Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. U.S. E.P.A.

Decision Date04 June 1992
Docket NumberNos. 90-70671,91-70200,s. 90-70671
Citation966 F.2d 1292
Parties, 61 USLW 2015, 22 Envtl. L. Rep. 20,950 NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL, INC., Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, Respondent, Battery Council International, et al., Respondents-Intervenors.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Robert W. Adler, Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Daniel S. Goodman, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Petition for Review of a Rule Promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Before PREGERSON, FERGUSON, and O'SCANNLAIN, Circuit Judges.

FERGUSON, Senior Circuit Judge:

The Natural Resources Defense Council ("NRDC") challenges aspects of the Environmental Protection Agency's ("EPA") recent Clean Water Act storm water discharge rule. 1 NRDC argues that the deadlines contained in the rule and the scope of its coverage are unlawful under section 402(l), (p) of the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1342(l), (p). We grant partial relief.


In 1972 Congress enacted significant amendments to the Clean Water Act ("CWA"), 2 33 U.S.C. §§ 1251-1387 (1988), "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters." 33 U.S.C. § 1251(a). One major focus of the CWA is the control of "point source" pollution. A "point source" is "any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel ... from which pollutants are or may be discharged." 33 U.S.C. § 1362(14). The CWA also established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System ("NPDES"), requiring permits for any discharge of pollutants from a point source pursuant to section 402 of the CWA, 33 U.S.C. § 1342. The CWA empowers EPA or an authorized state to conduct an NPDES permitting program. 33 U.S.C. § 1342(a)-(b). Under the program, as long as the permit issued contains conditions that implement the requirements of the CWA, the EPA may issue a permit for discharge of any pollutant. 33 U.S.C. § 1342(a)(1).

This case involves runoff from diffuse sources that eventually passes through storm sewer systems and is thus subject to the NPDES permit program. See National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit Application Regulations for Storm Water Discharges; Application Deadlines, 56 Fed.Reg. 56,548 (1991). One recent study concluded that pollution from such sources, including runoff from urban areas, construction sites, and agricultural land, is now a leading cause of water quality impairment. 55 Fed.Reg. at 47,991. 3

A. Efforts to Regulate Storm Water Discharge.

Following the enactment of the CWA amendments in 1972, EPA promulgated NPDES permit regulations exempting a number of classes of point sources, including uncontaminated storm water discharge, on the basis of "administrative infeasibility," i.e., the extraordinary administrative burden imposed on EPA should it have to issue permits for possibly millions of point sources of runoff. Natural Resources Defense Council v. Costle, 568 F.2d 1369, 1372 & n. 5, 1377 (D.C.Cir.1977). NRDC challenged the exemptions. Relying on the language of the statute, its legislative history and precedent, the D.C. Circuit held that the EPA Administrator did not have the authority to create categorical exemptions from regulation. Id. at 1379. However, the court acknowledged the agency's discretion to shape permits in ways "not inconsistent with the clear terms of the Act." Id. at 1382.

Following this litigation, EPA promulgated regulations covering storm water discharges in 1979, 1980 and 1984. 56 Fed.Reg. 56,548. NRDC challenged various aspects of these rules both at the administrative level as well as in the courts.

Recognizing both the environmental threat posed by storm water runoff 4 and EPA's problems in implementing regulations, 5 Congress passed the Water Quality Act of 1987 6 containing amendments to the CWA ("the 1987 amendments"), portions of which set up a new scheme for regulation of storm water runoff. Section 402(p), as amended, established deadlines by which certain storm water dischargers must apply for permits, the EPA or states must act on permits and dischargers must implement their permits. See Appendix A. The Act also set up a moratorium on permitting requirements for most storm water discharges, which ends on October 1, 1992. There are five exceptions that are required to obtain permits before that date:

(A) A discharge with respect to which a permit has been issued under this section before February 4, 1987.

(B) A discharge associated with industrial activity.

(C) A discharge from a municipal separate storm sewer system serving a population of 250,000 or more.

(D) A discharge from a municipal separate storm sewer system serving a population of 100,000 or more but less than 250,000.

(E) A discharge for which the Administrator or the State, ... determines that the storm water discharge contributes to a violation of a water quality standard or is a significant contributor of pollutants to the waters of the United States.

