Tag Archives: Pacific Legal Foundation

A Quick Update on MCRC v. EPA at the Sixth Circuit

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.

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.

Will Pruitt Retreat From the Yellow Dog Plains?

It’s no coincidence that the Marquette County Road Commission announced that it would renew the battle for County Road 595 just as the U.S. Senate geared up to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA.

CR 595 seemed like a lost cause after Judge Robert Holmes Bell denied a motion to alter or amend his dismissal of MCRC v. EPA back in December. (I wrote about that motion here). But if the election of Trump and his nomination of Pruitt can change the outlook for big mining projects like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, it can certainly help the MCRC build a haul road for Lundin Mining through the Yellow Dog wilderness.

A federal mediator is now scheduled to hear from both sides on March 9th. The appeal will go forward in the event the parties cannot agree.

The Pacific Legal Foundation — which now represents the MCRC — is clearly well equipped to appeal Bell’s decision. The libertarian-leaning PLF are even more likely than their Clark Hill predecessors to grandstand about federal overreach and economic self-determination. As I’ve tried to suggest in other posts (e.g., here or here), that’s cynical posturing: in this case a victory for the Road Commission will amount to ceding economic development authority to a Canadian mining company and its local proxies.

But libertarian huffing and puffing will not be what makes the Pacific Legal Foundation especially formidable. The PLF argued, and won, the Hawkes decision — which, as I explained in previous post, allowed the plaintiffs to challenge a ruling that wetlands on their property were subject to the Clean Water Act — and they regard Judge Bell’s rejection of the Hawkes decision in the CR 595 case as “a legally reversible error.” Indeed, the PLF are already advertising the Marquette County Road Commission’s case on their blog as “Hawkes Come to Michigan.”

And after today’s confirmation of Pruitt, the PLF will likely have have a much less formidable opponent in the EPA. The decision to go forward with this appeal clearly took that into account. Hawkes may not need to come to Michigan at all. Pruitt might just order the EPA to retreat.

Update, 24 August 2017: New briefs recently filed with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals show the Road Commission asking to present oral arguments in this case.

The case turns on three points: whether EPA objections constitute “final agency action” and are therefore subject to judicial review (a claim I explored here); failing that first condition, judicial review might be warranted under Leedom v. Kyne (which provides an exception to the final agency action rule when an agency’s conduct is “a readily-observable usurpation of power,” but the court has already ruled that the Leedom exception does not apply in this case); failing on those scores, the Road Commission wants to invoke a “futility exception” in order to bring the case under judicial review: the Army Corps of Engineers, they say, had already decided against County Road 595, and there was no point in returning to the permit process. But as the EPA notes in its 8 August response, this is speculative on the part of the Road Commission.

The larger issue here — which helps put the MCRC case in context — is that this ongoing litigation concerns a provision of the Clean Water Act, Section 404, which covers permits issued to discharge dredged or fill materials into the waters of the United States. Since stepping into his role at EPA, Scott Pruitt has been leading the charge to rescind the Obama-era definition those waters, revert to an earlier (pre-2015) definition, and make enforcement of the Clean Water Act more favorable to industries like mining.  If MCRC v. EPA continues to make its way through the courts, the case could easily become caught up in the toxic politics of Pruitt’s tenure at EPA.

Update, 17 October 2017: Oral argument is now scheduled for Tuesday, 5 December, before a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 15 October Detroit News op-ed, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Mark Miller argues EPA should “immediately” retreat, to deliver on Trump’s campaign promises and “send a signal to the EPA bureaucrats.” It would appear that the Marquette County Road Commission is being enlisted in what a recent episode of Frontline calls the “War on the EPA” and the larger political project to dismantle the administrative state.