Monday, October 22, 2018

Is Groundwater A “Point Source” Pollutant?


The purpose of the Clean Water Act (CWA) is to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into the nation's waters without a permit.  The CWA recognizes two sources of pollution. Point source and nonpoint source pollution.  Under the CWA, point source pollution is the concern of the federal government and it is the type of pollution that comes from a clearly discernable discharge point, such as a pipe, a ditch, or a concentrated animal feeding operation.  Nonpoint source pollution, while not specifically defined under the CWA, is pollution that comes from a diffused point of discharge, such as fertilizer runoff from an open field.  Control of nonpoint source pollution is to be handled by the states through enforcement of state water quality standards and area-wide waste management plans.

What if pollution enters CWA-regulated waters (“Waters of the United States”) through groundwater?  Is groundwater a point source of pollution?  If so, that has serious implications for agriculture.  A recent federal appeals court opinion brings good news for agriculture.  It also creates a split amongst the courts that the U.S. Supreme Court may be asked to resolve.

Groundwater and point-source pollution – that’s the topic of today’s post.

The CWA and “Point Source” Pollution

No one may discharge a “pollutant” from a point source into the “navigable waters of the United States” without a permit from the EPA. An NPDES permit is not required unless there is an “addition” of a pollutant to regulable waters. See e.g., Friends of the Everglades, et al. v. South Florida Water Management District, et al., 570 F.3d 1210 (11th Cir. 2009) reh’g., den., 605 F.3d 962 (11th Cir. 2010), cert. den., 131 S. Ct. 643 (2010).  

The definition of “pollutant” has been construed broadly to include the tillage of soil which causes the soil to be “redeposited” into delineated wetlands constitutes the discharge of a “pollutant” into the navigable waters of the United States requiring an NPDES permit.  See, Duarte Nursery, Inc.  v. United States Army Corps of Engineers , No. 2:13-cv-02095-KJM-AC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76037 (E.D. Cal. Jun. 10, 2016).  The court also determined that farming equipment, a tractor and ripper attachment constituted a point source pollutant under the CWA.  The discharge was not exempt under the “established farming operation” exemption of 33 U.S.C. §1344(f)(1) because farming activities on the tract had not been established and on-going but had been grazed since 1988.  As a result, the planting of wheat could not be considered a continuation of established and on-going farming activities.  Id. 

Under 1977 amendments to the CWA, irrigation return flows are not considered point sources. See, e.g., Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, et al. v. Glaser, et al., No. CIV S-2:11-2980-KJM-CKD, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 132240 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 16, 2013)In Pacific Coast, the plaintiff directly challenged the exemption of tile drainage systems from CWA regulation via “return flows from irrigated water” on the basis that groundwater discharged from drainage tile systems is separate from any irrigation occurring on farms and is, therefore, not exempt.  In dismissing the case, the court also noted that “return flows” narrows the type of water permissibly discharged from irrigated agriculture and covers discharges from irrigated agriculture that don’t contain additional discharges unrelated to crop production. 

What About Groundwater?

The NPDES system only applies to discharges of pollutants into surface water.    Discharges of pollutants into groundwater are not subject to the NPDES permit requirement even if the groundwater is hydrologically connected to surface water.  Indeed, the legislative history of the CWA demonstrates that the Congress, did not intend that the CWA regulate hydrologically-connected groundwater.  Groundwater regulation was to be left to the states as nonpoint source pollution.  See, e.g., Umatilla Water Quality Protective Association v. Smith Frozen Foods, 962 F. Supp. 1312 (D. Or. 1997)

While it seems clear that the CWA was never intended to apply to pollution discharges into groundwater that eventually finds its way into a WOTUS, in recent years a split has developed between a few of the federal circuit courts of appeal.  For example, in Upstate Forever, et al. v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, LP, et al., 887 F.3d 637 (4th Cir. 2018), the plaintiffs, a consortium of environmental and conservation groups, brought a citizen suit under the Clean Water Act (CWA) claiming that the defendant violated the CWA by discharging “pollutants” into the navigable waters of the United States without a required discharge permit via an underground ruptured gasoline pipeline owned by the defendant’s subsidiary. The plaintiff claimed that a discharge permit was needed because the CWA defines “point source pollutant” (which requires a discharge permit) as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, included but not limited to any…well…from which pollutants are or may be discharged.”

The trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim, but the appellate court held that a pollutant can first move through groundwater before reaching navigable waters and still constitute a “discharge of a pollutant” under the CWA that requires a federal discharge permit. The discharge need not be channeled by a point source until reaching navigable waters that are subject to the CWA. The appellate court did, however, point out that a discharge into groundwater does not always mean that a CWA discharge permit is required. A permit in such situations is only required if there is a direct hydrological connection between groundwater and navigable waters. In the present case, however, the appellate court noted that the pipeline rupture occurred within 1,000 feet of the navigable waters. The court noted that the defendant had not established any independent or contributing cause of pollution. 

