Supreme Court ruling applies Clean Water Act to groundwater pollution


Image from Wikimedia Commons

Tyler Chalfant | April 27th, 2020

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday against an interpretation of the Clean Water Act that excluded pollutants that travel through groundwater before reaching protected surface waters. Environmental groups have called the County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund decision “a huge victory for clean water.”

In a 6-3 ruling, the majority of the court rejected what Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the “extreme” positions of both sides. Under the Clean Water Act, facilities are required to obtain permits for point-source pollution, which originates from a single identifiable source, into navigable waters. The appellate court had ruled in favor of environmental groups arguing that this applied to pollution that “actually and foreseeably reach navigable surface waters,” a standard that Breyer said was too broad.

The Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, had sided with a wastewater plant on Maui, Hawaii, arguing that the law applied only to direct pollution into navigable waters. Earlier this year, the federal agency removed protections for smaller waterways, replacing an Obama-era rule. This decision limits the pollution allowed by that change as well, requiring permits for pollution into some smaller bodies of water if it functionally pollutes a larger, protected body as well. 

Water quality advocates warn that these permits are easy to obtain, but the decision means that facilities can face lawsuits over, and have limits placed on, their groundwater discharges.

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