Minn Court of Appeals upholds new water quality standards for rivers and streams

by Gary Taylor

Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board, et al v. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Minnesota Court of Appeals, August 10, 2015

[For background, an article on the case can be found here.]

Petitioners in this case included the Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board (a coalition of cities believed to be most affected by the agency rules in question), The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the League of Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.  They brought this suit against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to challenge the rulemaking process (not the scientific basis for the rules) for adopting new numeric water quality standards (WQS) for certain pollutants to limit eutrophication** of rivers and streams.  The Court of Appeals addressed two issues raised by the parties: (1) the standing of the petitioners to bring suit, and (2) MPCA’s response to public comments on the proposed rules during the rulemaking process.

Standing.  MPCA argued that the petitioners lacked standing because they failed to specify any specific rights with are currently affected by he rulemaking process, and that their potential harms “were too tenuous and rely on too many indeterminate assumptions to establish standing.”  The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that “petitioners are challenging a rule that created numeric standards, not merely the inclusion of certain rivers on a list that would eventually lead to numeric standards.  Petitioners are among the class of persons who would be affected by a change in WQS; the petitioning groups represent municipalities, wastewater-treatment facilities, sanitary sewer districts, and farming operations, all of which have a more particularized interest than the general citizenry.”  The Court of Appeals concluded that petitioners indeed did have standing.

Response to public comments. Petitioners alleged that MPCA did not comply with statutory rulemaking procedures because it failed to adequately respond to petitioners’ comments during the rulemaking process.  They argued that MPCA relied on outdated studies and failed to make the studies it relied on part of the public record.  Petitioners relied on federal caselaw for the proposition that agency responses to comments must be “meaningful”; that is, the agency must respond in a manner that states the main reasons for its decision and explains why the agency reached the decision it did.

The Court of Appeals refused to second-guess the agency’s use of, or reliance on its chosen scientific or technical sources.  Agency decisions enjoy “a presumption of correctness.” Agencies must at times

make judgments and draw conclusions from suspected, but not completely substantiated relationships between facts, from trends among facts, from theoretical projections from imperfect data, from probative preliminary data not yet certifiable as fact, and the like.

The MPCA responded to all of the written comments received after each public hearing, including a summary of the comment and a response with citations to the documents or sources that provided the basis for the response.  Although petitioners did not agree with the rules adopted, the Court concluded that the MPCA sufficiently explained the reasons for their adoption and provided sufficient supporting documentation.  This met the test for “meaningful” response.

The Court declared the new water quality rules to be valid.

 

**Eutrophication is a syndrome of ecosystem responses to nitrogen and phosphorus, often leading to changes in animal and plant populations such as algae blooms and the proliferation of rooted plants.

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