Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Does a Pollutant Discharge From Groundwater Into a WOTUS Require a Federal Permit?

Overview

Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is required to discharge a “pollutant” from a point source into the “navigable waters of the United States” (WOTUS).  Clearly, a discharge directly into a WOTUS is covered.  But, is an NPDES permit necessary if the discharge is directly into groundwater which then finds its way to a WOTUS?  Are indirect discharges from groundwater into a WOTUS covered?   If so, does that mean that farmland drainage tile is subject to the CWA and an NPDES discharge permit is required?  The federal government has never formally taken that position, but if that’s the case it’s a huge issue for agriculture. 

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving these issues.  The Court’s decision will have very significant implications for agriculture. 

CWA Discharge Permit Basics

The CWA recognizes two sources of pollution. Point source pollution is pollution which comes from a clearly discernable discharge point, such as a pipe, a ditch, or a concentrated animal feeding operation.  Under the CWA, point source pollution is the concern of the federal government.  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.

Under 1977 amendments, tile drainage systems were exempted from CWA regulation via irrigation return flows.  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).  They aren’t considered to be point sources.  In addition, several courts have held that the NPDES system only applies to discharges of pollutants into surface water.  These courts have held that discharges of pollutants into groundwater are not subject to the NPDES permit

requirement even if the groundwater is hydrologically connected to surface water.  See, e.g., Umatilla Water Quality Protective Association v. Smith Frozen Foods, 962 F. Supp. 1312 (D. Ore. 1997); United States v. ConAgra, Inc., No. CV 96-0134-S-LMB, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21401 (D. Idaho Dec. 31, 1997).  Likewise, in another case, the court determined that neither the CWA nor the EPA covered groundwater solely on the basis of a hydrological connection with surface water.  Village of Oconomowoc Lake v. Dayton Hudson Corporation, 24 F.3d 962 (7th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 930 (1994).  See also Rice v. Harken Exploration Co., 250 F.3d 264 (5th Cir. 2001); Cape Fear River Watch v. Duke Energy Progress, Inc., 25 F. Supp. 3d 798 (E.D. N.C. 2014).

But, other courts have taken a different view, finding that the CWA covers pollution discharges irrespective of whether the discharge is directly into a WOTUS or indirectly via groundwater with some sort of hydrological connection to a WOTUS.   See, e.g., Idaho Rural Council v. Bosma, 143 F. Supp. 2d 1169 (D. Idaho 2001); Northern California River Watch v. Mercer Fraser Co., No. 04-4620 SC, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42997 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 1, 2005); United States v. Banks, 115 F.3d 916 (11th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 1075 (1998); Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York v. Mobil Corp., No. 96-CV-1781 (RSP/DNH), 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4513 (N.D. N.Y. Mar. 31, 1998).

2018 Cases

Ninth Circuit case.  Three different U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal decided cases on the discharge from groundwater issue.  In the first case, Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County 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 is 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 percent of the treated wastewater from wells 3 and 4 discharged into the ocean. The plaintiff sued, claiming that the defendant was in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA) by discharging pollutants into navigable waters of the United States without a CWA National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The trial court agreed, holding that an NPDES 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 an NPDES 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.” The appellate court reached this conclusion by citing cases from other jurisdictions that determined that an indirect discharge from a point source into a navigable water requires an NPDES discharge permit. The defendant also claimed that its effluent injections are not discharges into navigable waters, but rather were disposals of pollutants into wells, and that the CWA categorically excludes well disposals from the permitting requirements. However, the appellate court held that the CWA does not categorically exempt all well disposals from the NPDES requirements because doing so would undermine the integrity of the CWA’s provisions. Lastly, the defendant claimed that it did not have fair notice because the state agency tasked with administering the NPDES permit program maintained that an NPDES permit was unnecessary for the wells. However, the appellate court held that the agency was actually still in the process of determining if an NPDES permit was applicable. Thus, the appellate court found the lack of solidification of the agency’s position on the issue did not affirmatively demonstrate that it believed the permit was unnecessary as the defendant claimed. Furthermore, the court held that a reasonable person would have understood the CWA as prohibiting the discharges, thus the defendant’s due process rights were not violated. 

