• Posts by Brent A. Rosser
    Posts by Brent A. Rosser
    Partner

    Brent advises clients on a multitude of environmental compliance issues and defends companies in environmental litigation and related administrative and regulatory matters. His clients value his thoughtful solutions-based ...

Time 5 Minute Read

On May 18, 2023, EPA proposed a rule that would expand the federal regulations governing the management of coal combustion residuals (“CCR”) to cover landfills and surface impoundments that were previously excluded from regulation under the CCR rule, first promulgated in 2015 under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”). 88 Fed. Reg. 31,982 (May 18, 2023). The CCR rule, codified at 40 C.F.R. Part 257, sets national minimum standards for the management of CCRs at existing and new landfills and surface impoundments, but it currently does not impose requirements on impoundments at inactive facilities (those that no longer generate electricity).

Time 6 Minute Read

The US Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) recently finalized its long-anticipated National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives (“NECIs”) for fiscal years 2024 through 2027, naming six “priority areas” on which EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (“OECA”) will focus its enforcement efforts and direct additional resources. In his first significant action since being confirmed by the Senate on July 20, 2023, OECA Assistant Administrator David Uhlmann issued a memorandum on August 17, 2023 to the EPA Regional Administrators, advising of the six NECIs. He stated that over the next four years EPA will “address the most significant public health and environmental challenges, protect vulnerable and overburdened communities, and promote greater compliance with our environmental laws.”

Time 3 Minute Read

On May 31, 2023, the Eleventh Circuit in South River Watershed Alliance, Inc. et al. v. DeKalb County, Georgia affirmed dismissal of an environmental group’s citizen suit challenging a Clean Water Act (CWA) consent decree between DeKalb County and government regulators on “diligent prosecution” grounds. The CWA precludes citizen suits if the government is “diligently prosecuting” an action to require compliance with the same standard, limitation, or order for which the citizen suit alleges a violation. The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion may provide guidance to defendants seeking to resolve government enforcement actions and obtain protection from future citizen suits.   

Time 3 Minute Read

A Tennessee federal district court recently awarded a defendant summary judgment on multiple Clean Water Act claims because they were time-barred under the “concurrent-remedies” doctrine.  Relying on case law from the Fifth Circuit holding that the concurrent-remedies doctrine is “alive, well, and strong” as applied to private plaintiffs, the court held that the plaintiff’s claims were barred in their entirety with respect to all legal and equitable relief based on the expiration of the limitations period applicable to claims for civil penalties. Starlink Logistics Inc. v. ACC, LLC, No. 1:18-CV-00029, 2023 WL 1456179 (M.D. Tenn. Jan. 31, 2023).

Time 5 Minute Read

On July 20, 2022, in Naturaland Trust v. Dakota Finance, LLC, No. 21-1517, a split Fourth Circuit panel held that a state agency’s notice of violation did not “commence an action” within the meaning of 33 U.S.C. § 1319(g)(6)(A)(ii). That provision states that a Clean Water Act violation “shall not be the subject of” a citizen suit for civil penalties if a state “has commenced and is diligently prosecuting” an action with respect to the violation “under a State law comparable to” the Clean Water Act. The court also held that this provision is not jurisdictional.

Time 4 Minute Read

On May 18, 2022, in York et al. v. Northrop Grumman Corp. Guidance and Electronics Co. Inc. et al., No. 21-cv-03251 (W.D. Mo.), a federal district court dismissed state-law tort claims for alleged groundwater contamination, finding that they were preempted by an existing Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) consent decree. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that two CERCLA “savings clauses” allow their claims to proceed.

Time 4 Minute Read

Last week, in Residents of Gordon Plaza, Inc. v. Cantrell, the Fifth Circuit denied a petition for rehearing en banc of a recent decision affirming the dismissal of a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) citizen suit. The key issue in the underlying appeal, 25 F.4th 288 (5th Cir. 2022), was whether certain maintenance activities qualify as a “removal” action under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The court affirmed that the maintenance activities do indeed constitute a “removal action.” Therefore, the suit was barred under 42 U.S.C. § 6972(b)(2)(B)(iv), which precludes RCRA citizen suits where a “responsible party is diligently conducting a removal action” pursuant to a CERCLA consent decree with EPA.

