Tag Archives: administrative law

A Note on the Jorjani Confirmation Hearing

The way Interior has acted under the Trump administration is the textbook definition of a political cartel, using state resources to help the special interests. And it sure looks to me like Mr. Jorjani has been a key member of the cartel.
-Senator Ron Wyden

Jorjani_ConfirmationWhen asked by Senator Manchin whether he could set aside political allegiances and provide “forthright legal analysis,” Daniel Jorjani offered assurances, but his confirmation hearing on Thursday kept circling back to the question.

Senator Cantwell said she was “trying to get an understanding of your commitment to what is the law and whether you will help follow the law. That’s the key thing I’m after.” Senator Wyden wanted the other nominee in the room, Mark Greenblatt, to give him written specifics about how as Inspector General at Interior he would maintain his independence, “and keep these political appointments”  — people “like Mr. Jorjani,” he added — “from interfering with protecting the public.”  Senator King wanted to know whether Jorjani has had any contact with people associated with Freedom Partners or the Koch Brothers since taking his post at Interior. Jorjani was not prepared to say he had not, and at the end of the hearing promised to go back and check.

When her turn came, Senator Hirono said it was “hard to believe” that Jorjani’s work for the Koch Brothers between 2009 and 2017 “does not influence [his] opinions.” She cited his M-Opinion on “incidental take,” according to which oil companies that inadvertently kill migratory birds (in a spill, for instance) will no longer face penalties or prosecution. Hirono wanted to know why Jorjani issued that opinion.

Hirono: A lot of these challenges under this law have come from, have been lawsuits involving the oil and gas industry. So who benefits most from your opinion that totally stopped prosecutions for incidental take under this law? What industry most benefits from your opinion?

Jorjani: I’m not aware of any particular industry that benefits from this. I’d like to think that he American people benefit from a restrained approach.

Hirono: Yeah, I’d like to think so too. But you cannot escape the conclusion that the people you used to work for before, the Koch Brothers, this is one of their biggest issues that they wanted to have done away with….. I would say the oil and gas industries are the biggest beneficiaries.

Senator Manchin summed up what appeared to be the skeptics’ view:

as Acting [Deputy Solicitor General] you came in and overturned 7 of the 8 [Tompkins] opinions….Those things were basically approved as the previous administration was outgoing. We found also these had been exhaustively studied and Ms. Tompkins was well regarded and following the rule of law. And in all honesty the observance I have is that basically that your political ideology overtook…the rule of law.

For his part, Jorjani made the striking claim that a directive from the president’s Chief of Staff authorized him “to review every regulation and every opinion,” including previous M-Opinions by his predecessor, Solicitor Hillary Tompkins.

The directive in question appears to be the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies issued by Reince Priebus on January 20, 2017, which put in place a Regulatory Freeze, affording Trump’s political appointees “the opportunity to review any new or pending regulations” and specifically any “questions of fact, law, and policy they raise.”

This is the first time I have heard anyone at Interior publicly and directly connect the overturning of Tompkins’ M-Opinions with this directive. Jorjani seems to have read it expansively, virtually as carte blanche.  He called it the “catalyst” for his multiple reversals of Tompkins. It now has a place on the Twin Metals timeline.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

David Bernhardt’s Briefings on the Boundary Waters Reversal

bernhardttwinmetals4oct2017.pngIt appears the FOIA department of the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of Interior has gone quiet on me, and has made it a practice if not a policy no longer to reply to emails or return phone calls about the status of my outstanding FOIA request. I should not like to think that they are giving me the cold shoulder because I published the first two batches of documents they produced, or that they are deliberately withholding or delaying the release of more documents. But with each passing day it’s getting harder to avoid a conclusion along those lines.

While trying to figure out if I’ve constructively exhausted administrative remedies pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C)(i), which would give me grounds for a legal complaint, I thought I would look at the calendar entries recently posted online by the Department of the Interior for David Bernhardt, and see what I could learn about the role he played in the Boundary Waters reversal.

Before his nomination to be Secretary of the Interior (which the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee just advanced), Bernhardt served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior under Ryan Zinke. Before that, he was the head of the energy, environment and resources division at the lobbying firm Brownstein, Hyatt, et al; he represented many oil, gas and mining companies, and it remains unclear whether, or to what extent, he has severed ties with former private sector clients.

