By Timothy D. Backstrom, James V. Aidala, and Kelly N. Garson
On April 23, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that pollution traveling indirectly to rivers and streams through groundwater can be covered by the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) permitting requirements. The case, County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, et al, 590 U.S. (2020), concerned whether pollutants discharged from a point source into groundwater, a non-point source, and then conveyed into navigable waters fall within permitting requirements of the CWA. In a 6-3 Opinion delivered by Justice Breyer, the Court held that the CWA “requires a permit when there is a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge.” Slip op. at 15.
Under the CWA, a point source is a discernable conveyance such as a pipeline and other conduit, including wells (the Court notes that wells ordinarily result in discharge of pollutants through groundwater). Slip op. at 13. The case at issue concerned the County of Maui’s (Maui) operation of a wastewater reclamation facility that collected and partially treated sewage before pumping the treated water into four underground injection wells. From the wells, the treated water traveled half a mile through groundwater into the Pacific Ocean, a navigable water. Maui had not obtained a permit for the discharge, and in 2012, several environmental groups brought a citizens’ CWA lawsuit against the county.
The legal question of whether the CWA’s permitting program covers pollution that travels from a point source, like a factory discharge pipe or a containment pond, through groundwater before reaching a downstream water has major implications for industries ranging from agriculture to oil and gas. The Court’s “functional equivalent” standard for the reach of federal regulation is an interpretation that is narrower than the one sought by environmentalists and endorsed by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Court declined to defer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2019 Interpretative Statement. 84 Fed. Reg. 16810, 16824 (April 2019).
EPA’s Interpretive Statement supported the argument of Maui and the U.S. Solicitor General that if any non-point source lies between the point source and the navigable water, a permit is not required for the release. Groundwater and non-point pollution that is generated, for instance, by rainwater runoff is not covered by the CWA and is regulated by the states. The Court rejected this interpretation, posing the question: “If that is the correct interpretation of the statute, then why could not the pipe’s owner, seeking to avoid the permit requirement, 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?” Slip op. at 10. The Court held that “to follow EPA’s reading would open a loophole allowing easy evasion of the statutory provision’s basic purposes. Such an interpretation is neither persuasive nor reasonable.” Slip op. at 12.
The Court did not adopt the “fairly traceable” standard supported by the environmental groups and the Ninth Circuit either, as its scope would be too broad, and would interfere too seriously with states’ traditional and intended regulatory authority over groundwater and non-source pollution. Slip op. at 7-8.
The “functional equivalent of a direct discharge” standard will require a permit for discharge from any point source directly into navigable waters, and from point sources when the discharge “reaches the same result through roughly similar means.” The Court identified seven factors that may be relevant in determining whether the discharge comes “from” a point source:
(1) transit time, (2) distance traveled, (3) the nature of the material through which the pollutant travels, (4) the extent to which the pollutant is diluted or chemically changed as it travels, (5) the amount of pollutant entering the navigable waters relative to the amount of the pollutant that leaves the point source, (6) the manner by or area in which the pollutant enters the navigable waters, (7) the degree to which the pollution (at that point) has maintained its specific identity. Slip op. at 16.
The Court notes that time and distance will be important factors in many (though potentially not all) cases. For example, a distance of a few feet is concretely within the scope of the permitting requirement; a distance of 50 miles that may take a year for the water and perhaps mixing with other materials before reaching the navigable water is indeterminate.
The Court stated that the “functional equivalent” standard will essentially maintain EPA’s longstanding interpretation of the 1972 water law’s requirements prior to the 2019 Interpretive Statement that sought to narrow its reach. The Court further acknowledges that the new standard may expand the scope of the CWA as it applies to wells and septic systems, but does not expect an “unmanageable expansion” of the permitting program, and expects that EPA and the states will mitigate harms and initiate a best practices permitting policy, and that judges will exercise discretion mindful of the complexities of indirect discharges. Slip op. at 18.
The decision of the Supreme Court to construe National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting requirements to extend to indirect discharges that originate at a point source but travel through groundwater before reaching navigable waters was not particularly surprising. Reviewing courts have generally been mindful that completely excluding all discharges to groundwater from permitting might encourage dischargers to use discharges to groundwater to evade otherwise applicable control requirements. Nonetheless, it was somewhat surprising when the Court created a new “functional equivalence” standard that was not specifically advocated by the litigants.
