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Cty. of Maui v. Haw. Wildlife Fund - 140 S. Ct. 1462 (2020)


The Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C.S. § 1251 et seq., forbids the “addition” of any pollutant from a “point source” to “navigable waters” without the appropriate permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. 33 U.S.C.S. §§ 1311(a)1362(12)(A). The Supreme Court of the United States concludes that these statutory provisions require a permit if the addition of the pollutants through groundwater is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.


The Clean Water Act forbids “any addition” of any pollutant from “any point source” to “navigable waters” without an appropriate permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Act uses terms that would make “unlawful” “ 'the discharge of any pollutant by any person' ” without an appropriate permit. 

Petitioner County of Maui's wastewater reclamation facility collects sewage from the surrounding area, partially treats it, and each day pumps around 4 million gallons of treated water into the ground through four wells. This effluent then travels about a half mile, through groundwater, to the Pacific Ocean. Respondent environmental groups brought a citizens' Clean Water Act suit, alleging that Maui was “discharging” a “pollutant” to “navigable waters” without the required permit. The District Court found that the discharge from Maui's wells into the nearby groundwater was “functionally one into navigable water,” and granted summary judgment to the environmental groups. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, stating that a permit is required when “pollutants are FAIRLY TRACEABLE from the point source to a navigable water.” 


Did the Ninth Circuit err in its interpretation of the Clean Water Act that the permitting requirement applies so long as the pollutant is “fairly traceable” to a point source even if it traveled long and far (through groundwater) before it reached navigable waters?





Due to the differences in the standards adopted by the different Courts of Appeals, the Supreme Court of the United States granted Maui's petion for certiorari to consider this question: Whether the Clean Water Act "requires an EPA permit when pollutants originate from a point source but are conveyed to navigable waters by a nonpoint source,” which here was "groundwater." The parties disagreed dramatically about the scope of the word “from." The Court vacated the judgment by which the Circuit Court had ruled in favor of the environmental groups. The Court found that, in light of the statute’s language, structure, and purposes, the statutory interpretations offered by the lower courts and the parties were not warranted. The statute required a permit when there was a direct discharge from a point source of pollutants that reached navigable waters after traveling through groundwater if that discharge was the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters. Congress had left general groundwater regulatory authority to the States; its failure to include groundwater in the general EPA permitting provision was deliberate.

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