CWA Update: Two Recent Cases Impact CWA Permitting and Enforcement

Margaret Anne Hill, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

Two recent cases have the potential to dramatically alter the state of permitting and enforcement under the federal Clean Water Act (“CWA”) with far reaching implications to energy infrastructure project proponents and the regulated community.

In the first case, Northern Plans Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 4:19-cv-00044-BMM (D. Mont), the Montana District Court last month vacated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit 12 (“NWP 12”) for the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, concluding that the Corps failed to consult under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) Section 7 when it reissued NWP 12 in 2017. Although that case involved only the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, the Order enjoined the Corps from authorizing any work under NWP 12 until an ESA consultation is completed, effectively resulting in a nationwide injunction of work permitted under NWP 12. NWP 12 provides a streamlined CWA permitting process for thousands of linear “utility line activities” (i.e., pipelines and electrical or communication transmission lines) that would otherwise be forced to apply for numerous individual CWA permits to complete a single project. The nationwide vacatur of NWP 12 created significant uncertainty for project proponents who were left with three options: 1) apply for other potentially applicable nationwide permits, 2) apply for individual CWA Section 404 permits, or 3) redesign a project to avoid impacts to regulated waters.

Just last week, however, the court clarified and slightly narrowed the scope of the April Order. Specifically, the court clarified that NWP 12 cannot be used for new oil and gas pipelines, but the permit remains otherwise valid for 1) maintenance, inspection, and repair activities on existing pipelines, and 2) non-pipeline constructive activities (i.e., electric, Internet, and other cable lines; certain renewable energy projects). The court reasoned that large-scale oil and gas pipeline projects pose the greatest threat to ESA-listed species, and the public interest in ensuring that the Corps complies with ESA trumps the tax and energy benefits of the new pipelines. The court further reasoned that the potential disruption to pipeline projects is overblown in light of the continued availability of the more cumbersome individual Section 404 permit process.

The court’s clarification provides relief to proponents of linear projects that do not involve the construction of new oil and gas lines. The wind industry, for example, which is heavily reliant on the installation of utility transmission lines, is no longer impacted by the ruling. Thousands of other oil and natural gas pipeline projects, however, remain impacted by the decision.

The second case involves the Supreme Court decision of County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, No. 18–260, __ S. Ct. ____, 2020 WL 1941966 (Apr. 23, 2020), where the Supreme Court created a “functional equivalent test” to analyze when discharges to groundwater require a CWA permit.[1] Only weeks after that decision, we are starting to see the “functional equivalent test” in practice. Last week, in a case where a party was attempting to settle Clean Water Act violations with the United States and the State of Indiana, an intervening party argued that the County of Maui decision renders the current settlement insufficient because the settlement did not include penalties for discharges to groundwater. See U.S. et al. v. U.S. Steel Corp., 2:18-cv-00127 (N.D. Ind., Dkt. No. 74).

The important takeaway here is that parties looking to settle Clean Water Act violations should expand their focus beyond just a “direct” discharge to surface water violation (i.e., from a pipe or trench, etc.), but also ensure that a settlement would include violations for “functionally equivalent” direct discharges (i.e., discharges that may have been to soil or groundwater that eventually travelled to surface water). In practice, this will ensure that settlements attempt to resolve as much liability as possible for a site on the front-end. If these “functional equivalent” discharges are not included, then a party could instead possibly face additional CWA liability—perhaps years later—if groundwater, arguably contaminated by a point source, migrates to a CWA navigable water.

As discussed, both Northern Plans Resource Council and County of Maui cases are going to have immediate impacts on the regulated community, but the full story is far from over. For Northern Plans Resource Council, an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is already underway. Last week, the government filed an emergency motion for stay pending appeal and requested an immediate administrative stay while the motion was being decided. The Ninth Circuit rejected the government’s request for an immediate administrative stay during the pendency of the motion, but granted an expedited briefing schedule requiring all briefs to be submitted by the end of this week. If granted, the district court’s partial injunction and vacatur of NWP 12 will be stayed while the Ninth Circuit resolves the appeal. On the current briefing schedule, we expect a decision from the Ninth Circuit on the emergency motion on or before May 29. And as we previously wrote about, we anticipate that the EPA may issue guidance to address the “functional equivalent discharge” test. Stay tuned for further developments.


[1] We previously wrote about the County of Maui decision in more depth, available here: https://energytrendswatch.com/2020/04/27/the-supremes-weigh-in-on-superfund-and-the-clean-water-act/

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