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11/16/77 Natural Resources Defense v. Douglas M. Costle

November 16, 1977

NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL, INC

v.

DOUGLAS M. COSTLE, ADMINISTRATOR, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, ET AL., NATIONAL FOREST PRODUCTS ASSOCIATION, APPELLANT; NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL, INC., ETC.

v.

DOUGLAS M. COSTLE, ADMINISTRATOR, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

AGENCY, ET AL.; NATIONAL MILK PRODUCERS FEDERATION, APPELLANT; NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL, INC., ETC

v.

DOUGLAS M. COSTLE, ADMINISTRATOR, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, ET AL., APPELLANTS; NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE

COUNCIL, INC

v.

DOUGLAS M. COSTLE, ADMINISTRATOR, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, COLORADO RIVER WATER



UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

CONSERVATION DISTRICT, Appellant

Nos. 75-2056, 75-2066, 75-2067, 75-2235 1977.CDC.256

Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (D.C. Civil 1629-73).

APPELLATE PANEL:

Bazelon, Chief Judge, Leventhal and MacKinnon, Circuit Judges. Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge Leventhal. Concurring Opinion filed by Circuit Judge MacKinnon.

DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE LEVENTHAL

In 1972 Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments [hereafter referred to as the "FWPCA" or the "Act"1]. It was a dramatic response to accelerating environmental degradation of rivers, lakes and streams in this country. The Act's stated goal is to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into the Nation's waters by 1985. This goal is to be achieved through the enforcement of the strict timetables and technology-based effluent limitations established by the Act.

The FWPCA sets up a permit program, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System , as the primary means of enforcing the Act's effluent limitations.2 At issue in this case is the authority of the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to make exemptions from this permit component of the FWPCA.

Section 402 of the FWPCA, 33 U.S.C. § 1342 (Supp. V 1975), provides that under certain circumstances the EPA Administrator "may . . . issue a permit for the discharge of any pollutant" notwithstanding the general proscription of pollutant discharges found in § 301 of the Act. 33 U.S.C. § 1311 (Supp. V 1975). The discharge of a pollutant is defined in the FWPCA as "any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source" or "any addition of any pollutant to the waters of the contiguous zone or the ocean from any point source other than a vessel or floating craft." 33 U.S.C. § 1362(12) (Supp. V 1975). In 1973 the EPA Administrator issued regulations that exempted certain categories of "point sources" of pollution from the permit requirements of § 402.3 The Administrator's purported authority to make such exemptions turns on the proper interpretation of § 402.

A "point source" is defined in § 502(14) as "any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged."4

The 1973 regulations exempted discharges from a number of classes of point sources from the permit requirements of § 402, including all silvicultural point sources; all confined animal feeding operations below a certain size; all irrigation return flows from areas of less than 3,000 contiguous acres or 3,000 noncontiguous acres that use the same drainage system; all nonfeedlot, nonirrigation agricultural point sources; and separate storm sewers containing only storm runoff uncontaminated by any industrial or commercial activity.5 The EPA's rationale for these exemptions is that in order to conserve the Agency's enforcement resources for more significant point sources of pollution, it is necessary to exclude these smaller sources of pollutant discharges from the permit program.

The National Resources Defense Council, Inc. sought a declaratory judgment that the regulations are unlawful under the FWPCA. Specifically, NRDC contended that the Administrator does not have authority to exempt any class of point source from the permit requirements of § 402. It argued that Congress in enacting §§ 301, 402 of the FWPCA intended to prohibit the discharge of pollutants from all point sources unless a permit had been issued to the discharger under 402 or unless the point source was explicitly exempted from the permit requirements by statute. The District Court granted NRDC's motion for summary judgment. It held that the FWPCA does not authorize the Administrator to exclude any class of point sources from the permit program. NRDC v. Train, 396 F. Supp. 1393 (D.D.C. 1975). The EPA has appealed to this court. It is joined on appeal by a number of defendant-intervenors, National Forest Products Association , National Milk Producers Federation , and the Colorado River Conservation District.6

This case thus presents principally a question of statutory interpretation. EPA also argues that even if Congress intended to include the pertinent categories in the permit program, the regulations exempting them should be upheld on a doctrine of administrative unfeasibility, i.e., the regulations should be upheld as a deviation from the literal terms of the FWPCA that is necessary to permit the Agency to realize the principal objectives of the Act. I. LEGISLATIVE HISTORY

The principal purpose of the FWPCA is "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters."7 The Act's ultimate objective, to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, is to be achieved by means of two intermediate steps. As of July 1, 1977, all point sources other than publicly owned treatment works were to have achieved effluent limitations that require application of the "best practicable control technology."8 These same point sources must reduce their effluent discharges by July 1, 1983, to meet limitations determined by application of the "best available technology economically achievable" for each category of point source.9

The technique for enforcing these effluent limitations is straightforward. Section 301(a) of the FWPCA provides:

Except as in compliance with this section and sections 302, 306, 307, 318, 402, and 404 of this Act, the discharge of any pollutant by any person shall be unlawful.10

Appellants concede that if the regulations are to be valid, it must be because they are authorized by § 402; none of the other sections listed in § 301(a) afford grounds for relieving the exempted point sources from the prohibition of § 301.11

Section 402 provides in relevant part that the Administrator may, after opportunity for public hearing, issue a permit for the discharge of any pollutant, or combination of pollutants, notwithstanding section 301(a), upon condition that such discharge will meet either all applicable requirements under sections 301, 302, 306, 307, 308, and 403 of this Act, or prior to the taking of the necessary implementing actions relating to all such requirements, such conditions as the Administrator determines are necessary to carry out the provisions of this Act.

The NPDES permit program established by § 402 is central to the enforcement of the FWPCA. It translates general effluent limitations into the specific obligations of a discharger. As this court noted in NRDC v. Train, 166 U.S. App. D.C. 312, 315, 510 F.2d 692, 695 (1975), the Act "relies primarily on a permit program for the achievement of effluent limitations . . . to attain its goals." The comments in floor debates of Senator Muskie, the leading Congressional sponsor of the Act, makes this clear.12

The appellants argue that § 402 not only gives the Administrator the discretion to grant or refuse a permit, but also gives him the authority to exempt classes of point sources from the permit requirements entirely. They argue that this interpretation is supported by the legislative history of § 402 and the fact that unavailability of this exemption power would place unmanageable administrative burdens on the EPA.

Putting aside for the moment the appellants' administrative unfeasibility argument, we agree with the District Court that the legislative history makes clear that Congress intended the NPDES permit to be the only means by which a discharger from a point source may escape the total prohibition of § 301(a). This intention is evident in both Committee Reports. In discussing § 301 the House Report stressed:

Any discharge of a pollutant without a permit issued by the Administrator under section 318, or by the Administrator or the State under section 402 or by the Secretary of the Army under section 404 is unlawful. Any discharge of a pollutant not in compliance with the conditions or limitations of such a permit is also unlawful.13

The Senate Report echoed this interpretation:

[Section 301] clearly establishes that the discharge of pollutants is unlawful. Unlike its predecessor program which permitted the discharge of certain amounts of pollutants under the conditions described above, this legislation would clearly establish that no one has the right to pollute - that pollution continues because of technological limits, not because ...


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