Latest court ruling further underscores circuit split on groundwater conduit theory.
The US District Court for the Central District of Illinois has held that power plant owners are not liable under the Clean Water Act (CWA) for discharges of pollutants from coal ash disposal facilities through groundwater to waters of the US. The November 14 ruling is the latest in a series of recent defeats of CWA citizen suits premised on the so-called “groundwater conduit” theory.
Plaintiffs in Prairie Rivers Network v. Dynegy Midwest Generation, LLC initiated a CWA citizen suit against the owners of the Vermilion Power Station, a retired coal-fired power plant in Illinois. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants unlawfully discharged pollutants into groundwater from unpermitted seeps in their coal ash disposal facility and this groundwater was hydrologically connected to the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River. The district court relied on prior US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit precedent (outside the coal ash context), holding that the CWA does not govern discharges of pollutants into groundwater, even if there is a hydrologic connection between the groundwater and waters of the US. Unlike other recent cases evaluating CWA liability from coal ash facility seepage into groundwater, this court did not address whether the coal ash facility was a “point source” under the CWA, given the existing circuit court precedent on the groundwater conduit theory.