Geese Swimming on the Missouri River

On August 16, a federal judge in South Carolina invalidated the Trump Administration’s suspension of the rule defining “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), under the Clean Water Act. In South Carolina Coastal Conservation League v. Pruitt, the court found that the notice-and-comment opportunity supporting the Suspension Rule was too narrow and thus violated the Administrative Procedures Act. The WOTUS suspension is the latest in a series of attempts by the administration to stall implementation of Obama era regulations, none of which have met favor with the courts.

As reported here about one year ago, the Trump administration announced a two-step process to undo WOTUS. The first step was to suspend WOTUS for two years, during which a revised WOTUS rule would be developed. In the meantime, guidance on jurisdictional waters that had been issued in the 1980s by the Army Corps of Engineers would be reinstated. The public notice of the Suspension Rule requested comments only on the suspension, but not the substance of either the Obama WOTUS rule or the 1980s guidance. U.S. District Court Judge David C. Norton, a George H. W. Bush appointee, reasoned that the practical effect of the Suspension Rule is that the WOTUS rule would not apply and instead the 1980s guidance would control. The judge then noted that the definitions in the WOTUS rule and the 1980s guidance are “drastically different” and it is hard to comment on the Suspension Rule without talking about that difference. That refusal to allow comment on the substantive differences violates the notice-and-comment provisions of the APA: “An illusory opportunity to comment is no opportunity at all.” The judge therefore rejected the Trump Suspension Rule, and imposed a nationwide injunction.

What It Means

Explaining the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act has flummoxed the federal agencies and courts for decades. Far from bringing clarity, the Obama WOTUS Rule drew over one million comments and multiple judicial challenges on the merits of the rule. Initially the question was whether such challenges should be made in the U. S. district courts or the Circuit Courts of Appeal. The 6th Circuit held that the appellate courts had original jurisdiction and stayed all of the pending district court actions, but that decision was reversed earlier this year in a unanimous decision of the U. S. Supreme Court. Thus, those lower court cases can continue.

Judge Norton, in South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, was clear that he was not ruling on the merits of the WOTUS Rule, but just the procedural correctness of the Suspension Rule. In challenges on the merits, other federal courts have stayed the WOTUS Rule in 24 states. Striking down the Suspension Rule means that WOTUS remains in effect in the other 26 states. At the moment, then, about half the country is subject to the WOTUS Rule, while the other half is not. What could go wrong?