On Feb. 19, Supreme Court Justices agreed to hear a case over how to regulate groundwater pollution. 

The case is Cty. of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, U.S., No. 18-260, writ of certiorari granted, and the outcome of this case could change the way factories, pipelines, and others discharge their effluent and could change the way sewer systems, power plants and other industries dispose of their wastewater.

On Aug. 27, Maui County, Hawaii, filed a writ of certiorari seeking for Supreme Court consideration of the long-running Maui County case that started with a lawsuit in 2012.  Maui County is asking the Supreme Court to reverse an appeals court ruling that found the county is liable for discharging treated wastewater underground because it eventually seeped into the Pacific Ocean.  The Clean Water Act  (CWA) explicitly states that it doesn’t apply to pollution that has been injected into groundwater. But the issue becomes less clear if that groundwater then seeps into a body of water that the law does apply to, such as a river, ocean, or lake.

The Supreme Court justices will now have an opportunity to settle a long unresolved question in the area of water law: Can businesses freely dispose of pollution into a groundwater source if that pollution eventually flows into a body of water on the surface?

Businesses and municipalities are arguing that CWA’s pollution limits were never meant to apply to groundwater. However, environmentalists say that isn’t the case if it can be definitively proven that a groundwater source is connected to a river, lake, or ocean.

If the Supreme Court ultimately sides with environmentalists, it could be a big change for industries that produce lots of effluent, such as coal-fired power plants or municipal sewage treatment operations. They might no longer be able to dispose of that effluent underground, or even in ponds that seep underground, and they may have to find new, more expensive ways to manage their wastewater.  (Bloomberg BNA, 2/19/19)

WEF will continue to monitor the case and keep you up to date on the case.

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This Week in Washington is an online news portal from the Water Environment Federation that provides updates on the latest legislative and regulatory developments that affect the water and wastewater communities. It provides concise reports of related bills, regulations, legal decisions, congressional hearings, and other federal government actions, following key issues from introduction to final determination.

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This Week in Washington is compiled by the WEF Government Affairs department. Please contact us with any questions or comments.

Claudio Ternieden
Senior Director of Government Affairs & Strategic Partnerships

Steve Dye
Legislative Director

Amy Kathman
Government Affairs Specialist