When federal agencies impose regulations on businesses, who decides what those rules actually mean? In a recent decision, the Supreme Court said that agencies do.
In Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the Court examined whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reasonably interpreted its regulations when concluding that permits were not required under the Clean Water Act to discharge storm water runoff from logging operations. The Court – ruling that the EPA’s interpretation was reasonable – affirmed the principle that courts should defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation unless that interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.
The dispute in Decker arose following the actions of logging and paper-product companies in Oregon. Under a contract with the state, Georgia-Pacific West and other logging companies harvested timber from a state forest using graded roads to transport the timber. When it rained, water from those roads – often filled with sediment, dirt, and crushed gravel – ran off into nearby rivers and streams.
In September, 2006, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC) filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, alleging that the logging companies caused discharges of storm water runoff into two waterways and had not obtained the necessary permits to do so under the Clean Water Act.
The District Court dismissed the action, concluding that the discharges were permissible, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the question of whether the EPA’s interpretation of its own regulations – that permits are not required for discharges from storm water runoff from logging roads– was reasonable.
The Clean Water Act requires a permit if storm water runoff “associated with industrial activity” is discharged into navigable waters. The EPA, the agency responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act, issued regulations defining “associated with industrial activity” as only those discharges “directly related to manufacturing, processing or raw materials storage areas at an industrial plant.” The EPA later interpreted storm water runoff from logging roads as excluded from this definition.
In a 7-1 decision, the Court sided with the EPA, concluding that the agency’s interpretation was reasonable and therefore entitled to deference under a previous Supreme Court decision in Auer v. Robbins.