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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. 
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On April 15, 2019, the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper (Riverkeeper) filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, alleging that the Corps’ operation of the Chief Joseph Dam is in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Riverkeeper’s complaint raises important questions as to whether certain discharges from hydropower facilities trigger the need for an authorization under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) pursuant to section 402 of the CWA, 33 U.S.C. § 1342.
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In an order on rehearing issued April 18, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Commission or FERC)—applying the newly minted Section 36 of the Federal Power Act (FPA), 16 U.S.C. § 823g—decided to extend the new license term for Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) Poe Hydroelectric Project by 10 years.  Pacific Gas and Electric, 167 FERC ¶ 61,047 (2019).  FERC’s initial relicensing order granted a new 40-year license term for the project, but on rehearing, the Commission decided that the new requirements of FPA Section 36 warranted the statutory maximum license term of 50 years.  FERC’s April 18 order on rehearing provides insight into how FERC interprets Section 36, which greatly expands the type of investments made by licensees that FERC must consider when determining the length of a new license term for a hydroelectric project.

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