By Andrew H. PerellisPatrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Army (Corps) have recently proposed a “clear, understandable, and implementable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ [(WOTUS)] that clarifies federal authority under the Clean Water Act.”

Concerning the new draft proposed rule, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler tweeted out that “our redefinition of the Waters of the US proposal would replace the Obama 2015 definition with one that respects the limits of the Clean Water Act and provides states and landowners certainty so they can manage their natural resources & grow local economies.”  The EPA noted that unlike the Obama administration’s 2015 definition of WOTUS, the new proposal contains a “straightforward definition that would result in significant cost savings, protect the nation’s navigable waters, help sustain economic growth, and reduce barriers to business development.”

This proposal, the Agencies assert, is the second step in the two-step process to review and revise the definition of WOTUS consistent with President Trump’s February 2017 Executive Order entitled “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.

The proposed rule is intended to provide clarity, predictability and consistency so that the regulated community can easily understand where the Clean Water Act applies—and where it does not.  The practical effect of the proposal is to remove from Federal authority “waters” that are not directly adjacent to a river, stream or lake that is traditionally understood as under the jurisdiction of the CWA.  The proposal rejects the “substantial nexus” approach that resulted from Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  As a result, many wetlands or ephemeral streams, although hydrologically connected to a traditional CWA-regulated water, would no longer be regulated.

Under the proposal, traditional navigable waters, tributaries to those waters, certain ditches, certain lakes and ponds, impoundments of jurisdictional waters, and wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters would be federally regulated.  The proposal also details what are not WOTUS, such as “features that only contain water during or in response to rainfall (e.g., ephemeral features); groundwater; many ditches, including most roadside or farm ditches; prior converted cropland; storm water control features; and waste treatment systems.”

Here is an Agency graphical depiction of the rule provisions:

EPA Twitter image post, December 12, 2018.

The Agencies had received written pre-proposal recommendations and received more than 6,000 recommendations that were considered in developing the proposal.  Public comments on the proposal will be accepted for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.  EPA and the Corps intend to also hold an informational webcast on January 10, 2019, and will host a listening session on the proposed rule in Kansas City, KS, on January 23, 2019.

Our prior blogs provide more detail regarding the definition of WOTUS.  See for instance EPA and Army Corps of Engineers Propose to Rescind Obama Era Rule Redefining “Waters of the United States”EPA Publishes Final Rule Expanding Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water ActProposed Rule on Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water Act, and New Definition of “Waters of the United States”?.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Jeryl L. OlsonPatrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Last week before his departure USEPA Administrator Pruitt notified the regulated community that he had directed the Agency to update regulations governing the Agency’s use of Section 404(c) veto power in permitting discharges of dredged or fill materials under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) current regulations implementing Clean Water Act (CWA) section 404(c) allow the Agency to veto at any time during the permitting process a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) under CWA section 404(a) that allows for the discharge of dredged or fill material at permitted sites.  USEPA has historically taken the position that it can preemptively veto a permit before, during or after a 404(a) application is filed or a permit is issued.

In a memorandum last week, USEPA Administrator E. Scott Pruitt directed the Office of Water to develop a proposed rulemaking that would end USEPA’s preemptory and retroactive 404(c) veto power. Administrator Pruitt said that it was his goal to refocus EPA “on its core mission of protecting public health and the environment in a way that is fair and consistent with due process.”  He continued that EPA “must ensure that EPA exercises its authority under the Clean Water Act in a careful, predictable, and prudent manner.”

Administrator Pruitt indicated that the “regulations were last revised nearly 40 years ago“ and “EPA’s regulations should reflect today’s permitting process and modern-day methods and protections, including the robust existing processes under the National Environmental Policy Act.”

