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Clean Water Act Section 401 Certifications

Sec­tion 401 of the Clean Water Act requires that fed­er­al­ly-per­mit­ted projects involv­ing dis­charges into waters of the Unit­ed States must obtain a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from the rel­e­vant state that the project meets state water qual­i­ty stan­dards. States are required to act on a state water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion request with­in a rea­son­able peri­od of time” — not to exceed one year — or the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion require­ment is waived.

2017-2021

  • Decem­ber 2018

    In Decem­ber 2018, the Army Corps of Engi­neers released a pol­i­cy direc­tive that would dras­ti­cal­ly short­en the time­frame for states to review sec­tion 401 cer­ti­fi­ca­tion requests. The mem­o­ran­dum would pro­vide states only 60 days to act on a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion request, even if the request is incom­plete or oth­er­wise deficient.

  • April 2019

    In response, in April 2019, New York Attor­ney Gen­er­al James led a four­teen state coali­tion in send­ing a let­ter to the Army Corps of Engi­neers object­ing to the pol­i­cy. The attor­neys gen­er­al not­ed that the direc­tive vio­lates the Clean Water Act’s core objec­tive to restore and main­tain the chem­i­cal, phys­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal integri­ty of the country’s waters as states will not have suf­fi­cient time to ensure that a pro­posed project meets state water qual­i­ty stan­dards. The com­ment let­ter also point­ed out that the mem­o­ran­dum vio­lates the Admin­is­tra­tive Pro­ce­dure Act (APA) because it was issued with­out pro­vid­ing the pub­lic the oppor­tu­ni­ty to com­ment on the pol­i­cy directive.

    Ear­li­er in April 2019, Pres­i­dent Trump issued the Ener­gy Infra­struc­ture and Eco­nom­ic Growth exec­u­tive order, which among sev­er­al pro­vi­sions, requires the EPA to review the state water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process for ener­gy devel­op­ment projects. The exec­u­tive order directs the EPA, before issu­ing new sec­tion 401 guid­ance, to eval­u­ate the​“appro­pri­ate scope” of water qual­i­ty reviews as well as the​“nature and scope” of infor­ma­tion states may need to act on a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion request with­in a pre­scribed peri­od of time.

  • May 2019

    In May 2019, New York Attor­ney Gen­er­al James led a coali­tion of 16 attor­neys gen­er­al in sub­mit­ting com­ments in response to the EPA’s request for com­ments in response to the April 2019 exec­u­tive order. The com­ments object­ed to any efforts to short­en the time frame for states to com­plete the sec­tion 401 water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process as it would restrict state over­sight of state water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion applications.

    The attor­neys gen­er­al also not­ed that the process that the EPA is using to review the sec­tion 401 process is pro­ce­du­ral­ly flawed as EPA only has 17 days from the clo­sure of the pub­lic com­ment peri­od on the 401 process to the exec­u­tive order’s dead­line for issu­ing new sec­tion 401 guid­ance. The com­ments point­ed out that the EPA can­not pos­si­bly review-let alone mean­ing­ful­ly con­sid­er” the sub­stan­tive com­ments it will receive on the large range of state water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion issues in such a short timeframe.

  • June 2019

    In June 2019, the EPA issued its new sec­tion 401 guid­ance in response to the April 2019 exec­u­tive order. The guid­ance impos­es strict lim­its on states’ abil­i­ties to col­lect com­plete infor­ma­tion about a fed­er­al­ly-per­mit­ted project’s expect­ed impacts on water qual­i­ty. EPA’s doc­u­ment also attempts to cur­tail the time lim­it pro­vid­ed states in sec­tion 401 to com­plete reviews of water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion requests.

  • July 2019

    In July 2019, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra led a coali­tion of 14 attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing com­ments in oppo­si­tion to the new sec­tion 401 guid­ance. The let­ter not­ed that the guid­ance improp­er­ly con­tra­venes the lan­guage of the Clean Water Act in lim­it­ing the infor­ma­tion states can require be sub­mit­ted to eval­u­ate water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion appli­ca­tions. The attor­neys gen­er­al also insist­ed that the guid­ance vio­lat­ed the Clean Water Act in attempt­ing to restrict the time states have to review sec­tion 401 cer­ti­fi­ca­tion requests.

  • August 2019

    Ignor­ing the objec­tions of the attor­neys gen­er­al and fol­low­ing the roadmap laid out in the April 2019 exec­u­tive order, the EPA issued a pro­posed rule in August 2019 on water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tions under sec­tion 401 of the Clean Water Act. The pro­pos­al includes a strict out­er bound” with­in which a state must act on a water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion request and lim­its state author­i­ty to act on requests to only those projects that would dis­charge pol­lu­tants from point sources into pro­tect­ed waters. Addi­tion­al­ly, fed­er­al agen­cies would be pro­vid­ed the author­i­ty to ignore the impo­si­tion of con­di­tions on water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tions by states, and con­struct a project that could harm state water qual­i­ty, if the agen­cies deter­mine the imposed con­di­tions do not sat­is­fy the reg­u­la­to­ry def­i­n­i­tion of con­di­tions.”

