A new ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court states that requirements under the Clean Water Act apply even when pollutant discharges enter navigable waters ─ oceans, rivers and streams ─ following an indirect route, namely via groundwater, informs Phys.org.
“We hold that the statute requires a permit when there is a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge", wrote Justice Stephen Breyer for the court, a 6-3 opinion against the Trump administration’s move towards less regulation.
The decision comes for a case in Hawaii, where a wastewater treatment plant owned by the County of Maui disposes of treated wastewater into wells, some of which eventually reaches the ocean and has been blamed for the degradation of a coral reef near a Maui beach.
While the law requires a federal permit for pollutant discharges into navigable waters from pipes or wells, the case questioned whether permits were also required when pollution travels some distance through groundwater before reaching navigable waters.
Justice Breyer said the EPA has applied permits to some, but not all, discharges of pollution through groundwater for over 30 years, with no evidence of unmanageable expansion. The case was sent back to the lower court so that judges could exercise discretion being mindful of the complexities inherent to the context of indirect discharges through groundwater.
Meanwhile, in his dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the rule “provides no clear guidance and invites arbitrary and inconsistent application”, wondering what is the “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge.