continue transferring water and take the fines. Regardless, high NPDES standards lead to a significant reduction in water transfers and net loss of water supplies.

Mr. Nichols noted that this issue has occupied water transfers from the 1970’s through today. For example, the EPA’s water transfers rule in 2008 exempted certain water transfers from NPDES permitting requirements. Parties challenged the rule, and the Eleventh Circuit consolidated all of the cases, only to dismiss them for lack of jurisdiction. The claim reappeared in the Southern District of New York, which vacated the order. However, varying rulings still persist. Even this year, the Second Circuit held that water transfers do not require NPDES permits. Finally, Mr. Nichols laid out the bottom line of his presentation: that Western residents rely on water transfers daily. In many cases, these transfers are economically, technically, and environmentally impossible to meet. The critical issue here arises from concerns about traditional federal deference to the state water law.

The fourth and final panelist, Paul Kibel, professor of environmental, natural resource, and water law at Golden Gate University School of Law, detailed how the state of California is protecting instream flows. Mr. Kibel. First, he explained that fisheries are facing decline in California. Traditionally, the state has a robust commercial fishery industry with salmon stocks playing an important role in the economy. Moreover, federal laws and agency work has usually kept water in streams for fisheries. However, these fisheries face a future with uncertainty concerning continued support.

After laying out the problem, Mr. Kibel explained three major impacts of reduced instream flows on fisheries. First, the reduction in instream flow results in seawater intrusion into rivers, raising their salinity. Moreover, as the freshwater supply meeting the oceans decreases, the intrusion increases, pushing salt water further and further up the deltas. Increased saline levels in the water can even affect the fish. For instance, the Delta smelt lives well in brackish waters, but it dies in saline waters. Second, reduced instream flow results in increased water temperature. Without much water coming downstream, the rivers warm and, in some cases, decimate fish populations. Third, reduced instream flows result in slack water conditions. Then, these slowly flowing waters grow algae and parasites, which can harm the fish.

Next, Mr. Kibel gave examples of federal laws playing a big role in keeping instream water flows steady then explained how California has safeguards if the water rushes out. First and foremost, the Clean Water Act compels the EPA to review state water quality standards. Moreover, states also have the power to propose beneficial uses to the EPA for approval. Pursuant to this authority, the California State Water Board is updating its water plan to establish base instream flows for tributaries of the San Joaquin River. Next, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act requires drafting biological opinions during consultation. Additionally, courts have upheld these biological opinions supporting instream flows for salinity and temperature concerns. Third, the Winters Doctrine allows tribes to hold federal water rights to fulfill the purposes for which reservations are created. This authority includes rights to instream water for supporting salmon stocks. Next, the National Environmental Policy Act compels creating Environmental Impact Statements, and Kibel pointed to the California Water Fix as a situation where an EIS protected water and salmon. Finally, Section 10 of the Federal Power Act requires non-federal dam permits to protect fish spawning.

What happens, Mr. Kibel posited to the audience, when these federal powers no longer support instream flows in California? Luckily, California has its own protections in place. For instance, California’s state Clean Water Act requires appropriation similar to the federal statute. Similar to the court-supported federal ESA, California courts have also held that state agencies have the authority to protect instream water for public services. As a response to the Winters Doctrine, both the California Constitution and its Water Code operate under a reasonable use law. Under this scheme, unreasonable methods of diversion are unlawful, which protects instream flows from improper diversion. Where biological opinions may not be available, the California Fish and Game Code requires dam operators to release enough water to maintain downstream fishers. Even better, this provision applies to federal dams within the state. Finally, Section 401 of the CWA requires the federal government to obtain water quality certification from the states for certain activities. While the state is considering the effect of a project on its waters, it may impose instream requirements on those water quality certifications to protect them.

 

Connor Pace

 

 


Background

The popularity of craft beer has been steadily increasing as more people want to support small, local businesses and desire a more complex tasting beer. As demand for craft beer has increased, so has supply. By the end of 2016, there were over 5300 craft breweries in America, with another 2000 in the planning stages—a seventeen percent increase from 2015. The Brewers Association categorizes an American craft brewery as “small” if less than six million barrels a year, “independent” if less than twenty-five percent of the brewery is owned or controlled by a non-craft brewer industry member, or “traditional if the majority of beer derives flavor from traditional brewing ingredients and their fermentation).

While beer lovers the world over can appreciate a good craft beer, behind the industry lies a slew of adverse environmental consequences. One of the most pressing environmental issues craft breweries are facing is the processing and disposal of wastewater. When brewery wastewater is dumped into public waters without being treated, it can cause plant, algae, and bacteria growth, which all lead to reduced oxygen levels and can eventually lead to the eutrophication of a body of water, making it uninhabitable to most aquatic life. This is mostly an effect of the solid waste in brewery wastewater – including spent grains, yeast, and hops – that can weigh up to fifty pounds per barrel of beer produced.

