Regulation of Groundwater under the Clean Water Act

Posted on June 4, 2018 by William Brownell

In the early 1980s, the State of Michigan filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the United States alleging that chemicals from a federal facility located near Lake Michigan could “enter the groundwaters under the … area” occupied by the facility and then “be discharged [through that groundwater] into Grand Traverse Bay.” The Department of Justice told the Court that “these claims are not allowed under the Clean Water Act since the Act does not regulate pollutant discharges onto soil or into underlying groundwater,” and the suit was eventually dismissed.  According to the United States, “[t]he statutory language, the legislative history, the case law, and EPA’s interpretation of the Act all support this conclusion.” 

Thirty years later, in 2016, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the County of Maui, alleging that the County was violating the Clean Water Act by disposing of treated waste water through underground injection wells into groundwater that was hydrologically connected to the Pacific Ocean.  According to a Department of Justice amicus brief, this claim was allowed under the Clean Water Act because a discharge “that moves through groundwater with a direct hydrological connection [to surface water] comes under the purview of the CWA’s [NPDES] permitting requirements.”   

Which is right:  the 1985 government or the 2016 government?  Not surprisingly, both sides assert that they offer the government’s “longstanding” position.  For example, those concluding that releases to hydrologically connected groundwater are not subject to the Clean Water Act’s NPDES permit program point to (among other statements) an Office of General Counsel memorandum from 1973 that “the term ‘discharge of a pollutant’ is defined so as to include only discharges into navigable waters…. “[d]ischarges into ground waters are not included”; to EPA’s assertion in 2004 that NPDES “regulations apply to … [e]xisting facilities that discharge directly to surface waters”; and to EPA’s statement in 2017 that “discharges to groundwater are not regulated by the NPDES permit program.”  

Proponents of regulating releases to groundwater under the NPDES program rely principally on statements made in the preamble to a 2001 proposed rule for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and on the amicus brief filed in 2016 by the Department of Justice in the County of Maui case.

This “hydrological connection” theory of Clean Water Act groundwater regulation is now pending before the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits, and the period for certiorari is running in the Ninth. Clearly, the Clean Water Act cannot mean two opposite things at the same time.  Which Department of Justice is right?  

EPA recently issued a Federal Register notice asking the public to weigh in on the confusion created by its prior statements.  Perhaps instead of debating who said what when, what is needed is a dispassionate return to the statutory language.  As the Supreme Court said unanimously in 2004 in South Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, the Clean Water Act “defines the phrase ‘discharge of a pollutant’ to mean ‘any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source,’” and in turn defines a “point source” as a “‘discernible, confined and discrete conveyance’ … ‘from which pollutants are or may be discharged.’” The Court explained this “definition makes plain” that “a point source need not be the original source of the pollutant,” but “it need[s] [to] … convey the pollutant to ‘navigable waters.’”  If the NPDES program applies only where a point source conveys the pollutant to navigable water and EPA agrees that groundwater is not a point source, shouldn’t that be the end of the debate? 

“Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated”

Posted on January 27, 2017 by Robert M Olian

So said Mark Twain (actually, he didn’t), and now the same can be said for EPA’s rule exempting water transfers from NPDES permitting requirements. When I last addressed this topic nearly three years ago in “Ashes to Ashes; Waters to Waters – The Death of EPA’s Water Transfer Rule”, a federal district court had just vacated the rule seeking to clarify EPA’s position that transfers of water between navigable bodies of water do not require NPDES permits. See Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Inc. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency (SDNY, 3/28/2014)

Displaying a prescience that would make Carnac the Magnificent proud, I closed that earlier post with the assertion that “the only certainty is that litigation over the Water Transfer Rule will continue to flow.” I am therefore personally pleased to report that flow it has, the Second Circuit having now overturned the district court decision in a 2-1 opinion issued on January 18, 2017. The majority opinion upheld EPA's interpretation of the Clean Water Act to exempt water transfers, finding it was a “reasonable construction of the Clean Water Act supported by a reasoned explanation” and was entitled to deferential review under the Supreme Court’s Chevron doctrine.

 Not content to rest on my laurels, I’m going to make another prediction. The Second Circuit won’t agree to rehear en banc and, if certiorari is sought, the Supreme Court won’t take the case. All of which means that, except perhaps for one last post to gloat yet again about my ability to see into the future, this is the last you’ll hear about litigation over the water transfer rule.

Ashes to Ashes; Waters to Waters – The Death of EPA’s Water Transfer Rule?

