Conservation and Food Safety Groups Winning Over Washington’s Shellfish Industry and Army Corps of Engineers


The Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat and the Center for Food Safety won another step in their case to stop a flawed nation-wide permit for the shellfish industry in Washington’s waters. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the shellfish industry’s attempt to stop a lower court decision from taking effect while the Circuit considers an appeal of a lower court decision.

As discussed in this blog in 2016, this case is one of the most serious attempts to slow the growth of the shellfish (and primarily the geoduck) industry from converting almost all our remaining beaches that can grow geoduck into industrial farms forever.  This reporter reached out to Taylor Shellfish for comment, but they did not get back to me before publication.

What is at stake: NWP 48 – the 2017 “nation-wide permit” granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to commercial shellfish aquaculture to intensify operations including authorizing “discharges, structures and works” in Washington’s coastal marine habitat. The NWP 48 was issued in 2017, and in just two years, 898 shellfish industry projects impacting 35,800 acres of marine habitats were greenlighted in Washington State.

The Court’s decision in October 2019 was a scathing rebuke of the U.S. Amy Corps Engineers process issuing NWP 48 without “adequate” (or any) scientific review of impacts. The Court found that the U.S. Army Corps had no basis to determine that NWP 48 would have “minimal impact” to marine habitat.

The Court rejected the Corps conclusion that the shellfish industry impacts are “no more than minimal, however, (a) when considered on a landscape rather than a site-by-site scale, (b) because the relevant ecosystems are resilient, and (c) because the impacts are “relatively mild” in comparison “to the disturbances and degradation caused by coastal development, pollution, and other human activities in coastal areas.” The Corps argued that when you make the landscape big enough, the operations would have ‘minimal’ impact, that the waters are so resilient that they would fix themselves, and that there is already pollution by other human activities and these additional impacts are minimal by comparison. The Court bluntly stated that “Noting that a particular environmental resource is degraded is not an excuse or justification for further degradation…The record is devoid of any indication [emphasis added] 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.”

 

The Court also did not agree with the shellfish industry and the U.S. Corps argument that because the impacts of the various types of waters, habitats, and operations were so disparate across the country, that a nation-wide permit should stand based on allowing local district engineers to evaluate the impacts on a case by case basis. At face value that may seem reasonable and even desirable – that local offices would know more and be able to evaluate impacts and operations: “Faced with incredible diversity, the Corps effectively threw up its hands and turned over impacts analysis to district engineers.” The Court said the agency violated both the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) by its action issuing NWP 48. The Court then could vacate the permit, which would essentially revoke Washington shellfish industry permits that were granted as a result of NWP 48. Interesting, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, having made extensive efforts to ensure its shellfish operations were carried out in an environmentally sound manner unlike other operations, had also challenged NWP 48 but asked the Court to consider not completely vacating NWP 48.

 

In June 2020, the Court vacated the NWP 48, but stayed the effect of its decision and gave the Corps and the shellfish industry 60 days to appeal to the 9th Circuit. Noting how serious the action to vacate NWP 48 is – affecting the 898 projects in Washington State alone permitted under NWP 48, impacting 35,800 acres of Washington’s marine waters, the Court looked carefully at the district engineers impacts analysis.  In one instance, the Court found that “the Corps’ failure to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of shellfish aquaculture (other than, arguably, the potential impacts to endangered or threatened species under the ESA) was not corrected at the District level. In fact, the District declined to require any mitigation for the expected loss of eelgrass because the Corps permitted, on a nationwide basis, operations affecting submerged aquatic vegetation as long as the area had previously been used for commercial shellfish aquaculture.”  The Corps allowed operations where shellfish activity had occurred at any time in the previous 100 years. The shellfish industry asked that the Court not take any action, and to allow NWP 48 to stay in place and not disrupt business until the Corps could correct its errors. The Corps said it could not correct its errors until 2022, which is the next time when the Corps would issue a new NWP in any course. The Court said no but allowed some activities to continue while the case is under appeal. The shellfish industry tried to stop even the limited effects of the Court’s decision. The 9th Circuit rejected their motion while it considers the appeal. The case is not over – one could ask what has been the role of the Washington Dept. of Ecology? The Court was equally not impressed with Ecology’s role in remedying the defects of NWP 48. The parties have until October 2020 to submit briefs on the appeal.

 

 

 

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