Production and Regulation

Water is the most essential part of the brewing process. Not only does water make up about ninety percent of the actual finished product, it is used in every part of the production process from growing hops to cleaning the equipment after a brew. As a result, one barrel of beer takes about seven barrels of water to create using traditional methods. Accordingly, breweries use an enormous amount of water. The United States produces more than twenty million barrels of beer a year, and although craft breweries only contribute to twenty percent of total U.S. production, the craft brewing industry can potentially place a huge strain on water supplies. However, craft breweries have shown themselves to be sustainably minded and oriented toward conservation. Many craft brewers have been able to decrease the amount of water used in production from seven barrels to just three per barrel of beer.

The Clean Water Act (“CWA”) regulates the discharging of all pollutants discharged into United States waters. The CWA has specific requirements for discharging industrial waste into publically-owned water treatment facilities. Unlike most domestic wastewater, brewery wastewater is high in sugar, alcohol, solids, and temperature which municipal water treatment plants were not designed to process. For this reason, breweries are often required to pre-treat their wastewater before sending it to municipal treatment plants. Violating the Clean Water Act can lead to enormous fines, which can cripple a craft brewery as most are relatively small businesses. Yuengling, a major craft brewery out of Pennsylvania, was recently charged with allegedly violating the CWA by the Department of Justice for not pre-treating its wastewater. Although both parties entered into a consent decree—a settlement agreement where the defendant does not admit liability—the brewery still had to pay 2.8 million dollars in penalties for violating the CWA as part of the settlement. Aside from the CWA, municipal water regulations may also affect craft breweries by limiting certain types of pollution such as: biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), total suspended solids (TSS), total dissolve solids (TDS), and pH. Such local regulations can also carry huge fines if violated.

Wastewater Treatment Advances

Managing wastewater is one effective way that craft breweries have found to reduce overall water consumption – saving water and simultaneously reducing costs of operations. Bear Republic Brewing Company out of Sonoma, California has installed a bio-electrically enhanced wastewater treatment mechanism called EcoVolt in response to the crippling drought that California breweries are facing. EcoVolt is unique as the first and only industrial-scale, bio-electrically enhanced treatment system. The system introduces electrically active organisms that eliminate up to ninety percent of the biological oxygen demand—a pollutant. The system also converts carbon dioxide into biogas—mixtures of gases—hat can be used to generate heat and electricity for Bear Republic’s production process. EcoVolt allows Bear Republic to reuse around twenty-five percent of its wastewater, which cuts down the amount of water used for production to 3.5 barrels per barrel of beer instead of the traditional seven. As an added benefit, the system cuts Bear Republics’ baseload electricity use in half. Savings in both water and energy use have cut the brewery’s operational costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. As Bear Republic has proven, installing new wastewater treatment systems is an effective way to save water and simultaneously reduce costs of operations in the long run. However, it is often too expensive for smaller microbreweries to install.

New Belgium Brewing Company out of Fort Collins, Colorado utilizes a different treatment process than Bear Republic. New Belgium uses microbes to consume residual biomass leftover from the brewing process. Aside from cleaning the water, the microbes also produce methane that is collected and turned into electricity that powers New Belgium’s production process. After being exposed to the microbes, the water is sent through an aerobic digester, which breaks down any remaining organic matter through the use of oxygen. New Belgium claims that its wastewater comes out so clean after the aerobic digestion process that the brewery could legally discharge it directly into the nearest river if it so wished.

As of now, wastewater is generally banned for human consumption, however Clean Water Services in Oregon is trying to change that. Oregon regulations have long allowed treated wastewater to be used for the industrial processes of the brewing process, but not as a part of the final product to be consumed. Clean Water Services petitioned the state for permission to use wastewater that has been treated with the company’s “high-purity” treatment system in beer, and were granted limited permission to do so. As a test run, Clean Water Services gave its treated wastewater to the Oregon Brew Crew, whose members made small batches of beer for a sustainable water brewing challenge. The company has recently installed its “high-purity” system at the four wastewater treatment plants it owns and operates in the Portland area, and the purity of the water exceeds even the most stringent standards for water quality. Clean Water Services is so confident in the effectiveness of its treatment system that it claims it can turn sewage into drinking water.

Conclusion

Although craft brewing is a water-intensive process, the industry has fortunately proven itself to be highly water conscious and dedicated to conservation. Most craft breweries are installing advanced wastewater treatment systems to offset both costs of production and costs to the environment. Although such options still remain relatively expensive, advanced wastewater treatments have proven to be a financially strategic option for those craft breweries that can afford it. Furthermore, such treatment options have the potential to cut a craft brewery’s water use in half, and in places where it may soon be legal to include wastewater in the finished product, water use could potentially be cut even further. Especially in the West, where drought periodically plagues the land, it is important that these advances in wastewater treatment continue to proliferate.

Jeremy Frankel

Image: Craft Beer Sampler. Flickr user QuinnDombrowski, Creative Commons.

