Last Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated EPA’s rule adding the West Vermont Drinking Water Contamination Site to the National Priorities List, finding EPA’s decision to be arbitrary and capricious and not supported by substantial evidence. As the opinion makes clear, EPA has to work pretty hard to lose these cases.
Why did EPA lose?
The critical issue was whether the overburden and bedrock aquifers beneath the site were directly connected. EPA said that they were. However, the petitioners pointed to cross-sections in the record that showed a confining layer existed between the bedrock and overburden aquifers. More importantly, the record showed that EPA did not even attempt to explain why the cross-sections did not undermine its determination. That’s a no-no. As the Court noted:
It was arbitrary and capricious for EPA to rely on portions of studies in the record that support its position, while ignoring cross sections in those studies that do not. … Although EPA ‘is not required to discuss every item of fact or opinion included in the submissions it receives in response to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, it must respond to those comments which, if true, would require a change in the proposed rule.’
Counsel from DOJ tried to repair the damage in the litigation, to which the Court replied that:
These arguments come too late. We may only uphold a rule “on the basis articulated by the agency” in the rule making record.
Lesson for EPA? Don’t ignore comments in the record – and don’t count on your lawyers to fill in the gaps.
Lesson for potential petitioners? Make sure that the record looks as good as possible – and focus like a laser beam on EPA failures to respond to your evidence.
And who knew that there was a band called The Substantial Evidence?