August 31, 2020

The County of Maui decision confirms the meaning of the Clean Water Act—and the English language

by Shannon M. Arata, Michelle B. Nowlin, and Stephen E. Roady

On April 23, 2020, in the much-anticipated County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Water Act (CWA or Act) requires polluters to obtain permits whenever their discharges are the “functional equivalent” of direct discharges into the navigable waters of the United States. County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, 140 S. Ct. 1462 (Apr. 23, 2020). This ruling confirmed that physically distancing point source pollution discharges from navigable waters does not automatically preclude permitting agencies from requiring CWA National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for those discharges. The decision protects the nation’s waters by carefully following the plain language of the Act.

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