A shot from inside a pipe, with water streaming out of it, being released into a forest of evergreen trees.

Clean Water Act

Point Source Dis­charges Through Direct Connections

Reg­u­la­to­ry Process

2017-2021

  • Feb­ru­ary 2018

    In Feb­ru­ary 2018, the EPA pub­lished a request for com­ments on whether the agency should revise its long­stand­ing posi­tion that the Clean Water Act reg­u­lates the dis­charge of pol­lu­tants from a point source that reach pro­tect­ed sur­face waters via a short and direct ground­wa­ter con­duit. In response, in May 2018, Mary­land Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bri­an Frosh led a coali­tion of five states in sub­mit­ting com­ments in oppo­si­tion to the EPA’s appar­ent inter­est in rolling back its long-held posi­tion. The com­ments argued that the EPA’s posi­tion fol­lows the direc­tion of the Clean Water Act and the courts, and pro­vides states with essen­tial pro­tec­tions from unper­mit­ted, upstream dis­charges of harm­ful pollutants.

  • April 2019

    In April 2019, EPA released an inter­pre­tive state­ment” announc­ing a new posi­tion by the agency assert­ing that the Clean Water Act does not apply to pol­lu­tants dis­charged from a point source that reach pro­tect­ed juris­dic­tion­al waters in any cir­cum­stance in which the pol­lu­tants pass through ground­wa­ter. The inter­pre­ta­tive state­ment con­tra­dict­ed the agency’s long-held posi­tion that pol­lu­tants’ pas­sage into a nav­i­ga­ble sur­face water via a short inter­me­di­ary con­nec­tion such as a sur­face con­duit or shal­low ground­wa­ter does not negate Clean Water Act jurisdiction.

    The state­ment not­ed that EPA’s guid­ance on this issue does not apply in the Fourth and Ninth Cir­cuit Courts of Appeals as those courts have held that the dis­charge of pol­lu­tants that reach pro­tect­ed water via a ground­wa­ter path­way vio­lates the Clean Water Act. EPA request­ed addi­tion­al pub­lic input on what may be need­ed to pro­vide fur­ther clar­i­ty and reg­u­la­to­ry cer­tain­ty” on the issue.

  • June 2019

    In June 2019, Mary­land Attor­ney Gen­er­al Frosh led a coali­tion of 11 attor­neys gen­er­al in sub­mit­ting com­ments in oppo­si­tion to EPA’s April 2019 inter­pre­ta­tive state­ment. The com­ments object­ed to the inter­pre­ta­tive state­ment on sub­stan­tive and pro­ce­dur­al grounds and request­ed that the state­ment be withdrawn.

    The com­ment let­ter not­ed that the state­ment could pro­vide the oper­a­tor of a point source with a guide for avoid­ing Clean Water Act juris­dic­tion by direct­ing pol­lu­tants into ground­wa­ter imme­di­ate­ly adja­cent to nav­i­ga­ble waters, even if the pol­lu­tants are cer­tain to reach those pro­tect­ed waters. This guide would defeat the Clean Water Act’s pur­pose to main­tain the chem­i­cal, phys­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal integri­ty of the nation’s waters. Addi­tion­al­ly, the attor­neys gen­er­al point­ed out that the exis­tence of oth­er envi­ron­men­tal statutes that may autho­rize the reg­u­la­tion of pol­lu­tion that impacts ground­wa­ter does not jus­ti­fy the cre­ation of a Clean Water Act excep­tion for dis­charges to nav­i­ga­ble waters through groundwater.


    On pro­ce­dur­al grounds, the inter­pre­ta­tive state­ment should have gone through the Admin­is­tra­tive Pro­ce­dure Act’s (APA) notice-and-com­ment rule­mak­ing process because the state­ment effect­ed a sub­stan­tive change to the reg­u­la­to­ry régime by revers­ing EPA’s pri­or position.

Lit­i­ga­tion

2017-2021

  • August 2017

    In 2017, a fed­er­al dis­trict court in Ten­nessee found that the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­i­ty (TVA) had vio­lat­ed the Clean Water Act at a Ten­nessee pow­er plant by dis­charg­ing pol­lu­tants from unlined coal ash impound­ments via a short, direct ground­wa­ter path­way into the Cum­ber­land Riv­er (for more infor­ma­tion about attor­neys gen­er­al work on coal ash vis­it here and here). Coal ash is a byprod­uct of burn­ing coal, and includes tox­ic chromi­um, arsenic, lead, alu­minum, boron, iron, sul­fate, sele­ni­um and manganese.

