AN UNDERGROUND RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

Posted on November 8, 2017 by Andrew Goddard

Environmental groups have for years sought greater regulation of coal ash waste from coal-fired power plants.  It turns out an old-fashioned Clean Water Act (CWA) citizen suit is sometimes a more effective tool.

In August, Judge Waverly Crenshaw, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, ordered the Tennessee Valley Authority to “wholly excavate the ash waste disposal areas” at the Gallatin Steam Plant and “relocate the excavated coal ash to a lined impoundment with no significant risk of discharge to waters of the United States.”  TVA estimates that this will take 24 years at a cost of $2 billion.  The least surprising aspect of this case: TVA has filed a notice of appeal.

How?  In 2015, the Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association filed a CWA citizen suit claiming that groundwater flowed through two ash pond areas and then to the nearby Cumberland River was an unpermitted point source.  Judge Crenshaw’s 125-page opinion in support of the Order includes this diagram showing one zone of earth penetrated only vertically (by storm water) and one penetrated both vertically and laterally (by storm water and groundwater):

 

This pretty much sums up the central issue in the case:  Is the groundwater flow through the lower part of coal ash landfill, picking up contaminants and transmitting them laterally to the Cumberland River, regulated by the CWA?

In his lengthy opinion, Judge Crenshaw found that the CWA does regulate groundwater where there is a direct and immediate hydrologic connection if plaintiffs are able to “prove a link between contaminated groundwaters and navigable waters.”  TVA argued that the CWA cannot reach discharges enabled by infiltration of rainwater that was not channeled by human act because they are not point sources, but Judge Crenshaw found that the ultimate question regarding point source is whether the pollutants were discharged from a discernable, combined, and discreet conveyance by any means.  He found that the entire ash dewatering complex was a discernible, combined and discreet manmade concentration of waste and that it was a “conveyance” because it is “unlined and leaking pollutants,” and thus is by definition “conveying pollutants.”

It takes a lot for a judge to impose $2 billion of costs on a public utility.  His displeasure with how the problem had been addressed over the past several decades was palpable.  He wrote that the older of the two coal ash sites

“…offers a grim preview of what it means to leave an abandoned unlined coal ash waste pond in place next to a river.  [It] has not been a waste treatment facility for over forty-five years. It has been ‘closed’ for almost twenty years.  Still, water infiltrates it.  Still, it leaks pollutants.  Still, counsel for TVA and counsel for environmental groups are locked in conflict about what can and should be done about it. … As long as the ash remains where it is in either site, there is every reason to think that the dangers, uncertainties and conflicts giving rise to this case will survive another 20 years, 45 years or more.  While the process of closure by removal would not be swift, it would, at least, end.” 

With that, he ordered that TVA remove the coal ash to an appropriate lined site that will not discharge into waters of the United States.

There was one bit of good news for TVA: because of the cost of the chosen remedy, Judge Crenshaw decided not to assess penalties. 

Not every argument was about such large costs.  TVA’s objection to the plaintiffs’ request for attorney’s fees and costs included an objection to caviar included in a claim for $200 for food and snack items purchased from Kroger before and during the trial.  The plaintiff’s response included a receipt showing the “caviar” purchase was $16.24 of “Texas Caviar,” and attached Kroger’s recipe therefor.  It is devoid of fish eggs but does include chopped cilantro.  The recipe is available through PACER here.

New Mexico Supreme Court to Determine if Copper Rule Prevents, Rather Than Encourages, Ground Water Pollution

Posted on September 23, 2016 by Thomas Hnasko

The New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission enacted what is arguably the most comprehensive copper mine remediation rule in the country.  The Copper Rule requires copper mines to uniformly implement prescriptive measures of pollution control and to protect ground water at “foreseeable places of withdrawal.”  But does the Copper Rule really prevent pollution, as required by the New Mexico Water Quality Act?  Not so, say the Attorney General and various NGOs, who appealed the case to the New Mexico Court of Appeals.  They claimed that the Copper Rule’s uniform monitoring criteria, which require the placement of a monitoring well network as close as practicable around the perimeter of mine units, does not sufficiently protect ground water and therefore fails to satisfy the Water Quality Act’s mandate that contaminant concentrations not exceed permissible standards at places of withdrawal.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s rule-making in Gila Resources Information Project v. N.M. Water Quality Control Comm’n, holding that the determination of a “place of withdrawal” has always been and remains a matter committed to the Commission’s discretion. [Link to Case.] 

