What Are Citizen Groups Afraid Of? The Ninth Circuit Affirms Delegation of NPDES Authority to Alaska, Notwithstanding Alaska’s Fee-Shifting Provision

Almost all – 46 – states have delegated programs under the Clean Water Act. One criterion that EPA must determine has been satisfied before approving delegation is that the state has the ability to "abate violations of the permit … including civil and criminal penalties and other ways and means of enforcement."

EPA’s regulations provide that this criterion will be met if :

State law allows an opportunity for judicial review that is the same as that available to obtain judicial review in federal court of a federally-issued NPDES permit. A State will not meet this standard if it narrowly restricts the class of persons who may challenge the approval or denial of permits….

With respect to citizen suits, this language seems fairly clear. As long as the state does not impose heightened standing requirements, the same opportunity for judicial review exists.

When EPA approved delegation of the NPDES program to Alaska, notwithstanding that Alaska has a version of the so-called “English Rule,” which requires that losing parties pay fees to the winners, various citizen groups challenged the delegation, on the ground that the Alaska fee shifting provision means that, as a practical matter, Alaska restricts access to the courts in ways not permitted under the CWA. Last week, in Akiak Native Community v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the delegation. 

I actually wish that the Court had gone further than it did. As noted above, I think that, in the absence of different standing requirements, there is a comparable “opportunity” for judicial review. Instead, the Court’s decision was more limited, holding only that, as a result of certain limits on Alaska’s application of the fee-shifting rule, the plaintiffs had not met their burden to establish that EPA’s decision was arbitrary and capricious. Indeed, the Court noted that EPA could potentially reverse the delegation if it later finds in practice that Alaska courts are applying the fee-shifting provisions in ways that discourage citizen plaintiffs.

I just want to know – what’s so bad about fee-shifting?

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