SCOTUS Has Spoken: Kinda Sorta Direct Discharges Need A Permit

Posted on May 1, 2020 by Theodore Garrett

On April 23 the Supreme Court announced its decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund (No. 18-260), which addressed the fundamental issue of what is a discharge to navigable waters requiring a permit under the Clean Water Act.  The case arose in the context of the County’s discharges of wastewater to wells that traveled through groundwater to the Pacific Ocean.  Justice Breyer’s opinion for the Court held that a permit is needed when there is the “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge.

The Court’s opinion in Maui reflects an effort to find a “middle ground” that avoids the consequences of an overly broad or overly narrow interpretation of the statute.  But what is a “functional equivalent”?  It’s kinda sorta like a direct discharge.  Its meaning will evolve as applied in particular cases or, as characterized thusly in Justice Alito’s dissent: “That’s your problem. Muddle through as best you can.”  But muddling through is problematic because affected industrial and municipal dischargers, subject to enforcement, need to know whether or not they need Clean Water Act permits.  Unless or until more guidance is provided by EPA, the lower courts or Congress, affected parties will be left to wrestle with the Court’s new “functional equivalent” standard. 

The majority felt compelled to reach a “middle ground” because it found other positions too extreme.  The court rejected the view of the County and the Solicitor General (as amicus) that discharges through groundwater should be excluded, stating that it would open a loophole allowing easy evasion of the statutory provision’s basic purposes (for example by locating a pipe a few yards from a surface water) and was not reasonable in light of the statute’s inclusion of “wells” in the “point source” definition.  The Court also was not satisfied with the Ninth Circuit’s “fairly traceable” criterion, concluding that it might require permits in unexpected circumstances not readily foreseen, such as discharges that reach navigable waters many years after their release and in highly diluted forms. 

So when is a discharge “functionally equivalent”?  Justice Breyer’s opinion states that time and distance will likely be the most important factors in most cases, but other relevant factors may include the nature of the material through which the pollutant travels and the extent to which the pollutant is diluted or chemically changed as it travels. How much time?  How far?  What underground material or dilution might defeat a permit requirement?  The Court is not in a position to say because “there are too many potentially relevant factors applicable to factually different cases for this Court now to use more specific language.” 

Where does that leave us?  The lower courts will need to wrestle with this issue and “provide additional guidance through decisions in individual cases” Justice Bryer states, referring to the “traditional common-law method" as useful even in an era of statutes.  In the meantime, affected parties face uncertainty. 

In a dissent, Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Gorsuch) concludes that the statute excludes anything other than a direct discharge.  Justice Thomas also states that the Court’s opinion “gives almost no guidance, save for a list of seven factors” but does not “commit to whether those factors are the only relevant ones, whether those factors are always relevant, or which factors are the most important.”  Justice Alito also dissented, stating that the Court “makes up a rule that provides no clear guidance and invites arbitrary and inconsistent application.”

One cannot be sanguine that Congress will address this issue.  Interested parties will thus need to monitor how the lower courts and EPA apply the Supreme Court’s new “functional equivalent” standard.



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