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FMG Law Blog Line

The Supreme Court Sets Groundwater Pollution in its Sights

Posted on: February 20th, 2019

By: Ze’eva Kushner

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court decided to hear an appeal from the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund et al. v. County of Maui, 886 F.3d 737 (9th Cir. 2018). The Supreme Court will be hearing this case in the Fall to resolve a circuit split regarding whether discharging pollution that travels underground before emerging into an ocean, river or other major waterway requires a permit under the Clean Water Act.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The goal of the Clean Water Act is “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” 33 U.S.C. § 1251(a). One of the primary provisions of the statute makes it unlawful for anyone to discharge a pollutant, meaning adding pollution, to the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas. 33 U.S.C. §§ 1362(12), (7).

The provisions of the Clean Water Act have been interpreted by a number of courts over the years, with the coverage of groundwater pollution being a thorny issue for some time. In February 2018, the Ninth Circuit held that Maui County had to comply with the permitting requirement of the Clean Water Act in order to continue to dispose treated water through underground wells after it was shown that the treated water made its way into the Pacific Ocean through fissures in the ocean floor.

The Fourth Circuit made a similar finding a few months later in a case involving a gasoline pipeline spill in South Carolina when it determined that the Clean Water Act covered claims that the spill contaminated nearby creeks and wetlands after traveling through groundwater.

However, in September 2018, the Sixth Circuit changed direction when it ruled on two cases involving the pollutants released by coal ash ponds, holding that the Clean Water Act cannot be used to regulate pollution that travels through groundwater before reaching navigable waters such as a river or ocean.

Thus, it is up to the Supreme Court to resolve the debate regarding how direct of a connection there must be between a source of pollution and the waters that get polluted. Whether a pollutant that goes underground before making its way into a major waterway is subject to the Clean Water Act will have a major impact on industries across the country.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Ze’eva Kushner at [email protected].

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