Government decisions derailing permits for infrastructure projects raise serious questions about future access and the cost of energy in this country. Affordable energy supplies are critical to the viability and competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers, but equally important is the ability to obtain a wide variety of other permits to carry on routine manufacturing operations. After successfully navigating federal, state and local government requirements, as well as opposition from national environmental groups during the permit approval process, a company is authorized to do business as long as it follows the permit.
When a Clean Water Act permit is approved and the individual is in compliance, the Act provides a shield against arbitrary enforcement actions and citizen suits. The permit sets those limits. Unfortunately, a company can be forced to defend itself in court when someone tries to claim that the permit requires more than it does. If undermined, the permit shield can be no shield at all, or at least a very expensive one to maintain.
That’s the situation in a case now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond. A citizen’s group wants the court to insert new limits in a permit that the government had considered and decided not to include. In an amicus brief, the Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action argued that suits like this upend the process for setting and implementing water quality standards by second-guessing the interpretations of those responsible permitting authorities. They also create serious after-the-fact liability without fair notice.
This kind of regulation by litigation threatens to add another layer of government control, activated by special interest groups, on regulatory decisions. Enforcing permit requirements is appropriate, but changing the terms of a permit in the middle of production is an entirely new problem that increases uncertainty, saps the life from productive investments, and dampens our ability to create and sustain jobs.