The New Mexico Supreme Court will now consider whether the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission has the authority, under the Water Quality Act, to adopt the regulations imposing prescriptive pollution controls and defining by rule, rather than on a case-by-case basis, the type of monitoring controls which essentially define protectable ground water as that existing on the exterior of active mine units.  After a number of swings of the bat, the petitioners in the Supreme Court have refined their arguments. They now claim that the Water Quality Act requires a case-by-case determination of a place of withdrawal, based on particular aquifer characteristics, rather than a definition derived by rule.  To succeed with this challenge, the petitioners must overcome the legislature’s mandate, in the 2009 amendments to the Water Quality Act, that the Commission adopt uniform monitoring requirements for the entire copper industry.  The battle seems to be whether the Copper Rule is sufficiently flexible to protect all places of withdrawal – regardless of where located – or whether the rule imposes a de facto definition of a place of withdrawal based on criteria that may not be tailored specifically to the aquifer characteristics at a particular site.  Oral argument is set for September 28, 2016.

HEY, JUDGE SKAVDAHL - DON’T THE INTERESTS OF THE UNITED STATES INCLUDE PROTECTING GROUNDWATER ON ITS OWN LAND?

Posted on July 6, 2016 by Karl Coplan

The Mined Lands Act directs the Bureau of Land Management to issue regulations governing mining on public lands for, inter alia, “the protection of the interests of the United States, . . . and for the safeguarding of the public welfare.” More recently, the Federal Lands Policy Management Act specifically directs the BLM to take environmental issues into account in promulgating regulations governing the use of federal lands, that is, to manage federal lands in a way,

That will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values,

Last year, acting under these statutory authorities, the BLM issued regulations governing fracking on federal lands, which required federal lessees to disclose chemicals in their fracking fluids and to take measures to prevent well leakage.  This week, the Federal District Court for the District of Wyoming struck down these regulations as exceeding BLM’s authority to regulate mining on public lands. The Court purported to find this result under the Chevron step I analysis, i.e., finding specific congressional intent that the Bureau of Land Management does not have authority to protect groundwater on public lands.  Despite the broad statutory authorities cited above, the Court found that the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which specifically exempted fracking from EPA regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, evidenced Congressional intent that no federal agency has jurisdiction to regulate fracking activities, even on federal lands.

This ruling ignores the obvious difference between EPA regulation to protect groundwater generally under the Safe Drinking Water Act and actions by the BLM to protect the United States’ own properties that are subject to federal leases.  FLPMA specifically directs BLM to take measures to protect ecological interests in managing federal lands, and it seems inappropriate for a federal court to second guess BLM’s balance between resource extraction and groundwater protection.  The United States in general has very broad authority to regulate activities on its own land, and Congress’ decision to exempt fracking on private lands from EPA regulation can’t possibly be read as specific Congressional intent to preclude BLM from protecting groundwater on lands owned by the United States. On another level, this decision reflects a concerning trend towards judicial activism tearing down the Obama administration’s invocation of statutory authorities to advance environmental protection in the face of a hostile Congress – witness the Supreme Court’s stay of EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and the Sixth Circuit’s stay of the Clean Water Rule.              

Environmental law got its start when courts, like the Second Circuit in Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission, read broad statutory grants of regulatory authority to include environmental protection.  This decision by the District of Wyoming departs from that tradition.  The BLM plans to appeal.

Accommodate Thy Neighbor

Posted on June 20, 2016 by Molly Cagle

During this long and nasty election season, I am relieved that the Texas Supreme Court is embracing a little Tim McGraw (Hold the door, say please, say thank you / Don't steal, don't cheat, and don't lie/ I know you got mountains to climb but always stay humble and kind)(“Humble and Kind”).  Yes, in what the Respondents argued would be a “momentous” change in Texas groundwater law, the Texas Supreme Court announced in Coyote Lake Ranch, LLC v City of Lubbock, No. 14-0572 (Tex. May 27, 2016) that the age-old “accommodation doctrine” which has served the State so well in resolving disputes between landowners and oil and gas lessees, would apply between a landowner and the owner of the severed interest in the groundwater. 

In addition to a great style (rest assured it will be known as the Coyote Ranch holding), the decision should remind you a little of reading Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

For those of you not steeped in Texas oil and gas law, the accommodation doctrine essentially recognizes that, absent a specific agreement to the contrary, an oil and gas lessee has an implied right to use the land as reasonably necessary to produce and remove the minerals but must exercise that right with due regard for the landowner’s right.  Professor William Huie, Sylvan Lang Professor of Law Emeritus at The University of Texas, called it the “not in my living room” rule, and explained it in pretty simple terms something like this – if the oil and gas lessee can cost-effectively drill for and produce oil or gas without putting the wellhead in the landowner’s living room, he must not insist that the drilling rig be set up in the parlor.  It’s not neighborly.  And for those not steeped in Texas groundwater law, the “rule of capture” applies, generally allowing each landowner to pump whatever he or she can without waste, knowing that liability may arise if the pumping physically causes a neighbor’s land to subside.  That’s also not neighborly.

