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Gravity flow, resulting in a discharge into a navigable body of water, may be part of a point source discharge if a miner at least initially collected or channeled the water and other materials. A point source of pollution may also be present where miners design spoil piles from discarded overburden such that, during periods of precipitation, erosion of spoil pile walls results in discharges into a navigable body of water by means of ditches, gullies and similar conveyances, even if the miners have done nothing beyond the mere collection of rock and other materials.
Plaintiff environmental group, Sierra Club, claimed defendant miners' activities were proscribed "point sources" of pollution under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 (the Act). The parties did not dispute that the pollutants appeared in a creek due to excess rainfall and that the activities would be prohibited if the pollutants had been pumped directly into the waterways. The district court granted summary judgment to the miners because there were no affirmative acts of discharge by them.
Were the miners relieved from liability because they did not actually construct those conveyances?
The court reversed and held that while natural rainfall running over polluting material did not constitute a point source by itself, it could become one if the rainfall was channeled or blocked or materials were placed in its path. The court held that the ultimate question to be whether pollutants were discharged from discernible, confined, and discrete conveyances either by gravitational or nongravitational means, and that nothing in the Act relieved the miners from liability simply because they did not actually construct those conveyances, so long as they were reasonably likely to be the means by which pollutants were ultimately deposited into waterways.