 

Sources

Bear Republic Brewing Company and Cambrian Innovation Unveil Pioneering Wastewater Treatment to Energy System, Cambrian Innovation (Jan. 15, 2014), http://cambrianinnovation.com/bearrepublic_announcement.

Cassanra Profita, Why Dump Treated Wastewater When You Can Make Beer With It?, NPR (Jan. 28, 2015), http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/01/28/381920192/why-dump-treated-wastewater-when-you-could-make-beer-with-it.

Hannah Fish, Effects of the Craft Beer Boom in Virginia: How Breweries, Regulators, and the Public Can Collaborate to Mitigate Environmental Impacts, 40 Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol’y Rev. 273 (2015).

Home Brew Competition to Feature Beer Made with Water from Wastewater Treatment Plant, Clean Water Services (Sept. 7, 2016), https://www.cleanwaterservices.org/newsroom/2016/home-brew-competition-to-feature-beer-made-with-water-from-wastewater-treatment-plant.

James Tilton, Drinking Beer is Not a Conservation Measure, U. Denv. Water L. Rev. (Nov. 24, 2015), http://duwaterlawreview.com/drinking-beer-not-a-conservation-measure.

K.C. Cunilio, An In-Depth Look at Yuengling’s 10 Million Dollar Clean Water Act Settlement, Porchdrinking.com (July 28, 2016), https://www.porchdrinking.com/articles/2016/07/18/in-depth-look-yuenglings-10-million-dollar-clean-water-act-settlement.

RJ Alexander, Sustainable Craft Brewing: The Legal Challenges, TriplePundit (June 6, 2012), http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/06/legal-issues-in-beer-brewing.

 

 


Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice

Eugene, Oregon        March 2–5, 2017

The Citizens of Rockaway Beach, Oregon—How One Community Started to Fight for Their Drinking Water, and Ended Up Fighting for Us All

 

Presented by: Nancy Webster, Citizens for Rockaway Beach Watershed Protection; Kate Taylor, Frigate Adventure Travel; Steve Perry, Citizens for Rockaway Beach Watershed Protection; Jason Gonzales, Oregon Wild.

This panel featured citizens of Rockaway Beach, Oregon who experienced the destruction of their local watersheds by clearcutting. The panelists spoke about their experiences throughout the clearcutting process, including their frustrations with inaction from both the local and state governments.

Rockaway Beach, a small town on the northern Oregon coast, relies on Jetty Creek for its freshwater supply. One panelist described the creek as “a crevice between hills, but it’s our lifeline.” Yet, from 2003–2014, timber companies removed eighty-two percent of the trees around Jetty Creek. Overall, timber companies have removed ninety percent of the trees from Jetty Creek. Often, these companies performed aerial sprays of “chemical cocktails” over the trees before and after clearcutting. The State of Oregon does not require timber companies to release information about what chemicals these sprays contain, nor does the state provide notice to locals before sprays occur. The Oregon Forestry Practices Act contains almost no requirements for watershed protection. Furthermore, the City of Rockaway Beach, the municipality with regulatory authority of Jetty Creek, does not require any notification or information on the contents of chemicals.

The combination of a lack of regulatory oversight and an acquiescence to the timber industry has effectively ruined Jetty Creek. Since clearcutting began, levels of trihalomethanes in Jetty Creek have rapidly increased and are far beyond the EPA’s suggested levels. The turbidity of Jetty Creek has also increased, reducing fish populations. Further, logging has negatively impacted bird and beaver populations, forcing animals away from an otherwise seemingly wild landscape and creating a the appearance of a “Silent Spring.” The reduced water quality has also forced Rockaway Beach residents to drink from packaged water bottles. Some residents keep water dispensers in their homes. This is the only alternative the City of Rockaway Beach has to Jetty Creek, as leaky septic systems and percolating seawater have made the area’s groundwater unsafe for consumption.

These are not the only problems that locals have experienced at the hands of the timber industry. Panelist Kate Taylor, for example, commented on how the logging negatively impacts water-tourism. Taylor is a professional fishing guide who works in the area, and she recounted the negative experiences her customers have when the river they are fishing turn to “chocolate mud” because of nearby logging. When she asked the Oregon Department of Forestry about this issue, the agency became “defensive” and did not assist her. Taylor’s experience mirrored the other panelists’ struggles to bring their issues to the attention of city, county, and state government officials.

When the panelists initially sought to confront the issue, they approached their local, municipal governments, but the Rockaway Beach City Council rejected all efforts against the timber industry. The panelists believed the city is clinging on to a cultural string, instead of supporting local economic growth. After inaction by the local government, the citizens turned to the state. The state responded without any tangible policy change. The state, like the local government, seemed too tied to the cultural idea Oregon’s logging industry. This steadfast protection of the timber industry does not produce economic gain. For example, logging companies are not allowed to perform aerial chemical sprays on federal lands in Oregon. The state’s use of aerial chemical sprays is simply a concession to the industry.

