On September 5, 2018, the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals (“Third Circuit”) rendered a decision that could potentially implicate the NJDEP permitting process in future Natural Gas Act and other federal permitting actions.

In Township of Bordentown, et al. v. FERC, No. 17-3207 (3rd Cir.  September 5, 2018), the Third Circuit held that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) could not deny the Petitioners the ability to request an adjudicatory hearing under the New Jersey Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act (“FWPA”) solely on the basis of preemption of the Federal Natural Gas Act (“NGA”). This opinion means that challengers have at least the right to request an administrative hearing for State-issued environmental permits, even for certain Federally-permitted projects. If a state environmental agency like the NJDEP were to grant such a hearing, this could significantly delay the commencement of a project.

By way of background, Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. (“Transco”) proposed to upgrade its existing interstate natural gas pipeline system – including the construction of a new mater and regulating station, compressor station, and electrical substation along a lateral in Chesterfield, NJ – and conduct certain modifications in Mercer County, NJ (the “Project”). The Project required, and obtained, approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) under the NGA. In addition, the Project is to be situated in freshwater wetlands and transition areas requiring the discharge of fill or dredge material into navigable waters, as well as a significant diversion of volumes of water. The discharge of dredge and fill material into navigable waters requires a permit pursuant to Section 404 of the Federal Clean Water Act , 33 U.S.C. 1341(a) (“CWA”). New Jersey has assumed permitting authority for certain navigable waters such as those involving the Project, which is implemented under the FWPA. Transco applied for, and obtained, a Freshwater Wetlands Individual Permit and Water Quality Certification.

Once NJDEP issued the permit, and pursuant to the FWPA, the Petitioners requested an adjudicatory hearing. NJDEP denied the hearing based solely upon the NGA’s requirement that the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction to review the issuance of permits such that the state administrative hearing process is not applicable.

The Third Circuit concluded otherwise, and ruled that the administrative hearing process provided under state law is not precluded by the court’s exclusive jurisdiction under the NGA. In doing so, the Third Circuit reviewed the NGA and concluded that its jurisdiction is limited to civil actions, and not administrative proceedings. The Third Circuit also reviewed case law from the Supreme Court of the United States and other Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, and concluded that the hearings at the administrative hearing level were not civil actions as referenced in the NGA, even if administrative proceedings mirror adversarial trials. Thus, the NGA “leaves untouched the state’s internal administrative process, which may continue to operate as it would in the ordinary course under state law.”

Depending on the Federal permitting process involved, applicants must consider the possibility that an administrative hearing may – and can, if granted – be considered as part of the timing of the state permitting process. The Third Circuit’s opinion, of course, is limited to the applicability of an administrative hearing in a state-permitting program delegated under a Federal statute, in this case the delegation of CWA authority to the NJDEP under the FWPA. However, the analysis of whether an administrative hearing is a judicial action can be read beyond its applicability to the FWPA. Each individual permittee applying under State law must always add a permit of time predicted for the hearing, if a hearing is granted, as part of its construction planning process. In addition, permittees may now want to vigorously oppose adjudicatory requests, as they can be used offensively by project challengers to delay a project.

It should be noted that the vast majority of the opinion provides a detailed analysis of FERC’s issuance of certificate of public convenience and necessity, and its subsequent analysis under the Federal National Environmental Protection Act (“NEPA”). The Third Circuit issues important conclusions regarding the applicability of a related intrastate project and its impact on the NEPA analysis. However, the important takeaway from this opinion is the applicability of the state administrative hearing process to state permits issued for Federal projects, and its impact on the timing of a project.

The EPA’s 2014 cooling water rule for existing power plants (40 C.F.R. pts. 122, 125) has survived challenges from both environmental and industry groups. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the contentious rule which allows for, among other things, case-by-case determinations of best technology available (BTA) required for minimizing adverse environmental impacts from cooling water intake structures (CWISs), finding that the rule was based on reasonable interpretations of applicable statutes and sufficiently supported by the factual record.

By way of background, once-through CWISs use tremendous volumes of surface water to dissipate heat from power plants. Fish trapped against the intake screens (impingement) or passing through the cooling water system (entrainment) can be injured or killed. Closed-cycle cooling systems use much less surface water and therefore impact fewer fish. Most existing power plants were built with once-through CWISs.

