Under the CWA, the discharge of pollutants, meaning the “addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source,” without a permit is prohibited. Previously, we reported on the circuit split (Part 1) between the Fourth, Sixth, and Ninth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals regarding whether indirect discharges to WOTUS through groundwater required a CWA permit.
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On January 22, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that challenges to the 2015 Waters of the United States Rule (the “WOTUS Rule” or “Rule”) belong in district court rather than the appellate court. The WOTUS Rule was developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) to clarify which waters and wetlands fall under federal jurisdiction. Numerous parties challenged the Rule in both federal district courts and circuit courts of appeals. The circuit court actions were consolidated in the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In 2016, the Sixth Circuit held that it had jurisdiction to hear petitions related to the legality of the Rule and issued a nationwide stay. This decision was appealed to the Supreme Court by industry groups who argued that, under the plain text of the Clean Water Act, the district courts were the proper jurisdiction.

In an opinion authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Court noted that the Clean Water Act lists seven specific categories of EPA actions that federal courts of appeals have the exclusive power to review and the Rule did not fall into a category on the list. The Court determined that it had “no basis to depart from the [Clean Water Act]’s plain language” despite arguments by the U.S. government (forwarded by both the Obama and Trump Administrations) that the Rule was “functionally related” to categories on the list and that efficiency, national uniformity, and other policy arguments weighed in favor of making the circuit courts of appeals the appropriate jurisdiction. The Court reversed and remanded the case to the Sixth Circuit, directing the court to dismiss the petitions for review that had been filed.

Because the Supreme Court’s decision was related to jurisdiction and not the merits of the Rule, what does this mean for the Rule’s future?
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