Frustrated with the state and city, the citizens performed “citizen science” to prove to regulators that the logging industry has been negatively affecting watersheds. Through citizen action, the panelists and other members of the public have created a series of legislative proposals to limit aerial spraying in the timber industry. Oregon Democratic State Senator Michael E. Dembrow recently sponsored Senate Bill 892, also known as “The Timber Aerial Spray Right to Know” Bill. This bill was accompanied by Senate Bill 500, which provides agriculturalists with a cause of action for damages resulting from timber companies that conduct aerial sprays.

Overall, any short-term gains in the legislature will prove insufficient. The panelists warned that other parts of the Oregon coast, notably Short Sands Beach, are in imminent danger of succumbing to the same fate as Jetty Creek. The only true way to prevent watershed destruction in Oregon, the panelists contended, is to fundamentally reshape the state’s approach to the timber industry.

Matthew Kilby

Image: Sunset on Rockaway Beach, Oregon.  Flickr user Jake Melara, Creative Commons.


Alaska Wilderness League v. Jewell, 788 F.3d 1212 (9th Cir. 2015) (affirming the district court’s ruling that: (i) the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s approval of the challenged oil spill response plans was not arbitrary and capricious; (ii) the Endangered Species Act did not require the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to consult with any environmental agencies before approving oil spill response plans; (iii) the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement was entitled to Chevron deference for its interpretation of the Oil Pollution Act; and (iv) the National Environmental Policy Act did not require the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to do an environmental impact statement before approving an oil spill response plan).

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”) outlines the procedure for exploration and development of oil and gas resources offshore. This process has four stages. First, the Secretary of Interior creates a five-year leasing program under which operators may search and mine for oil and gas. Second, the Secretary must approve the leases under agreed upon terms and conditions. Third, the lessee must provide the Secretary with a plan of exploration and an Oil Spill Response Plan (“OSRP”) pursuant to the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). Fourth, after searching for oil and gas, and successfully finding either, the lessee has must submit a production and development plan to the Secretary for approval.

At the third stage, the Secretary of the Interior has delegated its power to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (“BSEE”) to approve OSRPs to prevent and respond to oil spills. The CWA requires these plans at four levels: national, regional, local, and individual. At the individual level, owners and operators must propose an OSRP for approval that outlines their response to a potential “worst case discharge” of oil or some other hazardous substance.

Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. and Shell Offshore Inc. (collectively “Shell”) acquired three leases for offshore exploration and production—two leases in the Beaufort in 2005 and 2007, and one in the Chukchi Seas in 2008. Shell complied with all regulations at the time for intended exploration, but due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Secretary of the Interior placed a temporary moratorium on all offshore drilling. The United States Department of Interior required owners and operators to provide new information in all OSRPs after the moratorium ended. To comply with the new criteria, Shell updated its OSRPs for its three leases. BSEE approved the updated Beaufort and Chukchi Seas OSRPs.

Alaska Wilderness League, a coalition of environmental groups, sued Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, in her official capacity because of the approval of Shell’s three OSRPs. Shell intervened as a co-defendant. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the United States District Court for the District of Alaska (“district court”) ruled in favor of Jewell and Shell. Alaska Wilderness League appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (“Court”). The Court reviewed the granting of summary judgment de novo and reviewed the record of the agency’s action under the arbitrary and capricious standard.

First, Alaska Wilderness League argued BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was arbitrary and capricious because Shell assumed it would be able to recover ninety to ninety-five percent of any oil spilled in either of the seas via mechanical means. A figure that Alaska Wilderness League claimed was unrealistic and that Shell failed to support with any evidence. The Court did not agree with Alaska Wilderness League’s interpretation, finding instead that Shell could store, not recover, ninety to ninety-five percent of any spilled oil. Further, the Court found that BSEE did not rely on this information in approving Shell’s OSRPs. Therefore, the Court found that the record did not support Alaska Wilderness League’s argument. Accordingly, the Court concluded BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was not arbitrary and capricious.

The Court next addressed Alaska Wilderness League’s argument that BSEE failed to consult with other agencies in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The Court disagreed. The Court reasoned that ESA only triggers consultation when the agency’s involvement is discretionary, and, in this case, BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was non-discretionary. Therefore, the Court held that ESA did not require BSEE to do a consultation.

The Court then went through a two-step Chevron deference analysis to assess BSEE’s interpretation of the applicable sections of the CWA. At step one of its Chevron analysis, whether the statute in question is ambiguous, the Court found that the CWA was ambiguous in both its structure and its language. The Court found the CWA has ambiguous language because of three pertinent sections: (i) 33 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) requires an operator to “prepare and submit . . . a plan for responding, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst case discharge;” (ii) § 1321(j)(5)(D) lists six requirements that the OSRP “shall” meet; and (iii) § 1321(j)(5)(E)(iii) states that if the OSRP meets all six requirements, then BSEE “shall” approve it.

