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Army Corps Nationwide Permit for Commercial Shellfish Set Aside by the U.S. District Court

Army Corps Nationwide Permit for Commercial Shellfish Set Aside by the U.S. District Court
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By William Shepherd IV, Esq. and Rebecca Andrews, Esq.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington recently found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) in issuing the 2017 Nationwide Permit for commercial shellfish aquaculture activities (NWP 48). The District Court held NWP 48 unlawful with respect to activities in the waters of the State of Washington. the court heavily considered vacating NWP 48 outright, but agreed to accept additional briefing from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community before issuing a final remedy.

[Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat v. U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers, ___F.Supp.3d___, Case No. 17-1209RSL (W.D. Wash. Oct. 10, 2019).]


The CWA authorizes the Corps to issue permits for discharges of dredge or fill material into navigable waters of the United States. If the Corps determines activities involving discharges of dredged or fill material are similar in nature and will cause only minimal adverse environmental effects both separately and cumulatively, the CWA allows the Corps to issue general permits on a nationwide basis for that set of activities. Nationwide permits last five years before the Corps must renew them.

In 2017, the Corps reissued NWP 48, authorizing: 1) the cultivation of nonindigenous shellfish species as long as the species had previously been cultivated in the body of water at issue, 2) all shellfish operations affecting half an acre or less of submerged aquatic vegetation, and 3) all operations affecting more than half an acre of submerged aquatic vegetation if the area had been used for commercial shellfish aquaculture activities any time in the last 100 years.

In addition to the CWA requirement that the Corps find minimal adverse environmental effects before issuing a general permit, NEPA requires that the Corps analyze the environmental impact of its actions through an Environmental Assessment (EA). If the Corps is unable to state that the proposed action “will not have a significant effect on the human environment” after conducting the EA, the Corps must complete a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Ultimately, the Corps determined that issuing NWP 48 would not result in significant impacts on the human environment for the purposes of NEPA, and would result in no more than minimal individual and cumulative adverse effects on the aquatic environment for purposes of the CWA. Plaintiffs, on motion for summary judgment, asked the District Court to vacate NWP 48 under the APA because the Corps’ conclusions regarding environmental impacts were arbitrary and capricious and unsupported by evidence from the record. Plaintiffs also argued the Corps failed to comply with the CWA, NEPA, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in reissuing NWP 48.

The U.S. District Court’s Decision

Corps’ Evidence and Analysis Regarding Environmental Impacts

The court began by analyzing the Corps’ scientific evidence and findings regarding environmental impacts. Under the APA, a reviewing court must set aside agency actions that are arbitrary and capricious. Agency action is arbitrary and capricious if the agency has entirely failed to consider important aspects of the problem, offered an explanation that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or offered an explanation that is completely implausible. The court noted that agency predictions must have a substantial basis in fact.

Here, the District Court found there was insufficient evidence in the record to support the Corps’ conclusion that reissuance of NWP 48 would have minimal environmental impacts. The Corps acknowledged multiple times that commercial shellfish aquaculture activities could have adverse environmental effects, but it did not provide sufficient evidence that the effects were minimal.

First, the court found the Corps improperly shifted the scale of impact evaluation to a landscape-scale analysis, rather than using the site-specific analysis that the CWA required. Second, the court found that the Corps broadly concluded that impacts would be minimal because the relevant ecosystems were resilient, relying on one scientific paper that lacked evidence to support the Corps’ broad conclusion. The paper only studied effects of shellfish aquaculture on seagrass; it lacked any discussion of impacts on other types of vegetation, the benthic community, fish, birds, water quality/chemistry/structure, substrate characteristics, the tidal zone, or impacts of plastic use. The court found that the paper’s limited findings did not support the Corps’ broad conclusion that entire ecosystems are resilient to the disturbances caused by shellfish aquaculture, or that the impacts of those operations were minimal.

Third, the court found that the Corps’ minimal impact determination was inadequate under the CWA and NEPA because the Corps should have analyzed the impacts of the proposed activity against the environmental baseline, not as a percentage of the decades of degrading activities that came before. The Corps improperly compared the impacts of shellfish aquaculture to the impacts of the rest of human activity, noting that a particular environmental resource was degraded as a justification for further degradation.

Corps’ Reliance on General Conditions Imposed Under Nationwide Permits

The court then analyzed the Corps’ use of the general terms and conditions imposed on all nationwide permits to make its environmental impact findings. Because the Corps relied on the general conditions imposed on all nationwide permits to find minimal impacts, without more evidence, the court found that the Corps did not satisfy the requirements of the CWA and NEPA. The general terms and conditions imposed on a nationwide permit can be relevant to minimal impact findings, but they are “simply too general to be the primary ‘data’ on which the agency relies when evaluating impacts.”

Corps’ Delegation of Impacts Analysis to Regional Corps Districts

Lastly, the court analyzed the Corps’ finding that regional district engineers would review projects and bring their impacts to a minimal level. Generally, district engineers have the ability to modify a nationwide permit within particular classes of waters, add regional conditions to the nationwide permit, and impose special conditions on particular projects to safeguard against risks of greater than minimal impacts. Here, the Corps relied on these abilities of the district engineers in finding there would only be a minimal impact. The court found the Corps “effectively threw up its hands and turned the impact analysis over to the district engineers.” It held the Corps’ impact determinations were entirely conclusory, and the Corps abdicated its responsibility in violation of the CWA and NEPA.

The Remedy

The court held the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s issuance of NWP 48 was arbitrary and capricious and not in accord with the CWA or NEPA. As a result, the court held unlawful and set aside NWP 48 insofar as it authorized activities in Washington. The court considered vacating NWP 48 outright but decided to accept briefing from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community regarding the scope of the remedy before making a decision.

Conclusion and Implications

This case exemplifies the rule that agency actions must be supported by substantial evidence to be upheld under the APA. Practically, this case sets aside NWP 48 in the State of Washington.