Accordingly, the memo directs USEPA’s Office of Water to develop a proposed rulemaking that would consider the following changes:

  • Eliminating the USEPA authority to initiate the section 404(c) process before a USACE 404(a) permit application has been filed with the USACE or a state, otherwise known as the “preemptive veto.”
  • Eliminating the authority of USEPA to initiate the section 404(c) veto process after a USACE 404(a) permit has been issued by the USACE or a state, otherwise known as the “retroactive veto.”
  • Requiring a Regional Administrator to obtain approval from USEPA Headquarters before initiating the section 404(c) veto process over a USACE 404(a) permit.
  • Requiring a Regional Administrator to review and consider the findings of an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the USACE before preparing and publishing notice of a proposed determination.
  • Requiring USEPA to publish and seek public comment on a final USEPA determination before such a determination takes effect.

We have previously blogged on related wetlands topics, including Supreme Court to Decide if Army Corps Initial Jurisdictional Determination to Regulate Wetlands Under CWA is Ripe for Judicial Review, Sackett v. EPA: Supreme Court Decides Unanimously In Favor Of Landowners, and New Wetlands Definition.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of Seyfarth’s Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Andrew H. Perellis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Continuing the fight over the Obama-era Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., the National Wildlife Federation, and a host of states, including New York and California have brought lawsuits against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) in response to their final rule to delay the applicability date for the WOTUS Rule.  States of New York et al. v. USEPA and Corps (State Litigation), No. 18-cv-1030 (S.D. NY February 6, 2018), and NRDC v USEPA and Corps (Association Litigation), No 18-cv-1048 (S.D. NY February 6, 2018).

As we noted in previous blogs, the WOTUS rulemaking has been fraught with controversy and has generated well over 1-million public comments. In the most recent chapter of this ongoing saga, the Agencies adopted an applicability rule to extend the applicability date of the 2015 WOTUS Rule to February 6, 2020. USEPA claimed that the extension “provides clarity and certainty about which definition of “waters of the United States” is applicable nationwide in response to judicial actions that could result in confusion.” The Plaintiffs refer to this extension as “the Suspension Rule.”

The State Litigation seeks “a declaration that the Suspension Rule is unlawful and an order vacating it” as well as a declaration that the Agencies’ action was arbitrary and capricious. The States argue, among other things, that the Clean Water Act does not give the Agencies authority to suspend a Rule when it has already become effective.

The Association Litigation seeks a ruling that “the suspension of the Clean Water Rule for two years is…‘arbitrary,’ ‘capricious,’ an ‘abuse of discretion,’ and ‘not in accordance with law’ under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A).” Additionally, the Associations seek a ruling that “the suspension of the Clean Water Rule for two years was…promulgated in violation of the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and was ‘without observance of procedure required by law’ and ‘contrary to constitutional right’ in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(B), (D).”

We will keep you up to date as to the progression of the litigation and any important briefing or rulings that come out of it.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Andrew H. Perellis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) finalized a rule moving the applicability date to the Obama-era Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule to February 6, 2020, two years in the future. 83 Fed. Reg. 5200 (Feb. 6, 2018).

The WOTUS rulemaking has been frought with controversy and has generated well over 1-million public comments.

We have previously blogged on the WOTUS rulemaking. See Executive Order on Restoring the Rule of Law … by Reviewing the “Waters of the United States” Rule, EPA and Army Corps of Engineers Propose to Rescind Obama Era Rule Redefining “Waters of the United States”, EPA Publishes Final Rule Expanding Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water Act, Proposed Rule on Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water Act, and New Definition of “Waters of the United States”?

The now-final applicability rule extends the applicability date of the Obama-era 2015 WOTUS Rule to February 6, 2020, two years beyond today’s publication of the final rule in the Federal Register. USEPA claims that this extension “provides clarity and certainty about which definition of “waters of the United States” is applicable nationwide in response to judicial actions that could result in confusion.”

USEPA also reiterated that the applicability rule is separate from the ongoing two-step process the Agencies are currently undertaking to reconsider and potentially revise the 2015 WOTUS Rule. The comment period for Step 1 of the reconsideration closed in September, 2017, receiving just under 700,000 comments. Meanwhile, the agencies are still reviewing the 1.1+ million comments received from the public for the 2015 Obama-era WOTUS Rule. USEPA and the Corps are also in the process of holding “listening sessions” with stakeholders to assist the Agencies in developing a proposed Step 2 rule that would again revise the definition of “waters of the United States.”