  • March 2018

    In March 2018, Mary­land Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bri­an Frosh led a coali­tion with three oth­er attor­neys gen­er­al to fight an attempt­ed roll­back of the fed­er­al government’s oblig­a­tion to pro­tect the nation’s water under the Clean Water Act by fil­ing an ami­cus brief in sup­port of the low­er court deci­sion on the reach of the Clean Water Act in the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­i­ty case.

    The ami­cus brief respond­ed to trou­bling argu­ments made by a sep­a­rate coali­tion of attor­neys gen­er­al and the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, among oth­er busi­ness groups, that sought to over­turn a long line of cas­es that con­firm the Clean Water Act applies when pol­lu­tants reach pro­tect­ed sur­face waters, such as the Cum­ber­land Riv­er, through a short and direct ground­wa­ter connection.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2018

    In Sep­tem­ber 2018, the Sixth Cir­cuit over­turned the fed­er­al dis­trict court deci­sion. The court ruled that because con­t­a­m­i­nants trav­eled through ground­wa­ter, no point source” was involved. It dis­agreed with recent deci­sions by the Fourth and Ninth Cir­cuit Courts of Appeals that held that the dis­charge of pol­lu­tants that reach pro­tect­ed water via a short, direct ground­wa­ter path­way vio­late the Clean Water Act.

  • Jan­u­ary 2019

    In Jan­u­ary 2019, the Sixth Cir­cuit denied an Octo­ber 2018 request by the local envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion that brought the law­suit against the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­i­ty to have the whole Cir­cuit rehear the case en banc.

  • Feb­ru­ary 2019

    In the sep­a­rate, but sim­i­lar Ninth Cir­cuit case based in Hawai’i, the U.S. Supreme Court accept­ed cer­tio­rari in Feb­ru­ary 2019 and will review whether pol­lu­tants dis­charged through a short, direct ground­wa­ter con­nec­tion to pro­tect­ed water are cov­ered by the Clean Water Act.

  • April 2019

    In April 2019, the local envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion in the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­i­ty lit­i­ga­tion filed a peti­tion for cer­tio­rari with the Supreme Court to have the Court hear an appeal of the Sixth Circuit’s Sep­tem­ber 2018 decision. 

  • July 2019

    In July 2019, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear oral argu­ments in the Hawai’i lit­i­ga­tion on Novem­ber 6, 2019. Sub­se­quent­ly that month, Mary­land Attor­ney Gen­er­al Frosh led a coali­tion, which includ­ed the states that were ami­ci in the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­i­ty lit­i­ga­tion and ten oth­ers, in fil­ing an ami­cus brief with the Supreme Court in sup­port of the Ninth Circuit’s Hawai’i deci­sion. The states urged the Court, con­sis­tent with the Clean Water Act’s text and pur­pose, hold that where pol­lu­tants are fair­ly trace­able from a point source” to pro­tect­ed waters through ground­wa­ter or oth­er con­duits that the point source” dis­charge is sub­ject to the statute.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2019

    In Sep­tem­ber 2019, the local envi­ron­men­tal group filed an unop­posed motion to dis­miss its pend­ing peti­tion to have the Supreme Court hear the case in light of a July 2019 con­sent decree in state court that will have the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­i­ty close the coal ash impoundments.

  • April 2020

    In April 2020, the Supreme Court released its deci­sion in the Hawai’i lit­i­ga­tion. While the Court did not adopt the Ninth Circuit’s fair­ly trace­able stan­dard, the Court sided with the attor­neys gen­er­al in hold­ing that pol­lu­tants are sub­ject to the Clean Water Act when there is a func­tion­al equiv­a­lent of a direct dis­charge” of the pol­lu­tants from a point source” to pro­tect­ed waters. Under this stan­dard, pol­lu­tants that reach pro­tect­ed waters through ground­wa­ter trig­ger per­mit­ting require­ments when their con­veyance through ground­wa­ter is lim­it­ed in dis­tance and time.

Guid­ance

2017-2021

  • Decem­ber 2020

    In Decem­ber 2020, the EPA released draft guid­ance out­lin­ing the fac­tors for imple­ment­ing the Supreme Court’s deci­sion in the Hawai’i lit­i­ga­tion. In the draft guid­ance, the EPA pro­posed an addi­tion­al fac­tor for apply­ing the func­tion­al equiv­a­lent” stan­dard dis­cussed above that would make it eas­i­er for poten­tial pol­luters to avoid reg­u­la­tion under the Clean Water Act.

