Does the Clean Water Act Cover Discharges to or Through Groundwater, Part III?

Posted on March 7, 2019 by David Buente

In both 2016 and 2017, I blogged to discuss a key Clean Water Act (“CWA”) jurisdictional issue:  whether the indirect discharge of pollutants into groundwater which is hydrologically connected to a surface water of the United States is regulated under the CWA.  At the time, the district courts were split on this issue, and the only courts of appeals to rule on this point (a Fifth Circuit opinion from 2001 and a Seventh Circuit opinion from 1994) got the issue right by rejecting CWA or Oil Pollution Act jurisdiction over such discharges.  Since then, the landscape has shifted dramatically.  In 2018 alone, three circuit courts weighed in on this topic in five decisions.  And, as noted on this blog last month, the Supreme Court recently granted a petition for certiorari in one of these cases, meaning that years of confusion will finally be resolved, in some fashion, by 2020. 

The first circuit court to issue an opinion in 2018 was the Ninth Circuit in February 2018, in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui (the opinion was amended in March 2018).  That case addressed whether treated wastewater effluent which traveled from the County’s underground injection wells, through groundwater, into the nearby Pacific Ocean constituted discharges regulated under the CWA.  The Ninth Circuit held that the wastewater was a covered discharge since it came from a point source (the wells) and was “fairly traceable from the point source,” even if it did not make its way directly from the wells to the ocean. 

The next circuit to weigh in was the Fourth Circuit, in April 2018 in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P.  This decision held that the movement of gasoline which resulted from a pipeline spill in 2014 and was allegedly still seeping through groundwater approximately 1000 feet into surface waters constituted a CWA discharge, since it originated from a point source (the pipeline rupture) and there was evidence of a “direct hydrological connection between [the] ground water and navigable waters….”  This decision in fact expands the CWA even further than the Maui opinion, because it held that the CWA covered discharges when the original release of pollutants from the point source has ceased, but the pollutants continue to travel diffusely through groundwater.  In a September 2018 decision, a different Fourth Circuit panel in Sierra Club v. Virginia Electric & Power Company acknowledged the Upstate Forever panel’s adoption of the direct hydrological connection theory but rejected liability on the grounds that the coal ash landfills and basins at issue were not point sources.   

Finally, on the same day in September 2018, the Sixth Circuit issued decisions in Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Company and in Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority.  Both cases dealt with alleged discharges through groundwater from coal ash basins to navigable waterways.  Contrary to the Fourth and Ninth Circuits (and in line with the earlier circuit court case law), the Sixth Circuit held that groundwater was not a point source and that these discharges are not regulated since they must be directly from the point source to a water of the United States.

Petitions for writs of certiorari before the Supreme Court have proceeded on similar timeframes in the Maui and Upstate Forever cases.  In each case, the petitioners filed their petitions in August 2018.  The Maui petition addressed the indirect discharge via groundwater issue and a fair notice question.  The Upstate Forever petition raised both the indirect discharge through groundwater issue and whether an ongoing violation for purposes of a CWA citizen suit occurs when the point source ceased discharging but pollutants are still reaching navigable waters via groundwater.  In December 2018, the Supreme Court, signaling interest in the cases, requested the Solicitor General to file an amicus brief in both cases by January 4, 2019, expressing the view of the United States.  In that amicus brief, the United States urged the Supreme Court only to accept the Maui case, and only on the groundwater discharge issue.  The United States’ rationale was that Maui presented the groundwater discharge issue more squarely, since the ongoing violation issue in Upstate Forever was a threshold concern.  The brief separately observed that EPA was planning to take action shortly in response to its February 2018 request for comment on the groundwater discharge issue. 

On February 19, 2019, the Supreme Court, adhering to the United States’ request, accepted only the Maui petition and only on the groundwater discharge question.  The Maui case will likely be the Supreme Court’s most seminal CWA decision in over a decade, since the split decision in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  Industry should track this case closely, as its resolution will have an effect on everything from federal and citizen suit enforcement to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit requirements.   



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