Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mather v. Willet Dairy

Jul 30: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, Case Nos. 07-3454 & 07-3462. The case is appealed from a judgment of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York granting summary judgment for Defendants-Appellees on all of Plaintiffs-Appellants’ claims in a suit alleging that Defendants-Appellees’ large dairy operation emitted hazardous pollutants in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The Appeals Court ruled that the Plaintiffs-Appellants, a group of neighbors, waived their claim as to any CWA violations before July 1999, that the CWA permit shield provision prohibited this action as to any claims between July 1999 and December 2006, and that Plaintiffs-Appellants’ Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)claims were prohibited under that statute’s "non-duplication provisions." Additionally, the Appeals Court said, ". . .we join other circuits in concluding that Defendants-Appellees did not need a permit to construct a stock pond on land already in use for farming under 33 U.S.C. § 1344(f)(2). Accordingly, the judgment of the District Court granting summary judgment on all of Plaintiffs-Appellants’ claims is affirmed."

Plaintiffs had brought the citizen suit claiming that Willet Dairy violated the Clean Water Act by failing to manage its animal waste and silage leachate properly, and otherwise causing environmental and public health hazards. They charged that: (1) Willet Dairy operated without a permit prior to July 1999 in violation of the CWA, (2) Willet Dairy discharged pollutants into navigable waterways after July 1999 in violation of its permit and the CWA, (3) Willet Dairy’s operations violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), and (4) Willet Dairy diverted Schaeffer Brook without a permit in violation of the CWA.

On the first charge, the Appeals Court said Appellants failed to raise this claim properly before the District Court, and therefore it was deemed it waived. Additionally, if Appellants had sufficiently argued the claim below, Willet Dairy’s failure to have a permit before July 1999 is a “wholly past violation,” which cannot be the subject of a CWA citizen suit, and the Dairy has had permit coverage under New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s general permit since July 1999.

On the second charge, the Appeals Court said the “permit shield,” embodied in 33 U.S.C. § 1342(k), protects a CWA permit holder from facing suits challenging the adequacy of its permit. The Appeals Court said, ". . .compliance with an authorized permit is deemed compliance with CWA, so as long as Willet Dairy was acting in accordance with its permit it could not be liable in a citizen suit for CWA violations.

On the third charge, the Appeals Court said, ". . . RCRA establishes a regulatory scheme for the treatment, disposal, and storage of solid and hazardous wastes. . . The RCRA also provides that '[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to apply to . . . any activity or substance which is subject to the [CWA] . . . except to the extent that such application (or regulation) is not inconsistent with the requirements of [the 10 CWA].' 42 U.S.C. § 6905(a). Appellants’ RCRA claims are based on the same activities and substances that the CWA covers.

On the last issue regarding the diversion of Schaeffer Brook to create a stock pond, which allegedly caused harm to ponds and streams on Appellants’ properties, the Appeals Court said, "This is a new issue for our Circuit and thus we write to clarify our position." The Appeals Court said in December 1999, Willet Dairy diverted the upstream reach of the Schaeffer Brook without contacting the Corps, however, when it sought a "jurisdictional determination" from the Corps on whether it needed a permit, the Corps said it did not have jurisdiction over the pond project because of the exception to Section 1344(a) that allows a party to proceed without a permit if diverting the navigable water is “for the purpose of construction or maintenance of farm or stock ponds. . . ”

However, the Appeals Court notes that there is an exception to this exemption, called the “recapture provision,” which requires a permit if the diversion project is for the purpose of bringing an area “into a use to which it was not previously subject.” Appellants contended that the diversion was for a "new" pond, and a "new" use, so the activity should fall within the "recapture provision." The Appeals Court said, "Other courts have, however, interpreted the recapture provision to mean that a party needs a permit only when it is starting a new farming operation, not when it is building a new pond to support an existing farming operation. . . We agree for substantially the reasons stated by these courts. Any other reading would make the statute incoherent. Given that Section 1344(f)(1)(C) provides a permit exemption for the construction of a stock pond, which is by definition new, that section would be rendered meaningless by an interpretation of the recapture provision that required permits for all new uses, including new ponds. Moreover, even if there was ambiguity over the scope of the recapture provision, we would give deference to the agency interpretation that the recapture provision did not apply in this instance."

Access the complete opinion (
click here).