Environmental Litigation

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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In Kisor v. Wilkie, 588 U.S. __ (2019), a five Justice majority substantially narrowed, but did not wholly overturn, the embattled doctrines arising from Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997), and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U. S. 410 (1945).  Under the Auer deference doctrine, courts must defer to reasonable agency interpretations of their own regulations.  Several Justices and prominent scholars had criticized Auer deference on statutory, constitutional, and practical grounds.  While Auer deference lives on after Kisor, the continuing practical relevance of the doctrine is doubtful for most cases.  Further, Kisor’s limitations on Auer deference may portend a similar fate for Chevron deference, in future cases.
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On April 15, 2019, EPA issued its long-awaited Interpretative Statement addressing the Clean Water Act’s applicability to releases of pollutants from point sources into groundwater that subsequently migrate to jurisdictional surface waters. The question this interpretation addresses stems from the 2018 federal circuit split previously discussed here. On February 19, 2019, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in one of the cases that contributed to the split, County of Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund. The United States filed its amicus brief in that case, urging the highest court to review County of Maui, but not a similar ruling from the Fourth Circuit. As the question was being reviewed by the federal courts, EPA requested public comment on this issue and received over 50,000 comments. EPA is addressing some of these comments in the Interpretative Statement.
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On March 8, 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Army, and Army Corps of Engineers petitioned the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 4th and 9th Circuits to voluntarily dismiss their appeals of the Suspension rule. This is yet another development in the litigation surrounding the 2015 Waters of the United States Rule (WOTUS). Our previous blog posts on this topic can be accessed here.
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Today the Supreme Court issued its order list from its February 15 Conference during which it considered whether to grant certiorari in two pending petitions regarding discharges of pollutants to groundwater that is hydrologically connected to surface water. The Court granted certiorari in County of Maui, HI v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, et al. only as

On January 25, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in a unanimous decision, granted a petition for review in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, No. 14-1271 (D.C. Cir., Jan. 25, 2019). The key holding in the case, which concerns the ongoing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 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 application for water quality certification within one year from when it was initially filed in 2006. The applicant for many years had followed, at the request of the States, the common industry practice of “withdraw-and-resubmit” of its water quality certification application in an attempt to annually reset the one-year time period for the States to act, as established under CWA section 401. The D.C. Circuit in Hoopa Valley Tribe invalidated this practice as a means of resetting the statutory clock, instead holding that the clear text of CWA establishes that “a full year is the absolute maximum” time for a state to decide on a water quality certification application.
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Troutman Sanders partners Douglas Henderson and Lindsey Mann and associate Nicholas Howell had an Insight piece published in Bloomberg Law titled, “Contamination ‘Issue’ Class Actions—Recent Certification Realities.”

In the article, the authors review the confusing outcomes and mistaken promise of environmental “issue” class actions under Rule 23(c). Two cases from 2018—involving virtually identical facts—reach fundamentally

The U.S. Supreme Court kicked off its new term on Oct. 1 with oral arguments in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The case centers around whether and when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) can designate land unoccupied by a threatened or endangered species as critical habitat for that species under the Endangered Species Act.

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On April 26, 2018, a North Carolina jury awarded 10 neighbors $51 million in the first North Carolina hog farming case to be heard before U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt.  Almost a week later on May 9, 2018, Judge Britt reduced the jury’s award of $23 million in punitive damages to nearly $3 million in punitive damages because of a North Carolina state law that limits punitive damages to $250,000-per-plaintiff.  This was the first case tried of 26 lawsuits brought by 500 neighbors complaining about hog operations in eastern North Carolina against Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

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On June 11, 2018, the Supreme Court summarily affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Washington through a 4-4 split, with Justice Kennedy taking no part in the decision due to his involvement in similar cases during his time as a circuit judge on the Ninth Circuit.  The immediate effect of the high court’s decision will be to require the State of Washington to replace or modify, at the State’s expense, several hundred culverts placed in streams under roads and bridges throughout the State. In the longer run, however, the decision could have much more far-reaching impacts related to federal and state obligations to protect against habitat degradation of salmon and other aquatic species pursuant to their obligations under several Nineteenth Century treaties reached with Native American Tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

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