The Coyote Ranch facts are a bit nuanced, but can be summed up as follows.  In the midst of the 1950’s drought of record in Texas, the City of Lubbock bought the Ranch’s groundwater rights.  The Ranch reserved groundwater for domestic use, ranching operations, oil and gas production and limited irrigation.  The Ranch was limited to one or two wells in each of 16 specific areas for irrigation.  During the first 60 years of the agreement, Lubbock installed a total of seven wells on the Ranch.  In 2012, Lubbock announced it intended to dramatically ramp up its water production from the Ranch.  Over the Ranch’s objection, the City mowed through vast swaths of native grass to drill sites etc., and otherwise acted in total disregard of the Ranch’s operations and habitat preservation.  It wasn’t the living room, exactly, but the City plowed across sandy portions of the Ranch contributing to extensive wind erosion.  The trial court enjoined the City with an injunction so broad that it operated as a de facto moratorium on any surface activity by the City.

On appeal, the City claimed its deed was broad enough that it could drill whenever and wherever and common law didn’t protect the landowners from the City’s boorish behavior.  The Court of Appeals adopted the City’s view of the deed and concluded that the Ranch could not prevail unless the accommodation doctrine applied.  Finding no prior authority to support application of the accommodation doctrine to a groundwater dispute, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and lifted the injunction. 

The Texas Supreme Court granted the Ranch’s petition, quickly concluded that the deed provisions did not adequately address the dispute, and marched right into unchartered waters—whether the accommodation doctrine should apply to a dispute between the holder of a severed groundwater estate and the surface estate owner.  The City had to know it was in trouble when the Court characterized its position as follows:

[The City claims it] has an all but absolute right to use the surface heedless of avoidable injury...[and]  that it can drill wherever it chooses, even if it could drill in places less damaging to the surface and still access all the water.

That’s just NOT neighborly. Thus, to no one’s surprise who actually graduated from kindergarten, the Supreme Court concluded that the accommodation doctrine would indeed apply to resolve conflicts between the severed groundwater estate and the surface estate when the conflict was not governed by the express terms of the parties’ agreement.  It’s a “let’s-all-just-try-to-get-along” policy that has worked successfully for nearly 50 years in oil and gas disputes, it is well-understood and, as the Supreme Court noted, it is not often disputed.  The parties will now return to the trial court to see if they actually learned what they should have in kindergarten.  It’s amazing that they had to go all the way to the Texas Supreme Court to be reminded how neighbors should act.

Does the Clean Water Act Cover Discharges To Or Through Groundwater?

Posted on June 15, 2016 by David Buente

An issue that has recently come to the forefront of Clean Water Act (“CWA”) jurisprudence in numerous district courts across the country and which is currently before the Ninth Circuit is whether the discharge of pollutants into groundwater which is hydrologically connected to a surface water is regulated under the CWA.  The CWA prohibits discharges from point sources to navigable waters, defined as “waters of the United States,” unless they are in compliance with another provision of the Act, such as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permitting program.  Whether discharges to groundwater hydrologically connected to a surface water body fall under this prohibition is a question with far-reaching consequences for facilities as varied as coal ash basins, slurry pits, retention ponds, and hydraulic fracturing wastewater ponds, all of which could theoretically be deemed to be in violation of the CWA under this hydrological-connection theory if they leak into groundwater at all.

As a preliminary matter, there is no question that isolated groundwater itself is not a water of the United States regulated under the CWA.  First, multiple courts, including several circuit courts of appeals, have held that groundwater is not “waters of the United States.”  Second, the legislative history surrounding the CWA indicates clearly that Congress considered setting standards for groundwater or explicitly including it in the NPDES permitting program and decided against such an approach.  Finally, in the rule, now stayed by the Sixth Circuit, which EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers promulgated last year defining the term “waters of the United States,” the agencies explicitly stated that they had “never interpreted” groundwater “to be a ‘water of the United States’ under the CWA.”  80 Fed. Reg. 37073

The hydrological connection issue is not a new one; both the Seventh Circuit in 1994 and the Fifth Circuit in 2001 determined that discharges to groundwater which is hydrologically connected to waters of the United States are not regulated under the CWA or the Oil Pollution Act (“OPA”) (courts have typically interpreted the term “navigable waters” to have the same meaning under both acts).  In the past few years, however, the frequency of opinions on this topic has increased, and district courts have been very much split on this issue.  Some courts and commentators have dubbed this theory of regulation the “conduit theory,” with the idea being that the groundwater serves as a conduit between the point source and the water of the United States. 

