The Court’s decision has prompted the US Army Corps of Engineers to freeze jurisdictional determinations for permitted activities pending additional guidance.

By Michael G. Romey, Lucas Quass, and Peter R. Viola

On May 25, 2023, by a narrow 5-4 majority, the US Supreme Court ruled in Sackett v. EPA that the Clean Water Act (CWA) only extends to wetlands that have a “continuous surface connection” with “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) — the term in the CWA’s definition of “navigable waters” that determines the jurisdiction of the US Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (together, the Agencies) over projects and other activities requiring permits to dredge, fill, or discharge into federally protected waters.[1]

The proposed definition would significantly extend the regulatory scope of the Clean Water Act.

By Michael G. Romey, Cody M. Kermanian, and Lucas I. Quass

On December 7, 2021, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers (collectively, the Agencies) published a proposed rule (the Proposed Rule) to revise the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), a critical term that determines the Clean Water Act’s (CWA’s) scope and application. The proposed changes, published in the Federal Register, could signal a return to the more inclusive pre-2017 WOTUS interpretation, which could broaden the CWA’s application. Comments on the Proposed Rule are due on February 7, 2022.

New definition of “waters of the United States” takes effect June 22, 2020 everywhere except Colorado under split decisions.

By Janice M. Schneider and Peter R. Viola

In the closely watched battle over the scope of the Clean Water Act (CWA), a federal court in California has denied a motion brought by a coalition of states to stay the Trump Administration’s rule narrowing the law’s reach. However, the federal court in Colorado has enjoined the rule in that state, and litigation in these and other courts will continue — including an anticipated appeal of the California decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Decision concludes a permit is required if such discharges are the “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge to navigable waters.

By Janice Schneider, Maria Hoye, and Ethan Prall

On April 23, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion in County of Maui, Hawai’i v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, holding that the Clean Water Act (CWA) requires a permit for certain discharges through groundwater. Specifically, a permit is required if there is a “direct discharge” from a point source to navigable waters, or if a given discharge is the “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge when that discharge passes through groundwater before reaching navigable waters.[1]

In establishing this new functional equivalence test, the Court rejected both the argument that allowing any regulation of discharges through groundwater would expand the CWA’s scope without warrant, and the contrary argument that every discharge that is “fairly traceable” from a point of discharge to navigable waters must be regulated under the CWA. When applying the test, the Court explained that several factors — most centrally, time and distance — are relevant to determining whether a discharge through groundwater is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge.

Latest court ruling further underscores circuit split on groundwater conduit theory.

By Joel C. Beauvais and Stacey L. VanBelleghem

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.

By Janice Schneider, Joel Beauvais, Stacey VanBelleghem, Jennifer Roy, and Francesca Bochner

On March 19, 2017, 52 new or reissued nationwide permits (NWPs) for discharges into “waters of the United States,” issued pursuant to Section 404(e) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act went into effect. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) requires a Section 404 permit when development activities discharge dredged or fill materials into jurisdictional waters (i.e., “waters of the United States,” including wetlands). The NWPs – which are used to permit tens of thousands of new projects each year – cover a broad range of activities, including development of oil and gas pipelines, transmission and other utility lines, linear transportation projects, renewable energy, coal mining activities, and residential development. The Corps developed the NWPs as programmatic permits to expedite approval of specific types of activities deemed to have minimal environmental impacts. Seeking authorization under an NWP is less expensive and less time-consuming than obtaining an individual permit.

The prior NWPs were issued in March 2012 and expired on March 18, 2017. In the new NWPs, the Army Corps: (1) reissued all 50 of its existing NWPs, with revisions to twenty-seven; (2) issued two new permits; and (3) added one new general condition. The new NWPs include a grandfather provision that allows activities authorized under the 2012 NWPs that have commenced or are under contract to commence by March 18, 2017, to have until March 18, 2018, to complete the activity under the terms and conditions of the 2012 NWP. Activities that have not commenced by March 18, 2017, and/or will not be complete by March 18, 2018, must seek authorization under the new NWPs.