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Andrew H. Perellis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule that would add an applicability date two years in the future to the Obama-era Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. 82 Fed. Reg. 55542 (Nov. 22, 2017).

The WOTUS rulemaking has been frought with controversy, and has generated well over a million public comments.

We have previously blogged on the WOTUS rulemaking. See Executive Order on Restoring the Rule of Law … by Reviewing the “Waters of the United States” Rule, EPA and Army Corps of Engineers Propose to Rescind Obama Era Rule Redefining “Waters of the United States”, EPA Publishes Final Rule Expanding Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water Act, Proposed Rule on Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water Act, and New Definition of “Waters of the United States”?

The November 22, 2017 proposed rule would extend the applicability date of the Obama-era 2015 WOTUS Rule by two years beyond the comment period, which closes on December 13, 2017. Should the November 22, 2017 proposed rule become “final” on that same day, which is unlikely, the earliest the 2015 WOTUS Rule could be “applicable” is December 13, 2019.

EPA claims that this applicability extension “would give the agencies the time needed to “fully reconsider” the definition of ‘waters of the United States’.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said of this proposal that it “shows our commitment to our state and tribal partners and to providing regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers, ranchers and businesses…. This step will allow us to minimize confusion as we continue to receive input from across the country on how we should revise the definition of the ‘waters of the United States’.”

EPA also reiterated that the November 22, 2017 proposed rule is separate from the ongoing two-step process the Agencies are currently undertaking to reconsider and potentially revise the 2015 WOTUS Rule. The comment period for Step 1 of the reconsideration closed in September, receiving just under 700,000 comments. Meanwhile, the agencies are still reviewing the 1.1+ million comments received from the public for the 2015 Obama-era WOTUS Rule. The Agencies are also in the process of holding “listening sessions” with stakeholders to assist the Agencies in developing a proposed Step 2 rule that would again revise the definition of “waters of the United States.”

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Andrew H. Perellis and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Pursuant to President Trump’s Executive Order (EO) on “Restoring the Rule of Law… by Reviewing the “Waters of the United States” Rule, the Agencies have scheduled ten teleconferences to collect stakeholder recommendations on the revision of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.

We had previously blogged on the WOTUS rulemaking. See EPA and Army Corps of Engineers Propose to Rescind Obama Era Rule Redefining “Waters of the United States”, EPA Publishes Final Rule Expanding Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water Act, Proposed Rule on Definition of “Waters of the United States” Under the Clean Water Act, and New Definition of “Waters of the United States”?

The EPA and the Corps of Engineers have now issued an Announcement of Public Meeting Dates, 82 Fed. Reg. 40742 (August 28, 2017).  In the Announcement, the Agencies note that they intend to propose a new definition for WOTUS that would replace the approach in the 2015 Clean Water Rule with one that is consistent with the approach outlined in the EO.  The Agencies recently completed consultation processes with tribes and state and local governments on the rulemaking.

Now the Agencies seek to provide other interested stakeholders an opportunity to provide pre-proposal “feedback” on the rule to revise the definition of the WOTUS.

The teleconferences will be held on a weekly basis beginning September 19, 2017, and will continue each Tuesday thereafter for ten weeks.  Each session will run from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., eastern time.  Information on how to register for the meetings is available on the EPA Web site.

Persons or organizations that wish to provide verbal recommendations during the teleconference will be selected on a first-come, first-serve basis. Individuals will be asked to limit their oral presentation to three minutes.

Note that each of the ten sessions will be geared to particular entities and organizations (such as small businesses and small government jurisdictions), and business segments (such as construction, transportation, and mining).  So it is importatant that you attend the session that most matches your particular interests in the rulemaking.

