Area in the Vicinity of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Facility Properly Classified as a Statutorily Protected Environmental Habitat
The Third Department affirmed the Secretary of State’s expansion of a statutory “significant coastal fish and wildlife habitat area” along the Hudson River in the vicinity of the Indian Point nuclear power facility. The petitioner, the owner of Indian Point, sought to have the designation of the area as a statutorily protected environmental habitat annulled. The Third Department (1) explained a court’s powers when reviewing an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations; (2) determined the agency did not engage in formal rulemaking (which would be subject to the stringent procedural requirements of the State Administrative Procedure Act); and (3) determined certain documents were properly withheld re: petitioner’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests:
When an agency interprets a regulation that it promulgated, deference is afforded to that agency’s interpretive approach unless it is “irrational or unreasonable” … . To this end, the promulgating agency’s interpretation may not be adjudged irrational simply because other rational constructions of the regulatory provision in question exist …, nor because the promulgating agency’s reading of the relevant regulatory language either broadens its plain-language scope … or amounts to a “strict[ly] literal interpretation” … . Furthermore, “the determination of an agency acting pursuant to its authority and within its area of expertise is[, similarly,] entitled to judicial deference” … . In contrast, an agency’s interpretation of one of its own regulations is not entitled to deference if that interpretation contradicts the plain language of the regulation (see Matter of Elcor Health Servs. v Novello, 100 NY2d at 280), and an agency may be deemed to have acted irrationally if an interpretation of a regulation marks an unsubstantiated departure from the agency’s previous position on a given subject … . * * *
State Administrative Procedure Act § 102 (2) (a) (i), in pertinent part, defines a “[r]ule” as “the whole or part of each agency statement, regulation or code of general applicability that implements or applies law.” In contrast, State Administrative Procedure Act § 102 (2) (b) (iv) excludes from this statutory definition “forms and instructions, interpretive statements and statements of general policy which in themselves have no legal effect but are merely explanatory.” While “there is no clear bright line between a ‘rule’ or ‘regulation’ and an interpretative policy,” an agency does not engage in formal rulemaking when the practical effect of an agency’s updated policy is that a discrete group of regulated entities or individuals likely will be subjected to a greater degree of regulatory scrutiny than are the majority of those regulated by the agency … . When an agency engages in a course of regulatory action that amounts to formal rulemaking but does not comply with the procedural requirements of State Administrative Procedure Act article 2, that regulatory action must be annulled … .
We agree with respondents that the habitat boundaries’ modification that gave rise to Hudson Highlands did not amount to formal rulemaking. * * *
In response to petitioners’ discovery and Freedom of Information Law requests, respondents withheld a small number of documents pursuant to Public Officers’ Law § 87 (2) (g), which allows for “people within an agency to exchange opinions, advice and criticism freely and frankly, without the chilling prospect of public disclosure” … . Supreme Court correctly concluded that “respondents’ interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the records and in allowing the candid exchange of ‘opinions, advice and criticism'” was valid and outweighed petitioners’ interest in having them. Petitioners argue that respondents waived the deliberative process privilege by describing the agencies’ decision-making process within the scientists’ affidavits. We find petitioners’ claims that respondents have waived the deliberative process privilege to be unpersuasive … . Matter of Entergy Nuclear Indian Point 2, LLC v New York State Dept. of State, 2015 NY Slip Op 05988, 3rd Dept 7-9-15