Recently in Department of Ecology Category

Bully for Biomass: Washington Supreme Court Rejects Greenhouse Gas Claims, Upholds Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact for Biomass Facility

February 27, 2014

The Washington Supreme Court today rejected claims that the potential for greenhouse gas ("GHG") from a biomass facility triggers the requirement to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement under Washington's State Environmental Protection Act ("SEPA"). Today's decision promises to greatly simplify the permitting process for projects planning to use woody biomass and should help clarify how GHG emissions are treated for biomass-fired facilities, a question that has bedeviled courts and regulators in other contexts. PT Air Watchers et al. v. State of Washington et al., No. 88208-8 (issued Feb. 27, 2014).

The controversy arose from Port Townsend Paper Company's plans to modernize the boiler at its paper mill by increasing the use of woody biomass to fuel the boiler, increase the boiler's firing efficiency, and adding a 25 megawatt generator to produce electricity. The paper company prepared a SEPA "checklist" in accordance with WAC 197-11-960. The checklist concluded that, because the project would reduce burning of fossil fuels by burning woody biomass instead, it would produce a net reduction in GHG emissions. The Department of Ecology agreed, concluding that no EIS was required because the project would not produce significant environmental impacts. A coalition of local environmental groups challenged this finding, but the challenges were rejected both in an administrative appeal and by the reviewing courts. The Washington Supreme Court accepted review and today affirmed Department of Ecology's finding that no significant environmental impacts requiring preparation of an EIS would result from the project.

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Ninth Circuit Denies Rehearing in Greenhouse Gas Case, Continues to Struggle With Standing in Climate Litigation

February 13, 2014

A recent order of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit illustrates the extent to which courts continue to struggle with otherwise routine legal issues when confronting claims related to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. The order denies rehearing of last year's Ninth Circuit panel decision in Washington Environmental Council v. Bellon, which concluded that a group of environmental plaintiffs seeking to force the Washington Department of Ecology to issue greenhouse gas regulations lacked standing to bring the claim.

The rehearing order was unusual in several respects. Ordinarily, a dissatisfied party to the case seeks rehearing and, in nearly all cases, rehearing is denied in a short order simply noting that an insufficient number of judges supported the request for rehearing. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Ninth Circuit's order is that it arose from a Ninth Circuit judge seeking rehearing, rather than from one of the parties. This suggests that at least some of the Ninth Circuit's judges view the October panel opinion as not just incorrect, but so seriously wrong that the Court should re-examine the decision even in the absence of any request to do so by the losing parties. The order is also unusual in that it included two impassioned opinions alternatively defending and attacking the October panel opinion.

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Minimum Streamflows: Washington Supreme Court Rejects Claim of Broad Authority to Override Minimum Streamflow Requirements

October 3, 2013

The Supreme Court of Washington today issued an opinion sharply limiting the Department of Ecology's authority to limit minimum streamflow requirements to serve "overriding considerations of the public interest." Today's decision, arising from a long-running conflict concerning minimum streamflows on the Skagit River, finds that this statutory language is "very narrow" and Ecology can override minimum streamflows only in "extraordinary circumstances." The Court therefore rejects Ecology's conclusion that it is authorized to make exceptions to minimum flow requirements on a demonstration that net economic benefits will result. As a result, it will be much more difficult for Ecology to accommodate new water withdrawals to support economic development in those basins where withdrawal limits imposed by minimum streamflows have been reached. (Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Department of Ecology, No. 87672-0 (issued Oct. 3, 2013)).

In 1969, the legislature adopted a minimum streamflow statute authorizing Ecology to implement minimum streamflows to protect fish, wildlife, water quality, and aesthetic values of the state's streams and rivers. A minimum streamflow is functionally equivalent to any other water right in that it is subject to the venerable "first in time, first in right" principle of Western water law. That is, water users with rights arising after the minimum streamflow is established cannot withdraw water if the withdrawal would impair the minimum streamflow. Today's Supreme Court decision defines the scope of Ecology's authority to authorize water withdrawals that conflict with minimum streamflows "only in those situations where it is clear that overriding considerations of the public interest will be served." RCW 90.54.020(3)(a).

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Fish Hatcheries, the Federal Reclamation Act, and State Water Law: Ninth Circuit Rejects Lawsuit, Reaffirming Primacy of State Water Law

September 11, 2013

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today rejected a claim brought by environmental advocates who asserted that the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery has been operating illegally because it has not obtained permits to divert water as required under Washington law. While the decision leaves the door ajar for the environmental advocates to pursue their claims in state forums, the decision strongly reinforces the long-held principle that federal reclamation facilities must abide by state law governing water rights. Wild Fish Conservancy v. Jewell, No. 10-3503 (issued Sept. 11, 2003).

