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New Clean Water Act interpretations make waves

By Ellen Essman, Ohio Law Blog, Agricultural & Resource Law Program at The Ohio State University

Even with most of the country shut down, the U.S. EPA and the Supreme Court recently released an important rulemaking and a decision, respectively, regarding how parts of the Clean Water Act will be interpreted going forward. On April 21, 2020, the EPA and the Department of the Army published the Trump administration’s final rule on the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Then, on April 23, the Supreme Court released its long awaited opinion determining whether or not pollutants from a point source, which are released and then carried by groundwater into a navigable water, must be permitted under the CWA.

 

Trump’s new WOTUS

If you recall, we explained this final rule in January when the draft version was released. Basically, the Trump administration wanted to repeal and replace the Obama administration’s 2015 WOTUS rule because the administration felt that it was overreaching in the waters it protected. The Trump administration did repeal the 2015 rule, and replaced it with the old 1986/1988 version of the WOTUS rule while they worked on the new version.

So what is included in the administration’s new definition? The following are defined as WOTUS, and therefore subject to the CWA under the new rule:

  • The territorial seas, and waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  • Tributaries;
  • Lakes and ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and
  • Adjacent wetlands.

Importantly, the new rule also includes an extensive list of what waters are not WOTUS, and therefore will not be protected by the CWA:

  • Waters or water features that are not identified in the definition of WOTUS, above;
  • Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems;
  • Ephemeral (caused by precipitation) features, including ephemeral streams, swales, gullies, rills, and pools;
  • Diffuse stormwater run-off and directional sheet flow over upland;
  • Ditches that are not territorial seas, waters used in foreign commerce, or tributaries, and those portions of ditches constructed in some adjacent wetlands;
  • Prior converted cropland;
  • Artificially irrigated areas, including fields flooded for agricultural production, that would revert to upland should application of irrigation water to that area cease;
  • Artificial lakes and ponds, including water storage reservoirs and farm, irrigation, stock watering, and log cleaning ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters, so long as those artificial lakes and ponds are not impoundments of jurisdictional waters that are connected the territorial seas, or waters used in interstate or foreign commerce;
  • Water-filled depressions constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters incidental to mining or construction activity, and pits excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters for the purpose of obtaining fill, sand, or gravel;
  • Stormwater control features constructed or excavated in upland or in nonjurisdictional waters to convey, treat, infiltrate, or store stormwater run-off;
  • Groundwater recharge, water reuse, and wastewater recycling structures, including detention, retention, and infiltration basins and ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters; and
  • Waste treatment systems.

Currently, the 1986/1988 rules are the law of the land until this new rule goes into effect on June 22, 2020. While this is the so-called “final” rule, chances are that it will be anything but final. Like Obama’s 2015 rule, this new 2020 rule will probably be subject to lawsuits, this time from environmental groups and some state governments. If you want to know more about WOTUS, our colleagues at the National Ag Law Center have created a very helpful timeline that explains all the different definitions of waters of the United States.

 

U.S. Supreme Court determines the scope of a “point source”

The CWA requires the polluter to obtain a permit from the EPA if pollutants are being discharged from a point source into navigable waters. Under the CWA, “point source means any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” The term “navigable waters” is defined as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.”

In County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund et. al., the United States Supreme Court was tasked with determining whether water treated by the County of Maui, which is pumped into the ground water and then travels about half a mile before it goes into the Pacific Ocean, requires a point source permit from the EPA. Ultimately, in a 6-3 majority led by Justice Breyer, the court decided that yes, in this case, a permit would be required. However, that does not mean that every conveyance through ground water will have the same outcome.

So, how did the court come to this conclusion? First, Justice Breyer examined the meaning of the word “from” in the CWA. Remember that the definition of a point source “means any discernible, confined, and discrete conveyance…from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” On one hand, Breyer says that the Ninth Circuit’s definition of “from” was too broad, and on the other, he says that Maui’s definition was too narrow. The Ninth Circuit adopted a “fairly traceable” approach, meaning that permits would be required for any pollutant that is “fairly traceable” back to a point source. Breyer and the majority say that the Ninth Circuit took it too far, because then any pollutant that travelled for years and years or many miles could be considered to be “from” a point source. Maui County argued that “if at least one nonpoint source” is “between the point source and the navigable water,” then no permit is necessary under the CWA. The majority felt this was too narrow, because then every time a pollutant was moved along to a navigable water by a little bit of rainwater or a small stretch of groundwater, the polluter would be free to pollute without a permit. In other words, there would be a huge loophole in the statute — because the polluter or “pipe’s owner, seeking to avoid the permit requirement,” could “simply move the pipe back, perhaps only a few yards, so that the pollution must travel through at least some groundwater before reaching the sea.” What is more, Breyer cites congressional actions and history to interpret that Congress did not mean to make the statute as broad as the Ninth Circuit found it to be, nor as narrow as Maui County and the EPA suggest.

If the majority determined that one side read the statute too liberally and one too narrowly, then in what situations are point source permits required? Well, the court takes a kind of “we know it when we see it” approach. The court says that a permit is required “when there is a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is a functional equivalent of a direct discharge.” The court further explains this language saying that a “functional equivalent” happens when pollutants reach the “same result through roughly similar means.” The court then provides some examples. For instance, a permit is obviously needed if a pipe ends just a couple of feet from a navigable water, and the pollutants then travel underground or across the land to the navigable water. However, “[i]f the pipe ends 50 miles from navigable waters,” the pollutants would travel through a long stretch of groundwater, mixing with other pollutants, and taking years to reach the navigable waters. In this situation, the court says a permit would likely not be required. Finally, Breyer lists relevant factors to consider when determining whether a permit is required:

  • Transit time,
  • Distance traveled,
  • The nature of the material through which the pollutant travels,
  • The extent to which the pollutant is diluted or chemically changed as it travels,
  • The amount of pollutant entering the navigable waters relative to the amount of the pollutant that leaves the point source,
  • The manner by or area in which the pollutant enters the navigable waters, and
  • The degree to which the pollution (at that point) has maintained its specific identity.

Note that other factors could apply. In addition, the court says that time and distance will often be the most important factors, but not always. In the future, the EPA and lower courts will use this guidance to determine whether or not a point source permit is required.

Two major actions took place in April that will guide how the CWA is carried out going forward. Trump’s WOTUS rule could be taken down by lawsuits or replaced by the next administration, and the Supreme Court’s ruling may be further clarified by future decisions. As of today, though, these are the guidelines for implementing the CWA.

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