Georgia-Pacific West v NEDC: a good case for certiorari

Court-watchers are wondering if Thursday, June 21, will see the release of Supreme Court rulings on Obamacare or Arizona’s laws against illegal aliens. There’s another important decision that the Court almost certainly make on Thursday: whether to grant certiorari in Georgia-Pacific West v. Northwest Environment Defense Center.  (All the relevant documents are here, on Scotusblog.) Jonathan Adler blogged about it earlier today.

The Georgia-Pacific case involves a complex question of environmental law and regulatory deference, but its economic impact is enormous. In short: the federal Clean Water Act requires that most types of “point source” discharges of pollutants into waters can be allowed if the point source has discharge permit. A classic point source is a sewage discharge pipe from a factory or a municipality, that discharges into a river.

Federal law has separate controls for “non-point source” discharges of pollutants into waters. For example, if pesticides that are sprayed on a golf course run off into a river, that would be a non-point source of water pollution. In practice, most non-point sources involve farming, ranching, forestry and so on. The EPA has particular regulations for run off from such sites.

Now suppose that someone builds a logging road. There road itself is not a “pollution.” in any normal sense of the word. It’s just made of natural dirt and travel. Rainwater falls on the road, and runs off the road. For many roads, some of the rainwater run-off might eventually end up in a ditch or culvert, and the ditch or culvert might lead to a stream or lake. (The ditch or culvert helps reduce erosion.) Is the the ditch or culvert therefore a “point source” that requires a Clean Water Act discharge permit?

The EPA’s answer has always been “no.”  EPA regulations in 1976 said so explicitly. In 1987, the Clean Water Act was amended to require point source permits for stormwater runoff “associated with industrial activity”. CWA section 402(p). In writing regulations to implement the 1987 amendments, the CWA correctly decided the runoff of natural, unpolluted water from logging roads is not covered by section 402(p). One of the reasons that this is correct is that CWA definition of “point source” expressly excludes “agricultural stormwater discharges.”

However, the 9th Circuit’s decision in Georgia-Pacific held the EPA regulations invalid. 640 F.3d 1063. This creates a direct circuit split with the 8th Circuit’s Newton County Wildlife Association v. Rogers, 141 F.3d 803. If the 9th Circuit decision stands, it will essentially shut down logging within the enormous territory of the Circuit. If the 9th Circuit is right, then discharge permits are necessary not only for new roads, but for existing roads–and on private land as well as public land. Obtaining a permit can take years, and the permitting process offers many opportunities for anti-logging activists to monkey wrench and delay. If you wanted to destroy the American timber business, the 9th Circuit’s Georgia-Pacific decision is the perfect tool.

Last December, the Supreme Court asked the Solicitor General for a brief regarding Georgia-Pacific’s cert. petition. The brief agrees with petitioners (and their amici, including the majority of states Attorneys General) that the Ninth Circuit was wrong. However, the SG urged the Court not to take the case, because the EPA says it is writing new regulations which will supposedly fix the problem.

In my view, the Court should grant the petition. First, the Court should determine whether or not the Clean Water Act itself can even plausibly be read to give EPA power over rainwater runoff from logging roads.  This a very important issue for which the nation needs a definite answer.

Second, in order to give the Court time to act, Congress enacted an appropriations rider forbidding enforcement of the new permitting requirement under the Georgia-Pacific theory. (And since EPA can’t issue permits, private plaintiffs cannot sue to compel road owners to either obtain permits or shut down the road.) But the ban expires on September 30. (That the Solicitor General took have a year to file a cert. amicus brief prevented the case from possibly being heard on the merits this spring.) Because of the time necessary for Notice and Comment for EPA rulemaking, the new EPA regulation cannot possibly be operative before the litigation freeze expires.

Besides that, if the 9th Circuit is correct, then EPA “cannot” make the regulatory choice not to require discharge permits for logging roads. Thus, EPA’s new rule will itself the subject of further litigation. As long as the 9th Circuit’s panel decision in Georgia-Pacific remains valid, EPA will have to write a regulation complying with it, and so it seems inevitable that a huge number of logging roads will be requires to get point source discharge permits.

If cert. were granted, then the 9th Circuit (or failing that, the Supreme Court) should issue a stay for enforcement of Georgia-Pacific.

Even without a stay, if the Court granted cert., the grant itself would deter many private lawsuits brought under the Georgia-Pacific theory. If suits were brought, most lower courts would probably decide not to issue preliminary injunctions, and not to let the suits move forward, until the Supreme Court decided the case.

As the amicus briefs for the cert. petition explicate, the damage caused by Georgia-Pacific would be enormous. Although Georgia-Pacific involves issue of Chevron/Auer deference (including the question of whether EPA’s regulation is ambiguous), the more fundamental question is whether Congress, when enacting the Clean Water Act in 1972 (and then amending it in 1987), and setting up an intensive and strict system of permitting for waste pipes from factories, sewage pipes, and other point sources, meant for that very same system to apply to hundreds of thousands of miles of logging roads.  It is implausible to believe that Congress intended to wipe out the timber business, and to destroy the network of hundreds of thousands of logging roads which are used every day by hunters, other outdoor recreationists, farmers, and ranchers. Certainly any proposal in Congress to impose such far-reaching, harmful legislation would have engendered extensive debate.

Congress did not enact such a foolish law, nor did it give EPA the discretion to do so (in whole or in part) by regulation. It is time for the Supreme Court to say so, with finality.