Although the Court clearly intended to adopt a construction that was less expansive than the “fairly traceable” standard adopted by the Ninth Circuit, EPA and the states will have to determine how the seven potentially relevant factors identified by the Court will be utilized in determining when a permit will be required for indirect discharges. EPA and the states will also have discretion to determine whether there are other “potentially relevant factors applicable to factually different cases” as anticipated by the Court. Slip op. at 16. This case involved deliberate discharges of municipal wastewater to underground injection wells, but future policy disputes and litigation are likely to focus on indirect discharges that are more inadvertent in character. Activities of particular interest include indirect discharges from agriculture, and indirect discharges from impoundments that have been used to collect coal ash, mining tailings, and other types of industrial waste.
In the absence of Congressional intervention to codify clearly what is required, the courts can only do so much. The Supreme Court has concluded that Congress could not have intended to create a loophole in the water permitting scheme so large as to encourage deliberate evasion, but it falls now to EPA and the states to determine what sort of indirect discharges are “functionally equivalent” to a direct discharge. Although the Court has afforded considerable latitude to permitting agencies in deciding how to effectuate the new standard, the decision will most likely lead to a new round of contentious litigation before a policy for permitting of indirect discharges can ultimately be adopted.
By James V. Aidala and Susan M. Kirsch
On April 23, 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was making available its Interpretive Statement addressing whether the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program applies to releases of a pollutant from a point source to groundwater (Interpretive Statement) for comment. 84 Fed. Reg. 16810. EPA is issuing the Interpretative statement to “provide clarity on [EPA’s] interpretation of the [CWA] given the mixed record of prior [EPA] statements and a split in the federal circuit courts regarding this issue.” EPA’s Interpretive Statement states that it “sets forth [its] interpretation of the [CWA NPDES] permit program’s applicability to releases of pollutants from a point source to groundwater that subsequently migrate or are conveyed by groundwater to jurisdictional surface waters” and “EPA concludes that the [CWA] is best read as excluding all releases of pollutants from a point source to groundwater from NPDES program coverage and liability under Section 301 of the CWA, regardless of a hydrologic connection between the groundwater and a jurisdictional surface water.” EPA also released a fact sheet on its Interpretive Statement, available online.
The April 23 Federal Register notice states that the Interpretative Statement reflects EPA’s consideration of the public comments received in response to its February 20, 2018, Federal Register notice (83 Fed. Reg. 7126) which requested comment on EPA’s previous statements regarding whether pollutant discharges from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater or other subsurface flow that has a direct hydrologic connection to the jurisdictional surface water may be subject to CWA regulation. EPA received over 50,000 comments from a wide range of stakeholders, many of which affirmed that additional clarity from EPA was necessary. EPA reached its conclusion based on the comments received and on “a holistic analysis of the [CWA], its text, structure, and legislative history.” EPA also references numerous policy considerations that support excluding groundwater discharges from NPDES permitting, including existing state and federal authorities and statutes that play a role in regulating groundwater quality (e.g., Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Underground Injection Control (UIC) program).
EPA is soliciting public comments on the Interpretive Statement, specifically regarding what may be needed to provide further clarity and regulatory certainty on this issue. Comments are due by June 7, 2019.
EPA’s Interpretive Statement comes at a critical time when the U.S. Supreme Court is set to address the question of “[w]hether the [CWA] requires a permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source, such as groundwater” (see SCOTUSblog) in its review of the Ninth Circuit decision in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund (Maui). A petition for U.S. Supreme Court review is also pending on the Fourth Circuit decision in Kinder Morgan Energy Partners v. Upstate Forever (Kinder Morgan), which held similarly to Maui that “a discharge that passes from a point source through ground water to navigable waters may support a claim under the CWA.” A pair of September 2018 Sixth Circuit decisions (Kentucky Waterways Alliance v. Kentucky Utilities Co. and Tennessee Clean Water Network v. TVA) expressly disagreed with the holdings in Maui and Kinder Morgan -- resulting in a “circuit split.” Although the facts in Maui (wastewater injected into UIC wells) and Kinder Morgan (gas spilled from underground pipeline) may not involve activities common in agriculture and pesticide applications, the new judicial “tests” created in these decisions could dramatically expand the scope of the NPDES universe in ways that could potentially implicate agricultural/pesticide practices. For example, in Maui, the Ninth Circuit held that Maui County’s discharges from UIC wells to groundwater should require CWA discharge permits because the pollutants from the UIC wells that reached a navigable water were “fairly traceable” and levels reaching the navigable water were “more than de minimis.” The Ninth Circuit’s Maui holding could be stretched broadly to support the assertion that pesticides and fertilizers applied to agricultural lands that migrate through groundwater and eventually reach a CWA jurisdictional water could be subject to NPDES permitting. Agriculture and pesticide stakeholders may wish to closely monitor developments around groundwater discharge issues at EPA and the U.S. Supreme Court.