By Joel Beauvais and Claudia O’Brien

President Donald Trump, on February 28, signed an executive order (EO) directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) to issue a proposed rulemaking for notice and comment to rescind or revise their joint 2015 Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the United States or “WOTUS” rule. The rule was intended to clarify the jurisdictional scope of the Clean Water Act. Shortly after the EO was issued, the EPA and the Corps issued a notice indicating their intent to review and either rescind or revise the rule.

The EO and the agencies’ notice signal a potential move to substantially narrow the jurisdictional scope of the Clean Water Act (CWA). This is a critical issue for many sectors of the economy and environmental protection and has been the subject of uncertainty and litigation since the statute was enacted in 1972 — with the U.S. Supreme Court having issued three major decisions on the subject.

By Andrea Hogan, Lucas Quass, John Morris and Steven Mach

On January 13, 2017, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari for an appeal that will allow the Court to determine the proper jurisdiction for litigation challenging the Clean Water Rule (the Final Rule).[1] The federal Clean Water Act (CWA) provides for original jurisdiction in the Circuit Courts of Appeal for certain categories of actions taken by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By accepting review of the appeal, the Court will now decide whether to affirm the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal’s assertion of original jurisdiction over litigation challenging the Final Rule, and in doing so, the Court will set the stage for consideration of Final Rule litigation on the merits. As a result of the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari, on January 25, 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal granted a motion to hold in abeyance the litigation over the Final Rule until the US Supreme Court reaches a decision regarding jurisdiction.

Clean Water Rule’s Broad Application

EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) jointly issued the Final Rule to define “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), a threshold term that delimits CWA’s scope and application. The Final Rule has broad application. It defines jurisdictional waters not only for Section 404 of the CWA (permitting for dredge and fill operations) but also under Section 303 (addressing water quality standards and maximum daily loads); Section 311 (relating to oil spill prevention and response); Section 401 (concerning state water quality certifications); and Section 402 (establishing the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program). Critics of the Final Rule argue that it expands federal jurisdiction significantly beyond the bounds of court precedent interpreting the CWA’s statutory mandate. We previously published a Client Alert that discusses the Final Rule’s scope and implications in greater detail.

By Paul Singarella, Chris Garrett, Andrea Hogan, Daniel Brunton, John Heintz, Taiga Takahashi, and Lucas Quass

On October 9, 2015, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit stayed the implementation of the Clean Water Rule (the Final Rule) nationwide. The Final Rule defines “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), a threshold term that determines the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) scope and application. The Final Rule was issued on May 27, 2015, by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), with an effective date of August 28, 2015.

The Sixth Circuit found that the coalition of states challenging the Final Rule “demonstrated a substantial possibility of success on the merits of their claims” and that a stay would “temporarily silence the whirlwind of confusion that springs from the uncertainty about the requirements of the new Rule and whether they will survive legal testing.”[i]

Subject Matter Jurisdiction Still Under Consideration By the Sixth Circuit

The case already has a complex procedural history. Challenges to the Final Rule were filed in courts in a number of circuits. There is parallel litigation in the District Courts, and about a month ago, the US District Court for the District of North Dakota issued a preliminary injunction against implementation of the Final Rule, but applied the injunction to only the 13 states that were party to the case before the court. The US Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated the petitions before the Circuit Courts for review and randomly selected the Sixth Circuit to hear the consolidated petitions.

By Paul Singarella, Chris Garrett, Andrea Hogan, Daniel Brunton, Garrett Jansma, John Heintz, Danny Aleshire and Lucas Quass

On August 27, 2015, the US District Court for the District of North Dakota issued a preliminary injunction against implementation of the Clean Water Rule (the Final Rule). The Final Rule defines Waters of the United States (WOTUS), a threshold term that determines the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) scope and application. The Final Rule was issued on May 27, 2015, by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), with an effective date of August 28, 2015.

The Final Rule represented the first comprehensive effort since the 1980s to clarify through regulations the definition of WOTUS. In the Final Rule, EPA and the Corps expanded the definition of WOTUS in a manner that appears to assert jurisdiction over not only almost all waters and wetlands across the country, but also dry lands located between water bodies. Given the expansive scope of the Final Rule, it has been the subject of considerable controversy throughout the rulemaking and has been challenged in court by both states and industry.