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Supreme Court Upholds Clean Water Act

The most extreme attack on clean water protections in decades has been blunted thanks to a split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled indirect pollutant discharges which reach surface water only through groundwater are still regulated under the federal Clean Water Act.

In its 6-3 ruling, the court rejected the Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s extreme anti-environment argument that the Clean Water Act only regulates direct discharges into surface waters. The discharge that triggered this case involved direct injection of Honolulu’s sewage into groundwater, which had been shown to result in wastes flowing into the ocean from the polluted groundwater.

The stakes in this case were even more massive. A ruling in the EPA’s favor would have given a blank check to unlimited pollution from groundwater injection of sewage; leaking hog, coal ash, and other open waste pits; and leaking underground pipes and tanks. 

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) made those points in a brief to the court. SELC senior attorney Frank Holleman said in a news release, “The Supreme Court held that the national Clean Water Act means what it says: polluters cannot dump contaminants into our waterways at will, even if they discharge their pollutants some distance from the river or lake and let the pollutants travel through groundwater or over the land before spoiling our clean water. Coal ash pits, hog waste lagoons, and broken gasoline pipelines do not get a free pass for polluting the clean water of the Southeast. This decision is a victory for our drinking water supplies, our rivers and our lakes.”

The national public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice argued the case in favor of the groups challenging the pollution. In its news release on the decision, Earthjustice noted, “The court held that the Clean Water Act ‘require[s] a permit if the addition of the pollutants through groundwater is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.’ In other words, the Clean Water Act prohibits unpermitted discharge of pollution ‘into navigable waters, or when the discharge reaches the same result through roughly similar means.’ In doing so, the Court rejected the Trump administration’s polluter-friendly position in the clearest of terms: ‘We do not see how Congress could have intended to create such a large and obvious loophole in one of the key regulatory innovations of the Clean Water Act.’”

With every backwards anti-environment lurch by President Trump or his appointees, it becomes ever more obvious that our nation’s environment cannot survive intact from another four years of his administration in office.

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