By James V. Aidala and Susan M. Kirsch
On April 23, 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was making available its Interpretive Statement addressing whether the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program applies to releases of a pollutant from a point source to groundwater (Interpretive Statement) for comment. 84 Fed. Reg. 16810. EPA is issuing the Interpretative statement to “provide clarity on [EPA’s] interpretation of the [CWA] given the mixed record of prior [EPA] statements and a split in the federal circuit courts regarding this issue.” EPA’s Interpretive Statement states that it “sets forth [its] interpretation of the [CWA NPDES] permit program’s applicability to releases of pollutants from a point source to groundwater that subsequently migrate or are conveyed by groundwater to jurisdictional surface waters” and “EPA concludes that the [CWA] is best read as excluding all releases of pollutants from a point source to groundwater from NPDES program coverage and liability under Section 301 of the CWA, regardless of a hydrologic connection between the groundwater and a jurisdictional surface water.” EPA also released a fact sheet on its Interpretive Statement, available online.
The April 23 Federal Register notice states that the Interpretative Statement reflects EPA’s consideration of the public comments received in response to its February 20, 2018, Federal Register notice (83 Fed. Reg. 7126) which requested comment on EPA’s previous statements regarding whether pollutant discharges from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater or other subsurface flow that has a direct hydrologic connection to the jurisdictional surface water may be subject to CWA regulation. EPA received over 50,000 comments from a wide range of stakeholders, many of which affirmed that additional clarity from EPA was necessary. EPA reached its conclusion based on the comments received and on “a holistic analysis of the [CWA], its text, structure, and legislative history.” EPA also references numerous policy considerations that support excluding groundwater discharges from NPDES permitting, including existing state and federal authorities and statutes that play a role in regulating groundwater quality (e.g., Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Underground Injection Control (UIC) program).
EPA is soliciting public comments on the Interpretive Statement, specifically regarding what may be needed to provide further clarity and regulatory certainty on this issue. Comments are due by June 7, 2019.
EPA’s Interpretive Statement comes at a critical time when the U.S. Supreme Court is set to address the question of “[w]hether the [CWA] requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater” (see SCOTUSblog) in its review of the Ninth Circuit decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund (Maui). A petition for U.S. Supreme Court review is also pending on the Fourth Circuit decision in Kinder Morgan Energy Partners v. Upstate Forever (Kinder Morgan), which held similarly to Maui that “a discharge that passes from a point source through ground water to navigable waters may support a claim under the CWA.” A pair of September 2018 Sixth Circuit decisions (Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Co. and Tennessee Clean Water Network v. TVA) expressly disagreed with the holdings in Maui and Kinder Morgan -- resulting in a “circuit split.” Although the facts in Maui (wastewater injected into UIC wells) and Kinder Morgan (gas spilled from underground pipeline) may not involve activities common in agriculture and pesticide applications, the new judicial “tests” created in these decisions could dramatically expand the scope of the NPDES universe in ways that could potentially implicate agricultural/pesticide practices. For example, in Maui, the Ninth Circuit held that Maui County’s discharges from UIC wells to groundwater should require CWA discharge permits because the pollutants from the UIC wells that reached a navigable water were “fairly traceable” and levels reaching the navigable water were “more than de minimis.” The Ninth Circuit’s Maui holding could be stretched broadly to support the assertion that pesticides and fertilizers applied to agricultural lands that migrate through groundwater and eventually reach a CWA jurisdictional water could be subject to NPDES permitting. Agriculture and pesticide stakeholders may wish to closely monitor developments around groundwater discharge issues at EPA and the U.S. Supreme Court.
By Susan M. Kirsch
On April 12, 2018, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-Texas) released the Committee’s draft Farm Bill reauthorization, the “Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018” (H.R. 2). The House Agriculture Committee passed the Farm Bill package on April 18, 2018, setting it up for a floor vote in the House. The 600-plus page draft legislation includes a number of provisions that will be of interest to pesticide registrants and the pesticide user community, including the following sections:
- Section 9119. Enactment of Pesticide Registration Improvement Act of 2017: This provision would enact the Pesticide Registration Improvement Extension Act (known as PRIA-4), which authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to continue to collect $40 million in registration and maintenance fees critical to supporting the pesticide registration process.
- Section 8303. Consultation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA): Subsection (a) would eliminate ESA Section 7 consultation requirements for U.S. Forest Service projects where a “not likely to adversely affect” determination has been made. Subsection (b) requires ESA Section 7 consultation for forest management activities carried out under the Farm Bill to be completed within a 90-day period.
- Sections 9117 and 9118. Clean Water Act (CWA) Pesticide Permitting: Together these two provisions amend the CWA and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to eliminate CWA National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting for FIFRA-compliant pesticide applications. These sections incorporate the regulatory relief language from previously proposed stand-alone bills aimed at eliminating the dual regulation of pesticide applications into, over, and near surface waters, which passed the House in the 115th Congress (H.R. 953) and has been proposed in the Senate (S.340).
The full text of H.R. 2 and a section-by-section summary are available on the House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill webpage along with several related fact sheets. The Agriculture Committee expects to mark-up the bill this week.
