Supreme Court expands the reach of the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act essentially regulates pollutants that are discharged into waters. These regulations can result in the need for businesses, developers and others to get permits in order to move forward with a project. A failure to get the permit could mean the end of a project.

Knowing when a permit is required can be difficult, as the law is fairly complex. A wastewater treatment plant recently found itself embroiled in a dispute over the reach of this law. The issue involved its use of injection wells to dispose of treated sewage. The plant would pump the sewage into the groundwater, approximately half a mile away from the Pacific Ocean. This meant some of the waste eventually reached the ocean.

Environmental groups filed suit, claiming the plant was in violation of the Clean Water Act.

How does the Clean Water Act apply?

Generally, the Clean Water Act addresses actions that result in pollutants directly reaching the oceans and other protected waterways. This case was unique, as it asked the court to address whether an indirect action would also fall within the confines of the law. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the environmental group.

In this situation, the Clean Water Act would likely require the wastewater treatment plant to have a permit. The law requires the presence of such a permit for any point source of pollution that results in contamination of “navigable waters.” A failure to abide by this law comes with steep penalties — a $50,000 fine for starters.

What does this mean?

Rulings from the Supreme Court apply throughout the country. As a result, the ruling means some lawsuits over contamination of groundwater may move forward. In order to succeed, such cases would likely need to establish a “fundamental equivalent” to direct discharge. When considering whether such an equivalent is present, courts would consider the time and distance as well as the material the pollutants travel through before reaching navigable water and whether or not they are diluted along the way.