In addition, the Agencies are also planning an in-person meeting with small entities, to be held on Monday, October 23, 2017.  Check the Announcement for attendance information.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Andrew H. Perellis, Kay R. Bonza, and Craig B. Simonsen

EPA SignSeyfarth Synopsis: The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have proposed to rescind the 2015 Clean Water Rule defining “Waters of the U.S.,” and recodify the pre-existing rule, then engage in a subsequent rulemaking to re-evaluate and revise the definition of WOTUS presumably intended to decrease in the number of water bodies subject to EPA permitting obligations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have published a proposed rule on the “Definition of “Waters of the United States” – Recodification of Pre-Existing Rules.”

We had previously blogged about the EPA’s monumental final rule, in June 2015, expanding the definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act, thereby increasing the number of water bodies subject to protection by the EPA through permitting obligations. The final rule was based on EPA’s Science Advisory Board’s draft scientific report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence.” EPA/600/R-11/098B (September 2013).

In commenting on the proposed rule to rescind the WOTUS rule, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said, “we are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses …. This is the first step in the two-step process to redefine ‘waters of the U.S.’ and we are committed to moving through this re-evaluation to quickly provide regulatory certainty, in a way that is thoughtful, transparent and collaborative with other agencies and the public.”

The proposed rescission follows President Trump’s February 28, 2017, Executive Order on “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.”  The effect of the rescission would be to recodify the regulatory text that was in place prior to the 2015 Clean Water Rule and that is currently in place as a result of a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s stay of the 2015 rule. Therefore, according to the EPA press release, this action, when final, “will not change current practice with respect to how the definition applies.”

EPA also notes that the agencies have begun deliberations and outreach on the second step of the rulemaking involving a reevaluation and revision of the definition of WOTUS in accordance with the Executive Order.

The regulated community — industry, municipalities, developers, builders, and a host of others — should watch and monitor this rulemaking effort closely.  While this initial step will recodify the pre-existing rule, the subsequent rulemaking to re-evaluate and revise the definition of WOTUS presumably is intended to reduce the number of regulated water bodies constituting “waters of the United States,” thereby decreasing permitting obligations, or subjecting fewer entities to permitting requirements as a result of a narrower definition of WOTUS.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Jeryl L. Olson

Urban PlannerSeyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has just issued a Regulatory Guidance Letter which provides to property owners (including developers) the right of appeal USACE Approved Jurisdictional Determinations.

On November 1, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued a Regulatory Guidance Letter (No. 16-01, October 2016) (RGL) which provides to property owners (including developers) the right of appeal of USACE Approved Jurisdictional Determinations (AJDs).

Jurisdictional determinations are used by USACE to confirm formal determinations by the USACE of the applicability of the Clean Water Act or Rivers and Harbors Act to tracts of land, i.e., whether property contains wetlands or other water features. While jurisdictional determinations are discretionary, the USACE commonly issues jurisdictional determinations regarding the presence of wetlands when requested by owners.  In the new RGL, USACE has acknowledged that AJDs can have significant impacts on the use or development of property, and that such decisions can be appealed.

Both AJDs and Preliminary Jurisdictional Determinations (PJD) are common tools used by USACE to inform property owners about USACE decisions as to the presence of wetlands, streams, intermittent streams or other water courses on property, however, historically USACE has taken the position that its final AJDs were non-reviewable once issued. Because AJDs were until now not subject to appeal, property owners obtaining “unfavorable” USACE determinations of wetlands on their property were left with no reasonable alternatives for challenging such USACE determinations.

Owners could proceed to develop a property notwithstanding the determination, and await an enforcement action with potential criminal and civil penalties, or owners could proceed with the lengthy and costly permit process, and thereafter challenge the permit decision requiring a permit for development of or to a wetland.

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawks Co., 136 St. 1807 (May 2016)) affirming AJDs are “final agency action” and thus immediately subject to appeal, USACE issued the RGL acknowledging the Supreme Court ruling that AJDs (but not PJDs) are reviewable.  The October 2016 RGL specifically supersedes all previous Regulatory Guidance Letters issued by USACE with respect to the reviewability of AJD determinations by USACE.