By Susan M. Kirsch
On May 24, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 953, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2017, by 256-165 vote. H.R. 953, which is similar to bills introduced in the past three congresses, would overturn a 2009 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision requiring Clean Water Act (CWA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for pesticide spraying activities into, over, or near waters. The legislation would eliminate NPDES permitting for pesticide spraying that complies with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
Proponents of the legislation assert that the addition of CWA regulation is duplicative, burdensome, and costly for industry without resulting in any additional environmental benefits. Opponents argue that the bill would strip clean water protections for waters already listed as impaired for pesticides. Championed by Representative Bob Gibbs (R-OH), the recent vote received significant bipartisan support, with twenty-five Democrats voting in support of the bill. Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) introduced companion legislation in the Senate (S. 340), which currently awaits action by the Committee on Environment and Public Works. The prospects for a Senate vote are mixed in light of the number of confirmations in the queue for political appointees, as well as big ticket legislative priorities, such as health care and tax reform. If legislation is enacted, it would only apply to the four states (Idaho, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Massachusetts), tribal lands, and other federally managed areas that are governed by the federal NPDES permit. Forty-six states administer state versions of pesticide permits. Mmany states would be expected to phase out permitting if the federal requirement is eliminated, however.
More information regarding CWA NPDES issues is available on our blog under key word NPDES.
By Susan M. Kirsch and Lisa M. Campbell
On February 21, 2017, the Northwest Environmental Advocates (NWEA) filed a Clean Water Act (CWA) lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District that involves a number of pesticide active ingredients in addition to other chemicals. The lawsuit seeks to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) response to NWEA’s 2013 Petition for Rulemaking to Update the Water Quality Criteria for Toxics in the State of the Washington (NWEA v. EPA, No.: 2:17-cv-00263). NWEA asserts that Washington’s aquatic life water quality criteria (ALC) and human health water quality criteria (HHC) for many chemicals that are classified as “toxic pollutants” are outdated and inadequate. The chemicals at issue include the pesticide active ingredients acrolein, carbaryl, copper, diazinon, demeton, malathion, and methoxychlor. NWEA alleges that Washington’s continued use of outdated criteria violates the CWA and poses a risk to species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (Act), specifically Chinook Salmon and Southern Resident orca whales.
Under the CWA, states develop and adopt water quality criteria and are required on a triennial basis to review and revise or develop new criteria if appropriate to protect designated uses (e.g., recreation, wildlife protection). As part of this triennial review process, states are required to consider any recommended new or revised quality criteria published by EPA. States may adopt the criteria that EPA publishes, modify EPA’s criteria to reflect site-specific conditions, or adopt different criteria based on other scientifically-defensible methods. Criteria are a component of water quality standards that inform the development of total maximum daily load (TMDL) calculations, discharge limits in permits, and management of nonpoint sources of pollution, including agricultural run-off. If state criteria are inadequate for the protection of designated uses, EPA may step-in to issue updated criteria, and can be compelled to promulgate criteria by citizen suit action.
NWEA alleges that Washington has failed to adopt HHC or ALC for several toxic pollutants since 1992. In November 2016, EPA published a final rule updating Washington’s HHC for toxics. 81 Fed. Reg. 85417. NWEA asserts that the revised HHC do not address the full spectrum of HHC, as updates for arsenic, dioxin, and thallium were not included. NWEA also argues that updated HHC do not alleviate the ongoing risk to aquatic life from Washington’s inadequate ALC. EPA has not responded to NWEA’s complaint.
It is unclear how EPA will respond to NWEA’s suit. Often a state will work simultaneously to develop its own criteria that will meet EPA approval. Registrants associated with the pesticides at issue should prepare for potentially forthcoming proposals of more stringent criteria. The proposal and promulgation of new criteria is a lengthy process and requires public notice and comment. It may well be at least two years before either EPA or Washington issues proposed updates for ALC. A compilation of the latest EPA recommended ALC is accessible here. The criteria values in the table provide some indication of the direction that may be taken in future updates.
By Susan M. Kirsch
President Trump’s February 28, 2017, Executive Order (E.O.) directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to rescind and replace the Clean Water Rule (CWR) is the latest development in the attempt to resolve the long-standing question of which surface waters and wetlands may be federally regulated and subjected to permitting under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Critics of the CWR assert that it would have drastically expanded the reach of the CWA and created regulatory uncertainty around land features and water features that were not previously considered WOTUS, such as dry creek beds, ditches, and isolated wetlands. Since 2011, pesticide applications into, over, or near WOTUS are permitted under the CWA National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Program due to a 2009 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruling. Agricultural producers and pesticide applicators have opposed the permitting largely on the grounds that it is duplicative and unnecessary to regulate pesticides applied in accordance with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Although the CWR would have arguably expanded the scope of the waters requiring pesticide permitting, the replacement or elimination of the CWR will not end NPDES requirements for pesticides. Opponents continue to push for legislation that would eliminate all CWA permitting for FIFRA-compliant pesticide applications. More details on the NPDES permit for pesticides is available in our blog item EPA Issues Final 2016 NPDES Pesticide General Permit.
Additional information on the anticipated fate of WOTUS, as well as a summary and comparison of some of the key concepts and provisions within the CWR are available in our memorandum What’s Next for “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS)?