Three district courts have recently rejected the conduit theory.  In 2014, in Cape Fear River Watch, Inc. v. Duke Energy Progress, Inc., the Eastern District of North Carolina confronted the issue of whether seepage from coal ash basins at one of the defendant’s power plants, alleged to contain contaminants and to carry those contaminants through groundwater into a lake, was a discharge prohibited by the CWA.  The court emphatically held that “Congress did not intend for the CWA to extend federal regulatory authority over groundwater, regardless of whether that groundwater is eventually or somehow ‘hydrologically connected’ to navigable surface waters.”  As justifications for its holding, it cited the CWA’s dearth of language actually referring to groundwater, its legislative history, and the 2006 Supreme Court case on the meaning of waters of the United States, Rapanos v. United States, in which the plurality opinion and Justice Kennedy’s concurrence appeared to reflect a limited construction of the term.  The following year, in 2015, the District of Maryland came to a similar conclusion in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Apex Oil Co., Inc.  The court held that “even if it is hydrologically connected to a body of ‘navigable water,’” groundwater is not regulated under the OPA, also citing the language of the CWA, its legislative history, and Rapanos.  Likewise, in 2013, in Tri-Realty Co. v. Ursinus College, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania concluded that “Congress did not intend either the CWA or the OPA to extend federal regulatory authority over groundwater, regardless of whether that groundwater is eventually or somehow ‘hydrologically connected’ to navigable surface waters.”

Other recent district court opinions, however, have come to the opposite conclusion.  In 2014, in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, the District of Hawaii confronted the issue of whether the County would need a NPDES permit to discharge waste into underground injection wells when plaintiffs contended that some of the injected wastewater eventually finds its way to the Pacific Ocean.  The district court concluded that “liability arises even if the groundwater…is not itself protected by the Clean Water Act, as long as the groundwater is a conduit through which pollutants are reaching navigable-in-fact water.”  The district court also cited Rapanos in support of its argument.  That case is now before the Ninth Circuit on appeal, and the Department of Justice recently filed an amicus brief supporting the argument that there is CWA jurisdiction where pollutants move through groundwater to jurisdictional surface waters if there is a “direct hydrological connection” between the groundwater and surface waters.  Likewise, in 2015, in Yadkin Riverkeeper v. Duke Energy Carolinas, LLC, the Middle District of North Carolina held that it had jurisdiction over claims where “pollutants travel from a point source to navigable waters through hydrologically connected groundwater serving as a conduit between the point source and the navigable waters.”  That court based its determination in part on the idea that taking an expansive view of the types of discharges which the CWA prohibits is most in line with the statute’s purpose.  A few weeks later in Sierra Club v. Virginia Electric and Power Co., the Eastern District of Virginia, citing Yadkin Riverkeeper, held that a CWA citizen suit against Dominion Virginia Power using the conduit theory should survive a motion to dismiss.

The line of cases rejecting CWA jurisdiction over discharges to groundwater which is hydrologically connected to surface waters of the United States gets it right.  As the legislative history proves, Congress considered regulating discharges to groundwater and rejected such an approach.  This decision is reflected in the language of the statute.  Moreover, in Rapanos, the Supreme Court restricted the factual scenarios under which a wetland could be considered a water of the United States, thus revealing that a majority of the justices on the Court favored a narrower jurisdictional reach under the CWA.  Finally, to accept the “conduit theory” would be to write the “point source” requirement out of the statute.  As described above, a discharge must come from a point source, which the CWA defines as a “discernible, confined and discrete conveyance.”  Groundwater seepage seems to be about as far from a “discernible, confined and discrete” source as it gets, resembling nonpoint source pollution like stormwater runoff.

Cool Water, Part 2

Posted on March 10, 2015 by Paul Seals

In a December 2012 blog post, I discussed the tensions raised by “Water for Texas 2012 State Water Plan” between the expected population growth and available water resources in Texas.   As water demand is expected to rise, existing water supplies are diminishing.   

These critical water supply constraints are again brought into sharp focus by the population projections contained in a March 5, 2015 report released by the Office of State Demographer.   The 40-year projections (2010 to 2050) indicate that if the migration patterns observed in Texas between 2000 and 2010 continue at the same rate, the population of Texas will double, representing a significant increase in projections contained in the 2012 State Water Plan.  The projected water resource shortages will be exacerbated.   

The 2012 State Water Plan, based on a 50-year horizon, projected a 2060 population of 46.3 million.  New population numbers, based on the recent migration patterns, project an increase from the 2010 Census population of 25.1 million to a 2050 population of 54.4 million.   

For the past 10 years, Texas experienced the largest annual population growth of any state.  Will the Texas economy maintain its strength to support job growth that will attract young workers from around the country and the world?   Can the associated high net migration be sustained?  What will be the impact of this growth?  How will the environmental impacts be anticipated and managed?   

The areas of fastest growth include the areas in and around Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin/San Antonio, and Houston.   Cities in those areas are making plans to secure long-term water supplies.   Will they be successful?  Will regulatory changes have to be made to surface and groundwater water rights to effectively and efficiently acquire, manage, and conserve these limited water resources?  Will the infrastructure be there?   How will it be financed?  