By Susan M. Kirsch
On May 24, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 953, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2017, by 256-165 vote. H.R. 953, which is similar to bills introduced in the past three congresses, would overturn a 2009 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision requiring Clean Water Act (CWA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for pesticide spraying activities into, over, or near waters. The legislation would eliminate NPDES permitting for pesticide spraying that complies with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
Proponents of the legislation assert that the addition of CWA regulation is duplicative, burdensome, and costly for industry without resulting in any additional environmental benefits. Opponents argue that the bill would strip clean water protections for waters already listed as impaired for pesticides. Championed by Representative Bob Gibbs (R-OH), the recent vote received significant bipartisan support, with twenty-five Democrats voting in support of the bill. Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) introduced companion legislation in the Senate (S. 340), which currently awaits action by the Committee on Environment and Public Works. The prospects for a Senate vote are mixed in light of the number of confirmations in the queue for political appointees, as well as big ticket legislative priorities, such as health care and tax reform. If legislation is enacted, it would only apply to the four states (Idaho, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Massachusetts), tribal lands, and other federally managed areas that are governed by the federal NPDES permit. Forty-six states administer state versions of pesticide permits. Mmany states would be expected to phase out permitting if the federal requirement is eliminated, however.
More information regarding CWA NPDES issues is available on our blog under key word NPDES.
By Susan M. Kirsch
On November 1, 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its Final National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Pesticide General Permit for Point Source Discharges from the Application of Pesticides in the Federal Register, which regulates discharges to waters of the United States from the application of biological pesticides and chemical pesticides that leave a residue. 81 Fed. Reg. 75816. The 2016 NPDES Pesticide General Permit (PGP) replaces the 2011 PGP, which expired on October 31, 2016. The PGP applies to the following geographic areas where EPA serves as the NPDES permitting authority:
- The States of: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Idaho;
- District of Columbia;
- All U.S. territories except the U.S. Virgin Islands;
- Federal facilities in Delaware, Vermont, Colorado, and Washington;
- Discharges in Texas that are not under the authority of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, including activities associated with oil and gas exploration (see Appendix A of the Final 2016 PGP for further description); and
- All areas of Indian Country that are not covered by an EPA-approved permitting program (see Appendix A for Indian Country covered within each EPA Region).
Similar to the 2011 PGP, the 2016 PGP contains additional permit conditions and modifications that some states and tribes added through the Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 401 certification process and/or the Coastal Zone Management Act process. Part 9 of the 2016 PGP provides a detailed breakdown of any additional requirements. Forty-six states have delegated authority to administer state versions of the PGP. The majority of states recently revised and reissued their respective state PGPs for another five-year permit cycle.
The 2016 PGP applies to the same pesticide use patterns covered by the 2011 PGP, which are:
- Mosquito and Other Flying Insect Pest Control -- control of public health/nuisance and other flying insect pests (including mosquitoes and black flies) that develop or are present during a portion of their life cycle in or above standing or flowing water.
- Weed and Algae Pest Control -- control of weeds, algae, and pathogens that are pests in water and at water’s edge, including ditches and/or canals.
- Animal Pest Control -- control of animal pests, including fish, lampreys, insets, mollusks, and pathogens, in water and at water’s edge.
- Forest Canopy Pest Control -- application of a pesticide to a forest canopy to control the population of a pest species (e.g., insect or pathogen) where, to target the pests effectively, a portion of the pesticide unavoidably will be applied over and deposited to water.
The 2016 PGP requirements are nearly identical to those in the 2011 PGP, with the exception of the following two updates included in the 2016 PGP:
- Electronic reporting (Part 7.8) -- All reporting under the 2016 PGP (i.e., Notice of Intent (NOI), Annual Report, and Notice of Terminations (NOT) submissions) must be submitted via EPA’s eNOI system to be consistent with EPA’s Electronic Reporting Rule. EPA will make these reports publicly available through a searchable index tool -- eNOI search. More information on electronic reporting, and access to the Central Data Exchange for NOI, Annual Report, and NOT submissions is available here.