EPA seeks input.  After the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion, the EPA, on February 20, 2018, requested comment on whether pollutant discharges from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater may be subject to Clean Water Act (“CWA”) regulation. Specifically, the EPA sought comment on whether the EPA should consider clarification or revision of previous EPA statements regarding the Agency’s mandate to regulate discharges to surface waters via groundwater under the CWA.  Some courts have taken the view that Congress intended the CWA to regulate the release of pollutants that reach “waters of the United States” regardless of whether those pollutants were first discharged into groundwater. However, other courts, have taken the view that neither the CWA nor the EPA’s definition of waters of the United States asserts authority over groundwater based solely on a hydrological connection with surface waters. EPA has not stated that CWA permits are required for pollutant discharges to groundwater in all cases. Rather, EPA’s position has been that pollutants discharged from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater or other subsurface flow that has a direct hydrologic connection to the jurisdictional water may be subject to CWA permitting requirements. As part of its request, the EPA sought comment by May 21, 2018, on whether it should review and potentially revise its previous positions. In particular, the EPA sought comment on whether it is consistent with the CWA to require a CWA permit for indirect discharges into jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater. The EPA also sought comment on whether some or all of such discharges are addressed adequately through other federal authorities, existing state statutory or regulatory programs or through other existing federal regulations and permit programs.

Fourth Circuit case.  Approximately two months after the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion, the Fourth Circuit issued its opinion 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 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 for lack of standing.

On appeal, the appellate court determined that the trial court did have subject matter jurisdiction under the CWA’s citizen suit provision because the provision covered the discharge of “pollutants that derive from a ‘point source’ and continue to be ‘added’ to navigable waters.” Thus, even though the pipeline was no longer releasing gasoline, it continues to be passing through the earth via groundwater and continued to be discharged into regulable surface waters. This finding was contrary to the trial court’s determination that the court lacked jurisdiction because the pipeline had been repaired and because the pollutants had first passed through groundwater. As such, the appellate court determined that, in accord with the Second and Ninth Circuits, 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.  It is sufficient, the appellate court reasoned, that the discharge of pollutants from a point source through groundwater have a direct hydrological connection to navigable waters of the United States. 

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 specifically noted that the pipeline rupture occurred within 1,000 feet of the navigable waters. The appellate court also noted that the defendant had not established any independent or contributing cause of pollution. 

Sixth Circuit Case

In the fall of 2018, the Sixth Circuit decided Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 905 F.3d 436 (6th Cir. 2018).  The case involved a utility that burned coal to produce energy.  As a part of that production process, coal ash is produced.  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). They 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 groundwater that is hydrologically connected 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. Thus, 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 of the Ninth and Fourth Circuits from earlier in 2018.

EPA interpretive statement.  After receiving over 50,000 comments, on April 15, 2019, the EPA issued an interpretive statement concluding that the releases of pollutants to groundwater are categorically excluded from the NPDES regardless of whether the groundwater is hydrologically connected to surface water.  The EPA reasoned that the Congress explicitly left regulation of groundwater discharges to the states and that the EPA had other statutory authorities through which to regulate groundwater other than the NPDES.  The EPA, in its statement, noted that its interpretation would apply in areas not within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal for the Ninth and Fourth Circuits. 

Conclusion

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Ninth Circuit opinion.  Last week, the Court heard oral arguments in the case.  The specific question before the Court is whether the 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 EPA, in its April 15, 2019, interpretive statement stated that once the U.S. Supreme Court issues its opinion in the matter that the EPA may take further action, if necessary.

How the Supreme Court answers the question has critical implications for agriculture.  In Thursday’s post, I will review the oral argument and the implications for agriculture. 

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