Posted on April 8, 2014 by Robert M Olian

On March 28, 2014, a federal district court vacated EPA’s “Water Transfer Rule,” which had sought to clarify EPA’s position that transfers of water between navigable bodies of water do not require NPDES permits. See Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Inc. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency (SDNY, 3/28/2014). The Water Transfer Rule, codified at 40 CFR  § 122.3(i), was the presumptive culmination of a long and meandering trail of EPA regulatory interpretation, guidance memoranda and judicial opinions, including a trip to the United States Supreme Court in the case of South Florida Water Management District v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, 541 U.S. 95 (2004).

The Catskill ruling is notable in several respects. First, it came from a district court. After the Supreme Court ruled, in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, that district courts, rather than appellate courts, have jurisdiction in certain situations to review such regulations -- even if the suits are brought years after the rules were promulgated, the Eleventh Circuit held in Friends of the Everglades v. EPA that it lacked original jurisdiction over a challenge to the water transfer rulemaking, a ruling that the Supreme Court declined to review.

Second, the district court did not stay its ruling pending appeal, though appeal is a virtual certainty. Thus, the permit status of various water transferors who relied on the rule (irrigation districts, dam operators, water utilities, etc.) is now in limbo until a higher court reviews the Catskill decision or EPA promulgates a temporary fix. Any such fix, by the way, may be hard to come by in light of the district court’s expressed views about EPA’s misinterpretation of Congressional intent.

Third, the opinion contains language about the definition of “navigable waters” that does not quite align with EPA’s and the Corps’ imminent release of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing that very definition.

At this time, then, the only certainty is that litigation over the Water Transfer Rule will continue to flow. 


Posted on March 28, 2012 by Paul Phillips

On February 22, 2012, the United States Supreme Court issued a rare 9-0 opinion addressing issues of interest to environmental lawyers and historians alike.  PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana, 565 U.S., 132 S.Ct. 1215 (2012).  The Court's decision needs to be reviewed and properly understood by practitioners and parties dealing with a myriad of activities that take place along and under rivers, including environmental remediation and determination of ownership of river beds and banks within any environmental site through which a river flows.

The Court dealt with a dispute between the Petitioner (owner of hydroelectric facilities on three rivers in Montana) and the State of Montana regarding who owns the riverbeds.  Under the Constitution-based “Equal Footing Doctrine,” first adopted by the Supreme Court in 1842, the answer to that question depends upon whether the rivers were navigable at the time of statehood. 

The high court reversed the decision by the Montana Supreme Court holding that Montana owned the riverbeds in question, based upon the Montana Court’s “infirm legal understanding of [the Supreme] Court’s rules of navigability law for title under the equal footing doctrine.” 

The Court reinstated bedrock principles of title and navigability law that it last ruled on in 1931.  The Court reaffirmed that, while states do receive title at the time of statehood to the beds and banks of rivers that were "really navigable," the states may not amend the pertinent federal navigability rules in their favor, post-statehood, because "it is not for a State by courts or legislature, in dealing with the general subject of beds or streams, to adopt a retroactive rule for determining navigability which would enlarge what actually passed to the State, at the time of her admission."  The Court also confirmed that, if a river was not navigable at statehood, then title to the river's beds and banks stayed in the United States "to be transferred or licensed if and as it chooses;" for example, by land patents or grants, leaving private riparian landholders on either side of a river owning the beds "to the center of the stream."

Some other important highlights from the unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy:

           1.    The Court explained that, other than for title, the concept of “navigability” is used in different contexts, including for purposes of assessing federal regulatory authority under the Commerce Clause and to determine admiralty jurisdiction, but emphasized that “the test for navigability is not applied in the same way in these distinct types of cases." 
           2.    The Court reiterated that rivers are deemed navigable in fact when they are "used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel are or may be conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water."  Importantly, however, in title disputes, the existence or absence of such commercial "navigation is determined at the time of statehood;" is "based on the natural and ordinary condition of the water;" and cannot be based on improvements made to that natural condition.
           3.    The Court rejected Montana's reliance on present-day recreational use of the rivers, including anglers in drift boats, as evidence that the rivers had been susceptible of commercial navigation at the time of Montana's statehood in 1889.  The Court held that an assessment for title navigability at statehood "concerns the river's usefulness for trade and travel, rather than for other purposes," and explained that while "a river need not be susceptible of navigation at every point during the year, neither can that susceptibility be so brief that it is not a commercial reality:"  “At a minimum, a party seeking to use present-day evidence for title purposes must show: (1) the watercraft are meaningfully similar to those in customary use for trade and travel at the time of statehood; and (2) the river's post-statehood condition is not materially different from its physical condition at statehood."


