Does Upstate Forever Mean Potential Citizen Suit Liability Forever?

Posted on May 24, 2018 by Patricia Barmeyer

Maybe.

If, as held by the Fourth Circuit in the recent decision in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan,

  • A release from a point source to groundwater that reaches jurisdictional surface waters in measurable quantities is an unpermitted discharge in violation of the Clean Water Act, and
  • The unpermitted discharge is deemed to be “continuing” so long as the seepage through groundwater continues to add pollutants to jurisdictional waters, even though the discharge to groundwater has ceased

then, indeed, the potential for citizen suit liability has been vastly increased and, most troubling, the requirement for an “ongoing violation” has been significantly eroded.

The recent decision of Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan, L.P. (4th Cir. April 12, 2018), addressed a citizen suit arising out of a spill of gasoline from an underground pipeline. The pipeline operator repaired the pipeline shortly after the spill, implemented remediation and recovery measures required by state regulators, and recovered much of the gasoline from the spill site. NGOs brought a citizen suit under the CWA, alleging that actions taken by the pipeline operator were insufficient to abate the pollution, and that gasoline and other pollutants were continuing to seep from the spill site, through groundwater, into surface waters regulated under the CWA. The district court dismissed the suit, finding that (1) the CWA does not regulate the movement of pollutants through groundwater, and (2) the alleged violation was not ongoing because the pipeline had been repaired and was no longer discharging pollutants “directly” into navigable waters.

The Fourth Circuit reversed on both points and allowed the citizen suit to move forward. The decision has two key holdings:

  • First, while acknowledging that the CWA does not generally regulate releases to groundwater, the Fourth Circuit panel held that discharges to groundwater with a “direct hydrological connection” to surface waters may be regulated by the CWA, so long as the  discharge results in pollutants reaching jurisdictional waters in “measureable quantities.”
  • Second, the Court found that the repair of the pipeline breach was not sufficient to render the alleged CWA violations “wholly past,” because the continuing seepage of gasoline was continuing to add pollutants to jurisdictional waters.

Assuming the majority opinion stands, the implications are very troubling.

The first holding makes even an accidental release to groundwater an unpermitted discharge under the CWA, if the pollutant makes its way to jurisdictional waters. This “groundwater as a conduit” theory, also adopted in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, 2018 WL 1569313 (9th Cir. Feb. 2018), is the subject of much debate in the courts, in Congress and at EPA, which has solicited comment on the issue. 

The second holding is at least as problematic. Even assuming that the accidental discharge to groundwater was an unpermitted discharge to jurisdictional waters in violation of the CWA,    one must wonder how the party responsible could ever cut off liability. According to the decision in Upstate Forever, stopping the point source release and even remediation to state standards does not make the violation “wholly past.” Depending on the amount released, the amount remaining after remediation, the distance to jurisdictional waters, the soil characteristics, the speed of groundwater movement, and other factors, it is possible that the risk of citizen suit liability could continue for years—long after the incident has been corrected, repaired and remediated.

There is a strong, well-reasoned dissent that concludes that there is no ongoing discharge of pollutants from a point source because “the only point source at issue—the pipeline—is not currently leaking or releasing any pollutants.” Slip Opinion at 40. The defendant pipeline operator has filed a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc, arguing that the panel decision is erroneous on both issues and emphasizing the inconsistency with Gwaltney of Smithfield, Ltd. v. Chesapeake Bay Found., Inc., 484 U.S. 49 (1987).

If it stands, however, the Upstate Forever decision could indeed create the risk of citizen suit liability almost “forever.”



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