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.