Bernhardt has balked at the requirement that he keep an official calendar, which would at least allow the American public to see who he’s been meeting with. The closest we have are typed agendas or “daily cards,” which list appointments and calls. The agenda items offer little detail, rarely specifying the subject of a meeting. This looks like more than just laziness or negligence. Bernhardt seems to believe the rules do not or should not apply to him, and he appears to be contemptuous of administrative process, norms, and law.

Much the same can be said for the PDF of Bernhardt’s calendar entries the Department of Interior released. There was no attempt to fill or even call out gaps in the record. Pages and entries are out of chronological order, November mixed with September, 2017 with 2018. Adding to the confusion, the PDF is not searchable; it is simply an image of the daily cards. Fortunately, my friend Michael Miles was able to perform a little software magic, and — voila! — we now have a searchable version of the 439 pages of daily cards that Interior produced. It’s online here.

We knew before this that Bernhardt was scheduled to be briefed on the Twin Metals matter sometime in August of 2017. As the timeline indicates, on Sunday, August 6th, Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker forwarded a briefing paper to her colleague Jack Haugrud “about the Twin Metals litigation in preparation for a briefing with David Bernhardt.” This was probably some version of the one page briefing that Kathleen Benedetto had prepared for Ryan Zinke back in April of 2017, and which had been adapted and forwarded to the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile at around the same time, in preparation for meetings with Antofagasta’s CEO, Ivan Arriagada. Bernhardt’s briefing would have reflected the progress that the Solicitor’s office had made since that time on the effort to reverse Solicitor Tompkins’ 2016 M-Opinion, following Seth Waxman’s blueprint.

It’s difficult to say whether this August briefing ever took place. Bernhardt’s daily cards show a meeting with Kathleen Benedetto on August 28th, 2017; and Benedetto at the time was carrying the Twin Metals brief. So perhaps that’s it. The daily cards also help us establish a little context for Bernhardt’s August briefing. We can see from his calendar that Bernhardt was in constant and regular contact with Michael J. Catanzaro, who was Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy before leaving in April, 2018. Bernahrdt and Catanzaro have a weekly call; sometimes they have lunch together. No surprise, as the two men come from the same world of lobbying for oil, gas, and mining interests; but what’s interesting about their regular contact is that it establishes a clear line of communication between the White House, or the Executive Office of the President, where Catanzaro served, and the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.

The revolving door puts one powerful lobbyist in the White House and another at Interior, and the two of them get together regularly, no doubt to discuss a shared agenda.

About a week before Bernhardt met with Benedetto, on August 22nd, 2017, Catanzaro meets to discuss the “Minnesota Project” with Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani. Joining them to discuss the reversal is Stephen Vaden, an attorney from USDA. Two days after that, August 24th*, Bernhardt along with other high level Department of Interior officials hosts the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable, with the CEOs of 16 mining companies. I’m unable to determine who those 16 CEOs were, but minutes from the annual meeting of the Women’s Mining Coalition on September 1, 2017, tell us that Pershing Gold was among the invitees, and the focus of the roundtable was “how to remove barriers to critical minerals, concerted focus at high level to improve permitting conditions.” Was anyone there to talk about removing barriers to mine the Duluth Complex? The CEO of Twin Metals? Polymet? Antofagasta? Glencore? I’ll do a little more poking around to see if I can find out who the CEO attendees were, and if I can’t come up with anything, I suppose I’ll have to file yet another FOIA request.**

Among the documents already produced by Interior, the earliest reference I’ve found to the Twin Metals matter is a February 2, 2017 Information/Briefing Memorandum [page 4390] prepared by Kristin Ball, Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management, for Katherine MacGregor, who at that time was Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management. (Michael Nedd’s February 7th, 2017 email has been superseded in this regard; and it makes sense that the initiative appears to have come from MacGregor, not from Nedd. The timeline now reflects MacGregor’s role as prime mover.) In her memo, Ball notes that in the Superior National Forest area proposed for withdrawal, there are deposits of “Copper, nickel, palladium, platinum, gold, and silver” and adds, “Deposits contain critical minerals, due to technological applications.” This early memo establishes a theme that will run through Bernhardt’s arrival at Interior and culminate in the December 19, 2017 release of a new list of critical minerals by the United States Geological Service. That comes just three days before the Jorjani M-Opinion is made public. As I noted in an earlier post, emails show political appointee Gary Lawkowski recommending the Office of the Solicitor spin its December 22nd release with talking points about critical minerals.

