Federal environmental requirements and regulations have been relaxed (or are proposed to be relaxed) since President Trump was elected, but those environmental regulatory changes have not yet realized benefits for renewable energy and transmission project permitting.

As mainstream media sources like the New York Times have reported, the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken environmental laws has been somewhat substantial; to date, 67 environmental actions have been targeted by the administration, including 33 that already have been overturned, 24 with rollbacks in progress, and 10 regulations in limbo. However, most of those regulatory changes are unrelated to transmission or renewable energy project permitting. And even those regulatory changes that are loosely related to permitting haven’t yet impacted the speed with which permits are issued by federal agencies (or state agencies with delegated authority to implement federal programs), or the number of permits issued (versus denied). However, the key here is that the impacts haven’t been realized yet; permit processing efficiency and issuance are likely to improve as time goes on, particularly since some of the changes are directly intended to speed up permitting. Continue Reading Trump Administration Actions to Relax Environmental Regulations Should Eventually Benefit Renewable Energy and Transmission Project Permitting

As a reminder, the State of Texas’s new stormwater construction general permit is now in effect.  The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) has renewed its General Permit to Discharge under the Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit, Permit No. TXR150000, which authorizes discharges from construction sites into surface water in the state.  Operators of large construction activities that were covered under the prior permit and continue to operate must now submit a Notice of Intent (NOI) to renew authorization within 90 days of the March 5 effective date.  For more information on these changes, see our prior blog post on this topic.

On February 20, 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested comments on whether pollutant discharges from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater or other subsurface flow with a direct hydrologic connection to the jurisdictional surface water may be subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The answer to this question will have far reaching implications because the scope of the agency’s powers under the CWA determines the scope of:

  • National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting programs;
  • Section 404 wetlands permitting programs;
  • Section 311 oil/hazardous substance release requirements; and
  • Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) requirements.

As a result, the extent to which a discharge to groundwater that reaches jurisdictional surface waters is subject to regulation under the CWA is a significant issue for farmers, manufacturers, and anyone who discharges to groundwater.

Background

The CWA regulates the discharge of pollutants and placement of fill into “navigable waters,” and defines navigable waters as “the waters of the United States.” Since the CWA was passed in 1972, there has been much debate over the extent to which waters that are not considered navigable in fact and wetlands may be regulated as waters of the United States. This uncertainty has given rise to a variety of CWA citizen suits alleging that discharges from point sources that migrate via groundwater to waters of the United States require NPDES permits.

Over the years, various federal courts have reached differing conclusions on the question of whether discharges to groundwater can be considered discharges to waters of the United States. Most recently, the Ninth Circuit addressed this issue in Hawaii Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, 881 F.3d 754 (9th Cir. 2018). In that case, the County of Maui (the “County”) discharged treated effluent from its wastewater reclamation facility into injection wells. Tracer dye studies confirmed that this effluent migrated through the groundwater to the Pacific Ocean. A three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the County’s discharge triggered Clean Water Act jurisdiction and the need for an NPDES permit because the groundwater was hydrologically connected to the Pacific Ocean, a water of the United States. Under the court’s ruling, an indirect discharge of contaminants from point sources that travels through groundwater and ultimately reaches navigable waters will now be subject to federal permitting requirements. Continue Reading EPA Considers Whether a Discharge of Pollutants to Groundwater that is Connected to Navigable Waters Requires a Federal Permit

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) have recently issued memoranda concerning civil enforcement of violations, including violations of environmental laws.

The January 22, 2018 EPA memorandum, entitled “Interim [Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance] Guidance on Enhancing Regional-State Planning and Communication on Compliance Assurance Work in Authorized States,” provides interim guidance on a collaborative partnership between EPA and authorized States in their compliance assurance activities. The document lays out plans for collaboration by EPA and States to meet and share information on environmental compliance issues. Further, the memorandum specifies that, with respect to inspections and enforcement, EPA will generally defer to authorized States to handle the primary day-to-day implementation of their programs.

The January 25, 2018 DOJ memorandum, entitled “Limiting Use of Agency Guidance Documents in Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases,” provides that DOJ may not use its enforcement authority to convert agency documents into binding rules, and DOJ litigators may not use non-compliance with agency guidance documents as a basis for proving violations of law or treat lack of compliance as a presumption of a violation. DOJ may continue to use agency guidance documents for other purposes. This will reduce the environmental compliance burden on companies who previously sought to comply not only with clearly mandatory laws and regulations but also with advisory guidance documents, and keep the Department in check when seeking to use those guidance documents in negotiating penalties for violations.

The policies announced by this memoranda are unsurprising given the current political climate in which EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and President Trump seek to reduce EPA responsibilities and shift environmental duties to the States and to minimize the burdens facing companies.

On January 25, 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) withdrew its 1995 “once in always in” guidance. Under that guidance, facilities classified as “major sources” of hazardous air pollutants (“HAP”) as of the “first compliance date” of a maximum achievable control technology (“MACT”) standard under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act are required to comply permanently with the MACT standard. Now, EPA’s current policy is that a major source that limits its potential to emit (“PTE”) to below major source thresholds can become an area source and will no longer be subject to the major source MACT.

The Clean Air Act defines “major source” as “any stationary source or group of stationary sources located within a contiguous area and under common control that emits or has the potential to emit considering controls, in the aggregate, 10 tons per year or more of any hazardous air pollutant or 25 tons per year or more of any combination of hazardous air pollutants.” This definition expressly allows PTE to be calculated “considering controls,” and does not address the timing for when a source will be classified as a major source. As a result, EPA found that its “once in always in” policy “created an artificial time limit” contrary to the plain language of the Clean Air Act and must be withdrawn. Continue Reading Withdrawal of EPA’s “Once in Always In” Policy for Major Sources of Hazardous Air Pollutants Reduces Burdens and Encourages Emission Reduction