Will Texas have “cool, clear water”? 

The New Mexico Copper Mine Rule: Questions of Groundwater Jurisdiction with a Sprinkle of Political Wrangling

Posted on October 29, 2014 by Thomas Hnasko

The unfortunate fact about copper mining is that it just cannot be done without impacting groundwater.  This inevitable result occurs because of the massive excavations extending below groundwater elevations and the leaching of contaminants through the process of capturing copper.  Most western mining states, including Arizona, have recognized this inevitable consequence and have crafted a “point of compliance” system where groundwater quality standards must be achieved at some designated point beyond the active mining site.  Previously, the New Mexico Environment Department dealt with quality exceedances at active mining sites either by issuing variances from compliance requirements under the New Mexico Water Quality Act, or by simply ignoring the problem altogether.  The Copper Mine Rule has been promoted as a pragmatic response to the cumbersome administrative variance procedure.

Under the New Mexico Water Quality Act, groundwater compliance must be achieved at any “place of withdrawal for present or reasonably foreseeable future use.”  This jurisdictional threshold is markedly different than the jurisdictional standard for surface water discharges, which requires compliance precisely at the point of discharge into a body of surface water.  The Copper Mine Rule recognizes that groundwater directly beneath an active mine site would not be available for use during the period of active mining operations and thus would not qualify as a “place of withdrawal” where groundwater standards must be met.  Similar to the “point of compliance” approach taken by other states, the New Mexico Copper Mine Rule requires that groundwater standards must be achieved at monitoring well locations placed as close as practicable around the perimeter of the active mine site. 

The Copper Mine Rule has been appealed by various NGOs and by the New Mexico Attorney General.  The Attorney General contends on appeal that any determination of a “place of withdrawal” must be made on a case-by-case basis, rather than through a rule-making procedure.  Interestingly, the Attorney General originally represented the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission (“WQCC”) when it adopted the Copper Mine Rule, but abruptly reversed course and has lodged an appeal against the Rule for which it provided representation to the WQCC.  As part of the response to the Attorney General’s appeal, the WQCC has filed a motion seeking to disqualify the Attorney General, based on a conflict of interest, from taking positions adverse to its former client.  The matter is presently pending before the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

California Groundwater Regulation Enters the 20th Century!

Posted on October 8, 2014 by Rick Glick

On September 16, 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a trio of bills to establish a statewide regulatory scheme for use of groundwater: Assembly Bill 1739 and Senate Bills 1168 and 1319. California had previously been the only Western state to leave “reasonable” use of groundwater to the tender mercies of individual pumpers until such time as the aquifer is adjudicated, a process that takes decades to complete.

California historically had asserted regulatory authority only over surface streams and defined underground channels.  But the most prevalent, and unregulated use, was of percolating groundwater.  Overlying landowners were deemed to have “correlative” rights to the use of groundwater under their lands; that is, rights proportionate to the amount of owned land.

This laissez faire approach has led to widespread overdrafting of groundwater resources, subsidence, and ruined groundwater quality.  Further, as stream flows decline—whether because of drought or climate change—more users turn to groundwater pumping, lowering the water table and driving up the cost of energy to lift the water.

All the other Western states exerted authority over groundwater in the previous century.  For example, Oregon’s groundwater appropriation law was enacted in 1955.  California finally joined the 20th Century with enactment of these bills as a response to unprecedented drought conditions and the fear that climate change will make matters worse.

In a nod to intense water politics, the bills take a local planning and management approach.  Other states direct their water agencies to establish basin plans to manage their groundwater resources.  In that sense, California has shown leadership in adopting a more decentralized approach to a water-scarce 21st Century.  Under the new legislation, local entities are to develop management plans for their groundwater basin for state review.  The state would intervene only if it deems the management plans inadequate or not enforced.  This local approach has not prevented certain water users from denouncing the bills as a state power grab.

My first job as a lawyer was as staff counsel to the California State Water Resources Control Board.  In response to what was then the worst drought on record, Jerry Brown, in his first iteration as Governor, convened a blue ribbon commission to review California water rights law.  The group was staffed by U. C. Davis law professor Hap Dunning and a team of young water lawyers, including myself.  We reviewed every aspect of California water law in a series of white papers, and made several sweeping and not so sweeping recommendations for reform. 

None of the recommendations passed out of legislative committees.  I suspect the current legislation would not have passed either but for the historic and severe drought conditions now facing the state.  California will need to do whatever it can to stretch its limited and declining water resources to support its powerful agricultural economy and growing cities.  Let’s hope that the new groundwater legislation will be a solution for this century.

