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.

On Monday, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) issued a Compliance Advisory Update announcing the implementation of streamlined changes to the Hazardous Waste Manifest submission process.  Pursuant to the Hazardous Waste Electronic Manifest Establishment Act, beginning on June 30, 2018, EPA will launch a new e-Manifest system nationwide, allowing Hazardous Waste Manifests to be created and submitted via the EPA website. Consequently, EPA will no longer be accepting paper manifests and paper manifests submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will not be forwarded to EPA.

Among those most impacted will be treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (“TSDs”) which receive and report hazardous waste to EPA. The e-Manifest system will not be required for very small quantity generators (“VSQGs”), medical waste generators, used oil generators, universal waste generators, and others who are not required to have an EPA ID nor use the uniform hazardous waste manifest (EPA Form 8700-22).

To avoid confusion over compliance as the new e-Manifest system launches, EPA will phase in the rule based 30 day deadline such that all manifests expected to be delivered to EPA between June 30 and September 1, 2018 may be submitted to EPA as late as September 30, 2018.  More information on the e-Manifest system is available via the EPA website.

 

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.

On Monday, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced its intent to propose regulation that would weaken emission and fuel economy standards for cars and trucks manufactured in the United States.

These changes would roll back requirements established under the Obama Administration that, among other things, would force automakers to develop more electric vehicles and otherwise reduce transportation-related emissions. It also has been reported that the EPA may go so far as attacking a waiver previously granted to California that allowed California and other states to establish stricter emissions standards for motor vehicles so that only one reduced standard would apply nationwide.

The proposal is designed to reduce costs for U.S. automakers and reduce the price of vehicles for the consumer. While these certainly seem to be worthwhile goals, there are hidden costs to the proposal which must be considered and those hidden costs will particularly impact New Jersey.

For years, New Jersey has struggled to meet federal ambient air quality standards. This is because New Jersey is a “downwind” state and our air quality is significantly impacted by emissions in states to our south and west. The transportation sector is a major source of emissions in these “upwind” states that has an impact here. The existing EPA standards would help New Jersey achieve and maintain compliance with the federally mandated air quality requirements. If they are repealed or rolled back, New Jersey’s struggle could worsen yet again.

If that happens, New Jersey would be forced by federal law to take additional steps to meet the standards. This would mean tougher air permitting, a potential reduction in manufacturing or other development and other stringent and costly emissions reduction requirements imposed on New Jersey business and residents. These are among the reasons why the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has stated its opposition to the proposed changes.

There will certainly be controversy concerning the rule changes which will end up in court. But anyone who is concerned should participate in the comment process.

This blog post was originally published as an op-ed in ROI-NJ on April 4, 2018.

Over the past few months the intersection of religious principles and environmental protection has become a topic of public dialogue. Religious beliefs have also been invoked in recent cases seeking to block pipeline projects or protect endangered species. Even more recently, the press has reported on statements by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt which suggest that religious freedom could now form the basis of challenging permit denials. Are we at the point where environmental lawyers need to study religion in order to represent their clients?

The recent public discourse about the intersection of environmental protection and religious principles started in 2015 when Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si. The Pope explained that protection of the environment is part of God’s plan. In this context the Pope argued that it is important to address global warming because of its impact on the planet and disproportionate effect on the poor and disadvantaged.

EPA Administrator Pruitt is reported to have a different view. This is based upon a literal reading of the Book of Genesis. It says God has given humans dominion over the earth, and the belief that as a result humankind has the right to manage and cultivate the earth’s resources for its benefit. The New Republic explained these differing viewpoints in an article by Emily Atkin entitled “Scott Pruitt vs. The Pope” dated February 27, 2018.

The religious principles proffered by Pope Francis are reflected in legal theories advanced in a number of recent cases. For instance in Adorers of the Blood of Christ v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (EDPA, Case No 5:17-cv-03163 JLS) a religious order challenged FERC’s approval of a pipeline crossing the order’s property by asserting that the property is sacred to their beliefs and that the pipeline would contribute to global warming. Similarly, in Crowe Indian Tribe v. Zinke (D Mont. Case No. 9:17-cv-00089DLC-JCL) the plaintiffs challenged a regulation delisting the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear as an endangered species asserting the importance of that species to the practice of their religion. These cases assert claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb. This statute prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Another example is Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. Army Corps of Engineers, 239 F.Supp. 3d 77 (D.D.C. 2017). In that decision, the Court rejected a request for an injunction seeking to block construction of a pipeline across a lake, finding that construction of the pipeline did not create a substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ exercise of their religious beliefs.

Looking at the legal theory in these cases and invoking the religious views attributed to EPA Administrator Pruitt, is it possible that someone could challenge the denial of a permit on the grounds that it imposes a substantial burden on their religious belief that natural resources are subject to human dominion and are there to be exploited? While case law to date would not seem to support such a theory, in 2018 it seems less far-fetched than in the past.

This blog post was originally published on the blog of the American College of Environmental Lawyers, in which Mr. Toft is a Fellow.