When Is a Discharge to Groundwater Subject to the Clean Water Act? Can You Say “Significant Nexus”?

Whether the Clean Water Act regulates discharges to groundwater has been a topic of significant debate.  At this point, there seems to be something of a trend in the cases towards concluding it does, but it remains true that all of the courts of appeal that have addressed the issue have concluded that it does not.  As I have noted, the problem with the “yes” answer is that pretty much all groundwater eventually discharges to surface water, making all such discharges subject to the CWA.  How can that be, given that groundwater is not considered to be “waters of the United States?”

Chief Judge Waverly Crenshaw recently addressed the issue in Tennessee Clean Water Network v. TVA.  Judge Crenshaw’s solution was creative – meaning he pretty much made it up out of whole cloth.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong, however.

The case involves coal ash management at the TVA’s Gallatin plant.  Some of the – unlined – ponds directly abut the Cumberland River.  The plaintiff citizen groups brought claims under the CWA, alleging that TVA was discharging pollutants to the River – via groundwater – without an NPDES permit.  They requested an injunction requiring that the TVA remove the coal ash from the ponds, at a cost of $2 billion.

Judge Crenshaw was frustrated by an absolutist position on either side.  Clearly, he does not think that any link between groundwater and surface water, no matter how attenuated, can be enough for jurisdiction to attach.  On the other hand, he was also trying to reckon with the specific case in front of him.  As he saw it, the Gallatin ash ponds were a complete environmental mess.  They immediately abut the Cumberland River, clearly a water of the United States.  Can the outcome really be different if the ponds discharge directly to the River than if they discharge to groundwater 10 feet from the River, where that groundwater then discharges to the river?

His solution?

the Court concludes that a cause of action based on an unauthorized point source discharge may be brought under the CWA based on discharges through groundwater, if the hydrologic connection between the source of the pollutants and navigable waters is direct, immediate, and can generally be traced.

I confess I like this solution, because it is practical and will generally yield reasonable results.  It avoids either effectively regulating all groundwater under the CWA or having to conclude that the CWA can’t reach situations such as the Gallatin ash ponds.

The problem?

There’s no textual support for this solution in the CWA.  To me, this test sounds a lot like Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” in Rapanos.  There too, his position received a lot of support at a practical level, while many commentators noticed that the CWA says nothing about a “significant nexus.”

We all know how well that’s worked out.

3 thoughts on “When Is a Discharge to Groundwater Subject to the Clean Water Act? Can You Say “Significant Nexus”?

  1. The answer to your question “can the groundwater discharge ten feet away be different than a direct surface water discharge” is “yes”.When, on EPA’s behalf, ADL studied a similar situation at Duke’s Allen plant in North Carolina, the iron in the soil around the ash pond immobilized the arsenic in the ash pond leachate, so that it was unavailable to the nearby surface water.

      • You’re welcome. To make it more interesting, readers may wish to consider that soil attenuation capacity is finite, implying that a given disposal site/situation has a “shelf life” that should be dealt with by more extensive monitoring than what would be typically required. But, not to worry- I’m sure Administrator Pruitt is on top of it…..

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