By Kerry Shapiro
On August 30, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona issued an order in Pasqua Yaqui Tribe, et al. v. U.S. EPA, et al., vacating the Navigable Waters Protection Rule (“NWPR”) and remanding the rule back to the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) (collectively, the “Agencies”) for further review. The NWPR was enacted during the Trump administration and represents the EPA’s latest attempt to define the term “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”). The NWPR represented a categorical approach to Clean Water Act (“CWA”) jurisdiction (i.e. certain water features were categorically excluded from jurisdiction under the CWA, including ephemeral streams), and it significantly narrowed the scope of such jurisdiction. Following the court’s ruling, EPA announced the Agencies would halt implementation of the NWPR and instead interpret WOTUS consistent with the broader jurisdictional scope of the pre-2015 regulatory regime until further notice. The National Stone, Sand, and Gravel Association (“NSSGA”), among several business interests, intervened into the case, arguing that a return to the pre-2015 regulatory regime would increase regulatory uncertainty, including, as discussed below, a likely increase in 404 permitting.
In this case, the plaintiffs alleged that the NWPR exceeds the EPA’s statutory authority and is contrary to the CWA’s text and objectives, which require broad protection of all of the U.S.’s waters, because the NWPR excludes certain waters from the protections required by the CWA. The NWPR can be viewed here. The plaintiffs, several federally recognized Native American tribes, also alleged that the EPA failed: (1) to explain its decision to reverse prior regulations; and (2) to consider important aspects of that prior decision, including the effects on water quality and aquatic ecosystems, the ecological importance of protecting the excluded waters, and the effects of the reversal of prior regulations on the CWA. Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment in the case, and in response the Agencies filed a motion asking for voluntary remand of the NWPR without vacating it. This would have allowed the Agencies under the Biden administration to continue to implement the NWPR as the Agencies simultaneously worked to draft a replacement. Plaintiffs agreed that the NWPR should be remanded, but also argued for vacatur and implementation of the pre-2015 regulatory regime, asserting that intermittent and ephemeral streams in Arizona would otherwise be left unprotected.
The court granted the Agencies’ request for voluntary remand, as well as the Plaintiffs’ request that remand include vacatur. The court’s decision can be viewed here. In reaching this decision, the court found that “the seriousness of the Agencies’ errors in enacting the NWPR, the likelihood that the Agencies will alter the NWPR’s definition of “waters of the United States,” and the possibility of serious environmental harm if the NWPR remains in place upon remand, all weigh in favor of remand with vacatur.”
Following the court’s remand and vacatur of the NWPR, the EPA announced that until the Agencies promulgate a new rule defining WOTUS, permits and projects will be reviewed under the pre-2015 rules. Because the definition of WOTUS determines whether a water feature or wetland falls under CWA jurisdiction, this reversion to the pre-2015 rules is likely to significantly affect current permitting efforts. With the categorical approach of the NWPR no longer in effect, we can expect more stream and wetland specific fact determinations will be necessary. This will likely lead to increased Section 404 permitting due to the expanded areas under Corps jurisdiction. In fact, in its order, the court noted that the Agencies had identified indicators of substantial reduction in waters covered under the NWPR compared to previous rules and practices. Between June 22, 2020 and April 15, 2021, the Corps made approved jurisdictional determinations under the NWPR of 40,211 water features and found that approximately 76% were non-jurisdictional. The Agencies identified 333 projects that would have required Section 404 permitting under the CWA under the pre-2015 regime, but did not require such permitting under the NWPR.
Kerry Shapiro chairs the Natural Resources & Mining Practice Group at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP. He has represented the mining, construction and building materials industries on mineral extraction and land development projects for more than 25 years. Kerry also serves as General Counsel to the California Construction and Industrial Materials Association (CalCIMA). Contact Kerry at KShapiro@jmbm.com.
JMBM’s Natural Resources & Mining Law Group
Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP has one of California’s leading natural resources and mining law practice groups. The group is comprised of lawyers with over 25 years of practice in law firms, government, and consulting, and provides companies and trade associations with unparalleled counseling, compliance, and litigation services in nearly every area of federal and California natural resources and mining law.