Specifically, the Court found the text ambiguous as to whether BSEE has the discretion to consider any additional environmental factors in making its determination of an OSRP. The Court found that the “maximum extent practicable” language in § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) suggested the agency had discretion in its approval of an OSRP. However, the Court also found §§ 1321(j)(5)(D) and 1321(j)(5)(E)(iii) to be a laundry list of requirements that an OSRP must meet. If an OSRP meets those requirements, then BSEE must approve the plan; removing any agency discretion. Additionally, the Court found the statute’s structure ambiguous because of the discretionary language in one section, and the rigid language in the one following it. The Court found this difference created “a statute whose halves do not correspond to each other – giving rise to ambiguity that calls for Chevron deference.” Under this finding of ambiguity, the Court found it must defer to BSEE’s interpretation of the statute as long as its interpretation is reasonable.

The Court then underwent the second step of the Chevron analysis to determine whether BSEE’s interpretation was reasonable. Courts must defer to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute as long as that interpretation is reasonable. The Court found that BSEE’s interpretation of the statute was reasonable. BSEE argued that § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) mandated it to promulgate regulations that help operators follow the OSRP requirements listed in § 1321(j)(5)(D). Then, separately, § 1321(j)(5)(D)-(E) lists exactly what the OSRP shall include and the agency shall approve. The Court agreed with BSEE’s interpretation that the statute mandated the agency to publish regulations to outline how operators can comply with the list. The Court also agreed with BSEE’s interpretation that it could not consider anything more than the list when granting an OSRP. The Court, having found BSEE’s interpretation to be reasonable, deferred to the agency’s interpretation.

The Court also found that BSEE’s interpretation was consistent with longstanding agency policy. The Court explained how BSEE has a history of regulating in conformity with the goals of the Oil Pollution Act that amended the CWA. The legislative history of the Oil Pollution Act suggests that Congress meant to create specific requirements of OSRPs, not guidelines open to interpretation by the courts or agencies.

Lastly, the Court addressed Alaska Wilderness League’s four additional arguments. First, Alaska Wilderness League argued that the similarity in language between the requirements listed in § 1321(j)(5)(E) and the section of the statute governing federal response plans to spills subjected the approval of OSRPs to ESA consultation. However, the Court disagreed with this interpretation. Under the sections of the statute governing federal response plans, an ESA recommendation may prompt agency action, but the plan “shall include, but not be limited to” a number of factors. This federal response plan requirement, unlike that in § 1321(j)(5)(E), does not limit the factors to those listed.

Second, Alaska Wilderness League argued that the regulations contain no language to support approval of the OSRPs just because they address the clean up plan to some degree. The Court quickly dismissed this argument. The Court found that the statute states that the purpose of the OSRP is to prepare a response plan for an accident at sea resulting in release of oil, and that Congress ordered these plans be in compliance with “the Oil Pollution Act’s amendments to the Clean Water Act.” The Court deferred to BSEE’s interpretation that the OSRPs were sufficient and justly approved, despite any explicit language governing BSEE’s decision.

Third, Alaska Wilderness League argued that BSEE had discretion over whether OSRPs met the criteria in § 1321(j)(5)(E), thus triggering ESA consultation. The Court found this argument to be at odds with previous Supreme Court’s rulings. The Supreme Court previously held that “ESA cannot defeat an agency’s nondiscretionary statutory directive.” The Court held that BSEE’s act of granting OSRPs was nondiscretionary, and so it did not trigger any interagency review under ESA.

Lastly, Alaska Wilderness League claimed that BSEE violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) by failing to do an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) before approving the OSRPs. Under NEPA, all federal agencies must conduct an EIS before conducting any “major Federal action” that significantly affects the environment. However, the Court noted that there is an exception to this requirement when the environmental impact is the result of a decision over which the agency had no discretion. The Court ruled that because BSEE had no discretion over the approval of the OSRPs under the statute, it also had no discretion over the environmental impacts, making BSEE exempt from performing an EIS.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s ruling.

D.W. Nelson, Senior Circuit Judge, dissenting.

Senior Circuit Judge Nelson agreed with the majority’s ruling that BSEE acted appropriately when it approved the OSRPs in question, but dissented to all other aspects of the majority opinion. Specifically, the dissent agreed with Alaska Wilderness League’s contention that BSEE’s action was discretionary, triggering an ESA consultation.

The dissent also disagreed with the majority’s finding that BSEE was exempt from performing a NEPA analysis. The dissent did not agree with the majority’s interpretation of the NEPA exception. The dissent argued that as a regulator of environmental consequences “the [BSEE] did in fact possess the kind of discretion that necessitated NEPA review.”

William James Tilton

Image: Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gulf of Mexico. Flickr user Green Fire Productions, Creative Commons.


