In yet another development relating to Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 401 water quality certifications, a recent policy directive from the Department of the Army could impose tighter timeframes for a state to review whether projects comply with state water quality standards. The U.S. Department of the Army has issued a policy directive memorandum requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to adhere to a “default time period” of 60 days for states to act on a request for water quality certification under CWA Section 401 in conjunction with USACE’s issuance of dredge and fill permits under CWA Section 404. The directive also requires USACE to “immediately draft guidance” to establish criteria for USACE District Engineers to identify circumstances that may warrant additional time for states to decide on an application for water quality certification.
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On September 7, 2018, a jury in a California state court found Plains All American Pipeline guilty on 9 criminal counts, stemming from a release of 140,000 gallons of crude oil from a Plains pipeline near Santa Barbara in 2015. Media across America reported on the criminal verdict in the Plains case, and certain commenters predict that the verdict could further energize pipeline opposition groups around the country. The case may be viewed best, however, as somewhat of an anomaly: a broadside of state legal requirements brought after an oil spill to a sensitive environment in California.

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In an attempt to bring clarity following the recent Supreme Court decision—which as noted in our prior post will result in expiration of the nationwide stay of the 2015 revised definition of “waters of the U.S.” that was imposed two years ago by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals—EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) issued a final rule extending the applicability date of the 2015 revised definition to February 6, 2020.  With this final rule, the Agencies seek to ensure that the pre-2015 “waters of the U.S.” definition will remain in place consistently throughout the country while the Agencies consider possible revisions. As expected, the final rule has already been subject to judicial challenge, further ensuring that the scope of “waters of the U.S.” will continue to remain uncertain in the near future as these challenges play out.
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On January 22, 2018, the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision threw the long contested issue of what constitutes “waters of the U.S.” back to the lower courts.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Supreme Court held that federal district courts have jurisdiction to hear challenges to the rule, reversing a Sixth Circuit decision and suspending that court’s nationwide stay of the rule.  In doing so, the Court guaranteed that a revised definition of “waters of the U.S.” will remain undecided for some time to come.
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EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) issued a prepublication version of a proposed rule that will rescind prior 2015 revisions to the definition of “waters of the U.S.” under the Clean Water Act (CWA), pending the issuance of a more substantive rulemaking that reevaluates the definition.  The prior revisions expanded federal jurisdiction over certain waters and prompted numerous judicial challenges and a subsequent nationwide stay of the rule.

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President Trump signed an Executive Order requiring EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review the final “Clean Water Rule,” also known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule. The Order requires that the review ensure that the WOTUS Rule is consistent with a new policy to keep the Nation’s navigable waters free from pollution “while at the same time promoting economic growth, minimizing regulatory uncertainty, and showing due regard for the roles played by Congress and the States under the Constitution.” Although implementation of the Rule was stayed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit pending further court review, the Executive Order also requires EPA and the Corps to review all orders, rules, regulations, guidelines, or policies implementing the Rule and to revise or rescind such rules consistent with the Executive Order.
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