On February 20, 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested comments on whether pollutant discharges from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater or other subsurface flow with a direct hydrologic connection to the jurisdictional surface water may be subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The answer to this question will have far reaching implications because the scope of the agency’s powers under the CWA determines the scope of:

  • National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting programs;
  • Section 404 wetlands permitting programs;
  • Section 311 oil/hazardous substance release requirements; and
  • Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) requirements.

As a result, the extent to which a discharge to groundwater that reaches jurisdictional surface waters is subject to regulation under the CWA is a significant issue for farmers, manufacturers, and anyone who discharges to groundwater.

Background

The CWA regulates the discharge of pollutants and placement of fill into “navigable waters,” and defines navigable waters as “the waters of the United States.” Since the CWA was passed in 1972, there has been much debate over the extent to which waters that are not considered navigable in fact and wetlands may be regulated as waters of the United States. This uncertainty has given rise to a variety of CWA citizen suits alleging that discharges from point sources that migrate via groundwater to waters of the United States require NPDES permits.

Over the years, various federal courts have reached differing conclusions on the question of whether discharges to groundwater can be considered discharges to waters of the United States. Most recently, the Ninth Circuit addressed this issue in Hawaii Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, 881 F.3d 754 (9th Cir. 2018). In that case, the County of Maui (the “County”) discharged treated effluent from its wastewater reclamation facility into injection wells. Tracer dye studies confirmed that this effluent migrated through the groundwater to the Pacific Ocean. A three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the County’s discharge triggered Clean Water Act jurisdiction and the need for an NPDES permit because the groundwater was hydrologically connected to the Pacific Ocean, a water of the United States. Under the court’s ruling, an indirect discharge of contaminants from point sources that travels through groundwater and ultimately reaches navigable waters will now be subject to federal permitting requirements. Continue Reading EPA Considers Whether a Discharge of Pollutants to Groundwater that is Connected to Navigable Waters Requires a Federal Permit

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) have recently issued memoranda concerning civil enforcement of violations, including violations of environmental laws.

The January 22, 2018 EPA memorandum, entitled “Interim [Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance] Guidance on Enhancing Regional-State Planning and Communication on Compliance Assurance Work in Authorized States,” provides interim guidance on a collaborative partnership between EPA and authorized States in their compliance assurance activities. The document lays out plans for collaboration by EPA and States to meet and share information on environmental compliance issues. Further, the memorandum specifies that, with respect to inspections and enforcement, EPA will generally defer to authorized States to handle the primary day-to-day implementation of their programs.

The January 25, 2018 DOJ memorandum, entitled “Limiting Use of Agency Guidance Documents in Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases,” provides that DOJ may not use its enforcement authority to convert agency documents into binding rules, and DOJ litigators may not use non-compliance with agency guidance documents as a basis for proving violations of law or treat lack of compliance as a presumption of a violation. DOJ may continue to use agency guidance documents for other purposes. This will reduce the environmental compliance burden on companies who previously sought to comply not only with clearly mandatory laws and regulations but also with advisory guidance documents, and keep the Department in check when seeking to use those guidance documents in negotiating penalties for violations.

The policies announced by this memoranda are unsurprising given the current political climate in which EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and President Trump seek to reduce EPA responsibilities and shift environmental duties to the States and to minimize the burdens facing companies.

A client alert issued today by Husch Blackwell’s environmental practice group details a major reversal of Obama-era policy by the Trump Administration.  The EPA announced it will not issue final regulations under CERCLA Section 108(b) imposing financial responsibility requirements on the hardrock mining industry. Abandoning a December 1, 2016 proposed rule, the EPA emphasized that after carefully evaluating public comments, statutory authority, and the extensive record it had concluded that the minimal environmental risk involved in modern mining practices combined with existing state and federal financial assurance requirements made the proposed rule unnecessary and unduly burdensome.  Read the entire client alert here.

The month of August, 2017 has seen three distinct developments that may significantly impact management of “Coal Combustion Residuals,” or “CCR,” which include bottom ash, fly ash, boiler slag, and flue gas desulfurization materials generated from burning coal at steam‑powered electricity plants. Although one of these developments may provide a degree of regulatory relief, the other two may preserve or even strengthen existing regulatory requirements. Continue Reading The Shifting Landscape For Coal Ash

Horn_Robert
Robert Horn
Adam Sachs
Adam Sachs

During his confirmation hearing to become Secretary of Energy, former Texas Governor Rick Perry sensibly walked back his 2011 recommendation that the Department of Energy (DOE) be eliminated. After a few weeks on the job, it is now apparent that the secretary not only thinks the DOE should continue to exist but recognizes it’s an essential element of our national security.

President Trump’s inaugural address called for an “America First Energy Plan.”  Although admittedly short on details, the Trump plan seems to Continue Reading Around the Horn: Perry, Policy & Politics

No RegulationsAs we reported in a previous blog post, President Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus issued a memorandum entitled “Regulatory Freeze Pending Review” to all federal executive departments and agencies implementing a regulatory freeze on new and pending regulations.  This post provides some further information and insight into the freeze and the specific impacts it has had and will have on final and proposed environmental, health, safety, and pipeline regulations.

Technically speaking, the directive is not an executive order and does not have the effect of law.  Thus, federal agencies are left with considerable discretion regarding how to implement it.  The directive was issued with the intent of Continue Reading Trump Administration’s Regulatory Freeze Impacts Environmental, Health, Safety, and Pipeline Regulations

Horn_Robert
Bob Horn
Adam Sachs
Adam Sachs

I’m Adam Sachs, a partner in Husch Blackwell’s energy practice and a registered DC lobbyist. I will be joined in these semi-regular blog posts by my colleague and longtime Washington lawyer, Bob Horn.  Bob served in the Ford administration, ran Detroit Edison’s federal affairs operations, co-founded the Republican National Lawyers Association, and most recently served as a member of the Trump transition team.  I have extensive Capitol Hill experience, having served in senior policy and legal positions since the mid-1980’s.  My most recent Hill gig was serving as committee counsel to now assistant Democratic leader James Clyburn of South Carolina. Continue Reading Around the Horn: Trump DOE/EPA Nominations and Energy Policy Initiatives

Ethanol PlantOn November 16, 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the proposed Renewables Enhancement and Support Growth Rule, which proposes changes to EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program and other renewable fuel regulations designed to encourage market growth of ethanol and renewable fuels in the U.S. and provide Continue Reading EPA Proposes Rule to Ease Barriers in Renewable Fuel Standard Program

Electric power stationPower plants in 22 states will be required to further reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions under a new regulation finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on September 7. The final Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) Update establishes new statewide emissions budgets intended to address pollution that affects the ability of downwind states to meet and maintain the 2008 ozone standard of 75 parts per billion. This is the first time that the EPA has updated an existing program to address interstate transport of air pollution under a new air quality standard. The rule takes effect in May 2017. Continue Reading Power sector faces increased emissions cuts in EPA’s Cross State Air Rule Update