CWA § 402(p)(2); 33 U.S.C. § 1342(p)(2).

Section 402(p) also outlines an incremental or "phase-in" approach to issuance of storm water discharge permits. The purpose of this approach was to allow EPA and the states to focus their attention on the most serious problems first. 133 Cong.Rec. 991 (1987). Section 402(p) requires EPA to promulgate rules regulating permit application procedures in a staggered fashion.

Responding to the 1987 amendments requiring the EPA to issue permit application requirements for storm water discharges associated with industrial activities and large municipalities, the EPA issued final rules on November 16, 1990, almost two years after its deadline ("the November 1990 rule"). 55 Fed.Reg. at 47,990. EPA issued amended rules on March 21, 1991 ("the March 1991 rule"). 56 Fed.Reg. at 12,098. It is to portions of these rules that NRDC objects.

B. Jurisdiction.

We have jurisdiction pursuant to CWA § 509(b)(1), 33 U.S.C. § 1369(b)(1). Section 509(b)(1) describes six types of actions by the EPA administrator that are subject to review in the court of appeals. Although the parties do not specify the section upon which they rely, § 509(b)(1)(F), 33 U.S.C. § 1369(b)(1)(F) allows the court to review the issuance or denial of a permit under CWA § 402, 33 U.S.C. § 1342. The court also has the power to review rules that regulate the underlying permit procedures. NRDC v. EPA, 656 F.2d 768, 775 (D.C.Cir.1981); cf. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. v. Train, 430 U.S. 112, 136, 97 S.Ct. 965, 979, 51 L.Ed.2d 204 (1977). NRDC filed timely petitions for review of the final rules at issue here pursuant to CWA § 509(b)(1), 33 U.S.C. 1369(b)(1).

C. Standing.

Any "interested person" may seek review of designated actions of the EPA Administrator. 33 U.S.C. § 1369(b)(1). This court has held that the injury-in-fact rule for standing of Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 733, 92 S.Ct. 1361, 1365, 31 L.Ed.2d 636 (1972) covers the "interested person" language. Trustees for Alaska v. EPA, 749 F.2d 549, 554 (9th Cir.1984) (adopting the analysis in Montgomery Environmental Coalition v. Costle, 646 F.2d 568, 578 (D.C.Cir.1980)). A petitioner under Sierra Club must suffer adverse affects to her economic interests or "[a]esthetic and environmental well-being." Sierra Club, 405 U.S. at 734, 92 S.Ct. at 1366. Intervenors are various industry and trade groups subject to regulation under the rules at issue. NRDC claims, inter alia, that EPA has delayed unlawfully promulgation of storm water regulations and that its regulations, as published, inadequately control storm water contaminants. NRDC's allegations and the potential economic impact of the rules on the intervenors satisfy the broad standing requirement applicable here.

A. Standard of Review.

5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A) (1988) authorizes the court to "set aside agency action ... found to be ... arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." Under this standard a court must find a "rational connection between the facts found and the choice made." Sierra Pacific Indus., 866 F.2d 1099, 1105 (9th Cir.1989) (citing Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43, 103 S.Ct. 2856, 2866, 77 L.Ed.2d 443 (1983)). The court must decide whether the agency considered the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment. Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 416, 91 S.Ct. 814, 823, 28 L.Ed.2d 136 (1971).

On questions of statutory construction, courts must carry out the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. If a statute is "silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute." Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 2782, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984). Congress may leave an explicit gap, thus delegating legislative authority to an agency subject to the arbitrary and capricious standard. Id. at 843-44, 104 S.Ct. at 2781-82. If legislative delegation is implicit, courts must defer to an agency's statutory interpretation as long as it is reasonable. Id. at 844, 104 S.Ct. at 2782. This is because an agency has technical expertise as well as the authority to reconcile conflicting policies. See id. Nevertheless, questions of congressional intent that can be answered with "traditional tools of statutory construction" are still firmly within the province of the courts. INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421, 447-48, 107 S.Ct. 1207, 1221, 94 L.Ed.2d 434 (1987).

B. EPA's Extension of Statutory Deadlines.

1. Background.

NRDC challenges EPA's extension of certain statutory deadlines in the November 1990 and March 1991 rule...

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