The Uses of a Water Quality Certification: Cleveland County Reservoir

September 3, 2013.  First a disclaimer: This post will be the first of  a series  on two recent decisions by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)  on water quality certifications requested under  Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.   Both  decisions  have been appealed; these posts should not be taken as legal advice to  parties  in these or other cases.

This post explains  how  Section 401  of the Clean Water Act works  and describes DENR’s decision to waive the 401 Certification for a Cleveland County reservoir project. The next  post will cover DENR’s denial of a 401 Certification for Alcoa’s hydroelectric dams on the Yadkin River. The last  post in the series will  talk about the implications of the  Cleveland County and Alcoa decisions for  DENR’s water quality certification program.  Individually, the decisions are unprecedented; together, the decisions send a very confusing message about DENR’s implementation of Section 401 of the  Clean Water Act.

First, a little background on water quality certifications. Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, an applicant for a federal license or permit that involves any discharge to navigable waters   must  provide the federal  agency with a certification that the activity  will comply with the water quality standards of the state where the project will be built.  Examples of a “discharge” include piping  wastewater  to a stream or river;  putting fill material in the water to build a structure like a dam or bulkhead; and releasing water through a hydroelectric dam.  A number of  federal permits can trigger the need for a “401 Certification”; the most common may be permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to  fill navigable waters;  permits issued under Section 10 of  the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899  for structures in navigable waters; and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses  to build or operate  hydroelectric dams.

One important thing to know about a 401 Certification: the state water quality  review does not simply duplicate the federal  permitting process.  The federal  permit decision often focuses on one part of the  project and may or may not include consideration of water quality impacts.  Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act,   the state is charged to look at all of the  activity’s   water quality impacts — including impacts beyond the scope of the federal permit — in deciding whether  the activity will meet water quality standards.  The U.S. Supreme Court  confirmed  the broad scope of a state  401 Certification  in  PUD #1 of Jefferson County v. Washington State Dept. of Environmental Quality, 114 S.Ct. 1900, 128 L.Ed.2d 716 (1994).    The state rarely stamps a 401 application “approved” as submitted. More often, the  state’s 401 Certification identifies operating conditions and mitigation measures needed to prevent  a water quality violation. The federal permit then incorporates  the state’s water quality conditions and mitigation requirements.

Cleveland County Reservoir.   Cleveland County has been  trying to get a  Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to  dam the First Broad River and create a reservoir since at least 2005.  To  issue a  Section 404 permit,   the Corps of Engineers has to find that there is no less environmentally damaging alternative that can  meet the project’s intended purpose. Cleveland County has  argued that the reservoir project is necessary to supply drinking water for the county, but the  Corps of Engineers has not been persuaded that a reservoir is the least environmentally damaging alternative.  There appear to be other drinking water sources available to Cleveland County —  including the purchase of water from existing water systems with excess supply.

The Corps expressed  concerns about the Cleveland County reservoir project from the beginning, but entered into an agreement with the county describing how a  federal permit application would be processed.  An early step would have to be preparation of an Environmental Impact  Statement (EIS) in consultation with the Corps of Engineers to satisfy  the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Since 2005,  little progress has been made on the federal permit application and EIS, but in late April Cleveland County sent DENR’s Division of Water Quality an application for a 401 Certification for the reservoir project.

Soon after receiving the Cleveland County  application on May 2, DENR’s water quality  staff  concluded that the application was incomplete; among other things, the application  did not identify mitigation  for stream and wetland impacts.  The state also has an  environmental  law  similar to NEPA.   The state Environmental Policy Act (SEPA)  requires an  EIS before  a state agency approves a project involving: 1. expenditure of public money or use of public land; and 2. the potential for significant impacts on the environment.  See N.C.G.S. 113A-4.  Although the Cleveland County reservoir project met all of the SEPA triggers,  the county did not submit an EIS with the permit application –another reason to find the application incomplete.  (Usually,  the state and federal reviews  are  coordinated so a single  EIS can be used for both. )

Although water quality staff  decided that the Cleveland County application was incomplete,  DENR  did not notify  Cleveland County of deficiencies in the application. On the other hand, DENR    did not  acknowledge the application as complete and  publish  notice of the application as required under federal law. After the  early  exchange  of emails among DENR staff about the incomplete application,  radio silence (at least in terms of email communication) for several weeks. Then, on  July 2, 2013 the new  director of DENR’s reorganized water programs, Tom Reeder,  sent a letter  to Cleveland County  waiving the requirement for a 401 Certification on the reservoir project. The letter gave one reason: under state rules, DENR  must act on an application for a  401 Certification within 60 days or the certification is waived. (See 15A NCAC 02H.0507.

You can find  DENR documents on the Cleveland County reservoir project, including the waiver letter,   here. (Be prepared to try  the link more than once; the connection sometimes sends an error message.)

Several things about DENR’s decision on the Cleveland County 401 Certification:

—  DENR has always interpreted the  60-day time period in state rules as  starting when DENR receives a complete application for the 401 Certification and in this case it seems clear that the Cleveland County application was not complete.

— The Clean Water Act  only assumes the 401 Certification has been waived if the state fails to act within  one year after receiving a 401 application.

— Starting the review time based on an incomplete application is inconsistent with DENR’s past interpretation of the rule and inconsistent with DENR’s  application of the rule to other projects currently under review.

— Given the inconsistency with past interpretation, current practice  and the absence of any effort to put the Cleveland County application through a normal 401 Certification review,  DENR seems to have made a deliberate decision to waive the state’s 401 authority for this particular project. The waiver did not happen by operation of  either state or federal law.

—  A deliberate waiver of a 401 Certification appears to have  no precedent in the N.C. water quality program and means the state has  forfeited the opportunity to influence permit conditions and  mitigation requirements for the Cleveland County reservoir project to protect water quality.

—  Other applicants will  question the  criteria for  a state waiver of the 401 Certification.  (The City of Raleigh, which has also proposed a controversial reservoir project, has already asked for a copy of the Cleveland County waiver letter.) Unfortunately, the waiver letter raises more questions than it answers, since it cites the 60-day rule to waive the 401 Certification for an incomplete application.

On August 21, 2013, Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sent a letter asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  to designate the  area  of the First Broad River in Cleveland County proposed for reservoir construction as unsuitable under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Since then, SELC has filed an appeal of the state’s waiver of the 401 Certification on behalf of American Rivers.

2 thoughts on “The Uses of a Water Quality Certification: Cleveland County Reservoir

  1. Parker Chesson

    Robin, good job on making a complex subject understandable. I think it is obvious where this train is going. It will careen off the track…hopefully sooner rather than later.

  2. Pingback: The Uses of a Water Quality Certification: Alcoa | SmithEnvironment Blog

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