Posted on February 7, 2012 by Susan M. Franzetti

A rather surprising turn of events occurred recently in North Carolina, but the underlying reasons still remain unclear.  On January 11, 2012, the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (“EMC”), by a 4-3 vote, vacated an Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision on summary judgment that the Rose Acre egg farm’s airborne ammonia emissions are not subject to regulation under, and do not require, a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit.  The ALJ’s Decision and the parties’ pleadings are available here.The EMC remanded the matter back to the ALJ, August B. Elkins II, for a full evidentiary hearing.  Thus, the case raises anew the question of whether a discharge to air can constitute a point source discharge to navigable waters of the United States which requires a NPDES permit under the Clean Water Act,.  The answer may depend on whether such a discharge is found to remain “in the air” and not make its way by land “into the water.” 

On October 17, 2011, ALJ Elkin found that the Rose Acre facility does not discharge or have the potential to discharge process wastewater (or manure, litter) to navigable waters of the United States.  Judge Elkin’s relied on the March 2011 decision by the Firth Circuit Court of Appeals in National Pork Producers Council v. EPA, in which it held that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lacked the authority to require a NPDES permit for a facility that “proposes to discharge” or any facility that has not yet discharged into a navigable water of the United States.  Judge Elkin held that the DENR has no authority to require Rose Acre to obtain an NPDES Permit. 

Rose Acre is the site of 14 high-rise hen houses with a total of four million egg laying hens, located within the Tar-Pamlico River Basin in North Carolina.  Rose Acre operates what is called a “dry-litter facility” that does not directly discharge into any waters.  In 2009, before the Fifth Circuit’s decision in National Pork Producers Council that only CAFOs that actually discharge were required to secure a NPDES permit, Rose Acre applied for a NPDES permit.  The Division of Water Quality of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (“DENR”) issued a NPDES permit to Rose Acre, which included conditions requiring amendment of the facility’s Best Management Plan (“BMP”).  Rose Acre appealed, contending that it no longer needed an NPDES permit as well as challenging a number of the BMP conditions on the grounds that they exceeded the DENR’s regulatory authority.  The ALJ granted Rose Acre summary judgment.

Existing precedent supports the ALJ’s decision.  Both the Second and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that air emissions, even where there is atmospheric deposition into navigable waters, are not regulated by the Clean Water Act.  The Second Circuit so held in its 2000 decision in No Spray Coalition, Inc. v. City of New York, dealing with insecticide spray to eradicate mosquitoes.  In No Spray Coalition, the Second Circuit found that:
       While the trucks and helicopters used to spray insecticides may be point sources…they discharge the    insecticides into the atmosphere and not into navigable waters.  It would be stretching the language of the [Clean Water Act] well beyond the intent of Congress to hold that the de minimus incidental drift over navigable waters of a pesticide is a discharge from a point source into those waters. The fact that a pollutant might ultimately end up in navigable  waters as it courses through the environment does not make its use a violation of the Clean Water Act…To so hold would bring within the purview of the Clean Water Act every emission of smoke, exhaust fumes, or pesticides in New York City.

In 1997, the Tenth Circuit, in Chemical Weapons Working Group v. U.S. Department of the Army, refused to apply the Clean Water Act § 301(f) prohibition against disposal of chemical weapons into waters to smokestack emissions from a chemical weapons incinerator.  The Tenth Circuit emphasized the potential duplication of regulation by the Clean Air Act as well as finding that under § 301(f), Congress clearly intended to authorize the incineration of chemical weapons.  The Tenth Circuit also viewed the attempt to regulate stack emission under the Clean Water Act as contrary to plain old common sense.  (“Although Plaintiffs may be correct in arguing that an object may fly through the air and still be ‘discharged…into the navigable waters’ under the Clean Water Act, common sense dictates that [the] stack emission constitute discharges into the air – not water- are therefore beyond § 301(f) reach.”). 

Similarly, in American Canoe Assn. v. D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected allegations that the D.C. Sewer Authority violated its NPDES permit by failing to install odor controlling carbon filters on sewer vents.  The court found that attempts to control sewer gas or hydrogen sulfide fumes emanating from sewers in a NPDES permit are “unrelated to the general purposes of the CWA” and unenforceable obligations. 

During oral argument on its challenge to the ALJ Elkin’s Rose Acre decision before a panel of the EMC, the DENR’s counsel appears to have successfully changed the focus of the legal inquiry from what’s in the air to what’s in the water?  In its Exceptions to the ALJ’s Entry of Summary Judgment, the DENR contended that it had not attempted to regulate airborne emissions of ammonia.  Instead, it now contends that Rose Acre does discharge to navigable waters, citing the fact that “with a rain event the feathers and dust from the ventilations fans at [Rose Acre] are flushed into a stormwater pond and then into waters of the State.  The DENR further relied upon the comparative results of surface water monitoring taken before and the Rose Acre hens were stocked, which showed higher levels of ammonia nitrogen, total inorganic nitrogen, phosphorus and fecal coliform in surface water.  Thus, the DENR took the position that although pollutants may initially be discharged “into the air,” if they wind up on the ground and then make their way to a regulated surface water, there is a “point source” discharge that is subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act. 

