Federal judge rules Army Corps aquaculture permit is unlawful in Washington State.


In a surprise ruling with wide ranging consequences, a federal judge has ruled that the Army Corp of Engineers issuance of Nationwide Permits in the lower 48 (NWP48) authorizing commercial shellfish aquaculture is illegal. The suit, brought by The Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat, a group that has been fighting large-scale shellfish aquaculture for years, and joined by the Swinomish Tribe, was focused against the Army Corp and Taylor Shellfish, along with the industry group, The Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

The plaintiffs argued that the Corps failed to comply with the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), and the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) when it reissued NWP 48 in 2017. They requested that the decision to adopt NWP 48 in Washington be overturned and that the Corps be required to comply with the environmental statutes before issuing any new permits  for commercial shellfish aquaculture in this State.

The court found in it’s blistering conclusions, “…that the Corps has failed to adequately consider the impacts of commercial shellfish aquaculture activities authorized by NWP 48, that its conclusory findings of minimal individual and cumulative impacts are not supported by substantial evidence in the record, and that its EA does not satisfy the requirements of NEPA and the governing regulations…the Court holds unlawful and sets aside NWP 48 insofar as it authorizes activities in Washington.” (emphasis mine)

Going beyond just the issue of the environmental consequences the judge stated that “The federal defendants state that additional …remedy should be permitted once the seriousness of the agency’s error is determined. The intervenors (the Corps and Taylor Shellfish) assert that (throwing out the permits and the Corps previous rulings) would cause disruption in the Washington shellfish farms and industry, including significant impacts to employees and the communities in which they live.Neither tact is compelling. The substantive defects in the agency’s analysis when adopting the 2017 NWP are significant.” (emphasis mine)

The case centers around whether or not the large scale conversion of natural shorelines to commercial aquaculture, happening now all around lower Puget Sound and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is more than “minimal” damage to the environment. Siting case law in relevant lawsuits in the Yellowstone Park area, the environmental group managed to persuade the judge that the Army was allowing something much more than minimal damage.

As stated by the plaintiffs, “Federal agencies are required to do an environmental assessment (“EA”) of their proposed action, providing a brief discussion of the
anticipated environmental impacts and enough evidence and analysis to justify a no-significant impact determination.  If the agency, after conducting an EA, is unable to
state that the proposed action “will not have a significant effect on the human environment,” a more detailed and comprehensive environmental impact statement (“EIS”) must be prepared. They also argued that the case law stated that if the Corps’ ruling was found to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion” and lacking in a scientific basis, that it must be thrown out.

The court found that , “… there is insufficient evidence in the record to
support the agency’s conclusion that the re-issuance of NWP 48 in 2017 would have minimal individual and cumulative adverse impacts on the aquatic environment for purposes of the CWA and that the Corps’ environmental assessment does not satisfy NEPA’s requirements.”

They judge then went on to point out that “the Corps acknowledges that commercial shellfish aquaculture activities can have adverse environmental impacts…marine debris is a serious impact on the marine environment…and that commercial shellfish aquaculture activities can result in conversion of substrates (e.g. mudflats to gravel bars), impacts to submerged aquatic vegetation, alteration in aquatic communities from native to non-native shellfish species, and water quality impacts from harvest activities.”

Given those findings, the judge went on to say, “Ignoring or diluting site specific,
individual impacts by focusing solely on a cumulative, landscape-scale analysis is not
consistent with the governing regulations.”

The scientific documents that the Corps presented as justification for it’s actions came under blistering criticism from the judge. “According to the Corps’ own summary of the paper, the authors evaluated only the effects of oyster aquaculture activities on submerged aquatic vegetation. The paper itself shows that Dumbauld and McCoy (a supposed scientific study that the Corps and Taylor were using) were studying the effects of intertidal oyster aquaculture on the seagrass Zostera marina. There is no discussion of the impacts on other types of aquatic vegetation, on the benthic community, on fish, on birds, on water quality/chemistry/structures, or on substrate characteristics. There is no discussion of the subtidal zone. There is no discussion regarding the impacts of plastic use in shellfish aquaculture and only a passing reference to a possible side effect of pesticide use. The Corps itself does not remedy these deficiencies: although it identifies various resources that will be adversely impacted by issuance of the national permit (along with resources that may benefit from shellfish production), it makes virtually no effort to characterize the nature or degree of those impacts. The Decision Document’s “Impact Analysis” consists of little more than an assurance that district engineers will consider the direct and indirect effects caused by the permitted activity on a regional or case-by-case basis.”

