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On July 16, 2020, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published its long-awaited final rule to amend its regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), introducing important changes to the 40-year-old review process. The statute requires federal agencies to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of certain proposed projects, but

On June 1, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a final rule clarifying substantive authorities and procedural requirements for water quality certifications under section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA). EPA’s August 2019 notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) (summarized in our previous post) articulated the Agency’s first-ever statutory interpretation of section 401 since its enactment nearly 50 years ago, and proposed sweeping substantive and procedural changes to its section 401 regulations in conformance with its interpretation. EPA’s final rule largely adopts the regulations in its NOPR, but makes important changes in adopting new regulations that preserve authority of states and Native American tribes exercising “Treatment as a State” (TAS) authorization to ensure that discharges from federally licensed and permitted activities meet state and tribal water quality requirements.
Continue Reading Long-Awaited EPA Rule Overhauls Section 401 of Clean Water Act

The question of how to regulate temperature in water bodies is one that states in the Northwest have struggled with for years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) addressed that question on May 18, 2020, when it released a draft Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to achieve water quality standards for temperature in certain reaches of the Columbia and Lower Snake Rivers in Oregon and Washington. This new TMDL comes a few months after a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Columbia Riverkeeper v. Wheeler, requiring the agency to take the lead after Oregon and Washington failed to submit their own TMDL. Comments on the draft TMDL are due by the end of July 21, 2020.

Continue Reading EPA Issues Draft Temperature TMDL for Columbia and Snake Rivers

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims (CFC) recently decided two cases related to flood events during Hurricane Harvey in Southeast Texas in 2017—one finding a taking by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for flood control management and allowing landowner recovery, with the other holding that no taking occurred during the same event. As the incidence of flooding events may become more prevalent and unpredictable in a changing climate, these two decisions provide guidance for dam operators, including hydroelectric project operators, that conduct flood management activities in cooperation with, and sometimes at the direction of, USACE or other governmental entities.

Continue Reading U.S. Court of Federal Claims Rules on Takings Claims Against Dam Owners Stemming from Flooding During Hurricane Harvey

On Tuesday, March 10, the comment period closed on the Council on Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) to update its regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

CEQ published its proposed rule on January 10, 2020 (see January 15, 2020 edition of the Environmental Law & Policy Monitor). CEQ’s proposed rule aims to update its regulations—which have not been modified since they were released in 1978—by streamlining the NEPA process and instituting changes to reduce delays and paperwork, and modifying the scope of agencies review of proposed actions.


Continue Reading Comments Filed on CEQ’s Proposed NEPA Rule

On December 9, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to revisit the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. Circuit’s decision in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, 913 F.3d 1099 (2019), allowing the lower court’s ruling to stand.

The key holding of the D.C. Circuit’s opinion, which concerned the ongoing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) relicensing of the Klamath Hydroelectric Project, is that the States of California and Oregon waived their authorities under section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. § 1341, by failing to rule on the applicant’s submitted request for water quality certification within one year.  The D.C. Circuit held that the plain language of CWA section 401 establishes a maximum period of one year for states to act on a request for water quality certification.  Accordingly, the court further held that FERC erred in concluding that the “withdrawal-and-resubmittal” of the water quality certification application on an annual basis resets the one-year statutory time period for state action under section 401.
Continue Reading Supreme Court Declines to Hear Clean Water Act Section 401 Case

On November 22, 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) agreed to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the operation of the federally owned and operated Chief Joseph Dam, the second-largest hydropower producing dam in the United States, as part of a settlement with the Columbia Riverkeeper. The settlement resolves litigation (previously addressed on this blog) brought by the Columbia Riverkeeper, which claimed that the Corps’ dam operations had long been discharging oil, grease, and heated water into the Columbia River without a permit.

Sections 301(a) and 402 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) prohibit anyone, including a federal agency, from discharging “pollutants” through a “point source” into a “water of the United States” except as authorized by a NPDES permit. Section 505 of the CWA provides any citizen, including a citizen group like Columbia Riverkeeper, the ability to bring a civil action against any person, including the United States, that is violating an effluent standard or limitation. As detailed by its complaint, the Columbia Riverkeeper alleged that the Corps has been in violation of CWA standards by allowing oils and grease to accumulate in sumps that drain into the river and utilizing hydro-carbon based lubricants on generation equipment that become discharged with cooling water without a NPDES permit.
Continue Reading Army Corps Agrees to Obtain Clean Water Act Permit to Operate Federal Hydroelectric Dam

On June 7, 2019, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s (ACHP) Office of General Counsel issued a memorandum to ACHP staff, clarifying the distinction between direct and indirect effects in meeting obligations under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).  ACHP’s memorandum is important to utilities, industrial, commercial and other entities because federal licensing and permitting agencies (e.g., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Department of the Interior) are required under NHPA section 106 to evaluate effects of the license or permit on properties that are listed, or eligible for listing, in the National Register of Historic Places.  ACHP’s memorandum clarified that direct effects may be the result of a physical connection, but may also include visual, auditory, or atmospheric impacts as well.
Continue Reading Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Issues Memo on Direct and Indirect Effects under the National Historic Preservation Act

On Friday, August 9, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) unveiled a pre-publication version of a notice of proposed rulemaking (“NOPR”) to clarify state water quality certification (“certification”) procedures under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) to allow for increased regulatory certainty in federal licensing and permitting activities, and particularly authorization of infrastructure projects.  EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced on Friday that the “proposal is intended to help ensure that states adhere to the statutory language and intent of Clean Water Act.”  The NOPR proposes substantive changes to the scope of state water quality certification authority under the CWA and the procedures governing these certifications, focusing on the plain language of the statute and at times departing from prior case law precedent.

Significant components of the NOPR are summarized below.  EPA has established a 60-day period for public comment on the proposed rule, from the date of publication in the Federal Register.  In light of the substantial modifications to the scope, substance and procedures related to state water quality certification, the NOPR presents a unique opportunity for utilities, manufacturers, developers, and other regulated business entities to help shape a significant regulatory program. 
Continue Reading EPA Proposes Sweeping Changes to Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Regulations

On Monday, May 6, 2019, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (Oregon DEQ) denied a water quality certification under section 401 of the Clean Water Act for the proposed Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal and its feeder pipeline, the Pacific Connector, to be located on Oregon’s southern coast.
Continue Reading Oregon DEQ Denies Jordan Cove Water Quality Certification