The Reach of the Clean Water Act

By Ally Romero

The County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund case has produced a fascinating argument that is currently pending before the Supreme Court. The case considers the reach and limitations of the Clean Water Act, and presents a debate on how the legislation applies to pollutants that contaminate the ocean by traveling through groundwater. Adam Liptak, a writer for the New York Times, has written a piece that focuses on some of the liveliest aspects of that debate. Liptak, Adam, Supreme Court Weighs Limits on Water Pollution Law, The New York Times, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/us/supreme-court-clean-water-act.html

For background, the case centers on a wastewater treatment plant on Maui that has used injection wells to dispose of sewage by pumping it into groundwater. This groundwater is hydrologically connected to the Pacific Ocean, and the pollution thus eventually drains into the ocean, creating a potential threat to the marine environment and beach users. The Clean Water Act stipulates that “point sources” of pollution must obtain permits or else polluters can be subject to fines upwards of $50,000. Elbert Lin, counsel for Maui County, has argued that his client does not need to obtain a permit since the pollution passed through groundwater, and groundwater is not a point source. He stated that, “The law only applies when the point source is the means of delivering pollutants to navigable waters.” Another lawyer for Maui County presented an illustrative analogy. He said, “If at my home I pour whiskey from a bottle into a flask and then I bring the flask to a party at a different location and I pour whiskey into the punch bowl there, nobody would say that I had added whiskey to the punch from the bottle.” A lawyer for the environmental groups countered with another analogy by saying, “When you buy groceries, you say they came from the store, not from your car, even though that’s the last place they were before they entered your house. Likewise, the millions of gallons of treated sewage entering the Pacific Ocean off West Maui every day come from petitioner’s wells under any understanding of the term.” 

A number of justices expressed concern that a narrow interpretation of the Clean Water Act would allow polluters to evade the goals of the legislation. However, they also seemed bothered by how difficult it would be in other situations to determine the source of the pollution, if many different people could be the culprit. Chief Justice Roberts expressed his dissatisfaction by saying, “So all you have to do is get a bunch of neighbors and all put the septic tanks in, and then you’re scot-free? … It’s an Agatha Christie novel. You have 20 people and they shoot the gun at the guy at the same time.”

While this is a heavily debated topic, I can understand the logic from both County of Maui and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. However, the arguments put forth by the environmental groups are especially persuasive. Counsel for Maui County relies on the definition of a point source as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including pipes, tunnels, and wells” as well as another provision that bars “any addition of any pollutant to navigable waters from any point source.” A decision that is based on those provisions exactly may be in line with the text of the Clean Water Act as it exists today, but may not necessarily be in line with the intent. Some have pointed out that since this litigation has been pending, the coral reef in the area of the ocean off West Maui has started to die as a result of this pollution. Allowing polluters to harm the environment without suffering any consequences, based on a technicality, seems contradictory to the goals of the Clean Water Act. Chief Justice Roberts’ point about struggling to discern who is to blame in future situations is surely relevant as this decision may set future precedents. However, in the case that is before the court now, it is obvious who and what is to blame. I will not try and predict how the Supreme Court will decide this matter, but I do think that in situations such as this, where the environment is being damaged and experts can trace that damage directly to certain pollution, those polluters should have to obtain permits or pay the necessary fines per the Clean Water Act. This approach seems to conform more to the intent of the Clean Water Act, which is to restore and maintain the integrity of national waters. 

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