The judge went on to say, “In this case, the Corps acknowledged that reissuance of NWP 48 would have foreseeable environmental impacts on the biotic and abiotic components of coastal waters, the intertidal and subtidal habitats of fish, eelgass, and birds, the marine substrate, the balance between native and non-native species, pollution, and water quality, chemistry, and structure, but failed to describe, much less quantify, these.  The Corps cites the two Dumbauld papers for general statements regarding the positive or negative effects of shellfish aquaculture on certain aquatic resources or characteristics (focusing on seagrass), but it makes no attempt to quantify the effects or to support its conclusion that the effects are no more than minimal.”(emphasis mine).

As reported on some months ago in this blog, a draft cumulative impact statement, which only surfaced due to a discovery in this case,  “…generated in February 2017 dedicated twenty-five pages to discussing the wide range of work and activities covered by NWP 48 and noting the species dependent variability in cultivation techniques, gear, and timing. These variations gave rise to a wide array of effects on the aquatic habitat, none of which is acknowledged or evaluated in the national Decision Document.” (emphasis is mine).

The judge goes on, in plain language, “A reasonable mind reviewing the record as a whole would not accept Dumbauld and McCoy’s limited findings regarding the
landscape-level impact of oyster cultivation on a species of seagrass in the intertidal zone as support for the conclusion that entire ecosystems are resilient to the disturbances caused by shellfish aquaculture or that the impacts of those operations were either individually or cumulatively minimal.” The judge sites decisions back in coal country where the cumulative impacts of mountain top removal are similar and long lasting. “The governing regulations expressly impose upon the Corps the obligation to consider the ongoing effects of past actions when conducting a cumulative impacts analysis.”

The “NEPA and the CWA were enacted because humans were adversely affecting the environment to a noticeable and detrimental extent…Noting that a particular environmental resource is degraded is not an excuse or justification for further degradation. The Corps must analyze the individual and cumulative impacts of the proposed activity against the environmental baseline, not as a percentage of the decades or centuries of degrading activities that came before.

As to the use of pesticides by the industry, the judge has additional harsh criticism,”The Corps makes a similarly untenable argument whenever the use of pesticides in a
shellfish operation permitted under NWP 48 is discussed. While acknowledging that these substances are used and released into the environment during permitted activities, the Corps declines to consider the environmental impacts of pesticides because they are regulated by some other entity… Even if the Corps does not have jurisdiction to permit or prohibit the use of pesticides, it is obligated to consider “other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency (Federal or non-Federal) or person undertakes such other actions.” The Corps’ decision to ignore the
foreseeable uses and impacts of pesticides in the activities it permitted on a nationwide basis does not comport with the mandate of NEPA or with its obligations under the CWA. Having eschewed any attempt to describe the uses of pesticides in commercial shellfish aquaculture or to analyze their likely environmental impacts, the decision to permit such activities through NWP 48 cannot stand.” (emphasis mine)

“The record is devoid of any indication that the Corps considered regional data,
catalogued the species in and characteristics of the aquatic environments in which commercial shellfish aquaculture activities occur, considered the myriad techniques, equipment, and materials used in shellfish aquaculture, attempted to quantify the impacts the permitted activity would likely have on the identified species and characteristics, or evaluated the impacts of the as-yet-unknown regional conditions…Faced with incredible diversity in both the environment and the activities permitted under NWP 48, the Corps effectively threw up its hands and turned the impact analyses over to the district engineers.”

In looking at the problem of plastic pollution in aquaculture the judge was additionally critical.”The Corps’ analysis with regards to plastic debris discharged into the marine environment is even more problematic. The Corps acknowledges the many public comments raising concerns about the introduction of plastics into the marine food web, but relies on the fact that “[d]ivision engineers can impose regional conditions to address the use of plastics” in response to these concerns. The Seattle District, for its part, declined to quantify the impact of plastics, instead noting that “it would not be a practicable solution to regionally condition NWP 48 to not allow the use of PVC and HDPE gear as there are no current practicable alternatives to use of the materials…The CWA requires the Corps to make minimal adverse effect findings before issuing a general permit. If, as appears to be the case with regards to the discharge of plastics from the permitted operations, the Corps is unable to make such a finding, a general permit cannot (be) issue(d). The Corps has essentially acknowledged that it needs to individually evaluate the impacts of a particular operation, including the species grown,
the cultivation techniques/gear used, and the specific location, before it can determine the extent of the impacts the operation will have.”