The new Regulatory Guidance Letter includes newly-developed USACE forms that may be used (but are not mandatory) in requests for AJDs and PJDs.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the author, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Andrew H. Perellis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

US Supreme Court Capitol Hill Daytime Washington DCSeyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court decided that Army Corps’ jurisdictional determinations are judicially reviewable. This decision leaves open the question of whether other types of administrative decisions are immediately judicially reviewable.

In a significant victory for owners of private property, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided this week that an Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) jurisdictional determination (JD) is a final agency action judicially reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc., et al., No. 15-290, 578 U.S. ____ (May 31, 2016).

The issue presented was whether a so-called “approved” jurisdictional determination — the government’s determination that a wetland is regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA) thereby requiring a permit to dredge or fill — is immediately reviewable. The Hawkes decision builds on the holding of Sackett v. EPA, 132 S. Ct. 1367 (2012) (see our earlier blog on the Sackett decision) where SCOTUS concluded that an EPA compliance order issued under the CWA requiring that a developer cease its filling activity of an allegedly regulated wetland was judicially reviewable. SCOTUS rejected the Government’s contention that the landowner has to await EPA’s judicial enforcement of that order.

Following Sackett, the Circuit Courts of Appeal have split as to whether a landowner receiving a JD finding the wetland to be CWA-regulated is final and reviewable — with the Eighth Circuit holding yes, and the Fifth Circuit holding no.

In Hawkes, the plaintiffs sought to mine peat from wetland property. The Corps upset that plan when it issued an approved JD that the property constituted “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), requiring the plaintiffs to obtain a permit to discharge dredged or fill materials into these “navigable waters.” Approved JDs present a definitive statement that waters of the United States are, or are not, present. The Corps also issues “preliminary” JDs that only tell a landowner that waters of the United States “may” be present. Preliminary JDs were not at issue in this case. An approved JD is binding upon the Corps and EPA. For example, where the JD concludes that a CWA-regulated wetland is not involved, it provides the landowner with a “safe-harbor” for five years, under which it is free to develop its property without need to obtain a permit. For this reason, SCOTUS concluded that the JD affects the plaintiffs’ rights and obligations and has legal consequences, making it reviewable.

This SCOTUS determination could have heightened importance in the context of the EPA’s and the Corps’ recent release of the Final Clean Water Rule: Definition of “Waters of the United States.” We blogged about this new rule when it was published. The new WOTUS rule will substantially increase the number of potential wetlands, making a challenge to the Corps’ Jurisdictional Determinations more likely now that SCOTUS has decided that they are judicially reviewable.

The Hawkes decision also leaves open questions of whether other types of administrative decisions are immediately judicially reviewable. In a related Law360 Expert Analysis (Water Case Shows Justices Warm To Review Of Fed. Agencies), Andy Perellis notes that “there is potentially a universe of agency actions such as guidance documents or opinion letters that in the past have evaded judicial review that may be reviewable because those agency determinations have immediate consequences.”

Supreme CourtSeyfarth Partner Andrew H. Perellis is quoted in this Law360 expert analysis, High Court Water Case Could Put Target On Agencies’ Backs (March 29, 2016).

The pending Supreme Court case, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co. Inc. et al., no. 15-290, involves what constitutes a final agency action reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act. We had previously blogged about this appeal, and its relation to Sackett v. EPA, 132 S. Ct. 1367 (2012). See our earlier blog on the Sackett decision. The case pertains to whether a “jurisdictional determination” regarding a wetland regulated by section 404 of the Clean Water Act is immediately reviewable in court. It is a follow-up case to the Supreme Court’s 2012 Sackett decision holding at a compliance order issued under Section 404 is immediately reviewable.

The Law360 article notes that “landowners and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will square off Wednesday at the U.S. Supreme Court in a test of when exactly a party may challenge the Corps’ determination that it has jurisdiction over a wetland — a case that could open government agency decisions up to more challenges across the board.”

In the analysis, Perellis concludes that “one of the key considerations for the high court will be to what extent there are real, tangible consequences in terms of what the property owner can or cannot do with a property following the issuance of a jurisdictional determination.”