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

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 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