Posted on February 21, 2019 by Patrick A. Parenteau
As anticipated in an earlier post, the Supreme Court has granted review in County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund limited to the question “Whether the Clean Water Act (CWA) requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater.” The Court took no action on a related petition in Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P. v. Upstate Forever involving groundwater contamination from a ruptured gas pipeline. The Court will presumably hold that petition pending the outcome in the Maui case.
As described in the Ninth Circuit decision, the County of Maui owns and operates four wells at a wastewater treatment plant that processes four million gallons of sewage per day. Treated wastewater is then injected via the County’s wells into the groundwater which flows directly into the Pacific Ocean. Approximately one out of every seven gallons of groundwater entering the ocean near the plant is comprised of effluent from the wells.
Both the District Court and the Ninth Circuit ruled that the wells were point sources, and that the injection of treated wastewater into the groundwater constituted a discharge subject to the permitting requirements of the CWA. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit held that “an indirect discharge from a point source to a navigable water suffices for CWA liability to attach.” The Ninth Circuit adopted a “fairly traceable” test for determining when a discharge via groundwater to navigable water would require a permit. As discussed in my earlier post, the court relied in part on Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanosin support of this conclusion.
The Ninth Circuit expressly left for another day “the task of determining when, if ever, the connection between a point source and a navigable water is too tenuous to support liability under the CWA.”
The Solicitor General supported the grant of certiorari in Maui (but not in Kinder Morgan) to resolve the split in the circuit courts on whether the CWA covers activities that cause pollutants to be conveyed through groundwater to waters of the United States.
Conventional wisdom suggests the Supreme Court is likely to reverse the Ninth Circuit. However, once the Justices (and their clerks) have had the opportunity to dig into the record, they may find that CWA regulation actually makes sense in this situation. Some of the key facts are these.
- Maui originally considered an ocean outfall but opted for the less obvious injection wells located within a quarter mile of the shore.
- A 2013 EPA dye tracer study confirmed that the treated effluent enters the Pacific Ocean at Kahekili Beach – – a popular surfing and snorkeling beach.
- Monitoring has shown that nutrients, fecal coliform, and other pollutants in the effluent are impacting the reef and exposing the public to potential health risks at Kahekili. EPA studies have confirmed that reef productivity declined 44% over the time the system has been operating, and fecal coliform counts regularly exceed safe levels.
- EPA Region 9 advised Maui it would need to obtain a discharge permit and communicated that to the Hawaii Department of Health, which failed to take any action. EPA was acting under its 40+ year-old policy that discharges through ground water with a “direct and immediate” hydrologic connection to surface waters (i.e., the ocean) require a permit.
EPA is now reviewing this policy and may well change its position, either by adopting an interpretive rule or issuing guidance in some form. The Agency will no doubt try to complete this process before the Court hears argument in the fall. Should EPA adopt an interpretation that groundwater can never be the “conduit” for conveying pollutants for point sources to waters of the United States, the next question will be whether that new interpretation is entitled to any deference. Given the skepticism that several Justices have shown towards a mechanical application of Chevron, it will be interesting to see how this all “sugars off” as we say in Vermont.
We may soon get an answer to the question that the 9th Circuit ducked, namely when does the connection between a point source and a navigable water become too tenuous to support CWA liability.