Coeur Alaska v. S.E. Alaska Conservation Council

PETITIONER: Coeur Alaska, Inc.
RESPONDENT: Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, et al.
LOCATION: Lower Slate Lake

DOCKET NO.: 07-984
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 557 US (2009)
GRANTED: Jun 27, 2008
ARGUED: Jan 12, 2009
DECIDED: Jun 22, 2009

ADVOCATES:
Gregory G. Garre - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the federal respondents, in support of the petitioners
Theodore B. Olson - argued the cause for the petitioners
Thomas S. Waldo - argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) granted permits to allow Coeur Alaska, Inc. to discharge processed wastewater from its gold mine into a lake in Alaska. The South East Alaska Conservation council sued to prevent the discharge. It argued that granting the permits exceeded the authority of the USACE. The federal district court in Alaska held that the permits were valid.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded with instructions for the district court to void the permits. The court held that the USACE improperly interpreted the Clean Water Act when granting the permits. It explained that the characteristics of the wastewater discharge did not come under the USACE's scope of authority, but were of a nature that was explicitly prohibited by the Clean Water Act.

Question

Did the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit err in invalidating the United States Army Corps of Engineers' longstanding interpretation of the Clean Water Act?

Media for Coeur Alaska v. S.E. Alaska Conservation Council

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 12, 2009 in Coeur Alaska v. S.E. Alaska Conservation Council

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 22, 2009 in Coeur Alaska v. S.E. Alaska Conservation Council

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has our opinion this morning in case 07-984, Coeur Alaska, Inc. versus Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the consolidated case.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

These cases require us to decide whether a plan to dispose of mining waste violates the Clean Water Act.

The petitioner Coeur Alaska owns Kensington Gold Mine in Southeast Alaska.

When it opens and begins its operation, extracting the gold will produce several million tons of crushed rock mixed with water.

This mixture is called slurry and its waste and it must be put somewhere.

Coeur Alaska plans to put the slurry in a small lake near the mine.

The slurry will kill the lake's fish and plant life.

After the mine closes, however, coeur Alaska will cover the lake bed with soil and thereby reclaim it.

The broader and shallower lake will sustain at least as much aquatic life as it does now.

If the slurry did not go in the lake, Coeur Alaska will propose to put it on nearby wetlands destroying them permanently.

Coeur Alaska obtained approval for its plan from two agencies that administer the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency or the EPA.

The Corps of Engineers acts under Section 404 of the Act and EPA acts under Section 402 of the Act.

Acting under Section 404, the Corps of Engineers issued Coeur Alaska a permanent to discharge the slurry into the lake.

And acting under Section 402 of the Act, the EPA issued Coeur Alaska a permit to discharge water from the lake into a downstream creek.

Respondent's three environmentalist groups led by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council were SEACC sued the agencies in federal court.

SEACC made two arguments.

First, SEACC argued that to put its slurry in the lake in the first place, Coeur Alaska requires a permit from the EPA not the Corps of Engineers.

Second, SEACC argued that the slurry discharge violates an EPA regulation.

Now, the EPA regulation is called performance standard.

It forbids the discharge of waste from gold mine like Coeur Alaska's.

The Court of Appeals agreed with both SEACC's arguments and it vacated the Corps of Engineers' permit.

We granted certiorari and we now reverse.

We disagree with both SEACC's arguments.

First, the Clean Water Act states the Corps of Engineers and not the EPA, is the proper agency to issue a permit for the slurry discharge.

This is because slurry is defined by the regulation as fill material.

In Section 404 of the Act authorizes the Corps to permit discharges of fill material.

Section 402 by contrast states that the EPA may not issue permit for these discharges.

Second, SEACC argues that EPA's performance standards forbid the slurry discharge.

Both agencies disagree with that position however.

In the view of both agencies, the EPA's performance standard does not apply to discharges of fill material because the statute and regulations do not give a clear answer to this question, we defer to the agencies' reasonable interpretation.