Time 4 Minute Read

Recent federal court decisions continue to show that Article III standing can be a formidable defense to environmental citizen suits, particularly following the Supreme Court’s decision Spokeo v. Robins, 578 U.S. 330 (2016) (vacating decision below and emphasizing that an alleged injury in fact must be “concrete and particularized”).  Just last week, for example, a North Carolina federal court dismissed on standing grounds almost all of the plaintiffs’ Clean Air Act citizen suit claims asserted against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).  Center for Biological Diversity v. University of North Carolina, No. 1:19-CV-1179, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 163459 (M.D.N.C. Aug. 30, 2021).  In their complaint, the plaintiffs asserted nine claims, including seven for alleged failures to maintain records, inspect equipment, report permit deviations to government authorities, and monitor pollution controls, as required by UNC’s Title V permit.  On summary judgment, the plaintiff citizen groups offered declarations from two members who alleged “health, aesthetic, and recreational interests in air quality in Chapel Hill and the areas around UNC’s campus.”

Time 5 Minute Read

In April 2020, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund et al., 140 S. Ct. 1462 (2000), vacating the Ninth Circuit’s decision.  The appeals court had affirmed a district court’s finding of Clean Water Act (“CWA”) liability for the County’s alleged failure to obtain a discharge permit for subsurface releases of pollutants that reach navigable waters by way of groundwater.  In vacating the judgment below, the Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that a discharge permit is required where pollutants reaching navigable waters are “fairly traceable” to a point source.  It set forth a new standard for determining when a source needs an NPDES permit:  “the statute requires a permit when there is a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge.”  Id. at 1468 (emphasis added).

Time 4 Minute Read

In Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards et al. v. Red River Coal Co., Inc., 2021 WL 1182464 (4th Cir. Mar. 30, 2021), a unanimous Fourth Circuit panel recently affirmed a district court holding that an operator cannot be held liable under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (Surface Mining Act) for a discharge that is otherwise shielded from liability by the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The court’s opinion expressly relied on the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Sierra Club v. ICG Hazard, LLC, 781 F.3d 281 (6th Cir. 2015), which reached the same conclusion.

Time 4 Minute Read

In April 2020, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund et al., 140 S. Ct. 1462 (2000), vacating the Ninth Circuit’s decision.  The appeals court had affirmed a district court’s finding of Clean Water Act (“CWA”) liability for the County’s alleged failure to obtain a discharge permit for subsurface releases of pollutants into groundwater that conveys pollutants to navigable waters.  In vacating the judgment below, the Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s “fairly traceable” test and set forth a new standard for determining when a source needs an NPDES permit:  “the statute requires a permit when there is a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge.”  Id. at 1468 (emphasis added).  In other words, “an addition falls within the statutory requirement that it be ‘from any point source’ when a point source directly deposits pollutants into navigable waters, or when the discharge reaches the same result through roughly similar means.”  Id. at 1476 (emphasis added).

Time 6 Minute Read

In March of this year, we provided an update regarding how lower courts were applying the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S. Ct. 2400 (2019), which addressed the question of whether the Court should overrule the Auer doctrine, named after the 1997 Supreme Court case Auer v. Robbins.  The Auer doctrine rests on the premise that agencies are in a better position than courts to interpret their own regulations.  Under the doctrine, courts generally defer to an agency’s reasonable readings of its own “genuinely ambiguous” regulations.  In a 5-4 decision, the Court declined to abandon the Auer doctrine on grounds of stare decisis but seemed to outline restrictions on the scope and applicability of the doctrine, including the rule that deference to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous regulation is not appropriate if the interpretation does not reflect the “fair and considered judgment” of the agency.  This means that deference may not be appropriate if the interpretation creates “unfair surprise,” such as when the agency’s interpretation conflicts with a prior interpretation or upends a party’s reliance on established practices.  Kisor, 139 S. Ct. at 2417-18.

