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.
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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.
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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.
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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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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 Friday, October 7, 2016, several industry trade organizations and associations, as respondents, filed a brief requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court review the fractured decision of the Sixth Circuit to exercise jurisdiction over various challenges to the EPA-Army Corps issued Waters of the United States (”WOTUS”) Rule under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”).

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