Regulation of Groundwater under the Clean Water Act

Posted on June 4, 2018 by William Brownell

In the early 1980s, the State of Michigan filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the United States alleging that chemicals from a federal facility located near Lake Michigan could “enter the groundwaters under the … area” occupied by the facility and then “be discharged [through that groundwater] into Grand Traverse Bay.” The Department of Justice told the Court that “these claims are not allowed under the Clean Water Act since the Act does not regulate pollutant discharges onto soil or into underlying groundwater,” and the suit was eventually dismissed.  According to the United States, “[t]he statutory language, the legislative history, the case law, and EPA’s interpretation of the Act all support this conclusion.” 

Thirty years later, in 2016, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit against the County of Maui, alleging that the County was violating the Clean Water Act by disposing of treated waste water through underground injection wells into groundwater that was hydrologically connected to the Pacific Ocean.  According to a Department of Justice amicus brief, this claim was allowed under the Clean Water Act because a discharge “that moves through groundwater with a direct hydrological connection [to surface water] comes under the purview of the CWA’s [NPDES] permitting requirements.”   

Which is right:  the 1985 government or the 2016 government?  Not surprisingly, both sides assert that they offer the government’s “longstanding” position.  For example, those concluding that releases to hydrologically connected groundwater are not subject to the Clean Water Act’s NPDES permit program point to (among other statements) an Office of General Counsel memorandum from 1973 that “the term ‘discharge of a pollutant’ is defined so as to include only discharges into navigable waters…. “[d]ischarges into ground waters are not included”; to EPA’s assertion in 2004 that NPDES “regulations apply to … [e]xisting facilities that discharge directly to surface waters”; and to EPA’s statement in 2017 that “discharges to groundwater are not regulated by the NPDES permit program.”  

Proponents of regulating releases to groundwater under the NPDES program rely principally on statements made in the preamble to a 2001 proposed rule for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and on the amicus brief filed in 2016 by the Department of Justice in the County of Maui case.

This “hydrological connection” theory of Clean Water Act groundwater regulation is now pending before the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits, and the period for certiorari is running in the Ninth. Clearly, the Clean Water Act cannot mean two opposite things at the same time.  Which Department of Justice is right?  

EPA recently issued a Federal Register notice asking the public to weigh in on the confusion created by its prior statements.  Perhaps instead of debating who said what when, what is needed is a dispassionate return to the statutory language.  As the Supreme Court said unanimously in 2004 in South Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, the Clean Water Act “defines the phrase ‘discharge of a pollutant’ to mean ‘any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source,’” and in turn defines a “point source” as a “‘discernible, confined and discrete conveyance’ … ‘from which pollutants are or may be discharged.’” The Court explained this “definition makes plain” that “a point source need not be the original source of the pollutant,” but “it need[s] [to] … convey the pollutant to ‘navigable waters.’”  If the NPDES program applies only where a point source conveys the pollutant to navigable water and EPA agrees that groundwater is not a point source, shouldn’t that be the end of the debate? 



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