Time 4 Minute Read

In June 2019, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S. Ct. 2400 (2019), which addressed the question of whether the Court should overrule the Auer doctrine, named after the 1997 Supreme Court case Auer v. Robbins. The Auer doctrine rests on the premise that agencies are in a better position than courts to interpret their own regulations. Under the doctrine, courts generally defer to an agency’s reasonable readings of its own “genuinely ambiguous” regulations. In a 5-4 decision, the Court declined to abandon the Auer doctrine on grounds of stare decisis but outlined important restrictions on the scope and applicability of the doctrine. See, e.g., Devon Energy Prod. Co., L.P. v. Gould, No. 16-CV-00161-ABJ, 2019 WL 6257793 (D. Wyo. Sept. 11, 2019) (“The Court [in Kisor] chose to restrict the Auer doctrine rather than abolish it.”); Johnson v. Starbucks Corp., No. 2:18-cv-02956, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 145900, *8 (E.D. Cal. Aug. 26, 2019) (“Kisor did not overrule Auer,” but “limited the deference afforded to an agency’s interpretation”).

Time 5 Minute Read

On June 26, 2019, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S. Ct. 2400 (2019), which presented the question of whether the Court should overrule the Auer doctrine, named after the 1997 Supreme Court case Auer v. Robbins. The Auer doctrine rests on the premise that agencies have more expertise on their own regulations and are therefore in a better position than courts to interpret them. Under the doctrine, courts generally defer to an agency’s reasonable readings of its own “genuinely ambiguous” regulations. In a 5-4 decision, the Court declined to abandon the Auer doctrine on grounds of stare decisis but outlined important limitations on the scope and applicability of that doctrine.

Time 4 Minute Read

For decades, the precise scope of the Clean Water Act’s point source permitting program has been the subject of much controversy.  Over the past several years, the question of whether that program—known as the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”)—regulates discharges to groundwater that is hydrologically connected to surface water has produced a number of conflicting decisions and a torrent of commentary and public debate.  The Fourth and Ninth Circuits recently concluded that the NPDES program regulates such discharges under certain circumstances, while the Sixth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion, setting up potential review of the issue in the United States Supreme Court.  See Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P., 887 F.3d 637 (4th Cir. 2018); Haw. Wildlife Fund v. Cty. of Maui, 886 F.3d 737 (9th Cir. 2018); Ky. Waterways All. v. Ky. Utils. Co., No. 18-5115, 2018 WL 4559315 (6th Cir. Sept. 24, 2018); Tenn. Clean Water Network v. Tenn. Valley Auth., No. 17-6155, 2018 WL 4559103 (6th Cir. Sept. 24, 2018).

Time 3 Minute Read

In April 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule governing the control and management of coal combustion residuals (CCR) in surface impoundments used to treat those residuals. In general, CCR consists of materials that result from the combustion of coal at coal-fired electric utility plants. As part of its rule, EPA required operators to submit initial closure plans for impoundments and post them on a publicly available website in November 2016. Under the rule, these initial closure plans must contain information related to the method of closure, and are subject to change as operators gather additional information.

Time 3 Minute Read

Over the past several years, the EPA and states have wrestled with the highly controversial question of how to manage ash and other residual materials produced by the combustion of coal in coal-fired power plants.  These so-called “coal combustion residuals” (“CCR”) have been traditionally managed in large man-made ponds at many power plant sites.  While discharges from these impoundments directly to surface waters are regulated by permits issued under the Clean Water Act, the impoundments themselves have been regulated under state waste management programs.  In 2015, EPA fundamentally changed the regulatory landscape for these facilities when it promulgated a federal rule setting national standards for design, operation and closure of CCR impoundments.  EPA, Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities, 80 Fed. Reg. 21,302 (Apr. 17, 2015).

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