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In Defense of the Clean Water Act: The Supreme Court Decision

Hawaii Wildlife Fund

The Supreme Court defended the Clean Water Act

“We are glad the Court has recognized the importance of protecting clean water for all Americans.” David Henkin

By Linn Smith

On April 23, 2020 the Supreme Court, in a 6-to-3 ruling, rejected arguments concerning Maui County Sewage Plant in Hawaii (County of Maui V. Hawaii Wildlife Fund) and the Trump administration which stated only pollution discharged directly into navigable waters requires permits. The Trump administration had previously filed its interpretation of the Clean Water Act saying, “The law does not apply to discharges that travel through groundwater before reaching protected waters.”

The Clean Water Act

Hawaii: Protecting the coral reefs

The Clean Water Act

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.” The Supreme Court clarified the Clean Water Act, which now requires permits for groundwater pollution running into oceans, lakes and rivers.

Environmentalists point to the once natural, living reef off of Hawaii’s coast that has been destroyed by the nearby waste water plant. The Supreme Court holds polluters responsible saying they must be held accountable for not only waste water discharged directly into lakes, oceans and rivers, but also into groundwater that eventually finds its way to the lakes, rivers and oceans.

Maui wastewater

Maui waste water dumping into the sea.

Maui’s Wastewater Plant

Maui injects 3-5 million gallons a day of treated wastewater into wells beneath its facility, which lie about 1/2 mile from the Pacific shoreline. Environmentalists injected dyes to trace the flow of the wastewater from 2 wells. The dyes revealed that half of the treated wastewater was entering the ocean from the underground wells, thus endangering the reef.

According to past articles, there have also been many raw sewage spills from Hawaii into the Pacific Ocean in the past few years and, until recent times, it was common for Hawaii to pour raw sewage directly into the ocean without any treatment.

Supreme Court decision

Wildlife Fund vs. Maui

The Supreme Court Decision

The sewage in Maui is treated and, when possible, reused for irrigation. The majority is injected into wells, leaking out and finding its way into the ocean. The question brought before the Supreme Court was whether permits were required for waste water that travels a distance from the polluting source, ending up in the navigable waters.

This decision of the Supreme Court will make it easier for parties to sue polluters for irresponsibly leaking of wastewater into oceans and rivers.

David Henkin, lawyer for Earthjustice said, “The Supreme Court has rejected the Trump administration’s effort to blow a big hole in the Clean Water Act’s protection for rivers, lakes and oceans.”

The case will return to an appeals court, but polluters who dump into groundwater which eventually finds its way to lakes and oceans will now be required to have permits. The ruling also allows some lawsuits to take place against the polluting source. Failing to obtain a permit could result in a fine of up to $50,000 a day.

And finally, an Ansel Adams quote, “It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”

The Clean Water Act