Askins v. Ohio Dep’t of Agric., 809 F.3d 868 (6th Cir. 2016) (holding that i) the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision does not apply to notification requirements; ii) the Clean Water Act’s notification requirement is not a condition of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit; iii) the Clean Water Act does not permit a cause of action against non-polluting regulators for violations of procedural regulations; and iv) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision not to hold a hearing was not a failure to perform a non-discretionary duty, and as such was not actionable under the Clean Water Act).

This was an appeal from The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, which dismissed all of appellants’, Larry and Vickie Askins (“Askinses”), claims.  The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (“Ohio EPA”) administers the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (“U.S. EPA”) approval.  In 2001, the Ohio legislature authorized the Ohio Department of Agriculture (“ODA”) to apply to the U.S. EPA to transfer authority from Ohio EPA to ODA, so that ODA could administer part of the state-NPDES program.  The Clean Water Act (“CWA”) permits such a transfer, but requires the U.S. EPA’s permission prior to transfer.  The Askinses alleged that the transfer took place in 2001, while the Ohio EPA didn’t seek permission until some five years later.  As such, the Askinses sued under the CWA’s citizen suit provision, alleging various violations of the CWA.

The lower court held that the Askinses failed to state a claim under the CWA, the U.S. EPA did not fail to perform a non-discretionary duty under the CWA, and the U.S. EPA, the Ohio EPA, and the ODA did not violate the CWA.  The Askinses appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (“Court”), arguing that the CWA’s citizen suit provision permitted their cause of action.

First, the Court considered whether the Askinses could maintain a citizen suit action for a violation of the CWA’s notice requirement under Section 1314.  The Court reasoned that the notice requirement at issue is not an enumerated provision requiring compliance, and as such, the citizen suit provision does not encompass alleged violations of the requirement.

Next, the Court considered whether the notification requirement was a “condition.”  The Court concluded that the notification requirement serves as a timing mechanism, which triggers a state’s ability to apply to administer the NPDES program, as opposed to a substantive requirement.  Further, the notification requirement referred to EPA approval of a state’s permit program, not a state’s approval of individual permits.  Finally, the Court concluded that the Askinses’ reading of the notification requirement as a condition was contradictory to NPDES requirements, specifically that state and federal permit conditions be the same.  As such, the Court held that the CWA’s notification requirement is not a permit “condition.”

Third, the Court determined whether there existed a private cause of action against regulators for violations of procedural regulations.  The Court concluded that if Congress intended the citizen suit provision to permit the Askinses’ claim, it would have included language in the explicitly enumerated circumstances permitting suit.  Further, if the citizen suit provision were so expansive as to permit this claim, the provision’s remedies would give it more teeth than the U.S. EPA itself has, by way of the provision’s shorter notice period and availability of civil penalties and costs.  This is not the case because Congress intended the citizen suit provision to supplement the regulators’ authority.  Finally, cases that considered other, identical citizen suit provisions reached the same conclusion as this Court.  Therefore, the Court held, the CWA citizen suit provision did not permit a private right of action against a non-polluting regulator for procedural violations.

Finally, the Court considered whether the U.S. EPA failed to perform a non-discretionary duty.  The Court held that the CWA does not require the U.S. EPA to hold a hearing.  Should the U.S. EPA choose to hold a hearing, the CWA requires it to withdraw approval of a state-NPDES program after hearing, proper notice, and time to address the issue.  That is to say, the CWA does not require a hearing in the first place; therefore it is not a non-discretionary duty.  The U.S. EPA did not hold a hearing in the present case, so no non-discretionary duties arose.  Thus, the CWA did not permit the Askinses’ citizen suit.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

Tim Berrier


Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a six-part collaborative series between the University of Denver Water Law Review and the Stanford Environmental Law Journal that examines the upcoming Ninth Circuit case, Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District and the development of the doctrine of federal reserved rights to water.

Introduction

Many in the United States take water for granted.  It is a commodity that typically comes out of a faucet clean and at a low cost.  However, not everyone in the United States has this amenity.  In rural areas, residents commonly rely on wells drawing out water that is not pure for consumption.  Many Native Americans, residing in their sovereign nations within the United States, lack access to clean water for drinking, bathing, cooking, and other every day uses.  There is a question of how these Native Americans can ensure their water is of the quality other United States citizens take for granted.

It seems that only drastic events make water a discussion at the dinner table; events like the Gold King Mine spill, where three million gallons of metal-polluted water spilled forth from an abandoned mine turning the picturesque clear water of the Animas River yellow-orange.[1]  Both the Southern Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation are directly downstream of the polluted Animas River in southern Colorado and across the border in New Mexico.  The Animas is a tributary of the San Juan River, which flows through over 200 miles of the Navajo Nation.[2]  These tribes rely on the river to grow food, for drinking water, and for their modern municipal and industrial needs.  How are Native American tribes to ensure the reserved water they have a right to use is of the quality they expect and need to sustain themselves?  This blog discusses the notion that some inherent right to quality may arise from the Winters doctrine.  It also considers other means for federally recognized tribes to ensure their water is of a useable quality.

