This blog post was republished by Law360 on September 14, 2021.

On August 19, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) issued a joint guidance document concerning implementation of EPA’s 2020 Water Quality Certification Rule. The agencies explain that the guidance applies specifically to 41 Clean Water Act Section 404 Nationwide Permits (NWPs) proposed in September 2020 that have already received certification (or for which certification was denied or waived) but have not yet been finalized, and a more detailed enclosure is intended to be applied generally to the Corps’ permit programs. The guidance also cryptically suggests that the agencies may revisit the 16 NWPs that were previously certified and finalized by the Corps in January 2021. In a press release the following day, EPA and the Corps frame the guidance as addressing “implementation challenges” raised by state and tribal certifying authorities.
Continue Reading EPA and Army Corp’s Joint Section 401 Guidance Walks Back Regulatory Certainty

On August 13, EPA finalized Clean Water Act (Act) Section 304(a) recommended criteria for phosphorus and nitrogen in lakes and reservoirs. The new recommendations incorporate scientific models that states and tribes with treatment as state status can use to establish numeric water quality criteria for phosphorus and nitrogen, and they mark an important milestone in EPA’s long-running war on excess nutrients in the nation’s surface waters. In the new recommended lakes criteria, EPA is embracing a stressor-response approach to managing nutrients, instead of the least-disturbed reference method. This is a significant move for the agency and has the potential to set a positive precedent going forward for EPA and state and tribal regulators to re-evaluate the utility of the reference method approach in other contexts.

Continue Reading EPA Finalizes Recommended Nutrient Criteria for Lakes and Reservoirs

There has been a longstanding debate about how to apply the one-year time limit on Clean Water Act Section 401 certification decisions. The D.C. Circuit court in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, 913 F.3d 1099 (D.C. Cir. 2019) established a bright-line standard that a 401 certification must be issued or denied within one year of receipt of application, or the certification opportunity is waived. States cannot engage in actions to extend this deadline by requiring an applicant to withdraw and refile their application or by finding an application incomplete. This bright-line test was reinforced by the Second Circuit’s more recent decision in New York State Department of Environmental Conservation v. FERC, 991 F.3d 439 (2d Cir. 2021). This interpretation was also codified in EPA’s 2020 Clean Water Act Section 401 Certification Rule. See 85 Fed. Reg. 42210 (July 13, 2020). However, on July 2, the Fourth Circuit offered a different interpretation of Section 401 in its decision in N.C. Department of Environmental Quality v. FERC, No. 20-1655 (McMahan Hydro).

Continue Reading The Fourth Circuit Weighs In on the Interpretation of CWA Section 401

On March 31, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello found that the Federal Power Act (FPA) is the exclusive authority with regards to controversies related to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) -issued hydroelectric licenses, including challenges that stem from the permitting decisions of other federal agencies acting under their independent statutory authority. In Save the Colorado v. Semonite, Civil Action No. 18-cv-03258 (D. Colo. Mar. 31, 2021), the court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction over an appeal of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 404 permit and the associated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Endangered Species Act (ESA) biological opinion since these are actions “inhere[d] in the controversy” related to the FERC license.
Continue Reading District Court Lacked Jurisdiction Over Clean Water Act Section 404 Permit Challenge Involving FERC License Amendment

On May 27, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its intent to reconsider the Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 401 final rule issued by the Trump administration in June 2020 (Final Rule).

Continue Reading EPA Announces Reconsideration and Potential Revision of the Clean Water Act Section 401 Final Rule

On March 23, the Second Circuit issued its opinion in N.Y. Dep’t of Enviro. Conservation v. FERC, Case No. 19-1610 (i.e., the “Empire Pipeline” case). The case concerns the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC or Commission) determination that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) waived its water quality certification authority with regard to FERC’s issuance of a gas pipeline certificate when NYSDEC sought to extend its review period beyond the one-year deadline under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA or Act) by agreeing with the applicant to “post-date” the filing date of its water quality certification application by several weeks.

Continue Reading Second Circuit Enforces the Clean Water Act Section 401 One-Year Time Limit

On December 23, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its annual civil monetary penalty adjustments in the Federal Register. The Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act of 2015 requires federal agencies to make annual inflation adjustments to federal statutory civil penalty amounts. The annual inflation adjustments are based on a cost-of-living multiplier determined by changes to the Consumer Price Index. This year’s inflation multiplier is 1.01182.

Continue Reading EPA Publishes Annual Inflation Adjustments to Civil Penalty Amounts

On December 8, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA or the Agency) issued draft guidance to clarify the application of the “functional equivalent” test created by the United States Supreme Court in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Foundation, 140 S. Ct. 1462 (2020). The guidance is intended to help both members of the regulated community and permitting authorities determine when a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit may be required for discharges from point sources that reach navigable waters through groundwater. Comments on the draft guidance are due 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register.

Continue Reading EPA Seeks to Clarify Application of Maui and “Functional Equivalent” Test

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated fiscal concerns of water and sewer service providers, with many states imposing a moratorium on the collection of delinquent bills and the termination of service. The affordability of water and sewer service has also been a central topic in environmental justice discussions. In the midst of this heightened interest, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) released its long-awaited proposed updates to its Clean Water Act (“CWA”) affordability guidance. The pre-publication version of its 2020 Financial Capability Assessment for CWA Obligations (“2020 FCA”) was released on September 15, 2020. The proposal builds on EPA’s prior guidance, issued in 1997, as well as its 2014 Financial Capability Assessment Framework.  The purpose of the guidance is to establish criteria for EPA consideration of the impact of water quality, stormwater, and drinking water requirements on affordability. This information can then be used to prioritize different regulatory requirements and establish longer compliance schedules in permits and enforcement actions.

Continue Reading EPA Issues Long-Awaited Update to CWA Financial Capability Assessment

Citing delegated States as the primary enforcers of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the promotion of federalism, Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Environmental and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) Jeffrey Bossert Clark recently issued a memorandum promoting the use of enforcement discretion for certain civil CWA matters where a state proceeding has been initiated or concluded.
Continue Reading New DOJ CWA Enforcement Guidance