Tag Archives: administrative law

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.