The central question raised by the environmental plaintiffs is weather the Leavenworth hatchery, which was constructed to mitigate for damage to fisheries caused by construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, is required by Section 8 of the Reclamation Act of 1902 to obtain water rights under Washington law before it can divert water from Icicle Creek. Icicle Creek is a major tributary of the Wenatchee River, which, in turn, is a major tributary of the Columbia River. Reflecting a long-held tenet of federal policy that federal projects should generally comply with state water law, Section 8 requires the federal government to "proceed in conformity" with state water law and also includes strong language protecting the water rights of landowners, appropriators, government entities, and others established under state law. The court rejected the environmental plaintiffs' claim, concluding that the plaintiffs lacked standing. While standing decisions often leave the substantive question unaddressed, the court's reasoning in today's case reinforces the primacy of state law under Section 8. The decision therefore is likely to prove significant for federal facilities constructed under the Reclamation Act, as well as for facilities subject to other federal statutes containing language similar to Section 8. These include, among many others, Section 27 of Federal Power Act (16 U.S.C. Sec. 812) and Section 10(h) of the Northwest Power Act (16 U.S.C. Sec. 839g(h).

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Washington Supreme Court: Water Pollution Control Act Covers Non-Point Pollution, Takings Claim Rejected

August 15, 2013

The Washington Supreme Court today issued an opinion reading the state's Water Pollution Control Act ("WPCA") broadly to cover non-point sources and concluding that the Washington Department of Ecology ("Ecology") is authorized to issue orders to control non-point sources even without definitive proof that the non-point source is a direct cause of water pollution. The Court also rejected a claim of an unconstitutional "taking" for lack of a sufficient evidence. The opinion substantially strengthens Ecology's hand in dealing with non-point sources, and may result in stronger enforcement action aimed at, for example, requiring landowners to implement "Best Management Practices" to help control non-point pollution. (Lemire v. State of Washington, Dept. of Ecology, No. 87703-3 (issued Aug. 15 2013)).

The case arises from a lengthy dispute between Ecology and Columbia County rancher Joseph Lemire concerning pollution in Pataha Creek, which runs through Lemire's property. Ecology identified Pataha Creek as polluted under the state's water quality assessment, which is required under the federal Clean Water Act. In a 2003 evaluation of Columbia County's watersheds, Ecology and the Columbia Conservation District identified conditions on Lemire's ranch that were detrimental to water quality. These included, for example, overgrazing, damage to riparian vegetation, and excrement in the riparian zone, which Ecology believes likely contributed to high water temperatures, reduced dissolved oxygen, damage to aquatic life, and the presence of pathogens in the water. To remedy these problems, Ecology recommended measures such as construction of fences to exclude cattle from the riparian zone and off-stream watering troughs. Eventually, after unsuccessfully negotiations with Lemire, Ecology ordered him to implement these measures, relying on the WPCA to justify its action.

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Please Join Us June 6 in Tacoma for Re-Using Contaminated Lands Conference

May 16, 2013

We invite you to join us June 6 in Tacoma for a conference entitled "Re-Using Contaminated Land: Transactions & Technologies." The conference will address the legal and technical aspects of "brownfields" development. Gordon Thomas Honeywell is proud to be a premiere sponsor of the conference. The agenda and other information is available here.

Gov. Inslee Fills Key Energy and Natural Resource Positions With A Mix of Insiders and Experienced Government Hands

February 12, 2013

With this week's announcement that David W. Danner has been appointed the new Chairman of the Washington Utilities & Transportation Commission ("UTC"), Washington Governor Jay Inslee has completed the slate of key positions influencing energy and natural resources policy in the state. The key appointments are a mixture of long-time Inslee confidants and individuals with long experience in state government.

Mr. Danner is typical of Inslee appointees who have worked for many years in Washington state government. Mr. Danner has served since 2005 as the Executive Director of the UTC. Prior to that, he served as Gov. Gary Locke's policy advisor on energy and environmental issues, and served on the State's Pollution Control Hearings Board and Shoreline Hearings Board. Mr. Danner will fill the seat recently vacated by Commissioner Patrick Oshie. He will replace Jeff Goltz as UTC Chair, although Commissioner Goltz will continue to serve on the UTC along with Commissioner Phil Jones.

Other key appointments include:

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