Rose Acre contends that the DENR’s argument is a post hoc rationalization, without any supporting, credible evidence, to defend its decision to issue the NPDES permit.  In this regard, Rose Acre notes that the ventilation fans in question “are pointed at a ninety degree angle away from a storm water retention pond that is located over one-fifth of a mile away.”  Judge Elkin found that the stormwater pond point source theory was unsupported by the record.  Relying on the holding in National Pork Producers Council that a CAFO is not required to apply for a NPDES permit until there is an “actual discharge into navigable waters to trigger the CWA’s requirements”, Rose Acre contends that the DENR has failed to present any proof of such a discharge. 

If the Rose Acre case proceeds to ruling after the ordered full evidentiary hearing, it will be worth watching to see whether the ultimate decision is based on what’s in the air or what’s in the water (and how it got there). 

Muddling Through: Clean Water Act Edition

Posted on March 1, 2011 by Seth Jaffe

Previously, I discussed EPA’s efforts to “muddle through” on climate change in the absence of comprehensive legislation. This week, I think it’s the Clean Water Act’s turn. If there were any regulatory situation which required some serious muddling through at the moment, interpretation of the Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision almost is a match for the current climate mess. As most of my readers know, Rapanos was a 4-1-4 decision which left EPA, the Corps, developers and environmentalists fairly equally perplexed

Most stakeholders have assumed that Kennedy’s concurring opinion, requiring a “significant nexus” between wetlands and traditional navigable waters before those wetlands are subject to jurisdiction under the CWA, is the law of the land at this point. That is the approach adopted in the Rapanos Guidance issued by EPA and the Corps in 2007. 

A recent decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Precon Development Corporation v. Army Corps of Engineers, illustrates just how muddled post-Rapanos interpretation has become. The decision in Precon – reversing the District Court – found that the Corps had not built a record sufficient to establish that the wetlands which Precon sought to develop were jurisdictional under the CWA. 

There were two technical issues in Precon. Precon lost what one might have thought would be the more significant issue – the Corps’ finding that, although only 4.8 acres were really at issue in this case, and Precon’s entire development includes 166 acres of wetlands, 448 acres of “similarly situated” wetlands would be examined for a substantial nexus to navigable waters. Precon ultimately won, however, because the Court concluded that the Corps’ record did not contain enough physical evidence to support its determination that a significant nexus exists between the 448 wetland acres and the downstream navigable water. 

The Court’s conclusion raised two issues of broad concern to stakeholders. First, the Court granted little deference to EPA’s conclusion on the significant nexus issue. The Corps argued that its conclusion that there was a significant nexus between the site wetlands and the downstream navigable waters was a factual conclusion. However, the Court concluded that the significant nexus determination was not factual. The Court stated that:

The question is instead whether the Corps’ findings were adequate to support the ultimate conclusion that a significant nexus exists. This legal determination is essentially now a matter of statutory construction, as Justice Kennedy established that a “significant nexus” is a statutory requirement for bringing wetlands adjacent to non-navigable tributaries within the CWA’s definition of “navigable waters.”

Well, this is certainly a nice question of administrative law. The significant nexus issue may now be the ultimate legal question. Nonetheless, I would guess that most wetlands scientists and hydrologists would say that this is largely a factual question. Even if the agency is applying its judgment to answer that question, it’s the type of judgment that requires technical expertise – expertise to which courts have traditionally deferred.

The second of the Court’s important pronouncements was that it would not give the EPA/Corps Rapanos Guidance deference under Chevron. Why not?

Because – although it could – the Corps has not adopted an interpretation of “navigable waters” that incorporates this concept through notice-and-comment rulemaking, but instead has interpreted the term only in a non-binding guidance document.”

Isn’t it timely, then, that EPA and the Corps sent a draft new Rapanos guidance to OMB in December, and GOP leadership in the House is proposing language in a continuing resolution that would preclude EPA from using any funds “to implement, administer, or enforce a change to a rule or guidance document pertaining to the definition of waters under the jurisdiction of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1251).” Perhaps EPA and the Corps should take half a loaf. Why not agree to shelve the guidance and instead proceed with notice-and-comment rulemaking to clarify Rapanos? At least then the Courts might grant EPA and the Corps more deference in implementation.  It’s already been almost five years since Rapanos was issued. EPA and the Corps can hardly argue that it’s necessary to go the guidance route because they don’t have the time to proceed through the full regulatory process.

Enough muddling through. Take the time to do it right and issue regulations. Then, maybe the muddle will abate. (Can one abate a muddle?)