United States Supreme Court Review of Northwest Environmental Defense Center v. Brown: Has the EPA Been Wrong for 35 Years?

This December, the United States Supreme Court will consider simultaneously Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center and Georgia-Pacific West, Inc. v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, two appeals resulting from the Ninth Circuit case of Northwest Environmental Defense Center v. Brown, 630 F.3d 1063 (9th Cir. 2011).  The case centers on stormwater runoff resulting from logging operations in state forests in Oregon and whether it falls within certain permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”).  In the past, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has determined that runoff resulting from logging operations does not fall within these requirements.  However, the Ninth Circuit below in Brown held that the stormwater runoff collected and discharged by a system of ditches, culverts, and channels alongside the roads used by the logging companies is a point source discharge that requires a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit.  Both state forestry officials (“Decker”) and private companies (“Georgia-Pacific”) filed petitions for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments on December 3, 2012.

Logging companies contracted with the state use a system of roads to remove harvested trees from the state forests.  The sloped roads used by the companies’ trucks and equipment utilize a system of ditches, culverts, and channels to handle stormwater runoff and extend the duration of the roads.  This system collects not only water but a substantial amount of sediment as well, which is considered a pollutant.  The water and sediment eventually finds its way to the rivers, leading to the argument by the Northwest Environmental Defense Center (“NEDC”) that this system is point source discharge and is subject to NPDES permits.  Decker and Georgia-Pacific both argued in their respective writs for certiorari that a permit was not required because the drainage system was a non-point source discharge, fell under the silvicultural exemption, or at the very least an amendment to the CWA in 1987 excused the requirement.  These arguments stem from 33 U.S.C. § 1342(p), which requires NPDES permits for stormwater discharges resulting from industrial activities.  However, it was left to the EPA to decide what exactly constituted “industrial activity.”  The EPA passed its own regulation, 40 C.F.R. § 122.26(b)(14), which determined that stormwater runoff from logging activities and other silvicultural activities is non-industrial and does not require an NPDES permit. Additionally, both Decker and Georgia-Pacific argued that with the two-step process required by the 1987 Amendment to the CWA, the EPA intentionally refused to list logging operations as “industrial activity” that would require a NPDES permit for stormwater runoff.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and will be considering two distinct issues.  The first is whether the Ninth Circuit improperly determined that the stormwater runoff resulting from logging operations is industrial runoff, subject to NPDES.  This holding, argues Decker and Georgia-Pacific, goes against the longstanding determination of the EPA and its regulations, the apparent intention of Congress in the 1987 amendment to the CWA, as well as decisions made by several other circuits that deferred to EPA decisions.  The second issue is the manner in how NEDC originally brought the suit.  Decker argues the Ninth Circuit allowed NEDC to bypass judicial review of the NPDES permitting rule and challenge the validity of the rule directly in a citizen suit to enforce the CWA.  This argument stems from countering statutes, 33 U.S.C. § 1365 and 33 U.S.C. § 1369.  The Supreme Court must decide whether or not the decision to allow the citizen suit under § 1365 was proper and not precluded by § 1369, which says EPA rulings cannot be challenged in any civil or criminal enforcement proceeding, as the Ninth Circuit apparently allowed.

Should the Supreme Court uphold the Ninth Circuit’s decision (stormwater runoff from logging operations is industrial runoff), logging companies would be required to apply for and receive a NPDES permit for all the roads they use during operations, rather than utilizing best management practices.  This would result in time consuming litigation and reallocation of resources for the companies.  State governments may even be required to alter their well-established road drainage system requirements in order to reduce NPDES permitting.  Most importantly, however, is if the Court were to uphold it would approve the Ninth Circuit’s decision to break thirty-five years of precedent and overrule the EPA and its interpretation of its own regulations.  This may very likely require a revisit to Chevron.


  • Nw. Envtl. Def. Ctr. v. Brown, 640 F.3d 1063 (9th Cir.)Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Decker v. Nw. Envtl. Def. Ctr., No. 11-338 (U.S. Sept. 13, 2011), 2011 WL 4352279.
  • Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Georgia-Pacific W., Inc. v. Nw. Envtl. Def. Ctr., No. 11-347 (U.S. Sept. 13, 2011), 2011 WL 4352287.
  • Respondent’s Brief in Opposition, Decker v. Nw. Envtl. Def. Ctr., Nos. 11-338, 11-347 (U.S. Nov. 10, 2011), 2011 WL 55487721.