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Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club v. Wheeler

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

July 24, 2019

ANDREW WHEELER, [1] in his official capacity as Acting Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and R.D. JAMES, [2] in his official capacity as Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Defendants.



         This matter comes before the Court sua sponte. Having reviewed the summary judgment briefing of Plaintiffs (Dkt. Nos. 67, 83), Intervenors (Dkt. Nos. 72, 86), and Defendants (Dkt. Nos. 79, 87), the Court hereby ORDERS the parties to submit additional briefing addressing several issues, including why the Court should not stay this case.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Clean Water Act

         The Clean Water Act of 1972 (the “CWA”), 33 U.S.C. §§ 1251-388, prohibits the discharge of pollutants into “navigable waters” absent compliance with the CWA's permitting requirements and other pollution prevention programs. 33 U.S.C. § 1311(a). Such programs include the § 404 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System; the § 404 permitting program for discharges of dredged or fill material; and the § 311 oil spill prevention and response programs. See 33 U.S.C. §§ 1321, 1342, 1344.

         “Navigable waters” is defined as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas” (“WOTUS”). See 33 U.S.C. §§ 1251, 1321, 1342, 1344, 1362(7). Waste treatment systems were excluded from the definition of WOTUS, and following a notice-and-comment period, a 1980 rulemaking clarified the application of this exclusion as “only to manmade bodies of water which neither were originally created in waters of the United States (such as a disposal area in wetlands) nor resulted from the impoundment of waters of the United States.” Consolidated CWA Permit Regulations, 45 Fed. Reg. 33, 290, 33, 424 (May 19, 1980) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R pt. 122). This provision was intended to prevent polluters from using the waste treatment exclusion as a means of impounding WOTUS for waste disposal purposes. (Dkt. No. 33 at 9.) However, two months later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (the “EPA”) suspended the limiting language (the “suspension”) without notice-and-comment in response to industry concerns, stating that “EPA intends promptly to develop a revised definition and to publish it as a proposed rule for public comment. At the conclusion of that rulemaking, EPA will amend the rule, or terminate the suspension.” Consolidated Permit Regulations, 45 Fed. Reg. 48, 620, 48, 620 (July 21, 1980) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R pt. 122).

         In 1983, the EPA continued the suspension. CWA Environmental Permit Regulations, 48 Fed. Reg. 14, 146, 14, 157 n.1 (Apr. 1, 1983) (40 C.F.R. § 122.2). In 1984, the EPA issued a proposed waste treatment system exclusion, which was finalized in 1988 following a notice-and- comment period. CWA § 404 Program Definitions and Permit Exemptions, 53 Fed. Reg. 20764, 20764 (June 6, 1988) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R. pt. 232). In 1986, the Army Corps of Engineers (the “Corps”) published an updated WOTUS definition that maintained the suspension. Final Rule for Regulatory Programs of the Corps, 51 Fed. Reg. 41206, 41, 250 (Nov. 13, 1986) (33 C.F.R. § 328.3).

         B. 2015 Final Rule

          In 2014, Defendants proposed a revised WOTUS definition with “no change to the exclusion for waste treatment systems . . . .” Definition of WOTUS under the CWA, 79 Fed. Reg. 22, 188, 22, 189 (Apr. 21, 2014) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R. pt. 122). Defendants specified that they “[did] not seek comment on [the suspension]” because they did not intend to change it. Id. at 22, 190. Plaintiffs submitted comments on the revisions. (See Dkt. Nos. 67-1, 67-2.) Defendants did not consider comments regarding the suspension because those comments were “outside the scope of the proposed rule.” CWA: Definition of WOTUS, 80 Fed. Reg. 37, 054, 37, 097 (June 29, 2015) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R. pt. 122). On June 29, 2015, Defendants promulgated the “Clean Water Rule: Definition of ‘Waters of the United States'” (the “2015 Final Rule”), which included, among other revisions, a renewal of the suspension. See Id. at 37, 114. The 2015 Final Rule also defines three categories of waters: (1) waters that are “jurisdictional-by-rule, ” which are categorically included in the definition of WOTUS and are thus protected under the CWA; (2) waters that are protected for having a “significant nexus” to jurisdictional waters; and (3) waters that are categorically excluded from the definition of WOTUS, including those within the waste treatment system exclusion. 80 Fed. Reg. at 37, 058- 59.

         C. Procedural History

         On August 20, 2015, Plaintiffs sued Defendants, alleging that Defendants violated the terms of the CWA when they enacted the 2015 Final Rule. (Dkt. No. 1 at 16-17.) Plaintiffs also allege that the 2015 Final Rule is arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. §§ 701-06, and that Defendants' failure to address the suspension constitutes an unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed agency action in violation of the APA. (Id. at 18-19.) Plaintiffs allege that they and their members “are harmed by provisions in the [2015] Final Rule that deprive certain waters of the protections afforded under CWA programs, increasing the potential for pollution and other adverse harm to waters that Plaintiffs and their members use and enjoy and work to protect.” (Id. at 3.)

         On May 1, 2018, Plaintiffs amended their complaint, adding a challenge to a second final rule, 82 Fed. Reg. 55, 542 (Nov. 22, 2017) (the “Applicability Date Rule”), promulgated by the EPA and the Corps. (Dkt. No. 33 at 19-21, 24-25.) Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants lacked statutory authority to promulgate the Applicability Date Rule, and that the Applicability Date Rule was arbitrary and capricious under the APA. (Id. at 24-25.) Intervenors, a number of industry groups, were granted leave to intervene. (See Dkt. Nos. 41, 50.) On November 26, 2018, after Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment, the Court ultimately vacated the Applicability Date Rule nationwide. (See Dkt. No. 61.)

         D. Pending Summary Judgment Motions

         On April 4, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a second motion for summary judgment, asserting that the waste treatment system exclusion and continued suspension of its limiting language in the 2015 Final Rule is illegal because it contravenes statutory authority and congressional intent, it is arbitrary and capricious, and was carried out without the APA's mandatory notice-and-comment period. (Dkt. No. 67 at 10-17.) Plaintiffs seek a declaratory ruling and permanent ...

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