  • Octo­ber 2019

    In Octo­ber 2019, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son spear­head­ed a coali­tion of 23 attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing com­ments opposed to the pro­pos­al. The com­ments point­ed out that the proposal’s strict time lim­it on a state act­ing on a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion request ignores sec­tion 401’s clear lan­guage that states are to have a rea­son­able” peri­od of time up to one year to act on the requests. More­over, the agency’s action unlaw­ful­ly restricts the states’ sec­tion 401 review process to pol­lu­tion dis­charges from point sources in clear vio­la­tion of the Clean Water Act’s instruc­tion that the sec­tion 401 review process is to include a review of the entire­ty of a project’s impact on state water qual­i­ty stan­dards. The attor­neys gen­er­al also not­ed that there is no basis in the statute’s text or leg­isla­tive his­to­ry for pro­vid­ing fed­er­al agen­cies the author­i­ty to issue a project a per­mit for con­struc­tion with­out also includ­ing law­ful­ly imposed con­di­tions intend­ed to pro­tect state water quality.

  • July 2020

    In July 2020, the EPA ignored the con­cerns of the attor­neys gen­er­al and pub­lished a final rule on water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tions under sec­tion 401 of the Clean Water Act. The rule impos­es a strict lim­it on the time states have to review water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion requests, restricts states’ sec­tion 401 review process to pol­lu­tion dis­charges from point sources and pro­hibits states from con­sid­er­ing how a fed­er­al­ly per­mit­ted project as a whole will impact state water quality.

    That same month, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Fer­gu­son and New York Attor­ney Gen­er­al James led a coali­tion of 21 attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing a law­suit in fed­er­al dis­trict court in Cal­i­for­nia chal­leng­ing the law­ful­ness of the July 2020 final rule. The law­suit notes that the final rule vio­lates sec­tion 401 of the Clean Water Act in plac­ing a time lim­it on states’ water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion reviews, restrict­ing the review process to dis­charges from point sources and pro­hibit­ing con­sid­er­a­tion of the impact of the project as a whole on water qual­i­ty. Con­se­quent­ly, the rule is arbi­trary, capri­cious, and an abuse of dis­cre­tion in vio­la­tion of the APA. The attor­neys gen­er­al seek a dec­la­ra­tion that the July 2020 rule vio­lates the Clean Water Act and APA and request that the court set aside and vacate the rule.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2020

    In Sep­tem­ber 2020, the Fed­er­al Ener­gy Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion (FERC) released a pro­posed rule intend­ed to ensure com­pli­ance with the EPA’s July 2020 rule on water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion appli­ca­tions for fed­er­al­ly-per­mit­ted projects under sec­tion 401 of the Clean Water Act in con­nec­tion with a project for which autho­riza­tion is sought from FERC under sec­tion 3 or 7 of the Nat­ur­al Gas Act (NGA). FERC pro­posed that a state cer­ti­fy­ing author­i­ty waives its author­i­ty to issue a water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion under sec­tion 401 of the Clean Water Act in con­nec­tion with a NGA sec­tion 3 or sec­tion 7 project if it has not denied or grant­ed a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion one year after the cer­ti­fy­ing agency receives the writ­ten request for certification.

  • Novem­ber 2020

    In Novem­ber 2020, Mary­land Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bri­an Frosh led a coali­tion of 16 attor­neys gen­er­al in sub­mit­ting com­ments on FERC’s pro­posed rule. Learn more about the pro­posed rule here (see Ensur­ing States Have Suf­fi­cient Time to Review the Clean Water Act Impacts of Projects”). 

    The com­ments voiced the states’ strong sup­port for pro­vid­ing state cer­ti­fy­ing author­i­ties with the max­i­mum amount of time allowed by statute before the sec­tion 401 cer­ti­fi­ca­tion author­i­ty is waived. It would be dif­fi­cult for the cer­ti­fy­ing author­i­ty to com­plete the review with any­thing less than the max­i­mum review peri­od giv­en the com­plex­i­ty of nat­ur­al gas pipeline projects. Addi­tion­al­ly, the attor­neys gen­er­al not­ed their con­cerns with EPA’s under­ly­ing sec­tion 401 water qual­i­ty cer­ti­fi­ca­tion rule by includ­ing their Octo­ber 2019 com­ments on EPA’s pro­posed sec­tion 401 rule and the law­suit that the attor­neys gen­er­al filed in Cal­i­for­nia fed­er­al dis­trict court chal­leng­ing EPA’s final sec­tion 401 rule.