21 March 2013

Law in Plain English: Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

The Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC) challenged a determination of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  that that stormwater runoff on logging roads was not a "point source." As a result, timber companies did not require Clean Water Act (CWA) permits. NEDC's goal was to force timber companies toget permits as a means of trying to reduce the silty runoff into forest streams.  The question before the Court was whether the CWA requires permits before stormwater runoff from logging roads can be discharged into other navigable waters; and in doing so, deciding whether the EPA's interpretation was reasonable (agencies are permitted to reasonably interpret their own regulations, and are given deference in doing so, per the Court's previous decision in Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997)). In a 7-1 decision (Justice Breyer recused himself because his brother was one of the judges who heard the case at the Court of Appeals), the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA's determination that no permits were required was a reasonable interpretation. As a result, timber companies will not be required to obtain permits for such stormwater runoff. The practical impact of this decision is that groups such as the NEDC will have to find other means to address their environmental concerns with logging.
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