The rule allows for the Director of a state’s Clean Water Act permitting program to determine the BTA to limit entrainment on a site-specific basis. Environmental challengers argued that the rule should have identified closed-cycle cooling as the BTA. The Second Circuit disagreed, stating that the rule explains that closed-cycle cooling is infeasible at some existing facilities because of space constraints, emissions impacts arising from the additional energy requirements of closed cycle cooling, and the absence of net benefits associated with power plants nearing the end of their useful lives. Environmental challengers also argued that the cost of closed-cycle cooling should not have been considered in evaluating the best technology available. Again the Second Circuit disagreed, stating that EPA did not improperly consider costs, and that agencies are generally required to consider the costs and benefits of a regulation.

Regarding impingement, the rule identifies “modified traveling screens with a fish-friendly return” as the best technology available, rather than the closed-cycle cooling preferred by environmental challengers. Modified traveling screens are projected to achieve a 76% survival rate for impinged “non-fragile species.” Environmental challengers argued that the exclusion of fragile species was an arbitrary distinction. However, the Second Circuit accepted EPA’s “adequately supported” explanation that inclusion of fragile species masks the effectiveness of impingement technology, and that EPA’s data shows that mortality of fragile species depends on natural conditions rather than technology performance.

The Court also rejected a flurry of arguments relating to EPA’s site-specific process for evaluating impacts on endangered species, as well as the administrative law arguments advanced by industry challengers. Barring Supreme Court review, this decision marks the end of over 30 years of litigation regarding CWIS rules. Given the site-specific nature of the final rule, arguments previously used to challenge the sufficiency of the CWIS rules will likely now be used to challenge permits granted to existing power plants.

Can groundwater discharges violate the Clean Water Act and require NPDES permits?  Two federal court cases coming out of the 4th and 9th Circuits dealing with the applicability of the Clean Water Act (CWA) to groundwater are creating real concern over how expansive the court’s holdings and application of the Act can be.  The decisions were rendered by US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP and the 9th Circuit in Hawaii Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui.

In each case, the courts held that groundwater can be regulated under the CWA when it acts as a conduit through which pollutants from a spill of hazardous substances, septic waste or injection can be traced to protected surface waters.  While the burden of proof is significant, if a nexus can be established between the contaminant detected in the surface water and groundwater where the release originally occurred, then exposure to CWA fines is real and the need for a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit appears to be required.  The 4th Circuit’s holding is even broader than the 9th Circuit in that it applies to residual or historic contamination.  In other words, if released contamination ever reaches surface water protected by the CWA, then it doesn’t matter when the spill contaminants were first released to the environment.

In the 9th Circuit case, the County of Maui has already informed the court that it will seek Supreme Court review and for good reason.  If upheld, these rulings have far reaching implications for not only regulated industries, such as oil and gas, but also private home owners with septic systems and municipalities with leaking sewer pipes.  Here in NJ, where there is a robust state regulatory program requiring remediation of discharges to the environment, CWA regulation will add another regulatory scheme to be considered and may end up regulating septic tanks, which are common in New Jersey, and other systems designed to release materials below ground level.  Releases, both recent, as well as historic, could create a set of liabilities no private citizen even remotely considered.   Moreover, these decisions could cause the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to require re-investigation and re-assessment of sites that have been remediated pursuant to state law to determine if a previously unaddressed contaminant pathway between groundwater and surface water exists.

It remains to be seen how EPA will integrate these decisions, if they stand, into practice.  Once it does, the question will become how state delegated clean water programs will be affected.

In a recent decision, Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Clean Water Act (“CWA”) permit is required when pollution found in navigable waters is fairly traceable from point source discharges to groundwater.

The case involved Maui County’s discharges of treated sewage into four groundwater wells. That sewage seeps into the groundwater and, based on a tracer dye study, flows into the Pacific Ocean 84 days later and a half mile away from the wells. The Ninth Circuit held that the discharges require a CWA permit because (1) the wells were each a point source, (2) pollutants are fairly traceable from a point source to a navigable water, and (3) the pollutants reaching the navigable water are not de minimis.

The County primarily argued that indirect discharges do not require a CWA permit. The Court disagreed, relying on the plain language of the statute, which does not mention direct discharges, and Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715, 743 (2006), which favorably cites decisions requiring permits for other indirect discharges.

While the Ninth Circuit explains that its decision only imposes the same permit requirement the County would have faced had it constructed an outfall, future cases likely will be less clear. For now, operations discharging to groundwater should consider the likelihood of tracing non de minimis pollution to navigable waters when evaluating permit compliance.