EPA’s Draft Groundwater Remedy Completion Strategy: Focusing on the Procedures or the Problems?

Posted on December 9, 2013 by Charles Efflandt

EPA is seeking stakeholder input on its draft Groundwater Remedy Completion Strategy.   Released on October 29, 2013, the strategy is advertised as a guide for evaluating remedy performance and improving decision-making to more effectively and expeditiously move groundwater sites to completion. Having experienced the problems associated with the “set it and forget it” approach to groundwater remedial action, my interest was piqued by the prospect of a new EPA strategy incorporating more flexibility in evaluating remedial action objectives, remedy performance and systematic risk assessment.

The potential impact of EPA’s remedy completion strategy is arguably diminished, however, by a lack of clarity as to its scope and purpose. The stated objective of documenting a uniform approach to efficiently completing groundwater remedial actions is qualified by an ambiguous disclaimer that the strategy does not change other guidance or policy, is not intended to alter the way the agency develops remedial objectives and cleanup goals and is not intended to interfere with the federal or state site decision-making process. So, what exactly does EPA hope to accomplish in proposing this new strategy?

The elements of the strategy consist of understanding site conditions, designing a site-specific remedy evaluation process, developing performance metrics, conducting remedy evaluations and making appropriate site management decisions. The focus of EPA’s strategy as presented is largely procedural. The strategy does not address common site impediments to achieving an effective and expeditious groundwater exit strategy. To that extent, it is primarily a restatement of a remedy evaluation process that has been the subject of numerous articles and that, in fact, has historically been implemented at many sites.

But perhaps my initial reading is too narrow. The strategy hints at more substantive remedy completion issues, such as addressing site remedial action objectives that become impracticable and unnecessary for the protection of health and the environment, as well as the need to more consistently evaluate remedy change at mature groundwater sites.

From the perspective of focusing on site groundwater scenarios that often delay remedy completion, I suggest that the draft strategy falls short of the goal line. Rather than simply allude to the remedy completion obstacles that presumably inspired the agency’s effort, EPA might better achieve its stated purpose if it revises its strategy to include more discussion of how the strategy may apply to common groundwater completion impediments. For example, it would be useful for the strategy to address the cost and inefficiencies of continuing to operate and maintain asymptotic pump and treat systems at low-threat sites, how to better incorporate plume stability trend information in the evaluation of remedy change, changes in exposure pathway risks and the impact of natural attenuation mechanisms, institutional controls and land use on remedy modification and remedy completion decision-making.

What I had hoped to see in the draft strategy was EPA’s blessing of a more flexible and common sense approach to specific groundwater remedy completion obstacles. My first reading of the draft strategy suggested to me that it was essentially a redundant procedural roadmap for remedy evaluation.  But upon reflection, I think it could be more.  Indeed, it could also be – and I hope, after consideration of stakeholder comments, will be – a tool for encouraging more consistent regulatory acceptance of remedy change and evolving risk assessments to overcome the inertia of inflexible remedial action objectives and remedy selection impacting many groundwater sites.

Reuse of Contaminated Groundwater- Is It Time To Be More Innovative?

Posted on April 10, 2013 by Charles Efflandt

According to the recent U.S. Drought Monitor, approximately 65% of the contiguous United States is currently experiencing “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions. In my part of the country, a recent projection indicates that a reservoir supplying a significant portion of our municipal water supply could dry up within 3-4 years if severe drought conditions persist. Although an “Aquifer Storage and Recovery” program was previously developed to enhance the available supply of groundwater, it is only designed to replenish the drinking water aquifer from excess river flow during flood conditions—a rare occurrence during a severe drought.

I am not capable of allocating percentages of fault for this persistent drought between anthropic climate change and extreme climatic occurrences that are “normal” in the context of geologic time. However, I am persuaded by the argument that “climate change,” by whatever definition you choose to give it, is a problem not only of causation and prevention, but also of adaptation. A previous posting on the need to prioritize adaptation to climate change states the argument well. Is it time we give more thought to groundwater replenishment as an adaptation tool?

My practice includes representing clients at various hazardous substance release sites, under both state and federal law. The default remedy for contaminated groundwater at many of these sites remains extraction and treatment (commonly using air stripping technology) to both contain and clean up the extracted groundwater to “unrestricted use” quality. At most of these sites, however, treated groundwater is discharged to a ditch, creek or similar conveyance where the value of the groundwater as a critical natural resource is largely lost.

An environmental consultant at one such site recently calculated that, over the period of two years, the pump and treat system had removed and discharged to a nearby ditch approximately 110 million gallons of treated groundwater. During a period of severe drought, the system was depleting a drinking water aquifer by over two feet annually. In addition, it was estimated that the quantity of groundwater being treated, and largely wasted, was equivalent to the water used by 1,850 residents (27% of the population) of the city in which the site is located.

