Clean Water Rule Challenges to be heard by Sixth Circuit

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U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

Clean Water Rule Challenges to be heard by Sixth Circuit

Recently we reported on the stay issued by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to the Clean Water Rule.  The Clean Water Rule was challenged by a number of plaintiffs in various federal district courts and circuit courts around the country.  The plaintiffs filed petitions in both the district and circuit courts based upon what they allege is uncertainty about whether the adoption of the Clean Water Rule is within those actions that must be challenged in a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  After issuing a stay of the Clean Water Rule, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in late February that it would hear challenges to the Rule.

The Clean Water Rule and its Challengers

In June 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and Army Corps of Engineers (“USACE”) proposed the Clean Water Rule, which redefined what bodies of water qualify as “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”).  The Clean Water Rule’s detractors say the Rule improperly gives the EPA and USACE broad new authority under the CWA, and that federal district courts should first hear the case, not the Sixth Circuit.

A central question before the Sixth Circuit has been whether the federal government was correct in asserting that the Clean Water Rule is an “other limitation,” meaning a limitation on the way the EPA regulates certain pollutant discharges, under section 509(b)(1)(E) of the CWA.

Sixth Circuit Holds it has Jurisdiction Over Challenges to Clean Water Rule

In a close 2-1 panel decision, the Sixth Circuit stated that it had jurisdiction to hear the case.  This is true despite the fact that Sixth Circuit Judges Richard Griffin and Damon J. Keith actually found the Clean Water Rule does not fit into that provision’s parameters, saying they would not review the case on that basis.  Even still, Judge Griffin agreed with Judge David W. McKeague that Section 509(b)(1)(F) of the act, which addresses the issuance or denial of permits, grants the Sixth Circuit jurisdiction.

The groups opposing the Sixth Circuit’s review said that section (F) did not justify jurisdiction in the Sixth Circuit because the Clean Water Rule is not an “action” of the EPA administrator “in issuing a permit.”  Judge McKeague disagreed, siding instead with the EPA’s argument that the effect of the Clean Water Rule is to impact permitting requirements, thereby affecting the granting and denying of permits, which the judge said is enough to bring the Clean Water Rule under subsection (F).

Sixth Circuit Relied on National Cotton Decision in Concluding it has Jurisdiction

Judge McKeague and Judge Griffin relied on the Sixth Circuit’s 2009 ruling in National Cotton Council v. EPA in coming to their conclusion.  In National Cotton, numerous groups challenged a rule that exempted from the CWA’s permitting requirements pesticides applied in accordance with federal law.  The environmental groups that challenged the rule argued that jurisdiction lied in federal court, where the groups had filed an action in the Northern District of California.  The Sixth Circuit disagreed, denying the groups’ motion to dismiss.

In denying the motion, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the rule at issue satisfied subsection 509(b)(1)(F).  In relying on two decisions from the Ninth Circuit, the Sixth Circuit found that a rule falls within the purview of subsection (F) if it regulates the underlying permitting procedures, even if it does not amount to the actual denial of the permit.

In his opinion Judge McKeague said, “The National Cotton court noted that this more expansive reading of subsection (F) encompassed even regulations that exempted certain discharges from permitting requirements.”  Judge Griffin said he disagreed with the National Cotton decision, but was nonetheless bound by it.  Judge Keith disagreed that the National Cotton case gave the Sixth Circuit jurisdiction to hear challenges to the Clean Water Rule.

Sixth Circuit’s Jurisdictional Ruling Comes on Heels of Previous Stay of the Clean Water Rule

As noted the Sixth Circuit’s decision regarding its jurisdiction to hear challenges to the Clean Water Rule was preceded by a stay of the Rule.  There, the Sixth Circuit said the petitioners who opposed the Rule had demonstrated “a substantial possibility of success” on the merits of their claims.  The stay order says the rule is stayed “pending further order of the court,” so it appears the stay will remain in effect even after the court’s jurisdictional ruling, which didn’t make any statement that it would be lifted.

The Sixth Circuit’s jurisdictional decision keeps the EPA from having to litigate approximately 20 different cases in federal district court, no doubt a big relief for the EPA.  This is true because the U.S. Panel on Multidistrict Litigation denied the EPA’s request to have the cases centralized in one court on the grounds that the disputes are based on administrative record and require very little discovery.

Similar Case in the Eleventh Circuit Waited to Hear What Sixth Circuit had to Say

While the Sixth Circuit has determined that it has jurisdiction over challenges to the Clean Water Rule, there is another similar case pending in the Eleventh Circuit in which Florida and 10 other states, including Utah, are seeking to overturn a Georgia district judge’s finding that an appeals court is the proper venue for their challenge to the Clean Water Rule.  In Georgia v. McCarthy, the states argued that federal district courts are the proper place to challenge the Clean Water Rule.  The Eleventh Circuit postponed oral arguments in the case pending a ruling from the Sixth Circuit.

Since the Sixth Circuit has ruled that they had jurisdiction, it is likely the Eleventh Circuit will rule it has jurisdiction as well.  However, this does not mean the end for the battle over the Clean Water Rule.  In fact, it would appear that the fight is just beginning.  Yet, if the Sixth Circuit’s hint in issuing its stay is correct, namely that the petitioners had shown a possibility of success on the merits, then the Clean Water Rule may be in jeopardy.

Contact C/J’s Water Law Team Today

We will continue to follow this case, and will provide any updates as they become available.  If you or someone you know may be impacted by the Clean Water Rule, its stay, any future litigation, or if you have other water law related issues, please contact our water law team for a consultation.

* Photo Cred.: the newcivilrightsmovement.com


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