Bernhardt was next briefed on the Boundary Waters reversal on October 4, 2017. His daily cards show the meeting at 11AM on that day. It was timely. Just one day before, Bernhardt spoke with Representative Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Republican who, along with Rick Nolan and Arizona’s Paul Gosar, has been working steadily to open the Duluth Complex to mining. This phone call now appears on the Twin Metals timeline. What Emmer and Bernhardt discussed is not specified. Gareth Rees was in the meeting, but the 10:30AM call with Emmer does not appear on his calendar [page 192], which on that day starts at 1PM. Curious that he should have omitted or forgotten to note this call with a member of Congress and the Deputy Secretary.

In any case, Bernhardt comes off that call with Emmer on Tuesday and into his Wednesday briefing equipped with three background documents: the widely circulated one page briefing and scenarios papers prepared back in April, and a July 24 BLM paper on the withdrawal. Correspondence shows that Bernhardt asks to see the 1966 and 2004 leases, along with the M-Opinion prepared by Solicitor Tompkins. It’s clear from Karen Hawbecker’s response that the focus of the discussion at this juncture are the renewal terms in the 1966 leases. Hawbecker directs him to them: Section 5, page 8.

HawbeckertoBernhardt4Oct17

Why this focus? Section 5 will be critical to a legal argument Jorjani ultimately makes in his memo, which is that according to the 1966 leases, production — actually getting a mining operation up and running — is not a precondition for renewal: “the commencement of production is…not a condition precedent to the right to a renewal.” This is another argument Jorjani borrows from Antofagasta’s lawyer Seth Waxman; and for Waxman, reading a production requirement into the 1966 leases counts as one of the “overarching errors” in Solicitor Tompkin’s M-Opinion. “Section 5 instead creates a production incentive” (cf. Jorjani page 6). As Representative Alan Lowenthal pointed out in a congressional hearing back in March, this argument may be ingenious, but it flies directly in the face of a 1966 BLM press release specifying a production requirement for renewal.

Regardless, by autumn of 2017, David Bernhardt had been briefed on the Waxman-Jorjani legal strategy. He had coordinated with Catanzaro and the White House and with Republican political operatives. He had hosted mining company CEOs behind closed doors to discuss the disposition of America’s public lands. He was fully on board.

*Bernhardt’s daily cards date this roundtable August 23rd, 2017. But Katharine MacGregor’s calendar (page 24) shows the event on the 24th, and a walk through or rehearsal of the event on the 23rd. I am inclined to trust MacGregor’s calendar over Bernhardt’s sloppily compiled cards. It is entered correctly on another Bernhardt calendar for August, 2017. Why the discrepancy?

**UPDATE, September 5, 2019: Though I have not yet received a response to my April FOIA requests regarding the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable, another request has turned up a list of attendees. Lydia Dennett’s excellent investigation of the CEO Roundtable for the Project on Government Oversight drew my attention to it. Here is the list of attendees, as of August 18, 2017:
CriticalMineralsRoundtable20190827

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here

Another Look at the Twin Metals Timeline

Rees20170502AntofagastaIn response to a FOIA request I made back in April, the Department of the Interior has released Gareth Rees’ 2017 work calendar. Rees has served as Executive Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior since George W. Bush’s first term. He did not arrive with the so-called “beachhead” teams brought in by the current administration with the express mission of sabotaging and dismantling the government agencies entrusted to their care. Still, his calendar (which I’ve put up here, on DocumentCloud) adds more pieces to the puzzle.

Rees’ calendar drew my attention to a couple of meetings I hadn’t noticed before and which are now represented on the timeline. There is a June 15, 2017 meeting at Interior with a group called Jobs for Minnesotans — a front for the building trades that is currently lobbying for both the Twin Metals project near the Boundary waters and the Polymet project to the south, near Hoyt Lakes. Jobs for Minnesotans is a 501c4 “social welfare” or dark money organization of the kind I’ve written about in connection with mining projects in Michigan and Wisconsin. As a 2016 Pro Publica report suggests, these organizations are designed for those who prefer backroom deals to sunlight. 501c4s like Jobs for Minnesotans are used to channel money from private interests into public process, and coordinate localized efforts to remove environmental protections and undo regulation through regional and national networks.