- Updated definition of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Listed Resources of Concern -- Following consultation between EPA and NMFS, as required under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), EPA expanded the Listed Resources of Concern to include additional species not included in the 2011 PGP definition. Under Part 22.214.171.124, pesticide discharges that overlap with NMFS Listed Resources of Concern trigger additional NOI requirements to certify that the discharges and discharge-related activities are not likely to adversely affect federally listed “endangered” or “threatened” species, or federally-designated “critical habitat.” Permittees may consult EPA’s PGP NMFS Listed Resources of Concern -- Interactive Mapping Tool to determine whether a discharge activity will overlap with these Resources of Concern. Appendix I provides endangered species instructions for affected permittees. EPA states in the corresponding Fact Sheet for the 2016 PGP that it continues to estimate that less than two percent of the total number of Operators in the PGP coverage areas will need to meet additional permit requirements in order to meet ESA-related provisions.
The 2016 PGP permit conditions went into effect on October 31, 2016, and the PGP will expire in five years on October 31, 2021. 2016 PGP coverage is automatic through January 12, 2017, without the submission of an NOI, but pesticide Operators (i.e., pesticide applicators) must comply with all 2016 PGP conditions as of October 31, 2016. For any discharges commencing on or before January 12, 2017, that will continue after this date, a decision-maker must submit an NOI no later than January 2, 2017, to ensure PGP coverage, and for any discharges subsequent to January 12, 2017, an NOI submission is required no later than 10 days before the first discharge. Table 1-1 at Part 1.2.3 outlines which decision-makers must submit NOIs based on the particular pesticide use pattern, location (i.e., if discharging to a designated Outstanding National Resource Water), and acreage thresholds. Table 1-2 at Part 1.2.3 provides applicable NOI submission deadlines, including grace periods for NOI filing for discharges in response to a Declared Pest Emergency.
EPA’s webpage for pesticide NPDES permitting includes links to the final 2016 PGP, a related fact sheet, the permitting decision tool, and information on eNOI and ESA procedures.
Although the 2016 PGP largely mirrors the 2011 version of the permit, it will be important for decision-makers to familiarize themselves with the new electronic reporting requirements (Part 7.8). EPA’s eNOI system is publicly searchable and could subject PGP permit holders to additional scrutiny by citizens and advocacy groups concerned about potential environmental and public health implications of pesticide applications in their areas. Decision-makers should consult EPA’s PGP NMFS Listed Resources of Concern -- Interactive Mapping Tool and the Alternative PGP Sources of Information for NMFS Listed Resources of Concern to determine where discharges may overlap with these areas and trigger additional permit conditions.
By Susan M. Kirsch
On January 26, 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) General Permit for Discharges from the Application of Pesticides in the Federal Register, which applies to discharges of pesticides to waters of the United States. EPA is requesting comments on the draft permit by March 11, 2016. This draft 2016 pesticide general permit (PGP) is largely an updated version of the 2011 PGP, which will expire on October 31, 2016. EPA’s permit would apply to Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Idaho, and the District of Columbia; Puerto Rico and certain other territories; as well as Indian lands and federal facilities in other states that are covered by state-developed PGPs. Separately, 46 states must update their existing permits, and some states have already begun this process or have already reissued permits within the last year.
The draft 2016 PGP retains coverage of the previous pesticide use patterns (mosquito/flying insect; weed and algae; animal pest; and forest canopy), and leaves unchanged the reliance on technology-based effluent limitations (TBELs) to satisfy permit requirements, which require proper maintenance and calibration of equipment along with visual inspections to minimize discharges and meet water quality standards and Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) label requirements. The draft 2016 PGP also retains the distinctions in compliance requirements of “For-hire Applicators” and “Decision Makers,” and includes the same requirements for recordkeeping and reporting of adverse incidents. The draft permit now mandates electronic reporting, which will make Notice of Intent (NOI) and Annual Report submissions public on EPA’s e-reporting website. The draft permit retains the “joint and several liability” provision that would extend potential legal risks to all parties involved in decision-making and application of pesticides. In spite of the lack of new or altered provisions, there are some aspects of the draft 2016 PGP that could signal an EPA policy change going forward, and could potentially appear in the final version of the permit. These areas include:
- Absence of a definition for “Waters of the U.S.,” which could create confusion as to the scope of jurisdiction;
- An ongoing Endangered Species Act (ESA) consultation, which could expand the list of requirements included in the final permit;
- Request for comments on whether water quality-based effluent limitations (WQBELs), such as water quality monitoring and fish tissue testing (i.e., laboratory studies), should be included in the final permit;
- Request for comments on whether additional information should be included in NOI submissions, including whether the treatment area includes a source water for public drinking water supplies; and
- An expanded discussion of required compliance with all other applicable state and federal laws, including FIFRA storage and handling requirements, which could be perceived to attach Clean Water Act liability to a PGP permittee’s violations of FIFRA and other laws.
EPA’s webpage for pesticide NPDES permitting includes links to the draft permit, fact sheet, and Federal Register docket.