  • Jan­u­ary 2021

    In Jan­u­ary 2021, Mary­land Attor­ney Gen­er­al Frosh led a coali­tion of 12 attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing com­ments in oppo­si­tion to the draft guid­ance and urg­ing the EPA to aban­don it. The attor­neys gen­er­al crit­i­cized the addi­tion­al fac­tor includ­ed in the draft guid­ance as being incon­sis­tent with the Supreme Court deci­sion and as under­min­ing the objec­tive and intent of the Clean Water Act. Near the end of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, the EPA released its guid­ance on the Supreme Court decision.

Water Pol­lu­tion at the U.S. Border

2017-2021

  • May 2018

    In May 2018, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Xavier Becer­ra filed a notice of intent to sue with the Unit­ed States Sec­tion of the Inter­na­tion­al Bound­ary and Water Com­mis­sion (U.S. Com­mis­sion) for vio­lat­ing the Clean Water Act. The notice alleges that the U.S. Com­mis­sion, the agency respon­si­ble for address­ing waste­water dis­charges from a treat­ment plant near the Cal­i­for­nia-Mex­i­co bor­der, has allowed more than 12 mil­lion gal­lons of waste­water to flow untreat­ed into pro­tect­ed Cal­i­for­nia waters in vio­la­tion of the Act. The waste­water often con­tains ele­vat­ed lev­els of pes­ti­cides, heavy met­als and bacteria.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2018

    In Sep­tem­ber 2018, Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra fol­lowed through and filed suit against the U.S. Com­mis­sion for vio­lat­ing the Clean Water Act.

Water Pol­lu­tion in Puget Sound

2017-2021

  • Jan­u­ary 2019

    In Jan­u­ary 2019, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son filed a notice of intent to sue the Unit­ed States Navy for Clean Water Act vio­la­tions in Puget Sound. The let­ter alleges that the Navy released the equiv­a­lent of fifty dump truck loads of pol­lu­tants, includ­ing cop­per and zinc, into the Sound when it scraped the hull of a ship in Jan­u­ary 2017. Cop­per and zinc are high­ly tox­ic to marine life and the Navy lacked a per­mit to law­ful­ly dis­charge the pol­lu­tants into the Sound in vio­la­tion of the Clean Water Act.

  • April 2019

    Fol­low­ing the expi­ra­tion of the Clean Water Act’s manda­to­ry 60-day notice peri­od after the fil­ing of his notice of intent to sue, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Fer­gu­son suc­cess­ful­ly inter­vened in ongo­ing lit­i­ga­tion brought by envi­ron­men­tal groups and a Native Amer­i­can tribe chal­leng­ing the Navy’s release of pol­lu­tants into the Sound.

  • Jan­u­ary 2020

    In Jan­u­ary 2020, Attor­ney Gen­er­al Fer­gu­son, along with the envi­ron­men­tal groups and Suquamish Tribe, filed a con­sent decree with the Navy. Under the con­sent decree, the Navy is required to stop con­duct­ing under­wa­ter hull clean­ing in Puget Sound for a ten-year peri­od. The set­tle­ment also man­dates that the Navy mit­i­gate the envi­ron­men­tal dam­age caused by the dis­charge of pol­lu­tants by plac­ing a lay­er of clean sed­i­ment over the impact­ed por­tions of Sin­clair Inlet.

Pro­tect­ing the Chesa­peake Bay

State attor­neys gen­er­al are also work­ing to pro­tect the Chesa­peake Bay from envi­ron­men­tal damage.

2017-2021

  • Novem­ber 2017

    In Novem­ber 2017, the attor­neys gen­er­al of the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, Mary­land, and Vir­ginia wrote a joint op-ed in the Wash­ing­ton Post object­ing to pro­posed House leg­is­la­tion that would loosen Clean Water Act stan­dards and allow increased pol­lu­tants to flow into the Chesa­peake Bay. The pro­posed leg­is­la­tion stalled.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2020

    In Sep­tem­ber 2020, the attor­neys gen­er­al of Mary­land, the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, Vir­ginia, and Delaware filed a law­suit against the EPA in fed­er­al dis­trict court in the Dis­trict of Colum­bia to clean up the Chesa­peake Bay. The law­suit seeks to com­pel the agency to ful­fill its nondis­cre­tionary duty under the Clean Water Act to ensure that each state that is a sig­na­to­ry to the Chesa­peake Bay Agree­ment devel­ops and imple­ments man­age­ment plans that will achieve and main­tain the Agreement’s nutri­ent reduc­tion goals. Alter­na­tive­ly, the four attor­neys gen­er­al bring the action under the APA to hold and set aside as arbi­trary and capri­cious EPA’s approval of the man­age­ment plans of non-com­pli­ant states that are sig­na­to­ries to the Agreement.