On June 30, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued its opinion in Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), et al. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Case No. 14-1036, resolving jurisdictional and substantive issues following complaints alleging that EPA violated Section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by failing to make an effects determination or to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) before registering cyantraniliprole (CTP) under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

Regarding the jurisdictional issue and the appropriate court in which to bring such a challenge, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on May 14, 2015, had dismissed the ESA complaint of CBD, the Center for Food Safety, and the Defenders of Wildlife (Conservation Groups), finding that the Conservation Groups’ “Complaint gives rise to an ‘actual controversy as to the validity’ of the FIFRA Registration Order and is therefore governed by that Act’s jurisdictional grant.” The D.C. Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court’s ruling to dismiss the ESA petition on jurisdictional grounds, concluding that FIFRA “grants the court of appeals exclusive jurisdiction to review an ESA claim that is ‘inextricably intertwined’ with a challenge to a pesticide registration order.”

The D.C. Circuit also, however, granted the Conservation Groups’ FIFRA petition, finding that EPA registered CTP without having made an effects determination or consulting with the FWS and/or the NMFS as required under ESA Section 7(a)(2). The court remanded the case to EPA for further proceedings, but allowed the CTP registration order to remain in effect until it is replaced by an order consistent with the court’s opinion.

Considering the growing number of complaints that allege a failure to consult with the FWS and/or the NMFS under the ESA, this decision could have broad reaching implications for how these complaints are filed and reviewed.

Background

On February 29, 2012, EPA announced that it had received applications to register pesticide products containing CTP under FIFRA. On June 6, 2013, EPA announced its proposal to register CTP as a pesticide under FIFRA. As part of its review, EPA prepared an “Environmental Fate and Ecological Risk Assessment for the Registration of the New Chemical Cyantraniliprole” in which EPA states that CTP is “highly toxic or very highly toxic” to multiple taxonomic groups, including terrestrial invertebrates such as butterflies and beetles.

On January 24, 2014, EPA registered CTP as a pesticide under FIFRA and approved fourteen end-use products containing CTP. At issue in this case was EPA’s decision to register CTP without having made an effects determination or consulting with the FWS and/or the NMFS as required by ESA Section 7(a)(2) and implementing regulations (50 C.F.R. § 402.13-14).

Under the ESA citizen-suit provision, “any person” may “commence a civil suit on his own behalf … to enjoin any person, including the United States and any other governmental instrumentality or agency … who is alleged to be in violation of any provision of this chapter or regulation issued under the authority thereof.” 16 U.S.C. § 1540(g)(1). “The district courts … have jurisdiction” of ESA citizen suits, id., but no action may be commenced “prior to sixty days after written notice of the violation has been given to the Secretary, and to any alleged violator.” Id. § 1540(g)(2)(A)(i).

FIFRA’s citizen-suit provision at 7 U.S.C. § 136n(b) provides the federal circuit court with exclusive jurisdiction to affirm or set aside an EPA pesticide registration order following a public hearing, provided a challenge is filed within 60 days of the registration decision.

With potentially conflicting statutory provisions regarding the court in which to file a complaint and the timing to do so, the Conservation Groups initiated two actions: a complaint against EPA in D.C. District Court under the ESA’s citizen-suit provision; and a petition for review in D.C. Circuit Court pursuant to FIFRA’s citizen-suit provision.

Jurisdictional Issues

The D.C. Circuit first addressed the jurisdiction issue, which involved a determination of standing and a resolution of the “dueling jurisdictional provisions of the ESA and of FIFRA.”

On the issue of standing, the D.C. Circuit found that petitioners did in fact have standing, as not only did EPA make procedural omissions through “its failure to make an effects determination and to consult,” but the plaintiffs show that EPA’s failure affected the plaintiffs’ members’ “concrete aesthetic and recreational interests.”

With regard to the appropriate court in which to bring this claim, the D.C. Circuit found that “FIFRA vests the courts of appeals with exclusive jurisdiction over controversies arising from an EPA pesticide registration, so long as, inter alia, registration follows a public hearing.” The court thus also found:

  • Because FIFRA’s grant of exclusive jurisdiction to the court of appeals to review registration orders is more specific than the ESA’s citizen-suit provision, we believe the Conservation Groups must bring their ESA section 7(a)(2) challenge to us if 7 U.S.C. § 136n(b) is satisfied. And the Conservation Groups do satisfy the requirements of 7 U.S.C. § 136n(b): they are adversely affected by the registration of CTP; they challenge the validity of the CTP registration order based on the EPA’s failure to make an effects determination and to consult; and their challenge comes after a “public hearing” by way of three notice and comment periods. We therefore have “exclusive jurisdiction” to review their claim under FIFRA and the district court correctly dismissed their ESA citizen suit. (citations omitted).

Merits

While the ESA citizen suit was dismissed, the FIFRA citizen suit remained under the D.C. Circuit’s exclusive jurisdiction and review. The court found that EPA violated ESA Section 7(a)(2) by registering CTP before making an effects determination or consulting with the FWS or the NMFS.

Significantly, the court decided to remand the case to EPA for further proceedings without vacating the CTP registration. The court stated that remand without vacatur is appropriate in this case because “[n]otwithstanding the EPA’s failure to make an effects determination and to engage in any required consultation, it did not register CTP in total disregard of the pesticide’s potential deleterious effects; indeed, the Conservation Groups themselves rely heavily on the EPA’s ‘Ecological Risk Assessment for the Registration of the New Chemical Cyantraniliprole.’” The court further stated that “allowing the EPA’s CTP registration order to remain in effect until it is replaced by an order consistent with our opinion will maintain ‘enhanced protection of the environmental values covered by the CTP registration order.’”

Commentary

This case is significant in at least two respects and should have implications in other cases being brought under ESA and FIFRA citizen suit petitions. First, the court provides the same answer concerning the “dueling jurisdictional provisions of the ESA and of FIFRA” as prior decisions in the Ninth Circuit, finding that FIFRA’s jurisdictional grounds take precedence and that the Courts of Appeal have exclusive jurisdiction to review cases claiming ESA violations in the context of an approved FIFRA pesticide registration. The court found the Conservation Groups’ arguments to the contrary “unavailing,” including but not limited to their argument that the public notice and comment periods that were provided did not constitute a “public hearing” under FIFRA Section 16(b) as well as their argument that the ESA challenge was not “inextricably intertwined” with FIFRA, even though the Conservation Groups were challenging the CTP registration order itself. It also is significant that the court, while remanding the registration order to EPA for further actions under the ESA, did not immediately vacate the existing CTP registration order.

Some observers of the extensive ESA-FIFRA litigation over recent years wondered whether the CTP registrations would be vacated once challenged for conformity to ESA requirements. EPA effectively admitted that it did not follow the full consultation process with FWS and NMFS, in this case substituting a relative risk argument that CTP was an improvement that would provide more species protection compared to the compounds it is expected to replace in the marketplace. The remand without vacatur does not resolve what some have called the “train wreck” scenario, where the need to complete ESA consultation, combined with time and resource constraints at the respective agencies, will result in a virtual freeze on new pesticide product registrations. The court makes it clear that, if EPA makes an affirmative ESA effects determination for CTP, consultation with the FWS and/or the NMFS must follow.