Water Quality in Winters Doctrine

Under Winters, the United States Supreme Court held that Congress set aside land for the Native American tribes to live on, and, along with the land, Congress impliedly reserved water.[3]  Congress’ implied reservation of water for the land, and any other reserved federal land, was based on the amount of water necessary to fulfill the reservation’s need when it was established.[4]  Presently, courts acknowledge both reserved Native American water for growing crops[5] and water for traditional tribal uses, such as hunting and fishing.[6]

Some legal scholars believe that Winters may apply to the quality of water as well.[7]  In the Winters opinion, Justice McKenna wrote, “in furthering and advancing the civilization and improvement of the Indians. . . it is essential and necessary that all of the waters of the river flow down the channel uninterruptedly and undiminished in quantity and undeteriorated in quality,”[8] allowing for the tribes to argue an inherent right to both water quantity and water quality.

The Hopi Tribe in northeastern Arizona recently made an argument for their right to water quality. [9]  The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“Court”) heard the case.[10]  In Hopi Tribe the Court held that the United States did not have a fiduciary duty, under Winters, to ensure the quality of Native Americans’ water supply.[11]  The Hopi Tribe brought the action seeking monetary relief because of high arsenic concentrations in their water supplies.[12]  Arsenic is a naturally occurring contaminant found in rock and soils.[13]  The Hopi Tribe wanted funds to improve their infrastructure and ability to provide clean water to the reservation.[14]  The Hopi Tribe argued that the United States had an affirmative duty to ensure water quality on the reservation.[15]  They argued this duty existed based on the Winters doctrine and the Act of 1958,[16] holding in trust Hopi lands as described in 1882.[17]

The Court denied the Hopi Tribe’s argument for two reasons.  First, the Hopi Tribe’s argument that the United States had a fiduciary duty to act did not persuade the Court.[18]  No language in the Act of 1958, or the Executive Order of 1882, gave weight to this argument.[19]  Second, the Court took issue with why the contaminant was in the water.[20]  The Hopi Tribe could not drink their water because of arsenic contamination, but this contamination is natural.[21]  Natural erosion, as opposed to third-party actions, resulted in the unsafe amount of arsenic in the reservation water.[22]  The Court acknowledged that in a situation where an upstream user affects the water quality, the United States might have a duty to act.[23]  The Court held, however, that the United States had no fiduciary responsibility to improve the water quality when the contamination occurred naturally.[24]

The Court did not find a connection between water quality and Winters doctrine in Hopi Tribe, but nevertheless there is still an argument for an inferred connection between the Winters doctrine and water quality standards.  The Court’s decision in Hopi Tribe left room for Native Americans to argue for a right to water quality under Winters.  The Court’s dicta in Hopi Tribe seems to assert that the United States does have a duty to act when a third-party diminishes the water quality, as opposed to harmful, naturally occurring minerals.  The United States District Court for the District of Arizona (“District Court”) found such a duty in United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation District.[25]  The District Court identified two reasons why the Apache Tribe’s water was tainted.[26]  First, upstream irrigators diverted the entire flow of the stream.[27]  When the irrigators returned the water to the stream it carried with it salts from the irrigated lands.[28]  Second, upstream water users pumped groundwater in excess, particularly when flows in the Gila River were low.[29]  Groundwater has higher salinity than surface water, so the water coming back into the Gila River at low flow had a higher salinity than what naturally occurs.[30]  The upstream users, through these two acts, raised water salinity to an unusable level for the Apache Tribe’s salt-sensitive crops.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision that 1) the landowners’ diverted water was strictly for agricultural irrigation use; 2) the district court’s interpretation of the Globe Equity consent decree of June 29, 1935, Article VIII in all of its parts; and 3) that the “lower valley diverters in Gila Crossing District were not entitled to priority call as against upstream diverters.”[31]

The Gila Valley case contrasts the Hopi Tribe case.  When interpreted together, it is likely that upstream users are liable for the polluted water that a tribe uses downstream.  Further, the United States has a duty to ensure water quality only when it has a fiduciary duty to the tribe.  However, when natural causes lead to water pollution, the United States has no duty to provide the tribe with clean water, even when a fiduciary duty exists.

Another Means of Ensuring Clean Water

To be sure, no federal court has stated a clear rule regarding an implied right to water quality under Winters.  However, Native American tribes have other means of ensuring their water is of the quality necessary for agricultural and other purposes.  The Clean Water Act allows for the Environmental Protection Agency to treat tribes as states.[32]  A Native American tribe, to be treated as a state, has to show that it has a governing body with governmental powers, that it will perform functions related “to the management and protection of water resources,” and that the tribe is capable of such authority.[33]  The tribes that qualify gain the benefit of receiving assistance from the United States to restore water quality where contaminated.[34]

Once the United States recognizes the Native American tribe as a state under the Clean Water Act, the tribe is able to set its own standards on water quality.[35]  The tribe’s water quality standards must be reasonable and enforceable against upstream water users.[36]  This power gives federally recognized Native American tribes the ability to set their own enforceable water quality standards, and provides the federal government with assistance in ensuring water quality improvements in the United States.[37]

There are several barriers that prevent tribes from taking advantage of this statute.  One barrier is acquiring the necessary capital to sustain a governing body that can handle the responsibilities that come with governmental powers.  Further, tribes bring projects under this statute that are likely costly, even with federal assistance.  The statute imposts an additional barrier in that only federally recognized tribes may exercise governmental authority over water quality.  State governments and the Federal government do not always recognize the same tribes.[38]  Therefore, while tribes may seek federal assistance to ensure water quality on their reservations, state-imposed hurdles prevent many tribes from being able to request that assistance.