A May 2, 2017 meeting with Antofagasta plc has also been added to the timeline. This meeting brought together representatives of the Chilean conglomerate with a large group of officials at the Department of the Interior just one month after Interior appears to have taken up the matter. Apparently meeting with Antofagasta was a priority. The company’s subsidiaries Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia Minerals had sued the Department of Interior in February of 2017. The complaint makes the mining companies’ position abundantly clear. And yet administration officials seem to have been anxious to sit down with the Chilean parent company and discuss its leases. Why? (It’s not likely that the same courtesy will be extended to the ten Minnesota plaintiffs now complaining that in reinstating Antofagasta’s leases the Department of Interior exceeded its lawful authority and acted in an arbitrary and capricious way.)

The first meeting with Antofagasta, in early May, appears to have set the agenda; the second meeting with Antofagasta, on July 25th, looks as if it were called to reach an agreement. The July meeting with Antofagasta includes all Interior officials present at the May 2nd meeting as well as some important decision makers: Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management Michael Nedd, and Edward Passarelli, Deputy Chief at the Natural Resources Section of the Department of Justice.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Department of Interior worked steadily and closely behind closed doors with lobbyists and mining executives to renew Antofagasta’s mineral leases in Superior National Forest. This would conform to the general pattern at Interior under Zinke’s leadership. “A deeply problematic culture of secrecy…has taken root in the Department of the Interior,” the organization Earthjustice charges, “keeping the American public in the dark about major decisions, important records, and meetings with industry that affect the lands and resources the agency holds in trust for the American people.”

In this case, the mining company ran a full court press; the public was kept almost entirely out of the process. The deed appears to have been done well before the end of summer 2017. The legal review that would result in the Jorjani Memo of December 22nd appears to have been nothing more than an exercise in a foregone conclusion — a sham.

A Quick Update on MCRC v. EPA at the Sixth Circuit (With Several Additional Updates)

EagleTrucksAAA

Ore trucks from Eagle Mine.

I’ve been doing my best to keep track of developments in Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, the litigation over County Road 595 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. CR 595 was conceived and planned as a haul route from Eagle Mine to Humboldt Mill. From the outset, the project was a cause of public contention. As plans to cut through wilderness and destroy wetlands to build the road met with objections from the permitting authorities, the companies operating Eagle Mine — first Rio Tinto, then Lundin Mining — stayed on the sidelines, or worked quietly behind the scenes, leaving the people of Marquette County to slug it out with the federal government, and with each other.

The latest entry in the CR 595 legal saga looks like a win for the EPA, or at least a point in its favor. Last week, on Thursday, March 1, Ellen Durkee, the DOJ attorney representing the EPA, submitted a one paragraph letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit about a Ninth Circuit case called Southern California Alliance of Publicly Owned Treatment Works v. EPA. This is another piece of litigation over Section 402 of the Clean Water Act.

The plaintiff in this case was making an argument similar to that made by Mark Miller, the Pacific Legal Foundation attorney representing the Marquette County Road Commission before the Sixth Circuit: that EPA objections were tantamount to a permit denial (or what Miller insisted on calling a “veto”). If we follow Miller’s argument, the Marquette County Road Commission would have had no recourse after the EPA weighed in on its plans. In administrative legal parlance, the EPA’s objections to the Road Commission’s permit application would constitute “final agency action,” and could therefore come up for review by the court.

But in Southern California Alliance, writes Durkee, “the Ninth Circuit explained that under the statutory scheme, EPA objections are not functionally similar to a permit denial and that a challenge to EPA objections is premature.” That decision, made back in April of 2017, would seem to lend more support to the federal government’s position, that EPA objections merely constitute an “interlocutory step.” There is nothing final about them at all. So when it came to the permit application for CR 595, the Michigan DEQ still had three options: grant, deny, or do nothing. This was a point Judge White highlighted when she questioned Miller about the word “veto” during oral argument before the Sixth Circuit.

There was a new development in the Ninth Circuit case just last month, which is what prompted Durkee’s letter to the Sixth Circuit. On February 20th, the Supreme Court declined a petition to review the Ninth Circuit decision in Southern California Alliance. This means the Ninth Circuit’s ruling stands, and it might help bolster the EPA’s argument in the Sixth Circuit. It also suggests that the Supreme Court would probably not be favorably disposed toward a new petition for review on a point of administrative law it has just left up to a lower court. Miller, who has vowed publicly to take this case to the Supreme Court if the Road Commission does not prevail at the Sixth Circuit, might have to check his ambition.