Beneficial reuse of “contaminated” water resources is obviously not a new concept, particularly the reuse of nonpotable water. Examples include the reuse of treated nonpotable water for industrial, municipal and agricultural purposes. Potable water reuse is less common for reasons related to water quality requirements, technical issues, cost and community and regulatory acceptance.

Notwithstanding the obstacles and additional costs, it may now be time for environmental professionals, regulators and attorneys to more systematically and creatively consider potable reuse options at contaminated groundwater sites. This would include an evaluation of discharging treated groundwater through infiltration basins, infiltration galleries and injection wells to replenish the drinking water aquifer from which it was extracted. Consideration should be given to partnering site regulators and responsible parties with nearby municipalities to revitalize drinking water aquifers or supplement other potable water resources. Another issue worthy of discussion is community acceptance, which may be more likely when treated contaminated groundwater is beneficially reused indirectly through aquifer replenishment, rather directly through discharge into water supply pipes.

I submit that all too often we accept without much thought the default option of permitted surface discharge of groundwater that has been treated to “non-detect”. Potable reuse through groundwater recharge and restoration involves significant cost and technical issues. But in our effort to add weapons to the climate change adaptation arsenal, all interested parties should more carefully consider such options notwithstanding the challenges.

Cool Water

Posted on December 11, 2012 by Paul Seals

The song “Cool Water” was written and recorded in 1936 by Bob Nolan, an original member of the Sons of the Pioneers along with Len Slye, better known by his film name, Roy Rogers.  “Cool Water” could be the theme song for Texas and other water-short western states.  The Texas Water Development Board recently compiled “Water for Texas 2012 State Water Plan”.   Quite simply, Texas does not have enough water to meet its current needs, much less its future needs, during periods of serious drought conditions.   Texas is searching for cool, clear water.

Texas continues to grow.  According to the Plan, the population of Texas is expected to increase 82 percent between 2010 and 2060, from 25.4 million to 46.3 million.   Water needs are projected to increase by 22 percent, from 18 million acre-feet per year to 22 million acre feet per year in 2060.  At the same time as water demand is rising, existing water supplies are diminishing by almost 2 million acre feet per year.   Where will the additional water supplies be found to meet the identified needs?

The State Water Plan includes recommended water management strategies developed by regional planning groups, which include: conservation, drought management, conjunctive use of surface and groundwater, surface water reservoirs, aquifer storage, groundwater development, water reuse, desalination plants.  In addition to addressing surface and groundwater water rights, water planners and users will need to confront the environmental implications of these strategies.  What are the environmental regulatory constraints and impediments?

The implications and potential conflicts are far-reaching.  We can all anticipate the obvious regulatory hurdles,  contested procedures and property rights obstacles that projects to develop new surface reservoirs will confront.  But what of other strategies like water conservation and reuse?    Proposing water conservation (e.g. increased cooling water cycles) and reuse (e.g. use of treated municipal wastewater effluent) at a natural-gas fired power plant may  threaten surface water quality as the total dissolved solids to be discharged are concentrated through these strategies.   Also, what kinds of measures and alternatives under other environmental regulatory programs (e.g. Endangered Species Act) will need to be considered as these strategies are proposed?

The history of Texas is growth.   To do nothing to meet its increasing  water needs would result in staggering economic losses.    Texas met the challenge after the drought of record in the 1950s.  Texas will do it again!   The question is:  “how happy will the trails be?”

The Role of Environmental Forensic Experts After Dimant

Posted on December 3, 2012 by John A. McKinney Jr

Prior posts (by David Farer and William Hyatt) have featured comment on the litigation that resulted in the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in NJDEP v. Dimant (September 26, 2012) under the New Jersey CERCLA analog, the Spill Act, requiring a “reasonable link” between the discharge, the putative discharger, and the site specific contamination.  This alert focuses on the implications of the decision for building a liability case.

Dimant concerned liability for required remediation of perchloroethylene (“PCE”) contaminated groundwater at a site.  The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) inspectors observed for a portion of one day a pipe dripping a liquid onto blacktop.  Testing showed the drip contained more than 3,000 times the maximum contaminant level for PCE.  There was no evidence presented at trial, however, to indicate the blacktop was cracked, where the drips went, or the frequency or duration of the drips.  The DEP did not establish groundwater flow direction and therefore could not prove if the pipe location was up or down gradient of the PCE contaminated groundwater requiring remediation.  Also, there were several other potential sources of PCE in proximity to the defendant.  In other words, there was no proof connecting the defendant’s discharge of PCE to the PCE contaminated groundwater.