Conclusion

Despite what some legal scholars believed as far back as twenty years ago, the courts have yet to decide a case that addresses whether Winters applies to a right to water quality.[39]  Professor Judith Royster has suggested that if the courts find Native American tribes have a right to water quality it will likely be closely tied to the quantity of water.[40]  While Winters remains open regarding water quality, there are other avenues for federally recognized tribes to ensure their water is of a necessary quality under the Clean Water Act.  Those means, however, are not without obstacles.[41]

W. James Tilton, J.D., University of Denver School of Law, 2016

Image: Coahuilla Indian well at Martinez, Palm Springs, ca.1903.  Flickr user Ashley Van Haeften, Creative Commons.

[1]  Gold King Mine Could have Been Prevented, (Nov. 15, 2015), http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/ 11/15/gold-king-mine-could-have-been-prevented-162427.

[2]  Id.

[3]  Winters v. U.S., 207 U.S. 564, 576–77 (1907).

[4]  U.S. v. New Mexico, 438 U.S. 696, 701 (1978).

[5]  Winters, 207 U.S. 564, at 569–70, 576.

[6]  U.S. v. Adair, 723 F.2d 1394, 1408–09 (9th. Cir. 1983).

[7]  See generally Cynthia Brougher, Indian Reserved Water Rights Under the Winters Doctrine: An Overview, Congressional Research Service (2011), http://nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/crs/ RL32198.pdf; Judith V. Royster, Water Quality and the Winters Doctrine, 107 Water Resources Update 50 (1997), http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/jcwre/vol107 /iss1/10/; Mark E. Chandler, A Link Between Water Quality and Water Rights: Native American Control Over Water Quality, 30 Tulsa L. J. 105, 112 (1994) http://digitalcommons.law.utulsa.edu/tlr/vol30/iss1/3.

[8]  Winters, 207 U.S. 564 at 567.

[9]   Hopi Tribe v. U.S., 782 F.3d 662 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

[10]  Id.

[11]  Id. at 668–69.

[12]  Id. at 665.

[13]  Id.

[14]  Id. at 665–66.

[15]  Id. at 669.

[16]  An Act to Direct the Secretary of the Army to Convey Certain Property Located at Boston Neck, Narragansett, Washington County, R.I., to the State of Rhode Island, Pub. L. No. 85-548, 72 Stat. 403 (1958), https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/granule/STATUTE-72/STATUTE-72-Pg403-2/content-detail.html.

[17]  Executive Order for Moqui (Hopi) Reservation, (Dec. 16, 1882), Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. Vol. I, Laws (Compiled to December 1, 1902), 805, Compiled and edited by Charles J. Kappler. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904, http://digital.library.okstate.edu /kappler/vol1/html_files/ARI0801.html.

[18]  Hopi Tribe, 782 F.3d at 668–69.

[19]  Id. at 669.

[20]  Id.

[21]  Id.

[22]  Id. at 665–66.

[23]  Id. at 669.

[24]  Id.

[25]  920 F.Supp 1444 (D. Ariz. 1996).

[26]  Id. at 1450.

[27]  Id. at 1451.

[28]  Id.

[29]  Id. at 1450.

[30]  Id.

[31]  Id.; see also United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 117 F.3d 425, 426 (9th. Cir. 1997) (affirming the United States district court’s reasoning and findings).

[32]  33 U.S.C.A. § 1377 (June 2014).

[33]  Id. at (e).

[34]  See §§ 1377 and 1251(g).

[35]  Mark E. Chandler, A Link Between Water Quality and Water Rights: Native American Control Over Water Quality, 30 Tulsa L. J. 105, 112 (1994), http://digitalcommons.law.utulsa.edu/tlr/vol30/iss1/3.

[36]  Id. at 118.

[37]  See 33 U.S.C.A. § 1383(c).

[38]  See Federal and State Recognized Tribes, National Conference of State Legislatures, (2016) http://www.ncsl.org/research/state-tribal-institute/list-of-federal-and-state-recognized-tribes.aspx.

[39]  Chandler, supra note 35.

[40]  Judith V. Royster, Water Quality and the Winters Doctrine, 107 Water Resources Update 50 (1997), http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/jcwre/vol107 /iss1/10/.

[41]  Id.