Update: A Decision. On March 20th, 2018, the Sixth Circuit agreed with and affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the Road Commission’s complaint. Miller’s argument that EPA objections were tantamount to a “veto” and constituted final agency action failed to win over the three judge panel. “Though the Road Commission characterizes EPA’s objections as a ‘veto,’ the facts show that EPA’s objections did not end the Road Commission’s pursuit of a Section 404 permit. To the contrary, when EPA lodged objections, the permit review process continued precisely as directed by statute.” Given what I say here about Southern California Alliance, this looks like the end of the road.

Another Update. 9 April 2018. A story by Cecilia Brown in the Mining Journal suggests this case may take yet another turn. Dissatisfied with the March 20th decision by the three judge panel, the Road Commission is now asking for an en banc hearing at the Sixth Circuit. And if that doesn’t work out, they have “authorized” the Pacific Legal Foundation to seek review at the Supreme Court. For reasons I suggest above, I think it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will grant certiorari (or review the case). So far as I can tell from the docket, the Road Commission had not yet filed a petition with the Sixth Circuit requesting en banc review.

Yet Another Update. On May 2nd, Michael J. Patwell of Clark Hill , PLC and Mark Miller of the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition for an en banc hearing at the Sixth Circuit. This would bring the Road Commission’s case against the EPA before all the judges in the Circuit, and ask them to revisit the March 20th decision by the three judge panel.

The petition acknowledges that “this Court rarely rehears a case en banc” but then tries to argue that this case involves “an exceptionally important question of federal jurisdiction.” Oddly enough, the petition does not back down from the argument that EPA objections to the Road Commission’s permit “crystalize into what amounts to a veto” — an argument the Sixth Circuit panel met with skepticism at the hearing, then explicitly rejected in its opinion. So an en banc hearing at the Sixth Circuit would seem unlikely.

Petition for En Banc Hearing Denied, 29 May 2018. Today, Beverly L. Harris, the En Banc Coordinator for the Sixth Circuit, notified Mark Miller of the Pacific Legal Foundation that his petition for an en banc hearing has been denied. This comes as no surprise. The original three-judge panel found no fault with their decision, observing that “the issues raised in the petition were fully considered upon the original submission and decision of the case. The petition then was circulated to the full court. No judge has requested a vote on the suggestion for rehearing en banc.” As I noted back on April 9th, there are reports that the Marquette County Road Commission has authorized Miller to pursue this matter to the Supreme Court. After not a single judge took Miller up on the en banc review, it seems unlikely that the nation’s highest court would find anything irregular or meriting review here.

Mandate issued. On Thursday, 7 June 2018, the Sixth Circuit issued a mandate in MCRC v. EPA. This suggests, among other things, that Pacific Legal Foundation’s Mark Miller did not seek a stay of mandate — which he might have done were he ready to petition the Supreme Court.

MCRC v. EPA at the Sixth Circuit

mcrc_map1s

“Well, if you took all these papers,” said EPA counsel Ellen J. Durkee, referring to the various proposals put forward for CR 595, “what you’d have is their proposal in June, their proposal in July, their proposal in October, their proposal in November, their proposal in, you know, different — twice in December…. really what’s needed is they have to say…what is the proposal that they consider their application at this point.” A good review of the various proposals for the Eagle Mine haul route can be found here.

In remarks before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, Mark Miller of the Pacific Legal Foundation waved the flag of “cooperative federalism,” complained that the Environmental Protection Agency has “gone way beyond the powers that Congress gave them,” and even, at one point, raised the familiar spectre of an anti-mining conspiracy at the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

They did not want a permit here from before. In the pre-application process, there was a meeting, among the parties — not among Marquette County Road Commission, they were not invited — but the government said we are not going to approve this road project. This was a well-known proposed road project from a mine to a mill, and the EPA and the Corps wanted none of it. So that’s why it was futile factually.

Miller has elaborated on these arguments in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. As I have suggested in previous posts on Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, grandstanding arguments like these are intended to raise the profile of this dispute and make it about much more than a haul road. They have been used, repeatedly, to connect the Road Commission’s case with a larger, coordinated effort — a right-wing, dark-money political project — to sideline federal regulators in Michigan and weaken enforcement of the Clean Water Act; stifle local environmental watchdogs; and arrogate the authority and power to direct economic development in the Upper Peninsula to a set of undisclosed actors.

