One of the Supreme Court’s recurring environmental law topics is the scope of Clean Water Act (CWA) jurisdiction. Various aspects of CWA jurisdiction and implementation have been addressed over the years by the Court, including the meaning of “navigable waters” in U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Inc. (1985); Solid Waste Agency of N. Cook Cnty

Under the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and California’s Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, industrial facilities in California are required to obtain coverage under the state’s NPDES general permit for discharges associated with industrial storm water activities (General Industrial Permit) or justify why they are exempt. For regulated facilities, including manufacturing facilities, landfills, mining operations, steam electric power generating facilities, hazardous waste facilities, and oil and gas facilities, failure to obtain coverage under the General Industrial Permit is a potential violation of the Clean Water Act (in addition to state law), which could expose the owner or operator of the facility to potential civil penalties of up to $54,833 per day. Enforcement, however, largely is dependent upon agency inspections or enforcement by citizen groups. Based on estimates by the California Coastkeeper Alliance, many facilities in California may have failed to enroll in the industrial storm water permit program.
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The Railroad Commission of Texas has authority to issue permits for discharges associated with oil and gas operations in the state, but it does not yet have delegation of the NPDES permitting program. Thus, to the extent that produced water discharges are not currently barred under federal regulations, facilities seeking authorization for these discharges to waters of the US must obtain authorization from both EPA and the RRC. This article highlights Texas efforts underway to obtain NPDES delegation for produced water discharges.
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EPA’s National Compliance Initiatives for fiscal years 2020 through 2023, recently released, replace the former National Enforcement Initiatives and aim to help regulated entities understand their compliance obligations. Additionally, the Agency plans to focus on returning to compliance through information actions, building state capacity, supporting state actions, bringing Federal civil administrative actions and bringing civil or criminal judicial enforcement actions.
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On May 15, EPA released its draft Study of Oil and Gas Extraction Wastewater Management under the Clean Water Act. The Draft Study addresses the results of an extensive review initiated last year to evaluate the management of oil and gas wastewaters generated at onshore facilities and to assess the need for additional discharge options for onshore oil and gas wastewater under the Clean Water Act. Although EPA has not yet adopted any recommendations for regulatory action, it is evident that EPA is continuing to take a hard look at the merits of authorizing broader discharges of produced water to surface waters than those currently allowed for onshore discharges under the CWA effluent guidelines (and generally referred to as the zero discharge standard).
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For decades, the precise scope of the Clean Water Act’s point source permitting program has been the subject of much controversy.  Over the past several years, the question of whether that program—known as the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”)—regulates discharges to groundwater that is hydrologically connected to surface water has produced a number of conflicting decisions and a torrent of commentary and public debate.  The Fourth and Ninth Circuits recently concluded that the NPDES program regulates such discharges under certain circumstances, while the Sixth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion, setting up potential review of the issue in the United States Supreme Court.
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Continuing its vanguard approach to environmental regulation, California is poised to incorporate Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)-specific requirements into its industrial storm water general permit (IGP). TMDLs are pollutant- and water body-specific and establish the maximum amount of a pollutant a water body can receive while meeting water quality standards. Once effective, these new requirements will provide additional avenues of attack for the already active Clean Water Act citizen suit docket.
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in July issued a long-awaited decision in the case Cooling Water Intake Structure Coalition v. U.S. EPA, upholding the EPA’s 2014 Rule establishing requirements pursuant to Clean Water Act section 316(b) for cooling water intake structures at existing facilities. The court also upheld the biological opinion and incidental take statement issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service on the 2014 Rule.
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