The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) have proposed a new rule defining the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The proposal sets forth several categories of waters to be included in the definition as well as established waters that are subject to the Act. This proposed rule was made in light of the Supreme Court cases in U.S. v. Riverside Bayview, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Rapanos v. United States –– regarding the determination of which streams and which wetlands were subject to the Clean Water Act protection.

The goal behind the proposed rule is to minimize the number of case-by-case determinations of which waters are protected under the Act; namely on the category of waters referred to as “other waters.” The agencies propose to define waters of the United States to mean:

  • All waters which are currently used, were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including all waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  • All interstate waters, including interstate wetlands;
  • The territorial seas;
  • All impoundments of a traditional navigable water, interstate water, the territorial seas or a tributary;
  • All tributaries of a traditional navigable water, interstate water, the territorial seas or impoundment;
  • All waters, including wetlands, adjacent to a traditional navigable water, interstate water, the territorial seas, impoundment or tributary; and
  • On a case-specific basis, other waters, including wetlands, provided that those waters alone, or in combination with other similarly situated waters, including wetlands, located in the same region, have a significant nexus to a traditional navigable water, interstate water or the territorial seas.

The proposed rule states that the term “significant nexus” means that a water, including wetlands, either alone or in combination with or similarly situated waters in the region, significantly affects the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of a jurisdictional water body. For an effect to be significant, it must be more than speculative or insubstantial. Other waters, including wetlands, are similarly situated when they perform similar functions and are located sufficiently close together or sufficiently close to a “water of the United States” so that they can be evaluated as a single landscape unit with regard to their effect on the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of a protected water.

The proposed rule also excludes specified waters from the definition of “waters of the United States.” Some of these exclusions are:

  • Waste treatment systems, including treatment ponds or lagoons, designed to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
  • Prior converted cropland. Notwithstanding the determination of an area’s status as prior converted cropland by any other Federal agency, for the purposes of the Clean Water Act the final authority regarding Clean Water Act jurisdiction remains with the EPA.
  • Ditches that are excavated wholly in uplands, drain only uplands, and have less than perennial flow.
  • Ditches that do not contribute flow, either directly or through another water, to a traditional navigable water, interstate water, the territorial seas or a jurisdictional impoundment;
  • Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems

Some believe the proposed rule simplifies the process of determine what waters are considered jurisdictional waters, and thereby protected by the CWA. However, others believe the proposed rule could potentially broaden what types of “other waters” next to “waters of the U.S.” are considered jurisdictional. Perhaps the more important question is, will federal courts suddenly be over flooded with new CWA cases? This debate will only be settled over time.

 

Guest blogger Krystin Frazier is an attorney in the New Orleans office of King, Krebs & Jurgens focusing on environmental, toxic tort, and oil & gas matters. She is admitted to practice law in Louisiana.

 

Oil Spill on the Mississippi River

The Coast Guard patrols a safety zone around a partially sunken barge. The motor vessel Tintomara and the tugboat Mel Oliver collided in the Mississippi River in New Orleans spilling approximately 419,286 gals.of number six fuel oil. 

 

(AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard – Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas M. Blue)

A judge’s recent decision on where legal liability lies for a maritime accident which released thousands of gallons of oil into the Mississippi River illustrates the benefits of being proactive in vetting operator quality when chartering vessels. The case involved a July 2008 collision near New Orleans between an oil barge and the vessel TINTOMARA. The collision damaged the ship and resulted in the barge splitting, sinking and spilling 282,000 gallons of oil into the river. The oil barge and her tug were both owned by American Commercial Lines (ACL). However, ACL had bareboat chartered its tug to DRD Towing, who in turn time chartered the tug back to ACL.

In Gabarick, et al. v. Laurin Maritime (America) Inc., et al., Case No. 08-04007, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana found that the collision was caused solely by the negligence and statutory violations of the tug, for which DRD was liable. The owners of the TINTOMARA argued that ACL also was at fault because it failed to exercise proper control over DRD, which allegedly had a bad safety record. While the Court suggested that ACL’s liability could be premised on proof that ACL knowingly placed an unsafe vessel into the hands of an unsafe operator and such placement caused the collision, the Court found that the shipowner failed to meet its burden of proof on this issue.

Instead, the Court found that ACL’s vetting of DRD’s licensing, accident history and compliance with the Federal 12-hour watch rule, while imperfect, was nonetheless reasonable. There was evidence that DRD was involved in 17 accidents in the 18 months leading up to the collision and that ACL reviewed the accidents involving its vessels in order to determine the need for corrective action. ACL’s oversight also included a management audit of DRD, as well as quarterly meetings. These actions never revealed evidence that DRD was either using unlicensed operators or working crews in violation of the 12-hour watch rule.  However, the Court specifically found evidence that DRD concealed this information from ACL, and held that ACL was not accountable for such concealment. Based on these findings, the Court dismissed the TINTOMARA’s claims against ACL, and ordered DRD to pay ACL all of its stipulated recoverable damages, plus interest and costs.

Screening Critical
The case serves as a reminder that screening chartered vessels and their operators for quality and safety, and including and adhering to quality and safety standards in time charters, can reap benefits both in protecting against accidents and defending the charterer from legal liability if accidents occur.