But on Tuesday, those arguments didn’t count for much in Miller’s presentation before the Sixth Circuit panel. At the center of the dispute is still the question whether EPA’s objections to CR 595 constitute “final agency action,” as the Road Commission claims, or if they are an “interlocutory step” (in which case, the Road Commission can still take the EPA’s objections under advisement and go back to the Corps with a proposal).

Miller claimed right off the bat, in the very first sentence of his argument, that EPA’s objections were tantamount to a “veto.” I’ve written about this argument before. On Tuesday, the judges wanted to know what exactly Miller meant by that word. “You keep saying the EPA vetoed the application for the permit,” asked one of the judges just four minutes into the proceedings. “What do you mean by that?” Ten minutes later, another Judge indicated she was still not satisfied on this point:

JUDGE: What makes it — you keep using the word veto.
MILLER: Yes, your honor.
JUDGE: But it was really objections, right?
MILLER: Your honor I think that’s a distinction without a difference because effectively here the EPA has twice said, “no, DEQ, this permit you’re ready to issue is not good enough for us.” And the reasons the EPA was giving were not within its powers to give. Then the EPA knew it was taking advantage of the statute to say well now it’s going to bounce to the Corps.

That there is no “difference” between objections and vetoes is critical to Miller’s argument for futility, which claims it would be a “farce” for the Road Commission to go back to the Corps.

When it came to her turn, Ellen Durkee, arguing for the EPA and the Army Corps, pursued the point:

I’d like to speak to this issue of this continued use of the word “veto,” because I think that that is, seems to be the critical characterization for the plaintiff’s argument here. A veto means that you cannot get a permit. In [Section] 404 [of the Clean Water Act] itself, there’s a distinction between what happens in 404j with EPA objections and a true veto, and you know they — in this case, the EPA objection gives the state opportunity to take action. And then when the state, as it did here — there’s an impasse, because they didn’t take action within the statutory time, it simply shifts the permitting authority. That is not a veto. The Corps may look at this and say we think it’s satisfactory. EPA, you know, they may come up with the provisions that they need to satisfy that, the objections, in which case they could still get a permit. What [the Road Commission] simply did was stop the process and decide not to continue.

And the word “veto” was still begging questions at the end of the proceeding, when Judge Helene N. White went back to Miller.

JUDGE; Let me just ask you this question. Once the EPA made its objections, the DEQ still had three options, correct?
MILLER: Yes your honor.
JUDGE: And they were grant, deny, or do nothing.
MILLER: In this case the DEQ threw its hands up because they could never — if they granted the permit, the landowner would have nowhere to go because the EPA made it clear it was not going to sign off on it. So they deny it and then transfer– they threw their hands up because the reasons the EPA gave were improper under the statute.
[Crosstalk.]
MILLER: Yes, your honor.
JUDGE: Ok. Did they have three options? Grant, deny, or do nothing?
MILLER: Your honor, they had the options, but ultimately once the EPA gives arbitrary and capricious objections they really had no choice.
JUDGE: But they could have said, they could have denied the permit, right? They could have said we are honoring the objections and we deny the permit.
MILLER: Right and they didn’t, your honor, respectfully they didn’t.

You can listen to the whole proceeding here, or read my (imperfect) transcript of the proceeding.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, Revisited

Judge Robert Holmes Bell dismissed the Marquette County Road Commission’s case against the EPA back in May, and last week the Road Commission’s attorneys at Clark Hill PLC filed a motion to alter and amend that judgment. They complain that the Court’s dismissal for failure to state a claim is not only mistaken on points of law but, more dramatically, it allows the “EPA and the Corps to wage a war of attrition on local governments seeking to protect the health and welfare of their people.”

I was struck by this inflammatory piece of political rhetoric about federal overreach for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s just the sort of hyperbolical language Michigan State Senator Tom Casperson and StandUP, the 501c4 dark-money organization funding the Road Commission lawsuit, have used to frame the case for County Road 595 and advance what, in a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4) last summer, I called the political project of MCRC v. EPA. Second, because the motion here tacitly admits that mining activity on the Yellow Dog Plains has put “the health and welfare” of people in Marquette County at risk. Rio Tinto and then Lundin Mining proceeded with their plans to mine copper and nickel at Eagle Mine and truck it to Humboldt Mill without a clear haul route. They not only went ahead; they were permitted by the state to do so. The risk was transferred to the public.

