The objective of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) is to “restore and maintain” the waters of the United States by regulating the pollution of navigable waters. 33 U.S.C. § 1251(a). While the CWA emphasizes maintaining the integrity of the waters as a national goal, it also tasks the States with the primary responsibility of regulating pollution and water resources. 33 U.S.C. § 1251(b).
The CWA bars “the discharge of any pollutant by any person” who does not have an appropriate permit. 33 U.S.C. § 1311(a). The “discharge of a pollutant” is the “addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source.” 33 U.S.C. § 1362(12). The CWA defines “point source” as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any… well… from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” 33 U.S.C. § 1362(14). Therefore, when a party without a permit discharges a pollutant from a point source to navigable waters, the party violates the CWA. Headwaters, Inc. v. Talent Irrigation Dist., 243 F.3d 526, 532 (9th Cir. 2001). Although the plain language of the CWA may appear straightforward, the law has left much open to judicial interpretation.
Is the discharge of pollutants without a permit from a point source into groundwater, which then leads to the discharge of these pollutants into navigable waters, prohibited under the CWA? Or does the CWA ban only the discharge of pollutants from point sources directly into navigable waters?
The Fourth and Ninth Circuits have interpreted the CWA to ban the indirect discharge of pollutants from point sources via groundwater into navigable waters. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. Cty. Of Maui (9th Cir. 2018); Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (4th Cir. 2018). However, the Sixth Circuit has interpreted the CWA as prohibiting only the direct discharge of pollutants into navigable waters and has disallowed pollutants that pass through groundwater from being included in the CWA. Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Co. (6th Cir. 2018); Tennessee Clean Water Network v. TVA (6th Cir. 2018).
In Hawai’i, a tracer dye study confirmed that the County of Maui’s effluent waste collection wells discharged pollutants into groundwater, which then traveled into the Pacific Ocean. The County of Maui contended that the pollution was not discharged by the wells, but by the groundwater, a nonpoint source and that the CWA requires permits only for point sources that convey “pollutants directly into navigable water.” Holding for the plaintiff, the Court reasoned that because there was ample evidence that the pollution in the Pacific Ocean originated from the county’s wells, which qualify as point sources, it was immaterial that the pollutants travelled through groundwater before entering the Pacific Ocean. The Court stated the because the path of the pollutants from the wells to the navigable waters was “traceable,” the pollutants were discharged from the wells, not the groundwater. Further, the Court emphasized that precedent recognizing CWA liability when a “direct connection” exists between polluting point sources and polluted navigable waters does not preclude CWA liability arising from indirect discharges. The court reasoned that although the pollution passed through groundwater, the discharge was “the functional equivalent of a discharge into navigable water” directly from the wells because the pollutants were traceable back to their original point source.
Presented with the same issue, the Fourth Circuit reasoned in Upstate Forever that if the plaintiff can show “a direct hydrological connection between ground water and navigable waters,” the pollution of navigable waters via groundwater can violate the CWA. The omission of the terms “direct” or “directly” from the CWA, according to the Court, supports that “a discharge through ground water” incurs liability under the CWA when a clear connection between the originating point source and the polluted navigable waters exists. The Court upheld this interpretation of the CWA in Sierra Club, holding that the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters through groundwater without a permit violated the CWA.
However, the Sixth Circuit has interpreted the CWA to have a complete opposite meaning. In Kentucky Waterways Alliance, the court rejected the “hydrological connection theory” outright, disagreeing with the decisions of its sister circuits. The court emphasized that the term “into” in the CWA “indicates directness,” reasoning that the term “leaves no room for intermediary mediums to carry the pollutants.” The court asserted that including pollution which passes through groundwater into navigable waters within the CWA is an overextension of liability. In Tennessee Clean Water, the Sixth Circuit restated its narrow reading of the CWA, holding that “a plaintiff may never—as a matter of law—prove that a defendant has unlawfully added pollutants to navigable waterways via groundwater.” Unlike the Ninth Circuit, the Sixth Circuit concurred with the argument that pollutants passing through groundwater into navigable waters are coming “from a nonpoint source” rather the originating point source.
The County of Maui and Kinder Morgan petitioners have filed for writ of certiorari for the Supreme Court to review the respective circuits’ decisions. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to County of Maui and began hearing oral arguments for the case on November 6, 2019. This issue will have widespread implications on the scope of environmental protection afforded by the CWA. For instance, dissenting in Tennessee Clean Water, Judge Clay acknowledged that, under the majority’s opinion, a polluter may escape liability under the CWA by taking advantage of the groundwater loophole by intentionally diverting pollutants into groundwater. The Supreme Court’s decision regarding the case will have powerful influence over holding polluters accountable for their waste.
For further reading, see: the EPA’s recent “Interpretative Statement” excluding the pollutants released from a point source through groundwater from coverage and liability under the CWA regardless of hydrological connection; filed brief amici curiae of Former EPA Officials and of Former EPA Administrators in favor of Hawai’i Wildlife Fund; Concerned Residents for Envi. v. Southview Farm (2nd Cir. 1994); Sierra Club v. Abston Construction Co., Inc. (5th Cir. 1980).