Can groundwater discharges violate the Clean Water Act and require NPDES permits?  Two federal court cases coming out of the 4th and 9th Circuits dealing with the applicability of the Clean Water Act (CWA) to groundwater are creating real concern over how expansive the court’s holdings and application of the Act can be.  The decisions were rendered by US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP and the 9th Circuit in Hawaii Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui.

In each case, the courts held that groundwater can be regulated under the CWA when it acts as a conduit through which pollutants from a spill of hazardous substances, septic waste or injection can be traced to protected surface waters.  While the burden of proof is significant, if a nexus can be established between the contaminant detected in the surface water and groundwater where the release originally occurred, then exposure to CWA fines is real and the need for a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit appears to be required.  The 4th Circuit’s holding is even broader than the 9th Circuit in that it applies to residual or historic contamination.  In other words, if released contamination ever reaches surface water protected by the CWA, then it doesn’t matter when the spill contaminants were first released to the environment.

In the 9th Circuit case, the County of Maui has already informed the court that it will seek Supreme Court review and for good reason.  If upheld, these rulings have far reaching implications for not only regulated industries, such as oil and gas, but also private home owners with septic systems and municipalities with leaking sewer pipes.  Here in NJ, where there is a robust state regulatory program requiring remediation of discharges to the environment, CWA regulation will add another regulatory scheme to be considered and may end up regulating septic tanks, which are common in New Jersey, and other systems designed to release materials below ground level.  Releases, both recent, as well as historic, could create a set of liabilities no private citizen even remotely considered.   Moreover, these decisions could cause the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to require re-investigation and re-assessment of sites that have been remediated pursuant to state law to determine if a previously unaddressed contaminant pathway between groundwater and surface water exists.

It remains to be seen how EPA will integrate these decisions, if they stand, into practice.  Once it does, the question will become how state delegated clean water programs will be affected.