The decision is not trivial. It rips apart industry arguments made over the last decade that eelgrass recovery in aquaculture farms is a minor issue. The aquaculture industry and Taylor Shellfish in particular has put itself at the head of county agencies supposedly in the business to protect the nearshore from harm and then used these faulty scientific studies to promote their position.  The Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee, which claims on it’s web page to have the mission, “to protect and restore the marine environments of East Jefferson County by raising community awareness of issues…” has been chaired by an aquaculture industry spokesperson who routinely has used these same discredited arguments to suppress any discussion of negative impacts on the nearshore the MRC claims to protect.  The Committee has meekly gone along with the bullying tactics of the Taylor representative at public meetings, unwilling to push back on what the spokesperson has claimed to be ‘scientific  studies’.  The Committee in fact sponsored a ‘aquaculture educational day” to promote these same, now discredited scientific studies, offering no substantial criticism to the statements of the industry. The lack of any counter balance to the industry’s PR blitz angered many in the environmental community on the Olympic Peninsula toward this committee that had a long history of standing to protect the nearshore. The decision to not include substantial criticism of the industry led the long time environmental representative on the committee to resign.

The outcome of this case is unclear at the time of this writing. However, it will likely have a substantial effect on future shellfish farm permits, and may force the closure of some larger farms that were recently permitted, until such time as adequate scientific study on their effects is done. The ruling ends with the judge throwing out the Army’s ability to issue permits in Washington. However, the judge does say to Taylor and others that they can apply for individual permits. The Court has the ability to allow a “period of time in which growers can avail themselves of the process before the existing permits would be invalidated or to fashion some other equitable remedy to minimize both the risks of environmental harm  and any disruptive consequences.” So there is some wiggle room for the growers to get some activities going to mitigate the effects of this ruling.

This case also fully vindicates the environmentalists’ concerns over the ever expanding industry, it’s conversion of pristine shorelines to monoculture farming and the allies of this industry in city, county and state government. The industry is not down and out yet. It’s worth noting that Taylor has apparently spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying back in Washington D.C. and is likely to support Republican efforts to roll back the Clean Water Act to eliminate the local nature of permitting to favor national ones. Given this ruling, that likely is a losing tactic.

This blog will continue to follow this breaking story with further updates as we receive them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Responses

  1. I appreciate your excellent explanation of this important court decision and what it means. I disagree with your comments about the Jefferson MRC as a “Committee [that] has meekly gone along with the bullying tactics of the Taylor representative at public meetings, unwilling to push back ..” The Committee sponsored that ‘aquaculture educational day” to learn more about the scientific studies that both sides referenced and the issues you described so well in this post.

    • I did not go to this meeting because in looking at the agenda and participants I could tell it was a dog-n-pony show. (No disparagement meant to dogs and ponies, which I like). If they had on the agenda all of the top-notch scientists who have been blackballed for speaking up and for whose early research did not support the non-native shellfish industry…I probably would have gone. There is no recent research from them, or any other who isn’t controlled by the industry… because it won’t get funded. The meeting might actually have been Fair and Balanced. But unfortunately, they have been silenced. That’s why they weren’t there. These are real people, some of whose careers have been adversely impacted for doing actual scientific research. It is quite real.

    • Thanks for the feedback Cheryl. That there was no one representing the issues that were raised in this lawsuit, which we discussed early on, and was agreed that there would be someone doing that, only to have virtually the entire day be spent with industry or farmers, was exactly what the industry wanted. (other than Sound Action who was there talking about nearshore issues that they focus on, not geoduck aquaculture). It couldn’t have been better for their position. Luckily, the courts didn’t buy any of it. It ends up making the MRC’s decision look worse than it might have been, as others have already commented. I have had conversations with other members of the MRC who told me, off the record, that they were extremely disappointed in the outcome of the day, and agreed with my take on it. I also chatted last night with a former chair of the MRC who agreed wholeheartedly with my take on this. It’s not enough to simply do restoration based work when the charter of the MRC is to protect the nearshore by being the feedback to the county commissioners. By continuing to allow an industry spokesman to not only chair your meetings but give you Olympia Oysters (which even the ex-head of the program apparently is not in favor of the MRC doing) seems to be a conflict of interest, especially given this court outcome. That the courts have found that the “science” being presented by not only the Corps but Taylor themselves, was not only faulty but apparently purposely misrepresented, means to even a casual observer, that you have put the fox in charge of the hen house. The minimum appropriate thing to do would be to ask Mr. King to resign in favor of a shellfish farmer who has not used the Corps or Taylor’s science to receive their permits. Apparently they do exist.

  2. Thank you for the summary. I am curious to know about NWP 48 permits issued prior to 2017…what are the implications of this decision on those permits…since it is for the most part similar activities and therefore similar significant impacts. How can these other existing industrial mostly non-native in-water “farms” be held accountable for their adverse impacts?

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