Keep in mind that the Spill Act imposes strict, joint and several liability on a person discharging or “in any way responsible” for a discharge, an arguably very broad standard indeed.  In its decision, the Court made it clear that “in an action to obtain damages, authorized cost and other similar relief under the [Spill Act] there must be shown a reasonable link between the discharge, the putative discharger and the contamination at the specifically damaged site.”  The Court disclaimed a proximate cause analysis, but did require “sufficient proof of a reasonable, tenable basis” showing how the discharge resulted in the contamination causing at least some of the damage at issue.  In short, the DEP failed to demonstrate “the requisite connection” between the dripping PCE and the PCE contaminated groundwater. 

What sunk the DEP’s case was a failure to prove the nexus between drips of PCE to the blacktop’s surface and some pathway for contribution of PCE through the soil and into the groundwater.  To avoid a similar fate, plaintiffs (including the State) will need proof that the defendant’s discharge actually reached the contaminated resource.  That evidence might be historical, physical or chemical analyses done to determine the source of releases affecting the resource.  This type of work is often referred to as environmental forensics and finding the right experts in this field will, in many New Jersey cases, be critical to establishing the “reasonable link” required by NJDEP v. Dimant.  To the extent that other state courts follow New Jersey’s lead, similar proofs will be necessary.

NJ Supreme Court Reins in DEP Strict Liability Claims Against Dischargers, Requiring" Reasonable Link" to Contamination

Posted on October 2, 2012 by David B. Farer

On September 26, 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its decision in NJDEP v Dimant, rejecting an attempt by the state DEP to seek damages from an alleged discharger under the state's strict liability statute, the Spill Compensation and Control Act (typically referred to as the "Spill Act").  The court found that DEP had not established the necessary connection, or nexus, between the alleged discharge and the contamination at the specifically damaged site. 

This was the second New Jersey appellate court decision in the past three months in which DEP's positions on regulatory and statutory authority have been successfully challenged.

In Dimant, DEP had sued to recover costs associated with investigation and remediation of PCE-contaminated groundwater found in residential wells, and was also seeking compensation for natural resource restoration. The defendant was a dry cleaner that had operated near the contaminated wells and had used the common dry-cleaning solvent PCE for 15 months in the late 1980s.  During that period, in the course of a site inspection, DEP noted an external pipe at the dry cleaning facility which the agency found to be dripping PCB-bearing liquid onto the pavement.

The Spill Act provides that “[a]ny person who has discharged a hazardous substance, or is in any way responsible for any hazardous substance, shall be strictly liable, jointly and severally, without regard to fault, for all cleanup and removal costs no matter by whom incurred.”

DEP argued that the discharge was sufficient to connect the dry cleaner to the contaminated groundwater in the nearby wells. The court rejected this argument, finding that DEP had not met its burden of proof. It noted that DEP never presented sufficient proof of a “reasonable, tenable basis” for how drips of fluid observed at the dry cleaner on one occasion resulted in groundwater contamination in the Bound Brook wells. 

The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the prior trial court and Appellate Division decisions in the case, rejecting DEP's claims and holding that in order to obtain the requested relief, a real rather than hypothetical nexus must be shown to exist between the discharge of hazardous substances and the actual contamination at the specifically damaged site. That the substance dripping on the pavement in one location was the same as that found in the groundwater at another location was not a sufficient connection and did not constitute the “reasonable link” required to impose liability on the defendant.

The court further concluded that DEP could not credibly claim, many years after observing the dripping pipe, that the dry cleaner should bear the expense of studying how the drip may have impacted groundwater, and how the groundwater condition must now be addressed.

This was the second appellate court setback for DEP since July.  In an unrelated ruling on July 6, 2012 in Des Champs Laboratories, Inc. v. Robert Martin, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that DEP had overstepped its regulatory authority in narrowing one of the statutory exemptions available under the state's transaction-triggered environmental law, the Industrial Site Recovery Act ("ISRA").

Under ISRA, a wide range of property owners and operators must investigate and if necessary clean up contamination at subject properties upon the occurrence of specific business events such as cessations of operation or sales of properties or businesses, regardless of fault.  However, the legislature built certain exemptions into the law.  One of them, available to those who have used only small – or de minimis – amounts of hazardous substances, is known as a De Minimus Quantity Exemption, or "DQE."

However, in 2009 DEP issued new regulations unilaterally imposing an additional requirement on DQE applicants that they also establish that the subject property is free of contamination.  As the revision to the regulation was unsupported by the ISRA statute, and appeared to circumvent the very purpose of the DQE, Des Champs Laboratories challenged the regulation before the Superior Court, Appellate Division after its own application for a DQE was denied.

On July 6, 2012, the Appellate Division ruled in favor of Des Champs, invalidating the DEP regulatory change.  DEP subsequently issued the De Minimis Quantity exemption to Des Champs.

[Note:  See also William Hyatt's alert posted on September 2, 2011 on the NJ Appellate Court decision on the Dimant case.]