Challenging Environmental Permits

November 17, 2015.  The  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently warned the  North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) about the possible consequences of inappropriately restricting  citizen appeals of  Clean Water Act (CWA)  and Clean Air Act (CAA) permits.  For news reports  on EPA’s  letter to DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart see the N.C. Coastal Review here and the Raleigh News & Observer here. The EPA letter of October 30, 2015 expressed concern about  two recent  cases in which an administrative law judge  ruled in favor of DEQ without conducting a full hearing on the permit appeal.  In each case, the judge  concluded that conservation organizations challenging a state-issued permit failed to show the permit decision “substantially prejudiced” their rights — a threshold requirement under state law.  EPA believes the decisions conflict with federal laws and rules that guarantee the right of citizens to appeal Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act permits.  EPA noted that the conflict could jeopardize North Carolina’s delegated authority to issue federal water quality and air quality permits. This post will focus on the permitting programs involved in the cases that caught EPA’s attention   —  Clean Air Act operating permits for  large air pollutant sources  (Title V permits) and Clean Water Act wastewater discharge  permits  (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System or “NPDES” permits).

Delegation of Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act permitting.  EPA has authority to issue both Title V permits and NPDES permits, but Congress also allowed EPA to  delegate permitting authority to a state with an approved permitting program.  All 50 states have approved Title V permitting programs; 46 of the 50 states have approved NPDES permitting programs. N.C. has long had delegated permitting authority  for  both programs. Delegation gives the state some flexibility in program implementation and allows permit applicants to  interact with state rather than federal staff on permitting and enforcement issues.

Requirements for approval of a delegated program.  The  CAA, CWA  and rules adopted by EPA set  standards for state program approval.  Basically, the standards require a state program to include requirements and protections consistent with  federal law.  After initial approval, the state must continue to meet those standards; otherwise,  EPA can withdraw program approval and take over permitting in the state.  EPA’s October 30, 2015 letter concerned the requirement for state programs to provide opportunity for judicial review of permit decisions.

The federal rule on NPDES program approval, 40 CFR 123.30,  requires the state to provide an opportunity for judicial review of final permit decisions comparable to review available in federal court for a federal  NPDES permit decision. The rule goes on to say:

A State will not meet this standard if it narrowly restricts the class of persons who may challenge the approval or denial of permits (for example, if only the permittee can obtain judicial review, if persons must demonstrate injury to a pecuniary interest in order to obtain judicial review, or if persons must have a property interest in close proximity to a discharge or surface waters in order to obtain judicial review.)

A similar requirement applies to Title V permitting programs delegated to states under the Clean Air Act.  Under  40 CFR 70.4 (b)(3)(x),  a state Title V program must:

Provide an opportunity for judicial review in State court of the final permit action by the applicant, any person who participated in the public participation process provided pursuant to § 70.7(h) of this part, and any other person who could obtain judicial review of such actions under State laws.

Note that “any person who participated in the public participation process”  could mean literally  anyone who commented during the public notice and comment period before issuance of the permit.

The North Carolina cases that attracted EPA’s attention. The EPA letter mentioned two recent N.C. permit appeals —

♦   N.C. Coastal Federation, et al v. N.C. DENR, Division of Air Quality and Carolinas Cement Company LLC (appeal of the air quality permit issued to Carolinas Cement Company for a cement plant near Wilmington known as the Titan plant). In a series of three  appeals,  four conservation organizations challenged the initial air quality permit for the  Titan plant issued in 2012 and two sets of permit modifications approved in 2013.  State law allows any “person aggrieved” by a permit decision to file a petition for a hearing; the petition for hearing must include “facts tending to establish that the agency …. has deprived the petitioner of property, has ordered the petitioner to pay a fine or civil penalty, or has otherwise substantially prejudiced the petitioner’s rights”. (G.S. 150B-23). In effect, the law requires a petitioner to identify some harm.

The petitions for hearing noted that members of the four conservation organizations live, work, boat and fish  in the area  around  the Titan plant site and argued that air emissions and mercury deposition from the plant would affect their quality of life, health and recreational activities.  In each of the three cases, the administrative law judge agreed the petitioners were “persons aggrieved” by the permit decision but nevertheless ruled that petitioners failed to show the permit decision substantially prejudiced their rights.  The most recent  decision also concluded that the two earlier administrative decisions settled the question of petitioners’ failure to show substantial prejudice so the issue would not be reconsidered in the context of the last permit modification. The decision has been appealed to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

♦ Pamlico-Tar River Foundation and N.C. Coastal Federation v. N.C. DENR, Division of Water Resources and Martin Marietta Materials Inc. (appeal of an NPDES permit to discharge wastewater from a Martin Marietta quarry to Blounts Creek).   The two organizations appealing the permit submitted affidavits that the wastewater discharge would interfere with  members’ use and enjoyment of the waters of Blounts Creek for fishing and  recreation; hamper education and environmental restoration efforts undertaken by the organizations; and affect the economic interests of two organization members operating water-related businesses on Blount’s Creek.  The administrative law judge’s decision dismissed the permit appeal on the grounds that the petitioners were not “persons aggrieved” by the permit decision and had failed to show substantial prejudice to their rights. A Beaufort County superior court judge overruled this decision and sent the permit appeal back to the administrative law judge.

EPA clearly believes the restrictive decisions on standing in these cases conflict with the very broad right to judicial review of permitting decisions under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.  A DEQ  statement in response to media questions about the October 30 letter characterized the EPA concerns as a misunderstanding of state law. In each case, the judges’ rulings had come at the request of DEQ.