Last week, I discussed EPA’s efforts to “muddle through” on climate change in the absence of comprehensive legislation. This week, I think it’s the Clean Water Act’s turn. If there were any regulatory situation which required some serious muddling through at the moment, interpretation of the Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision almost is a match for the current climate mess. As most of my readers know, Rapanos was a 4-1-4 decision which left EPA, the Corps, developers and environmentalists fairly equally perplexed
Most stakeholders have assumed that Kennedy’s concurring opinion, requiring a “significant nexus” between wetlands and traditional navigable waters before those wetlands are subject to jurisdiction under the CWA, is the law of the land at this point. That is the approach adopted in the Rapanos Guidance issued by EPA and the Corps in 2007.
A recent decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Precon Development Corporation v. Army Corps of Engineers, illustrates just how muddled post-Rapanos interpretation has become. The decision in Precon – reversing the District Court – found that the Corps had not built a record sufficient to establish that the wetlands which Precon sought to develop were jurisdictional under the CWA.
There were two technical issues in Precon. Precon lost what one might have thought would be the more significant issue – the Corps’ finding that, although only 4.8 acres were really at issue in this case, and Precon’s entire development includes 166 acres of wetlands, 448 acres of “similarly situated” wetlands would be examined for a substantial nexus to navigable waters. Precon ultimately won, however, because the Court concluded that the Corps’ record did not contain enough physical evidence to support its determination that a significant nexus exists between the 448 wetland acres and the downstream navigable water.
The Court’s conclusion raised two issues of broad concern to stakeholders. First, the Court granted little deference to EPA’s conclusion on the significant nexus issue. The Corps argued that its conclusion that there was a significant nexus between the site wetlands and the downstream navigable waters was a factual conclusion. However, the Court concluded that the significant nexus determination was not factual. The Court stated that:
The question is instead whether the Corps’ findings were adequate to support the ultimate conclusion that a significant nexus exists. This legal determination is essentially now a matter of statutory construction, as Justice Kennedy established that a “significant nexus” is a statutory requirement for bringing wetlands adjacent to non-navigable tributaries within the CWA’s definition of “navigable waters.”
Well, this is certainly a nice question of administrative law. The significant nexus issue may now be the ultimate legal question. Nonetheless, I would guess that most wetlands scientists and hydrologists would say that this is largely a factual question. Even if the agency is applying its judgment to answer that question, it’s the type of judgment that requires technical expertise – expertise to which courts have traditionally deferred.
The second of the Court’s important pronouncements was that it would not give the EPA/Corps Rapanos Guidance deference under Chevron. Why not?
Because – although it could – the Corps has not adopted an interpretation of “navigable waters” that incorporates this concept through notice-and-comment rulemaking, but instead has interpreted the term only in a non-binding guidance document.”
Isn’t it timely, then, that EPA and the Corps sent a draft new Rapanos guidance to OMB in December, and GOP leadership in the House is proposing language in a continuing resolution that would preclude EPA from using any funds “to implement, administer, or enforce a change to a rule or guidance document pertaining to the definition of waters under the jurisdiction of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1251).” Perhaps EPA and the Corps should take half a loaf. Why not agree to shelve the guidance and instead proceed with notice-and-comment rulemaking to clarify Rapanos? At least then the Courts might grant EPA and the Corps more deference in implementation. It’s already been almost five years since Rapanos was issued. EPA and the Corps can hardly argue that it’s necessary to go the guidance route because they don’t have the time to proceed through the full regulatory process.
Enough muddling through. Take the time to do it right and issue regulations. Then, maybe the muddle will abate. (Can one abate a muddle?)