Although not breaking any new ground, a decision from the Massachusetts Appeals Court last week provides a helpful summary of the discretion typically given to MassDEP in making permitting decisions. In Healer v. Department of Environmental Protection, abutters to a proposed wastewater treatment facility in Falmouth sued MassDEP, claiming that the groundwater discharge from the leach field associated with the facility would damage drinking water supplies and nearby wetlands. The Court affirmed the MassDEP Commissioner’s rejection of the abutters’ challenge.
As the Court noted
the “applicable standard of review is “highly deferential to the agency” and requires the reviewing court to accord “due weight to the experience, technical competence, and specialized knowledge of the agency, as well as to the discretionary authority conferred upon it…. We give deference to the decision of an agency interpreting its own regulations … [and] do not intrude lightly within the agency’s area of expertise, as long as the regulations are interpreted with reference to their purpose and to the purpose and design of the controlling statute.”
As if that were not enough of a nod towards agency deference, the Court also noted, in the context of the plaintiffs’’ challenge to the monitoring requirements imposed in the permit, that
The Legislature “has chosen to put into the hands of an expert administrative agency the decision making regarding complex issues of environmental … science…, and has allowed the agency considerable discretion in determining monitoring of applicable parameters in order to carry out its duty….
Finally, the Court made at least one statement about the plaintiffs’ affirmative case that is sure to be cited by MassDEP and permittees in future citizen suits. In rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that toxic household chemicals might cause environmental damage, the Court stated that the “regulations do not require the department to establish permit conditions based on the plaintiffs’ speculative concerns.”
So, what’s the upshot of Healer? It certainly confirms that, as a general matter, courts are not going to reverse agency decisions unless they seem really off-the-wall. On the other hand, it remains true that MassDEP does not always win and my own jaded view is that courts remain willing to reverse MassDEP, even when deference would require that the court affirm the agency, if the agency decision somehow rubs the court the wrong way.