Similarly, in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. Cty. of Maui, 881 F.3d 754 (9th Cir. 2018), the defendant owned and operated four wells at the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility (LWRF), which is the principal municipal wastewater treatment plant for a city. Although constructed initially to serve as a backup disposal method for water reclamation, the wells became the defendant’s primary means of effluent disposal into groundwater and, ultimately, the Pacific Ocean. The LWRF received approximately 4 million gallons of sewage per day from a collection system serving approximately 40,000 people. That sewage was treated at LWRF and then either sold to customers for irrigation purposes or injected into the wells for disposal. The defendant injected approximately 3 to 5 million gallons of treated wastewater per day into the groundwater via its wells. The defendant conceded, and its expert, confirmed that wastewater injected into wells 1 and 2 enters the Pacific Ocean. In addition, in June 2013 the EPA, the Hawaii Department of Health, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, and researchers from the University of Hawaii conducted a study on wells 2, 3 and 4. The study involved placing tracer dye into Wells 2, 3, and 4, and monitoring the submarine seeps off Kahekili Beach to see if and when the dye would appear in the Pacific Ocean. This study, known as the Tracer Dye Study, found that 64% of the treated wastewater from wells 3 and 4 discharged into the ocean.

The plaintiff sued, claiming that the defendant was in violation CWA by discharging pollutants into a WOTUS without a permit.  The trial court agreed, holding that a permit was required for effluent discharges into navigable waters via groundwater. On appeal, the appellate court held that the wells were point sources that could be regulated through CWA permits despite the defendant’s claim that a permit was not required because the wells discharged only indirectly into the Pacific Ocean via groundwater. Specifically, the appellate court held that “a point source discharge to groundwater of “more than [a] de minimis” amount of pollutants that is “fairly traceable from the point source . . . such that the discharge is the functional equivalent of a discharge into a navigable water” is regulated under the CWA.”

A recent decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, however, reached a different decision.  In Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority, No. 17-6155, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 27237 (6th Cir. Sept. 24, 2018).  The defendant, a utility that burns coal to produce energy, produces coal ash as a byproduct. The coal ash is discharged into man-made ponds. The plaintiffs, environmental activist groups, claimed that the chemicals from the coal ash in the ponds leaked into surrounding groundwater where it was then carried to a nearby lake that was subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The plaintiffs claimed that the contamination of the lake without a discharge permit violated the CWA and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The trial court had dismissed the RCRA claim but the appellate court reversed that determination and remanded the case on that issue.

On the CWA claim, the trial court ruled as a matter of law that the CWA applies to discharges of pollutants from a point source through hydrologically connected groundwater to navigable waters where the connection is "direct, immediate, and can generally be traced." The trial court held that the defendant’s facility was a point source because it "channel[s] the flow of pollutants . . . by forming a discrete, unlined concentration of coal ash," and that the Complex is also a point source because it is "a series of discernible, confined, and discrete ponds that receive wastewater, treat that wastewater, and ultimately convey it to the Cumberland River." The trial court also determined that the defendant’s facility and the ponds were hydrologically connected to the Cumberland River by groundwater. As for the defendant’s facility, the court held that "[f]aced with an impoundment that has leaked in the past and no evidence of any reason that it would have stopped leaking, the Court has no choice but to conclude that the [defendant’s facility] has continued to and will continue to leak coal ash waste into the Cumberland River, through rainwater vertically penetrating the Site, groundwater laterally penetrating the Site, or both." The trial court determined that the physical properties of the terrain made the area “prone to the continued development of ever newer sinkholes or other karst features." Thus, based on the contaminants flowing from the ponds, the court found defendant to be in violation of the CWA. The trial court also determined that the leakage was in violation of the defendant “removed-substances” and “sanitary-sewer” overflow provisions. The trial court ordered the defendant to "fully excavate" the coal ash in the ponds (13.8 million cubic yards in total) and relocate it to a lined facility.

On further review, the appellate court reversed.  The appellate court held that the CWA does not apply to point source pollution that reaches surface water by means of groundwater movement. The appellate court rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that mere groundwater is equivalent to a discernable point source through which pollutants travel to a CWA-regulated body of water. The appellate court noted that, to constitute a “conveyance” of groundwater governed by the CWA, the conveyance must be discernible, confined and discrete. While groundwater may constitute a conveyance, the appellate court reasoned that it is neither discernible, confined nor discrete. Rather, the court noted that groundwater is a “diffuse medium” that “seeps in all directions, guided only by the general pull of gravity. This it [groundwater] is neither confined nor discrete.” In addition, the appellate court noted that the CWA only regulates pollutants “…that are added to navigable waters from any point source.” In so holding, the court rejected the holdings in of the prior decisions of the Fourth and Ninth Circuits. 


The Sixth Circuit’s decision is a breath of fresh air for agriculture.  It is the state’s responsibility to regulate nonpoint source pollution.  A hydrological connection was never intended to suffice for federal jurisdiction under the CWA, and the Sixth Circuit said that the other courts finding as such was “misguided.”  The Sixth Circuit stated, “Reading the CWA to extend liability to groundwater pollution is not the best one.” 

Groundwater is not a point source.  The Sixth Circuit’s opinion has big implications for agricultural farming activities and will help keep the federal government out of the farm field in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.  It’s also likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will be asked to clear up the split between the circuit courts.  Stay tuned.

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