This is a familiar pattern, but the story it tells is not about federal overreach or intrusive oversight. Quite the opposite: it’s a story about mining companies rushing projects into production without due consideration for the communities in which they are operating, regulatory capture or lax oversight and enforcement, and elected officials who all-too-easily and all-too-conveniently forget where their real duties lie.

The June 13th motion doesn’t often have recourse to this kind of language. For the most part, the motion deals with fine points of administrative law, citing a few cases that it claims the court misread or misapplied. Probably the most important of these is the Supreme Court’s discussion of the Administrative Procedure Act in a May 2016 opinion, United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co.. (Miriam Seifter explains Hawkes over at ScotusBlog. Even with her very clear analysis in hand I can only hope to make a layman’s hash of things.)

In Hawkes, a company that mines peat for golf-putting greens — a process that pollutes and destroys wetlands — sought an appeal of “jurisdictional determinations” by the Army Corps of Engineers that wetlands on their property were subject to the Clean Water Act.

The “‘troubling questions’ the Clean Water Act raises about the government’s authority to limit private property rights” came up for some brief discussion in Hawkes, notes Seifter, but that was not the main focus of the Supreme Court opinion. The case instead revolved around the question whether jurisdictional determinations are “final,” which in this context means they constitute an action “by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.”

The Army Corps in Hawkes maintained that appeals of the Corps’ jurisdictional determinations should not be allowed, because the determinations of the Corps are still subject to review and are not “final” or binding. The court found unanimously in favor of the peat-miners, saying that determinations by the Corps were final — they would put legal constraints on the peat-miners, who would have to stop polluting or face penalties — and therefore could be reviewed in court.

In MCRC v. EPA, the Road Commission now seeks a decision along similar lines. “The Court erred,” the motion complains, “by holding that EPA’s veto was not ‘final’ because Plaintiff could submit a new application to the Corps.”

In other words, the court held that the EPA’s objections to County Road 595 weren’t the last word: they didn’t constitute “final agency action” and did not entail legal consequences or impose obligations the Road Commission didn’t already have. The Road Commission can even now take EPA’s opposition to the road under advisement, go back to the Corps and seek a new permit. They can continue to work with the EPA, whose objections to the road are “tentative and interlocutory”: there is still room for conversation.

The attorneys for the Road Commission don’t deny that the Road Commission could have gone back to the Army Corps of Engineers; but they say that it would have been time consuming, burdensome and ultimately futile, as the Corps had joined the EPA in its objections to the road, and the EPA’s objections had the effect of a veto.

This brings us back to the arguments advanced in the original complaint. The EPA didn’t just object to the Road Commission’s proposal; they unfairly vetoed the new road, in a “biased and predetermined ‘Final Decision’.” The Final Decision, according to the motion, took the form of a December 4, 2012 objection letter from the EPA to the Marquette County Road Commission, to which the Road Commission replied on December 27th. They did not receive a reply, and the EPA’s failure to reply was tantamount to a “refusal.”

The EPA’s refusal (or failure) to reply to the Road Commission’s December 27th letter indicated that their objections had “crystalize[d] into a veto,” according to the motion. “Unequivocal and definitive,” a veto is a final agency action, “akin” to jurisdictional determinations made by the Corps. What legal consequences flowed from the veto? For starters, the EPA’s Final Decision divested the state, specifically the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, of any further authority in the matter.

While this is not a new position for the Road Commission, the way the motion lays it out is nonetheless clarifying. The discussion of Hawkes, especially, brings into focus the question before the court — a question of administrative law concerning the “finality” of the EPA’s objections to CR 595. Of course that question entails others: whether the EPA’s failure to reply to the Road Commission’s letter of December 27th amounts to a refusal of the Road Commission, whether that refusal, in turn, crystalized their objections into a veto, and whether EPA vetoes are really “akin” to jurisdictional determinations by the Corps.

Stronger accusations are only being held at bay here. For example, it would be difficult to read the EPA’s failure to reply to the Road Commission’s December 27th letter as a deliberate refusal to reply without accepting the original complaint’s charges of bias and allegations of conspiracy at the EPA, or indulging its witch hunt for “anti-mining” attitudes and its demonizing of “activists.” But even if we are not willing to follow the plaintiff down that dark road, it would also be difficult, now, to overlook the serious dysfunction and administrative incompetence exposed by the Flint Water Crisis, which cost the head of EPA Region 5 her job, and which showed the world just how broken the system of environmental governance is in Michigan.